Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Year's Resolutions, 2011

They may be cheesy, they may be naive, they may be doomed to failure, but I still enjoy New Year’s Resolutions. Reviewing the past year’s events is always useful and I like the feeling of starting a new year with fresh goals. Like everyone, I make the usual promises to myself: exercise more, eat less junk food, spend more time with family, etc. I also make some video game-specific plans that I’d like to share.

First, let’s see how I did on last year’s resolutions. I specifically set out to play three major 2010 releases: God of War III, Super Mario Galaxy 2, and The Last Guardian. Since The Last Guardian’s release remains as mysterious as its titular mythical beast, it seems I met these modest goals. GoW III and SMG 2 were two of my favorite games of the year and I see myself going back to them throughout 2011.

I planned on taking a stab at my backlog in 2010, and while I didn’t get around to everything, I did have the pleasure of playing Dead Space and Braid. Dead Space was a great game that used classic techniques from horror movies to instill a sense of dread as I rounded every corner. As pretentious as it sounds, Braid turned out to be one of my favorite games of all time. I’ve written quite a bit about it, so I’ll just move along before anyone starts throwing tomatoes.

Of course, I bit off more than I could chew and ended up leaving a list of games untouched, which leads me to my first resolution: to be more selective regarding my backlog. I’m a big Batman fan, and any game that brings back the cast of Batman: The Animated Series deserves my attention, so Arkham Asylum stays on the list. Additionally, I love analyzing unique approaches to challenge and difficulty, so Demon’s Souls is a game I’ll be looking forward to playing. Aside from that, I think I’ll just go with the flow and see what 2011 has to offer in terms of big releases. Vanquish, one of my favorite games of 2010, wasn’t on my radar until shortly before its release and I want to stay open to more unexpected surprises in 2011.

My other major resolution is to actually implement last year’s “broadening horizons” project. I never strayed too much from my genre comfort zone in 2010: major console platformers and action games took up most of my time. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I would like to keep my eye on other sections of the gaming world. This year, I have a plan!

Soon, I’ll have an iPod Touch, which will allow me to jump into the exciting iOS realm. Although it’s a cliche, I really think that the advent of the AppStore has had a remarkable effect on the market in terms of price, player expectations, and accessibility. In some ways, it feels like mobile gaming is going back to the Game & Watch days: short games with simple presentations, built around streamlined rules. At the same time, games like Infinity Blade are experimenting with the limits of the technology, while titles like Game Dev Story seem to succeed in commenting on the industry by using the game rhetoric. Also, people have been talking non-stop about Angry Birds, so I’ll be happy to figure out just what the hell that thing even is.

Lastly, I want to wade deeper into the indie and experimental scene. To do this, I’ll use Christopher Hyde’s excellent list of 99 Free Games From 2009 as a guide and follow any tangents that present themselves. Christopher compiled a great collection of games and I’ve only played a fraction of them. I find it amusing that Minecraft is nestled in there at number 23. Who would have expected it would make such an impact in 2010? It raises the question of what other potentially massive gems can be mined from the obscurity of the Internet. There’s only one way to find out!

So there you have it: In 2011, I resolve to be more selective with my backlog, to go with the flow in terms of new major studio releases, and to explore platforms I’ve historically neglected. As always, we’ll see how this turns out, but I think all this is quite feasible. Finally, I’ll turn it over to you, dear readers: What was 2010 like for you? Any specific game-related goals for the new year? Anything I or anyone else should check out?

As always, thanks for visiting the site. It’s been a great year. Take care and have a Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

EXP Podcast #110: 2010 Leftovers

We have covered our games of the year, but 2010 held far more than just six titles, and 2011 will hold many more. This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I discuss some of the game we neglected last week, from games we never played to games we look forward to playing. Join us around the table while we devour our leftovers. As always, we encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Discussion starters:
- What games are people neglecting that deserve more attention?
- What games of 2010 do you regret not playing?
- What games of 2011 do you most look forward to?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:
- Run time: 29 min 25 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Critical Eyes on Civilization

Last week, Ben Abraham posted an article calling for more persuasive games writing. In his post, Ben cited my recent article on Barbarians in Civilization V as an example of a piece that doesn’t quite achieve his desired goal. He states:

“Albor assembles the facts like a curios botanist might overturn a moss covered rock to see what grows underneath, and the facts are indeed worth assembling and investigating, however, Albor closes out the post before taking down any notes on what he finds under there. It finishes before reaching anything like its full potential.”

Looking back on my post, I could not agree more. While I both agree and disagree with Ben’s far more comprehensive article, I’ll be setting his many points aside (although for more, see David Carlton’s response and their brief conversation in his comments section.) Previously, I looked at one aspect of Civilization V’s procedural rhetoric and the game deserves much more. This post seeks to amend that error.

There are a few important aspects of Civilization V that are very important to recognize, but that I do not want to belabor entirely. Civilization V is dangerously simplistic of identity groups at best, if not flat-out racist. India’s unique trait, for example, is “Population Growth,” which doubles unhappiness from the number of cities and halves unhappiness from total population. This feature is most suitable for cultural victories. Firaxis mechanically constructed the Indian civilization, and cultural expansion in general, to conform to the notion of culture as a calculable attribute of groups of people, a notion that suggests the crowded streets and slums of Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata compose the necessary features of a cultural Mecca. Meanwhile, these densely packed cultural oddities, the game suggests, are relegated to fanciful dreams of utopia. India is just one example of vagrant stereotyping among many.
Diplomatic victories are equally shallow. In order to win such a victory, players must build the United Nations and win an election for world leader. The UN in Civilization V is a mockery of the actual international body. Players construct the UN independently. No general assembly exists, therefore there can be no international agreements, no peace settlements through UN channels, and certainly no human rights declaration. The UN functions as a narrative facade, obscuring one method to declare a single individual the winner. An election does take place in which city-states vote and play a deciding role. However, city-states can be bribed with gold or permanently influenced by liberating their city from other civilizations. A diplomatic victory announcement frames it as a competitive event, stating “you have triumphed over your foes” and your cunning has “divided and sown confusion among your enemies.” In Civilization V, enough riches can buy peace, and peace is just another form of selfish control.

Civilization V peddles modernist myths of linear and irreversible progress and characterizes political relations as neatly organized and legible. In fact, the hexagonal tiles of Civilization V mirror what Political Scientist James C. Scott calls the “imperialism of high modernist, planned social order.” Like the grid logic that allows states to impose order upon a people, and thus exert control, the tiles of Civilization V allow the player to quickly understand, order, and control their civilization. The games does more than depict a legible world, it calls on players to procedurally create such order. The barbarian encampments, the nomadic tribes, are eliminated only when the entire world is within line of sight of a civilization’s units. Illuminated by the presence of the state, the tiles are free of risk and can be purchased and exploited at will.

