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Tag Archives: PAX East 2014

 

 

Stomach.

 

 

PAX East 2015.

I’m in Boston. I have a cold.

I spend Thursday afternoon dislodging the Hyundai rental from one of the four-foot snowdrifts framing my driveway.

Sweating. No hat. The wind blowing hard off the corn field across the road.

PAX East 2015: I fall into Boston.

I choke on its wind.

Same hotel. Same time of year. A different state:

2014. I am ready to give up on games. Everything feels hollow.

Everything feels bored.

Everything is hype and money.

Exhausted and numb: I find Tim Rogers.

I see Videoball. It pulls me back.

I start writing again for the first time in three years.

I gut my political blog.

I write about video games for the first time ever.

I write my first post about Videoball.

It stays with me. It sticks to me. I think about the game at least once a day for a year.

PAX East 2015 and I only need two days.

The panels are uninteresting.

I am curious about the booths on the show floor.

Friday night I walk with my wife through the park.

She takes pictures of fat, red squirrels.

We work our way to Chinatown.

We try shabu-shabu for the first time. We drink bubble tea.

It’s quiet. The streets are quiet.

The snowbanks glow from neon signs.

Caked in trash.

I think about Saturday. I don’t miss PAX.

I miss Action Button.

I miss Videoball.

 

Joint.

 

Pax East 2015.

I wake up. Shower.

I don’t sleep much. The walls are thin.

Exhausted, I step into the city. Buy some coffee.

I love the city.

I miss Madison. Chicago. LA. Beirut. Paris.

We walk through Chinatown again. We find our way to the convention center.

The foot traffic stops. The security line is two blocks long.

Stuck on a bridge. I stare down into the small pools of broken ice.

I have always had a fear of deep, complex water – A horror of it.

We make it in. We burrow into the display.

There is a muted excitement.

It feels familiar. It feels off.

Bethesda doesn’t make a showing for the first time in three years.

Evolve is buried away from the main entrance. No giant monster to display.

Supergiant is there for the third year in the same booth pushing Transistor.

Alienware brings back the opulent spirit of the late-90’s PC hardware fever.

The manipulative pre-order systems of 2014 are gone.

I see Grey Goo and Dreadnought. Overwatch. Final Fantasy Type-0. Monster Hunter. Elite Dangerous.

I wander into independent games.

I wind through rows of small developers: Frenzied innovation and a consuming boredom.

Iron Galaxy cuts into view.

I find Videoball.

I greet Tim. We talk with joy and excitement.

He introduces me to Michael Kerwin, programmer for Action Button Entertainment.

And I feel like I’m home.

Videoball is still stunning.

I watch it played on an enormous screen.

It has grown in the past year. It has matured.

It feels less like a video game. It feels like a court.

An arena.

An environment.

A world.

 

Knuckle.

 

2014 Videoball felt new. It felt vigorous.

It was a geometry problem stuck in the mind of a squash player.

It was a system brimming with friction and momentum.

2014 Videoball caressed urgency.

Videoball has now learned how to breathe.

This past year the game has evolved in small, intelligent ways.

Touching the ball no longer freezes the player: The player is pushed away.

The punishment is still the inability to move, but now the field is more active.

Nothing stands still.

This rejection system still requires the player to correct trajectory however much they can.

It’s a punishment that still involves the player.

It’s a punishment that involves losing field position.

2015 Videoball has adjusted the timing and features of the three shots.

The level 1 shot can now be used repeatedly with quick button taps.

The (persistent) level 2 shot is able to push the ball in a straight line.

The level 3 (slam) shot feels hot and alive.

Now when the ball is hit with the level 3, it creates a thick, rubber-banding color trail behind it.

Like the light trails from Akira translated into an organic brutalism.

The level 4 blocks actively deconstruct themselves with each hit.

One hit and the block splits into nine squares.

Two hits and the squares spin and disappear.

Tim explained he got this idea from the visual flourishes in Destiny when breaking down items.

The ball and the stages themselves feel more involved.

The ball contorts when manipulated with force like a soccer ball in the feet of Captain Tsubasa.

The stages absorb energy and ripple with soft, Mario 3 curves.

The stages have also become more complex.

Some involve the goals being split in the center.

Other stages are littered with small blocks around the center of the field.

The stages are diverse and shifting. Creative and challenging.

