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Archive for the ‘The Moment’ Category

Last night, it arrived. It was a little late, and I had become concerned. But then, like a shining gem of bits and bytes, there it was.

It took some time to download.

But when I saw what will premiere exclusively tonight at our New York Videogame Critics Circle Awards ceremony, I was, as Jane Siberry once said, bound by the beauty.

I can’t say what it is. What I can say is that it’s a secret surprise from a top tier developer, the best of the best really.

And it tells a story, and what a story!

As a group, we are so proud to have this video for you before anyone else sees it.

If you aren’t joining us at the Awards in Brooklyn tonight, you can watch the ceremony beginning at 7:30 p.m. right here.

-Harold Goldberg, Founder

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In which the author as music critic descends far into the often exhilarating, often mellifluous worlds of Rockstar’s carefully curated soundtracks. He may never return. But he’s happy about that.

By Robert Gordon

Rockstar has dominated this console generation in terms of open-world gameplay — not merely with two well-received entries into the Grand Theft Auto series, but also with the much-acclaimed Red Dead Redemption. We could attribute this to strong writing, good advertising and marketing. However veterans of either series know that when we talk about Rockstar, we must talk about music. In a genre that too often leaves its players adrift and lonely in an opaque universe, Rockstar has succeeded in making us feel welcome, inviting us to explore. Though many elements are to thank for this, music has been their signature – and not without reason.

Note that the “open world” is a curiously existential form. It leaves us to make our own fun through procedural storytelling. The success or failure of an open world game is ultimately dependent on how fully its players relate to the world they inhabit. The feeling of a living, breathing universe around us is important. That’s unlike a “closed-world” game, in which we are just doing something. In an open-world game we are involved in being somewhere. The experience isn’t just one of action. We want to accept the world as being consistent and responsive, to feel ourselves situated in it totally.

Here’s how sweet tunes are part of that. (more…)

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by Harold Goldberg

Last week, I had surgery. It was indeed a bit rough; I’m still recovering. But ever since I can remember, I’ve looked to books, music, film and games as an escape from feeling bad, from pain, not the worst pain because the worst pain means the inability to enjoy media at all, interactive or non-interactive, even at its best. As I began to return to a certain normalcy, I felt the abiding need to indulge in a game as a flight of fancy, I wanted desperately to be taken elsewhere.

Nearby was my stack of games, and the latest, Assassins’ Creed IV: Black Flag went first because I felt it would take me on a nice trip to the Caribbean. Which is want I really want. The other day I fantasized about travel around the holidays. I went so far as to try to book something. (So, caveat emptor: Watch out for the hotel/flight offers on the travel sites. Every flight seems prohibitively expensive and every hotel/flight package is just plain prohibitive. It’ll seem affordable, but they’ll have you to stuck in Dallas on a layover for 10 hours. And that is no vacation at all.)

But back to my virtual travels. I hope to experience at least a modicum awe. In my wildest dreams, I even hope to be swept away.

I’ll give it just an hour to do that.

1) The PS3 powers up. The inserted disk spins. And the game loads. Or, well, it’s supposed to. I need a 32 megabyte update. I don’t want to wait, but I’m glad the publisher is doing its best to remove bugs.

2) Really? More waiting. Turns out there’s not enough room for the nearly 1.5 gigabytes I need on the PS3. I delete games going back to 2006. Eventually, I have room.

3) Dang. Really? More waiting? There’s a rotating triangle on the screen, not even any artwork as in GTA V to watch and muse upon as I wait. I wonder how long this data transfer will take. This is like waiting for a delayed plane. It lasts just 15 minutes. But it’s too long for me.

4) Surprised at the quickness of it, I’m immediately thrown into action on the high seas. I’m asked to the grab the ship’s wheel as attack is nigh. But my pirate character seems daunted by the mere fact of walking. His gait is slow as if he’s in a daze (or like me after the operation). Some pirate yells, “Grab the damn wheel.” I’m trying.

5) They want me to shoot some tall ships with cannonballs and oil-filled barrels. It’s not exactly the fog of war. I stop my ship not far from a cove and wait for the enemy to come to me. I don’t feel impending doom. I feel a sense of fun. That’s good; that’s right. Fun.