A civilization’s expanding borders are a visible depiction of control over an increasingly legible landscape. Scott’s discussion of rural settlements could easily be attributed to the creation of new digital civilizations when he states, “A new community is thus, also by definition, a community demobilized, and hence a community more amenable to control from above and outside.” Whereas Scott criticizes states with “an authoritarian disregard for the values, desires, and objections of their subjects,” Civilization V retains no such claim. The subjects of Civilization V have no values, desires, or objections to speak of. The game recreates the high-modernist discourse of ordered and legible civilizations as a digital playground.
Civilization V procedurally renders a vapid conception of social relations marked by blanket uniformity. Although players can unlock globalization as a technology, the game does not model a complex economic system of globalized production and consumption across borders. Civilizations are neatly confined and controlled. Poverty and inequality are not an issue, and class holds no explanatory relevance for historical processes or civilizational growth.

The game sure is fun though, isn’t it. To be fair, there is a lot of value in Civilization. For one thing, it can give unique insight into the process by which paradigms and practices shape the reality they seek to describe. Players can even challenge dominant narratives of history. However, all this demands a critical perspective. Games that depict real world processes and systems should not be played lightly, at least not at first. While Civilization V alone may not be all that persuasive, particularly for gamers who seem so damn good at ignoring a game’s fictions, it functions within a greater discourse about civilization and progress that does, in fact, sway popular perceptions and global policies. Designers and players should first and foremost navigate the intersection of digital systems and global systems critically, before we become enraptured by fun alone.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Unopened Gift

Most of the internet this week is on holiday vacation, including PopMatters. Scott and I are taking it slow as well, filling our hot chocolate mugs so full of tiny marshmallows that it becomes a single gelatinous glob of sugary goodness. Yet I feel it would be a missed opportunity to ignore the holiday season. While I wish all our readers a happy agnostic/non-denominational wintry season, I am going to talk a bit about Christmas.

I did not grow up in a particularly festive or cheery home environment, even during the holidays. I do not reflect on past holidays as the most wonderful times of the year. Yet I do recall looking forward to opening presents, hoping to receive a videogame. My family was fairly low income for a good segment of my adolescence, so my gaming habits mostly required access to used videogames. I also thrived off of game magazines and the demos they used to include in the packaging, which I admittedly stole on numerous occasions. Getting my hands on a new game was a rare and glorious experience reserved primarily for Christmas.

The idea of a new game, wrapped in tacky Christmas paper lying on the floor, was infinitely exciting. It represented unbridled potential. Even unwrapped, a game could be anything, take me anywhere. A single disc could consume my world for weeks. I could escape my often tumultuous family situation by becoming another person or creature, inhabiting a whole other world. The videogame Christmas present was the ultimate gateway, promising untold opportunities.

My siblings knew this more than anyone. One particular Christmas’s come to mind. Once, my older brother took me and my sister into Best Buy and stole a copy of some Marvel videogame featuring Iron Man and a few other superheroes. He let us pick which game we wanted before he broke the protective plastic, took off the magnetic tape, and hid the game under his coat. I see now that it was probably a bad lesson, but it was well meant. At this time, my family was poor. My brother was not committing thievery to spoil his younger brother. He was offering a moment of possibility, in which doors were not closed, but open, in which any game world was reachable. He fueled my escapism because he could little else. That single act of heroism is still far more impressive than any the X-men accomplished in that easily forgotten game of the 90s.

This Christmas, I will open up a Christmas present that will include a board game or a videogame. I’ll even buy some for myself during one of Steam’s holiday sales. They might be good, even amazing. Yet especially during the Christmas season, the very idea of a game holds so much meaning for me. They represent the many worlds in which I have safely hidden and happily explored. Until Saturday, the unopened gift, the box that just might be a game of any sort, is a nostalgic symbol of opportunity, basked in the reassuring glow of ornaments and tree lights.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

EXP Podcast #109: 2010 Game(s) of The Year!

It’s GOTY season, and we just couldn’t let the opportunity go without talking about some of the outstanding titles we played this year. Naming the one true “Game of the Year” is a hopelessly subjective task, so instead we each chose three games from 2010 that made strong impressions on us. As always, feel free to join in on the conversation. What were your highlights from 2010?

Jorge’s Top Games of 2010:

Mass Effect 2
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light
Red Dead Redemption

Scott’s Top Games of 2010:

God of War III
Super Mario Galaxy 2
Red Dead Redemption

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 35 min 45 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pen and Paper

Last Saturday, Hanah and I made the fateful decision to try and visit London to do some sightseeing. Unbeknownst to us, Nature was planning to put on a little show. When all was said and done, the sights we saw were mostly buried by snow. What started out as us playing the roles of tourists morphed into an impromptu version of the Amazing Race. Through a combination of buses, subways, taxis, and trains, we finally escaped from the city. Thanks to Hanah, we even managed to retain a little sanity.

It was the last leg of our journey and our spirits were flagging. We had already spent five hours on a bus trying to get into the city, only to find that the snow had managed to shutter the entire place. We sloshed through the soot-stained snow near the Thames and decided to call it it day. In what was either a terrible coincidence or a brilliant tactical maneuver on the part of transit unions, many of the subway operators happened to be on strike. Compounding this chaos were power outages, signal failures, and lots of cold, cranky people. After a number of creative transfer-station decisions and with the help of a taxi, we made it to a rail station and hopped on a train with only moments to spare.

Or so we thought. The train that was miraculously waiting for us had already been sitting there for an hour and would continue to sit there for another half-hour. Even two lovebirds such as ourselves start to get testy after twelve disappointing hours of cramped seats, crying kids, and damp clothes. My morale was a bit low and I found myself wishing for a little digital distraction to help me escape. All around us, people were taping away on their smartphones, taunting me. All we had was a small notebook and pen. Undeterred, Hanah challenged me to a game of movie-title pictionary.

We played game after game. We laughed at eachother’s drawings, discovered which movies we had both seen, and turned a lost day into one I’ll remember for a long time. Later, I tried imagining how the scenario would have played out had we each had an iPhone or a DS. I have a hard time thinking there would have been as much laughter, and I highly doubt we would have thought to save our crude doodles. We probably would have looked like a lot of the other folks sitting around us: content, yet isolated.

Here’s a snapshot of one page of our game:

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Finding Humanity in Machinarium

Although it was released a year ago, I’ve finally gotten around to writing about Machinarium. Coincidentally, it’s a part of this year’s Humble Indie Bundle. If you haven’t played it, now is a great time to pick it up at great price while supporting a good cause.

