Florence and the Death of My Grandfather by Caleb Sawyer

 Florence by Mountains

It’s not without a significant amount of dread that I finally sat down to write this. It has been nearly four full months since my grandfather’s passing and in that time every pursuit of outlet through writing has been stymied by a stifling sort of existential dread and survivor’s syndrome. Though upon typing that I feel it is more accurately summed up by simply saying, for the last three months I have felt like a failure. 

See, I failed to become something before he passed. I have a hard time articulating that emotion eloquently. After all, I am a father and a husband, I have a job, and I do run a little (nearly inconsequential) blog. But see, that wasn’t my plan. I was supposed to have made it. He was supposed to see me, happy, writing game journalism, or voice acting, or making games. For a living. And now he’s dead.

When I sat in the ICU at SLU Hospital, playing a little mobile game was nothing more than a distraction. Mostly for my grandmother, but also a bit for me. My grandfather wasn’t doing well, but the thought of his death in mere days was so far out of my mind it is legitimately hard to tell if I actually didn’t see it coming or if I purposefully looked every other direction. Regardless, I booted up Florence on my iPhone 7 Plus, put one AirPod in, handed the second to my grandmother, handed her the phone, and said, “Play.” Completely unprovoked.

What followed was serene and escapist. We both lost our ability to focus on anything but the music and art of this beautiful experience projecting from the screen of my phone. 

Watching my grandmother, no stranger to games, fiddle around while figuring Florence out was endearing. She was a hardcore Destiny player, both titles, but playing touch-based phone games was clearly new. She giggled as she figured out how to brush Florence’s teeth, as she tapped away at Florence’s social media. 

Video games are a huge part of my family. We threw a viewing party for every major E3 conference this year. Beer, barbecue, dogs, the whole deal. My grandma really started playing in 2012. She had conquered Portal 2, a feat she was immensely proud of, and in searching for a good game to follow that up my uncle, Benjamin, sat her in front of the Xbox and queued up Mass Effect. She was a convert overnight. 

 Bioware's Mass Effect 2 (2010)

Bioware's Mass Effect 2 (2010)

Since that time, my grandma has built an impressive resume of completed games. She beat the entire Mass Effect trilogy, Journey, each Half-Life, every Halo, Deus Ex, and put 14 days into the original Destiny. I have always found joy talking about games with my friends, but there is nothing quite like the feeling I get discussing PUBG hit-boxes with my grandma. I brag about it. A lot.

Florence plays like a modern take on an interactive storybook. You help move conversation along by fitting together pieces of a puzzle into a text bubble, you place stickers on childhood paintings. Most importantly, you live the relationship of Florence and Krish as it evolves. You watch it spark. Sputtering at first, as you put together five and six piece text bubble puzzles. You watch it begin to catch fire as the puzzles have two or three pieces. You fall in love as the puzzles become one piece thoughts. 

Florence is a beautiful game that illustrates the complexities of relationships in this winsome, carefree manner. Florence and Krish’s love is contagious. I distinctly remember looking to my left to see my grandma smiling as she placed the pictures of their adventures on a cork board map. It’s an infectious experience. One that carried us along with it, in shades of blue and golden yellow. Stooped over my phone, sharing a pair of AirPods we played, like a parent and child reading a bedtime story after a nightmare.

My grandfather never really got into games. Often times, when the conversation at the dinner table inevitably wandered into chat about Destiny or Mirror’s Edge, he would look at my wife, shrug, and they would start their own conversation. It was like tradition. But we were working on him.

 Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed Unity (2014)

Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed Unity (2014)

Once, while I played Assassin’s Creed Unity, he stopped as he walked past the screen. He recognized the streets. As a boy he lived in Versailles and spent a lot of time in Paris. He sat down next to me, giddy, and pointed me down streets and alleys in search of his boyhood home. That night I sat next to a six-year-old boy in my grandfather’s sixty-year-old body. 

In my family, games run deep.

florence let go.jpeg

Florence isn’t all sunshine and love, unfortunately. The lovers settle into routine, let emotions bottle up, and before you know it the relationship falls apart. There was less joy in putting Krish’s things into boxes to be sent away. There is a moment, in this valley of the game, where Krish and Florence walk side-by-side through the snow. At first they hold pace, but slowly Florence begins to pull forward and Krish begins to fade into the white. The only thing my grandmother, as the player, could do was press on the screen. Florence slows her pace. Krish returns to focus. Each time she lifted her finger Florence would speed up. She kept pressing the screen. “I don’t want to let him go,” she said.

When I was a sophomore in college, in March of 2012, I decided to end my life. I was 20.

I had planned how, when, where. The place my depression had taken my mind obscured all other thoughts. I couldn’t see a reason to carry on. I hated my life, I hated myself, I hated that I was a burden on everyone around me. I remember kissing my girlfriend (now wife) goodbye as she left my room. She had no way of knowing what was happening in my head. I had gotten good at hiding it.

I shut the door, turned out the lights, flipped on Comedy Central, and waited for the right moment. Is there ever a right moment?

Before I found it someone knocked at my door. I could have just sat in the dark. It was late enough that no one would have given my being asleep a second thought, but I got up. It was my best friend Kristopher. He held out a copy of Skyrim, said, “Hey, I’m done with this. I think you’ll like it a lot,” and walked away. 

 Bethesda's Skyrim (2011)

Bethesda's Skyrim (2011)

I played Skyrim until 9 a.m., went for breakfast, came back and played until he came by to get me for dinner. I put 97 hours into Skyrim over the next two weeks. I forgot to kill myself.

In my family, games run deep.

Florence’s world, during and immediately following Krish’s departure, gray-scales. All of the vibrant color washes out almost immediately. Then she stumbles across a set of paints that Krish bought her. She sits and stares at the set for a moment and begins to start painting.

The paint brings color back into her life and slowly but surely she finds happiness in her art. 

Nine days after my grandmother and I played Florence my grandfather died, his family gathered at his bedside, a bitter mix of disbelief and unfathomable pain. I remember my grandmother petting his head, “Fly away Timmy,’ she cried, “Fly away.” Images from those few moments fly through the View-Master in my head. They are raw and violent and painful. I think they always will be.

 A painting of my grandfather Tim Sawyer, by my grandmother Christy.

A painting of my grandfather Tim Sawyer, by my grandmother Christy.

There is no way to explain the parallels Florence has had to my grandmother’s life. I spent the next ten days at her side, doing everything in my diminished strength to keep it together. To be there. To distract her. 

They were married for 48 years. You don’t just “distract” someone from that. 

But as we sat in (t)he(i)r house, now half-a-human-presence quieter, I looked at the art that covers her walls. All but three pieces are her own. I was immediately struck by the image of Florence finding her paints. Before I could say anything about my revelation my grandma quietly said, “I don’t want to let him go.”

It’s common for humans to draw comparisons to things that are far less similar than we realize. Florence’s story is not my grandmother’s story one-for-one, but large pieces are there. My grandparents loved each other. They traveled. They were happy. They argued. Things got rough. She loved his art so much that she didn’t pursue her own. He built her an art studio so she would. He’s gone now. 

She doesn’t want to let go. Someday she will have to pack his things into boxes. 

But now she has her art. Art that will someday help her move forward. Perhaps not move on, but certainly forward. Away from the gray.

 Tim Sawyer

Tim Sawyer

When we finished playing Florence my grandmother and I each took a deep breath. There was something strange about the timing of all of this, we both realized. Within an hour, a game on my phone had spoken to us about love, sadness, grief, moving on, and being happy again.

In my family, games run deep.


Developer Mountains Website

Christy Sawyer's Twitter and Instagram, please check out her art.

MLB: The Show 18 and Learning to Lose Again by Caleb Sawyer

 MLB The Show 18 and Learning to Lose Again

It was a 2-2 count,

two outs, runner on first, top of the seventh. Wacha had been throwing a stellar game. 6 2/3s innings, 3 hits, 6 Ks, and was on his way to another quick inning. The Cubs couldn’t figure him (me) out. I always ascribed these kinds of performances to being a result of my personal experience. I played baseball for 13 years, a majority of that time squatted behind the dish, the field general of the diamond. My coaches always expressed an unimaginable amount of faith in me, and as a result, I called every game. Pitch by pitch. Batter to batter. I was a student of the psychology of the Count. Who was up to bat, what did I give him last at-bat, how did he react to those pitches, what was the outcome? All of these questions filtered through my mind in the moments between the batter stepping into the box, the pitcher toeing the rubber, and my right hand dropping out of the offense’s line of sight to deliver the outcome of my brains arithmetic to the pitcher.

6 2/3s innings into this game and my mind was in that same Zen state. Javier Baez wasn’t an implicit threat, but then, that is kind of how baseball works. Everyone can be, and is, a threat. I had given him a changeup on the first pitch of the at-bat, one of my favorite calls to make. Starting a batter with a straight off-speed pitch was a deliciously devious tactic I employed frequently. The bottom-of-the-order batter would be expecting Wacha to aim to power through the 7 spot. Fast stuff first, off-speed second, movement last. He lurched for that first pitch changeup hard, his bat only getting halfway through the zone before realizing that he had assumed incorrectly. Strike one. 

Everyone can be, and is, a threat.

A slider on the inner half and two low and away two-seamers later, Wacha was in a comfortable place to throw anything he wanted. It was the bottom of the line up after all, power through. One of the things I love about MLB: The Show 18, is its ability to unearth these deep-seated emotions that I hold so close to my heart from my years in the dirt, sweating through a mask absorbing every ray of the summer sun. It was a close game, 3-1 Cardinals up at home, and Busch Stadium reacted appropriately. The crowd’s murmur became a steadily growing buzz. The vibration motors in the Dualshock 4 began to pulse, Wacha’s heart beating in my palms, my own heart matching the tempo. Fastball, four-seam, high and in. Time to see if Baez is prepared for me to elevate on him. But it was Wacha who wasn’t prepared. 

Six plus innings and 80 pitches made his accuracy dodgy at times, and this pitch, rather than being high and tight, came across the plate in a far more hittable location and Baez stung a ball into the left-center alleyway. The runner on first, whom I had blocked from my mind, was running on contact and though his speed rating wasn’t high, I had no chance at cutting him down at home. As Baez trotted in to second base I cussed under my breath, it was only a double, and with two outs it would be manageable. The Cubs unorthodox lineup structure meant that their pitcher would be up next, and Hendricks had been throwing a good game. Surely they wouldn’t pinch hit for him. Ben Zobrist stepped out of the dugout. 

I played MLB: The Show 17 extensively,

completing an entire season with the Cardinals, winning the World Series, and running away with several awards. We just didn’t lose. Finishing the season with 137 wins, it took my wife looking over my shoulder at the TV, pointing out that, “maybe you should play on harder difficulty,” for me to realize I wasn’t being real with myself. Baseball is a game about losing. Its the only sport where losing 70 games is still a good year. A good batter gets on base little more that three out of ten times. Imagine a quarterback who only completes three out of ten passes being the cornerstone of your offense. But that was what I had loved about baseball when I played. You’re 1-4 batting today and you struck out twice, but you get to go back at it tomorrow, and the next day. 

I played for extremely bad teams throughout high school. Summer ball was a bit different, but my freshman and sophomore Varsity team won ten games all together. It didn’t phase me at all. Get back out there tomorrow. It was an invaluable philosophical experience for teenage me. Baseball taught me that I was going to lose, a lot, but that the most important part of those losses would be picking myself up the next day, the next at-bat, the next inning, and trying again. Learning from failure. Embracing shortcomings as lessons. 

