Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Risk/Reward in Metroid: Other M

Image via GiantBomb.com
After bashing Metroid: Other M on our last podcast, I thought I should write out some more coherent thoughts on the game. The game has problems, but the more I thought about it, the more I decided that they were almost all tied to the game's plot and characters. I'll try to explain the downright insulting nature of the game's story in a future post (plot holes, nonsensical dialog, sexism; it's really a piece of work). For now, I think it bears mentioning that, on a basic mechanical level, Metroid: Other M has an interesting risk reward system that lures players into taking risks during battle.

Like most Metroid games, you can hold down the firing button for a more powerful charged attack. Doing so takes time and leaves you without any offensive capabilities. However, you also have access to a dodge maneuver that both allows you to avoid attacks at the last second. Successfully dodging while holding down the firing button grants you a fully-charged blaster without having to wait for the meter to fill up. Performing this move is a calculated risk: there's always the chance you'll dodge too late or miss an attack from a secondary enemy, but being able to fire consecutive charged blasts with almost no lag time is extremely effective against even the strongest enemies.

Metroid: Other M gives you a reason to make combat more exciting and dynamic. You could keep your distance and pepper most enemies to death with weak shots, but that soon becomes slow and dull. Things get even more hectic when you start incorporating melee and finishing attacks, both of which require a fully charged meter and close proximity to enemies. Racing towards a stunned enemy or jumping on top of one is pretty much the most dangerous thing you can do in terms of inviting injury, but it's also the way to quickly deal out large amounts of damage. This leads to situations where you might actually get more aggressive when you are low in health because you want to end the battle before you making a mistake or getting tagged by an errant shot from a far-away enemy.

Other M's first-person mode offers a similar mixture of benefits and drawbacks. The game is usually played with the Wii Remote in the horizontal, NES-style position, but pointing the remote at the screen activates a first-person perspective that gives you access to missiles and lock-on targeting. Both of these things are highly useful against enemies, but they come at a price: your field of vision is much more limited, you have to manually find targets rather than rely on the third-person aim assist, and you can't dodge. Like the dodge/charge dynamic, going into first person offers benefits that must be balanced against ever-present risks.

On a side note, first-person mode is interesting from a physical perspective, as it puts you int he unique position of having to quickly change the way you hold the controller. While awkward at times, it's a novel way to simulate the feeling of having to quickly draw and aim a weapon under pressure. The game slows the action for a brief moment when you switch, but you still need to get your bearings quickly and go in with a specific plan.

Unfortunately, all these risk/reward systems require a herculean suspension of disbelief in order to reconcile them with the game's story and fiction. How does dodging a projectile possibly recharge an energy weapon? Samus flawlessly target enemies in third-person mode, but routinely misses in first person mode. Thanks to my input, she alternates from being the best shot in the galaxy to being unable to hit the broad side of a barn. Missiles are in endless supply and cause no splash damage, so why does she only use them in first-person mode?

There are plenty of interesting systems at work in Metroid: Other M, it's just a shame that you have to ignore the story, disregard its characters, and forgo any hope of technological plausibility to find them. Ultimately, the game's biggest risk is its focus on its plot and character development and it's a risk that doesn't pay off.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bedeker's Dilemma and the Thrill of Danger

Walter Bedeker, from the Twilight Zone episode
"Escape Clause"
This week at PopMatters, I wrote about the importance of consequences in video games. Hopefully there are some Twilight Zone fans out there, as I use a particular episode to convey my point.

Hanah and I are currently playing The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess together. As I calmly dispatched a gigantic, fearsome looking evil knight, she commented that "It looks like you're chopping wood." It wasn't that the knight looked like a tree, it was because he posed as much danger to me as a dead log. Granted, I've played a lot of video games and it's hard to faze me, but the point remains that I'm rarely intimidated by things in games that are supposedly meant to be intimidating.

I attribute this to a lack of consequences. If I slip up when playing Twilight Princess, I'll lose a couple of hearts. If I really get sloppy, I'll have to drink a potion or use a fairy. If the unthinkable happens and I die, I'll have to start the battle again or, at worst, retrace my steps to the boss' lair and then restart the battle. Mechanically speaking, death doesn't mean much, as I could continually restart the same battle with few consequences besides lost time.

Most mainstream games are like this. Progress stops only when the player gets bored and walks away. Therefore, the thrill you get from danger is more likely to come from an aesthetic or narrative source: huge explosions, dramatic music, an unexpected scripted plot twist, etc. The problem here is that, without novelty, even the most convincing illusion of danger will lose its power. Just take a look at how the Call of Duty series struggles to continually up the ante in terms of spectacular set pieces. In reality, the games don't provide much real danger, which means the developers have the unenviable task of trying to entertain immortals. Without the fear of death, how do you excitement from death-defying circumstances?

