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I’ve written again and again about the value I believe games posses. Gaming is escape, it’s catharsis, it’s exploration and adventure; in short, gaming is art. Much like a play or a movie or even a moving orchestral piece, video games too can represent an amalgamation of talents that, together, create something poignant, evocative, and awe-inspiring.

Not every game needs to be considered a deep, serious masterpiece to be valuable, of course. There is merit in laughing together with friends at a good stand-up show or freaking out over the over-the-top effects of an explosive, Michael Bay-esque action sequence, if that’s what you’re into, and there is value in games that contribute similar enjoyment. But sometimes you come across a game that is one of those masterpieces. And no matter how much worth you already see in games from The Sims to Skyrim to Overwatch (recent Blizzard news notwithstanding), there’s something special, something extra, about a game that makes you really say “wow.” One that takes you somewhere new, makes your eyes widen again and again in wonder, and immerses you completely in a new, unique, and incomparably beautiful world.

Journey does all of that, and it does it without a single word of dialogue. It’s amazing. You start in a beautiful desert landscape with little idea of what to do. Moving around instantly becomes a delight. Your character slides over sand dunes, marches uphill, hops up stairs and, soon, flies. There is very little instruction and almost just as little direction, but figuring it all out is part of the fun that not only leaves you guessing but keeps you breathless. What’s coming next? The only way to find out is to keep moving forward. The gorgeous landscapes continue to change as you and your silent companion—someone a near-replica of your red-robed avatar who, like you, only communicates thought lights and alternating tones—make your way over sandfalls, float through underwater-without-quite-being-underwater biomes, and navigate windswept clearings. You encounter creatures large and small, each more incomprehensible and dreamlike than the last.

And always, you move forward. My companion and I (I dubbed them “Longscarf,” as my friends said part of the fun in the game is naming all the creatures you encounter), moved ever forward, at times directed by someone I call The Owl Mother, who let us know the mountain is our ultimate goal. Despite having a defined endpoint, we’re free to travel and explore at our own pace. There are amazing sequences of being airborne and dipping in and out of twirling flightpaths, slipping and slide down sandy slaloms with feet dug deep and cutting paths into the dunes, and our robes trailing hypnotically behind us as we swim through the enchanted air along with floating jelly fish and whale shark-like beasts made of the game's ubiquitous and mysterious red scarves. With each new area discovered, a new environment is uncovered, neither wildly different nor quite the same as where you just were, keeping each segment of exploration fresh, gorgeous, and captivating.

For a wordless game, Journey is surprisingly emotional. Originally developed for the PS3, my friends joked that the developers’ aim was to do everything in their power to show how gorgeous a game could be on PlayStation, and from the graphics to the characters’ movements to the score, they succeeded. Not since Shadow of the Colossus has a Playstation game made my jaw drop at its realistic (while somehow simultaneously unrealistic) beauty. And for a game where not a single word was uttered, I was amazed at how invested I was in my character (and their friend) at the end. A Rock Monster (my name for the beast) hit my companion at one point, and I audibly gasped. Not Longscarf! It was hard enough to see one of the little scarf-creatures destroyed by the brute, especially as the game up until that point had felt pretty consequence free, so it was shocking to see any type of violence, but my bond with my companion by this point had run deep. Through our wordless communications—cryptic though those pleasant tones and halo-like lights could be—it was obvious that we were in this together, and I was pained and frightened to see any harm befall them. There's no real way to fight back in the game, so my heart thudded in my chest as Longscarf and I continued forward, avoiding the beacon-like gaze of the hulking Rock Monsters as they surveyed the passageway we had to make our way through. I watched over my friend like an anxious mother hen as we navigated our way around jutting structures and through broken tunnels, avoiding the danger I had only so recently realized existed.

Journey does a great job of keeping you on your toes. You spend your time playing forever unsure of what exactly is going on while simultaneously reveling in the gorgeous experiences taking place all around you. You think you finally get a full understanding of what this world will throw at you, and that's exactly when a new challenge arises. It's an exhilarating mix of wonder and curiosity.

