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.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Dusty Pixels and Patchwork Stories

This week, I wrote a broad piece that touched on gaming history, the ways in which games age and the limits of re-releases and emulation.

I’ve gone on record before about my ambiguous feelings towards patches and updates. I don’t mind the fact that games are evolving works but I do worry about the difficulty of preserving each iteration. It’s exceedingly hard to study a moving target and if entire features disappear in a patch, it’s unlikely that anyone outside of the developer and a few die hard fans will have direct access to the lost material.

Additionally, it’s hard to quantify the impact things like specific controllers or screen technology have on an experience. Just as seeing Star Wars on the big screen is different than watching it at home, playing Asteroids in an arcade is different than playing it on a computer screen.

Although I am worried, I think I come off as a little too pessimistic about the current state of game preservation in the article. In addition to the legions of people working away in obscurity documenting material on the various gaming wikis, there are also academic endeavors such as Preserving Virtual Worlds dedicated to archiving gaming history. Even with their enthusiasm, they face an uphill battle.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in libraries lately, and I’m always struck by the fact that I can pick up a book and experience it in basically the same way as someone who lived hundreds of hears before me; it might even be the exact same book. Because of the way technology and business work, I have a hard time seeing this happening with games.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

EXP Podcast #100: Celebrating Our Centennial

Wow! One hundred podcasts and over three hundred posts on Experience Points and we are still going strong. This week, Scott and I look back on some of our past writings and hold an impromptu interview of sorts. Join us while we celebrate our EXP Podcast Centennial! A huge thanks to everyone who has joined us for our conversations about games and culture. We could never express our gratitude, at least not without tearing up a bit.

- 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: 63 min 23 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Master Chief After Reach

Warning: This post contains minor spoilers for Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach.

Master Chief is the hero of the universe, the ultimate bad-ass, capable of wiping out an entire armada of Covenant all on his own. He has already achieved legendary status by the time he comes out of cryo in the first Halo game. Regularly UNSC soldiers are awed and inspired by his very presence, and Covenant grunts fear him as a “demon.” Master Chief is so painfully awesome that he literally rides a broken chunk of spaceship through Earth’s atmosphere and lives to fight again. Bungie seems to deify Master Chief throughout the first three Halo titles. Yet Halo: Reach, along with ODST, manages to place Master Chief into a historical context that humanizes him while minimizing his role in the salvation of the galaxy.

Anyone with the faintest knowledge of Halo lore knows the fate of Reach (if not and you are spoiler sensitive, skip the next sentence). No Spartan soldier escapes Reach alive but Master Chief. The sacrifices made by the cast of Reach all contribute to, and are mostly necessary, for Master Chief’s later success. Similarly, the Chief is reliant on the success of the crew from Halo: ODST. If Vergil, the AI infused Huragok, had not been safely escorted by Sergeant Buck back to the UNSC, Seargeant Major Johnson would not have as much information to give to Master Chief regarding the Covenant’s plans for New Mombassa and information stored on their BattleNet.
Sergeant Buck also owes his survival to Noble Six and the Spartan soldiers of Reach, who escort him safely to his crew. Master Chief’s success is due indirectly to the work of his fellow Spartans. This is more directly the case concerning Noble Six’s mission to deliver Cortana to the Pillar of Autumn in Reach, the in which Master Chief is frozen in stasis. During a cut scene, Dr. Halsey emphasizes to Noble Six that Cortana chose her for the mission. This line inentionally mirrors Cortana’s statement to Master Chief in Halo 3: “They let me pick. Did I ever tell you that? Choose whichever Spartan I wanted.” In one way then, Cortana has actually picked two Spartans to carry the fate of mankind. Master Chief might not be so special after all.