It's no wonder that games like Demon's/Dark Souls and Spelunky enjoy such dedicated followings in the current design climate. In many ways, they are very much like old arcade games: visually modest, but mechanically terrifying. One sloppy mistake and everything you've built is gone; your temporary virtual life, such as it is, is snuffed out. In this situation, the "GAME OVER" screen is more than a reset sequence, it's truly an end.

The roguelike genre is one of the few places in which death has retained its power in video games. When you're down to your last hit, out of items, short on time, and staring at a spider you know has the power to end your epic run, you feel tense. Your hands sweat a little and your heart beats faster. You're afraid because you know you could perish, but you're simultaneously excited. Death has real consequences and the feeling of escaping its clutches makes you feel alive.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

EXP Podcast #181: On Our Screens

Every now and then Scott and I like to take a break from our usual schedule and actually chat about - you guessed it - video games. This may be hard to believe, but we actually do play a decent amount of games ourselves. This week on the EXP podcast, Scott and I discuss what we've been playing. We touch on The Walking Dead, Metroid: The Other M, Magic the Gathering: 2013, Demon Souls and a couple more. As always, we encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Also, we are doing another mail bag episode! Send in yours questions to us via email experiencepoints AT gmail dot com), message or reply to us on Twitter (that's @JAlbor and @SJuster)or any other method and we will discuss them on 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 24, 2012

Walking Dead Interaction

I was never much a fan of The Walking Dead comic book series or the television series (although I heard it improved over time). Too often I found the writing outlandish and cliche. In both the comic and the show, character behaved irrationally, as though they suddenly forgot they were living in a post-apocalyptic world. Yes, people act crazy when the world is over, but still, it was happening with too much frequency to believe.

Now, after quite a bit of praise from the critical community, I have turned to The Walking Dead episodic game series by Telltale Games and I am hooked. I have played the first two of the five announced episodes and it has salvaged the world when I had almost given it up for lost.

My appreciation of the game stems from sharp writing, not incredibly evocative gameplay. Most interaction involves picking one of a variety of choices. Save the geeky nerd or the sharpshooting heroine? Side with the paranoid zealot or the family-focused yokel? This is not new or particularly inspired forms of interactive. When action does take place, it usually asks you to move the point over a well-marked location on the screen. How quickly can you push a button?

Even so, this minimal interaction enlivens the personality of Lee, the titular character, in a way the comic books cannot. Some characters still act irrationally, and maddeningly so, but the game is about my reactions to that environment. Minor decisions, particularly when they have lasting effects on those I care about, are important because they bring the destruction of the world with all its quiet tragedy back down to human scale. The protagonist of the comic book series is out to protect his son, I get that, but I never found that story compelling until Clementine, voiced by Melissa Hutchison who pulls off a great rendition of a vulnerable but brave child, was threatened and I, by my decisions or inaction, allowed it to happen.

Even when some characters behave erratically (I'm looking at you Kenny),  I feel isolated from their madness. It genuinely helps to embody an individual in this story because it both isolates me from the others characters and binds me to them. My decisions effect those around, but they are also my own.

I know that compared to other survival horror games, The Walking Dead closer to being a television spin-off than a game. Yet that little bit of interaction helps. I eagerly await the next episode. When the series wraps up, I am sure I will have more to say on the game. In the meantime, if you have been playing it, let me know what you think? Is the game as compelling as I seem to think?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Mail Call 2!

The time has come again to open our mail bag to listener questions! We had such a grand time chatting about topics you all raised that we thought we would do it again! If you have a question or topic in mind, feel free to send us an email (experiencepoints AT gmail dot com), message or reply to us on Twitter (that's @JAlbor and @SJuster), submit a comment on this post, or just find us in the streets.

While we may not get around to all your questions, we do read each and every one and look forward to hearing from you!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Spatial Expectations

My latest article is now up on PopMatters: Spatial Expectations and Their Effect on Our Experience of Game Worlds.

The inspiration from this article comes from the Wired article I mention in the piece that describes Jerusalem syndrome, a temporary psychosis that affects mostly devout christian tourists to Jerusalem. After looking into it, I also bumped into information about Paris syndrome and Stendhal syndrome. These bizarre pyschological experiences may seem like outliers, but I find it incredibly interesting that anyone could find an environment so in line with their imagined sense of place or, alternatively, so discordant, that their mind reacts in such extremes ways. As I see it, these syndromes are intimately tied to the pre-conceived notions about spirituality, atmosphere, and space.