That's why I shouldn't have been surprised that the Rock Monsters wouldn't be players' last encounter with adversity in the game. The terrain grows harsh as you grow ever closer to your destination, and as you and your companion strive toward the mountain, your goal, the endpoint of your journey finally in sight, you find yourselves slowed by bitter winds, your scarves growing stiff in the sleet and snow, no longer lively and illuminated, no longer designating your ability to fly. You lose your ability to “speak,” and you suddenly become aware of how comforting those beeps and boops and the bright, circular light and little hops and spins you two shared had become to you, how even though you were never truly sure you were going the right way, or why exactly you were going there, you weren’t alone, and you could say so—in your own way—to each other.

At this part in the game, as our feet sank deeper into the growing snowbanks, our robed bodies hunched against the frigid wind, each step slower than the last, silent we marched on, and my heart ached for us. We’d been through so much, seen such amazing sights, survived such unimaginable things, we had to make it… didn’t we?

To me, this is such a fantastic example of what games have to offer, of the emotional journeys they can take us on, and the evocativeness of the creativity and collaboration that goes into them. Other than the title and the credits, the game has no words, but it manages to wow you, to make you feel—it'll make you elate and worry, mourn and celebrate, and form connections with voiceless beings better than games with books' worth of dialogue sometimes do. The music swells and simmers, pulling you along magical, gorgeous like an orchestra punctuates what's happening on stage, and it does it in a way that's immersive rather than intrusive. Everything fits together in a way that makes the game feel whole and balanced, with no one element standing out to overshadow the others. Visual, auditory, and emotional elements intertwine seamlessly to create an interactive masterpiece. If you can play Journey and call it anything but a work of art, I will be amazed. But I’ve yet to find anyone willing to make that argument, and, I imagine, likely never will.

As an aside, one thing I didn’t realize until I began writing this article is that apparently, my friend—Longscarf, as I insist on calling them—may well have been another player. There’s some debate on the topic, but when I was on my first playthrough, I was sure the other person was A.I. They always seemed to lead me in the right direction, always responded to my tones and lights (and gave their own when I was having trouble orienting myself to their location), and would come to find me when I struggled to get to the right area. Were they an experienced other player, benevolently leading me to the mountain, slipping and sliding with me, dodging Rock Monsters, and battling fierce winds at my side like an understanding older sibling, showing me the way? Or were they merely a computer creation, helping me not to get too lost in this vast, magical desert, where it can be all too easy to get turned around? I thought the latter, and unfortunately I didn’t watch the credits closely enough, as apparently, if you do play with another player, their name will be listed there.

Darn. Guess I’ll have to play again (and perhaps even a few more times, just to be sure) in order to figure it out.

But whether or not that mystery ever gets solved, I'll be satisfied. After all, it's all about the journey, right?


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Credit: Niche and Stray Fawn Studios

Years ago, I wrote an article for Geektime called “Genetics and Gaming: A Strategist’s Dream” about the game Niche - A Genetics Survival Game. I found the game via Kickstarter, where it not only met but well exceeded its funding goals, beating their modest initial target by a whopping nearly $60,000 dollars.

Back then, I got to speak with Philomena Schwab, a game designer and marketing lead with Niche, and the passion she and the entire team—which she said was made up of “biology nerds,” including Schwab herself who “couldn’t decide if she wanted to study biology or game design"—put into the game was evident throughout every single aspect of their creation. That’s why, when I picked it up again from a long hiatus away, I shouldn’t have been surprised by how much the game itself had grown and evolved. In fact, when I revisited it recently, it felt almost brand new. They’ve introduced a ton more features and adaptations since those early post-Kickstarter days. Niche was already immensely fun and pretty complex, though it has always also remained user friendly. Now, however, it truly feels like a game of near-endless possibilities. Despite its complexities, what Schwab said back then is still true: All you need to know about how to play “is interwoven with the game-mechanics,” meaning you learn by playing. (I wish we could learn everything that way!)


Even though you'll face hunger, predators, illness, and even climate change, the most complicated part, in my opinion, is all the planning a player does to try and engineer the offspring with the best genes. The big challenges stem from the player’s ambition in how they choose to face whatever trials they encounter—which is honestly a huge part of what makes the game so fun. You basically get to play god to these adorable little animals, and your choices can affect generations of critters to come, so pick which threat(s) you need to tackle first and choose wisely!