I’ve never considered the adventure game genre to be very approachable or intuitive. Walking back and forth across a dozen screens, methodically traveling down long dialogue paths, and trying to divine the often-inscrutable uses odd inventory items is an acquired taste that not everyone enjoys. Personally, these game mechanics and dynamics usually have the effect of distancing me from the story. Machinarium is a brilliant counter-example to these complaints. It smooths out many of the genre’s rough edges and contains a story that has a lot to say about humanity, despite all the characters being robots.

I also think Machinarium makes a good case for dropping the term “Flash” as a descriptor when talking about games built using that engine. The game’s story, art, and systems allow it to transcend the negative connotations that traditionally go with calling something a “Flash game.” It’s clear that a great deal of thought went into Machinarium. The result is a game with a singular style whose innovation and charm measure up to the most expensive triple-A titles. Whether it lives in your web browser’s cache or your Xbox’s disk drive, a great game is still a great game; there’s no need for a qualifier.

That tangent aside, I’d be obliged if you took a look at what I wrote. In terms of stories about cute anthropomorphic robots, Machinarium gives WALL-E a run for its money.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

EXP Podcast #108: On the Grind

In clinical psychology, continually doing a repetitive action with little or no justification is tell-tale sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder. In MMOs, it's just called the grind. Why, after so many complaints, is the grind still a major feature of nearly every MMO RPG on the market? Inspired a post from Zach Best writing for Game Design Aspect of the Month, that is the very question Scott and I will be exploring in this week's podcast. You can find the original article and a pouch of magic destiny in the show notes. We also encourage you to leave your own gaming experiences in the comments section below.

Discussion starters:

- Do you enjoy grinding? Does it fulfill an important purpose for you?
- Is grinding a permanent feature of games with leveling mechanics?
- How much of the grind is self-imposed?

To listen to the podcast:- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

>- Run time: 28 min 20 sec
- “The Opposite of Grind," by Zach Best via Game Design Aspect of the Month
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Barbarians at the Gate

I was playing Civilization V the other day, going about the day-to-day business of managing the mighty Roman empire, when I started thinking about barbarians a bit more critically. Now barbarian tribes are nothing new to the the massively popular franchise. They harken all the way back from the first Civilization. Yet I had never noticed how comfortably they fit within a somewhat unsettling discourse about civilization and modern progress.

Functionally, barbarians are early-game threats to the player, minor enemies to pester budding civilizations or, alternatively, target practice for those new to world domination. Civ 5's manual calls barbarians "fiendish." It describes them as "roving bands of villains who hate civilization and everything that goes with it." Does this sound like the divisive binary rhetoric espoused by George W. Bush to you, when he stated of terrorists that they "hate our freedoms?" It does to me.

Barbarians are civilization's antithesis, malevolent forces of chaos with no rational for their actions. The game periodically generates barbarian forces in spaces players cannot see - they literally spawn from darkness. Also, unlike other civilizations and city-states, players cannot interact diplomatically with barbarians, they only exist to undermine progress.

Barbarian spawn points are called encampments, which seems to imply they are temporary fixtures of nomadic peoples, a far cry from the settled inhabitants of civilizations. Strangely though, barbarians are also designed to maintain pace with the players, allowing them to spawn a military unit equal to those of the most technologically advanced civilization. This means these backwards barbarians can spawn tanks and bomber planes, and will continue to do so "until the entire world is civilized."
What exactly are we meant to learn here? The term "civilized" is never defined. With only the barbarians as a counter-point, we can only conclude that to be "civilized" is to be geographically fixed and committed to perpetual growth and expansion. Barbarism, on the other hand, may arise at any time period, fueled only by hatred towards civilization proper. Players can eradicate barbarism by force and cut off its source through territorial expansion. In fact, as the game progresses, this almost becomes inevitable. Progress is an unstoppable monolithic force.

What of the barbarous people? Are they simply eradicated, dispersed into the wind? Or does my civilization teach them the error of their ways? Do the Romans give them a bath and a philosophy teacher and thus "civilize" them? While I respond to the procedural imperative of progress, expanding my borders and advancing technology, I can not help but feel confronted by the rhetoric of backwardness and savagery. The Roman empire is following a linear path towards development and growth, one with no room for the barbarous. Forgive them, for it is the only path they know.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Civic Education on a Spaceship

My latest PopMatters article is now up: Civic Education on a Spaceship.

If it's not clear by now, I can't really stop going back to Mass Effect. When I do revisit the game, I bring along a mess of subjects and concepts along with me. This time I brought with me an article about "Games for Civic Learning' which you can find here. The writers put forward a concept of civic education games that include not just raw information, but ethical decision making and critical analysis. Specifically, they suggests educational games are best when they "provide an interactive models of social life that reveal the consequences of players' decisions for multiple actors and for society." That sounded a bit like Mass Effect 2 to me.

Of course not everyone plays Mass Effect 2 the same way. Some people just want to kill things. But I am certainly not alone in appreciating the game for its demanding ethical dilemmas. I had to give serious thought to the effects of my choices during loyalty quests - not just because I was worried what one character might think immediately, but because of what my decision might lead to for the entire galaxy. Bioware creates a unique form of empowerment. In the words of retconned Uncle Ben, "With great power comes great responsibility." That is a valuable lesson to teach procedurally, even to those unwittingly in the class room.

Speaking of class room, I think people could make the argument that the potentially educational aspects of Mass Effect 2 are wasted because they are not in an educational environment. I don't completely buy that argument, but I think it holds some water. We human beings are pretty good at separating realms of existence. But we are also predisposed to learning, comparative thinking, and extrapolation - that's partly why stories with morals have been historically important and powerful. Also, although ME2 isn't designed to be used in a class setting, I think it certainly could be. My series on the politics of ME aim to prove that, at the very least, the game can raise interesting topics pertaining to real world politics.

A last interesting caveat: much of my praise for Mass Effect 2, I now realize, somewhat depends on the fulfillment of a tacit promise. Bioware has proven they can transfer your decisions from one game to the next, but it isn't all that gracefully done between first and second games. The completion of the trilogy can, to some extent, undermine the preceding game's ability to ask players to think critically in the long term (at least for those player in the know). Still, it's a promise at least partially fulfilled.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

EXP Podcast #107: The 10 Minute Rule

It’s crucial for games to catch a player’s attention, but what is the best way to ensure that someone will stick around to the end? This week, we use Leanne C. Taylor’s article to think about the ways both cutscenes and mechanics are used to keep players’ interests. She examines the concept of the “10 minute rule” that many movies follow when attempting to engage their audiences and examines its applications in video games. Hopefully, the first 10 minutes of our show persuades you to stick around! If so, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Some discussion starters:

- What sorts of story-telling devices capture your attention when you start a game?