The salvation of the galaxy absolutely relied upon Master Chief and Cortana working together. Once again, if it were not for Noble Six in Reach, Master Chief could never have defeated the Covenant and the Flood. Master Chief’s success depended on everyone who has sacrificed for him before the events of Halo 3. Arguably this has always been made clear in the earliest Halo titles - Master Chief is fighting a war after all. Yet it lacked the personal appeal. Halo: Reach forced me to reassess my perceptions of Master Chief. I now see him as one historically bound part, albeit a crucial part, of a far more expansive war. His success is not a validation of his godly abilities, but the completion of a moral duty he owed his fellow Spartans, making their deaths meaningful.
In many ways, Halo: reach retroactively makes Master Chief a more interesting and compelling character. I cannot help imagining what sort of camaraderie he may have had with Noble Six and other Spartan soldiers on Reach. With Reach, Bungie finishes off a piece of world building that perhaps should have been there from the beginning. It is a well executed adjustment of the franchise and hints at the narrative potential Bungie may draw upon when crafting their next series.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Sensationalist: Exploring Confined Spaces

This post is part of "The Sensationalist," a continuing series here at Experience Points in which we examine games' abilities to evoke emotions and sensations in video game players. Please have a look at the series' introduction as well its previous entries. As always, we welcome your thoughts on all the matters we discuss, and look forward to analyzing one of gaming's most powerful, yet intangible, abilities.

My latest post is up on PopMatters: Exploring Confined Space. While not conceived of as a Sensationalist post, I think the subject matters fits nicely into the series. I also want to maintain my habit of posting this approach to videogames with at least some frequency.

I have actually been meaning to write about Escape the Room games for awhile now, ever since playing Sagrario's Room Escape, which is one of the best of the genre. The simple white-washed room you find yourself in is deeply unsettling. It actually reminds me of the television show Lost, which features mysterious and sterile confined spaces. Also like Lost, most of these games have only the shred of an interesting story. It is a missed opportunity considering how much single-room experiences can offer.

Watching any of the films I mentioned in the article should convince you of the opportunities confined spaces can offer to game designers. Buried is not film of the year quality, but it is proof that a compelling and unique story can be told in terribly limiting circumstances. Some games do exploit confined spaces to evoke claustrophobia or other neat sensations. I mentioned Dead Space and Bioshock, which create an enclosed space that feels very confining. You could include a few levels from Halo in there as well. If you think of any others, definitely let me know. I am certain I am missing some fantastic use of a closet.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

EXP Podcast #99: System Spoiler

Most people would probably agree that revealing the end of Star Craft 2 is considered a spoiler, but would they feel the same way about revealing unit stats or building techniques? This week, we use Kieron Gillen’s article about game mechanic spoilers to explore the notion that the enjoyment of a game’s systems and rules can be affected by premature knowledge. We cover everything from the role of previews, the responsibility of critics, to the effects of preconceived opinions. We even stumble upon a new potential business venture: the “mystery game of the month!” As always, we look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments.

Some discussion starters:

- Are there certain games that are more susceptible to mechanical spoilers? How does a game’s plot relate to this susceptibility?

- Have you ever played or avoided a game because of a mechanical spoiler?

- How should reviewers and critics discuss a game’s rules or mechanics?

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 12 sec
- “Mechanic Spoilers: Beyond I Am Your Father,” by Kieron Gillen
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Gaming at 30,000 Feet

I recently took a long flight with the fine folks at Air New Zealand. Surprisingly, they were nice enough to give each of us coach class plebes our very own seat-back monitors on which to watch movies, check the weather, and (you guessed it) play video games.

The gaming library was less than spectacular, but it was a welcome diversion that helped quell my outrage at the fact that first class passengers not only got fully reclining seats with their own ottomans, but were also exempt from the “seat upright, tray table up” rule during landing and takeoff. In any case, I would like to bring you my highly analytical impressions of selections from the Air New Zealand gaming catalogue.

The Controller

Before I loaded anything up, I examined the input device. Since it also doubled as a TV remote, it was shaped like a Wii Remote. On the left side was a directional pad and on the right were four face buttons that shared the configuration and colors of the Super Famicom/Super Nintendo. Much to my surprise, there were even left and right shoulder buttons. Take that, Wii Remote. I familiarized myself with my new-found tool and jumped into my first game.


