U-Pick Battle of the Birthdays: Mission Success

The latest U-Pick Video Game Marathon for Charity is officially over!  For 12+ hours, Grant and Stephonee played a pile of video games for a good cause.  They battled the angst-ridden undead in Buffy, struggled with mech controls in Steel Battalion, and groped the walls in Wolfenstein 3D.

After the dust settled (and the consoles were turned off), the Battle of the Birthdays raised over $2800 for charity: water.  That money will provide clean water sources to 81 people in the Sahel region of Mali and Niger.  The Sahel region is frequently affected by drought and famine, and access to clean water is rare.  It is amazing that the efforts of U-Pick and its supporters (along with charity: water) can make such a positive impact on the world through the joy of video games.

Many woots to Grant, Stephonee, and the rest of the U-Pick Crew!  Huge thanks to everyone who watched and donated!  Please stay tuned to the U-Pick website, Twitter, and Facebook page for future marathons for charity.  And remember, GAME FOR GOOD!

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U-Pick Video Game Marathon for Charity: Battle of the Birthdays

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It’s a surprise charity attack!  In just four days time, the co-founders of U-Pick are giving up their birthdays to help bring clean water to the Sahel region of Mali and Niger.  Stephonee and Grant have birthdays that are one week apart, so what better way to celebrate than a 12-hour charity marathon?

Each player has selected 15 games according to what they think would make for a great marathon, for a total of 30 fantastically fun and frantic titles to choose from.  For those of you who donated and watched last year’s marathon, the rules are pretty similar:

1) Pick a game from this list: http://bit.ly/UPickList

2) Donate as much as you want on this page! Leave the name of the game you picked as a comment on your donation. $1 = 1 point for the game you name.

3) Watch the broadcast on http://www.UPickVG.com on Sunday, September 21st from 10am-10pm Eastern. Grant and Stephonee will play the top games as decided by the Wheel of Destiny (and your donations!).

Also, there will be a preview show on Saturday Sept 20th at 8pm Eastern, where a random assortment of games will be played to get this party started.  Maybe the games will be from the list, maybe they will be even more strange and awesome titles from our collected gaming libraries.  Tune in to find out!

As with last year’s marathon, 100% of everything U-Pick raises will directly fund water projects through charity:water.  When those projects are finished, charity: water will provide proof in pictures and GPS coordinates, so we can see the actual people and communities we impacted.

So be sure to check out the website for more details on the marathon, see which games are on top, and to view the profiles of the rest of the U-Pick Team.  You can also see various media from the games we have played on our Tumblr page.  Please consider donating to U-Pick and sharing the link with your friends (maybe over the Facebooks).  It’s for a great cause and you can watch a pile of oddball games played for 12 hours straight!  Win-win!

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Required Reading: Boss Fight Books

As the summer months come to a close and school is starting back up, a frequent point of discussion among my peers has been required reading.  Between my avid reader friends and vehement non-reader companions, there is a common memory of disdain for those forced book lists.

Many of the titles that were necessary for summer projects and autumn class discussion were totally unappealing books that seemed to frustrate kids right out of reading.  Even when we were given the option to choose from a hearty list of books, this freedom was an illusion.  These lists were rarely updated from the musty classics that are primed for structured teaching and bland schoolwork.  The only respite from these tired titles was the rare moment when we could make a completely independent selection for a book report.

As a kid who was obsessed with video games, I would scour my local library for any tome of information on my beloved hobby.  Most of the time, my searches would return outdated books on the history of computers or science fiction with elements of virtual reality peppered throughout.  Outside of the fact that most of these titles would not get approved by my teachers, the tone of these books was not quite what I was looking for.

I longed for writing with a more personal touch; maybe a memoir of someone directly involved with the creation of video games, or how certain games reflected and affected the current world.  At the very least, I wanted a book from someone who had been as influenced by video games as I was.  Thanks to the efforts of some great writers (and roughly 1300 Kickstarter backers), these sorts of books now exist.

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Boss Fight Books was founded in Los Angeles in June of 2013.  They have five books to their company so far, with a sixth title hitting the digital shelves shortly.  Each of these books focuses on a single video game; its influence, content, history, and contribution to the world outside of the screen.  From their website:

“Some books will be about the history of the game’s creation, some will focus on particular elements like level design, story, and music, some will investigate the subculture that has formed around a game, some will bring in outside art, science, and media, and some will have a strong autobiographical element. Many books will be a combination of all these things.”