6) After the ships are sunk, I’m sunk, too, thrown off into the roiling water, perhaps to drown. As I breathe in the killing ocean, there’s a scene within a bedroom, featuring a beauty named Caroline. My character tells her may be gone on the high seas for two years. Two years? Women waited that long back in the day? When something like that happened to me in real life, and the wait was two months, I got a frosty, “You want me to wait?” And that was the end of that. But Caroline says she’ll wait.

7) I’m back to consciousness in the water. I hit the surface and breathe. Night turns to day and my swimming is like a ghost’s swimming. It looks like the water is going through me as a paddle, like I’m oddly translucent.

8) The tropical fish near the shore don’t flee from me, even when I swim over them. These are bold fish. Shouldn’t they rush away? Or was it different back then in the time of pirates? Yet I almost feel the warmth of a beach drenched in sun as I swim in to shore. That’s good. That’s like a vacation. That’s what I need.

9) Rich man, poor man. I’m just a penniless cretin. I meet a well-off, wounded assassin who lies near to me on the sand. We don’t get along as he seems to want me to save him for little reward. We have words. I chase him through the jungle.

10) Oh, the jungle! The beauty. It reminds me of a tropical trail, of walking high up to the water source on the Caribbean island of Nevis a few years back. In the game, there’s a thin, rushing waterfall and cove water so blue, it’s like clear blue sky, heavenly. I feel I can breathe deeply as I stop to admire the world around me. I peer at big blue morphos butterflies which are indigenous to a neo-tropical areas such as this.

11) I’m a ghost again. I seem to walk like a wraith through the giant leaves of tropical plants, never so much as moving them as the slightest breeze might. It’s an open world game. This kind of thing happens in open world games. But still, it took me out of that key moment of fantasy.

12) I fail in catching up to the assassin, a few times. The idea, I gather a few minutes later, is pretty much to run straight without much movement from side to side. Forget finding a quicker way to the human prey. Just follow his steps.

13) When I do meet him, I parry a blow from his sword. He falls and I kill him. I don his clothes (which weirdly fit exactly right, like Paul Smith has made them by hand). And I become him – a lowly pirate turned into a somewhat feared and respected assassin.

14) I search around for loot and secret things. There’s a lot here. But I want to move forward in the adventure. I only take a few dollars from one treasure chest.

15) I perch from an outcropping near another waterfall. Torturing pirates gather below. They try to shake down a merchant they’ve captured. Perhaps it was due to my New York Times reading and the proximity of that to game play. But his cries and the pirates’ torture remind me of yesterday’s story about young gang rapists in India. In any case, I feel empathy for the merchant and make my way to save the person.

16) I use stealth and hide in the grass. None of the pirates seems to be able to find me, and that doesn’t seem real at all. But it’s a game trope, and I’m happy enough that I get them before they get me.

17) The mewling merchant wants me to take him to Havana on a ship he owns. He’s overfed and shifty-eyed, doesn’t like looking me straight on. I can’t trust him, just as I can’t trust anyone else. Havana. There, in Cuba, I might find more beauty. A venturesome trip through the danger-filled  neo-tropics will now commence. I might even have it in me to utter a “Yo Ho Ho.” Or two.

Harold Goldberg, a contributor to the New York Times, is the founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle.

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By Harold Goldberg

At first, I was annoyed at the wait to load the game onto the 360. I loved looking closely at the expertly drawn character screens. But they began to repeat, and because I’ve been very much anticipating this particular installment, I was getting antsy.

I looked at the massive map in my hands and, like it was an involuntary reflex, said ‘Wow’ aloud.

I started listening to the score as the game loaded, really, closely listening, closing my eyes, and it took me to another place, calming me, relaxing me, but not so much that I couldn’t appreciate every note. That opener features a moody, worthy score by Tangerine Dream.

