Thursday, July 28, 2011

Youth in the Age of Mortal Kombat

My latest post at PopMatters is about growing up alongside Mortal Kombat.

It's kind of a weird essay: part history, part memoir, and a heaping serving of nostalgia all rolled up into a package I hope will seem familiar to some folks out there. The past few months have been full of Mortal Kombat for me. The release of the latest game last spring coincided with some reading I was doing about the U.S. video game rating system as well as the general media climate of the 1990s. Everywhere I turned, I saw Mortal Kombat's influence.

It's hard to be serious when discussing Mortal Kombat. The game is inherently goofy. Its exaggerated violence and ridiculous characters simultaneously create and mock video game stereotypes. As far as I can tell, Mortal Kombat has never been about making a grand political statement or leading a cultural zeitgeist. So why do I think that this game about blood and guts is so important?

The answer is because people treated it seriously. Ignorant politicians and clueless Baby Boomers saw it as a sign of America's moral decline (or at least a good chance to snag some easy political capital). The older generation's disdain only stoked my enthusiasm: not only was I doing something adults couldn't understand, they were also scared of it. Mortal Kombat, and video games more broadly, became a space to carve out some cultural independence. My friends and I were having fun, but we were also solidifying common generational touchstones. Years later, the phrase "Finish him!" still elicits knowing grins from many twenty and thirty-somethings.

The medium has changed a lot since the original Mortal Kombat's heyday. The newest game is probably the most polished, sophisticated version of Mortal Kombat I've ever played. Despite this, its biggest attraction for me stems largely from nostalgia. It's a kind of nostalgia that runs deeper than the pleasure of seeing familiar sights or hearing old music; Mortal Kombat reminds me of a time when I started to become the person I am today.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

EXP Podcast #135: Overrated

Does the entire world love a game that you despise? You are not alone! We invited games journalist and brave contrarian Mitch Krpata on the show this week to discuss his criticism of Ocarina of Time, the value of terrible games, love/hate relationships with indie games, and more. As always, you can find Mitch's original article and more of his work in the show notes below. We encourage you to share your own isolating experiences in the comments section below.

Discussion starters:
- What are some games you have disliked that everyone else seems to enjoy?
- Is there a value in playing a game you despise?
- What are the dangers of universally praised games?

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 here. 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:

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Choice in the Bastion

In a post released today on PopMatters, Kris Ligman rightly describes Bastion’s narrative as both entrancing and confining. As she states, “It wasn’t long at all until I felt like I was being held captive by the narrative, rather than engaging with it. I have known scripted cutscenes that have felt more interested in player agency than this.” Yet this gives the game a "truly strange and wonderfully entrancing" feel. SuperGiant Games, their first title released as part of Microsoft’s “Summer of Arcade,” managed to use Bastion’s linearity to make a game about choice.

The world of Bastion is constructed of floating tiles, the remnants of a once great city succumbed to a mysterious “calamity.” The remaining pieces of the environment appear before The Kid, the game’s protagonist, as he walks, supplying narrow pathways and arenas through which he navigates. The map very much constrains the player, veer to far in either direction and the Kid might fall off into the void. The world map itself ushers players along in with few divergences or options.

The game’s dynamism comes from its rich RPG elements. Players have a great deal of choice when it comes to how they want to play. With eleven unique weapons, each with five tiers of upgrade options, ten possible tonics to equip that grant passive bonuses, and an assortment of special skills to employ in battle, the amount of combat combinations is enormous. Additionally, players can invoke deities to make combat more difficult.

All of these choices matter. Besides weapon combinations, the divine invocation that make the game harder also dramatically affect gameplay. While some simply make enemies more resiliant, others make them quicker or cause grenades to drop upon death, forcing players to adapt accordingly. These gameplay decisions are also informed by the game’s narrative. Ruck, Bastion’s narrator, comments on player decisions as they occur (although not with such frequency as to become annoying). Select a certain weapon combination, and the player might hear “That’s just plain overkill. Come on.” Ruck might also comment on your favored weapon of choice, recognizing your preferred play style. Additionally, the weapons, gods, and abilities all tie into the game lore. The play choices reflect the Kid’s relationship to the past and future of Bastion, making them deeply personally and narratively significant.

There are only two traditional narratives choices during the end of the game, neither of which I will spoil here. Both decisions, particularly the final one, are emotionally powerful. In a world devastated by hatred and the folly's of the past, the games asks, what does it mean to forgive? How do we make amends for the choices of others? By asking these questions in the confinement of the game, Bastion reminds us that even in constrained environments, our decisions matter.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Prepping the 3D Audience

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Prepping the 3D Audience.

It seems common knowledge that software sells hardware. If there were enough interesting 3DS games on the market, then maybe Nintendo would have higher than expected sales numbers. I personally know only one person with a 3DS, and they have abandoned the handheld since launch. The 3D market is languishing because there are no great games on the platform, but that is but one reason.

