Meet an artist doing provocative work with a VR headset

Want to be less popular at cocktail parties on the West Coast? Try being a virtual reality skeptic. I can't help but feel validated, though, by this post from Wagner James Au looking back at 1992, just one of a few times in history we've been exactly as excited about VR as we are about the Oculus Rift now.

I met Mr. Au years ago when we were both writing about virtual worlds and the metaverse -- he was Second Life's official (first ever?) embedded journalist. I was writing articles about wealthy owners of virtual land and how the 3D web was our certain future. Since then I've grown leery of technologies that are mostly led by the imaginations of Snow Crash fans rather than by practical applications. I have not yet come upon anything intuitive and compelling enough to make me commit regular, daily applications of black-helmeted nausea to the agenda of my simple, one-touch daily life.

But I want to believe, honest. The coupling of alienation and novelty offered by the Oculus headwear might have interesting applications for art -- a possibility recently explored by musician Erika M. Anderson, who records as EMA. Her 2014 album The Future's Void very conscientiously examined how we mediate relationships through technology; this article by my friend Sophie Weiner about women musicians like EMA negotiating digital culture and surveillance state is worth your time.

EMA wore a VR headset on her album cover -- she's poised as if midsentence, as if in the midst of casual communication, with this great black brick obscuring all of her facial features. Read the rest

Video games' "breast physics" issue

Video game breasts are one of the video game industry's albatrosses. Read the rest

Try getting lost in the underworld with Sunless Sea

Failbetter Games' browser-based story game Fallen London has been very well-loved, especially by those who like slightly twee, Victorian alt-England steampunk stuff (I don't, but it is more than okay if you do). The studio's expansive new Sunless Sea, while set in the same universe, is something else entirely, a brutal, spontaneous yarn-twirl set among the spooky islands of an underground sea.

Sunless Sea is so cool that I'm going to urge you to check it out, even though I find the user interface really daunting and hard to get along with. I think that's going to constrain the mainstream potential I think a game like this could have. But if you have a little bit more patience for mechanical frustration than I do (not hard, mind you), and if you love remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime experiences in virtual worlds, Sunless Sea is worth a try.

I genuinely envy my friends who are deep into it, swapping stories. As you can expect to meet death frequently in Sunless Sea, carrying on as your own descendant, more or less, your experience of the game will be snippets of tales of a life on the brink. My friends' stories made me proper jealous: Like the one who was killed by his distrustful crew, after getting too deep into the brain-honey and memories trade. Or the one who found an island full of mysterious women and stayed there until he forgot himself. I shuttered my own addled boat forward into a legitimately-frightening black abyss and never made it out again. Read the rest

Conversations on blackness in games

If you're a black fan of video games, your choices for representation in video games tend to be limited to "wacky sidekick", "cool gangster" or "evil gangster." Or "athlete in a sports franchise". Even for me, as a mixed-race girl who's usually taken for white, I can rarely find my own hair when I'm making a customizable avatar—and that's a comparatively minor problem to have.

What's more, black characters in games are very rarely created by black people. At Kotaku, writer and critic Evan Narcisse recently gathered other black critics and game developers alike to talk about video games' blackness problem, and it's an engrossing read.

For example, writer Austin Walker offers an informed reflection on how Ubisoft's Watch Dogs oversimplified its source material -- it's set in a racially-polarized Chicago:

But, the result, in games like Watch Dogs, is that blackness is presented as pathological. The black spaces are violent, ruined, and dangerously mysterious. The black characters, at best, overcome that violence through exceptional intelligence or talent, or, at worst, give into their darkest urges. Sometimes there's a degree of sympathy in this sort of depiction: "Wow, look at how bad they have it." But what we really need—in games as well as in other media—is something more complex than this image of devastated black lives. And yeah, part of the solution there could be more melanin in game development.

Developer Catt Small talks about ways to involve more black people in game development:

The spread of free and low-cost tools is helping to introduce more Black people to game development, but visibility and transparency in the industry is also helping.