- Are there specific genres that benefit from a particular kind of hook?

- What are the relative strengths and weaknesses of a cut-scene approach vs. a gameplay approach?

To listen to the podcast:- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- “History, Mystery and Story: Games and the 10 Minute Rule,” by Leanne C. Taylor, via Gamasutra
- Run time: 35 min 45 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Behavioral Quirks

We’ve all been warned that video games will warp our fragile little minds. While some might say otherwise, I feel that I’m a pretty well-balanced individual, despite my long history with such a wicked pastime. I maintain good relationships with my family and friends, I pay taxes, and I bathe regularly. However, just because I’m not a rocket-jumping maniac doesn’t mean I don’t have a few quirks, some of which seem at least partly inspired from my antics in the virtual world. Here are three examples I’ve noticed recently.

Efficient Build Orders

I don’t play RTS games very often, but I definitely take an interest in efficient tactics. Performing routines in the optimal order is crucial whether you’re trying fend off a hoard of Zerg or simply trying to get out the door in the morning. As a wise Redditor once said “socks act as pant lubricant,” so keep that in mind when you wake up at the crack of dawn, bleary-eyed and discombobulated. Just remember, while the exact reverse build order is an effective system for undressing, it should be modified in certain circumstances.

Corner Strafing

Long ago, I learned that the key to avoiding the business end a BFG is eliminating blind turns. Even a slight lateral pivot can give you a clue as to where your enemy is lurking. Today, my “enemies” mainly consist of oblivious people on their cell phones, runaway shopping carts, and folks with overfilled cups of coffee. Still, my virtual training has helped me avoid countless faux-fraggings.

Map Completion

I’m usually one of those players who enjoys seeing everything a game environment has to offer. When a game offers me a choice between a clearly defined “correct” path and a possible dead end, I like poking around the road less traveled, scrounging for loot, and looking for little secrets. As you may have guessed, it takes me a while to make it through a game like BioShock. This impulse has served me well in my daily life. When construction rendered my apartment without a bathroom, I had already scoped out the public showers in my building and noted their respective levels of cleanliness and water pressure. I’m currently enjoying the warmest, quietest carrel in the library because I gave each seat a trial run.

Is thinking about clothing efficiency nerdy? Yes. Is circling around corners in the grocery store a bit on the obsessive-compulsive side? Probably. Did my curiosity for exploration nearly get my wife and me trapped in an abandoned building at Yale on one occasion? It depends on your definition of trapped. What some see as quirks I see as a little digitally-informed wisdom.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Winking at the Player: Subtle Hints in Straight Faced Games

This week at PopMatters, I wrote about my search for self-awareness in otherwise earnest games.

I’m a big fan of games that toy with the fourth wall, and I think it happens more often than we think. Even games that aren’t outwardly comedic or satirical wink at the player in order to acknowledge design limitations, common narrative or mechanical tropes, and the culture of games in general. In fact, I think that big-budget games designed to appeal to a wide audience are quite interesting to study in this regard. Since “triple-A” games need to be accessible and profitable, they hide their subversive, self-aware traits in places only the more observant players will see.

Part of this essay references my silly experiment in counting the casualties in Uncharted. Nearly a year and a half later after writing it, I still look back fondly on that post.

That essay in turn owed a great deal to Clint Hocking’s landmark piece on ludonarrative dissonance in BioShock. It’s an important piece in games criticism, but after all these years I still find myself disagreeing with Clint’s fundamental reading of BioShock. I think that the environment, narrative, and reward system in regards to saving or harvesting sisters presents a clear value-judgment on behalf of the game. The authored themes and mechanical systems seem to argue that while Objectivism may be the path of least resistance, it’s ultimately the road to perdition.

I’m much more sympathetic to the idea that ludonarrative dissonance crops up after the climactic scene with Andrew Ryan. Based on Levine’s comments and the essentially traditional design philosophy of the game, I think those who worked on BioShock knew about this problem but simply didn’t have the time or the means to fix it. Instead, they chose to soften its harsh effects: using the story to acknowledge the gameplay sacrifices was a nod to the players that care about such things. It would take another whole essay to properly flesh out this argument, so I’ll spare everyone and stop here.

In the essay, I also try to redeem the much-maligned Tingle. Despite how annoying he is, I've always been slightly amused at the larger implications of his character. Try not to think less of me, but I hope he finds his way into the forthcoming The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.

I’m interested to hear about other games that may contain subtle winks. Such signals are difficult to find and highly subjective, but I think the search itself is a large part of the fun.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

EXP Podcast #106: Poking the Cute Aesthetic

In a series of posts lavishing praise on Nintendo's latest iteration on the Kirby Franchise, Kirby's Epic Yarn, Michael Abbot of the Brainy Gamer has been exploring the game's charming concept. It seems these days you can't shake your Wiimote without hitting a title, from both indie and traditional developers, that exploits some of the tactile art designs, lullaby-like musical themes or children's book narration that comprise some of the elements of the "cute aesthetic." Join us this week while Scott and I discuss the adorable betrayals, cuddly characters, and charming anomalies of "cute" games. As always, we encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments section below and check out Michael's insightful articles in the show notes.

Discussion starters:

- If you had a chance to play Kirby's Epic Yarn, what did you think of the art design? Does it make the game feel "childish" in a bad way?
- Is the textured approach to art design growing old?
- Does the cute aesthetic hold up to the test of time better than other art designs?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 28 min 17 sec
- "Kirby's Epic Concept" by Michael Abbot, via The Brainy Gamer
- "Plush Tech," Ibid.
- "Kirby's Epic Sound," Ibid.
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

I, Assassin

Sadly, I missed this year’s Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, Washington. To numb the pain of my absence, I followed the news regarding the massive amounts of content available at PAX. One game that caught my eye was Chris Hecker’s Spy Party, a competitive game between two people: the first a party goer amongst a room full of AI characters tasked with accomplishing three tasks, the second a sniper searching for tells that would reveal the human player as the spy. Despite never actually playing it myself, I dreamed about this game - twice. The idea of pretending to be a computer-controlled character struck me as incredibly appealing. With a very similar mechanic, the multiplayer for the newly released Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is a startlingly success.