We quickly get stuck in a chicken and egg problem when we ponder the dearth of quality 3D titles. Is the 3D consumer market too small because there are not enough interesting games? Or are there not enough interesting games because developers and publishers believe the 3D consumer market too small? Clearly both are problematic.

Even now, upconversion of film to 3D is commonplace and often poorly implemented. Yet the sales boost from these conversions have generally rewarded producers with increased revenue. For the most part, we have come to expect a slew of gimmicky 3D films, with a few nestled gems hidden within (Did anyone else love How To Train Your Dragon?). Developers and publishers must overcome this expectation of 'gimmickyness' we have built up.

I have no doubt that, done well, 3D gaming technology could greatly enhance a gaming experience. Indeed, games built specifically for 3D could be commonplace amongst the best games released every year. Yet game developers and consumers must be convinced of the technology's value. This process does not require a title of epic proportions, a 3D Halo or the like. What we need is a designer or development team willing to experiment, to take a risk on our behalf simply to explore the technology's potential. We need a James Cameron or Scorsese who can not only push boundaries but teach others how to better employ 3D visuals.

Who would I like to see become these spokespersons? I would pick Ken Levine, Jenova Chen, and Cliff Bleszinski as my vanguard. Who would you choose to prep our 3D gaming audience?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

EXP IndieCast #5: A Conversation with Peter Brinson

This week, Jorge and I are happy to welcome Peter Brinson to the show. Peter was one of the lead designers on The Cat and the Coup, a independent game about the 1953 CIA-orchestrated Iranian coup. After talking about The Cat and the Coup on a previous show, we thought it would be a great idea to have Peter on to learn more about the game's inception as well as his approach to incorporating history, art, and design in creating a documentary game. As we said before, we highly recommend the game. Thanks again to Peter for taking the time to chat with us and thanks also to everyone listening. We hope you enjoy the show!

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 here. 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: 53 min 47 sec
- You can download The Cat and the Coup for free and learn more about its subject matter on the official website: The game is also available on Steam.
- La Maison en Petits Cubes
- The Power of Nightmares
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Mean Streets of Assassin's Creed

As part of my summer sojourn into the recent past, I finished playing the first Assassin's Creed. Despite its flaws, I enjoyed my time with the game and its surprisingly dense environments. Although there is plenty of repetition in terms of character models and ambient dialogue, I feet that the game captures the essence of what it is like to walk through a crowded city. In particular, Assassin's Creed's beggars and panhandlers give the game's world a recognizable, albeit sad, sense of authenticity.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

My Reconciliation with Uncharted

This week's PopMatters post is about the recent Uncharted 3 multiplayer beta.

I've talked a lot of mess about Uncharted's single-player design in the past, but that hasn't stopped me from thoroughly enjoying the multiplayer mode. In short, it incorporates all of the innovations popularized by Modern Warfare and Gears of War without sacrificing Uncharted's unique traversal dynamics and vibrant art style. In fact, I argue that Uncharted's gorgeous visuals and platforming systems are more meaningful in the multiplayer context than they are in the single player context. Instead of dopey AI and scripted jumping sequences, you have to deal with human enemies actively looking to use the world to their advantage (and to your disadvantage).

I'm not sure anyone has made this comparison, but I feel like Uncharted might be what a modern-day Jet Force Gemini game would look like. The third person view is unique and allows for more intricate platforming, but the game is still heavily dedicated to shooting. I'm not sure how many people played it, but I still remember that game fondly.

Finally, the Uncharted 3 multiplayer beta has me thinking about the nature of "betas" in general. There are a handful of things I think could be improved (melee is still wonky, double kills happen frequently, and there is some interface stuff that could use work), but the overall experience is extremely polished. I imagine Naughty Dog is looking at the statistics very carefully and tweaking the networking and matchmaking systems, but I don't expect many changes in the final version. Instead, this seems like a great opportunity to get people hyped up for the game.

I doubt a company like Naughty Dog could afford to put out a true work in progress. The triple-A market is packed with shooters and, with Modern Warfare 3 lurking around the corner, it would be suicide to try to introduce people to a half-baked product. It's telling that (as is the case with many console "betas") there is no in-game way to report a bug or send feedback. This strengthens my belief that, in addition to testing the game, modern betas are equally important as advertisements. They act as demos, giving people a taste of the what the full game has in store and stoking excitement in the months leading up to the full release.

I'm not sure how much I like this, but I do know that it works: after playing the multiplayer beta, I can't wait for Uncharted 3.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

EXP Podcast #134: Currently Playing

The summer gaming dry spell is upon us, yet Scott and I both have our gaming dockets full. After a long month of work for the both us, we have returned to our backlog with a ravenous appetite. This week on the Experience Points podcast, Scott and I discuss what we have been playing, from Zelda sequels to isometric shooters, and a few things in between. Let us know what you have been enjoying lately in the comments section below, and be sure to chime in with your thoughts on the games we've discussed in the show.