Zobrist is an above average hitter with runners in scoring position (RISP), and I have a bad history of being unable to get him out. Wacha was 83 pitches into the game, losing accuracy and velocity, and found himself with a runner in scoring position, the tying run. In any real world situation, this is where the manager steps out of the dugout, taps his arm, and a pitcher who had been warming in the bullpen begins the jog in from right field. I had been too confident in Wacha, and my dugout sat silent. I took a moment to get a righty and a lefty in motion and I sent the pitching coach to the mound, at once buying time for my relievers to shake the dust off, and giving myself a moment to focus. It was late in the ballgame, but I still had the lead. 

Pinch hitters rarely swing first pitch, but if they haven’t had a whole game to gauge you, they are never going to swing at a first pitch curveball.

Every kid dreams of getting to the Bigs and briefly, in my personal baseball career, it looked like that may be possible. I was good. I remember attending a Phillies camp my senior year. Later that summer I spotted their head scout at a few other camps I attended. 

When I went to college it quickly came unglued. I had played varsity ball all four years of high school, and as a result of performing well on varsity as a freshman, I never really had to work for my position again. My college coach didn’t know that, not that it should have mattered anyway. The sudden realization that I had been skating by did weird things to me. I bounced off of my new coach’s doctrine and found myself celebrating my first spring break without baseball my sophomore year. I turned to writing and video games, two things that were mainstays in the offseason. I was good at games and I was only getting better at writing. I swiftly carved out a new routine. 

Mound visits only fill your reliever’s readiness gauge half way. So unless you want to gamble with pitcher who hasn’t fully warmed up, you have to survive another batter. So I took a deep breath and faced Zobrist with as much confidence as I could muster. He got a curveball first. Pinch hitters rarely swing first pitch, but if they haven’t had a whole game to gauge you, they are never going to swing at a first pitch curveball. Usually. 

 MLB The Show 18 Wacha

I still haven’t really recovered from baseball’s swift retreat from my life. It was like a good friend moved away. I promised I would keep in touch, that I would visit frequently, but in the years that followed “life took over.” Thats what I told myself. Deep down I was hurt and confused. I played it off to friends and family, claiming writing was something I could do until the day I died, and that a career in baseball was a long shot anyway. To this day I’m not sure how many of them saw through that. Im not sure I want to know. 

I quickly latched onto gaming. I had been playing for years and I was pretty good at everything I played. I still had that mindset of practice from baseball and so most things came, if not naturally, through persistence. Within a year I had built a pocket of comfort: genres I was good at, friends I played well with, game modes I excelled in. It was all very clinical. But as I carved out this spot for myself it began to mirror baseball, and unbeknownst to me, it became a place from which I drew a strong, false confidence. I always won here, and I preferred that to years of losing in baseball. But always winning isn’t how life works. Not in the slightest. 

The ball that Zobrist hit cleared the infield before the camera could even switch. I knew the sound of those hits. A hot and furious hiss of leather that moved past you in the blink of an eye. Few people know what it feels like to have their lives flash before their eyes. All third basemen know that feeling well. Baez moved to third and Zobrist triumphantly stepped to first. The Show 18’s list of improvements included more fleshed out player emotions, and when Zobrist reached first he turned to his dugout and pounded his fist against his chest, roaring to his teammates, rallying the troops. I seethed. Wacha’s confidence was shot. He had only thrown one pitch to Zobrist and as Ian Happ walked to the plate my hand was forced. I called in my righty, forcing Happ, a switch hitter, to hit from the left side. His weaker side. Luke Gregerson a lanky right-hander took the mound, mostly warm, with one job: shut it down. The problem with that job? He was in a tense situation and hadn’t had the chance to fully ready himself. In four pitches the bases were loaded.

Depression came in the months following baseball’s exodus. I wrote it off as nostalgia and sadness for a long time, a result of a large lifestyle change. As my depression developed, I dove deeper into games and their ability to make me feel powerful, like I could control everything that happened. I had somehow lost control of my life, but at least I could control this. That desire for control seeped everywhere. It impacted my relationships, my grades, my health. I could only get that control from games, so I lived in my Xbox and PlayStation. 

But always winning isn’t how life works. Not in the slightest. 

I decided this year that I would play MLB: The Show 18 with the adaptive difficulty on. Rather than finding a place that was tough enough to make me feel like I was just really good at the game, I allowed the game to tell me where the line was. A line where difficulty and reality met. When I lost games in The Show 17, I would become so angry that I couldn’t play for days. I often would back out to the home screen, kill the game, and try again. I think, deep down, my reaction troubled me initially, but I didn’t dwell on that thought. I played games to feel good dammit. I didn’t play them to lose. I would tell myself. 

That last sentence struck me, already off-balance emotionally, and as I tumbled down that staircase of memory each step punched a thought out it my mind. Baseball is a game about losing. 

Albert Almora Jr. stepped in with the bases loaded, two outs in the sixth inning. Gregerson was warm now, but hadn’t thrown a strike yet, so that initial reassurance came with a good dose of worry. Almora already had two hits, the only player who had done so, and while it could be argued he lacked home run strength, it wouldn’t take a round tripper to do significant damage. After four straight balls, he was taking first pitch, so I took advantage of that and pegged a mid nineties fastball in the lower half of the zone, strike one. I never throw two fastballs in a row to a leadoff hitter, so next came a change. Straight and low, Almora checked his swing, fooled, but the pitch missed low. I followed that up with a slider away, hoping to get him to make weak contact. He was seeing the ball well today and took the pitch for ball two. “What wouldn’t he expect next?” I asked myself, as the crowds anxiety passed to me. He had an advantageous count, a pitcher in a tight spot, and I had just missed with my only two off-speed pitches. I doubled up on the slider, hoping he wouldn’t guess that I would return with it. 

Almora reminded me, everyone is a threat. 

The ball he hit left my left fielder standing in one place, turning his body only so he could follow the parabolic trajectory to its landing place three rows deeper than the Cubs bullpen. In moments my 3-1 lead had turned to a 3-6 deficit. The Cubs fans in the crowd rejoiced, their dugout erupted. Gregerson stood with his hands on his hips, head bowed. It was one of those no-doubter home runs that you, as a pitcher, don’t even turn to look at. 

I immediately went to kill the game but caught myself. I returned to the game and watched the replay suite that follows a home run. This is real. I thought. Sometimes shit hits the fan. 

 MLB The Show 18

As I finished up the game, unable to claw back at the Cubs lead, I mulled over my feelings. As the difficulty bar adjusted overhead I realized that The Show 18 was reteaching me a valuable  lesson I had forgotten. Loss happens, failure happens. But that’s just one mistake in a long season of opportunity. Wash your jersey, put up your cleats, and get some rest, because you are going to have to dust it all off tomorrow and go at it again. It would be dishonest leave out that, after saving and turning everything off in my living room, I sat in the dark and cried. 

It was like that old friend called, out of the blue. “Hey motherfucker!” They yelled, “Just wanted to let you know I moved back in town. We’re getting coffee tomorrow. Peace.” A smile cracked my face open, I took a deep breath, and I remembered what it meant to lose and learn. 

The next day I came back to my franchise and put the Cubs in ground, where they belong.






Our Favorite Weapons in Destiny 2: Utility Edition by Caleb Sawyer

There are a lot of lists out there about all the exotic guns you need to have in Destiny 2, but you can only equip a single exotic at a time. It is just as important to be able to put together a solid loadout, with or without exotics. There are so many ways to do this I can't possibly cover them all. What I can do, is tell you all about the most utilitarian weapons I have found, and how they compliment each other, in both PvP and PvE. You'll find a mix of exotics and lengendaries here, and the list may expand with expansions. 

Nameless Midnight

Destiny 2 (9).png

A solid vanguard scout rifle with good impact and average range. The average range is compensated with explosive rounds. While the impact damage may fall off the AoE damage does NOT fall off. Staggers like MIDA but instead stops whole groups. Couple it with your Hunter while wearing Knucklehead Radar, and you have an explosive scout rifle that retains the ability to keep the radar active while you shoot.

Nameless Midnight is given as an option for every character to take at the end of the campaign. After completing the Milestone for completing 2 Strikes, Zavala offers it alongside Origin Story and Showrunner and while Origin Story is also a solid choice, Nameless Midnight is always my choice. Save your energy weapon slot for an assault rifle.


Destiny 2 (7).png

Really an artisanal gun. A pretty solid SMG, Riskrunner REALLY stands out when you know you are going to be taking arc damage, making it extremely useful against the Fallen. But because MIDA Mini-tool is arguably the more well rounded gun, Riskrunner should really be used in specialist situations.


Destiny 2 (5).png

Really hard to not praise this assault rifle. Aside from the fact that it has no damage fall off, penetrating and ricocheting rounds, it also sports an entirely unique trait that allows its elemental damage to be changed FREE OF COST, making it my go-to weapon in literally any PvE encounter. The utilitarian's tool.

It Stared Back

Destiny 2 (12).png

A hard find, but one worth working for, It Stared Back is the Raid sword. A non-participant in OG Destiny's sword craze, I was super reluctant to use any swords in D2. It Stared Back converted me instantly. Sporting a fresh trait that puts heavy ammo back in your reserves for consecutive hits, it can SHRED a couple majors, or a swath of smaller adds.

Swords also have terrific PvP compatibility. Because the user is jumped back to 3rd Person perspective, using a sword in PvP allows you to peek around corners and strike with extreme lethality. Give it a shot if you haven't already, you won't be disappointed.

First In, Last Out

Destiny 2 (4).png

With the sad, sad departure of The Chaperone, FILO is a as good a replacement as you're gonna get. Add to that a trait that auto-reloads a portion of the magazine when critically wounded and you can deal high precision damage at close range that can bring most baddies to their knees. Best for PvP use.

MIDA Mini-tool

Destiny 2 (3).png

MIDA Mini-tool is the answer to the question, "What if MIDA had a little brother? What if MIDA had a smaller, more aggressive, bee sting of a brother?" Mini is an SMG with a firing rate that will bleed the shields off of even the most intimidating foes. It has solid PvP and PvE uses (despite the fact that I GET the business end of that deal more often than I give it), and when you equip it with its big brother you get a mobility boost that is nothing to shrug at.

MIDA Multi-tool

Destiny 2 (8).png

Look. What do I really have to say about MIDA Multi-tool. It is a workhorse. Good impact, good range, and a third-eye scope that keeps your radar active while looking downrange. You will see MIDA-multi on PARADE in multiplayer. Being able to see your enemies move while you pick them apart is invaluable.

The Number

Destiny 2 (11).png

The Number is my Hardlight when I have something else Exotic equipped. A Future War Cult weapon, if you didn't earn it during the faction rally you won't be able to earn it now, unfortunately. However, The Number is nearly interchangeable with Uriel's Gift and Martyr's Make. They are large mag, ricochet round, high firing rate ARs with stellar stability, The Number sports a trait that stiffens the last rounds in the mag for a little extra spice. Changing its damage type is not as easy as Hardlight. But it is worth keeping a couple copies if you get them.


Destiny 2 (6).png

Need to melt a major? Or really anything with a gold health bar? Merciless is your AI infused Fusion Rifle. Where most Fusion rifles are STRONG, Merciless charges faster and faster until the enemy you are shooting dies. So pit this bad boy against a Beefer and you are going to be able to spit out the last 4 rounds of the magazine like it's a scout rifle. The effects are...extraordinary.