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Since each book has been written by a different author, the content and tone of every title is unique.  EarthBound is the story of a cult classic from the perspective of a former child actor who wonderfully retells the game’s tale of heartfelt Americana.  Chrono Trigger is a sort of cultural cross-over, as a college researcher likens his experience teaching in Japan to the massive translation effort of a text-heavy RPG.  ZZT takes the reader back in time to the early 90s, when the internet was in its infancy and homebrew designers used a friendly programming language to navigate their coming of age.  Galaga uses the classic game’s design to express 256 “levels” of honest anecdotes, life stories, and arcade history.  All of these books provide worthwhile information and reading experiences to both the avid game player and complete neophyte.

So as you are walking the shelves of your local bookstore or library, scrounging for your assigned reading or looking back on those titles through which you suffered in the past, be sure to hop over to Boss Fight Books once you’ve made it back home.  Each one of these gems expresses the love and impact of video games on their authors and the lives of so many others.  These are some amazing titles just waiting for your to pick them up, snuggle into your preferred reading corner, and dive right into their pages.

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Swimming in the Desert

Swimming is difficult.  It is propelling the human form through an unfamiliar medium using complex limb coordination.  Lessons and training are necessary to become a proficient swimmer, turning a leisure activity into mechanical exercise.  Most video games approach the water in a similar fashion.  Navigating an avatar through the digital depths can be just as involved and frustrating as making headway through the waves in real life.  Constant awareness of your virtual surroundings, along with a rigid routine of tapping buttons and manipulating analog sticks are necessary to keep your character from a watery demise.

Floating, on the other hand, is a less strenuous affair.  So many of us take to our local pools in the warmer months to simply cool off in a state of relative weightlessness.  We can ease our way into the chlorinated waters, overcoming an initial chill to bob along the surface with no pressure to speed through the shallows.  Even though there is no water to be found in Journey’s desert landscapes, the simulation of gliding through the air feels so similar to taking a casual dip in the summer; occasionally flicking a button to bounce upwards as one world lightly splash the water to rise.

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After trekking through several areas of parched desert and abandoned ruins, the robed protagonist in Journey arrives in a darkened tower.  Outside of the faint glimmer of sun cast from a small opening stories above, the only light in the room comes from three lanterns in an alcove.  As the player guides their character to the lanterns, a mosaic on the wall begins to glow and the lower floors of the tower are filled with hazy light.  This murky iridescence lifts the robed figure, giving the impression of weightlessness in the glowing fog.

With a slight push on the analog stick, the player moves their character effortlessly through the light.  A quick tap on a button lifts them through the air with even more ease than before.  Moving isn’t as difficult here, now that gravity’s grasp has been loosened.  The player can swim through this fog without a rapidly draining air meter or the constant threat of drowning.  There are no antagonists to impede her/his progress.  The robed figure can float through the air with the comfort of a casual swimmer; finding respite from the desert sun as their player would cool off in the water.

Ever since video games moved into a three-dimensional space, I have felt like any portion of play that involved swimming was a chore.  It reminded me of the mandatory swimming lessons I endured as a child, where a menacing twenty-something would bark at me to keep my form and try to hold my breath for extended periods.  These lessons turned my time in the water into exercise, breaking any illusion of freedom in my movements.  Just like those moments at the indoor pool, trying to move Mario or Lara Croft through the water felt sluggish and mechanical.  The virtual waters were not a medium to free myself from the earth- they were a hindrance that slowed my progress and made me feel like a novice.

Journey was the first game that felt like lazy summer afternoons at my neighbor’s pool, where friends could float along without guidance.  There was no need for complex arm flailing or mechanical breathing.  I could move in the water totally untethered and sublimely happy, just as the robed figure casually floated upwards towards the light.

Since the last swimming days of the season are counting down, this is an ideal time to enjoy the freedom of floating, both in the water and in a digital space.

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Taking Inventory

In video games, it’s important to regularly take stock of your inventory.  This is especially true of classic adventure games, where the items on your person are often the key to making progress (or surviving a minotaur charge).  Before the picture-heavy interfaces of the point-and-click games appeared, text-based adventure titles relied on a simple command from a player to see what they were carrying.  By typing “inventory” into the little command window, a list of items would splash across the screen, and a recent Twitter account is providing folks with the chance to check their virtual pockets once again.

