The Player

Nov. 22, 2014 | 6:00 a.m.

‘That Dragon, Cancer’ brings a serious real-life ordeal to gaming

"That Dragon, Cancer" brings a little magic to a serious topic. (Ryan Green & Josh Larson)
THE PLAYER One of the first things you hear in Ryan Green’s video game is a voice mail. Though it’s not a horror game, the sound isn’t just frightening; it’s borderline bone-chilling. A woman leaving a message for her husband sounds exasperated. She’s leaving the doctor’s office and coming home without any answers. The couple’s baby boy is vomiting. Maybe it’s this? Maybe it’s that? There is no diagnosis. And why is the child’s head always cocked to one side? Everyone is thinking the worst, but no one is saying it. At this point the player can see a glimpse of the boy, whose name is Joel. The voice mail, it turns out, was a memory, and Joel, now older, is on a slide in a park. He’s almost 5. His older brother wants to know why he doesn’t talk. […]
Nov. 15, 2014 | 6:00 a.m.

‘Framed’ review: Craft a noir comic in this stylish mobile game

"Framed" is a short experience, but its puzzles get tricky. (Loveshack)
THE PLAYER The long-standing Mad magazine comic strip “Spy vs. Spy” is occasionally like a puzzle — a short back-and-forth that asks the reader to piece together images to see which spy has the upper hand. If it were a film, the cuts would be fast and the swapping of one frame for another would change the entire outcome. Now imagine dragging the frames around the page. Instead of resulting in one’s demise, the larger-than-life hammer or roped-together dynamite could set off a brief tale of revenge. Or we could call a truce. Perhaps we could rewrite the end of the narrative to reveal a twist. Maybe the two spies had been played as pawns in a larger scheme all along. If you get rid of the Looney Tunes-like imagery and turn all that into a game, the result would […]
Nov. 08, 2014 | 6:00 a.m.

‘A Bird Story’ plays with loneliness of pet ownership

A boy's attachment to a pet is explored in the narrative adventure "A Bird Story," out now for home computers. (Freebird Games)
THE PLAYER There are first loves, which are important, yes, and then there are first pets. “A Bird Story” documents the mysterious emotional grip of the latter, tracing the connection between a humble winged critter and the little boy who dreams of joining his pal in flight. The power of imagination, as well as a little ingenuity when it comes to crafting the perfect larger-than-life paper airplane, goes a long way toward forging the relationship in this heartwarming tale, one that just so happens to be completely wordless and textless. While “A Bird Story,” released Friday, is unquestionably a video game, complete with a nostalgia-stirring look, it isn’t out of line to think of it more as an animated short — the interactive equivalent to, say, Disney’s “Paperman” or “Feast,” the ode to man’s best friend that opened this weekend […]
Nov. 01, 2014 | 6:00 a.m.

‘The Vanishing of Ethan Carter,’ a haunting magical game

"The Vanishing of Ethan Carter" is a patient, challenging horror story. (The Astronauts)
THE PLAYER “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” is a ghost story. Or maybe it’s a game about the mind’s powerful ability to fool itself. In both execution and play, however, it’s a tale about what’s missing. It’s a search for a boy, one whose family appears to have a mysterious and murderous history, and it unravels with a patience and exploratory nature that will challenge players and test the narrative conventions of gaming. With traces of pulpish sci-fi and hints of hard-boiled noir, “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” makes clever use of the interactive medium. There is no designated order to the game; its puzzles are random and need to be stumbled upon. Players are set free, dropped in a gorgeous, photorealistic world and told essentially nothing. They are, in fact, given a warning. “Ethan Carter” states at its outset […]
Oct. 30, 2014 | 4:00 a.m.

‘Sunset Overdrive’ delivers madness with an apocalyptic message

The apocalypse is a party in "Sunset Overdrive." (Insomniac Games / Microsoft Studios)
THE PLAYER The ridiculousness in “Sunset Overdrive” borders on anarchic. There are rules, like any game, but long before players discover a gun that fires a stuffed kitten — a plushy that’s used to send a robotic dog on a killing spree — “Sunset Overdrive” manages to excitedly toy with many of them. None of it should work. The look is cartoonishly crass (imagine a mash-up of every West Coast city, remade in the blunt architecture style of a rock festival), the music out of date (see the Warped Tour, circa 1995), the plot simple (humans consume too many energy drinks and turn into giant monsters) and the sociopolitical targets obvious (as for those sugary drink peddlers, yes, they’re probably insidious, but we learned that from Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy”). There are also guns. Lots and lots of guns. “Sunset Overdrive,” […]
Oct. 25, 2014 | 6:00 a.m.

