Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Real World in 'Call of Duty: Black Ops II'

David Petraeus in Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Activision, 2012),
image from
This week at PopMatters, I talk about Call of Duty: Black Ops 2's relationship with reality.

Maybe it's all in my head, but I always feel a little sheepish when playing and analyzing a Call of Duty game. As I noted in the article, Call of Duty is almost a punchline for a certain subsection of the game community. "What are you going to next," someone (like me) might ask, "explore the subtle themes of a Michael Bay movie?" I can't deny that there's some merit to this. Black Ops II has enough 'splosions and Hoo-rah for a couple of games.

Still, the games never fail to interest me. The Black Ops series particularly so, since it tackles actual historical events and people. If I told you that there was a video game that addressed CIA ties to terrorist organizations and put you face to face with Manuel Noriega, would you think that I was describing what will be one of the top selling video games of the year? It sounds more like something you'd find in the independent scene. Few other games acknowledge our reality in even the most general sense, let alone call out specific people and events.

The problem is that Black Ops II plays fast and loose with the real historical topics it leverages. In the marketing and in the game Oliver North is presented as some vague authority figure. There are always hints that the CIA is up to some shady business, but the game rarely takes a definitive stance on its actions. Jonas Savimbi is all soldier and no politician, and his ties to neo-conservative U.S. groups are ignored. China is a continual lurking threat, but the roots of the conflict are hard to follow as you frantically strafe through the levels.

Folks like Jorge and me routinely express our desires to see video games branch out to tackle more diverse topics. For every ten games about wizards, we're lucky to get one about politics. At best, I think Black Ops II goes halfway: it's not afraid to reference historical events and figures, but it doesn't offer much in-depth insight. Still, that's more than most games do.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

EXP Podcast #199: Inside the Cube

Peter Molyneux is at it again! This time with a massive experiment involving millions of cubes, a mindbogglingly persistent player base, and an almost mythological promise that could only come from the eccentric mind of the infamous game designer. So what is in the heart of Curiosity - What's Inside the Cube? Is it a prize that can literally "change your life", or is it an exploitative train wreck of an experience? Join Scott and I this week as we discuss the always the power of Curiosity.

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:

- Runtime: 36 min 42 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Sound of Violence

Drowning in the noise of gunfire and orchestral music is the sound of a man dying, begging for help. With the unnecessary noises removed, his pleas sound like they echo in an empty room. Turn off the SFX and Music in Call of Duty: Black Ops II, and the aural landscape becomes a theatre with no audience, a stage on which actors deliver a strange dramatic reading of violence and war.

For occupational reasons, I recently subjected myself to the entirety of Call of Duty: Black Ops II with no sound effects or music. The experience was awkward and unsettling, Lynchian in its surrealism. With no orchestral score or visceral gunfire, everything seemed out of place, flattened by silence. A helicopter sweep in with no introductory chopping of its propellers or brass instruments announcing its dramatic arrival. From the jungle of Angola to the jet fighter scene in Los Angeles, the trappings of warfare became play pieces, like cut-out marionettes at a puppet show.

The sound of violence sits alone in all the silence. Every grunt and cry of pain of the hundreds of slain enemies echoes constantly. I can also hear Mason and Harper yelling about some unheard threat or voicing their anger to the non-existent audience. Without the sound of incoming bullets, the urgency of the situation vanishes. Instead, Mason's silence expresses a cold distance from the battle. His steady breathing while aiming down his scope, amid shouts of anguish, seems suddenly monstrous.

This is not the right way to play Call of Duty, I know. Like a sitcom needs a laugh-track, the shooter needs its musical flare and auditory foliage. Without it, the violence is naked. The cries of pain seem almost free of cause, brief and alone with no aural cues to mark their passing.

I remember talking with friends about the sound of video game weaponry, praising the sound of sniper fire and the satisfying click and lock of a bolt-action rifle. Not once have I called the sound of suffering perfect in its fidelity and satisfying in its delivery. I shroud anguish, muffling the consequences of violence under the loud, explosive, and bombastic sound of digital warfare.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Holiday Hiatus

Sonic at Thanksgiving Parade, John Minchillo, Associated Press
Experience Points and PopMatters are taking the day off to chow down on food and spend time with friends and family. We will be back next week with our regularly scheduled programming, but before we take long naps to sleep off the food binging, we want to thank each and every one of you for sharing in our work - be it by reading our articles or listening to our podcast. We have been doing this for about four years now and we cannot be more thankful for all of your support.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

EXP Podcast #198: Jim Crawford and Frog Fractions

Image from Twinbeard Studios
This week, we are pleased to welcome Jim Crawford to the podcast! Jim is a game designer whose latest work, Frog Fractions, teaches us all about the hidden wonders of math. Well, it actually does a lot more than that, but you really owe it to yourself to play it (it's free!). Jim was kind enough to come on the show and chat with us about everything from design philosophy, the role of nostalgia, and the legend of the Twin Beard. We hope you enjoy it and thanks for listening!