The prologue/tutorial in the pelting, gray snowstorm was beautiful like something out of a Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (except it’s more modern). It reminded me of being in my hometown, but I rarely had this much adrenaline going in Buffalo.
The Sopranos-inspired intro with a frustrated Michael dealing with the b.s. of psychology was dark satire, so deftly written.
Then, as Michael walks through the crazy passing parade near the beach, it’s such a wonderful hint of what’s to come into that culture.
The comedic banter between Franklin and Lamar makes that first joyride more complete.
That first red car handled better than the white sports car. I drove both about six times each.
Franklin’s Los Santos is rough and tumble. Don’t be fooled by the tidy homes. I got beat up because I pulled into the wrong driveway.
Inside Franklin’s house, his Mom’s is hilarious, but she’s a brow beater.
There are dozens of self help books on a shelf. Who knows why?
Franklin smoking pot offers up another humorous riff. He doesn’t want to be a “B” guy. He wants to be an “A” guy. I know the feeling.
The usually shy Dr. Dre shows up on DJ Pooh’s radio show!
And, if you’ve read this far, note that I have a much, much longer story to be published elsewhere. I’ll keep you posted!
Harold Goldberg is the founder of the NY Videogame Critics Circle

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How a game with a retro feel mirrors the way we are now, or rather, the way we could be. Writes the author, “It feels honest and sincere and refreshingly free of hipster posturing and ironic detachment.”

By Jeremy Voss

You don’t need much. In fact, this is all you should know before you start playing Gone Home:

It is early June, 1995.  You are 20-year-old Kaitlin Greenbriar, the eldest of the two Greenbriar daughters. You’re excited to return home after a long European adventure.  Home will actually be a new place for you – your family moved into a new house while you were away.  But when you arrive, iIt’s the middle of the night. A terrible thunderstorm looms outside … and nobody’s home.  There’s just an ominous note on the front door from your younger sister, saying that she’s gone and that she doesn’t want anyone looking for her.

From here, your monumental task is to not only explore the house. You have to find out what happened.

Gone Home is a first-person exploration game; there are no enemies, no time restrictions, no punishments or penalties.  Like an early Roberta Williams game updated for a trip in time back to the 1990s, you are exploring a house – not an ancient cavern, not a hidden tomb, not a rocketship.  The clues you uncover as you open desk drawers and file cabinets are handwritten notes, concert receipts, business correspondence.  It is hard to explain why something that sounds this mundane could be so compelling, but I found myself utterly enthralled right from the very beginning, as I tried to figure out how to unlock the front door.

The game is a success on a wide variety of levels.  First, it features one of the most well-developed and fully realized lead female characters in game history – Sam, your younger sister, who is voiced brilliantly by Sarah Grayson.  Indeed, the success of Sam as a character is making me rethink my position on the tired trope of audio diaries as exposition.  (Exhibit A: Bioshock Infinite.)  I’m a 37-year-old man, but I found myself relating to Sam over and over again; I knew girls like her in high school – hell, I’ve felt a lot of what she feels, to the extent that all teenagers, regardless of gender, go through the same sorts of things – arguments with parents, feeling out of place, realizing that your childhood friendships don’t carry the same weight, feeling a deep connection with someone for the first time.  The game stirred up memories and emotions that I hadn’t felt in years.

And it’s not just Sam’s character that stirred this stuff up for me – it’s that the game takes place in 1995, and it’s immediately clear from the period detail that the game’s creators know exactly what this means, and what 1995 felt like.  (In fact, now that I think about it, I was the same age as Kaitlin in 1995.)  This is important, because 1995 was a time before iPhones and Facebook and Spotify.  If you wanted to communicate with someone, you passed them handwritten notes; if you wanted to share music with someone, you made them a mixtape, and you’d also probably draw an album cover for it.  In the absence of blogs, you’d create zines.  You’d go through a TV Guide and circle the shows you didn’t want to miss.

These are the sorts of things you will come across as you examine this seemingly typical suburban house for clues.  The game scratches a particularly wonderful itch – the need to scour every nook and cranny for hidden things.  And so, in this particular case, what makes this itch all the more powerful is that the things you’re looking for appear meaningless on the surface, but those objects clearly carry enormous weight.  I found one particular piece of paper crumpled up next to a hallway wastebasket.  Without spoiling anything, all I’ll say is that the note itself caught me by surprise and started to make my blood boil; and after reading it, I, too, would have torn it up and thrown it away in anger, not caring if it landed in the basket or not.