In 2014, Videoball was aesthetically cohesive.

Its visual language was clean and deep.

In 2015, Videoball is whole.

It’s completely awake.

It is a living, breathing world of systems and cues.

A world comprised solely of sunsets and city nights.

A year ago Videoball felt complete.

It inspired me then.

It showed me how much some people still care about games and vision.

2015: That passion hasn’t receded.

Last year, it was Midnight City.

Now it’s Iron Galaxy:

Revitalizing Killer Instinct. Pushing Gunsport. Supporting Videoball.

Showcasing games that pull on the flesh.

Games that rip open sweat and spine.

Videoball has found the right kind of new home.

The right kind of stable.

Videoball is ready to run.

To trample.

It’s powerful. Beautiful. Lean. Heavy. Fast.

In 2014, Videoball was a game I needed:

To see.

To touch.

To digest.

 

2015: Everything and nothing has changed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pose.

 

 

It’s raining.

I stand at the end of the pier.

Crashing water.

A gull screech.

I skipped class again.

And it doesn’t matter.

I walk across the university terrace.

I enter the woods.

I sit on a rock.

The rain comes down louder.

Grey falling.

I look up at the trees.

I wonder about the confusion between man and nature.

I close my eyes and think of The End.

I smell the earth.

A dead log in front of me: Bright moss glowing.

No music to play. No poems to write.

Raw, desolate peace.

I stand up and walk into the city.

I stand beneath the awning in front of the library.

I waited for a girl here once.

She never showed up.

I watch a saxophonist belt out some jazz across the street.

I watch him get into it.

I listen to his interpretation of noise.

Nothing to do. Nowhere to go.

I cut the end off a cigar.

I sit down on the cobbled brick.

I watch the jazz player tear everything up.

What was the sense of him being out here in the rain?

Not much money thrown around.

I light the cigar and watch the smoke hang.

The saxophonist stops after a while. He waves to me.

I nod back.

I get up and trudge deeper into the city.

I stand outside the Gamestop.

The last time: I came to pick up The King of Fighters XI.

The clerk was hungover and irritated.

I was trying to learn how to be social.

I tried to start a conversation with him while he was cashing me out:

‘So, I was really surprised this came out here!’

He looked at me.

‘Uh, yeah…’

I walked out.

I walk in.

One clerk. One manager.

I walk around the store.

Look at the used games, the new games.

The clerk begins a conversation with me.

We talk about fighting games.

We talk about games.

We talk about graphics, systems, lighting.

I needed that. I needed to talk.

Another customer walks in.

He enters the conversation.

He is awkward and grating.

He has nothing to say. He keeps talking.

Later on, he would enter the Gamestop Street Fighter IV Tournament wearing a Ryu headband.

He would be eliminated in the first round.

His girlfriend calls him, wondering where he is.

He tells her that he missed the bus and he’s hanging out with his friends.

An hour has passed and the manager is angry.

I walk out.

I walk home.

I try to remember a haiku by Bashō about cherry blossoms.

And I watch everything drip with a blunt, hateful love.

 

Position.

 

The internet was a void.

The discussion around games was dry.

Reviews. Releases. Previews. Business deals.

There was no heart in any of it.

There was no love to it.

There was no concern about it.

The discussion was looking for legitimacy.

It was seeking out the specter of the objective.

The culture was insulated and alone.

And Insert Credit rejected all of it.

It was a new discussion in an honest language.

Years before I began reading IC, it had already influenced my exposure.

It was where my brother discovered rRootage.

It was where a friend introduced my brother and I to MAME.

I began reading it myself.

Each day I spent hours churning through the archives.

Devouring what I had missed.

The stories were subtle. They shifted.

Some were small bits of Japanese gaming culture.

Some were about the intersection of games and culture.

Insert Credit refused the objective.

It refused insulation.

It threw games and pieces of games into the world.

The tone shifted often.

Excited. Cautious. Curious. Introspective.

The narratives were never complete.

IC required the reader to follow-up on their own.

It tried to be the catalyst for growth.

It had expectations.

Sometimes it required curiosity.

Sometimes it required patience.

When I first read Brendan Lee’s infamous feature, I wept.

I wept out of sadness about where games were going.

I wept out of remorse for contributing to the process described.

I wept because it resonated deep inside the guts of my mind.

It changed the way I saw games and the industry around them forever.

Insert Credit woke me.