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:

- Runtime: 42 min 38 sec
- Jim Crawford's website: Twinbeard Studios
- Follow Jim on Twitter
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Black Ops II and The Unfinished Swan

Image from
I usually like to play a couple games concurrently. Being able to switch back and forth helps me think laterally about the games I play. Oftentimes I'll notice common design techniques or different ways to implement similar systems.

Of course, this habit also leads to some hilarious juxtapositions. Case in point: I spent last week alternating between Call of Duty: Black Ops II and The Unfinished Swan.

I've talked about "gaming whiplash" in the past and the transition between Black Ops II and The Unfinished Swan is a classic example. Shifting gears from a Tom Clancy-esque murder fest to what turned out to be a modern fairy tale was a bit bumpy. Thematically and aesthetically, it's hard to find two different games. For a good illustration, check out the trailers:

Call of Duty: Black Ops II

The Unfinished Swan

Both games are striking in their own ways and both do a good job establishing a tone. Black Ops II embraces a realistic art style that makes its constant bedlam even more stressful. Whether it's the campaign, multiplayer, or zombie mode, the game rewards twitch reflexes. As is the case in the game's plot, unseen threats are everywhere and even a moment's hesitation means failure. It's a shoot or be shot world where victory is as much about quick reflexes as it is strategy. My neck tenses up just thinking about it.

On the other hand, The Unfinished Swan largely avoids moment-to-moment pressure and instead challenges the you to discover and then master unfamiliar tools. You're dropped right into a completely blank world and left to experiment with how to fill it in. Devoid of any button prompts, quest markers, or specific objectives, you're left to both reveal and then make sense of the environment. Along the way, you experience a story about personal growth that mimics the way you enhance the world.

I didn't think about it at first, but your method of interacting with the world in Black Ops II and The Unfinished Swan is essentially the same: you shoot things from a first-person perspective. Of course, in the former game you're shooting people's faces with bullets, while in the latter you're lobbying paint balls at various targets in hopes of enlivening the world.

When it comes to categorizing games, I'm often biased towards perspective and mechanical classification: I'm much more apt to think of something as first-person shooter or a platformer than as a horror game or a political thriller. However, Black Ops II and The Unfinished Swan make a strong argument for taking into consideration themes, visuals, and narratives when comparing games to one another. You may play the games from the same perspective, but their core viewpoints are vastly different.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Spatial and Social Realism in Dishonored

Image from
This week at PopMatters, I write about some of Dishonored's more true to life features.

Realism itself is a strange topic for video games for few reasons. First, it's hard to decide on a single definition of the word: we can find realism in visual representations, sound, physics systems, social simulations, etc. Secondly, is it even a goal worth chasing? Is making something that simulates the real meaningful beyond the simple challenge of doing it. One of the reason I likes games is that they allow for experimentation within systems that simply couldn't exist in the real world.

But that's a longer discussion for another day. The point of my article is that, despite the fact that you can teleport, read minds, and control a horde of rats, Dishonored manages to resemble the real world in a few crucial ways. This is mostly due to how rich the game is from environmental and storytelling perspectives. Dishonored is full of people and places that feel like their exist for more than the player's entertainment. Everything is understated in a way that makes discovering things special and more satisfying that having it served up to you on a silver platter.

I don't do this very often, but I'd recommend that you play Dishonored with the quest markers off. They default to on, but I feel like it makes it too easy to simply critical-path your way through the game, thereby missing the things that make the game special. I'm hesitant to say that there's a "right" way to play the game, but throwing away your in-game GPS will certainly help expose you to the game's interesting uses of spatial and social realism.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

EXP Podcast #197: Pulp and the Legacy of Halo 4

Master Chief fan art
by Ling Yun via Deviant Art
What do Master Chief, James Bond, John Carter, Luke Skywalker, and Shakespear have in common (besides huge egos)? They are all lasting cultural icons that show no sign of disappearing from popular consciousness anytime soon. Can we consider all of these "pulp" works in a sense? Join us this week on the podcast as Scott and I discuss Halo 4, the strength of Halo's lore, and the lasting repercussions of 343i taking creative control over a modern gaming hero.