And if the game opened a lot of opportunities to players before, now it’s a behemoth of possibilities. Some things have changed, others have been added in, and even more are yet to be discovered (by me, anyway). There are new adaptations, features, food sources, and even ways to die. (I learned that one pretty quickly. Whoops.) It's awesome.

Credit: Niche and Stray Fawn Studios

But it’s also complicated. Is your little animal, called a nicheling, an alpha, beta, or omega? It’s important to choose because this determines who gets fed first when food is low. And there are so many new genes that can be expressed, meaning even my starting nichelings had properties I hadn’t seen when I last played, so I can’t imagine what more there is to uncover and evolve. There were also some things added in (at least I don’t remember them from the early days) which are really helpful. For instance, if I try to do an action, such as cracking a nut, it will let me know that certain nichelings have a “low chance of success because of cracking ability.” On the other hand, I inadvertently drowned one of my first nichelings, which I certainly don’t remember doing in the past, so there’s a lot to (re)learn in that capacity, as well as so many fun, exciting opportunities to explore.

Credit: Niche and Stray Fawn Studios

And this is why I was very excited when I heard that the same team has come out with a mobile game: Niche, Breed and Evolve. It’s focused primarily on (you guessed it), the breeding and evolution aspects of the game, and, while it’s different from the original Niche, it's similar enough for original players to feel like they're visiting an old friend. I recognized the general look of the nichelings and those familiar colored gems on their chests, but could tell I was in for a whole different kind of adventure. Instead of moving around on their island, losing actions with every step until it’s time for night to fall and start a new day, these nichelings each sit stationary on their assigned nests. Instead, you take them on journeys through differing biomes with unique challenges via a series of mini games, where you must choose the right nichelings with the right skills to achieve the increasingly difficult goals laid out before you.

In the games, you can harvest food, fight predators, and even discover new critters who want to join your tribe. The games are fun and strategically satisfying. They require varying tactics and planning of your paths and priorities, and, though there is a brief cooldown for a nicheling after it’s explored the vast expanse, you can generally play the games over and over with a rotating band of sentries, leveling up and encountering more and more difficult terrain and enemies.

But what if you get so good that don’t have any nicheleings qualified to complete the increasingly demanding mini-game tasks? That’s where breeding comes in!

The mobile game, in my opinion, has better defined and streamlined the genetics goals in the Niche franchise, making the evolutionary choices clearer because you have specific advances laid out before you to attain. Where the original Niche game is more open-world, comparatively, the mobile Niche still lets you make choices about where you'll go next in some aspects, sure, but your path and advancements are a lot more predefined, which makes your options and opportunities seem less sprawling (and, at least to me at times, overwhelming).

Let’s not misrepresent things, though—I am still playing with a notebook in front of me, keeping track of traits, dominate and recessive genes, jotting down who I want to breed with whom and renaming my nichelings according to their strongest aspects so I can keep up with it all, but it feels, somehow, more digestible in this format. (And, of course, none of that record keeping and careful planning is required; that’s just how I like to play!)

Similar to the main game, you can move to different biomes, and you need materials to build new nests and feed your nichelings (in the case of the mobile game, this is done when they’re hurt, you’re inviting someone new to join the tribe, or you want your nichelings to mate, rather than at the end of every day like in the first game), but it’s a lot more straightforward and with fewer extraneous variables, which can be nice when you want a more bite-sized genetics gaming experience.

Both games, however, are an absolutely perfect balance between cute and complicated, adorable and technical, and relaxing and engaging. Whether you want the full-on, open world exploration experience or a more streamlined and pre-destined goal set, either Niche game is bound to get your brain working. That's why I really recommend checking out both versions of the game. The creators have made clear that they are unique titles—Breed and Evolve is not a sequel to the original Genetics Survival Game but rather a member of the same family, and they are still very obviously closely related (sisters, I’d say, rather than cousins). That being said, they absolutely have their own individual perks and styles, and it's easy to love them both for what makes them unique as well as for the qualities they share.

Niche, a Genetics Survival Game can be found on Steam, and Niche, Breed and Evolve is available on mobile now!

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I'm taking a brief hiatus. In the meantime, enjoy this throwback post from my old gaming blog. Enjoy this post from 2015 which discusses one of my favorite games of all time, Achaea, Dreams of Divine Lands. I've written a little bit about Achaea on here before.

This also ran as a series at Visitant Lit (formerly PDXX Collective) starting here.