The four multiplayer modes of Brotherhood are essentially slight iterations on the same basic premise. In Wanted, the free-for-all mode, each player has a unique avatar to differentiate them from the other players. The map is then randomly populated with exact copies of the player avatars. Players are then given a single target to assassinate. Using a form of radar that points to the general vicinity of your target, you must stalk other players and try to discern them from a crowd of clones. All the while, you too are being pursued by other assassin’s, sometimes up to four. The result is a thrilling blend of ‘hide & go seek’ and ‘tag’ that reproduces that sensation I imagine both predators and prey feel during a hunt.
Brotherhood rewards points to players based on escape and types of kills and punishes players for killing civilians. These rewards are significant and greatly incentivize sneaky assassinations - although subtly is not always an option. One particularly challenging reward requires the hunter to be very near her prey for more than three seconds before dealing the fatal blow. Since other players can stun pursuers, accomplishing such a task demands expert patience and nerves of steel. The game evokes unmatched sensations of paranoia as well. Did you catch strange movement from that barber? Could he be trying to kill you? What that a flash of steel from the roof top? Maybe it's just another player chasing a different person. Even choosing when to assassinate or chase your target is a significant decision - you may inadvertently reveal yourself to your pursuer as well. It is not uncommon to see a series of assassinations take place on the same patch of bloodied soil.

Successfully incorporating platforming into a tight multiplayer experience is a success in itself. Verticality is an advantage and disadvantage when on the prowl. Rooftops give you an eagle-eye view of the landscape, but also make you an easy target to spot. Maneuvering the roof tops becomes even more exhilarating when chasing or fleeing another player. Leaping off balconies and scaling towers to outrun an opponent is as riveting as any major movie chase scene. In fact, barreling through crowds of people while tracking another player running on a roof top reminds me of the early chase scene in Casino Royal, the James Bond film starring Daniel Craig, which is hands down one of the best foot chase scenes in cinema. The transition from stalking to racing and vice versa is fluid and effortless.

Many of Brotherhood’s mechanics have more impact in multiplayer than in Assassin's Creed II’s singleplayer. Smoke bombs, instead of unnecessary diversions, are valuable albeit risky tools that can buy you precious seconds to escape a group of assassins. Shooting an opponent off a rooftop ledge with a pistol is a far more significant option when it means you do not have to risk blowing your cover. Even the kill animations are more than normal visual treats: they are exploitable mechanics. While one assassin takes out your teammate with a flurry of swords, the animation might just be long enough to stun them and get revenge. Yet then you would commit yourself to your own animation, revealing your identity and increasing your vulnerability to attack.

I usually play the singleplayer segments of games before moving on to multiplayer, but the call of the hunt is too powerful. Brotherhood and Spy Party both mark a significant and incredibly interesting design path, one that encourages us to blur the lines between player and computer. Rather than trying to push the technological barriers between ourselves and truly artificial intelligence, they exploit tech limitations and our familiarity with computer behavior. I cannot help but feel this opens up the door for more imaginative games that change how we relate to the digital worlds we inhabit.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

Experience Points is taking the day off to stuff ourselves with mashed potatoes and gravy, so no post today. We will be back as usual next week. In the spirit of the holidays, thanks to everyone who reads and supports the site. You all give us both a lot to be thankful for.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

EXP Podcast #105: CoDcast: Black Ops

The following information is for your eyes only: This week, the Experience Points Podcast discusses Call of Duty: Black Ops. Topics such as the game’s campaign structure, its multiplayer philosophy, and its relationship with historical subject matters are covered. Be careful: surveillance indicates the presence of plot spoilers towards the end of show. Your mission: listen to the show and then share any of your thoughts in order to add to the growing body of intelligence surrounding this massive gaming phenomenon. Remember: if you are caught, your Gamertag will be wiped from the records and the government will deny any knowledge of your existence.

Some discussion starters:

- Does the single player campaign’s linear style still hold up? What is the right balance between set pieces and emergent gameplay?

- What makes the Call of Duty multiplayer system popular? How do rule systems, statistics, artistic choices, and cultural dynamics impact your enjoyment?

- How does Black Ops relate to historical reality? What is its place among other Cold War fiction?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 37 min 31 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Secret Stars of Black Ops

Gary Oldman, Ice Cube, Ed Harris and (probably) Sam Worthington are the stars of a hit blockbuster that some estimate has already taken in $650 million dollars. Ordinarily, high-profile Hollywood talent like this is a powerful weapon in the war to win the hearts, minds and dollars of consumers. A movie with this cast wouldn’t hesitate to put them on the front lines of an advertising blitz. However, Oldman et al.’s latest project isn’t a movie, but a video game. Despite the potential to shock and awe with star power, it seems instead that inserting big name celebrities into the game is a covert operation.

I don’t have a marketing degree and I’m not a seasoned corporate executive, but it seems strange not to exploit the potential draw of talented, recognizable actors. Perhaps the rationale is that the people planning on buying Black Ops would buy it even if Justin Bieber was playing the lead, while the people not interested in it would need more than movie stars to bring them around. While this argument is somewhat convincing, it still odd strange to go to the trouble of signing big names only to bury them in the credits. Voice work is expensive, even when casting unknown actors, so why err on the (pricey) side of celebrity when anonymity will do?

It’s a problem that stems from Black Ops’ split identity. Its single player campaign strives for a mixture of Bruckheimer-esque action and Coppola-inspired social commentary but never wholly succeeds. While it delivers in terms of imposing set pieces and blinding explosions, its plot feels more like pulpy than poignant. Black Ops is a Cold War genre piece that treads on familiar ground: A team of special agents travel the globe, fighting secret wars, hunting Russians and Nazis, all the while searching for brainwashed sleeper agents. The story itself doesn’t have a unique personality, but sometimes strong actors can save a weak plot.

Unfortunately, movie stars are only as good as their lines and Black Ops doesn’t give them much to work with. Standard war-movie cliches (“We’re at Defcon 2!” and “It’s ‘Nam baby!” etc.) don’t tell us anything other than what is happening in the scene, something that is communicated more effectively by the game’s striking visual style. Oldman in particular seems to work hard to give Reznov some personality, but his chops are mainly used for chewing the scenery. Sam Worthington’s (alleged) performance as Alex Mason vacillates between anguished screams and gruff tough-guy talk. Much of it comes across with a distinctly “down-under” vibe, which raises two questions: “Why not hire an American to play an Alaskan?” and “Why not do another take?” Ice Cube is entertaining, but it’s disappointing to see him relegated to one-liners, as he has demonstrated that he can excel in a war story.

However, these problems are largely rendered moot: For many, Black Ops’ identity as an authored, solo experience will be dwarfed by its identity as a multiplayer experience. It’s here that the rationale for downplaying the cult of celebrity begins to make sense. More than anything, Black Ops is a role-playing game in which players take center stage.