It was where I learned to rip games apart.

It was where I learned about hardware.

It was where I learned about voice.

Insert Credit was an arcade of a website.

It was a dark glow.

It was full of people who cared.

Brendan Lee. Tim Rogers. Brandon Sheffield.

It was contributors like Ollie and Simoniker.

It was a resonant world.

It became a space of critical emotion.

And one day it all evaporated.

 

Prowl.

 

When Insert Credit stopped, it hit hard.

I used Kotaku to fill that space.

I had just graduated. I was unemployed.

I spent two years trying to be a journalist.

I tried to write about video games on Suite 101.

I started my first blog. I wrote about politics and the Middle East.

It was all terrible.

I was lost.

Kotaku was unfulfilling on its own.

I looked for more.

I found Select Button: A site formed in the absence of Insert Credit.

It maintained the aesthetic.

It was a temporary shelter.

I traced IC’s wreckage anywhere I could.

I found Tim Rogers again at Action Button.

I discovered Mecha Damashii.

I followed Brandon Sheffield on Gamasutra.

Insert Credit’s implosion created the space to further understand their voices.

It pushed me to observe their ideas in different venues.

This sustained me in the years of inactivity.

I moved from Wisconsin to Rochester, NY.

I got my first job after giving up being a journalist.

I worked as a temp in a Blockbuster Distribution Center.

I saw the games people rented.

Madden. Call of Duty. NBA 2K.

It took me awhile to get used to this place.

I read Tim’s review of Bangai-O Spirits.

I spent an afternoon driving to any Gamestop I could looking for it.

It was the first time I made an effort to discover this city.

And Bangai-O Spirits was beautiful.

I gave up writing in my blog.

I gave up writing a novel about being trapped in Lebanon in 2006.

I gave up on social media.

I worked.

I played games.

I read about games.

DoDonPachi Daioujou became an obsession.

Brandon’s words about Ketsui lingered in my eyes.

Every few days I tried to revisit Insert Credit.

And always nothing.

Always stagnation.

It was lonely.

Its absence still lingered.

And one night, it came back.

Insert Credit had a new page.

It was coming back.

I was in my bedroom.

My eyes widened in front of the screen.

I was shocked.

I was thankful.

 

Galavant.

 

The new Insert Credit is larger than itself.

The new Insert Credit is Tim Rogers and Action Button Entertainment.

The new Insert Credit is Brandon Sheffield and Necrosoft Games.

The new Insert Credit is Frank Cifaldi and Other Ocean Interactive.

The new Insert Credit is Gunhouse. Ziggurat. #iDarb.

The new Insert Credit is a podcast full of humor and consideration.

The new Insert Credit is still old Insert Credit with more patience and focus.

Its ideas have spread beyond the written word.

Its ideas, its tone, its warmth, its concern are embedded now.

Watching Insert Credit grow has been a lesson in creative endurance.

Where most game sites would settle for a simple redesign…

Where most game sites would never allow themselves the space to fall…

Where most game sites could never build on their core concepts in new ways…

IC did it all and still stands today.

I started this blog in April 2014.

I started it after seeing Videoball at PAX East.

I spent two days standing at that booth.

Nothing else I saw at the expo mattered.

True to Insert Credit:

Videoball was a million big ideas sliced up into consumable mechanics.

It was a game that cared about games.

I left Boston feeling awake again.

I built this blog off the one I abandoned.

I deleted all the entries.

And I wrote my first post about Videoball.

After three years, a video game made me want to write again.

Insert Credit made me want to find my own voice.

Insert Credit changed me.

It helped me find myself in my writing.

I can’t help but imagine there are a lot of stories like this in the world.

I can’t help but wonder how many others Insert Credit has spurred into action and exploration.

It’s been over a decade since IC launched and the fundamental sadness surrounding it is how entrenched game journalism still is.

Some sites have eliminated numbered scoring for game reviews.

Some sites have tried to post more subjective, experiential content.

But the discussion around games is still full of hype and garbage.

The writing is still bland and lifeless.

The culture is still intolerant and insulated.

That’s why Insert Credit still matters.

That’s why Insert Credit will always be necessary.

It is an inspiring work of endurance and precision.

It is an aesthetic, a philosophy, driven by people who still give a damn.

It’s the punk and the jester.

 

It’s the saxophonist, the noise, and the rain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shamble.

