Archive for June, 2010

The Crowd Goes Wild

MK’s family visited this week, and her brother and I spent the Thursday together while MK went shopping with her mom. Since he was curious about the copy of Heavy Rain sitting on my bookshelf, and I’ve been kind of anxious to get to it myself, I figured we could crack it open together. Lange had his doubts, since he kind of envisioned that being a solo game, but we gave it a shot.

We got off to a rough start, as we both indulged in the kind of stupid shit that guys get up to when they play videogames together. We spent about 15 minutes screwing around with Ethan Mars in the prologue, making him slooooooowly open doors, but fail at the last second and reset the movement. We had him oscillating in a crouching position, halfway to standing, while he hovered over a note his wife had left him. When he and his kids had a mock swordfight, Lange delighted in beating the crap out of the birthday boy. When Ethan’s son Jason went missing at the mall, I chased him through the crowd calling his name every second for the next two minutes. “Jason! Jason! JAY-SON! Jason! Jason!”

But once the opening titles were finished, and the weather outside my apartment started to look a lot like the world of Heavy Rain, the laughter trailed off. The game ratcheted up the tension and we found what an amazing game this can be to play with other people.

In the first sequence after the prologue, as a now-divorced Ethan struggles to forge a connection during another disappointing visit with his son Shaun, Lange turned to me and said, “God, this is starting to really hit home for me.” Lange’s parents split a few years ago and there was a time he felt pretty estranged from his father. The dreary apartment, with nothing of a home about it and cardboard boxes stacked in every corner, was oppressively real for both of us. Shaun sat on the couch, ignoring our efforts to converse. Ethan shuffled aimlessly around, constantly checking the schedule on chalkboard in the kitchen, the only way to maintain some structure in his life.

I enjoyed watching it and I enjoyed playing it in equal measure. When MK came home early about halfway through the game, she became just as absorbed in what we were doing. There were so many tense, gripping sequences that nobody could get bored. I could scarcely breathe when I was negotiating with a kid trying to hold up a convenience store, frantically trying to figure out what I could say to prevent him from shooting me or the clerk. I froze when my FBI agent was in a standoff with a religious fanatic holding a gun on my partner, and couldn’t see anything but the huge “R1″ prompt hovering next to my pistol. The other, less-violent options were faint and wobbly. I ran out of time to talk, and took the shot. The adrenaline crash was followed by the realization that I’d completely failed, and my idiot partner had forced me to kill an innocent man.

MK and I were jerking with every motion of the car as Lange piloted it down the oncoming lane of a highway through the driving rain, and we were screaming at him to get out of the car as it burned around him. When he gunned down a slew of bodyguards in an orgy of vengeance, we were cheering. We were almost sick as he took Ethan through a nest of electrified wires.

I’ll have more to say later, and I haven’t completely sorted out my thoughts. But I know I loved it. I don’t worship at the altar of Gameplay, I don’t believe that there is some kind of Platonic “gameness” to which all games much aspire. I play games for great moments. It doesn’t matter if I control the action in a certain way, or if the entire experience even makes sense. Heavy Rain kept me engaged in a way that very few games ever have, and I treasure the experience I shared with MK and Lange as we went on the voyage together. We laughed at the ridiculous stuff, but we never stopped caring, and never stopped hoping.


This entry could easily be 5000 words long, a blow-by-blow account of the glories of Rabbitcon. You cannot share a house for four days with such excellent and interesting people, doing nothing but talking and playing games, without walking away with some stories. But I’ll restrain myself for now, and just share some of the highlights.

Rabbitcon is one of those things that I always wished I could attend, but never really expected I would. I first heard about it on the Gamers with Jobs Conference Call, back before I really knew anything about the guys behind it. Once or twice a year, Julian “Rabbit” Murdoch has an army of friends over to his house on a long weekend, and they all spend that weekend playing board games and catching up. It sounded like the greatest slumber party ever.

But then I moved to Cambridge, started doing the Three Moves Ahead podcast with Troy and the gang, and eventually met Julian. Not too long after he and I started recording podcasts together, MK asked if I thought he might ever invite us to Rabbitcon. It was mostly as a joke, but we both thought it sounded like a great time if you could get on the list.

That did not seem likely, however, because the things Julian chooses to keep private, he keeps very private. I mean, the very first time we talked I sensed him clamming up the moment the conversation drifted toward personal information. Since we’re both New England residents, I asked him whereabouts he lived and he responded like a man pulling up the drawbridge and posting sentries on the castle walls.

“I live in the… west-errrn part,” he told me, which is to say he lives somewhere west of the Atlantic. For all that we’d chatted via Twitter, and knew one another’s work, I was still a stranger from the internet. As someone who lives on the internet, I can understand it. So much of your life becomes publicly available that the few things you hold back to maintain your privacy and sense of security become absolute no-fly zones.

To my delighted surprise, Julian was nice enough to invite MK and me to the Memorial Day Rabbitcon, and that’s where I was for Memorial Day weekend. We got to his place in the early afternoon and, after a whirlwind tour of his house, were immediately pulled into a game of Shadows over Camelot with Lara Crigger, her husband George, Allen “Pyroman” Cook, and Mike “McChuck” Bretzlaff. This became my primary game group for the remainder of the weekend.

So here is a smattering of stand-out Rabbitcon moments from 4 days somewhere in rural New England.

Who Knew It Was a Role-Playing Game?