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Andrew Vestal has created a Twitter bot that pulls from a list of over 1000 items to create lists for anyone who reaches out to the account.  Simply tweet “inventory” or “I” to @YouAreCarrying, and you will receive a random assortment of items as a reply.  All of these lists are made up of bits and baubles straight from old Infocom games, which can lead to a bit of confusion for those of us who haven’t played Zork before (get ready to Google).

A fantastic side effect of this digital delight is that so many people have taken the lists produced by the bot and drawn the results as a sort of self-portrait.  Mr. Vestal actively encourages people to share their labeled drawings with YouAreCarrying, which makes following the account even more enjoyable.  Laura and I decided to have a little bit of fun with our lists, by sharing our inventories and drawing each other’s picture.  Please enjoy the results below:

Laura’s Inventory, drawn by Chip: a white rod, a gun receipt, a large fly, a second seventeen-centimeter fromitz board, a pair of goggles, a laser, a lunch.

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Chip’s Inventory, drawn by Laura: a cannonball, a hatchet, plaster dust, a Remington, a small piece of vitreous slag, a bottle of Scotch, a zorkmid coin.

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Why not shoot a tweet to @YouAreCarrying right now and see what’s in your inventory?  The contents of your virtual backpack may surprise you.

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Go and Play: The Counting Kingdom

Some time ago, I waxed philosophical on the things I have learned from video games.  While the origin of this article came from a dopey poster from Hot Topic, the meat of my musings centered on the educational games of my youth.  These titles were formative in my educational experience; providing a wonderful supplement to the historical texts and multiplication tables of school.  From these life moments, I have come to appreciate how video games can be a strong tool in educating our youth and reinforcing the learning process.

These days, gaming technology is in the pockets and backpacks of nearly every person in the world.  Laptops, smart phones, and tablets have become so mainstream, and with these devices comes an onslaught of games that aim to distract, engage, and immerse players.  Educational games have endeavored to keep up with the times, creating all sorts of games to inspire young minds.  Ideally, these titles would use a popular genre of play and combine it with a field of study to make a worthwhile game for all players.

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From Little Worlds Interactive comes The Counting Kingdom, a game that mixes mathematics with tower defense gameplay.  Players take control of a young wizard’s apprentice who must protect their castle from attacking monsters.  Each turn of play, the young magician selects a group of monsters that corresponds to the spell that can be cast.  The educational bit of play comes in the form of numbered spells and enemies.  The apprentice has a refilling selection of three numbers that serve as spells to be cast.  The waves of monsters that arrive in front of the castle also have numbers upon their scaly bellies.  The player chooses a monster or group of monsters whose sum equals one of the spells at their command.  Thus the monsters are destroyed and the castle is saved!

On top of the base gameplay of mathematical magic, there are potions that can be used to reduce or increase monster values, along with a spell book that can provide the player with a fresh numerical incantation to cast.  The game features a very storybook art style, with cute monsters and colorful landscapes.  The entire experience comes off as a sort of Plants vs. Zombies meets Number Munchers, which is certainly high praise in my circles.  I would recommend this game to players looking for a fun and cerebral distraction, as well as an educational title for younger children looking to not-so-secretly enhance their math skills.

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The Counting Kingdom is currently available for PC and Mac via Steam Early Access, so be sure to check it out!  The game is quite fun and engaging on these platforms, and I look forward to the inevitable iOS release that will enable touch screen controls- the form in which The Counting Kingdom will truly shine brightest.

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SNES A Day 32: Joe & Mac

I have recently become aware of the fantastic blog, SNES A Day. Here is just a sample of the great content on this site. Joe and Mac was a co-op staple in the household of my youth. Be sure to follow SNES A Day and revel in the glory days of the 16-bit era!

Enemies have a lot of personality and react colorfully when hit

Comic Books, At the Library?!

It’s certainly been a while, faithful readers of GIMMGP.  Laura and I have been working the weeks away on some super-secret projects that we hope to unveil soon, so look forward to that day (whenever it may be)!  In the little bit of spare time I manage to scrape up at a day’s end, I have been reading plenty of comic books which I borrowed from the library.

Thanks to the massive catalog at our local branch, I have discovered several superhero one-shots that slipped under my radar during their initial release.  These paneled pages have been a soothing balm for my electronics weary eyes after a long day of technology-filled work and play.  Allow me to share some of my favorite titles from these library excursions.

