Leaving the lights on in Gone Home (spoilers)

I finally got around to playing through Gone Home, and I was pretty impressed. There’s a lot to dissect as far as its relationships, environmental storytelling, and the like, but I though I’d take a blog post to talk about its mood. That is, it’s the scariest non-horror game I’ve played, and that gives the narrative extra emotional punch.

Everything about Gone Home seems engineered to fill you with a sense of dread—the lightning and thunder, the constant darkened rooms, the abandoned and unfamiliar house, the hints of a ghost story. Not knowing what to expect, I never knew just how intense this might get. It seemed to be telling a much more personal story about Sam, but I was also ready for it to pull the rug out from me at any moment.

This unnerving slow boil is important. I think Fullbright wanted you to be a little on-edge by the time you reach the finale, when you find some of Sam’s final messages. When she talked about just waiting in the attic upstairs, the quiet in the house became that much more potent, and I wondered if she had done something rash. If it hadn’t built up that sense of unease, if the tone didn’t have an edge of tension, I wouldn’t have felt that sense of concern, which is what leads to the relief when you realize what really happened. I wondered what the tension was meant to accomplish, but it really paid off by subverting my expectations. I’m still processing it on the whole, but that element certainly stood out.

Broke Bad (spoilers, obviously)

The Breaking Bad finale was last night. It was as well-shot, well-acted, and satisfying as I’ve come to expect. I’m going to miss it, along with the excellent critiques at the AV Club that always shed some new light on it, and the official podcast that got deep into the characters’ skins with word from the actors and writers.

If I were to criticize it for anything, and this is barely a criticism, it’s that the plot didn’t really surprise me. I say that’s barely a criticism because I don’t know if surprises were or even should have been a priority at this point. We all knew what the “Mr. Chips to Scarface” premise entails, so we knew the broad strokes at play here.

A few things did surprise me about the execution. He (seemingly) found a way to get the money to his family. The slow pan to reveal that Walter was there the entire time Skylar was on the phone with Marie was chilling. His jerry-rigged automatic gun was a very Breaking Bad spin on the “say hello to my little friend” moment. The most satisfying for me was that he admitted, to Skylar, the audience, and himself, that he wasn’t doing this for some noble goal. He liked it, and it made him feel alive. I suppose at a certain point the show felt it had to spell it out, for the benefit of people who went to the very end claiming he was doing the wrong things for the right reasons.

But all that said, the story happenings themselves didn’t surprise me. I’d prefer a well-executed but somewhat predictable ending to some tacked-on twist. Walt, in the last shot, looks at the camera and says, “I never had cancer.” No thanks. But can you even imagine?

Lessons from PitchJam (Or: “What the Heck is a PitchJam?”)

As you may have seen me tweeting, I took part in PitchJam this weekend. Similar to a GameJam, this was targeted specifically at giving advice to aspiring video game freelancers. They would send a pitch, it would get forwarded to some randomly selected panel volunteers, and we would give feedback on how to polish it up for submission. We also had a few chats scattered around where writers could talk to us directly. It was a really great exercise for me, both for thinking critically about pitches and putting that feedback to work in a practical way. The Good Games Writing blog has already said it wants to do another, and I’d like to do it again.

None of the pitches I received were outright bad, but everything can use a little improvement. So in the spirit of the event, I thought I’d summarize some of the common bits of advice I found myself needing to tell more than one writer.

Consider where you pitch. This is basic, but it’s an absolute must. When formulating your pitch you need to think through the audience that will be reading it. That will influence how you shape your idea, what kind of pitches you send to which outlets, and how much detail you share. Since word count is at a premium (more on that later), you might not need to go into painstaking detail about a niche game or genre if you’re pitching to a site that specializes in that game or genre. Always consider the audience.

Grab their attention quickly. Editors tend to knock out pitches in a row, and they get flooded with them. Grabbing their attention quickly is important. Your opening line especially, and your opening paragraph in a more general sense, are there to paint a picture. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but I like the three-paragraph structure: punchy opening, detailed proposal, closing comments.  But on that note…

Watch the size. This question actually came up at one of our chats, and while the answers differed, we generally agreed that 300 words is around the sweet spot. You don’t want to go too far above that. As I said, editors are busy. And besides that, if your finished piece will be 1,000-1,200 words, you don’t want to write out half the length just to explain it. I’m pretty sure it was the excellent writer Rob Rath who pointed out in the chat that if you’re going on that long, it probably means your scope is too large. Split it into two or more pitches.