As you explore, you’ll find that there are actually three different narrative lines to pursue – that of your sister’s whereabouts, that of your parents’ whereabouts, and that of the house itself. That the game is able to make these stories so deeply moving and compelling – without any cut scenes or dialogue beyond your sister’s audio diaries – is what’s truly remarkable.  You learn about the inner lives of your closest family members through their stuff.

No one would say that Gone Home is a technical powerhouse; it is certainly not the prettiest game ever made. It’s not 60 hours long, either, and it’s not the sort of game that will hit the same highs on your second playthrough.  But in a time when AAA game budgets can run eight digits deep, and when thousands of people work on churning out yearly entries in blockbuster franchises that don’t offer anything more beyond simply offering more, the thing that makes Gone Home feel so special is that it feels real.  It feels cared for; it feels crafted.  It feels honest and sincere and refreshingly free of hipster posturing and ironic detachment.

More to the point:  it made me feel.  Deeply.  Each of the three stories are powerful in their own way – this amazing, very spoiler-heavy post at Clockwork Worlds about the house’s previous owner blew my mind, actually, as it made some connections that I hadn’t put together.  But the main journey in Gone Home is ultimately Kaitlin’s uncovering of Sam’s story.  Sam’s story is one of the most powerfully told and emotionally resonant stories I’ve ever played.  To say more would ruin it, of course, but that’s only half of it – it’s not just the story itself, but the way the story is told that’s so revelatory.  When I came to the end, I found myself in tears, with a big goofy grin on my face; it’s not just that I was satisfied with what happened, I felt like I’d helped.  I felt like a good older sibling, even if I was only a shoulder to lean on.

There are times when one has the urge to ask why videogames matter.  I can’t speak for everyone, but for me the answer is: they matter because they can do things like this.  They matter because it has been a long time since any game made me feel like this.  It matters because I didn’t know games could do this.  And now that I know that they can, well… that’s why Gone Home feels so important.

* * *

For further reading:

I’ve been playing games since 1982, and I’ve been writing about games since 2008 or so; in all that time, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many heartfelt responses to a game before.  These are very spoiler-heavy, but well worth your time if you’ve finished the game and want to keep falling down the rabbit hole:

Correlated Contents – Gone Home: Dramatic Irony and Other Stuff

Danielle Riendeau (Polygon) – Finding Someone Like Me in Gone Home

Russ Pitts (Polygon) – How The Unlikeliest Fan Found Himself in Gone Home

Merrit Kopas – On Gone Home

Clockwork Worlds – The Transgression: You Can Do Better

Cameron Kunzelman (This Cage Is Worms):  On Gone Home

Brendan Keogh (Critical Damage): Notes on Gone Home

Ben Abraham – Jump Scares and Ludonarrative Harmony

Mattie Brice’s Alternate Ending – Ghosts

Auntie Pixelante – Gone Home

Kimfully Delicious – You Can’t Always Go Home

Naomi Clark (Dead Pixel Co) – Not Gonna Happen

Jeremy Voss, a writer living in New  York,  is a member of the Circle. Read more of his games essays at Shouts from the Couch.  

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It’s really one of our best Full Circle shows yet.

Host Sarah Awad went to XCubicle on Hester Street to find out about the art they sell — and the rumor of cockroaches in a PS3!

Founder Harold Goldberg talks about the subversive nature of Animal Crossing: New Leaf.

And there’s some serious discussion between Sarah and Harold about the Ouya’s potential success or failure.

As always, thanks to the great Victor Kalogiannis for editing the show!

Check it out, right here.

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By Sarah Awad

After news about the third installment of the Final Fantasy XIII saga, the author traveled back to a time when we were first introduced to Lightning Farron. 

When the first Final Fantasy XIII trailer was released during E3 2006, it was love at first sight as Square Enix introduced to me what was seemingly a new type of heroine.  Strong and swift with a searing glare, the mysterious Lightning Farron had a presence unlike that of previous franchise protagonists.  She was not a soft-spoken Yuna, a youthful Tidus or Vann, or a poignant Cloud.  She commanded her presence in that trailer with a bombastic punch and a fresh look, all while having full control over her body, her enemies, and may I say, her audience.  And this was a mere sneak peek; in exactly 74 seconds, I was smitten.  I have never felt such a connection with a character so quickly and so strongly prior to or since.

