I recently helped my partner build a gaming PC so she can play Overwatch. She’s hesitant to get into games because she knows how intense she gets when fully immersed. Video-games - especially shooters - are an intense experience. She enjoys the visual style and gameplay of Bioshock, but the constant shrieking voices and sneak attacks emotionally exhaust her within minutes. I knew a kid in grade school who got Half-Life 1 for Christmas, and proceeded to play for 14 consecutive hours, interrupted only by the spontaneous need to vomit. I remember when I’d hit big killstreaks in Dota 2, I’d get tremors in my chest and throat, as if my body could barely contain the visceral thrill of gameplay, walking that razor’s edge between death and glory. But I’ve learned just today that a game’s capacity to overwhelm needn’t come from the sensory overload of real-time violence; I just told myself I had to take a breather from a programming game.

Zachtronics’ TIS-100 is their most thinly-veiled coding simulator to date. While previous releases SpaceChem and Infinifactory had an illustrative layer characterizing the puzzles as something more grand than “mere” programming, TIS-100 is literally a DOS-style text interface, and comes packaged with a PDF reference manual. The experience becomes about as self-reflexive as the very strongest overtures of The Stanley Parable. More than following the game designer’s breadcrumb trail, as we normally do, we follow in his footsteps in TIS-100; there is very little in the game besides it’s hideously exposed underlying mechanics. The game itself is understanding those mechanics and manipulating them in order to create increasingly complex algorithms.

It should be boring as hell - surely anybody with actual programming experience should find this game a chore, a dull joke. But when I understood how to nest conditional command loops within each other - such that my program has one usual thing it does, then another if some condition is met, before returning to the usual thing - I was mentally overwhelmed. The feeling of epiphany flooded my brain and I just had to step away. Suddenly, too many possibilities were available to me and I just couldn’t handle it - like finally understanding why four 2’s make eight. To be fair, I have a bit of a tortured history with programming. Even introductory University courses in simplified languages would have me weeping over my keyboard at 3am trying to generate a damned fractal. I’d get drunk at the campus bar before the handwritten mid-term exams, to calm my nerves. Didn’t do too badly, neither.

To a coder, a joke is nothing but an input.

To a coder, a joke is nothing but an input.

But it’s reassuring, I think, when we can access real excitement through something abstract, something other than Hollywood sight and sound. There are still so many unplumbed depths in the gifts that games can give us!


My Blizzard odyssey continues with this weekend’s Overwatch open beta. In short, it is everything it’s been cracked up to be. Which is to say, really, really fun.

My first Play of the Game may not necessarily be impressive, but it offers an accurate snapshot of Overwatch’s obvious appeal. The setting is Route 66, a Nevada desert-themed payload map, in which the attacking team needs to stand near a vehicle - the payload - in order to inch it toward the finish line across the map’s main highway, while the defending team assails them from the mine tunnels, cliffsides, and Spaghetti Western-style buildings adjacent to keep them off the thing. I was on the defending team, and we weren’t doing particularly well. The payload had pushed its way to about 10 metres from our spawn point, a sort of interior hangar bay area with lots of nooks and hallways for the attacking team to strike from. Up till that point I had been playing Widowmaker, a Femme Nikita sniper, to abysmal effect. I don’t think I landed a single headshot that game; fortunately, her weapon has a semiautomatic alternate fire and I was managing to contribute something. But now that they were bottlenecking to their victory condition, I needed to change it up. On my last death, I swap characters to Junkrat, the peg-legged Australian demolitions expert, and leap into the fray just outside our saferoom. Strafing madly from behind my team’s frontline, I lob ricocheting bombs off of walls, behind cover, and into the enemy team, each ballistic ringing like an alarm clock before exploding. I drop a concussion mine at my feet and pop the remote detonator as soon as it appears in my hand; rather than hurt, the explosion rockets me straight up into the air, a sweet angle for raining hot TNT onto the attackers. Inside of 15 seconds, we wipe out most of their team, with less than a minute on the clock. We swarm the payload to get it crawling, crawling in reverse, until we hear footsteps pounding through a corridor on the left. Three enemies crowding in to flank us. Our Reinhardt, Schwarzenegger in silver armour, drops his barrier shield and advances on the doorway to hold them off. From behind him, I’m giggling deviously and chucking wee grenades over his head and shoulders until, FWOOSH, my Ultimate finishes charging. I activate it and Junkrat rips a chainsaw cord on his spiked, explosive tire, sending it rolling past Reinhardt’s shield. I control the tire now, instead of Junkrat, and bounce it right between the suckers in the hallway. Tick, tick, boom. All dead. Victory screen. Play of the Game. It takes confidence to offer up a hotly anticipated release in open beta. Getting my hands on the game sealed the deal; I’m gonna be playing a ton of Overwatch this year.