I can't imagine ever succumbing to the syndromes described in the article, but I find it telling that we have the capability to so strongly imagine a place that our reactions are profoundly changed by these expectations. When I think about game spaces, particularly those we hold dear, it is no wonder some games are so effective. I cite Fez and Batman: Arkham City as examples, but I am sure you all have your own examples of spatial expectations.

We can certainly point to the Assassin's Creed series as an example. I played Brotherhood shortly after visiting Italy myself and the architecture of the city so closely mirrors it's real world counterparts that I found myself revisiting my favorite parts of the city just to take a look around. The plot of the series often borders, or crosses over into, the absurd. I think the world-building efforts of the team goes a long way in justifying or at least glossing over the game's ludicrous story arcs. This is one of the reasons I am nervous about Assassin's Creed 3. I have no familiarity with the East Coast, and certainly not its revolution-era architecture. At the very least, I may not find the story as compelling if my spatial expectations established by the series are not met.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

EXP Podcast #180: Imagine a World

Is the goal of photorealistic graphics and the prevalence of gritty shooters at odds with the role of imagination in video games? In a recent column, Steven Boone wonders if the influence of realistic, violent games limits their creative potential. We use the piece as a starting point to talk about how aesthetic style impacts the experience of playing a game. Do today's high resolution, violent, and narratively focused games give us tunnel vision? It's a broad topic that encompasses everything from marketing, to art style, to storytelling techniques, so feel free to jump into the comments with your thoughts!

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 57 sec
- "The Last of Us, and other video games that leave absolutely nothing to the imagination," by Steven Boone, via Capital New York
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Video Game Documentaries

A few weeks ago, Jorge and I discussed Indie Game: The Movie. As I said on the podcast, I admired the effort behind the film, but didn't enjoy the end product. The movie does a great job illustrating how hard the various developers worked on their projects, but that's not really a surprise: "the tortured artist" is an old archetype. My biggest problem was the relatively shallow treatment of the medium itself. We are introduced to the characters, we see their intense (yet vague) struggles, and we see their victories, but we never see the details. Their stories don't really explain the specific challenges inherent in making games, nor does the movie do much to teach the audience about the design process. I thought I'd share a couple supplementary pieces for those that share my feelings and my interest in documenting the actual process of making a game.

Giant Bomb's multipart feature, "Building the Bastion," provides an extended look at Supergiant Games' creation process. Through a combination of documentary footage, interviews, and game demos, the feature demonstrates how the game evolved throughout development. For example: Bastion originally was going to include RTS elements, the way that items and terrain drop into the world takes on a new meaning. The series also shows everything from the team's work space to the internal tools used to shape the final product.

The team is small and nimble, which makes it easy to implement changes and arrive at decisions. However, it also means that all the work falls on a very small number of people, which makes for some long nights and frustrating situations when things get rough. In addition to actual design work, the team has to face more practical challenges like conforming to Microsoft certification standards and trying to soundproof their house in order to record dialogue.

While nowhere near as dramatic as Indie Game: The Movie, "Building the Bastion" does an excellent job of illustrating the highs and lows of independent development. Without relying on cloying music or overly dramatic camera angles, the series shows us the team's successes and failures. We see things that never made it into the game and we see the maturation of core features. We also get a sense of where the team is coming from: what games they enjoy and how their skills complement one another helps put faces behind the finished product. Check out one of the earlier episodes. It's well worth your time.

 The second resource I'd like to highlight is JP LeBreton's recent BioShock playthrough on Idle Thumbs' Twitch TV channel (thanks for reminding me, Avery!). JP worked on both BioShock games and, while even less traditional than "Building the Bastion," these videos offer uncommon insight into a very high profile game. Of course, BioShock is pretty much the opposite of an independent game, but JP's commentary still does a great job of describing how the final version came into being. Specific examples of how levels were designed or how technical realities affected the end result are far more informative than simple statements about how stressful development is. I hope this type of guided playthrough inspires more developers to do the same:

Watch live video from idlethumbs on TwitchTV
And now I'll open the floor up to you: what are some of your favorite substantive game documentaries? I hear the "The Final Hours of..." articles by Geoff Keighley are good. Are there others out there that go beyond surface-level observations to differentiate video games from other artistic projects?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Playing for Posterity

Photo by Hanah Zahner-Isenberg
This week at PopMatters, I talk about my recent field trip to The Art of Video Games exhibit in Washington, D.C.