When the game was finally released, I was eager to become more acquainted with the woman I fell in love with three years prior; I wanted to know if she still possessed the power I had witnessed, if she was in fact the true videogame heroine I was longing for.  And she was.

Well. Almost… (more…)

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When I learned of Steve Morgenstern’s passing early today, it was a shock. Steve Morgenstern had been a fixture, until recently, of the tech and gaming scene in New York City. But I also considered him to be a friend. Although he wasn’t a Circle member and lived out on Long Island, I often invited him to meetings and events. He often said he wanted to attend, but that trip was a bit of a haul for him.

When I first met Steve, he was writing for Rolling Stone magazine. It was a great gig for him and impressive to others. Steve, in fact, was pretty humble about the fact that he was elevating the level of game journalism, simply by writing for that magazine. Occasionally, he would regale me with tales of Jann Wenner. I had one or two stories to add from the few music stories I wrote for the magazine, but Steve had better tales from the front lines.

Years ago, when Sony had a PlayStation event in San Francisco, the company rented a huge yacht to take us around the bay. Both us grumpily commiserated, “They don’t need to do this; it’s not going to change our opinion of the games.”  Upstairs, I think there was some fake gambling going on for prizes. Steve and I sat it out. We didn’t want the gifts. We just wanted to learn about games. And talk. We talked a lot about music that night, and about our careers as well.

As we chatted, Chase, now the PR Director at Twitch but then a brash games writer and reviewer, came up out of the blue and said, “I hear you write for Rolling Stone. How do I do that?”

We didn’t know Chase well enough at that point to realize this was his somewhat-humorous way, and Steve was annoyed. Steve was understandably protective of his gigs. After all, he had a family to support. Later, we all became friends. Chase is still a friend to this day.

At game events, you really couldn’t pull the wool over Steve’s eyes.

Now, the Web is full of enthusiast press bloggers (which I often enjoy), but some have no sense of game history beyond, say, five years (which I don’t like). Folks happily tout the wonders of videogames in all shapes and forms – under any circumstances.

But Steve wasn’t like that. He was curious, asked tough questions, and took no b.s.

On his Facebook page, some of the game writers who knew how important Steve Morgenstern had been posted short remembrances. Yahoo Games’ Ben Silverman wrote, “An old friend of mine, Steve Morgenstern, passed away this morning. Wonderful person, funny, warm, talented, sharp as a tack. He was a rare, old-school game journalist, a guy who managed to stay employed — and relevant — through decades of this turbulent industry. I remember reading Atari Age magazines as a kid — he was the founding editor back in 1982. I didn’t know this when we first met because we were too busy making each other laugh and kibbitzing about the shady catering at whatever the hell event we were at. Steve welcomed me into the business with open arms despite me clearly having no idea what I was doing, made me feel like a member of the club even before I proved I belonged. They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore. RIP.”

USA Today’s Mike Snider commented, “I remember reading Steve’s posts as a reporter. (I grew up reading Stereo Review & Rolling Stone.) And remember meeting this sweet fellow from RS when I eventually made it to CES. All I can say us it’s so sad and make Steve proud by enjoying every second of life.”

And Chase posted, “When I first got into the video game industry in the 90′s as a reporter, one of the fixtures at every event I went to was a wizened reporter (even back then). Later on when I crossed over into doing PR, I worked with him for over a decade and every interaction was always pleasant and respectful. When I saw a post today that he passed away, the wind was sucked out of me. Even though we lost touch over the last year or two, all of my interactions with him feel as fresh as yesterday. He said wonderful things about his kids and was always genuine and personable. Steve Morgenstern will be missed.”

Sometimes, Steve and I would run into each other on one of Manhattan’s busy street corners. We’d get to talking about everything from music to Broadway to, yes, technology and games. Suddenly, a half hour had passed. One of us would realize it and damn the fact that we had another appointment to rush off to. But we always knew we’d take up where we left off at the next event.

But now, there won’t be a next event.

Yet Steve lives on in our hearts and minds, as all of those good friends who have passed always will. Steve always had a kind of wise, slightly cynical twinkle in his eye.  That’s how he’ll be remembered in this particular heart and mind. As someone who wrote well, as someone who was always kind, as a true wit and as a font of knowledge.