 

 

Pop music is two things: Urgency and Moments.

Pop songs try to deliver their messages as direct as possible and try to make them stick.

The deeper the songs can drill into you, the more important the message becomes.

The louder it becomes.

Pop songs are all about mechanics. They are all about how to attack the heart of the listener.

They are strategic and tactical and hard.

 

 

The Ronettes‘ ‘Be My Baby’ is one of the greatest pop songs of the 20th century.

The song embodies the genre and mirrors it to no end.

There is a sincere urgency in Veronica Bennett’s voice, there is a genuine pleading.

The instruments become time, caressing Bennett through each second.

Everything sticks and the song cascades moments.

The song grows so big that it becomes a world of its own.

 

 

Azealia Banks‘ ‘212’ follows the same methodology as ‘Be My Baby’.

Not only is there a frenetic urgency in the song, but it is always shifting, always creating newer, bigger moments.

Where ‘Be My Baby’ overwhelms with force of sound and honesty, ‘212’ floods the listener with intricacy and aggression.

The mirroring is more complex here.

Most would argue that ‘212’ isn’t pop, that it’s some kind of alternative genre mash-up.

But it adheres to the fundamentals of pop more so than anything else.

When I first heard ‘212’, I had to replay it multiple times to begin to understand everything that was happening.

There is no waste in it, everything has a purpose in its world and because of that honing it feels important.

‘212’ feels confident and fun and violent.

 

 

Bruce Springsteen‘s ‘Dancing in the Dark’ has a lot of momentum.

Not only are Springsteen’s lyrics expressing the urgency of heartbreak, but the whole song is honest and transformative.

It is a pop song searching for better, stickier moments.

It is a song that understands its importance.

It never gets loud, its changes are subtle, but it is driven with a sense of purpose.

‘Dancing in the Dark’ sits in contrast to ‘212’ and ‘Be My Baby’: There is no overwhelming, global force to it.

The song resonates because it stays simple and earnest.

The song itself becomes the moment, it doesn’t try to be the world.

 

 

‘Pretty in Pink’ is similar in concept to ‘Dancing in the Dark’.

The song does away with momentum and world-building entirely.

It chases moments with a somber tone and that’s where the urgency lies.

While ‘Dancing in the Dark’ was about acknowledging darkness and trying to change it, ‘Pretty in Pink’ embraces it.

It uses a darker tone to drive urgency.

It cuts down deeper than ‘Dancing in the Dark’ vocally, while the music remains upbeat.

Bands like The Psychadelic Furs would end up informing an aesthetic that would bloom with groups like Interpol and The National: Pop beats echoing darkness.

 

 

Tiffany‘s rendition of ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ is my favorite pop song.

The song never does anything outside of the immediate moment. It layers and repeats.

It’s both cyclical and unpredictable.

It is desperate and joyful. Bright and Curious.

It has a lot of physicality to it: The drums stick like in ‘Be My Baby’ and Tiffany’s voice expands and soars.

It shares some of the momentum of ‘Dancing in the Dark’ and it shares some of its focus on the remembering of moments.

‘I think We’re Alone Now’ has the honesty of youth and the urgency of milliseconds.

 

Break.

 

A good action game is built like a good pop song.

It is constructed both on and in the moment.

Every moment in an action game needs to express something and make whatever it is seem like the most important thing in that time and place.

Running/jumping in Mario. Shooting in Doom. Locking missiles in Ace Combat. Combos in Street Fighter.

A good action game needs to understand what it is trying to say.

It needs to understand what it is trying to do: Is it trying to build a world like ‘Be My Baby’ or ‘212’? Or is it trying to be small and deep like ‘Dancing in the Dark’ or ‘Pretty in Pink’?

It needs to understand what makes it compelling.

Good pop songs tend to rapidly shift focus in moments without losing sight of the end, without losing sight of their urgency.

When an action game loses its urgency, it becomes slow and plodding.

For instance, when Castlevania made the shift to 3D with Legacy of Darkness in 1999.

The main series has stagnated since.

 

 

God Hand is considered by many to be a pinnacle of 3D action games.

God Hand is the equivalent of ‘I think We’re Alone Now’: It has a lot of physicality.

It is dense and cyclical, but it allows for a huge amount of intricate creativity.

It also never takes itself too seriously, but never loses sight of the immediate.