Achaea, Dreams of Divine Lands. Heard of it? If so, please feel free to drop me a line, because I think I may know you! Otherwise, you’ll probably be like most of my readers who stick to the more visually engaging spectrum of gaming, but I have to tell you, if that’s you then you’re sorely missing out.

Achaea is a game that has been around since 1996 and has been going against the norm since day one. First of all, let’s just rip the bandage off: Yes, this is a text game. A text-based MMORPG, to be exact. It is also what’s called a MUD.

Yes, it’s really all text.

No, there aren’t any pictures.

Here, just check out their website.

This is what the gameplay looks like on their default web client where you can play right in your browser:

But, to be fair, I logged in just to take a screen shot. There’s generally a lot more action and intrigue. I swear! Learn more about it here.

It might not look too flashy, but before you write it off, think about what it’s like to read a novel. You’re just looking at words on a page, but in your head, you’re seeing a rich tapestry of characters, settings, and action; in short, you’re seeing and can even feel like you’re experiencing the story firsthand – that is, if it’s well written.

Now imagine that instead of reading a novel, you’re taking part in one. You’re your own main character, but just like in real life, you’re surrounded by others who are main characters in their own stories. You’re all interacting, joining sides, flirting, fighting, falling in love, and yes, even certain other F-words that I’ll avoid mentioning in such polite company. Unlike most other games, what happens in this one is truly in your hands. Your character’s description, gender, race, motivations, personal creed, likes, dislikes — you name it, they’re all in your control. You can join organizations or try to take other organizations down, you can be a pacifist or a warlord, you can be a politician, a househusband, an explorer, a preacher, a thief; in short, you can do anything. You’re writing your character’s story in real time alongside others whose story is being written live, right next to you. It’s truly amazing!

Some original player artwork depicting what one player sees as they play. Click here for more.

One other amazing thing? They’ve been ahead of their time since the beginning in terms of gender, same-sex relationships, and feminism. Some of this is thanks to the creators and coders behind the scenes, but a lot of it stems from the players themselves.

So, how does the game tackle feminism?

To start, women can rule over cities (the highest player-run offices of the land) and are equally respected politicians who lead armies with and against their male counterparts in charge of other cities in the game. Men craft jewelry and design clothing for characters and compete with women of equal skill for spots in shops so the other adventurers can buy their creations. The gods – which is what the people who run the show from behind the scenes are referred to — do a lot of coding and bug fixing, but they also have an in-character presence where they grant boons to players, run worldwide competitions, and often facilitate devastating war or peaceful, fun-loving events that bring everyone together (at least for a short time). These Gods are represented by people of all genders, and are equally respected as such.

A player’s interpretation of some statues of various famous individuals located in their city. More here.

In short, in Achaea, all genders are seen as totally equal at every level, from the highest offices to the lowliest NPCs.

In fact, I have an anecdote that proves just that: There’s an organization in the game which has named itself protector of all innocent beings and the destroyer of those who wish to do bad in the world. The idea of what’s “bad” in the game varies from faction to faction, just like in real life, and this is one of the most interesting (and my favorite) parts of the intellectual gameplay. That is, however, neither here nor there. In the game, of course you can kill things and gain experience, much like nearly every other game in existence. This particular faction had rules about what you could and could not kill. You could kill no “innocents,” of course. Only what they deemed as the bad guys were open game. In the beginning, a player who was running the organization decided that they’d make a list of the things you could and could not go after when hunting or fighting. One of the things the list said was that you could go to what we’ll call Village X and kill everything “except the women and children living there.” It didn’t take long for someone else to say, “Hey, the kids I understand, but the women? They’re just a strong, just as intelligent, and just as capable of understanding their choices. They shouldn’t get a free pass just for being women.”

So, there you go. Now you can go to Village X and slay (or be slain by) men and women indiscriminately.

Or, you know, if hunting in Village X isn’t your thing, maybe check out Heavily-Armed Fortress Y. More original player art here.

Of course, some of you may be thinking, “That’s not what feminism is about!” But that’s where you’d be wrong. Being taken seriously, whether it’s beneficial or not, being considered equal, whether in a positive light or a negative one, that’s exactly what feminism is about. Women can be exactly as good — or as bad! — as men. Achaea’s playerbase figured this out a long time ago. No women and children first on sinking ships at sea (which yes, Achaea has). Every man (and woman) for themselves! And as it should be.