The Prospector

Destiny 2 (10).png

Grenade launchers are a new addition to the Destiny universe and in mob situations, they are seriously valuable. The Prospector is an Exotic grenade puking machine with full auto and trigger primed grenades, pull to fire, release to detonate. The heavy hitting grenades have great splash damage and in instances like the Raid Castellum, can mop up even the most intimidating groups. Don't be afraid to use it on a major either, the stagger alone will buy you and your fireteam time to breathe.

I hope this list helps offer a little insight into a few ways to experiment with your loadout. There are guns I still don't have, most notably Antiope-D (because the Gunsmith is a stingy bastard) so look for the list to expand, or for new lists altogether! Feel free to comment about your favorites at the bottom.


The Adventure Zone: Balance Arc || A Thank You by Caleb Sawyer


Hey y’all. SPOILER ALERT. For real, if you haven't finished the first arc...probably don't read on. Or go ahead, you do you.

I remember where I was the first time I listened. I was working a closing shift at Starbucks. I had been put on dishes and I had discovered that, if you do it right, you can tuck your headphones down your shirt, into your pocket, and listen to podcasts while you washed dishes. I remember standing with my left earbud in, washing pitchers and tongs, hating where I was in life. But here, three sons and their father embarked on a goofy, stupid quest. And for a moment, I forgot about where I was.

I remember a wizard with a ridiculous quest to discover the food of his namesake. A delight unknown to the world he lived in, but one that he would hunt down nonetheless. He and his companions, a devout dwarf and a strong-headed human, venturing out in search of the last job they will ever need to take.

I remember their first battle. The Gerblin shattered, the Gerblin split, and the Gerblin axed from afar. Without practice, the three adventurers had bested their first trial with “aplomb.” There was a use of the word “horny” after that first fight. If only they had known how that would define them as a group.

I remember the when Sildar Hallwinter unceremoniously became Barry Bluejeans. In fact, that chuckle kinda got me in trouble at work. I remember Phandalin turning to glass in a furious flame and realizing, “Oh shit…this show is gonna be interesting.” I remember the introduction of the Bureau of Balance and the curious white noise.

I remember so many things from the Adventure Zone. The McElroy’s created something that reminded me what it was like when my imagination turned my back yard into Crystal Kingdoms and Wonderlands. I carried their stories with me everywhere. I listened to the first chapter of Petals to the Metal the day before I got married. I listened to the second chapter of The Eleventh Hour the same morning I found out my wife was pregnant. I listened to the first part of Lunar Interlude V holding my sleeping, four-day old daughter in my arms.

I listened to the final episode of “The Balance Arc” on the day it came out. The entire episode was punctuated by my tears. In fact, the entire three-part finale did this to me. The same podcast where things like “Abraca-FUCK YOU!” were shouted, completely controlled my emotions in its finale. Griffin’s outro about the Day of Story and Sound filled me with a joy that can only really be rivaled by a couple things (I mentioned them earlier actually). Taako fucking learned to make those tacos and I laughed myself into tears. When Magnus saw his Julia again, I was sitting in the dark, in my living room. My Xbox One dim in the background, I shuddered and trembled with sobs that I haven’t really experienced before. I know this all sounds cheesy, so let me qualify it all a bit.

I have struggled with depression heavily in the last five years. It has made friendships, family, love, happiness, literally everything in my life, more difficult. But The Adventure Zone, for the last three years, has been a constant that has provided a profound sense of joy and belonging that I very nearly forgot how to feel. And it was sneaky about it. If you would have told me then, that I would have felt the range of emotions I have at the actions of three brothers and their dad playing D&D, I most certainly would have laughed into your mouth.

But I would have been wrong.

Having listened to the end of Merle, Magnus, and Taako’s stories, there was a something about the end of each of their stories that felt…more than true, to me. If that makes any sense. Jeffandrew meeting the Tres Horny Boys and congratulating them, thanking them, felt like Griffin, speaking directly to his family. He says through Jeffandrew that he created all the rules that governed their world. He explains that he can’t control the worlds that he makes, he just makes them. “Whenever we make a world, we’re guessing, mostly.” He says. “We’re putting some English on a ball that will roll and roll for eons (three years) and we hope that it will land somewhere good.” Griffin did just that didn’t he?

Taako’s success speaks to obtaining something that doesn’t exist. Reaching the unreachable. And Justin’s biting humor is befitting an older brother, fucking with everyone because, well…he can. He’s fucking Taako. Clint’s Merle Highchurch, a father seeking to atone and spend as much time with his children as he possibly can, creates a school to train the next generation of adventurers. How appropriate that this whole story of adventurers was created by Clint and his children. When Griffin, as Mavis, asks Merle if he knows he’s Mookie’s hero, it felt like a son thanking his father. Travis, explaining to Griffin how Magnus found a reason to live, instead of dying in a blaze of glory, hit me like a sack of bricks. And when he sees Julia, and tells her that he tried to make her proud…like I said, there isn’t anything that can explain the full extent that The Adventure Zone moved me.

I write all of this so that I can say that I at least tried to explain those feelings, and so I can say thank you. Thank you, Griffin, for dedicating so much of your time to this story and creating something truly special. Thank you, Travis, for teaching me the importance of finding a reason to live, rather than looking for ways out. Thank you, Justin, for teaching me to laugh even in the face of the insurmountable. And Clint, thank you for training this group of adventurers so they could tell us this story, and thank you for living it with them, just like Merle would, with his kids at his side.

I know there is only the slightest chance any of you will read this, and I am ok with that. I’m just glad that I could write about it. I can’t wait to see what you guys do next. I can’t wait to see you in Chicago in November (best believe you good, good boys are getting a hug if I run into you).

I am, we all are, so grateful for you guys. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I will always remember.


Zap Blastum: Cover-Based Action for All by Caleb Sawyer

Zap Blastum is fun. That is the first thing I thought as I tapped away at the screen, strategically placing myself against cover to take potshots at less guarded foes. An isometric perspective cover-based shooter, the game uses touch controls, a feature that will make the game a blast on mobile devices and tablets. It is easy enough to pick up. Touch the spot you want to run, touch the enemy you want to shoot. The complexity comes in the form of enemy types and cover angles. 

Developer Kevin Dressel (@kevinddressel) says that he and his collaborators were inspired by games like Gears of War, but he wanted to make the skill requirement more forgiving. Zap Blastum accomplishes that goal extremely well. The ease of tapping commands makes the game a breeze to pick up. Once you get those controls down you can challenge yourself by firing while moving, aiming to beat time limits, and finding weapon upgrades hidden about each level.

Dressel also said he wanted to make a game that anyone could play. The violence of most shooters means that kids can't get in on the fun. Zap Blastum's cartoony style and robotic villains makes it perfect for hardcore gamers and kids alike.

Zap Blastum is a addicting game I could easily see myself putting several hours into on my phone. The combination of cover-based gameplay with XCOM's camera angle makes for a slick combination of mobility and visibility. By the end of my sit-down with it, I was shooting between cover and tossing grenades over enemy cover with ease.

For now, Dressel plans to release a Beta later this year with hopes of a full release in early 2018. To follow Zap Blastum check out developer Shiny Dolphin's website and Twitter.

Marshall's Theory: Wading Through the President's Holographic Nightmares by Caleb Sawyer

With the current political climate as it is, it only makes sense that it impacts as many levels of media as possible. Benjamin Poynter's (@BenjaminPoynter) Marshall's Theory, puts players in control of the President of the United States during one of his nightmares. A strange mix of hilarity and morbidity, "Marshall's Theory [is] a game with a central theme of paranoia."

Players control POTUS as he attempts to fight back protesters, encircling him with arms raised and signs hoisted. You can fire tweets to mow them down, carpet bomb them, or call in an Area-of-Effect strike a la Vladimir Putin dive-bombing the ground, Russian flag cape and all.

Marshall's theory utilizes a type of holographic projection provided by the minds at Looking Glass (@LKGGlass). The HoloPlayer One is an interesting piece of tech, and with a game like Marshall's Theory, the unsettling setting is complimented by the fuzzy holographic display.

Developer Benjamin Poynter, when asked about the role of games with social stances, thinks that games could say more. His experience travelling through D.C. with his wife during the Travel Ban protests, inspired him to take a stance and make games that voiced that stance. Marshall's Theory being the first.

 Putin flies in to do damage.

Putin flies in to do damage.

Marshall's Theory definitely uses that voice without pulling punches. As players survive the nightmare and the protesters all drop dead, a prompt follows that says, brought to you by "The American Health Care Act." This is followed shortly after by an image of Abraham Lincoln falling on a spike. "It is a message that illustrates the death of Democracy," Poynter says. It certainly gets that point across.

Marshall's theory is also playable on PC. 



Lucah: Carving Through a Nightmare of Self-Discovery by Caleb Sawyer

In the last year, several games have tried to revisit the aesthetic, both in appearance and difficulty, of retro Zelda. Perhaps the most notable to do this was last year's Hyper Light Drifter. A title by a small team that knocked the socks of of nostalgic gamers and newcomers alike. Next in that same lineup comes Lucah, a gritty game about a boy's journey through a world of nightmares on the way to self-discovery.

The first thing that makes Lucah stand out is, well, its high contrast art style. The game is built in a black and white world of harsh lines and jittery animations. The jitter here isn't a lack of polish however, it is an embodiment of tumultuous mental state. Enemies shudder across the battlefield as they shamble towards you. The game's protagonist, the eponymous Lucah and his familiar stand out like beacons of light against this background of black and white nightmares, etched in neon blues or oranges.

Lucah's combat feels familiar (pun intended) but fresh. Your familiar floats around you to provide ranged attacks, and Lucah is capable of Heavy and Light attacks. It may seem favorable to rely on the heavy attacks right away, but after putting in a bit of due diligence, the light attacks add a lot of flexibility to your playstyle. 

Lucah's art style and knack for creative storytelling does wonders for first-time players, and the demo that was available at Pixel Pop was extremely well crafted, giving players enough time to get familiar with the controls, but cutting them off with a cliffhanger of a boss fight that made me want so much more than I got. 

Lucah recently was fully funded on Kickstarter and plans to release in 2018. The demo is up now, and I encourage anyone who has a PC and some free time to go give it a shot. The potential here is visible. To stay in the loop on development updates and release news follow Lucah on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.



Anthromancer: Beauty, Mystery, and Deadly Aesthetic by Caleb Sawyer

The goal of any game, table top, digital, or otherwise, is to catch your eye. Walking the floor of Pixel Pop 2017 there was one game in particular that shouted "Come look at this!" Anthromancer is the creation of the multitalented folks at Dancakes. Yes, that is correct. Pancake artists by day, the people at Dancakes are also hard at work on a board game that is damn beautiful. 

In Anthromancer, minimalistic geometry meets otherworldly occult. Dan himself (@drdancake) describes the game as "the Voyager Record from another planet." For those unfamiliar, the Voyager Record was a bank of information stored on the Voyager 1, a space probe launched in 1977. In the record was a mix of media that included images, sounds, greetings in 55 different languages, and music. A time capsule sent into space for any intelligent species that may find it. For those playing Anthromancer, you have found a time capsule from another planet, and boy does the game get that across beautifully. 

You are immediately confronted with a board covered in geometric symmetry, save for the faction logos at the compass points, Claws, Souls, Gears, and Blades; four factions with advantage against one and weakness against another (Claws beats Souls in a tie, Souls beats Gears, and so on...). Aether sits in the middle, a confluence. 