As always, check out the articles that inspired this conversation in the show notes below and be sure to leave your thoughts on the matter in the comments 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:

- Runtime: 33 min 49 sec
- "How Halo Went From Video Game to Pulp Empire," by Erik Sofge via Popular Mechanics.
- "Why Video Games Are the New Pulps," by Mark Bernardin via io9.
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Assassin's Creed III's Introduction

Warning: Spoilers for the first section of Assassin's Creed III.

While the reviews for Assassin's Creed III three are generally positive, there are plenty of  acute critiques of the game - most of which I agree with. Some earlier features have been abandoned and some of the side missions in the latest title feel forced and poorly put together. Perhaps most consistently frustrating player is the game's first few hours.

See, the game stars Connor, a half-indigenous native of Massachusetts with a grudge against the Templar. We all knew this going into Assassin's Creed III. The bow-and-arrow touting assassin is still plastered over bus stops all across San Francisco. Yet when players first start the game, they are treated to a British aristocrat with a chiseled face and years of experience. The game breaks expectations. Where is the white robed, tree-climbing assassin we were promised?

After a few moments, most players likely assume Haytham, the temporary protagonist, is in fact Connor's father, and rightly so. Like a good deal of others, I figured this was their way of introducing us to the world. Newly excited, I'm interested to learn about Connor's assassin father.

And then the game chugs on unbearably slow. Haytham spends time running back and forth on a boat, really getting across the tedium of seamanship. When the crew finally spots land and the title card appears, for a moment it seems like it was all worth. Eighteenth century Boston! Freedom at last! Then the reigns are pulled in again and the game shuttles Hatham along to various missions and force players to accomplish their goals in a terribly constrained environment. All the while, Haytham takes an unbearably long time finding and courting Connor's mother. Finally, after an insufferably long introduction, Connor's parents conceive of the game's actual protagonist, whose existence I questioned by this point.

Suddenly, a plot twist. Haytham is not an Assassin at all, but a Templar. Connor will have to kill his own father! It all made sense. I understood why Ubisoft spent so much time with Haytham. He shares his first vision of Boston with players. His traversal of buildings, the feel of which we all know so well, is our first climbing experience in the game as well. We naturally fall right into playing Assassin's Creed III, and so we comfortably associate ourselves with Haytham. His Templar status was a genuine surprise, and a neat one at that.

The problem with the games introduction, or more aptly its prologue, has nothing to do with length. I would have been perfectly happy playing a young Connor for more hours than the game offers. The problem is its quality. Assassin's Creed III insists on holding your hand for the first four hours, a travesty considering how well known the series has become. It creates this false feeling of constraint that serves no real purpose, other than to usher Haytham along a narrow path towards the game's twist. By the time the introduction feels firmly over, well into Connor's history, the pacing is so off that what could have been an interesting story comes off as poorly constructed attempt to shock players. This late in the franchise, such tricks are best left off the table.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Halo 4's Master Chief and Community Ownership

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Halo 4's Master Chief and Community Ownership.

This post came about for two reasons, first, I read the Wired article by James Verini on digital pop-star Hatsune Miku. The animated icon's existence is a testament to community involvement in the continued construction of a cultural artifact. Where ten years ago the idea of a virtual songstress with thousands of adoring fans eager who create costumes, songs, and music videos for her might have sound so very "Japanese", today it seems like a natural byproduct of larger-than-life characters.

Second, I was genuinely surprised by how instantly compelling I found Master Chief when he woke up. I am a pretty optimistic guy, but I do not think I'm a fanatic when it comes to video game characters. Regardless, hearing Cortana speak and watching Master Chief wake-up was stirring - I got the chills.