This trailer is an inventive, sincere portrayal of why people stick with the Call of Duty franchise: It can make anyone, from any walk of life, an action hero. Based on the marketing and the obvious work that went into the Black Ops multiplayer, Treyarch and Activision seem well aware of the game’s strengths. So as not to subvert its strangely democratic nature, the game must avoid becoming too focused on charismatic leading men, even as it yearns to sit alongside the great war stories found in other media. Attempting to insert movie stars into Black Ops threatens to detract from the real star, the player, and so it must be done stealthily.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Problem of the Inevitable (Yet Challenging) End in Video Games

My latest post at Pop Matters combines a number of my favorite topics: challenge, storytelling, and game design philosophy. I also compare Moby Dick to Killer7 and find a common thread: I haven’t finished either.

For a long time, I’ve been of the mind that many of the works we call “video games” aren’t very much like games at all. Today’s single-player, story-driven games simply aren’t interested in real competition. It’s very hard to “lose” a game like BioShock or Uncharted because those games go to great lengths to keep the player moving through the experience.

Perhaps players have moved on from competitive games? In a happy coincidence, this week Jorge wrote about his weariness with the glut of iPhone games that lack a story or an ultimate resolution. Without a finite narrative or ludic arc, some games can start to feel like purgatory. However, one person’s purgatory is another person’s pleasure: arcade-style games are philosophically similar to more traditional board games or sports games. Like chess or football, Flight Control can’t be “beaten,” with any definite finality; it can only be won and lost within discrete sessions. I hope I’m not the only one who finds the never-ending quest for mastery somewhat romantic, even if ultimately futile.

Unlike the arcades and the early days of home gaming, players today rarely have to face the prospect of simply not being able to “beat” a game. The difficulty found in mastering specific skills is nominal and often diluted via difficulty settings and various rule options. The real challenge in many story-based games is hard quantify: the difficulty lies in interpreting intangible factors like characterization, plot development, the ludo-narrative relationship. Rather than a test of skill, reaching the end of many games becomes a question of personal taste, intellectual investment and mental stamina.

Red Dead Redemption isn’t difficult in the way Pac-Man is difficult, it’s challenging in the way Moby Dick is challenging.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

EXP Podcast #104: Out of Order

Court is in session and the fate of video games in California is on the line! Alright, maybe that's overly dramatic. But really, the Supreme Court is hearing proceedings for Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association. The Justices will decide whether banning the sale of videogames to minors infringes the freedom of speech enshrined in the first amendment. Based on the reactions of the court, which you can read here, I don't the industry is doomed quite yet. However, this case raises legitimate concerns worth considering. Join us this week while Scott and I discuss America's founding fathers and the redeeming values, according to Jason Schreier, of nine violent videogames. As always, we encourage you to leave your thoughts on the comments section and check out Schreier's inspirational article in the show notes below.

Some discussion starters:

- What "adult" games have redeeming values for minors in particular?
- How can the games industry help parents manage their children's consumption of violent videogames?
- Should more gamers be paying attention to the Supreme Court case or do we have nothing to worry about?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 37 min 59 sec
- “Blood Redemption in 9 Violent Videogames" by Jason Schreier, via Wired GameLife
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

App Disillusionment

I am quickly becoming a disillusioned iPhone gamer. When I first got my hands on the device, I reveled in the myriad of games playable literally at my fingertips. I lauded Flight Controller for its addictive gameplay and charming aesthetic. I joined the chorus of praise for Tiger Style’s Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, in which a compelling story occupied the background of web-construction game. The iPhone 4, with its beautiful retina display, raised my iPhone gaming expectations to new heights. But now my mobile device is drowning under a flood of monotonous puzzle clones. Are iPhone game designers all out of innovation?

Like everyone else in the world, I too had an Angry Birds phase. The puzzle game that has players slinging various types of birds into destructible towers is currently the best selling game on the iPhone - and for good reason. For just 99 cents, Birds comes packed with levels and enough depth to keep players returning for higher scores. It is a great game. It is also just another puzzle game with only the shell of a story attached. In fact, it’s very much like Cut the Rope in that regard, the iOS’s second highest selling game.

I am growing even more tired of never-ending games. Fight Control is great, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes I want to actually beat a game, master its mechanics and put it down once and for all. I want to feel like I have accomplished something. Now matter many times I play Canabalt, Doodle Jump, Mega Jump, Train Conductor or any other endless-movement clone, I never feel satisfied. On the contrary, I am beginning to feel toyed with, even exploited. Intoxicating colors fly by while I sit there, waiting for absolutely nothing to happen until I die. I can levy the same complaints against the endless iterations of tower defense games.
Interestingly, I have been finding iOS franchise spin-off games more appealing than most “indy” offerings on the app store. Mirror’s Edge from EA is decent, as is Civilization Revolution. I am not the only one who appreciates traditional games on the iPhone. Sims 3, Oregon Trail, Need for Speed, Madden NFL, Tiger Woods, Assassin’s Creed, and the aforementioned Civilization were all amongst the highest selling iPhone games of last year - the first five in order. These games are likely riding the coat tails of their larger franchise counterparts, but there is something to be said for the reassuring comfort of a traditionally constructed game.

I am hesitant to write off any technical features as an inherent design boundary, but maybe the iPhone/iPod are just not suited for the type of play experiences I miss. Perhaps the iPad will break through the limitations of touch-screen devices. Until then, or until Tiger Style releases their next as yet unannounced game, I will bide my time landing planes, over and over again and over again.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Finding Room to Learn in Video Games

My new article is up on PopMatters: Finding Room to Learn in Video Games.

This article sprung into my mind because I happened to play Pandemic after reading Planet of Slums by Mike Davis. Harper's accurately describes the book as "terrifying." If you have an interest in the living conditions of an ever-growing proportion of the urbanized world, I highly recommend it. Cities like Kinshasa, Delhi, and São Paulo come up again and again - the same cities that are centers of disease outbreak in Pandemic. It seems only natural that Pandemic could include more information about the actual conditions that make a city and a population particularly susceptible to epidemics. Of course Pandemic is not explicitly an educational game made by the CDC. However, not only could the extra information improve the tone of the game for those reading it, but it could help make the world a better place.

The post does not, in any way, discuss actual educational game design. That is a subject far more worthy of intricate study. In fact, I specifically wanted to steer away from talking about learning conveyed through game mechanics and game systems. My goal was to show that games have room for learning even when its just optional information in the form of text. I do not believe Pandemic, which is an incredibly fun board game, would be any less compelling if it came with a page or two of additional information about the spread of diseases, be it on a separate piece of paper or on the playing cards themselves. In fact, I can think of few games that would be weakened by the addition of real world knowledge.