The piece is mainly about the pleasant experience of seeing "living" history. It's unusual to visit a museum in which the items on display are both contemporary and historical. With the exception of some of the older consoles, all the technology on the display is easily available. All of the games can be played outside the context of the museum using emulation software or the original hardware. The vast majority of the game designers are still alive, as are the people that played the games when they were actually released. At the same time, enough time has passed and technology has changed to such a significant extent that such an exhibit is warranted.

All this means that, unlike most of the other Smithsonian exhibits in D.C., visitors to The Art of Video Games Exhibit will likely have some primary knowledge about the artifacts on display. While walking through the exhibit, I heard a constant stream of statements like "Remember when we bought our old Atari?" and "I played hours and hours of this game when I was your age!" The kids of the 1980s and 1990s, now adults with their own kids, were passing along their personal stories to supplement the information on display in the exhibit. Such first-hand knowledge won't be around forever, and I was glad to see such a dynamic in person.

For a more far reaching discussion, I'd recommend listening to this week's podcast. Jorge and I discuss my visit and touch on some of the exhibit's philosophical underpinnings and the future of video games in museums. The exhibit wasn't perfect, but I think it is a good early effort in figuring out how to preserve video game history. Interactivity is what makes video games special, so it was only fitting to see the exhibit inspire so many people to share their own connections with the medium. As long as mothers keep teaching their daughters to play Pac-Man, I'm hopeful for the future of video game history.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

EXP Podcast #179: The Video Game Exhibit

Scott recently paid a visit to our fine nation's capital. Besides having tea with the Obama family, he visited a the cornucopia of stellar Smithsonian museums, including the American Art Museum that currently houses the first ever "Art of Video Games" exhibit. The collection highlights a treasure trove of material, albeit still a small segment of the industry as a whole. Scott and I discussed their game choices in detail in an earlier podcast, but now one of us has some familiarity with the look and feel of the exhibit. Join us on this week's podcast as we talk about modern art, cross-generational sharing, and the pleasure of being a tour guide. As always, we encourage you to leave your thoughts on the exhibit and the future of games in museums in the comments section below. 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 10, 2012

Growing into Ascension

I actively despise board games that seemingly toss out all the social and interactive aspects of the medium. Some of the absolute worst gaming experiences of my life were spent around a table endless doing the same futile task over and over again, with only social norms keeping me glued in my seat. Two popular genres, deck-building games and work-placement games, fall into this category and make me an outcast among many tabletop gaming groups. I find games like Seven Wonders, Dominion, and Agricola painfully boring. These games tend to isolate players, allowing only minimal interaction between players. These games can feel like group solitary, each player focusing on their own strategy and generally ignoring the rest of the table. Actual human contact is rare in videogames and I would much rather engage in social play and deceit at my board game table than formulaic and lonely strategizing.

This is the attitude a carried with me into my first game of Ascension, a deck-building game not unlike Dominion. Much to my surprise, I became smitten with the game and its expansions. With a few significant design decisions, Ascension has managed to salvage the deck-building genre.

To give a brief explanation, Ascension is like competitive hunting while Dominion is like the stock exchange. Both games give players a deck of cards they can use to acquire cards from a set of communal piles to further augment their deck. As the game progresses, players hone their decks into efficient machine to rack up points and secure a victory.

There are a few key differences between the two. In Dominion, the final score is tallied based upon the value of cards in each players deck. Ascension distributes the same way, but also allows players to destroy monster cards in the center tableau. With few exceptions, destroying these cards gives players special bonuses that affect opponents directly or change the cards available in the center piles. Additionally, unlike Dominion, the center cards change constantly. While players may always purchase or destroy a few select cards whenever they want, all other cards are replaced randomly from another deck. This means if you miss the opportunity to purchase a card immediately, the chance to grab that card may never come up again.

The result of these features creates a game that is far more responsive to play decisions and therefore increases the level pf player interaction dramatically. Yes, Dominion also includes a level of denial when players snag up all the cards their opponent wants, but the actual effect is so much more realized in Ascension. In Dominion, buying a card to stop an opponent from getting it will likely water down your own deck, letting other players around the table to free-ride on your sacrifice. The banishment feature, which allows you to remove cards from the center row or your own deck allows players to make decisions more offensively. Many cards also banish constructs from play, stopping their owners from gaining the benefit of the persistent value of that card type while also watering down the deck's efficiency.