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Superman: Red Son

Let me be frank at the commencement: I don’t care for Superman comics.  Perhaps it’s the overly good-natured character, or simply the idea that at his power level, no foe should be too great yet the Man of Steel keeps getting subverted by evildoers.  Something about his nigh-invincible abilities laced under the tropes of classic superhero comics has made the character and the stories around him rather uninteresting to me.  In spite of this, there are some titles starring Superman that I find to be genuinely engaging and Red Son is one of these tales.

RedSon2The premise of Red Son is a seemingly simple twist on the classic origin: instead of landing in Kansas, what if Superman happened to land in the Soviet Union?  From this basic idea, an alternate history of the Cold War unfolds with Kal-El going from benevolent Russian super-citizen to paranoid Big Brother-esque dictator.  On the side of the Americans is famed scientist Lex Luthor, whose attempts to balance the power between nations leads to the creation of major villains from the Superman universe.  Just as there are analogues to villains like Brainiac and Bizarro, there are alternate versions of heroes like Batman (a disenfranchised KGB agent) and Hal Jordan (leader of the Green Lantern Marine Corps).  All of these intriguing characters and twists on the traditional Superman story are wrapped up in fantastic artwork, full of highly detailed backgrounds and colorful character redesigns.  I would recommend this comic for anyone who has given up on the Man of Steel, or for those who love the Last Son of Krypton and are looking for their next fix.

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Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil

Before I realized who wrote this title, I had little interest in reading it.  Captain Marvel was never on my radar, save for the occasional shouting of “SHAZAM!” as a sort of pseudo-inside joke.  Then I heard that Jeff Smith, the fantastic author of my beloved Bone comics, penned this superhero tale.  And so began the rapid devouring of The Monster Society of Evil.

Shazam2Mr. Smith’s take on Captain Marvel is a perfect jumping-off point for any novice to the classic superhero.  A fresh look at young Billy Batson’s encounter with the wizard who would tie him to his magical alter-ego provides a proper origin story at the start of this four issue series.  From this not-so-chance meeting, Billy Batson gains the power to utter a magic word and become Captain Marvel, the world’s mightiest mortal!  This comic is chock full of heart, featuring plenty of bombastic superhero moments that frame a touching story of an orphan who finds a new family in the city he dares to protect.  In addition to the great story and emotive artwork, the collected trade of Shazam! features a making of section that glimpses Jeff Smith’s production notes and compares his work to the original comics from the 1940s.  I would recommend this comic to kids and the adults who still have a spark of childhood joy from comic book magic.

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Kingdom Come

Now we come to the biggie, the crème de la crème, the best superhero comic I have read in years.  Kingdom Come is from the DC Elseworlds imprint (read: the fun comics that don’t interfere with their oddball continuity) and details a story from a future universe where a conflict grows between the Justice League and their mostly amoral offspring.  What results is a fascinating tale that unfolds around a seemingly simple character: a sullen minister named Norman McCay.

KingdomCome2At the outset of Kingdom Come, Norman McCay visits a dying Wesley Dodds (the original Sandman) and the passing superhero transfers grisly visions of impending doom to the minister.  Shortly after, Norman is visited by The Spectre, who recruits him to pass judgment at the approaching superhuman apocalypse.  Norman is whisked behind the scenes as the old guard of superheroes (including a mourning Superman, a sullen and aged Batman, and the ever battle-ready Wonder Woman) deals with the destruction and chaos of a new breed of superhumans, many of which are their own children.  An interesting parallel between the scriptures of Revelations and the acts of these titans is made, and Norman (along with the reader) is caught in the background; merely a spectator to the oncoming tragedy.  This comic features the amazing artwork of Alex Ross, whose painted work feels like a glimpse of photographs from another reality.  I would highly recommend this comic to everyone, particularly those who think that superhero comics have become silly and childish, with no message of hope to be had in their overly dark pages.

There you have it, fair readers.  While I have managed to ingest other solid comic books from our library, nothing comes close to these three great stories.  If you are looking for more articles to scratch your comic book itch, be sure to pop over to Geek Force Network, where I have recently highlighted several great indie comics (and video games!).  While you’re at it, why not check out your local library?  It might surprise you to see how much sequential art is nestled right beside the summer reading program lists.