To grow in God Hand, the player needs a strange kind of patience, the kind normally reserved for fighting games.

And like ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’, it is a product of its time.

It could’ve only happened when and where it did.

 

 

Metal Slug 7 is a very smooth game.

It is meticulous and aggressive. It has the most-designed difficulty curve of any Metal Slug game.

Its intricacy lies in how the games stunning art feeds into the action.

While that is a staple of any Metal Slug, MS7 is the most holistic of the series.

Its message is pure like ‘Be My Baby’, but it has the clean production of ‘212’.

It requires an extreme amount of focus and the friction of its world is perfect for a 2D action game.

The way the bullets flow out of the heavy machine gun. The little bit of lag when firing the rocket launcher.

These details make the game feel bigger, they give the game more momentum and presence.

Metal Slug 7 succeeds because it achieves a balance between aesthetics and mechanics not many games do today.

 

 

Videoball is what made me care about games in a genuine way again.

While still unreleased, I had the opportunity to play it at PAX East 2014.

With its minimalist style, it’s difficult to understand just how thorough Videoball is.

It has very satisfying friction in terms of both movement and shooting.

Winning your first dogfight in Videoball ranks up there with other action game moments like pulling off your first complicated combo in a fighting game.

Every moment in Videoball will either make you feel elated or exasperated at your own skill.

It is a factory of moments.

Videoball shares the ‘Pretty in Pink’ aesthetic.

It is a small, focused game with bright colors that hide a darker, more aggressive undertone.

Like the pop beats/dark vocals duality, Videoball disguises its seriousness with a light-hearted facade.

 

A good action game is built like a good pop song: Confident. Harmonious. Adaptable. Focused. Urgent.

No creative endeavors stand alone in this world and one of the problems with the world of games is that it is highly insulated.

This current state is to no one’s benefit, least of all to the players.

It’s this strange insulation from other cultural worlds that allows for mobs like ‘GamerGate’ to form.

In order for games to develop and grow, the thick walls of this community need to be torn down.

We need to stop treating games as objects in-and-of-themselves and look at them as cultural products that are a part of a wider culture of expression.

I believe games deserve that much at least.

For all that games have done for us, we have done too little for them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Periphery.

 

 

Near the giant Hawken mech looming over the show floor, sat the Transistor booth.

PAX East 2013 was my first video game convention. It was the first time I traveled out of state with my wife.

She had only been in the country for a month. She was excited to see Boston. She didn’t care about video games.

I like that though.

I like that her world is bigger than this.

I like that she still tries to understand what I mean when I talk about games.

She still reads the things I write here.

She still goes with me to PAX.

PAX East 2013 was when I began to respect indie games.

I had taken issue with independent games in the years prior.

I disliked their constant rehashing of 8 and 16-bit aesthetics. I disliked how, for the most part, they never seemed to take themselves seriously, that everything was a big joke. I disliked their lack of mechanical polish.

I was also down on AAA games. I hated all their bloat and lack of innovation.

But I saw indie games at PAX with promise.

Hawken. Mercenary Kings.

Transistor.

I knew about Supergiant Games. I knew they made Bastion.

I never played Bastion. I knew that it got a lot of credit for doing interesting things with narration.

It’s hard to pin down what made me not want to play it, maybe because it looked like a more involved Braid: Another colorful game about deconstruction.

Standing outside the Hawken booth I stared at the mural:

 

 

I knew in 2013 that this was a game I wanted to play.

A female lead, robots, a giant sword, a city: Neo-noir Cyberpunk Concentrate.

I liked what I saw so much that I didn’t want to play the game before it was released.

I wanted to be surprised.

Even when it showed up again at PAX East 2014, I avoided the Supergiant booth.

Transistor released a few months later in May 2014.

And it surprised me.

And it mixed me up.

 

Sink.

 

Transistor is a celebration of the urban.

It is about the love of the city. It is about the love of the self.

It is about Narcissism.

Cloudbank is a place defined by change: A place that shifts according to the will of the citizenry.

Everything from the weather to new structures are voted on and enacted according to majority opinion.

Cloudbank is the final extension of urban expression.

It has both canonized and limited the will of the deviant: Destruction of property by the majority.

The fundamental conflict in Transistor comes into play when the city’s elites, the Camerata, use ‘The Process‘ to preserve parts of the city, to solidify the city, to slow down the change.