Read the rest

Clickhole made an adventure game and it's actually pretty good

Clickhole is best known for ruthlessly satirical articles that take aim at clickbait, so I wasn't sure what to think when I heard that it had posted an adventure game called The Mysterious Shadows Of Skullshadow Island. Read the rest

If you like to play with words, good news

If you think text games are mostly just a relic of the pre-graphics age, think again: We're in a renaissance. Read the rest

When Twin Peaks meets video games

David Lynch's mysterious TV classic has inspired a wealth of indie games

Want to make a game?

Let these cool developers cheer you on

A tale of two princess games

At the crossroads of pampered and powerful, what little girl doesn't love a good dungeon crawl?

A game you can only dream of playing

More perfect for being unfinished, The Last Guardian is a a yearning soul-whisper for its sentimental fans, the lost game of a microgeneration.

Read Facebook on a spaceship in the year 2042

At any given moment, your social media feed is a cultural snapshot: an up-to-the-minute look at how the people around you feel about their lives and the issues that affect them. In the browser game Killing Time at Lightspeed, you get a glimpse of the future through the lens of social media, with all its pleasures and frustrations. The year is 2042, and you're reading Friendpage (a sort of Facebook/Twitter hybrid) on near-lightspeed flight to a new star system.

You can "commend" posts, respond to them, and read increasingly unnerving messages from the social media platform itself; updates from your friends are threaded with advertisements, news stories and absurdist bots. Because of the time-dilating nature of your flight, years can pass each time you refresh the page. As you hurtle into the future, you watch your friends argue about (and then accept) both new technologies and new concepts of people; privacy rights and the evolving civil rights struggle for synthetic beings are major plot threads.

Over time you get to know the various friends on your feed, and watch their attitudes shift. Discomfort with social change transforms into empathy and a new, more inclusive definition of normal, especially as people develop friendships and even romances with synthetic beings and see them struggle with harassment and abuse. (There's a dystopian thread that runs through the story too, as updates from Friendpage signal a troubling complicity with the government.) It's a fascinating look at how culture can evolve around contentious issues—and one that will be intimately familiar to anyone with a Facebook feed of their own. Read the rest

Here's a wistful, intriguing game you need to play this week

Video games can vividly render the memories you can't get back.

Memories such as how it felt when you were in high school, and your best friend's parents got divorced, and when her dad got to take her out to dinner at the weekend, you got to come. And on the way home he was letting you listen to your alt-rock radio, and you just sat there quietly, consumed by feelings you were too young to understand.

Or how it is when you and her are friends and then you're not friends, and then one day you might kind of be friends again, and you return to her house, where you used to play, except this time you're older and everyone's older, and things are achingly familiar and alien at the same time. Or when your friend needs something from you and life is huge and confusing, and you don't quite know what to say. Seriously, there are some video games that can give you that.

The latest of these is Life is Strange, from French team Dontnod Entertainment. A simple, dialogue and environment-driven character study, it follows photography student Max through her transition into a new school. As she navigates cliques, the threadwork of long-dropped relationships, and the pressure of authority figures, she also accidentally stumbles on the unexplained ability to rewind time and to re-do decisions.

If you've ever played any kind of story-driven choice game -- for example, Telltale Games' The Walking Dead series, which is available on basically every platform -- you're familiar with the unique pang that comes with making a decision, realizing it'll haunt you, wondering how you would have felt about a different choice. Read the rest

Help these young dames get to the Game Developers Conference

Toronto-based nonprofit Dames Making Games runs events and programs for women, non-binary, queer, trans and gender non-conforming creators who want to get into game design.

"We believe game-making can be an act of resistance, giving creators ultimate agency in the expression of their identities, politics, selves, genders and sexualities. Our work has the power to transform our communities, and positively impact industry policies and practice.