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Co-op Recommendation: Battleblock Theater

BehemothThe PAXEast Expo Hall is something of an anxiety-producing beast.  There are legions of people packed into a convention center that has been lined with hundreds of booths, and each of these booths is filled with tons of mesmerizing media.  There are cardboard cut-outs and statues, fabulous prizes to be won and little tchotchkes to be gathered; every company and studio wants to grab your attention and get you stoked about their latest products.  Needless to say, attending a video game convention can be quite overwhelming.  Fortunately, Laura and I learned from our very first PAXEast to always visit The Behemoth booth every year, as it is the most inviting and honestly fun place to be on the convention floor.  Besides the neat merchandise and friendly staff, every demo station is built into a faux arcade machine where delightfully cartoony games may be enjoyed by a pair of friends.  It was here that my good friend Bobby and I first encountered Battleblock Theater.

BehemothGameAt the time, we had no idea what sort of game we were playing, or even what our motivation was in this strange world.  There were two adorable characters on the screen, one for each of us, and we led our little heroes through strange obstacle courses filled with acid baths, deadly spikes, and evil kitties.  There was no tutorial, save for a few signs that explained some of the button functions, so much of our time playing was spent experimenting with the game.  The first thing we found was our heroes could fight each other, which led to a few “accidental” deaths (a punch into acid here, a misplaced fireball there).  But not to worry, our characters would respawn immediately, bright, shiny, and new (thank goodness).  Then we noticed that we could stand on each other, as to reach higher items and areas (or to just sit on someone’s head while the other player had a nice nap).  From these simple yet unexplained rules, Bobby and I started to do everything we could to break this game.  We were tossing each other around the maps, bouncing off our heads to grab collectible items, and using our own projectiles to create new combos to destroy our enemies.  In short, this game was awesome and we wanted to play it all day.  But with a growing line behind us and plenty more to see in the Expo Hall, we pulled ourselves from the arcade machine and moved on to other booths.

Two years passed between our initial glimpse of Battleblock Theater and its public debut, but our fevered desire for this silly and fun game never faltered.  I purchased the game from the Xbox Live Arcade on the day of release, eager to find out the story behind our little cartoon friends.  I was not disappointed:

Battleblock Theater has the sort of story my friends and I would make up on the fly while chilling out and enjoying a couple of beers (read: drinking heavily).  I can only imagine how the pitch meeting went over:  “So, there’s a dapper gentleman, and he wants all of his friends to go on a cruise, but then they get shipwrecked on an island of evil cats.  And the cats, see, they put a cursed hat on the gentleman’s head, and then force his friends to compete in death relays for feline amusement.  What do ya think?”  And the narrator, good gravy, let’s talk about this guy.  An over-caffeinated storyteller (who does not pull his punches) comments on the player’s performance and provides all of the dialogue for Battleblock Theater.  So much of the game’s humor comes from the high-spirited and sarcastic comments being force-fed to the player.  These elements perfectly compliment the frantic gameplay and make for a colorful and manic cartoon world.

In an industry that emphasizes the need for high-rez graphics, gritty storylines, and massive online skirmishes, it is nice to see that some studios remember what first brought people to video games: discovery and fun.  The Behemoth makes games that are easy to learn, but they don’t bash the player over the head with rules and tutorials.  This allows each player the opportunity to discover new styles of play hidden within the basic rules of a game.  As Laura and I made our way through the many stages of Battleblock Theater, we continued to find novel ways of getting around and collecting items.  There was no single way to complete a level, and by carving our own path, the experience of play became much more personal and endearing.

In other words: stop what you are doing, grab a friend, and play Battleblock Theater.  It’s a fun time.

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When Attending PAXEast: Some Advice

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Even though Laura and I will not be attending PAXEast this year (those tickets and rooms sold out fast), we wanted to share some advice to all the folks who will be spending their weekend at this massive convention. Please to be enjoying!

Originally posted on Games I Made My Girlfriend Play:

Since it’s creation in 2010, Laura and I have been attending PAXEast, and every year our Video Game Pilgrimage seems to get better.  Now many of you may be asking, “But Chip, how can I personally improve my Penny Arcade Expo experience?  Surely all of the responsibility falls on Masters Gabe and Tycho to make my money seem well spent!”  While it seems that most of the good times you will be having do rely on the coordinators of this convention, we here at GIMMGP have learned many lessons along the way that have made every year at PAX just a little bit better (read: SO MUCH BETTER).  Now we will share these lessons with you, the faithful reader!

Lesson 1: Don’t drive when flying is so much easier.  Laura and I learned this the hard way during our first trip to PAXEast.  From GIMMGP Headquarters, it is a roughly…

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