A gentleman with a twinkle in his eye.

-Harold Goldberg, Founder, New York Videogame Critics Circle

Steve

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In Part One, the stage was set for a look into RuneScape 3. But does a hands-on Alpha gameplay help or hinder the Jagex message?

BY HAROLD GOLDBERG

Cheshire, England  

So there we were in this Game of Thrones-like locale outside of Manchester, England. In the bowels of PeckfortonCastle, I came upon a room with so many computers, I thought I was in a startup in San Francisco – except the ceilings were dauntingly higher than any loft’s.

The press had just been listening to a sometimes-hard-to-follow speech about the wonders of RuneScape 3, which will use HTML 5 to enhance its graphics. Now, it was time to see an Alpha version of the game.

First, I could see that I could adapt and change the interface to my own needs. But what struck me more? The graphics were exponentially better than what’s playable now in RuneScape 2. It’s stunning to see a level full of detailed, giant mushrooms and toadstools, and you can climb high on them to battle various creeps. The whole environment is tinged in shades of foreboding green and purple. It reminded me of the underrated (and much condemned because of a financial scandal) RPG, Kingdoms of Amalur. Whatever you thought of Amalur, the idea of getting that level of artwork in a browser-based game is impressive indeed.

But the Jagex employee who stood near to help answer questions had a bit of a language issue. So when he needed to be loquacious, he was more like, say, Don Draper after sex, a man of a few words.

I was still in need of an succinct explanation of what the story is in RuneScape 3, and how the narrative will inspire my appreciation for the game. I still hadn’t gotten a detailed explanation or an elevator pitch.

In an effort to stop what Jagex must have felt is the buzzkill of respawning, the developers gave us nearly unkillable super-characters. This was great to check out the weapons and magic power interfaces and for battling various demons with various spells and weapons. But it required little skill.

I moved around the dark room to find another worker and asked him about the issue of bots and botters in the game. And then I asked another. Both assured me that botters would be diminished with the new release. That indeed was a relief to hear, and I hope it happens.

But I was still on a quest to hear more about legend and story and characters. I proceeded further into the bowels of the castle into a round room that looked like a dungeon but actually was a private bar usable for debauchery when wedding receptions and parties occur. There, I witnessed something I didn’t expect at all.

To be continued…

Harold Goldberg is the founder of The Circle.

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BY HAROLD GOLDBERG

Last week at the Essex Restaurant, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Neal Edelstein, the producer of  “The Ring” (along with David Lynch’s excellent “Mulholland Dr.” TV movie). Mistakenly, I thought Edelstein had a game to show me. Instead, he brought an iTunes app called “Haunting Melissa.” Shot in Canada, it’s a carefully filmed, episodic Blair Witch-like horror story that also features some elegant outdoor shots that remind me of a Terrence Malick film.

So why constuct an iTunes app for the movie rather than something for YouTube or Machinima. “I like them, but I don’t want to deal with banners and bullshit,” said Edelstein.

And why not add gaming elements? Edelstein sat forward in the booth and said, “I love games, but I think that the element of interactivity can take you out of the story. For this one, I wanted it to be more of a movie.”

That’s completely understandable. While I always believe a very good movie can be enhanced by a very good game, the Hollywood-meets-games path can be a rocky road indeed. I spent a fair amount of time in “All Your Base Are Belong to Us” on this topic, following the arc of hopes of gamemakers to create interactive filmic content since back in the 1970s. It rarely works well (although when it works as Telltale’s The Walking Dead game, it’s wondrous). The new “Star Trek” game proves that it’s still difficult for developers who love a branching experience to work in tandem with film people who know a linear experience.

Yet there are unexpected, game-like elements in “Haunting Melissa.” On the interface in one of the clickable chapter photos, you’ll sometimes see a ghost in the window. And sometimes, the ghost won’t be there. It’s just another thing that creeps me out about “Haunting Melissa” – in a good way. The first eerie chapter full of things that go bump in the night is free. Put those Beats on!

Harold Goldberg is the founder of The Circle. He has written for The New York Times, Vanity Fair and Wired.

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