Anthromancer plays like a game of checkers if each piece were summoned and had attack ratings on each side of the piece. And if you had Hymn cards that played a myriad of different strategic roles. So in other words, not like checkers at all. Anthromancer is a unique blend of conventional mechanics retooled into an experience that is part divine, part sacrilege, all enthralling. 

And that is just the surface. There is an musical component that will come with the full game, albums that hint at deeper truths hidden in the cryptic language littered about the board and cards. I played my game against Hank Gustafson (who appears to be better than Twitter, pff!) and as I played he regaled me with a lore richer than even the most heady expectations for a board game.

Anthromancer is a beautiful creation by people that desire nothing more than to bend your mind. Look for more news as they launch their Kickstarter soon (planning to coincide with the solar eclipse, as if there were any more appropriate timing) and we meet with them to get even more hands on in the future (even I am being mystical now).

Oh, and did I mention the game can also be used as a Tarot deck? Yeah...prepare to "Be Moved."

Follow Anthromancer on Facebook and Twitter!


Defend Neo Tokyo: Co-op Pacific Rim for the Dining Room Table by Caleb Sawyer


Amid the overwhelming lineup of indie videogames at Pixel Pop 2017 was an impressive crowd of tabletop games on display. One of those games was @STLGatewayGames Defend Neo Tokyo. I spoke with creators Jamie Toon and Jason Mayer about their ambitious board game at length and I can tell you this much, they have my money.

Conceived as a co-op monster fighting game, Defend Neo Tokyo gives up to five players the ability to build their own mech to fight towering abominations set to destroy Neo Tokyo. Players get to choose the arms, legs, and chassis of their mech from a pool of possibilities, allowing a level of freedom in customization that, in Jason's words "leads to a lot of different possibilities."

After players assemble their mechs they are tasked with beating a faction of monsters besieging Neo Tokyo. The launch game will come with sea monsters, land monsters, and giant insects, each with their own unique traits and tendencies. Before you ask, yes they plan to introduce Alien invaders in future expansions.

Defend Neo Tokyo is handsomely built, with what appears to be a complex system of power nodes and damage slots that is deftly explained and easy to get a grip on. The mechs that players build have abilities based on their choices that need accumulated power to use, the more powerful the ability the more power consumed. Take damage from a rampaging baddie, and you may need to spend a repair bot to restore functionality. 

If you're lucky enough to beat the team of monsters, a boss beast enters the game that serves as the final showdown. It's five on one monster slaying mayhem that is sure to leave players with memorable moments in the aftermath. 

 Behold the menacing Gorganus!

Behold the menacing Gorganus!

Defend Neo Tokyo will be headed to Kickstarter in October, so keep your ear to the ground for more news in the coming weeks and months. We also plan to sit down with the folks at Gateway Games to play a game or two of our own. So stay tuned!

Check out Defend Neo Tokyo.


The Humans Behind it All: Pixel Pop Festival 2017 by Caleb Sawyer

I have been to three of four Pixel Pop Festival's, each in a different capacity. This year, as a journalist, I hoped to hone in on the theme in the bones of this year's indie showcasing festival. Within hours it was clear what Pixel Pop was trying to say. Games are made by humans. Normal people like you and me. Their successes and sacrifices were given a spotlight here, illustrating one message clear as day: Behind the games you love are people who have dedicated themselves to creating what they love.

I went to the original Pixel Pop Festival on a whim. My uncle and I had just learned about the event and, as gamers, content creators, and hopeful developers, we felt it too good an opportunity to pass up on. We bought our tickets at the door and walked through the halls of Webster University a bit aimlessly. Pixel Pop was small then, but had the heart of a dragon. There was an air of excitement in those halls. The realization that St. Louis had a vibrant indie game community was still fresh for most of the people there. There was this mild dumbstruck look on a lot of people's faces.


Fast forward to 2017. I got my Press credentials in the last days of June and began to gear up for attending Pixel Pop as a member of the press. As more and more information came out I began to build my schedule for the two day event. Based on the information presented alone, it was clear that PxP2017 was going to be bringing a lot to the plate. A full schedule of panels and talks, an impressive list of content on display. I thought of the first Pixel Pop I went to. In a short four years a lot had changed.

That isn't to say that Pixel Pop was less organized before. It was young. It still is. But stepping through the doors onto the Expo floor this year made one thing effortlessly clear. The showrunners behind Pixel Pop had been hard at work. Pixel Pop Festival 2017 was bigger, better, and had something to tell its attendees: the St. Louis indie community is here to stay.

As a journalist I knew I wanted to find a theme. I knew, as soon as I arrived, that there was a message in the air. It was in the smiles of the exhibitors. In the games they were showing off. In the words of each and every panelist, speaker, and community member. In an age where technology so easily removes the faces of those responsible from their work, Pixel Pop Festival 2017 put the human element on glorious display.


The Keynote Speaker, Rebecca Saltsman of Finji (@BexSaltsman) spoke about her family's triumphs and struggles adapting and creating in the game industry. From harsh lessons about preparedness, to sacrifices made for fiscal solvency, to being full-time developers with two young boys. It was refreshing, enlightening even, to see someone who, by most people's standards, made it, speak to the difficulty of the journey. The sea of heads nodded and hummed in acknowledgement and laughed in agreement throughout the talk.

Other talks focused on helping new developers get started on their own, bootstrapping their own games, balancing life and game development, and gaming for a cause. It was a lineup chock full of heart and down to earth advice from important voices in the game industry. 

The Expo floor was no different. Creators of all ages waited with eager hearts as attendees stepped up to their booths. In passing, at any moment, you could hear the stories behind these games. You could feel the pride in the developer's voices. Voices like @Waffle__Works Isaac White smiling next to a proud family as people played his charming, submarine side-scrolling shooter Submerged. Voices like Jason Mayer and Jamie Toon at @STLGatewayGames who gushed about their board game Defend Neo Tokyo (there was a SOLID showing by board games at Pixel Pop). Everywhere you turned, people in love with what they had created stood tall behind their creations.

In the short four years that Pixel Pop Festival has existed it has grown leagues beyond what I thought it could have, and this year's showing sets the bar high for next year. It was a privilege to be able to cover this event. The amount of love on display was palpable. St. Louis has a lot to be proud of in Pixel Pop. The most sincere thank you and congratulations to the team behind the scenes putting it all together. You all made an event deserving of every bit of praise it receives. Here is to a stellar 2018 show.


Xbox One X: A Step in the Wrong Direction? by Caleb Sawyer

Putting the Flop in Gigaflop

A new console approaches: the Xbox One X. New consoles always bring excitement and a spark of innovation to the gaming world, and we hope for something that won’t just prolong our 3-hour gaming sessions at 1 AM but also enhance and elevate our gameplay in the process. But is power truly king when it comes to gaming consoles? Well, when you look at the history of gaming consoles… not so much. And this is what worries me about the Xbox One X.

(Side note: No, I am not a Sony fanboy or a Microsoft hater. In fact, the Xbox was the first home console I ever purchased myself, thanks to a lot of birthdays and Christmases spent saving up money as a youngling. I chose the Xbox over the GameCube and PS2 for one simple reason: Halo.)

When a new gaming console is released, three major aspects matter:

A.) What is different about this console than all the other consoles out there?
B.) What exclusive games will I be able to play ONLY on this console?
C.) How much does the console cost?

The Console’s Individuality.

Out of the big three console developers (Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo), Nintendo has done the best when it comes down to the uniqueness of a new console. Nintendo isn’t afraid to innovate, which is why their consoles always tend to be sold out for AT LEAST the first few months post-release. From the GameBoy to the Wii and Wii U to the Switch, each of their consoles have done something that no other console before them has been able to do, enticing gamers with a method of play that no other console can offer. As for Sony and Microsoft, the tendency is just to improve whatever console of theirs came out last, or simply copy a trend Nintendo has already set (looking at you, PlayStation Move and Xbox Kinect). Improved graphics, improved controller, improved whatever -- they’re all just improvements, not innovation. You had vanilla before, but now we present... French Vanilla!!! Woohoo. There’s no drastic step forward or completely new feature, and we’re essentially just given an Xbox or PlayStation sequel. Instead, Sony and Microsoft seem to rely solely on their exclusive games and the content they hold.

What Games Can Be Played on the Console

As an example, take the Sega Master System vs. the Nintendo Entertainment System. Both were released in 1985 with the Master System being significantly more powerful. Despite this, the NES still outsells it by over 50 million units. The NEO GEO -- the most powerful system of 1990 over the SEGA Genesis and SNES -- only sold a measly 1 million units (the Genesis sold 41.9 million, the SNES 49.1 million). Nintendo 64 vs. PlayStation 1: PS1 smoked the N64 by nearly 70 million units. Xbox vs. PlayStation 2, PS2 outsells the Xbox by over 120 million units. Why? The games. As we’ve seen over the years, a great game library, not great specs, sells a console. Which brings me to my final point:


Currently marketed as “the most powerful console,” the Xbox One X is hitting shelves at the high price point of $499 (USD). The E3 conference and their website boasts about the One X’s usage of 4K, its 2.3GHz CPU, 12GB of graphic memory, a 6 Teraflop GPU, etc… which sounds impressive, but is essentially just a more technologically-improved version of the previous Xbox with absolutely no innovative features. You’ll also be able to replay your old Xbox discs, or download some of the older Xbox titles, which is definitely a plus, however, there are some big red flags here. Not counting the console’s atrocious name, 4K can already be found on the PS4 Pro (a console that’s $100 cheaper). Plus, 4K isn’t quite the norm in living rooms just yet, so for most gamers, it’s a safe bet that 4K doesn’t really matter. And while the nostalgia factor works, it’s not something to rely upon. Are you really going to replay all of Mass Effect for the hell of it when Andromeda and plethora of other games are about to release? Let’s be honest -- probably not.

Microsoft keeps mentioning power. Gigaflops of it. Yes, you can be the most powerful, but can the games, specifically the exclusives, live up to that? After this year's E3, I’m convinced that (at least during year one of the One X’s release) no, the games definitely cannot. The lack of exclusives announced alongside the launch of the One X proves that developers are nowhere near ready to harness this kind of power -- to put it simply, it’s incredibly difficult make a game that utilizes the console’s space/power properly while also conforming to a reasonable development time. Most of the best games shown at E3 2017 (Anthem, A Way Out, Star Wars Battlefront 2) aren’t exclusive and can be played on both the Xbox One X and PS4 Pro… sorry, Microsoft, but no one’s going to shell out an extra $100 just to play Sea of Thieves.

Does the Xbox One X have potential to be next year’s best selling console? Absolutely! All Microsoft needs to do is give game developers the resources to utilize the power that the One X offers. That means games with gigaflops of actual content, not gigaflops of seas and randomly generated islands to happen upon (I don’t mean to keep picking on Sea of Thieves -- it’s just that out of the six announced exclusive titles for the One X, it was the only one that actually looked decent).

A gaming console needs good games to survive. If a gamer wants gaming power, they’ll just build a PC. If Xbox One X can somehow manage to rake in more exclusives that outshine the PS4 exclusives, the One X definitely has a chance to redeem itself. Otherwise, I think we'll just be sticking to Spider-Man on the PS4 and Super Mario Odyssey on the Switch.