Ok, so what about same-sex relationships?

Achaea has been LGBTQ friendly for years and years now. Given that states are still (yes, still!) trying to pass laws saying that we should be allowed to turn away anyone who isn’t straight from our businesses, and government workers are walking off their jobs because –gasp! – they may have to award a marriage license to two people who have similar genitalia, I think this is a big step and very before its time. (Like, very. This isn’t a new option in the game; it’s been around at least since I started playing way back in 2006. (And for you people who still think of “last decade” as referring to the 90s, bear in mind that 2006 was nine years ago.))

In the game, your character can marry another character. Without getting too into the specifics, other players are able to see your character’s various achievements and affiliations. That includes if your character is betrothed or not, and to whom. Achaea has long since allowed characters to marry others of the same gender, and even took that one step further when they allowed these same-sex text-couples to adopt other characters and register the adoption, again so other players can see who is related to whom in game.

And the best part? The players don’t give it a second thought. My character happens to be interested in both men and women (I mean, what’s not to like?) and has been married to both a gentleman at one point and a lady at another. Scandal! Except, actually, it’s no scandal at all. Nobody cares. It doesn’t change the way anyone interacts with your character. It doesn’t change the insults your enemies fling at you from across the battlefield. It doesn’t change anything.

One famous example (as famous as politics in a text-game can get, I guess) is, way back in the day, there were these two huge, powerhouse organizations. They were both run by men who were married to each other in-game. Those organizations had their share of scandals and enemies, but none of it had anything to do with anyone’s gender or sexuality. It’s how I’d like to imagine the United States will be in … well, maybe my grandchildren’s lifetime? That might be having some high hopes, but in any case, you see what I mean. Achaea has been doing things right much longer than many societies have in general.

Also, in addition to marrying whomever you like, Achaea lets you be a cat if you want. Ha! Take that, society! More original art by players here.

Finally, let’s talk about gender.

In Achaea, you start, of course, by creating a character. That character must be either male or female. (I’ve had it confirmed by the powers that be that this will not be changing in the foreseeable future. Unfortunately the gender binary is, quite literally, hard-coded in, and cannot as of now be changed.) That, however, is where the strictness stops. There are very famous (and very respected) characters of all genders and gender expressions. There are female characters who wouldn’t be caught dead in a dress. There are characters of both sexes who are in conservative battle armor half the time and in gender-bending clothes the other half. There are, of course, female characters who primp and polish and are in extravagant dresses suited for the most formal of occasions and male characters who live in boots and pants and a leather jerkin, with stubble on their face and nary a word to say that you wouldn’t hear among a group of very bawdy sailors. It’s whatever. You’re whatever. That is – whatever you want to be.

When it comes to this game, sure, ok, you have to pick option A or option B, but you can do with that option whatever you like. And no one will care! If you are a fearsome fighter, no one will be the least bit concerned with what gender you are or how you choose to express your gender when you smash faces on the battlefield. If you’re an incorruptible politician (or, ok, even a corruptible one), no one will be interested in what clothes you have on, how you’ve grown your hair, or any other inconsequential-to-your-political-goals choices you’ve made with your character. Can you lead a text-city? Well then you’re a shoe-in, no matter what shoes you may have on! In Achaea, you can stand at the pulpit in front of your congregation or take the podium to hold a rally in the town square or lead an army to press on toward the enemy on the battlefield as a character, female or male, expressing yourself in the way that fits your character the best, period. The players care about what you do, what you have to say, and what action you’re going to take. They do not care what gender you are or how you choose to express your gender while you do it.

It’s awesome.

A player’s visual interpretation of their character. And why yes, this is the same link from all the other images.

So, in the end, I have to give Achaea an A+ for being as accepting – both the admins and the playerbase – as any game I’ve personally ever played. It’s got what most would likely consider a steep learning curve, but once you get into it, you become so emboldened by your options, the myriad ways of expressing yourself, and the fantastical nature of the game, which makes it feel like you’re both writing and taking part in your very own novel, that you find yourself whiling the hours away with no pictures on your screen but a captivating scene laid out before you all the same. I highly recommend giving it a try!


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