Give it credibility. If you’re an expert on the subject you’re writing about, explain why. If you’re not, don’t be afraid to say that you’ll be reaching out to experts. You don’t necessarily need the interviews already lined-up, but having them helps. If you don’t, make sure you don’t over-promise. Simply saying you want to talk to someone who knows about science is more realistic than promising you’ll score an interview with Stephen Hawking. If you need to find an interview subject, I recommend colleges and universities. Professors tend to be very friendly, and love the opportunity to just talk about their passion for an hour.

Tell YOUR story. Sometimes, the most interesting thing you can talk about is yourself. If your own life has given you some interesting insights or anecdotes, think about whether you feel comfortable sharing them. If you do, it will make the piece that much more of an interesting read. People like to read about other people.

Close like a cover letter. Always, always, always say thank you for their time. No matter how casual the site, no matter how well you know the editor. Imagine you’re trying to score a job interview, because you kind of are.

Back to Bloggin’

This thing has gone silent for a good long while, but I recently decided to update with a bit more regularity. I don’t think I’m going to do daily updates with the news, since that made it feel more like a chore and I always felt like I was letting down some imaginary audience when I was too busy for an entry. But, I do plan on updating with thoughts about the conversations of the day, at least inasmuch as I can.

For a perfect example, see Grand Theft Auto 5. I’m reserving public judgment on it because I’m reviewing it. We’ll be saving our Shacknews review for after GTA Online comes out, so I don’t have to rush through and we can just review it all as one complete package. As a result, I’m keeping myself from chiming in too much on the discussion about misogyny.

I will say, though, that “it’s satire” isn’t a very good defense against charges of misogyny. If you’re going to excuse the game portraying Very Bad Things as satire, you should argue about why it’s smart and effective satire. I think that answer is a little too easy to shrug off criticisms, and if it’s truly excusable as satire, we should expect to hear some cogent thoughts on how successful it is at accomplishing its satirical goals.

(I don’t have much of an opinion on it one way or the other yet, but depending on how strongly I react to the story, positively or negatively, I expect I’ll touch on this in some way in my review.)

You probably also noticed that the blog looks different. I got a bit sick of the old one, especially due to its emphasis on pictures. This job doesn’t really involve visual media, at least not of work I’ve done myself, so it felt weird simply putting up pictures of media I respect and admire. This one puts the emphasis on text and text alone.

Finally, my Twitter and LinkedIn profile both list me as “East Coast Editor” for Shacknews now. I have a title! Exciting times.

Joker (re)turns terrifying

It’s been a while since I’ve done a New Comic Wednesday post, but it’s been a while since a week has really deserved one.

I’ve been keeping up with a few of the Batman series since the reboot, but I’ve fallen off some of them here and there. The main book stayed strong and I liked the Court of Owls arc, but Batman & Robin lagged a bit, and I dropped off the others pretty quickly. This week they made good on a plot thread inserted in the very first issue of The Dark Knight — the Joker and his missing face. To be honest, I hated that story beat, but this latest issue made it work.

Joker is a hard character to write well. It’s tough to balance the dark humor and sadism — he’s more the latter than the former, I think. And it’s easy to miss that he’s meant to be almost as brilliant as Batman, just in a completely chaotic way. This issue nailed those elements. He actually has an interesting motivation, but he’s acting more unhinged than usual — to the point that even Harley pulled away. That alone was a really striking way of showing just how wrong all of this was going. This arc is looking interesting, and I’ll be looking forward to more. But I’m still likely to stay away from most of the other Bat-books.

Avenging Spider-Man was actually pretty hilarious; the Deadpool jokes were hit or miss, but the hits were funny enough to make the difference. And Uncanny Avengers was a good start to a series, but the ending went into pure Silver Age silly territory. I’m curious to see where they go with that, if the book will turn silly or continue trying to mix the two.

  • Speak of the devil.
  • One of these days I’ll hook up my OnLive mini-console again. I actually still have games I never finished on that thing.

Death of a Corporate Mascot

The news about the “Kevin Butler” character has been pretty wild the last couple of days. I’ve been careful not to couch my stories in too much legal language, since I’m no expert and don’t want to give that impression. But speaking in layman’s terms, I can see where both of them are coming from.

From Lambert’s perspective, he’s probably playing a variation on himself. The bulk of the resemblance seems to be his physical appearance, even if one or two of his speaking roles as a Bridgestone engineer has touched on that kind of bravado. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if the ad writers put him that role because they knew he was good at it. If that kind of character is just how he is when in “goofy” roles, I don’t see how Sony can lay claim on it.

Sony saw their former mascot in an ad with a Wii and was understandably bristled. I tend to think if he had just remained in Bridgestone ads they would have left well enough alone, so he probably should have known better than to appear in the Wii ad. Not because it was necessarily untoward, but just to be on the safe side.