Videogames and the Culture of Criticism by Benjamin Sawyer

When I started writing about games four years ago, I set out with the mindset that I would be playing games and writing about them. That was it. A simple, uninformed dream of a job title and one that I quickly discovered was not at all correct. I thought it would feel like easy work; I was “playing games and writing about them” after all. How hard could that possibly be? Not the first time a thought I had in college sounded increasingly dumber the older I got.

But I was in college, I had an abundance of “free time” (I think my professors called it class), an Xbox 360, and a laptop. I was enamored by the idea of game writing as a lifestyle. I still am. Topics ranging from gender roles to race, morality and ethics to inclusiveness, beauty and creation to mechanics. A list that goes on and on. I wanted to write about things that mattered, and praise things that frequently fell to the wayside.

When I dove in, everything was happy and easy. It’s games after all. But soon I discovered that journalism is far more difficult than I assumed. I wrote about games I hated and that I loved; topics and genres that gave me energy and filled me with dismay. In the short 5 years that I have been doing this I have written about games like The Last of Us and issues like Gamergate and it has made me appreciate this craft with new eyes. Realizing that there are things that need to be written about, no matter how difficult.

Recently I have run into something that bothers me, maybe even more than ludonarrative dissonance (which is actually getting better in some games). I noticed it first in myself, catching my thoughts when describing games as “recycled” and “stagnant”. In one case, I even described a series as being completely devoid of creativity. I read that article again recently (bet you can’t find it) and realized, players and critics alike have become increasingly critical of the familiar.

In 1963, Porsche made the first 911, a bug-eyed, rear-engined sports car with a six-cylinder boxer engine. It was slick and powerful and came in a small package. Now, Porsche had made other cars in the past, and would go on to create different cars in the future. But that first 911 would turn out to be a lot more than just a new Porsche. It defined the company for the next five decades and continues to do so today.

In the 53 years that the 911 has been developed many things have been updated. The motor is water cooled now, rather than air cooled. ABS was developed and applied. Air bags, seat-belts, rally and race applications and modifications, impact bumpers, brake discs. The car has been in production for 53 years. When technology updated, it updated. But it never changed. Sure some things changed on the inside, but it has always had a rear-mounted, six-cylinder boxer engine. And of course things have changed on the outside, but they are cosmetic and minor. It has always stayed true to its form. Drive a 1963 Porsche 911 down the street today and anyone with half a brain will know, “That’s a Porsche.”

I am more a fan of the older, more boxy looking Porsche 911s, personally. The sharper edges, the whale tail, the bulbous headlamps. There is so much spirit in the old models, so much moxie. The newer Porsches are sleek, smooth, all of the things you would expect of a car from the 21st century. They just don’t appeal to me as much, and thats ok. But would I drive one if I could? Yes.

The fact that a car could be that popular and, on the outside and inside, fundamentally change so little, doesn’t seem to surprise anyone that I know. Car enthusiasts and laymen alike. It is a beautiful car, always has been, always (I presume) will be.

My wife bought a pair of tennis shoes recently. Why I, or anyone for that matter, still calls them tennis shoes is beyond me. I have never played tennis in my life, nor do I plan to (note to self, do not start playing tennis, you'll never live this down). Anyway, she bought a pair of sneakers (but who sneaks in…never mind) recently and I realized something. Her new shoes are the same as her old shoes. Arch supporting sole, cushioned heel, laces on top in a crossing pattern, and mesh weave on the top for breathability. But they look different. And they're new. I put new in italics there because I wanted to put emphasis on it.

New is important to many people. New shoes, new cars, new homes, new girl/boyfriends, new phones, new clothes. We like things to be new, but we don't like things to be different. Our species dismal history of racism, slavery, inequality, and xenophobia are no small testament to that. We like things to be new but we don't like things to change.

You started reading this because it was on a videogame blog and sounded like it was going to be interesting. I’m sure I have lost many of you already. For those of you still here. Bear with me. My point is swiftly approaching.

Take all of the information I have given you so far, plant it somewhere deep in your brain, and begin to think about the videogame industry. For an industry devoted to being on the cutting edge of technology, many times more so than it should, it is mired by the idea that if it isn't new and different it lacks development. It lacks character.

Look, I am in no way trying to be petty here. I believe there is a harsh double standard that exists in this industry. An industry I love more than damn near anything (sorry babe). If a game is released that mimics its predecessor in too many ways it is torn down to the dirt it was built from. Far Cry 4 was Far Cry 3 in a new location. But Far Cry 3 was a resounding success that put a series that was, in my eyes, beginning to lose relevance back on the map. Diving in with the nearly 50 games that made the bow and arrow the weapon of choice in 2012. And Far Cry’s bow mechanics were so good, they were imitated (to some degree) in Tomb Raider, The Last of Us, Crysis 3, and Thief.

Far Cry 3 was good. Damn near great, despite the fact (or maybe because of the fact) that the main character was a bit of a “bro.” It set a standard for beautiful, living, breathing open worlds. Far Cry 4 was only a little different. Replace tropical island with the Himalayas, replace the white, bro main character (who killed a lot of brown folks…but that is probably a different conversation) with a young man with Nepalese heritage and family ties to the civil war that rages in the mountains and valleys, replace fields of marijuana with fields of opium, sprinkle a few elephants, a climbing rope, and those fucking eagles, and you had a game that was familiar, fun, and arguably a bit better than its older brother.

I almost never heard that kind of review from colleagues playing the title. I heard, “It’s just more Far Cry 3,” or, “It is just more of the same, recycled and reskinned.” But is that assessment a damning one, or should it serve as an impetus for fans of its predecessor to return? I loved flying around Nepal with reckless abandon, bowhunting baddies, freeing predators to do the hunting for me, and breathing deep the opiated fumes of destruction.

So many people look at one game’s similarities to another and overlook how it has honed those mechanics, tuned those graphics, or twisted convention. Yes, Tomb Raider is Uncharted on Xbox, but shouldn't that make us happy? Uncharted is a landmark of storytelling achievement and adventure gameplay. Give me more any time you can. Put a strong female character front and center and I will literally throw my money at it (wait…not what I meant). Yes, Fallout 4 is Skyrim with guns. But who doesn't want to play Skyrim with fucking guns?

Now don't get me wrong, the process of recycling mechanics and themes can get old. How many military shooters can look into the future before we grow tired of the idea? How many racing games will lean on the circuit structure before we yearn for more open world experiences? How many open world adventures can require us to climb some kind of tower to unlock parts of the map before we stop scaling? I used to be very critical of the Call of Duty series for similar reasons (remember that creativity insult?). But let me paint the picture framed in my mind on the series now.

In 2003 Infinity Ward made, and Activision published, the first Call of Duty. A gritty, boots on the ground interpretation of the human struggle of World War II, complete with gore, language, and mind-numbing displays of military power and devastation. It was fast-paced, fun, and always found a way to bring people back for more. Activision had published numerous games in the past, and would go on to publish many more in the future, but that first Call of Duty would turn out to be a lot more than just a new game. It defined Activision and the shooter genre for the next decade and continues to do so today.

In the 13 years that Call of Duty has been developed, many things have been updated. The setting has changed, many times. From the sand and mud of World War II to the rain and heat of Vietnam to the glass and steel of modern times and beyond. The engine has been updated, allowing for more fluid frame rates and more realistic visuals. The sound has evolved from a similar staccato of clicks and pops to a wide range of deep thumps and demonic raps. The series has been in development for 13 years. When technology updated, it updated, but it never changed. Sure some things changed on the inside, but it has always been a gritty, boots on the ground interpretation of the human struggle of worldwide combat. While these things have changed on the outside,  they are overwhelmingly aesthetic, cosmetic, and relatively minor. Play the original Call of Duty today and anyone with half a brain will know, “That’s Call of Duty.”

And while I am a fan of the older, more story centered Call of Duty titles, with Soap and Price and Ghost and Makarov; so many characters, so much to say, and so many gut wrenching plot twists stirred in to make the pot all the more aromatic, the newer Call of Duties are smoother, faster, persistent. All of the things I want in a game today.

Call of Duty remains popular, wildly so, and on the inside and outside has changed so little, fundamentally. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. It is a polished, well running, powerhouse of a game. Always has been. I have learned to appreciate the idea that, in games, “if it isn’t broken, don't fix it,” still applies. And I have found that appreciating the small changes, the small tweaks, allows me to find more character in titles I previously thought wholly lacked imagination.

While a game like Call of Duty may look like the same thing over and over again, it continues to sell like hotcakes (side note: what do fast selling hotcakes sell like?). It has proven, with no lack of authority, that it is the game that players want. Perhaps we could do ourselves a favor by stepping back, looking at the miracle we are playing as a whole, and understanding the tremendous amount of work that goes into every title released.

After all, when was the last time you made a fucking game?



The Future of Games Needs to Include Accessiblity by Benjamin Sawyer

Video games have changed so much since its creation a little less than 70 years ago. Mobile games are becoming more popular than other gaming platforms in 2015. According to Big Fish Games, "The mobile gaming industry was projected to reach a staggering $29 billion in 2015, and then rise to almost double that amount ($45 billion) by 2018."

With mobile devices and groups like Kickstarter and GoFundMe, there is a growth of small market video game developers, and while it is great to have more games on a variety of platforms for gamers, there can also be a downside. 

Big developers seem to have protocols and rules to follow to allow more access in their games, but I want to make this information accessible to gamers, developers, or even game admirers.

What makes a good game? One that is easy to play, right? You would hate if the jump button and shoot button were the same, so do not do that in the programming. But there are other things to keep in mind, too. 

I think it might be best to give an example. Let’s look at The Witness which was released January of 2016 by Thekla, Inc. Johnathan Blow, the creator of Braid (2008), created The Witness with the funds he earned after Braid’s success. The Witness is a puzzle game that takes place on an island. For this game Blow wanted to create something that focused on non-verbal communication. 

However, some of the puzzles left some players out of the game. A few of Blow's puzzles were nearly impossible for color blind people (especially those with Protanopia) to complete. The game also lacked subtitles of ambient noise required to complete puzzles leaving out hearing impaired players from full gameplay.

Blow said that it was not required to complete all puzzles to beat the game, only to see the more final ending. He said that players could read the walkthroughs to the puzzles in order to get the complete ending if they were color blind. While it is nice that players can go to a walkthrough, that should not be the only way that people can enjoy the game.

So what happens to those who were super excited to buy the game they waited eight years for and they have difficulties like this completing it? They can’t return it, being that is a digital download. TheWitness was not advertised with color/audio warnings for players, causing a backlash from the gaming community that feels misled. 

Blow told Kotaku writer Stephen Totilo, "We definitely thought about colorblindness but ultimately there was not much we could do in terms of the individual puzzles. So the approach instead was to ensure the game did not require you to complete any particular area to get to the end. Colorblindness is only an issue with a fraction of the puzzles in the game, and our design focuses these puzzles in a small number of areas, so the workaround is just to skip those areas.”

So if you thought about colorblind gamers you can come up with a solution, right? My thought would be for Downloadable Content (DLC) or a patch to be available to replace those puzzles for people to fully enjoy the game, but no such work has been released to confirm that effort. 

But that was not his main concern when addressing accessibility for his game. Blow told Kotaku writer Totilo that he even considered restricting access to all other gamers by having a puzzle that only colorblind people could solve. Blow said, “We actually tried to put a puzzle in the game that only colorblind people could solve! But we were not able to engineer it because colorblindness is a very individual thing.”