To manipulate The Process, the Camerata utilized the Transistor: A sword-like object which doubled as a tool for issuing commands to The Process and storing data for urban development.

The Camerata lose the Transistor after they try to assassinate Red, Cloudbank’s most influential singer, with the Transistor.

The Camerata were attempting to trap Red inside the Transistor in order to use her persona to influence future development of the city along with the traces of other notable Cloudbank natives.

The assassination attempt goes wrong when a man jumps in the way of the Transistor, taking most of the blow for Red.

The man is then ‘downloaded’ into the Transistor and Red, having been slightly injured by the weapon, loses her voice.

Red takes the Transistor and goes to find answers while the Process is no longer under control, rapidly deconstructing the city.

The man inside the Transistor becomes the narrator throughout the game.

Initially, I enjoyed the stylized narration.

The man’s voice is cool, smooth, flowing, loose.

At some point though, it all flipped. The stylization began to sound like a parody of itself.

The voice begins to annoy.

The man inside the Transistor talks too much.

The game would have benefited from tighter narration.

The seriousness and integrity of the voice would not have become the joke it ends up being.

By far the worst of this occurs when Red begins to encounter the Spine, a massive Process enemy, which affects the voice of the Transistor.

His voice becomes slurred, slow, stuttering.

This would not have been so terrible, but the narrator refuses to stop talking.

It becomes difficult to listen to and was grating enough that I almost wanted to shut off the game.

The gameplay suffers from the same problem.

Transistor’s combat is highly tactical.

In battles, the player can initiate a tactical mode which freezes the enemies. The player can then set a sequence of actions. Actions are limited by a bar at the top of the screen.

The actions are then initiated after the player confirms.

During fights, the player has access to four active abilities, which can be further enhanced by up to two passive abilities each.

Initially, the combat is satisfying.

It’s all about angles and positioning.

It is a game of pool taking place at some dark bar in Parasie Eve‘s New York.

But as the game progresses, as the player becomes more involved in the plot, the combat and the narration become the least interesting parts of the game.

 

Swan.

 

At this point, at the point where the narration becomes a parody and the combat becomes a slog, the real beauty of the passive elements bursts out.

Cloudbank itself is stunning.

The intricacy and level of detail is inspiring.

The entire game is rendered in cyber Art Nouveau:

 

 

Supergiant did an excellent job in making Cloudbank a place the player wants to be.

It is dripping with character.

It feels lived-in.

Near the end, as The Process deconstructs the city, there is a sense of mourning, of loss for this place.

Spending a few hours in Cloudbank, one cannot help but become attached to its expansive, colorful vistas.

Its urban density.

Its thick flourishing.

The look of the city, the art of the game, is further enhanced by the music.

Transistor’s music is full of mourning as well.

It breaks the fourth-wall.

All the music in the game is sung by Red.

The player is being exposed to the same sounds, the same music that garnered Red such a massive following in Cloudbank.

The use of Red’s music forces the player to confront the loss of her voice.

Her music is also a celebration of the city, an epitaph in the face of its loss.

The player relates to it, having become attached to the place.

The way the art and the music work together seamlessly, the way they include the player, is not something that has been done before.

Transistor is at its best when it’s not trying to be a game.

Transistor is at its best when it’s just trying to tell a story.

What Supergiant does well is find new ways to express narratives. They should focus more on that.

Afterall, it was the promise of the art of Transistor that made me pay attention to it:

 

The gaze of a determined woman in a dying, neon-drenched city.

 

 

 

 

 

Sacred Geometry

 

Pythagoras.

 

Prior to PAX East 2014, I had not heard of Midnight City. I bought both Gone Home and Double Dragon Neon and I had never noticed Midnight City before.

Prior to PAX East 2014, I only heard discussion about Videoball on the Insert Credit Podcast. Tim Rogers (Creative Director of Action Button Entertainment and founder of ActionButton.net) would describe and discuss this game as he was building it. I never saw it.

I never watched the Twitch streams of Videoball either, it was a game I already knew I wanted to play, I didn’t need any convincing.

Action Button’s track record with games thus far has been inspiring. ZiGGURAt (iOS): A fantastic game that subverts tower-defense by forcing accuracy and timing with smooth touchscreen controls. TNNS (iOS): A fast-paced, colorful, arcade exploration of physics. Ten by Eight (Vita): A puzzle/matching game that is silkier and more filling than any of the Bejeweled games.