In a weird way, the continuation of his story feels "right". The 343 transition, with the power of hindsight, seems natural. In a way, Master Chief is becoming like the Doctor. With a sort of cultural immortality firmly established, why not slowly relinquish the idea of complete character control? The idea our favorite video game characters could become diffuse, spread out among traditional creators and community creators, is not so alien. I don't want to undervalue 343's contribution to the character and their smart handling of the franchise, but in a way, Master Chief would have risen eventually anyway.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

EXP Podcast #196: Dishonored Debrief

Image from
You didn't think we'd let Dishonored sneak by without talking about it, did you? This week, we dedicate an entire episode to the game. It's dense in the most positive sense: with multiple solutions to even the most mundane obstacles, an open-ended upgrde system, and a surprisingly massive (albeit hidden) amount of lore, everyone's playthrough will be slightly different. For example, one of us was an unassuming (and slightly bumbling) assassin, while the other was a terrifying rat lord. As always, feel free to weigh in with your thoughts in the comments!

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:

- Runtime: 49 min 41 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

For the Empire

Image from
It's election night here in the U.S., and what better way to pass the time than to write about video games? Don't worry, I already did my civic duty, so no one can blame Halo for preventing me from voting. Maybe I've just been swept up by the political season, but I found myself thinking about Dishonored's fictional government.

It's hard not be grossed at least a little grossed out by election season. Months (more like years!) of constant bickering, selective fact checking, and baseless predictions is tiresome. Additionally, because most of my adult life has been dedicated by studying my country's history (academia is a weird place), I have a hard time buying into the triumphant narrative that gets trotted out every few years. Without launching into a huge discussion on race, gender, and socio-economics, there are plenty of smudges on America's record and plenty of things the country needs to work on.

However, there is at least one thing that makes me proud of my country: the U.S. does not have, and has never had, established royalty. This brings me back to Dishonored.

Maybe I'm more patriotic than I thought, but I couldn't help be feel a little depressed that Dishonored's plot revolved around the attempt to reinstall a monarch. Democracy isn't perfect, but it at least opens the door for common folks to have a say in who rules them. As Corvo, not only was I responsible for killing more than my fair share of innocent bystanders and guards who were just doing their jobs, I was also ensuring that they would remain the subjects of an autocrat.

When you get right down to it, Dishonored's political system is pretty terrible. Consider some of the major players:
  • An evil vizier who harbors genocidal intentions towards poor people murders his way into authoritarian power.
  • The Abbey of the Everyman appears to be a government-backed church that functions to suppress the poor, eradicate traditional beliefs, and squash dissent with an elite, ecclesiastical army.
  • The wealthy upper class are able to hire police and government officials as private security for lavish parties while the poor people starve and die in the city's alleys.
Juxtaposed against these elements, a theoretically benevolent Empress is the least of all evils I suppose. The Empress' daughter seemed like a nice girl, but my quest to return her to the throne meant that I had to live among the common folk. I saw their neighborhoods at street level and watched them go about their day to day lives. With a little bit of magical help, I listened to their inner thoughts and learned about their backgrounds. The more I learned, the more I doubted that Emily understood or deserved to rule them.

But I didn't have any choice in the matter. I was playing for the empire and, try as I might, I couldn't stab my way out of a monarchy. Democracy will have to wait for DLC.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Unconventionally Creepy Games

Image from PopMatters
This week at PopMatters, I wrote about games that creep me out even though they aren't in the horror genre.

If you listened to this week's podcast (which I highly recommend!), you'll be able to hear the basis of this post forming as I speak. I still stand by my assertion that games don't really scare me. It's not that I'm trying to be macho; it's the medium's fundamental nature that renders traditional horror techniques impotent. A game like Amnesia does a great job of setting a creepy tone and throwing in a bunch of jump scares, but it's also a very structured game. Puzzles, enemies, and environmental features behave in specific ways that can be learned and understood. Once I start to see the logic behind the madness, things just aren't as scary.

With this in mind, I decided to look for a handful of games that actually did unsettle me (albeit subtly). The common thread isn't a particular artistic style or thematic genre, but rather a willingness to subvert established mechanical foundations. Simply put, if I spend a few hours learning and then relying on my knowledge of a particular rule set only to encounter a situation that shakes that foundation, I get freaked out.

Also: I find myself increasingly fascinated by the river krusts in Dishonored. They're just so weird and gross. Plus, I found a note in the game that suggests they are hermaphroditic and can self-fertilize. I don't want to alarm anyone, but I think Dunwall could be in for a second plague. One of a slimy, crusty variety. One that can reproduce with an efficiency that would put tribbles to shame. One that must be cleansed by the pure, scouring wrath of flames. Yes, that's right my fellow citizens, we must burn the city to the ground if we are to save it!

Sorry; I got a bit carried away there. Fear will do that to you.