Gaming without your brother

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When I read the synopsis of Splice in the back of the PAX program, with the rest of the PAX10 games (ten indie games at PAX, highlighted by industry experts for how awesome they are), I was pretty sure it was going to be over my head. But I had made a goal to try and play all ten PAX10 games before the doors of the convention center closed two days later. Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to play all ten games (I couldn’t find six of them whatsoever, so that’s on you, PAX), but I did get a chance to try out Splice and pick up a coupon code so I could buy it on the cheap after PAX, which I did.

Splice was made by Cipher Prime Studios and is currently available in the iTunes app store as well as on Steam for Mac and PC. The marketing copy boasts over seventy levels, and the company also offers a deluxe edition that comes with the soundtrack. That was my first tip off about the music. Just like Catch-22, in the exhibition hall at PAX I couldn’t hear the soundtrack but when a game starts offering their soundtrack along with the game, not as an afterthought months later, you know it’s going to be a good soundtrack.

I didn’t get to talk much to the Cipher Prime guys at the booth because some “big wig” who “voted for their game to be in the PAX10” or something lame like that walked up right when I did. Sheesh. The nerve, huh? /sarcasm. Anyway, I pieced together a little bit of the game play, got stuck on the seventh strand of the first sequence, congratulated them on the game, and left. I finally got around to buying, installing, and playing the game last night.

As for the actual game play, all the player has to do is move around microbial units (sure, that’s what we’re gonna call them) to fit in the frame that the level provides. But when you move one microbe, it effects where the others are and they move as well. You have a limited number of splices, or moves, to get all the microbes to match the shape of the frame. In later levels, microbes get special actions, such as splitting in two to make more microbes, and other actions that are harder to explain. I heard one YouTube reviewer compare the sequences to worlds in a platformer, and the individual strands of Splice to levels in a platformer. So when I say sequences and strands in the rest of this, think of it like that. Strands are levels essentially, and they’re grouped into sequences, which are pretty much only there for organizational purposes. The funniest phrase of this paragraph is “all the player has to do,” because for its simple objective, I found Splice stupidly hard.

My previous admission about how terrible I am at puzzlers still stands. So it shouldn’t be surprising when I got stuck on the same strand of the same sequence two weeks after I played it at PAX. I eventually got it on my own, but it took me so long, it wasn’t even gratifying. I was still shaking my head, like “Man, how could I have figured that out faster?” I got stuck again on sequence two, strand three but not wanting to waste more time (which is how I always view beating my head against puzzles, i.e. as a waste of time), I googled a solution. Thankfully (for my pride, anyway) the reviewer explained some more mechanics of the game so I didn’t have to watch the full solution; I realized the solution now that I understood what the new microbes actually did.

I haven't rage quit Splice . . . yet

I haven’t rage quit Splice . . . yet

I stopped my brief run through at sequence three, strand five. Like all puzzle games I play, it might be awhile before I actually finish this one because I am impatient and apparently an idiot. I recognize the deliberate choice to go minimalist on the game play by not explaining how to play the game, but at the same time, players get nothing to go on . . . For as much as I love progressive gaming, the lazy, puzzler-handicap in me shakes its head at setting up gamers to fail. And it’s more than others. Limbo, for instance, explains nothing. But it’s such a familiar backdrop (i.e. platformer) we instinctively figured out what to do. Splice is breaking boundaries all over the place, so our frame of reference is limited, if not gone entirely for those of us who don’t play puzzle games often enough. I think at the end of the day however, I’d rather developers assume I’m too smart than assume I’m too stupid. This rant is just because I’m mad that I’m really bad at this game.

Far and away though, this has got to be one of the most beautiful indie games I’ve ever played. There isn’t a ton to go on visually throughout the game, it’s true, but again the minimalist art style and controls, as well as a superb soundtrack (officially called Flight of Angels) that I’m going to buy off of Bandcamp in just a few minutes, creates an ephemeral place in which to ragequit. Ahh, how pleasant.

If you like puzzle games, you will love Splice and you should definitely spring the $10 to buy it. It’s only $4 for the iPad, and I don’t see anything telling me that it has any fewer levels, so if you have an iPad, save some dough and buy it in the app store. If you don’t like puzzle games, I think this is still a beautiful enough game that if you like being challenged in non-puzzle games, you’ll appreciate the experience in Splice. Just wait until it goes on sale.


I should’ve posted this yesterday but I realized if I get into the habit of daily posts, I’ll be beating myself up to maintain that and I don’t want to sink into gaming as a chore again. So I paced myself, played another one of the PAX10 (ten of the best indie games shown at PAX, chosen by a panel of industry experts) called Containment, and had a fairly good time doing it. Good, not great.