It has every little detail I look for in battle arenas. There’s a killfeed, but no score screen; they give you enough information to know who’s balling out of control - they are on fire - but not enough to kick off the blame game. Contribution level is unpredictably summarized as top records just for that match, which are randomized at the end of each game. Players can all vote on which record-holder had the most impressive performance, and that user gets a few extra points as recognition. There are so many metrics of performance in this game that it’s hard to be left in the dust every game - Blizzard battles toxicity not by muting it, but by drowning it out with positive feedback, and this just feels right.

The characters, even at their 2edgy4u-est, are delightful. You can play a wall-running Brazilian Jet-Set Radio Future guy; or a cybernetically-resurrected Japanese ninja; or a butch Russian woman with a gun that shoots black holes; or a floating robo-Buddha who occasionally achieves Nirvana in the middle of combat. The maps, too, span the near-future globe, from Hollywood soundstages to Egyptian ruins to snowswept Russian munitions factories. The international cast echoes the vivid uniqueness of the Street Fighter characters that drew me into the game as a kid. They have unique voicelines and interactions based on their lore relationships; they say useful things audible only to the players they matter to, like “Look out behind you!”

Though frenetic, Overwatch’s visuals and HUD read extremely clearly. Enemy heroes are outlined in red, and their voicelines and footsteps are markedly louder than your allies’. There’s no minimap, but you can pinpoint your friends through walls based on little blue arrows over their heads. With a chatwheel, you can quickly access a tactical commands. Markers on the ground delineate important zones and pathways.

Perhaps most importantly for me, given my background in MOBA games, is the lack of any true snowball effect in Overwatch. There is no leveling up, no XP, no gold, no gear. Every player has access to all the same resources, barring skill, and this makes a comeback always possible. Maps are clearly designed to allow dramatic comebacks, with chokepoints becoming increasingly defensible as they near the finish line. When you can’t break a line, you can briefly wait for your team to respawn and regroup, which rarely takes more than 10 seconds, or you can swap out your hero to attempt new techniques. Unlike my hundreds of wasted hours in unsurrenderable Dota 2 losses, a match of Overwatch rarely exceeds 10 minutes, within which time, anything can happen. You can always fight for overtime or try something new; you can always have fun.

Overwatch releases May 24th for PC, PS4, and XBox One.


I have a confession to make -- and no, it’s not that I’m a terrible gamer (I will never admit to that). It’s that... well, over the past week, I think I'm becoming a Blizzard fanboy. As someone who writes about a variety of games, I guess I thought I should give full disclosure.

Something about the design of Blizzard games has me gravitating toward them not strictly in and of themselves, but as preferable alternatives to similar titles. Over the past decade, each release seems intended to fill in successive slices of the genre pie: Real Time Strategy is what they’re known for, followed by Action RPG’s, but now they have a highly successful card-based puzzler in Hearthstone, a fun-for-all MOBA game in Super Smash Bros. Blizzard (Heroes of the Storm), and in June, Blizzard’s first Team Fortress 2-alike first-person shooter Overwatch comes out. I put Starcraft 2 down a long time ago - I found it literally too challenging to focus through a real-time, multi-battlefront resource management wargame - but these most recent 3 titles have become like safe injection sites for some of my most toxic gaming habits. Blizzard games are polished, generic, internally consistent, and low on time demand. A game of Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, or Overwatch comfortably fits into the 10-30 minutes slot. Compared to rival games in these genres, where a match tends to take upwards of forty minutes, this is a really attractive feature.