Hanah summarized this game concisely as “Space Invaders, but crappier.” With a slow frame rate to match its slow rate of fire, Invasion left much to be desired. Although I was initially pumped upon hearing the title screen’s 1990s-era generic rock music, my enthusiasm waned as I realized that the remainder of the game would be played against the monotonous beeping of my single laser attack. Apparently, there was a power-up system that could modify my ship’s gun, but the game’s jerky movement and my sleep deprivation compelled me to press on. Hopefully those aliens weren’t invading anywhere important.


I turned to an old classic in hopes that a Tetris-induced trance would distract me from the multiple crying babies on board. Initially, I was disappointed to find out that, despite apparently having the official Tetris license, the game was lacking the traditional Tetris music. At least the headphones were complementary. Despite its musical deficiencies, Tetris proved to be a competent port with a smooth frame rate and responsive controls. It had a variety of options pertaining to difficulty, handicap, and interface elements. By default, the block shadow and previews of the next three drops were turned on. I turned them off (because that’s how I roll) and cruised through a few levels like a boss.

Magma Roll

All I can say about this game is that it nearly froze my console. Because of my dedication to the medium, artistic criticism, and to you, dear reader, I risked hours of screenless boredom by trying to load it twice, but to no avail. I couldn’t help but thinking I was missing something awesome as I moved on to my next selection.


I was surprised to find another officially licensed game, so I booted it up to see what passes for quality standards these days over at Atari. Much to my pleasure, I found a serviceable game of Breakout that compensated for its unstable frame rate and squirrelly controls with a variety of power-ups. Multiple paddles, magnetic paddles, and multiple balls as well as a variety of block configurations made for a fresh, yet pleasantly nostalgic experience. Of course, at this point they had turned off all the lights in the cabin, so my impressions could be influenced by sensory deprivation.

Cave Crunch

The last game I was able to fully explore was also the one with the longest load time. The title screen depicted a cartoonish caveman bludgeoning a dinosaur while running away from what seemed to be some kind of sabre-tooth tiger. After docking it points for such blatant historical inaccuracy, I started a new game and was greeted by a familiar sight. Don’t tell the folks at Namco, but Cave Crunch is a Pac-Man knock-off with faux-Flintsones aesthetics. My four dinosaur nemeses seemed quite a bit dumber than Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde, and I made sure to do my part to speed along their extinction with my powered up clubbing action. However, I must give Cave Crunch credit for iterating on the risk/reward dynamic of collecting extra items in the maze. In some levels, I had the option to grab pterodactyl eggs from the middle of the maze for bonus points. Doing so would cause the owner of those eggs to target me from above with rocks until I cleared the level. This added to the frantic nature of the game and ensured I didn’t camp out in the safe corners.

Thus concludes my review. Hopefully it was useful for you people who have the misfortune of owning something like a Nintendo DS or an iPad; seriously, you’re missing out on a whole world of gaming out there. Perhaps if enough people read this, I can start that competitive Cave Crunch league I’ve been wanted to create.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Visions of the Past, Present, and Future in 'Minecraft'

My latest PopMatters post is up, and it’s about Minecraft.

It’s always difficult to analyze a game during the height of its popularity. Whether they are critical darlings like Limbo or commercial behemoths like Grand Theft Auto IV, many games enjoy a brief moment in the sun in which they are hailed as the “Next Big Thing.” Inevitably, the next “Next Big Thing” comes along and turns what was once heralded as a revolution into a footnote.

I’ll be interested to see what happens to Minecraft. Like the rest of the gaming world, I’ve been fascinated by the game. It’s not everyday that you see a game released with no marketing go on to such popularity. The amount of popularity and creativity poured into the game is staggering, and the fact that people still seem to be finding new ways of using it is equally impressive. I’m was looking forward to the day when someone creates a working game of Minecraft inside of Minecraft.