I happened to wander by the Bootsnake Games booth in between waiting in line for panels. It was on the sixth floor and not in the hubbub of the AAA title company booths on the fourth floor, which I preferred. I set out at the beginning of the weekend to make sure I played all the PAX10 games (which didn’t happen), but I saw this booth fairly early in the weekend and confidently stood behind someone else playing a demo to listen to an explanation of the game (I did in fact play the game a few days ago, have no fear).

Containment is a zombie puzzler, where you manipulate people in four classes (primarily designated by four different colors) to surround a zombie in the four cardinal directions. Once a zombie is surrounded on all four sides by one color (e.g. all pink, all green, all blue, or all orange) the colored characters kill the zombie and more characters slide down from the top of the screen to fill in the spaces that were just occupied by the zombies and the attacking characters. You can swap characters from any spot on the grid to strategically place a character. Don’t be fooled though, it’s not a turn-based game. As I sat for the first few seconds pondering what I wanted to do first, a zombie ate the character next to it and turned it into a zombie as well (the primary zombie movement mechanism – infecting others). You can surround groups of zombies with one color of character to defeat them as well, and edges of the count as the color of character you’re using, automatically. Defeating all the zombies in a grid before another zombie can crawl it’s way in advances you to the next grid and through the game.

Different classes drop different items. Surrounding zombies with all pink doctors will sometimes mean these pink ladies drop a hazmat suit item that protects three horizontally adjacent characters of your choice to be protected and to act as character color wildcards, still swappable anywhere on the grid. Surrounding zombies with all green soldiers will occasionally net you a grenade to blow up a  cluster of people, whether zombies or friendlies. Blue groups killing zombies will sometimes drop a sniper shot to take out one zombie outright (there are varying classes of zombies that are harder to kill as the game progresses), and orange characters that kill a zombie or group of zombies sometimes drop a Molotov cocktail that will burn a cluster of zombies and allies without discretion.

As I said, one of the first game play features I noticed was that it’s not turn-based. Zombies don’t want for you to strategize before munching on your citizens. Initially I thought this was clever because it forces players to think and act quickly, which isn’t always the case for the puzzle genre. Later in the game though, I realized more and more that I was approaching levels with a brute force approach because I felt time was more important than finesse. It’s a fine line to be sure, and one that might be praised by some and criticized by others. I vacillated between the two, as I said.

Another strength to the game were the characters. While the animation was clean and neat, but nothing special, the characters you move on the grid to surround and kill zombies had some really clever short lines of dialogue, and the voice actors did a good job in their brief appearances.

Now to reference the title, and my easily contained excitement for the game. I was impressed that the team at Bootsnake Games bothered to put in a story at all, and the exposition that rolled onto the screen in between zombie grids had some funny one liners every so often. However, overall it was your standard zombie tale, without novelty. Also, I couldn’t imagine a more boring font. I’m no typographer so I don’t want to purger myself but the font of the story was something like Helvetica or Arial. Seriously? I would’ve preferred the cliche zombie font over reading three acts with five levels a piece entirely in the plainest sans serif font available. A small detail, you’d think, but from the time the first bit of plot was scrolling off of the screen and to the next grid, I was already bored of reading it the exposition in such a boring font.

Seriously, I would've rather read pages of this, as annoying as it is, than ARIAL.

Seriously, I would’ve rather read pages of this, as annoying as it is, than ARIAL.

Overall, the game was a little easy. I didn’t die once until sometime in the middle of the second act. In Bootsnake’s defense, I only played through the campaign mode. There is also a survival mode that I would bet gets pretty difficult. Additionally, there is no penalty for incurring collateral damage. In fact, killing more of your allies unlocks Steam achievements. I think an easy way to up the difficulty would be to penalize players for avoidable friendly fire. Without that penalty, I was dropping grenades, warheads, and Molotov cocktails willy nilly, just to get a few zombies.

Update: I just jumped into Survival mode for a few rounds to double check, and not be a lazy/crappy reviewer, and you do get ranked on how many civilians you kill per round. Having said that, I wasn’t too careful about it, and I got an “A” in the first three rounds so . . . maybe it’s still not that hard.

And again in the game’s defense, there is the company itself, Bootsnake Games. I said it once and I’ll say it again – the nicest people go to PAX. I listened to one of the people working the booth explain the game and gently guide the PAX attendee playing the game to make better choices. Another booth worker came up to me to answer the rest of my questions, invite me to try it out on the iPad, and convince me to buy it for $3 there at the booth. Supporting the indie devs! My favorite pastime.