I don't want this to have melted by the time my game is over.

I don't want this to have melted by the time my game is over.

Take my 2200 hours of experience in Dota 2. I worked hard at that game; I invested hours and hours of research to improve, always seeking opportunities and advantages. But regardless, a painful loss can take 60 minutes. SIXTY. MINUTES. There is no surrender. You can Abandon the game, but you get punished for this by playing against other players who’ve also abandoned, which is even more unpleasant. Ask me today which game I’d rather play, and I would tell you Heroes of the Storm nine times out of ten. It’s a “lesser” game, certainly. It’s simpler, smoother, more forgiving. Finnicky annoyances like last-hitting enemies in order to get gold, or micromanaging the precious, gear-toting courier, are condensed in order to make the game faster and more fun. Small variances matter less in HOTS than Dota 2; what matters more is the overall movements and tactics of each team. And that’s why I’d rather play it. Also, that your name goes on fire when you get a killstreak.

Ever wanted to play as Pandora the Explorer... in a bugcatching costume? What's that? You don't? 

Ever wanted to play as Pandora the Explorer... in a bugcatching costume? What's that? You don't? 

Or look at Hearthstone. I’ve been playing Magic: the Gathering on and off for probably 14 years. I LOVE Magic: the Gathering. Sometimes I can’t find a friend to play with so I will wiggle my shinies in the light for a few hours, just longing to play. A MTG friend of mine recommended HEX to me, a game so similar to Magic it was sued for plagiarism, and yet different enough that many experienced MTG players prefer it over Magic’s digital counterpart. The funnest way to play these CCG’s is in a format called Drafting, in which you buy a few randomized packs of cards, and build a deck from them. Win games against other players who have done the same, and you could win enough packs to Draft again (and then some)! The legendary self-sustaining one-time investment is attractive to the smugly clever folk who enjoy these games. So I dropped $7 and drafted a pretty good Blood/Diamond deck. I had to *shudder* “pass a rare” - sometimes when drafting, you will forego using a rare, valuable card in order to pick less cash-valuable, but more efficient, synergistic cards - in order to make a better deck. I smashed Round 1 of my first best of 3, lost the second match badly, and in the tiebreaker, it was tough to call the winner before my internet crashed. I couldn’t get it going again in the 5-minute permission window, so by the time I signed in again, I had nothing to show for my $7 investment but a bunch of common cards that accomplish almost nothing beyond the Draft. Betrayed by about 90 minutes of gameplay which amounted to nothing by a fluke, I immediately uninstalled HEX and downloaded Hearthstone.

I might be new to the game, but I cannot even IMAGINE how these numbers got onto the board.

I might be new to the game, but I cannot even IMAGINE how these numbers got onto the board.

Like Heroes of the Storm, Hearthstone balms the wounds left by wasted time. Hearthstone’s Arena drafting costs either $2 or some in-game currency you can earn just by grinding, and lets you play one 5-15 minute match at a time, whenever you want. So even though there’s the same risk of disconnecting I experienced in HEX, it’s less costly, and less painful. There’s no pain in passing rares, because you don’t keep the deck you draft; instead, you use your rental draft to rack up wins (you can play as many matches with the deck as it takes to lose 3 times) which translate into card packs and game currency. And while there is a strong incentive to sink money into the game for cards, with no buyout, the free-to-play features give you access to all the same resources, should you boast the patience to grind.

All told, my near-exclusive Blizzard fixation of late hasn’t stifled, but brightened my view of games today. I’m happy to have a client outside of Steam that reliably offers up fast, fun, & fair match-based gameplay.