‘Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved’ plays with remix culture

Utilizing only touch controls, "Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved" allows participants to play with colorful environments. (Harmonix/Disney)
THE PLAYER Walt Disney’s 1940 film “Fantasia” opens with a series of bold, inventive proclamations. Audiences are welcomed to a “new form of entertainment,” one in which the animation isn’t afraid to veer toward the abstract and the music isn’t concerned with what’s on the charts. But as the British narrator early in the new “Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved” says, “Let’s see how you handle something a little more contemporary.” Words that sent a shiver down the spine of this stubborn “Fantasia” loyalist. Indeed, the first voice we hear in “Fantasia: Music Evolved,” a just-released interactive interpretation of the experimental but venerable brand, is that of Lady Gaga. This is dangerous territory. Beethoven is timeless, but “Applause” is already dated, its glittery melodic tendrils firmly gripping 2013. Of course, those who own the Xbox 360 and the Xbox One are […]
Oct. 18, 2014 | 7:00 a.m.

Slam the door on the hate from ‘gamergate’

Anita Sarkeesian
THE PLAYER On a recent Tuesday evening, more than 50 current and former students of USC’s game design program gathered to talk video games. Student projects were shown and critiqued, but soon students were debating what it means to be labeled a “social justice warrior,” a suddenly trendy term in the video game world thanks to the ongoing battle in the player population known as “gamergate.” Consider gamergate an ownership tug-o-war. Do games belong to their growing audience, or will a broader reach destroy all that’s pleasurable about them — the sex, violence and profanity? You know, the fun. But framing gamergate as only a debate is too kind. From the moment the term emerged as a hashtag in mid-August, it was ugly, messy and convoluted. Female game designers and critics who spoke out about the medium’s future experienced harassment, […]
Oct. 13, 2014 | 8:23 p.m.

IndieCade wrap-up: Amid ‘gamergate’ storm, a bold new game world rises

Game designer Daphny Drucilla plays "How Do You Do It?" from Nina Freeman, Emmett Butler, Jonathan Kittaka and Deckman Coss at IndieCade. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)
THE PLAYER Imagine, perhaps, you’re a die-hard football fan. Now imagine someone comes along and says, “Hey, football isn’t so smart. It can be played better, team names don’t have to offend an entire community, and what’s with all the abuse scandals?” Maybe you don’t react too kindly to the suggestion that your Redskins should change names. Maybe you’re offended that the game you’ve held dear since childhood is facing criticism. A similar theory was recently applied to video games at IndieCade, the gaming conference and festival that concluded its seventh year over the weekend in downtown Culver City. It went something like this: While big-budget games with guns still rule, independent developers are opening up new avenues with games that tackle police brutality, explore the perils of dementia and address the difficult conversations parents have — or don’t have […]
Oct. 10, 2014 | 12:55 p.m.

IndieCade pushes gaming industry buttons by promoting alternatives

THE PLAYER Gaming culture today stands at a crossroads. Games are regularly being studied and critiqued as the cultural force they’ve long claimed to be, and some in the community aren’t reacting well, to put it mildly, to the newfound microscope. Those attempting to intellectualize the medium — “social justice warriors,” as they’ve been labeled by their online disparagers — are portrayed as destroying all that’s been great about the medium, namely obscene violence, scantily clad women and the idea that games are for play and not social commentary. Granted, interactive entertainment is still a relatively young medium and therefore one not immune to struggling with issues of maturity. But credit the annual IndieCade festival, now in its seventh year this weekend in Culver City, for its part in slowly leading the community into adulthood. IndieCade has long been a […]
Oct. 04, 2014 | 6:00 a.m.

‘Alien: Isolation’ review: Ripley’s daughter plays solitary to the hilt

Players control Amanda Ripley in "Alien: Isolation." (Creative Assembly / Sega)
THE PLAYER Though she’s long considered one of the great cinematic heroes, Ellen Ripley has generally been a forgettable one when it comes to video games. Steely in her beliefs yet unafraid to show emotion and a friend to felines, the character made famous by Sigourney Weaver in the “Alien” films possesses as much thoughtfulness as action-star bullheadedness. It’s a combustible cocktail of very human emotional traits that until recently were not easily translated into action video games. But is it any wonder the video game industry has struggled to turn “Alien,” especially the 1979 sci-fi horror film of the same name from Ridley Scott, into a notable game? After all, it’s a story in which firing a gun at the enemy, one that bleeds corrosive acid, is essentially suicide. So guns, the favored weapon for nearly all interactive heroes, […]
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