Wa hoo, independent developers! Stick it to the man!

Wa hoo, independent developers! Stick it to the man!

The game is available on Steam for the PC (which is how I played my copy when I got home from PAX) and it’s in the Apple App store.  For $2, I would recommend giving it a shot on the iPad, just because it is generally fun and I bet you can get more traction out of the survival mode than I got in the few hours it took me to complete the campaign. For $5 on the PC right now . . . sure, I recommend it too, so long as $5 is chump change to you (right now, $5 is a day of food for me so Containment wouldn’t be a priority. Catch-22 would be, just for reference). Like I said, I just love giving independent developers all of my money.

Any zombie games you guys have totally loved? I usually try to avoid the genre, but this was a pleasant introduction. Leave suggestions for me in the comments!


Noob Alert! I originally said I watched Team Digitas as one of the first teams to play in the LoL championship. That should read Team Dignitas. My mistake, and if you like LoL and haven’t given up on me yet, sorry for the typo.

1) On Thursday night we pulled into Seattle to meet up with my friends’ Minecraft server buddies for dinner. They turned out to be a twenty-five year old woman who was the community manager and a man in his late thirties with his nine year old son. All three were so incredibly nice and so passionate about Minecraft that even though I didn’t really know what was going on (I have still never played Minecraft, and I know that makes me a bad person), I was grinning like a kid as the table bantered about Minecraft then Magic then tabletop games. After the meal, the father invited us all to play Risk in the lobby of his hotel with other people. After wandering the convention center for awhile to just check everything out before the influx of people the next morning, we wandered into one of the hotel lobbies and I saw every table and chair occupied by fellow gamers playing all kinds of board games and card games. I started smiling like a kid and when I tried to explain it later to family and friends, I got choked up. People all together for the same purpose doing the same thing. Incredible.

It’s worth noting that while wandering around the convention center Thursday night, I saw a troupe of Mass Effect cosplayers who were perfect. In particular there was a guy dressed in the best geth suit I’ve ever seen. He proceeded to moonwalk in his suit as people were taking pictures of him and then I knew: my life was complete.

2) We got up early to get in line by eight for getting into the exhibition hall as soon as the doors opened at ten. After seeing some amazing cosplay that kept a smile on my face for two hours, the doors officially opened and I wandered the floor in a crowd of people, playing a few games (Hitman: Absolution, Sleeping Dogs) here and there, but mainly feeling a little overwhelmed, and not wanting to wait in line for any demos. Eventually I wound up on the sixth floor and watching the North American regionals for League of Legends. I’ve played the game a few times, I’m really bad at it, and I know there is strategy but I’m not sure what it is. However, I knew the tournament was a huge deal this weekend so I wanted to at least see a little bit of it. And as the teams started the game and Team Dynamic drew first blood and Team Dignitas got revenge a few minutes later, I felt my involvement and excitement rising. Despite not knowing how these players were great I could tell they were great, and the energy in the room was almost palpable. That was the moment I realized PAX was so much bigger than I fathomed initially and I was a part of it and my life is awesome because of that.

3) I was waiting in line for the Destructoid panel as a Fallout cosplaying couple behind me were talking to a few people behind them. I then heard the boyfriend say that his girlfriend got some great swag earlier that morning, and the girlfriend promptly burst into tears. Unable to abate my curiosity, I turned around to see her show off a sparkling (and quite massive) engagement ring to the interested parties. My joy for them (and I’m sure the joy of everyone else in the line) was overwhelming and it struck me how gamer or non-gamer, we’re all so much the same. Beautiful things happen at PAX.

4) There are a few remote locations for panels and events outside of the convention center itself, within a few blocks of it to the north and west. As I walked from one hotel meeting room to another for the next writing panel I was attending, I realized the sun was shining and I was walking around sans jacket. I looked up in the cloudless sky and noted its absolutely perfect shade of cerulean blue. I was at a gaming convention where beautiful things happened like moon walking geth, cosplay marriage proposals, getting career advice from Chris Kohler of Wired, telling Evan Lahti of PCGamer.com that I would send him writing samples, and too many other great things to mention. The location was also beautiful. It has been an unbeatable weekend.

So far I’ve received incredible writing and career advice, I’ve laughed a lot, I’ve played some games (not nearly enough), I bought Containment for $3, and I’ve made a long list of blog topics that I should be posting faster than I’ll be able to. My brain and notebook are at full capacity with more topics I want to write about and more topics I want to get back to the convention center to cover as quickly as possible tomorrow morning for the final day of the expo. PAX has been phenomenal, more posts are coming, and thanks for sticking around.