Most importantly, Ascension  allows players to react far more responsively. Many cards allow players to interact with their deck - banishing cards, replacing cards, or drawing new ones - which means changing strategies mid-game is less punishing. Games can change dramatically quite quickly. Of course abandoning your initial plan entirely is a terrible ideal, but the game overall feels more responsive and lively. If I am playing with one person or four, when playing Ascension, I never feel alone. Above all else, this feeling of a shared experience elevates Ascension well above its minimally interactive counterparts.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Patriotic Assassin

Yesterday marked the Independence Day holiday here in the US, celebrating the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, freeing the colonies from the yoke of British control. It is a national holiday here, which means everyone gets the day off to barbecue hot dogs and blow things up - living the American dream. Accordingly, PopMatters took the week off, so no longer article from me this week.

However, in spirit of the holiday, I do want to share some of my thoughts on the patriotic themes of Assassin's Creed 3. Check it out the latest "Independence Day trailer" below.

I am very much excited for this game, partially because I love navigating my way fluidly through Assassin's Creed's environments and stealthily dispatching my enemies. I am also eager to delve into the political machinations of the game. This is a series that delves into some surprisingly deep and controversial material, albeit not always with tact. At one point in the series, you kill the Pope. The Pope!

The war between the Templars and the Assassin's has consistently transcended national boundaries in the series, so it is interesting to see marketing campaigns that so intimately tie Connor and the assassins to America's struggle for independence. There is a sense of culmination in this battle, as though the Templar and Assassin war was defined in many ways by the revolutionary war, and in turn, America was founded during this battle between tyrannical forces and freedom fighters.

What, then, might the game have to say about modern day America? Considering we know Desmond faces the Templars again the modern era, we may find interesting commentary on the current political system and some of its "shadier" foundations. At numerous times during the series, the Templars have been shown as representatives of oppressive capitalism. They seemingly count within their numbers political despots and robber barons alike. Considering the economy and political climate this game is entering, we might correctly assume that while the British were thrown out of their colonies, the Templar still won in many regards. My hope is that stage for Assassin's Creed 3 is as much an environmental choice as a political one.

Of course all of this is optimistic conjecture. Assassin's Creed 3 could be a strangely patriotic mess with more historical action than historical relevancy. When I get a chance to repel the red coats myself, I'll undoubtedly return to this subject. In the mean time, let me know how you feel about the current marketing campaign for the game. Does it turn you off?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

EXP Podcast #178: Bastion Debrief

Supergiant Games released Bastion on XBLA back in 2011, but many players, including Scott, only recently had a chance to play the award-winning game when it joined other stellar works in the Humble Indie Bundle. This week on the podcast, Scott and I revisit one of my favorite games of 2011. Join us while we discuss what makes the game so special and the best way to bring the story to a powerful conclusion. As always, let us know your thoughts on the game in the comments section below.

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: 35 min 38 sec
- Interview with Darren Korb via Top Score with Emily Reese
- Music by Darren Korb via the Bastion Soundtrack

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Chrono Trigger Linguistics

A quick update from the road! I've been travelling for the past week and in order to stave off the homesickness, I'm playing my video game version of comfort food: Crono Trigger. Hearing those familiar songs and one-of-a-kind sound effects brings back great memories, regardless of where I am. However, it's not a completely as I remembered: The Nintendo DS version I'm playing has been re-translated!

While the game feels the same mechanically, a constant stream of slight linguistic differences makes the game feel a bit foreign, even though it's more polished. From a writer's perspective, the game reads much more naturally than the SNES version, which had a notoriously short localization process. Weird phrases have been replaced with more common English slang and it feels like certain dialogue exchanges have actually been expanded. However, when the robots of Lab 32 refer to Johnny as "Bro!" rather than "The Man!" it's jarring.

Even the game's TV Tropes worthy opening "Good morning, Crono!" has been changed to "Crono, are you still sleeping?" When I first read this while playing, I thought I might have imagined this. Consulting the Chrono Compendium's change log confirmed my suspicions. It's a testament to the scope of this version's relocalization. The previous dialog wasn't poor or incorrect; the change was a stylistic one. This is particularly strange, as the original opening was used to advertise this version!

Some of the changes, like calling Spekkio the "master of war" rather than "the god of war" or calling the first future boss' support parts "pods" rather than "bits" are relatively banal. However, there are others I'd argue have meaningful implications. Human characters now refer to the world's sentient monster population as "fiends" rather than "mystics." The former has a decidedly negative connotation that clearly marks them as the "other," while the latter leaves room for mystery, magic, and possibly coexistence. The item that brings a knocked-out ally back is called "Athenian water" instead of the original "Revive." Not only does the former inject the nomenclature of our world into the game, it also obscures the item's function.

None of this ruins the game (you'd have to really screw up to do that), but it is a good example of how linguistic subtleties can affect a game's tone and how we remember it. Chrono Trigger for the DS is still great. As far as video game comfort food, it does the job. It just has a different spice blend than the version I grew up with.