We believe that creating space and time to make and talk about games in an explicitly feminist context elevates the craft, amplifies alternative and diverse narratives, and supports the socio-cultural changes that are necessary to make game design accessible to all."

Currently DMG has just about a week left to finish fundraising so that some of its constituency -- mostly young students, freelancers and low-income folks -- can attend the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. They've already been granted pricey passes on scholarship, but the travel arrangements themselves are cost-prohibitive. Going to GDC could be a crucial learning and networking opportunity for these folks.

If you're interested in learning more about DMG and considering supporting, check out their site. It's one possible answer to that guy you know who's always saying "yes, sexism in tech is terrible, but what can be done?" Read the rest

The creator of a best-selling exercise game on being fat and loving her body

If you've never tried the fitness app Zombies, Run, imagine a long series of tiny radio plays set during the zombie apocalypse that ask you to run to various locations on crucial missions—with the undead hot on your heels. Read the rest

Game illustrates sexual consent using skin contact as the controller

Consent can be an uncomfortable subject, an often-complex and personal form of negotiation that people rarely get a chance to practice outside the moments that precede sexual encounters. Allison Cole, Jessica Rose Marcotte and Zachary Miller of Tweed Couch Games want to help change that with In Tune, an interactive experience that asks people to "negotiate and communicate their own physical boundaries with a partner using skin-to-skin contact as the main controller of the game."

Players form teams of two with someone they trust and don "consent bracelets" that register skin contact. During the game, they're presented with a series of two-person poses that involve varying levels of touching, and must talk to their partner about what which ones they want to emulate, and which ones they want to skip.

Consent is never implicit, and can never be given or taken by only one person. Saying yes to one pose or embrace doesn't carry over to the next one, just like consent doesn't carry over between different sex acts and encounters. It's worth checking out the rules of play for In Tune, which are useful not only for the purposes of the game, but also life:

Remember: Never touch someone without their consistent, enthusiastic and freely given consent.

Consent is not a static or stagnant thing; it is a continuing negotiation of comfort levels and boundaries.

Consent is not a single action; it is a complicated continuation of actions.

Consent can evolve, can be revoked and can never be taken from you.

Read the rest

Keep Working: a game about the nightmare of consumerism

If the anti-consumerist ethos of Fight Club were translated into a Minecraft game, it might look a little like Keep Working, an "interactive music video" by a developer known as Bean Chon.

As you navigate your blocky, repetitive life, you're bombarded by pop-up advertisements that turn the world into a sort of walking catalog, admonishing you to stop being a loser and start living the good life."A HARD WORKER WILL BE A SUCCESS," insists the poster over your bed. As your daily grind grows old, and fails to offer these promised rewards, things take a darker turn. Try it out at Game Jolt or Itch.io. (You'll need Unity Web Player to play it.) Read the rest

This Is The Police, a game about power and corruption

"You can love the police, you can hate the police, but you can’t argue that the police wield enormous power," writes the team behind This Is the Police, a game currently in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign. Part strategy game and part corruption simulator, it places you in the shoes of Jack Boyd, a 60-year-old police chief with only six months till retirement. Boyd has only one piece of unfinished business: He wants to make a half a million bucks before he steps down, any way he can.

The next 180 days won’t be just a mad dash for money. Jack will need to keep up his police work too. He’ll send his cops out to handle situations, he’ll coordinate action on scene, monitor the progress of key investigations, oversee the budget, hire and fire – every day, it’s dozens of key decisions that affect countless lives. Even just regular cop business poses lots of problems: a drunken patrolman might gun down a bystander while he’s aiming for an unarmed bully. And it’s not just the staff, it’s the increasingly crazy orders from the mayor's office – not to mention the press and their uncomfortable questions.

Based on the current screenshots, Boyd will also contend with labor disputes, organized crime, sexual harassment issues and protests involving issues of race. This is a Kickstarter project, with all the caveats that implies, but it's exciting to see more games that aspire to address the issues of power and corruption in law enforcement, especially ones that look this stylish. Read the rest