But exclusion is not the answer. Nor should it be. While I may be privileged to have no visual impairments, my brother is color blind. I remember having to help on some of the games he was playing and I could see it frustrated him. I know I would be frustrated if I could not continue where I was in a game because I could not see or hear what the it was telling me to do. I would continue to be upset if I did not know that it was a color puzzle and I had to move on to another section, rely on another person, or look up the answer in a walkthrough because there was no advertisement before the game was released to warn me of those problems. 

So, future developers, indie or not, please do not follow Blow's example. Don’t feel that you have to come up with the solution all by yourself either. There are plenty or resources to help  developers keep their games accessible to all. 

Now, I am not asking for perfection, but awareness can go a long way. A simple thing like a remappable control pad can do wonders for gamers with disabilities. While games are supposed to have barriers for the players to overcome, accessibility barriers can be problematic to the gameplay and overall enjoyment of the product. According to gameaccessibilityguidelines.com, "Accessibility means avoiding unnecessary barriers that prevent people with a range of impairments from accessing or enjoying your output. 15% of the population is disabled, rising to 20% amongst casual gamers."

The website provides helpful tricks for game developers thinking of accessibility in their games by breaking up the material into basic, intermediate, and advanced information. They even provide a breakdown to help those who are audio-, vision-, motor-impaired and more. 

Includification.com is another great resource to help developers think of the different types of players today. The site's content is created by developers and gamers who have disabilities and stresses improving games for everyone. This is a great way to look at accessibility. Everyone plays a game a different way, why not include more ways for them to enjoy the game?

Groups like AbleGamers are present at big gaming conventions like Pax and continue to advocate for accessibility in games. Game Accessibility Guidelines was created by Ian Hamilton and he travels around the world on behalf of accessibility and consults with game developers on the matter. 

There were 374 games funded through Kickstarter in 2015, double the amount of games in 2014 according to Big Fish Games blog, let’s try to make them as accessible as possible for all to enjoy from here on. 

To read more about accessibility and games check out http://www.polygon.com/features/2014/8/6/5886035/disabled-gamers-accessibility

The New NerdyBits by Benjamin Sawyer

Videogames have always held a place located somewhere deep in the center of my heart. A place next to warm coffee, fried eggs, and a cigarette (which I’m trying to let go of). A place next to dark bars, loud music, dark beers, and boozy friends. A place next to Sunday morning snuggles, bedhead, and warm kisses in cold sheets.

Videogames got in the door early and made a home there, inside me, deeper than what some would call “healthy.” See, games are the reason I am alive to day. That’s no bullshit. If Skyrim hadn't opened its snow-crested mountains to me I would have taken my life years ago. If Bioshock hadn't made me think of things differently I would have gotten lost in the darkness just behind my own eyes. If Mass Effect hadn't taught me to make peace with warring species I wouldn't have had the confidence to make peace with my warring demons.

I have many friends today because of the late night conversations, debating until three in the morning whether or not Cortana is going to take human form. Why Call of Duty is fundamentally one of the best games ever made, but a creative wasteland at the same time.

I have cried, alone, in front of my TV, begging Clementine to leave my side before I turn. To this day, even the moment I write this, my eyes still well up when I remember saying goodbye to Thane Krios. His estranged son at my side, uttering a prayer for a  dying man as his final wish, only to learn that the prayer wasn’t for him. It was for me. And not a day to soon.

Games make me cry when I need it, regardless of my attempts to conceal the pain I have endured.

Perhaps that is something that I should make more clear. Perhaps you have deduced as much already. I have survived chronic depression for the last five and a half years and videogames are largely responsible for that result. And the unending support from my family and my wife (I do not mean to make slight their involvement).

But why am I talking about all of this? That is a good question. Maybe I'm trying to prove a point. Maybe not. Recently I was asked why I play so much. Why I spend that much money. Why I stay up so late. To me the answer was simple; because I am paying a debt. I owe who I am to so many faces I’ll never see. So many voices I'll never hear. So many names I’ll never speak.

That bugs me. Even drives me crazy at times. That is why I write about them. That is why I am writing this. Because I hope that someone, somewhere, reads this and realizes how much their work has impacted me. So they can know how the Division taught me not to give up hope. How Crash Bandicoot showed me that the girl I was dating was going to be the woman I married. How Deus Ex taught me to make the best of the hand(s) I've been dealt (see what I did there?).

This is why I want to make games too. Badly. I want to be the voice you think of when you think of a hero. I want to haunt your dreams, and motivate them. I want to write the story that changes how you see the world. I create something that brings people together, spurring conversations that last all night, then carry on to the IHOP you drove to at four in the morning (yes, I've done that).

Maybe, someday, I will meet one of the many people responsible for my existence. Maybe someday I will become one of those people for you.

Videogames have always held a place located somewhere deep in the center of my heart. I know many with the same condition. So next time you play, no matter what the game is, think about the ones who involved that don’t get nearly as much recognition as they should. They may have changed your life.

That is what NerdyBits is, and I have realized, recently, that I haven't been true to that idea. This is a place for thoughts. A place for appreciation. A place for criticism. More importantly my uncle created this site with the idea that I would use it as a means of expression. So NerdyBits is changing. If only a little bit. I used to try and compete with bigger blogs for readers and clicks. That's not what it was meant to be about. 

Going forward, NerdyBits is going to be me. No more third person writing, no more reviews for review's sake. NerdyBits is Caleb Sawyer. My thoughts on paper. You will still see posts from Kathleen, she is a great friend and writes great copy. But you won't read NerdyBits thoughts on anything anymore, you will read OUR thoughts. OUR feelings. Is it objective, absolutely not. It is truth. Emotion. Because games aren't neutral forces in our life. They have influence and should be treated that way.

Illok forward to the future. I hope you agree with this change. But when it comes down to it, I don't really give a damn. This is me being true to me. This is the new NerdyBits.



Transformation Tuesday- Meet the Merc with the Mouth: Deadpool by Benjamin Sawyer

Fans of the comic book genre find themselves scratching their heads why this foul-mouthed Ryan Reynolds character is being made into a superhero movie. Marvel’s next superhero movie trailer Deadpool has been making its rounds. Talks of this movie have been running around since the Wolverine Origins movie (2009) when many Deadpool fans were upset with the character development of their beloved mercenary. Those nerds, like myself, were super happy to hear that Ryan Reynolds would come back to play Deadpool in his own movie and hopefully see some justice done for this comic book character. But for those who don’t know, why give the Wolverine bad guy a movie?

Well, funny story. He is not really a bad guy like Loki and he is not really a hero like Spider-Man. In fact, some would call this character an anti-hero. He was first created to be a supervillain in The New Mutants #98, but has since evolved into an anti-hero mercenary with his nonstop talking and breaking the fourth wall with the audience. Hence his second title, Merc with a Mouth. Deadpool was created by Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefeld and published by Marvel in 1991. Compared to the other Marvel superhero characters in recent movies, Deadpool is pretty young still.

Who is this crazy character? Deadpool, or Wade Wilson, is a disfigured and mentally unstable mercenary. His backstory changes from writer to writer, but he is a Canadian who joined the Weapon X program that gave him special abilities like the accelerated healing factor. Wade Wilson had an incurable cancer so he joined Weapon X for experimental treatment. While his regular cells regenerated, his cancerous cells regenerated, too. The cancerous cells in his brain explain Deadpool’s multiple voices in his head.

Although Wade Wilson is perceived as crazy, he is a mercenary for hire. Deadpool is fluent in multiple languages- English, German, Japanese, and Spanish- as well as trained in multiple forms of martial arts. While he has these deadly skills, his adventures and situations have a great levity to them. Deadpool does not seem to understand social situations sometimes and continues to talk, annoying other characters in the story. He also is not fully aware of when he is talking out loud or in his head, which can lead to some hilarious situations between characters. Because of his rapid healing factor, he seems to have almost no regard for bodily harm to himself which can also lead him to some dangerous scenarios that he has to fight or talk his way out of.

Now if you take out the silliness that is Deadpool, he sounds very similar to a supervillain from the DC universe: Deathstroke or Slade Wilson. How?

Liefeld was a known Teen Titans fan. Deathstroke is the main supervillain from that series, created in 1980. Liefeld created the character’s mannerisms and abilities that were similar to Deathstroke. Nicieza is supposed to have given Deadpool the name Wade Wilson as an homage to Deathstroke so they could be possibly related. But Deadpool evolved and took on a whole life of his own in the short years since he was created.

One example of his shenanigans was an addition of a sidekick in 2007. While other sidekicks of superheroes show courage and have amazing skills, Bob, Agent of Hydra, is a married man who joined Hydra after his wife put pressure on him to keep a job. Bob has no special power or combat training. He is a low level lackey Deadpool took a strange interest in. Deadpool was on a dangerous mission to save Agent X from Hydra when he ran into Bob. Bob was easily coerced by Deadpool to join his side- whatever that side is. In some ways, Bob is just as funny in serious situations as he exclaims at inopportune moments “Hail Hydra” and running away from threats. Deadpool and Bob keep the reader entertained with serious plot lines that seem to go off the rails in unexpected ways.

If you have not checked out any comics, videogames, or movies with Deadpool, I highly suggest it- if you are 13 and older. He is a mercenary with regenerative powers who plays with knives and guns. There are some violent scenes and vulgar language that could be too much for younger viewers. For those eager to meet Deadpool in a small dose, you can check out the Epic Rap Battles of History on YouTube between Deadpool and Boba Fett. And do not miss the Deadpool movie February 12, 2016.

First Appearance of Deadpool in the New Mutants #98 (1991)

Cable and Deadpool issue #18 (2004)

X-Men Legends: Rise of Apocalypse (2005)

Cable & Deadpool #38 (2007) First appearance of Bob, Agent of Hydra

Deadpool Corps (2010)

Deadpool game remastered 2015 for PS4 and Xbox One


Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool in new Deadpool movie to be released 2016


Go-op Gaming: Couch Co-op Trio in St. Louis by Benjamin Sawyer

Many gamers fondly remember growing up playing their games with friends on their couch. GO-OP Gaming invites you to visit them on their couch and relive those memorable times.

Dyllon GrahamGO-OP Gaming was started in September of 2014 in St. Louis by two game enthusiasts in an attempt to give more voice to the Midwest gaming community. Dyllon Graham and Christian Off met while working at Best Buy in Brentwood. Both only lived in St. Louis for about a year. Bouncing off ideas for the channel and going back and forth on a name, they decided to start their YouTube on a previous YouTube channel run by Graham. “[Graham] used to be famous. Don’t let him twist it on you,” Off smiled. “He used to have a skateboarding channel that had 7,000 subscribers.”

It was not a smooth transition for the fans of the site to change the content from skateboarding to video games. But this did not discourage some encouraging voices that inspired them to start completely over from the bottom with a new channel. It has a pretty strong initial following of 336 subscribers for being so new. While GO-OP Gaming is a unique name to search for to subscribe, why choose that name?

Christian OffThe task of choosing the name was no easy quest for Graham and Off. They went back and forth for weeks trying to choose something that would still sound appealing to them a week later. Finally, the first part of their name GO-OP Gaming was created by combining the first letters of their last names: Graham and Off.

“Cooperative was the idea. To bring a couch cooperative revival of playing N64 games and having a face camera and doing all of that,” Graham said.

While they didn’t have a face camera at first, they started to create weekly content and split expenses 50/50 as the group went forward. Graham had plenty of video editing experience from running his previous channel to help the group edit and create content quickly. “I’ve had some YouTube advertising experience. I know how to get around on YouTube. I had the equipment and I had done all the editing,” Graham said. Graham taught Off the video editing process so they could share responsibilities and help the channel grow by creating content faster.