Whatever the outcome, this is a heck of a way for such a successful ad campaign to end. From a marketing perspective, Kevin Butler was one of the most successful branding campaigns we’ve seen in years, so it would have been nice if it had ended a bit more amicably. Or ended at all, really, I didn’t even realize the character was done with until this news started coming out.

I’ve been a bit busy for updating this thing as of late, between a busy release season and moving into a new house. We’re moved in now, but the busy season presses on, so I can’t promise more frequent updates. I can say I’ll make the attempt, but responsibilities come first.

I reviewed XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and it’s probably somewhere in my top 5 games of the year now. Other contenders so far, in no particular order, are Journey and The Walking Dead.


Assassin’s Creed explosion

I was away a bit last week, and today the coverage I was working on finally started to materialize. I was in Boston for an Assassin’s Creed preview event, and it (unsurprisingly) reinforced my anticipation for the game. I was most surprised at how well Liberation held up, though, since Bloodlines soured me to the whole concept. But a few reservations aside, it was pretty impressive. I would share more thoughts, but I’d run the risk of being redundant with my previews. They’re pretty extensive.

More coverage coming tomorrow, in the form of one interview, possibly two.

Whew. And in news:

  • I’m kind of curious what Borderlands 2’s other content will be. The first game just had the major packs, if I recall, so it sounds like for B2 they’re aiming for a few big packs and then some smaller content. But what do you add to this in the smaller-scope territory? It can’t be more guns.
  • A little taste of the interview coming tomorrow.
  • Buy this. It’s on my short-list for GOTY. Seriously.


I’ve been away for a bit for an event, the fruits of which will be available in the near-ish future, but while I was away my review went up for Borderlands 2. I played as a Siren, but I’m considering restarting as a Gunzerker. The Badass Points system means I’ll at least get a little boost when I start as a new character.

I felt like the Siren got a little nerfed, but maybe that’s because any character could be made into a wrecking machine in the first game if you played your cards right. The bright side of de-powering her means that I actually had a hard time choosing who to play as. My previous experience with the Siren was the only thing that really tipped me over. So maybe, if I have enough time to waste replaying the game four times, I’ll give a shot to each of the classes.

It would be nice if I could import my ridiculous ass-kicking Siren from the first game, maybe as some kind of unlockable bonus after finishing it properly. I can always hope for DLC at least. Speaking of which, I actually might try out a game as the Mechromancer too. This must be what people sound like when they talk about playing Diablo 2 over and over again.

  • This seems ambitious as hell.
  • Hey, maybe Nintendo will–nope, still looks dumb.
  • I have to think that the Collector’s Edition gets a distinct advantage for Company of Heroes 2, considering so much of the game looks to take place in snowy landscapes and you get vehicle skins called “Whitewash” and “Winter Cobblestone.”

“Writing Samples” now available

One of the nice things about going to events like PAX is meeting up with fellow freelancers and swapping ideas. This time some compadres suggested the (in hindsight, extremely obvious) notion of compiling a Writing Samples section on my blog. This should make it easier to show editors my work, and to have a running tally of some of my favorite pieces.

The new Writing Samples section isn’t anywhere near comprehensive, but I tried to pick my best and brightest. Plus I’ve included a handy link along the top menu, so you can always click there to keep up with pieces in case you miss them in a blog post or tweet. I’ll be adding new samples as I write the ones that are worth being put in the pantheon.


PAXing up the Night Notes

Between post-PAX coverage and some other various content I’m working on, it’s hitting another busy season for me.

That means I’m not doing a full comic review this week, but I will say that Bryan Bartholomew Reginald Carr was right to recommend the Hawkeye mini-series. Really snappy dialogue with some great panel design to boot. I only read the second issue, but I’ll have to track down the first sometime when it’s a slow week.

So now, onto the features, and I do mean features. Four in all, alongside my regular crop of articles. More PAX stuff coming tomorrow, and for the rest of the week. Maybe a bit into next week too, actually. I was pretty much running from meeting to meeting all weekend.

  • I visited the Monolith studio offices just before PAX for a hands-on preview and interview about Guardians of Middle-Earth.
  • I also got a chance to chat with one of the Walking Dead writers.
  • And I got hands-on with Harold, which is just so damn gorgeous the videos don’t do it justice.
  • I recently downloaded Shadow of the Colossus, so maybe I’ll have to get the Remote Play working and play it on my Vita.
  • Hey PC players, you’re allowed to stop hating Ubisoft now.
  • I’m trying to remain hopeful for Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, mostly because I’ll almost certainly be the one reviewing it. But man, that presentation at the event on Friday night at PAX was underwhelming, and I wasn’t even expecting to be all that whelmed in the first place. Plus I don’t think Square hoped for that much quiet giggling.