Of course such information can make a game dated or come off as didactic. It can also be an unnecessary expense. That being said, shrugging off a chance to teach something real and important, especially when it can make a game more evocative, seems foolish.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

EXP Podcast #103: 3DSocialite

While the main draw of the Nintendo 3DS remains its titular capacity for accommodating a third visual dimension, other thought-provoking features are beginning to emerge. According to The Wall Street Journal, Nintendo is looking to implement a variety of networking and communication features aimed at turning the device into a platform for social gaming. Nintendo’s on-line strategy (such as it is) has always been unique, and it will be interesting to see if this strategy signals a bold new direction or simply another half-step towards towards keeping up with Internet-focused devices like the iPhone.

Some discussion starters:

- Is a single-use portable gaming device still appealing?

- What are your thoughts and concerns regarding the StreetPass and SpotPass programs? Does it affect your attitude towards the 3DS overall?

- Aside from obvious matchmaking functionality, what is the potential of services like StreetPass?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 27 min 23 sec
- “Nintendo Bets Big on Social DS System,” by Daisuke Wakabayashi, via The Wall Street Journal
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Hardware Hitches

About ten years ago, I thought that console gaming would grow progressively similar to PC gaming. While I expected the types of game experiences would remain fairly distinct to each environment, the meta-game of actually getting a game to run on a given machine would become similar. Games were getting increasingly complex on a technical level. It seemed that this growing complexity would cause the breakdown of hardware generations as new games would require incremental hardware upgrades to run properly. The recent release of Microsoft’s Kinect and Sony’s Move has me reflecting on this prediction and its unexpected manifestation.

With the Wii, a new era of basic, practical hardware limitations began. Like an adorable little vampire, the Wii abhors sunlight. The infra-red connection between the Wii Remote and censor bar means gamers who like to buck the stereotype and play under natural light have to either rearrange their room based on the angle of the sun or be content with waggling in darkness.

The Wii Motion plus illustrates another simple, yet very strict kind of hardware requirement. On the PC, most games can be scaled to fit a variety of graphics cards and processor speeds. The Wii Motion Plus is a hardware upgrade meant to offer input rather than graphical enhancements, but this means that hardware requirements are often binary: games can either be played or they cannot.

In keeping with tradition, Sony is building on Nintendo’s innovations with the new Move controller. Its increased fidelity and more sophisticated technology only serves to amplify the strict hardware limitations of Move-enabled games. So far, the difference between Move games and non-move games is significantly wider than that of Wii Motion Plus and non-Wii Motion Plus games. At around $80 for each Move wand and navigation control, plus another $40 for the required camera, Move quickly becomes a significant investment and a rigid hardware barrier.

Kinect has the perhaps the most basic and troublesome hardware requirements. Instead of ambient-light requirements or a preponderance of plastic dongles, Kinect demands a minimum amount of physical space. As the staff of Joystiq illustrates, meeting the hardware requirements for Kinect games require both monetary and physical sacrifice that cannot be skirted.

Ironically, these complications are a by-product of trying to make things less complex. In an attempt to make things approachable from an input design standpoint, the consoles have inadvertently become more complex in the most basic technical sense. A console’s strength lies in its ability to “just work,” but current hardware trends are erecting price and usability barriers that serve to erode advantage. While a PC game might require you to compare the latest Nvidia and ATI chips or wade through a mess of .dll files, at least it doesn’t make demands of your home decor.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Considering the Super Mario Canon

My latest post at PopMatters takes a look at Nintendo’s celebration of Super Mario’s 25th anniversary.

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, but the website itself seems fairly modest. Instead of a all-things-Mario extravaganza, it’s a fairly simple, classy look at the highlights of the series. I enjoy the fact that Nintendo publicly embraces the quirks and bugs that made the original Mario so fun to explore. Additionally, I appreciate their respect for technical mastery of a game. When the creator of a game posts speed runs, it almost feels like a challenge.

Despite the huge universe spawned by Super Mario Bros., there’s no sign of go karts, golf clubs or stethoscopes; as far as Nintendo is concerned, the Super Mario franchise is defined by platformers.

However, isn’t it strange that only select platformers get recognition? In seemingly playing favorites, it appears that Nintendo has its own idea of what makes a definitive Mario game. In celebrating Super Mario’s 25th anniversary, Nintendo seems to be suggesting an official canon for some of the most revered “texts” in the medium.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

EXP Podcast #102: Return to Azeroth

I have been free of World of Warcraft for almost two years now, but already its tendrils are pulling me in - and I'm not the only ex-WoW player being called by the sirens of Cataclysm, Blizzard's next expansion to the iconic MMO. Sean "Elysium" Sands inspires this week's podcast discussion with his article "Is Cataclysm Enough to Bring You Back?" I know my mind has been changed at least once. As always, you can find the original article in the show notes and we encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Also, check out the following cinematic for the Cataclysm, it's amazing:

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 30 min 02 sec
- “Is Cataclysm Enough to Bring You Back?," by Sean Sands via Gamers with Jobs
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Minecrafting Middle-earth

I am a big Lord of the Rings fan. When I was an undergraduate, I took a course on the History of Middle-earth that taught the series as if it were one hundred percent real. The Fellowship of the Ring was a narrative account from which we gleaned information about the Middle-earth. The Silmarillion was a history textbook (which works, because it very much reads like one). Exploring Tolkien’s fictional world as a real place made the author’s imaginary world more real and therefore more meaningful. It also taught the class a great deal about the intricacies of world building and the amazing depth Tolkien was willing to go to bring such a fantastic otherworldly vision to life. Now a group of people are recreating Middle-earth again, one cube at a time, in Minecraft.

Both Scott and I have written about Minecraft before, but for those still unaware, it is a game currently in alpha that randomly generates a world made out of cubes which can be disassembled and put back together again to create a variety of objects. One person can make a comfortably log cabin or, as in the LotR example, a large number of people on a single server can build entire villages together.
The task these Minecraft players have set for themselves is immense. Middle-earth is absolutely enormous (which is why it takes Frodo so damn long to get to Mordor). While the self-titled “Foremen” of Middle-earth Minecraft project are aiming to scale the landscape down a bit, the amount of work to be done is mind-boggling. Yet they are making good headway.

Hobbiton is pleasant and Bree, a relatively small village just East of the Shire, is almost complete. The central road leads through town, passing by the Prancing Pony (a necessary reference to the lore) and a few notable landmarks. Players are also welcome to build a home and farmstead in and around Bree, so long as the one plot of land they build upon does not contradict Tolkien canon or tarnish existing buildings. Those of whom are finished with Bree can contribute to the long road to across Middle-earth, with notable stops along the way to build Rivendell, Moria and, one day a long way off, Mordor itself.