Preston BurnsSoon after, Preston Burns teamed up with the group- creating the trifecta of hosts seen in most videos posted today. Graham and Off met Burns at Best Buy as well. Burns being a new St. Louis resident at the time, too, ran two other podcasts before, including 3.5 Inch Floppy Disk. He also brought structure and talking points to the channel.

“[Burns] pulled in the reigns in on the podcasts. He got it reigned in to where we got structure- like normal, professional podcasts,” Off said. Off continued to note Burns’ marketing influence for the group by creating business cards and bumper stickers that were exclusively on each of their cars.

“My latest mantra has been to effectively own St. Louis and Midwest gaming for anything,” Graham said. GO-OP and other Midwesterners, like Geekly Podcast, try to compete with bigger online presences from both coasts when it comes to gaming content “I would like to be a lightning rod for future people,” Graham said.

They are a self-funded group and have not taken any money from fans through any campaigns. GO-OP Gaming pays for prizes and giveaways of games, like their latest giveaway of Metal Gear V: The Phantom Pain.

They try to keep up their fan presence by going to events, but find it difficult to pay for all the conventions on the coasts. “It’s really expensive to go to those bigger conferences and stuff like that, so you can go to Wizard World in St. Louis and Chicago… I was nearly going to the Star Wars Celebration this year which I’m very disappointed that I didn’t get to go,” Burns said. “But Pixel Pop is right there and pretty cheap.”

The previous year Burns was able to demo Hive Jump by Graphite Labs and was pleasantly surprised to learn about other local gaming companies through these conferences. “When I went to Pixel Pop last year it blew my mind to find out that we had so many gaming companies working here in St. Louis. You don’t realize it until you go to a conference or convention.”

Burns, like many other gamers, played a StarCraft mod called StarCraft Universe which is like a World of Warcraft game. He was excited to meet the creator at one of the conferences and found out that the creator was from St. Louis.

“We would like to do more, but crowdfunding- even if we got bigger, I don’t know. I always like being able to do it ourselves,” Off said.

GO-OP Gaming accomplishes more than video games from their couch and conferences. While they don’t raise money for their efforts, they do help others. This past year they participated in Operation Supply Drop (OSD). This program reflects the support that gamers give other gamers in the form of video games as a distraction for active-duty military and veterans and a bonding opportunity for all service members. OSD sends monthly care packages to United States and NATO troops who are deployed overseas or who are in recovery hospitals. The packages themselves are a myriad of things: consoles, extra controllers and headsets for all consoles and PC, latest and classic Xbox and Playstation titles, and t-shirts.

GO-OP Gaming joined different YouTube bloggers, game developers, gamers, and others around the nation to raise money to send these supply packages to soldiers. GO-OP decided it was best to invite their viewers to watch 24 games in 24 hours, a different game each hour, while continuing to ask for donations. Although very tired by the end of the day, they exceeded their goal of $200.

GO-OP Gaming records every Monday and releases on Tuesday. A YouTube video is released twice a day- morning and night. The docket, created by Burns, goes through an intro and weekly “what’s up?” where they discuss the games they played that week. “We get a news story and then we give you our off-the-cuff opinions on it,” Off said. Burns uses Twitch as well with a segment of “Shitfaced Saturdays,” pronounced in the best Sean Connery accent you can muster. Here, as you might be able to guess, is where he plays through games while drinking. Those gems are released Saturday and Sunday so viewers can mark their calendars.

All the segments are filmed with their face cameras which was also a debate because of extra editing time needed for video and audio. But they finally agreed to keep the camera. “I think the face-cam makes us more personable,” Graham said. Burns quickly interjected, “You see us on the couch, you’ll be there with us, and you can relate to us a little more.”

“The whole point of the channel was to do something that people don’t normally do which is to hang out and play video games with your friends,” Off said.

GO-OP Gaming is looking for more players to join them on their weekly endeavors. Check them out on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Twitch.


Go-op Facebook Page
~Go-op Gaming


Monsters and Bikers Clash in New Comic Series by Benjamin Sawyer

While many people have dreamed about creating their own comic book series, Miguel Santizo, a graduate student of English at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and John King, a lifelong resident of North County, have broken into the comic industry in a big way. Santizo creates the storyline and writes copy for Monsters & Macedonians while his friend, King, brings the written world to life with his illustrations. Santizo and King recently tasted some of the satisfactions of publication when they met fans of their comic and signed autographs at Wizard World’s Comic Convention in St. Louis.

Santizo and King had been kicking around the idea of the comic for a couple years before creating a finished product a year ago. Once finished, they were faced with the problem of publishing. Signing with a major publisher is difficult, so a business had to be formed to self publish. Doug Moser helped create the Legion Macedonia Entertainment, LLC to publish Monsters & Macedonians.

The comic takes place in a violent world controlled by vampires and demons that hide in real businesses in the United States. Most people are oblivious to their presence. The Legion Motorcycle Club, the “best of the bad” heroes of the series, are introduced fighting a werewolf and vampire drug deal to keep control, power, and profit in their territory. The story continues in the second issue with the leader of the Legion Motorcycle Club, Billy, growing into his leadership position with support from his brothers. Santizo described his work as Sons of Anarchy in the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Gangland without the Hamlet.

Santizo researched whatever he could find on outlaw motorcycle clubs to help with the storyline and character development. “I read a number of books, watched documentaries, TV shows, and movies. I wanted to make sure that the book felt authentic, and we didn’t disrespect a culture that I am outside of,” Santizo said. This research is reflected in the strong anti-establishment perspective of the main characters and the intense loyalty they have for their gang.

Although Santizo and King have been working on a comic book for three years, the storyline changed drastically from the original concept about superheroes. Santizo changed the concept of the comic’s current genre. “So, I had to convince John [King] that starting over was worth it, and I believe it was. Then I had to back up what I said and develop characters and a story worth telling,” Santizo said.

“I found that there are a lot of people out there who want to write comics, more writers than artists. There are a fair amount of people who want to draw them, but there are few that are willing to learn what it entails: have the skills to execute the art, the willingness to take the risk of going in on it, especially independently, taking the risk of being criticized, losing money, your own money, and basically making a fool of yourself to anyone that doesn’t understand your passion. We’re still risking that now,” Santizo said.

A typical, large market comic usually has five or six people working on them either writing, drawing, or both and having only two people working on the storyline and artwork makes for a comparatively slower production process. Both have full-time jobs that can also get in the way of production. Their goal is to release at least two issues a year. The first issue is available online. The second is to be released within the next six months.

“If you have the writing bug, after you read long enough you eventually want to give it a shot, and if you have a friend that already has an interest it is even easier. Then the research and writing of the work became my favorite hobby. I could take my whole life and call it research. I could create a whole world full of people and situations, and I would really enjoy it,” Santizo said.

Talking about his illustrator and partner, King, Santizo said, “[King] has always wanted to be a comic book illustrator, has devoted himself to comic book art. His biggest artistic influences are Dave Gibbons, Frank Cho, Steve McNiven, Phil Hester, and Angel Medina. He wasn't able to use most of what we working on before Monsters & Macedonians, but it served as practice. To develop character sketches and looks we play casting call. We use actors, famous people, important people, people we know, etc, and cast them as characters. Then John finds images that help him capture these characters. He doesn't usually make an exact look alike, but an adaptation of that person in the role. For example, Billy, is based on Chris Hemsworth only taken to the toughest biker form possible. John [King] is always on the hunt for images or ideas to make his art and character drawings better.”

Legion Macedonia Entertainment, LLC was started with their own start-up capital. Seeking to build their fan base, they had a booth on the floor of the St. Louis Wizard World’s Comic Convention in May. The two entrepreneurs hope to travel to other conventions after receiving generous amounts of feedback in St. Louis. Besides individual sales, the young company is also accepting donations from fans who want to help see their company grow.

Readers can purchase Monsters & Macedonians: Welcome to the Church online at their website (where you can also read a 10-page preview) or at Comixology. You can also follow the comic on twiter @LegionMacedonia.


Technobabylon Preview by Benjamin Sawyer

In the last few years point-and-click style games have resurfaced with a passion. Telltale's Walking Dead started the fire with its compelling storytelling and consequence driven gameplay. They swiftly followed that up with the Wolf Among Us, another episodic title based on a comic series, this time Bill Willingham's Fables. After those two titanic hits, Telltale blew up and is now making Game of Thrones, Borderlands, and Minecraft adventures in the same vein.

What this "Point-and-Click Renaissance," we'll call it, did was open the door for hundreds, if not thousands of indie developers to make the same types of titles. Titles that, while graphically (and developmentally) less tenacious (without sounding rash) than major AAA titles like The Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect, had the opportunity to do what so many games today fail to do: Tell a truly enveloping story in an enthrallingly stylistic visual manor.

Last month I had the opportunity to preview Technobabylon, a point-and-click style adventure game from Wadjet Eye Games (Gemini Rue, The Blackwell Epiphany). The Cyberpunk adventure takes place in a city called Newton in the year 2087. Immediately it was clear that the game drew heavily from sci-fi influences, especially those of the great Philip K. Dick, author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (inspiration for classic sci-fi films Bladerunner and Total Recall, respectively).

Newton is dirty and clean at the same time. Technologically advanced and repressed. New and old. All aesthetics that lend themselves to a story that, in my playthrough of the preview, weighs heavily on dichotomy.

The three characters that I got to see were Max Lao and Charlie Regis, partner agents at CEL investigating killings that bear the indicatory marks of a serial killer (affectionately named the Mindjacker due to his M.O.), and Latha Sesame, a user and addict of a technological activity called Trance. Trance, a virtual domain love-child born from likes of Surrogates, Inception, and Tron's Grid, is a cyberspace in which people can enter and do anything that their heart desires.

The story that I encountered was setting up what could only be a gloriously tangled web of choice, consequence, and the world left behind. And in world where people can effortlessly link themselves to anything with an interface, Technobabylon also warns of an environment we may find ourselves a part of in the not-so-distant future.  The less-than-comforting AI running the city, Central, is unnerving and omnipresent, creeping wherever it wants with no one to stop it. Trance addicts would sooner abandon the tangible world for the digital. And here we have our triumvirate of ordinary characters, thrust into unsettlingly extraordinary situations.

How Max, Charlie, and Latha will intersect remains a mystery, but the suggestion that Latha might be a future Mindjacker target is enough to assume that their intersection will be wrought with peril.

Technobabylon is set to release on May 21st on PC. Come back to NerdyBits that same day for our full review.

Preorder Technobabylon

Wadjet Eye Games



Hands On with Happy Badger Studio's SmuggleCraft by Benjamin Sawyer

Friday I had the privledge of visiting indie developer Happy Badger Studio for some hands-on time with their upcoming, and recently announced, procedural racing game SmuggleCraft. The first thing I recognized about the studio, a cozy, top floor space in Maplewood, was how quaint and understated it was. It was quiet. The small puppy that greeted me upon entry made the space feel a lot less "studio" and a lot more "home."

In my experience with indie devs, as limited as it may be (after all I have only visited two studios to date), there has always been a small degree of anxiety in my chest as I made the trek to their doors. Call it amateurism, call it inexperience, call it being over my head, every time I have done it, I have always been slightly on edge when I go to a studio as a representative of NerdyBits. Happy Badger was no different.