Each one of these games was published by Action Button themselves across the different platforms. I expected the same would be true for Videoball, until I saw Midnight City.

I had no idea what to expect from PAX this year.

In 2013, PAX was host to a barrage of huge games: Tomb Raider, Hitman, Hawken, Elder Scrolls Online, Hearthstone, Assassin’s Creed IV, Remember Me, Watch Dogs, a whole bunch of Capcom reboots, etc.

I had no idea what PAX 2014 would offer. I walked into it with no expectations and was filled with a kind of excited emptiness.

As I stepped into the convention center in Boston, I noticed Bethesda’s booth showing the same trailer for Elder Scrolls Online as they did the year before. I caught a bit of their Wolfenstein trailer, and I managed to feel actual excitement for The Evil Within.

Further in, I caught a glimpse of the massive boss statue from Evolve. I had heard good things about that game, but as with nearly all games at PAX, I had no interest in trying it. I simply moved past the crowd idling, snapping photos.

I wandered around the booths for a while, wondered what was the point of both Borderlands and their particular booth (It was a dome painted like a planet). That game is pretty, but mechanically dull.

At this point I had begun feeling as if this trip was useless. What was I doing in a place where I wasn’t really excited for anything being shown? What was the point of the whole thing?

In 2013, the indie games section of PAX was nothing really exciting or notable. The only game then that caught my eye was Mercenary Kings with its Metal Slug aesthetic and 2-D open world gameplay. I kept it in mind.

In 2014, with nothing else to do, I took a stab again at the indie games section where I finally caught the Midnight City booth.

 

Quine.

 

As I approached Midnight City, the first game that popped out was Krautscape (PC): A procedurally-generated racing game where you can cut through the winding, elevated track by flying from one turn to another provided you hit all required checkpoints. The game was attractive, covered in red with a touch of blue and bold, fuzzy lines that insinuated movement.

Krautscape was being played on two giant screens near the walkway by the booth, which made it nearly impossible to miss.

Even though I had little idea what Midnight City was, I already began to feel that I had stumbled into something significant and serious. It was only when I turned around to check out the other games that I found myself stunned to find Videoball.

I had heard Tim Rogers talking on the Insert Credit Podcast about attending PAX Prime and having mixed feelings about it due to the founders of Penny Arcade having dealt with certain controversies controversially. I got the sense that he probably would not be interested in supporting this event again so it was genuinely surprising to see both Tim Rogers and Videoball in this venue.

For the first time since arriving at PAX, I felt like I was somewhere I belonged.

I had never actually seen Tim Rogers in person before, I had only read his writing and listened to his voice. He was dressed as an extension of Videoball: Neon green and hues of purple. Taking that all in, it was time to finally see what this game was about.

Tim explained the rules quickly and with excitement as games went on:

1) Each team is two players and there are two goals.

2) The ball spawns in the middle of the field.

3) Move the ball by shooting it.

4) Don’t touch the ball. Don’t get shot. You will freeze.

5) Use the left analog stick to move, all the face buttons do the same thing: shoot.

6) Holding the face buttons for varying amounts of time changes your ‘shot’.

7) Level 1 Shot: Small shot.  Level 2 Shot: Persistent Shot.  Level 3 Shot: Heavy Shot.  Level 4 Shot: Blocks.

8) Use blocks to stop balls from being shot into your goal.

9) Double Touchdowns are amazing.

10) Moving and shooting makes your shot faster.

11) There are reversals.

First, I watched others play the game. Videoball is a shower of neon pastel and geometric shapes. The balls are circles, the ships (players) are triangles, the blocks are squares, and the shots are even bigger triangles:

 

 

Screenshot of Videoball from Midnight-City.com

Screenshot of Videoball from Midnight-City.com

 

Normally, I do not enjoy games with abstract or minimal interfaces. I enjoy games that have a fluidity of motion and dense color which is one reason I tend to migrate towards older platformers and fighting games like Hokuto no Ken, Cyberbots, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, and Guilty Gear.

What all those games have in common as well, what really sucks me in, is the densities of their friction. The hits feel heavy, the characters feel fast, and everything seems to stick. There is no ‘floatiness’ or ‘wobbliness’, just a hard kind of density. Videoball has that density.

