The Roundup: A New Kind Of VR Escape Room, NYU’s Failed VR Experiment, The Story Behind Intel’s CPU Code Names, And More!

By Matt Gerardi

Welcome back to The Roundup, the New York Videogame Critics Circle’s weekly look at our members’ writing and news from around the world of videogames. This week, our writers recount their run-ins with some interesting VR experiments, introduce us to Amazon’s first big videogame release, and get the skinny on all those weird Intel CPU names. Plus, more on our fundraiser podcast with Reggie, and our young writers review Neversong and Good Job!

As a noted connoisseur of virtual reality, interactive theater, and escape rooms, Scott Stein is just about the best person on Earth to be giving us the skinny on a strange project that combines all three into a new kind of VR experience. That’s what Adventure Labs is promising with its virtual escape rooms, collaborative puzzle games that pair a team of VR-headset-wearing players with a live actor who takes the roles of guide and antagonist. Scott took a look at the first of the company’s games, a cartoony little adventure called Dr. Crumb’s School for Disobedient Pets, and found it a novel, fun experience, albeit one that can’t quite live up to its real-world counterpart. The kicker, according to Scott, is the price tag for a single session, which, at $100 for a group of four, might not be worth the virtual trip.

Elizabeth Ballou was one of nearly 20,000 New York University graduates who, as the COVID outbreak escalated, suddenly found themselves without a graduation ceremony and without the NYU tradition of Grad Alley, a “pre-graduation tradition of eating, drinking, and watching performances at the NYU campus right off Washington Square Park,” as she describes it in an essay for Waypoint. (That’s to mention nothing of the many thousands more students who were forced out of their dormitories into difficult or potentially dangerous living situations.) What the university offered instead was VR Grad Alley, an attempt to create a virtual space for communing and celebrating with your fellow displaced graduates that ended up being so empty and embarrassing Elizabeth came to see it as “a perfect representation of NYU’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.”

This week saw the release of Crucible, the first major console or PC game to come out of the Amazon Games Studio initiative the company launched way back in 2012. Speaking with industry experts and analysts, Annie Pei broke down everything you need to know about the game, where it fits within Amazon’s media-domination ambitions, and the challenges Crucible faces, particularly in a year where Call of Duty and Riot’s Valorant are shaking up the free-to-play shooter world.

Have you ever wondered where the code names for Intel’s computer processors comes from? Coffee Lake, Whiskey Lake, Cascade Lake—it’s all very strange and meaningless, when you think about it. Well, Michelle Ehrhardt was thinking about it, and set out to figure out what, if anything, it all means. Through interviews with past and present Intel employees, she got a few very different answers: one being a standard company line about North American landmarks and relevance to the teams that develop the chips in question; the other leading to a much bigger discussion about marketing, secrecy, and consumer obfuscation.

On the Circle site this week, our senior intern Ronald Gordon shared his thoughts on Neversong, a moody action game that, despite its cute exterior, gets stranger and more discomforting as it goes along. Ronald compared it to a thrilling, chillingly escalating fever dream. “It starts off hopeless, gives you the slightest glimmer of something good, and then takes it away before you can grasp it,” he said.

While Ronald was navigating Neversong’s twisting inner journey, Isaac Espinosa was having an absurdly fun day at the office in the madcap puzzle game Good Job! Isaac loved the freedom the game gives players, allowing you to turn mundane office-space demands into wacky, physically impossible stunts. And while he didn’t find it to be a perfectly consistent ride, it was “still a wonderful bundle of charming and catastrophic fun,” he said.

Finally, we couldn’t possibly pass up an opportunity to mention Talking Games with Reggie and Harold, our official podcast featuring Circle founder Harold Goldberg, Circle board member Reggie Fils-Aimé, and their special guests. The show has been put together to help our organization raise money for students in need and, this week, saw the release of its exciting second episode, which featured an appearance by Xbox head Phil Spencer.

From Beyond The Circle

In the wake of SimCity’s success, government agencies and corporations were flooding the developers at Maxis with requests to make specialized simulation games. One of these proposals, a simulation of Chevron’s oil refineries, actually made it to a playable state, but never made it to the public eye—until just this month. That’s when archivist Phil Salvador, after years of research, published a sprawling article about the short-lived Maxis Business Simulations division, its creation of SimRefinery, and its subsequent spinning-off from Maxis and second life as Thinking Tools. It’s a fascinating, vital story, helping to preserve a bit of gaming history that was destined for erasure. Its publishing has even led to the unearthing of a floppy disk containing SimRefinery itself.

Writing for The Guardian, Sarah Maria Griffin penned a short, lovely essay about the value and warmth of sidequests in games, a feature that so often goes overlooked, underappreciated, or just flat out poorly. But the thing about sidequests, she argues, is that when so much of gaming narrative is spent worrying about massive world-ending calamities and mythical battles of good and evil, it’s the small, personal kindnesses they represent that end up giving stories the emotional texture and  memorable moments they need. “Whether we’re talking role-playing epics such as Final Fantasy and The Witcher, or indie adventures such as Night in the Woods and Iconoclasts, it is off the beaten path that the stories gain their power,” she writes.

It’s no secret that white supremacists have long used a warped view of Europe in the Middle Ages as a sort of “origin story for whiteness,” as one Medieval scholar once put it. That image of a lily-white, culturally and militarily supreme Europe is, of course, drawn completely from hate and delusion, rather than any sort of historical accuracy. This has caused problems for a number of developers whose games pull from that setting, particularly Paradox, whose beloved simulation Crusader Kings 2 was adopted by these groups as a way to live out their white supremacist fantasies and indirectly became a potential doorway to radicalization for some players. Medium’s OneZero blog recently published a great piece from Medieval historian David M. Perry that talks through this phenomenon and the changes Paradox is implementing in Crusader Kings 3 in the hopes of pulling the game as far from these groups as possible.  

That’ll do it for this week’s Roundup. Thank you for reading. Stay safe. Stay healthy. We’ll see you next week.

Matt Gerardi is a writer from New York, the former games editor at The A.V. Club, and a member of the New York Videogame Critics Circle.

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