But just as with Pixel Press, my visit to Happy Badger showed me that this industry is one of the friendliest industries I have ever encountered. Everyone is supportive, kind, welcoming, even homey. But I get ahead of myself. Why was I there?


Happy Badger, a studio who had made themselves in the mobile gaming market, is making a game that is going to perform the console jump. Their console of choice? The indie-friendly PS4 (still not quite sure I forgive Microsoft). SmuggleCraft, as the brain behind the idea (also Game Designer and Producer) Ben Triola said, was born out of a very simple idea. He wanted to make a racing game where gamers finally weren't restricted to "racing in circles." Pretty novel idea right? "If you look at racing games you really have two dynamics," he went on, "either the hyper realistic (i.e. Forza, Gran Tourismo) or the overtly cartoonish (Mario Kart anyone?)". And while none of what he was saying was a revelation, it took me a bit by surprise. I had never really given the racing world much thought when it came to games.

I've played Forza plenty. Correction, I have tried to play Forza plenty, almost always a decision that leads to a childish rage quit, laden with adultish profanity. The games are hard. At least to me. And while Mario Kart is a change of pace car, it is on the far oppoiste side of the spectrum. There is very little realism to shooting shells at your buddies. Sorry Mario. Yes, there are titles that fill the gap, for sure. The Need for Speed series has consistently battled with the line between realism and arcade. But even with those games, there is still a defining factor that 90% of them have, that Happy Badger is trying to steer away from. Driving in circles.

I translated that assertion liberally. Perhaps only for the sake of games like Burnout and the more recent Need for Speeds. Because, while they have steered in the direction of A to B style races (rather than A-B-C-D-A, 12 times) there is still an overlying tone of competition that doesn't quite change from title to title.

SmuggleCraft is seeking to change that very thing.

Immediately, what set SmuggleCraft apart, was one word. Procedural. For those of you who aren't sure what that means, I'll clarify. Procedural is a fancy, programming way of saying random. Instead of Happy Badger creating a set number of tracks that you can master and then, as a result, get bored with, they are creating dozens of track parts. The game then algorithmically creates tracks based on quantified "connection points" between parts (piece AB connects to piece BA, BB, BC, and so on). This makes every track different from the last, and the next, for that matter. No two gamers will ever get the same track.

That isn't the only thing that sets it apart from other racing games, however. SmuggleCraft is a quest-based racing game, set in a world where over-regulation is the norm and oppression is the M.O., and Narrative and Character Designer Carol Mertz is working hard to create a story based on player decision. There are three factions in SmuggleCraft: The Laborers, the Rebels, and the Auros. Players will be able to pick up jobs from all three factions in an effort to pay off their debt. A debt that every player inherits as they take the role of Ferre Astraea, a smuggler (duh). Which jobs you pick up will change the story that you get, as well as increase your notoriety, making your trips from city to city more perilous as hitmen from other factions, and government authorities hunt you in transit.

Those cities will be procedurally generated as well. So rather than random tracks taking you to set cities, the whole world will be new every playthrough you have. With so many possibilities, replay value is bound to be through the roof.

And this is just the preamble I got, before I got hands on time. SmuggleCraft is pre-alpha. With almost a year before release date and as small a dev team as they have, it makes sense that the game be in its first stages. But even with the framework that was their demo, I was hooked. There was a distinct, Wipeout, feel to the control scheme and ship handling. Drifting around corners felt directional and not tractional, appropriate for a hover-craft. The inclusion of a strafe ability, attached to the right stick, also lent to degree of finesse that many games with similar vehicles need but almost always lack.

The courses themselves are rendered with an almost haunting aesthetic, and while Dana Huth, the Creative Director and Environment Designer, admitted to this title being her first time really helming that side of things, it doesn't show. It all fits together so well. Like pieces of a puzzle that you didn't think to align in that order. Even the early music tracks by Phil Hayes (@Bravendary) meshed well. The build that I had access to was lacking the story elements I mentioned earlier, surely still in the development phase, but the frame was there. Quests that I chose were clearly qualified on four levels: Legality, difficulty, risk, and rewards. The upgrade system also wasn't finished, but Happy Badger promises fully upgradeable hovercraft in later builds, and the finished product, a point that led to an interesting discussion about multiplayer.

Multiplayer is definitely a planned feature and, much like Destiny, they plan to give players the opportunity to use their own, upgraded craft in races that would resemble the races old prohibition-era bootleggers used to have. With similar, cut-throat stakes. "You know how when you fall off of the course in Mario Kart, you are gingerly lifted from the wreckage and placed on the track?" Carol asked, "Well we don't want that to happen in SmuggleCraft. If you crash, you're out." 

SmuggleCraft is a long way out, but with what I saw on Friday, I wanted to take it home with me, bugs and all. A fresh take on racing, with a branching, player-impacted story, and an unforgiving competitive multiplayer? Sign me up now! And all of the promise that this game holds rests firmly on the shoulders of their great development team.

I only met with three of them: Ben Triola, Carol Mertz, and Dana Huth. But it was easy to see that their passion for games, is matched only by their passion for the St. Louis gaming community. Founders of Pixel Pop Festival, a small gaming conference on the campus of Webster University, these three are fervent about the growing indie community in St. Louis and the Midwest as a whole. They reached out and contacted NerdyBits after all. Excited to reach out to a local blog. I could not be happier that I fell under that category. The Badgers are great company.

For more on Happy Badger Studio or their upcoming SmuggleCraft follow these links. The other team members at Happy Badger that I missed on Friday are Joey Paniello (@JoeyMaru) and TJ Hughes (@_Teejay5).

Follow Carol Mertz (@carolmertz), Dana Huth (@theRampant), and Ben Triola (@bentriola) on Twitter


Transformation Tuesday: Lara Croft by Benjamin Sawyer

It’s time to honor a kick-ass female lead character: Lara Croft. Lara was first introduced into the gaming world in Tomb Raider for the PlayStation, Sega Saturn, and PC in 1996. Since then the fictional character has spawned 16 video games, 2 movies, comic books, novels, animated short series, a themed amusement park ride, and endless merchandising. Lara Croft made video game history as she entered the Walk of Game and Guinness World Records as the "Most Successful Human Virtual Game Heroine” in 2006.

Lara in 1996But let’s focus on the history of her gaming success. The first generation of the franchise consisted of Tomb Raider (1996), Tomb Raider II (1997), Tomb Raider III (1998), The Last Revelation (1999), Chronicles (2000), and Angel of Darkness (2003). The first reboot series started with Legend (2006), then Anniversary (2007), and Underworld (2008). The second and most recent reboot included the reimagined Tomb Raider (2013) and the upcoming Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015). The handheld series was Tomb Raider (2000), Curse of the Sword (2001), and The Prophecy (2002). The Lara Croft spinoff series encompasses Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (2010) and Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris (2014). Lara's been busy for nearly two decades and managed to stay in great shape.

The Tomb Raider franchise became known for their female heroine and third person over the shoulder camera shooter, platform, and puzzle gameplay. Toby Gard, one of Core Design’s lead artist at the time, created the concept and game we all know and love today. Because of some obvious similarities, Gard had some lawsuit problems claiming that the main character resembled Indiana Jones. Gard sidestepped the problem when he suggested the main character be female. Core’s co-founder, Jeremy Heath-Smith, leaped at the opportunity of this new game idea.

Gard went to work and created a South American kick ass woman named Lara Cruz. This was not approved by Core whose parent company was bought by Eidos. They wanted a more United Kingdom friendly game. The team went to the phone book and started to call out names, finally agreeing on the now iconic name of Croft.

The game was a 3D realistic world where the player led Lara Croft through temples solving puzzles and thwarting dangerous animals and humans to reach the prize artifact. Lara could walk, run, jump, swim, dive, climb, and shoot. Along the way, Lara carried her two signature automags that never ran out of bullets and an apparently infinite bag on her back to hold numerous prizes. These two things were not exactly realistic, but Gard wanted to stray a little away from realistic with his character design. A computing error created Lara with a 150% increase bust size instead of an intended 50% increase.  However, the "mistake" was so popular they didn’t fix it.

Sony was not as excited about the game and, at first, didn't want it for PlayStation. Gard took the game to Overdrive who added the voice of Shelly Blond to Lara, a musical score, and full-video cut scenes. Tomb Raider went back to Sony who then jumped at the idea of marketing the game for Play Station.

The game was a huge success, costing $2.4 million dollars to create, but it making $14.5 million in just one year.

The game was criticized by animal activists who did not enjoy the body count of big game animals killed during the game. It was also criticized by those who did not like Lara's unrealistic body figure, claiming that no real woman built like her could walk upright and jump. She was praised for her independent character by some feminists, while others demonized her for her overt sex appeal.

Gard didn’t agree with Lara posing nude for advertisements as it was out of Lara’s character that he had created. It wasn’t his decision, however, as she was now the property of Eidos, and so he left Core.

1997Eidos wanted a game out every year at the same time, so the group went to work on Tomb Raider II. They made a whole list of improvements: new levels with new lighting, new enemies, assault weaponry, grenade launchers, driving skill and vehicles. It was another huge success selling 8 million copies. They couldn’t celebrate long and had to go straight back into the game development of Tomb Raider III with new animations of shells ejecting from guns, new moves, new vehicles, and new plot lines. Eidos wanted to rerelease and profit more off of the success of the previous games with “Gold Editions” of the games. The company also added new levels to each game.

It was speculated that Lara Croft had reached her peak, but Revelations was the biggest success of the franchise to that point. It wasn’t as much innovations to the game, as it was it being a solid game and franchise. The group couldn’t keep up with the demand for constant innovations and were tired. So they decided to kill Lara in her own tomb and solve their problem.

Eidos wanted to profit more and decided to make Gameboy Advance games while the Core group took a break. They decided to go back to work with the game release of Chronicles in 2000. The game play was recycled and the game was not new anymore. Core insisted it was not a full game and went to work on a new game for the PlayStation 2.

1998Angel of Darkness was a darker game that brought in hand-to-hand fighting and a new playable character, Kurtis Trent. The game had problems transferring from the PlayStation One to Two which caused major delays. Eidos pushed the game to be released before the Tomb Raider movie sequel despite Core saying the game was not ready. The game was unsuccessful and the movie’s lack of success was blamed on the game and vise versa.

Eidos took Core off the Tomb Raider project and gave it to Crystal Dynamics. Crystal Dynamics won over Toby Garb and got his help as a consultant for the game Tomb Raider: Legend released in 2006. Legend went back to Lara’s roots and expanded on her back story and reasons for her becoming a Tomb Raider. Gard became a designer for Tomb Raider: Anniversary released in 2007 as he redesigned his old games for a more contemporary audience. Gard continued to work on Tomb Raider: Underworld released in 2008, following the story from Legend.

In 2010, Square Enix released a download only game Tomb Raider and the Guardian of Light. The game is a spinoff to the regular Tomb Raider games and offers a different style of game play. It is similar to the Gameboy Advance games and offers up to two player gameplay. In 2014, Square Enix released a sequel called Tomb Raider and the Temple of Osiris. The title offers cooperative game play up to four players.

In 2013, Square Enix released an origins game simply titled Tomb Raider. Hoping to revamp the franchise, the game introduces players to a much younger Lara as she struggles for survival. A sequel date was released in 2014 for the holiday season of 2015 for Rise of the Tomb Raider.

2000Tomb Raider is very much on the rise as Lara Croft transformed from her 1996 character to her 2013 character. Take a moment to relive her past makeovers through the years, and be on the lookout for her latest transformation in 2015.






2013 (the best)