The ships don’t just zip around on the screen effortlessly. The ships feel like lead bricks propelled by small boat engines skittering around on a cold, still lake. It takes some time to build momentum and it takes some time to lose it, but you never feel out of control. There is a friction that you understand implicitly after the first time you play. It feeds into a part of your brain that understands the golden ratio of motion.

Because of the thrill of moving in the game, the most frustrating thing that can happen to a player is being  frozen by either getting shot or by touching the ball. Shots from either your team or the opposing team will freeze your ship for a few seconds.

In Videoball the greatest punishment is the inability to move.

Movement in Videoball is the highest insight.

 

Downs.

 

Most of my time at PAX I spent hanging out at the Videoball booth. It wasn’t until late into the second day of PAX that I realized Midnight City was incentivizing people to try out all of their games by issuing trading cards. If a person was to collect all five cards representing all five games being shown at PAX, then they would receive a Midnight City t-shirt.

All of the Midnight City games (Krautscape, Videoball, Organic Panic, High Strangeness, and Super Avalanche) were really interesting. Each of their games proposed something different both from each other and to their respective genres.

But Videoball had the strongest hook that kept drawing me back: The opportunity to expand in a competitive environment.

In this sense Videoball is a modern fighting game. You can only ever have a general idea of what your opponent will do and the flowchart you design in your mind will only be applicable if you can recognize what your opponent is doing before he gets too far along his flowchart.

In the sense of its friction, Videoball is a grimy, sticky arcade fighting game from the 90’s: Heavy and Dense.

The metagame revolves around how good a player is at shooting other players and not shooting your teammate. ‘Dogfighting’ in this game requires an incredible amount of finesse and patience as shots are slow to build. Shots are the currency of this game.

The friction of the game resembles hockey, the shooting resembles sniping, and the strategic nature and metagame revolve around the same kind of decisions a player makes in a fighting game. Videoball forces a sense of persistent motion that  most resembles soccer.

Videoball takes the best high-level thinking across multiple real and e-sports and throws them together into one coherent, elegant whole.

 

Wittgenstein.

 

Tim Rogers and his friend/cohort Vito Gesualdi hustled hard for this game. Tim decked out in his neon embodiment of Videoball and Vito in his mustard yellow sports (announcer) coat pushed this game harder than any other game/company at PAX. Their passion and fury was all on display.

By Sunday, Tim’s voice was faltering. He spent nearly the entire time at PAX just discussing/yelling/informing about his game.

The presentation of Videoball is part of what made it so intriguing.

One thing I noticed at this year’s PAX were the ‘pre-order’ booths. Literally booths where they would ask you to pre-order whatever triple-A game was being touted at that particular location. This struck me as slightly underhanded and manipulative: to ask people for money in an environment where they have been primed to spend money by the giant displays of flash. I don’t recall this tactic being used at PAX 2013.

The Videoball booth (and by extension the Midnight City booth) felt honest. Not only were the games exploring their respective genres in new ways, but they were honest games. The whole presentation of Midnight City was concise, clean, and enthusiastic.

Midnight City made me care about being at PAX. Videoball pulled me out of my bored thinking about games. Videoball made me want to talk about games and design again with anyone who would listen.

So many of the subtle elements in Videoball are a product of thorough analysis and a fricative coherence both strategically and aesthetically.

I actually enjoyed my time more at PAX this year than last year. So much more, that I felt a little sad at having to say good-bye to Tim, Videoball, and Midnight City on Sunday afternoon.

The power of games lies in the interaction of experience. How a person views a game in a particular time has a lot to do with what they are feeling at that time vs. what the game will give them, it’s a two-way street.

I’m not sure what holes in my mind both Videoball and Midnight City filled for me. Maybe they managed to stave off the increasing cynicism I have about modern games i.e. the sheer lack of design and thought in games today.

I came to PAX 2014 expecting nothing. I came out of it with a desire to do so much more for games.

I came out of it with hope and a desire to do something great for games, for a medium that has so much potential.

Actionbutton and Videoball are a raw expression of that potential and Midnight City, the facilitators.

Frank Lloyd Wright was convinced that excellent architectural design could solve a majority of societies problems.

I would say that good game design can solve a lot of problems that don’t need to exist in interactive entertainment, Videoball is the best proof of this…and the loudest shot against an industry that has become bloated, dumb, and self-referential to the point of total inanity.