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 here. 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:

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

F3AR for 2wo

F.3.E.A.R or, as I will henceforth call it, Fear 3, lacks the compelling story and atmosphere to make it a great game. Confusing level design and some infuriating enemy types also hinder the experience. Admittedly I am completely new to the franchise, which severely hinders my ability to understand anything going on, but the game is unforgiving of my newness. Having abandoned its horror roots, Fear 3 is a decent shooter at best; that is until a second player joins the match. Cooperative play, like Steve Rogers’ super serum, can turn a weak game into a marvel. With a friend along for the ride, Fear 3 overcomes many of its nuisances. Highly authored stories aside, I wonder why I should ever bother playing a single-player first-person shooter again.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

'Tiny Tower' Ethics

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Tiny Tower Ethics.

I'll happily receive the brunt of the blame for my dissatisfaction with Tiny Tower. I should have known to turn off notifications immediately. I should never have allowed it to wake me up moments before falling into deep sleep to remind me to tend my wares, and I should have gotten up to obey its command.

Brendan Keogh wrote an excellent review of the game over at Paste which I recommend you check out. While he gave the game an eight, my criticisms are in no way incompatible with his praise. In fact, some of his descriptions of the game could have easily merged with mine:

"Tiny Tower is a drug, easily enjoyed and easily abused. In moderation it is an absolute blast to play, with compelling-yet-simplistic gameplay, an intuitive interface and utterly adorable visuals. Yet, to play Tiny Tower only ‘in moderation’ can be more challenging than the game itself."

The game does compel one to play it, and it does so with its approachable interface and adorable visuals. No one can deny the cuteness of a tiny mini-golf course. The game also mimics the MMO reward system in which I gain levels by doing mundane tasks and am driven on by the desire to acquire yet more levels. Jonathon Blow criticized World of Warcraft for delivering what he called artificial rewards, delivered specifically to exploit a psychological button of which designers are well aware. In an interview he did in 2007, he states:

"I actually think that Skinnerian reward scheduling in general (which you see in most modern game design, MMOs being the canonical example) is unethical and games should not do it... scheduled rewards, to keep the player playing, are a sure sign that the core gameplay itself is not actually rewarding enough to keep them playing, and thus you are deceiving your players into wasting their lives playing your game."

The core gameplay of Tiny Towers extends into the real world, asking players to manage their personal time in service to the game. While Brendan Keogh on Facebook rightly points out that the game does not punish players with a lose condition, I can personally dish out enough punishment on my own. Humans are amazingly adept at admonishing themselves with guilt or shame on their own, even without the help of bitizens moaning about closed shops on their faux facebook or my friends overshadowing my own tower.

This is not the first time I have criticized a game for unethical design. I denounced Pokemon in an older article for its artificial rewards as well, even when I found other aspects of its design quite appealing. Maybe I am just weak. Even so, I am not the only one. As far as I understand, Nimblebit is making plenty of money back through micro-transactions. Apparently people are willing to pay to skip "gameplay" entirely.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

EXP Podcast #133: Born Free-to-Play

Cash-strapped gamers have never had it so good: today, there are plenty of companies literally giving games away for free. However, developers aren't simply doing this out of the goodness of their hearts; games without initial costs often feature non-traditional ways of making money. Recently, a few high profile games like Team Fortress 2 and World of Warcraft have started experimenting with free-to-play and micro-transaction payment models. They join a host to of other games that are trying to change the way players pay for games. This week, Jorge and I talk about some of the financial, gameplay, and cultural issues surrounding free-to-play business models. As always, we're always interested to hear any of your valuable thoughts, so feel free to jump into the comments with your thoughts.

Some discussion starters:

- What are some of your favorite free-to-play games and how do they implement their non-traditional payment models?
- Do specific types of games or genres lend themselves well to the free-to-play model?
- What kinds of cultural and socio-economic issues arise when transitioning to a micro-transaction payment system?

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 here. 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: 32 min 23 sec
- "World of Warcraft goes free-to-play until characters hit level 20," via Joystiq
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The First Few Steps

I tend to play games at a odd pace. The combination of an extremely busy year and my tendency to "chew my food" means that there are times when I either don't play anything or choose to obsess over a single game. Because of this, the "what we are playing" sidebar is probably the most neglected area of the site. Without Jorge to remind me (or simply update the thing for me), things start to look pretty stagnant.

However, looks can be deceiving: I've recently started a handful of new games. Actually, "new to me," might be a more accurate way of putting it; all of my recent interests are from years past. Regardless of release date, jumping into a new experience still elicits a similar kind of excitement that comes from visiting a new town or moving into a new place: I might have a sense of what's in store, but there are a host of quirks and unexpected surprises waiting to to be discovered. Some of these quirks will eventually turn into annoyances as the honeymoon phase wears off, but my long dry spell has only augmented the thrill I get from those first few hours of exploring a new game.