I’m on bass, Sean Sands is drums, and McChuck is McCartney in Beatles Rock Band for “Oh, Darling”. McChuck starts strong and we’re powering through the song, but McChuck is lost in the moment as we hit the refrain again and again. By the third time he’s screaming, his voice at the breaking point and the mic is completely overwhelmed as he hammers, “OOOOOOOO-OOOOOOOH DAAAARLING! PLEASE FOR-GIVE ME!”

People start coming in from the rest of the house to find out what the fuck is going on. McChuck’s face is locked in a rictus of rock, and Sean, who has been giggling since the first verse, completely loses it. He dissolves in gales of laughter, curled over the drums like a seasick sailor pitching over the gunwales. This starts the rout. The laughter is contagious and my bass line starts to get shaky. McChuck plunges onward, no drums, no bass, and inaudible guitar. “-VER MEANT YOU NO HARM.”

Beatles: Rock Band pulls the plug on us, saving McChuck’s life and allowing Sean to breathe again.

Steve Holt!

The game is Last Night on Earth, perhaps the coolest board game at this party. The way George describes it, you’re all characters in a bad zombie flick. In the background, a soundtrack that ships with the game casts a gloomy yet chintzy pall over the proceedings. One each of the lavishly illustrated cards is a dramatic scene from the movie in which you are trapped: the Sheriff and the headstrong son getting into a shouting match while other survivors look on in nervous fear, or the sexy farmer’s daughter weeping into her tied-off plaid shirt.

Right now MK is playing Sam, the ex-Marine turned small-town diner cook. George is playing the zombies / film director, and played an affliction card on MK that makes Sam feel overconfident. The effect is that Sam cannot run from the zombies anymore. As the text on the card says, “Leave this to me!”

Our group of survivors has gotten involved in a melee in a barn while looking for some gasoline. My character, the town priest, is overwhelmed by zombies so I play the, “Let’s go, TJ!” card, in which I just stumble across a convenient and friendly horse named TJ that can whisk me away from the slaughter. I fend off a couple zombies and then make a break into the gloaming on the back of a white steed.

Then the lights go out on the rest of the survivors. Amanda the Prom Queen uses her flashlight to escape while Sam stays behind to fight a ridiculous number of zombies. He’s tough as nails, but the odds are against him. Someone finally turns over a card that lifts the “Overconfidence” condition. The gravity of his situation abruptly dawns on Sam and he begins trying to bull through the crowded darkness of the barn. He’ll never make it.

Then McChuck plays, “Hey, guys, what’s going on?” In which T-Bone (or some such name) the linebacker stumbles into the battle and rescues you. The card is magnificent. A corn-fed American boy with pudgy cheeks and thick, heavy features wearing a royal blue letterman’s jacket smiles up at the player, totally unfazed by the walking dead.

McChuck says, “Man, he’s just like that one guy in Arrested Development. What was his name? He always said, um, oh, yeah, ‘Steve Holt!” And we thrust our arms into the air in celebration as Sam escapes the barn.

“I’m really hurt that you guys all think I’m a Cylon.”

We’re playing the Battlestar Galactica board game, and a combination of probability and logic dictate that Cory Banks / Starbuck is a fracking Cylon. Allen, our resident Cylon, has just given Cory two loyalty cards. Since a single Cylon card makes you a Cylon, and Cory has four cards in his hand, the odds of him still being on Team Human are vanishingly small. To top it off, he contributed two cards to a skill check, and we only had two unaccounted-for bad cards in that check. He’s a Cylon.

But now it all gets screwed up. Lara Crigger / Boomer can check someone’s loyalty card. I only have one unknown card, so she wants to eliminate the possibility that I’m a Cylon. I think this is plainly a waste of a special power, because there is simply no way that I’ve been a Cylon agent. Lara and I turn on each other immediately. Why does she want to waste her check on me? Why doesn’t she check someone else, like Cory?

Cory starts whining. There is really no other word for it. “Why don’t you guys trust me? I’ve been helping out so much this entire game and now it’s like you’ve all turned on me.”

Lara won’t check his cards. “I can check one card, he has four. It’s a wasted check. It probably won’t tell us anything about whether or not he’s a Cylon. With you, I can be absolutely certain.”

“We’re already absolutely certain. This is a blown check.”

McChuck has lapsed into angrily disinterested silence at the head of the table. He’s reading his cards and looking at rules.

Cory looks like we’ve just told him he’s adopted, or that Fluffy ran away. “This sucks. Can I just show you my cards? Will that make you guys trust me again?”

“You can’t show us your cards.”

“But I’m not a Cylon!”

“The hell with this.” Lara stands up, marches over to the crowded bar, and grabs a bottle of Corazon. She yanks out the stopper, flips it on the table, and takes an epic pull of tequila. This game has officially jumped the shark.

“Allen, you fucked up my life,” Cory snarls at Allen, who is watching us meltdown with a smile of suprise and delight. He cover his mouth as he is overcome by a fit of cheerful giggles. The Cylon is the only person still having fun.

Lara finally checks my card. She reads it, turns to the table, and says, “He’s not a Cylon.”

“Gasp,” I say.

The check is passed. A turn later we do an emergency jump away from the Cylon fleet. Since Cory is the admiral of the fleet, he chooses our destination. We end up at a dead world, out of fuel. Game over.

Cory flips his cards over. “I was a Cylon. Being Emo-Boy was my only defense.”