What these players are doing is far more impressive than the recreation of a single-object, like the Starship Enterprise. They are also not creating Middle-earth from a map editor, choosing to recreate the world themselves. They are building history - a fictional history, but an incredibly rich world nonetheless. It is a dual history. When Isengard is finally built, it will be meaningful to those familiar with the fortress and its lore. But it will also be meaningful to those who built it - not the Númenóreans but the individual minecrafters who raised its walls.
When Middle-earth is complete, it will tell two stories, one the story of Tolkien’s realm and the other the story of a player-created environment, and both will be richer for it. Exploring the fictional world, despite its cubed aesthetic, will reveal a very real history of its creation bound into Tolkien’s work. This is more than most MMOs could ever hope to achieve. While the finished LotR server may not be populated with Orcs and Ents, it does hint at the possibilities Minecraft could create. Imagine a Middle-earth inhabited by opposing factions. Imagine a historical reenactment of a battle outside the walls of Minas Tirith. It all begins with a few more blocks.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
- J.R.R. Tolkien

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Playing the Ultimate Sacrifice: Halo: Reach and Left 4 Dead 2

My newest PopMatters article is up: Playing the Ultimate Sacrifice.

Warning: This post contains widely known albeit significant spoilers for Halo: Reach and Left 4 Dead 2's 'The Sacrifice' campaign.

There are certain types of story, or narrative trops, I am disproportionately drawn to, and not necessarily because they are always done correctly or deserve no critical eye. Father/Son stories, for example, are simply fascinating to me. Another is the noble sacrifice, a final act of bravery for your friends. What better medium than videogames to express such a raw emotional moment?

I might come off as overly critical in this piece. I actually really enjoy 'The Sacrifice' campaign and the Lone Wolf level of Reach, but neither game capitalized on what could have been a really meaningful moment for players. In fact, taking the "gaming as usual" path was more jarring than anything else. Why can't I stay on the ground and shoot off enemies for as long as I can in L4D2 before being over run? Why can't I spend my final moments running around while my allies watch helpless from above? Even the "Kill Bill" achievement given to players for sacrificing the character according to canon is distracting.

Reach has a similar moment if you run too far away from enemies, warning you not to exit the battlefield. If there is no immediate reason to sacrifice herself, why can't Noble Six try to actually survive the ordeal? I would have preferred to go out in a decisive blaze of glory, maybe by crashing a vehicle into space ship like Randy Quaid from Independence Day (too soon?). I did find the overall story compelling, but actually playing Noble Six's death scene just meaningless.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

EXP Podcast #101: A Subjective Story

While reviewers often strive for “unbiased” opinions, the impact of personal taste on one’s enjoyment of a game is unavoidable. In the current climate of heavily authored and story-based games, is it possible for a game’s plot to impact one’s enjoyment of its game mechanics? This week, we use an article sent to us by Sam Crisp and written by Kieron Gillen as a starting point to explore this question. We cover a range of issues including the search for objectivity, the original intent of designers, and the existence of the gaming wolf-boy. As this is a topic focused largely on opinions, we’re looking forward to hearing from you in the comments.

Some discussion starters:

- For those folks who played Mafia II, did you enjoy the story and did your feelings towards it impact your experience with the mechanics?

- What games have either won you over or turned you off with their stories, rather than their gameplay?

- Is it possible to make any objective conclusions about game plots, or are we stuck in a world of relativity?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 36 min 19 sec
- “I Am The Mob: Mafia II, Subjectivity And Story,” by Kieron Gillen, via Rock, Paper, Shotgun
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Suspect Stewards

About a month ago, “Good Old Games,” an on-line store that sells classic video games, advertised a site relaunch by hinting that they were shutting down. This hoax was quickly sussed out by a some Internet detectives and subsequently confirmed by the company, but not before it created a miniature panic amongst customers of the service.

I've wanted to say something about this for a while, but I couldn't quite find the right angle by which to levy the harsh criticism GoG deserves. As I was writing my most recent post for PopMatters, I realized that the issue was more than an example of poor business practices. GoG's actions are offensive on a deeper cultural level and they illustrate the dangers of privatizing our past.

The entire mess started when GoG had to take the website down for a refresh. Instead of issuing an announcement explaining this, they opted for something "flashier." GOG managing director Guillaume Rambourg elaborated on this in an interview with Joystiq:

Due to this situation, we had only two options in terms of communication: either making an official "boring" statement or taking a more creative route. We have been gamers forever and thus decided to pick the second option, as we believe the industry has been getting dead serious for the last few years. If even the entertainment industry – which I believe is supposed to generate emotions and creativity – gets dull, where is the whole world going? Our aim was never to harm anybody here. All we wanted is to take an exotic path to cause a debate. Luckily, this was the first and last time we had to take down our servers. In practice, this means our future major announcements will still be creative (we'll never give up on that!), but without the slightly bitter part for our users.

It's hard to understand how Rambourg can believe that the industry is "getting dead serious." We just came off of an E3 headlined by Cirque du Soleil and showcasing motion technology intended to make games less serious undertakings in order to attract new players. Bioshock Infinite provoked more fanfare with a pre-rendered trailer than most games achieve with their release. Valve's commitment to the expanded universe around their games prompted numerous Team Fortress 2 comics and a retcon of Portal's story. The industry is as lively as it ever was, if not more.

The problem seems to be that Rambourg and other folks at GoG see themselves as Valve-like figures. They wanted to create an iconoclastic image of the company to blur the line between corporation and community member. They took a chance that the PR move would come off as quirky and lovable rather than immature and obnoxious.

They are under the illusion that GoG's role is anything more than that of a middleman. GoG is a store whose role is to provide a service rather than act as industry critic, artist, or provocateur. Valve walks a fine line that few others can even attempt, and even they are careful to limit their own quirky stunts to Valve-developed games and to treat the business end of their operation seriously.

The incident demonstrated that they were either unaware of who plays their games or ignorant as to their audience's appetite for foolishness. Does GoG or anyone else truly believe that the kind of people who are looking to play King's Quest are the kind of people amused or impressed by PR stunts? GoG is a tool for people like Michael Abbott who can use the catalogue as a resource for teaching. It's a service that allows the Vintage Game Club to appreciate and reexamine gaming history. It's a service for those who want to make sure they can hold on to history for reasons of nostalgia, education and pleasure.

At this point, perhaps we need to turn our focus towards ourselves, the gaming community. Is this the way we want to access our history? Hucksters who think that toying with their customers and a medium's artifacts don't seem like the kind of people best suited to curating gaming history. The GoG incident illustrates the problem with relying on the market to safeguard culture: marketing and profit will always carry the day.

Socially and academically-funded libraries and archives are anything but flashy, but they will be necessary if we ever want to seriously document the medium. The GoG incident has inspired me to actively pursue learning about and supporting alternative methods of preserving video game history. Relying on private companies to act as arbiters of culture is naive at best and disastrous at worst.