Whether or not people are still playing and talking about the game years from now, I think Minecraft is a useful game for showcasing the current state of the medium as a whole. It’s a game whose difficulty and open-ended nature is reminiscent of both text adventures and the most modern sand box games. It’s a game driven largely by a single person, but Markus Persson is hardly cut off from the world, slaving away in isolation. In a time where the Internet offers instant access to every scrap of information about a game, Minecraft still holds mysteries.

Minecraft might be a sign of the future or it might be just another flash in the pan, albeit a brilliant one. Regardless, it offers a great synthesis of old design habits, new trends, and hints at what the future may hold.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

EXP Podcast #98: Stuck in the Game

It happens to everyone: everything is going according to plan when suddenly, you run into a virtual brick wall. Whether this obstacle is a particularly cruel boss battle, an demanding time limit, or a mind-bending puzzle, the result is the same: you’re stuck! This week, we use Michelle Baldwin’s piece about her odyssey to slay a mighty dragon that had been tormenting her and a friend for months. Along the way we discuss some of our own personal battles, various design choices that both lead into and out of tough situations, and the social dynamics of being stuck alongside others. As always, we hope you stick with us until the end and venture into the comments with your thoughts.

Some discussion starters:

- Have you ever experienced any notorious instances of being stuck in a game? Did you ever overcome the barrier, or was it the end of the line?

- Is there an optimal way to help players through rough spots?

- How does being stuck in a multiplayer game (either cooperative or competitive) change your experience?

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: 26 min 13 sec
- “Stuck,” by Michelle Baldwin, via
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Touch of Layton

For readers of the site, it comes as no surprise that I have been anxiously waiting to get my hands on Professor Layton and the Unwound Future. This puzzle-solving series from Level-5 is one of the best hand-held franchises available, and Professor Layton and the Curious Village is now securely in my top ten most enjoyable gaming experiences. Despite the time I have put into the previous two titles, there is something curious about the way players interact with the two dimensional environment I had not noticed until now. Simply and subtly, Level-5 conveys a better sense of three dimensional space without ever breaking the cheery animated style of the games.

The animation style of Professor Layton has always been top-notch, and the drawings that make up each map are colorful and rich with detail. That being said, traversing the urban environments can seem flat at times. Each area is represented by a simple splash screen. To interact with people, you simply tap the stylus on their person. The same action is used when searching for hint coins hidden in the environment - stashed away in a lamp post here, a flower pot over there, etc. Each time you tap a part of the screen, a small yellow circle expands, indicating the place you touched. When scanning an area for hint coins, you can get caught in the habit of tapping all over the screen randomly, poking and prodding at the environment for a coin. Yet all these actions are repetitious, and the little, flat, unchanging circle expresses the two-dimensionality of the world. Looking for hint coins is akin to tapping at a paper print out of a city.

I think Level-5 was aware of how such actions could be boring and detrimental to the feel of the game. To make up for this, they added dialogue boxes that pop-up when the stylus touches certain objects in the environment. Prof. Layton or Luke, when touching a street light, might comment on the lighting in the area, for example. These bits of optional conversation not only flesh out the relationship between the Prof. and his apprentice - they do share banter after all - they also convey a sense of physical space within the two-dimensional portrait.
Many of the pop-up dialogues imply a physicality to the environment. When touching your stylus to a gate, Prof. Layton warns Luke not to touch it lest his hands get smudged with soot. When tapping on a puddle, Luke will say something about almost falling in and getting his feet wet. There are times where Luke will even chide Layton for trying to enter a building when he should be more careful. Similarly, certain objects will react slightly differently when touched. A water fountain, for example, makes a splashing sound when tapped and the yellow circle becomes ringed with the splash of water droplets. Touching the fountain in front of the Casino in Unwound Future has no mechanical benefit, but doing so implies a degree of physicality not easily conveyed when exploring a two-dimensional space.

None of this is to say the game is immune to the tedium of poking a bland environment. For some, the little measures taken by Level-5 to enliven the experience are not enough. I, however, just fall more enthralled by the simple artistic style of Professor Layton and its ability to maintain my curiosity without crowding the experience with needless complexity.