Wednesday, December 31, 2008

EXP Podcast #6 - Year-end Roundup!

It's the end of the year, which means it's time to reflect on the events of 2008. This week, we fill the podcast to the brim, discussing our favorite games of the year, our favorite pieces of game writing, and a few news stories that didn't make the original cut. Check out the show notes for links to all of the games and articles we reference and be sure to weigh in with your favorite 2008 highlights.

Some discussion starters:

-What was your favorite game you played this year? How about your favorite "gaming moment?"
-Did any game writing or particular blogs make an impact on how you view the medium? What trends do you see forming in game writing?
-Which news stories caught your attention? Were there any important or quirky ones that were overlooked?

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: 32m 59s

Our Favorite Games of the Year:

Jorge - Left4Dead
Scott - World of Goo

Our Favorite Game Writing of the Year:

Jorge - A discussion of rewarding flawed games, including (but not limited to):
Leigh Alexander, Ben Fritz, and N'Gai Croal

Scott - Mitch Krpata's "A New Taxonomy of Gamers"

Some Overlooked News Stories

-The DS-Purse Deal

-The Fanboy War on Metacritic

-Square-Enix Making a "Brain-Controlled" Game

-Red Ring of Death Class Action Lawsuit

-Fable II Officially a Stoner Game

Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

December '08 Round Table: The Future is Now!

This post is my December entry into Corvus Elrod's Blogs of the Round Table. This month, Corvus asked us to think about how gaming will impact our familial relationships in the future. As always, thanks to Corvus for organizing this round up, and to everyone else who contributed earlier in the month. Feel free to jump in with your visions of the future.

Last month, in an attempt to cleverly disguise my lack of inspiration, I sidestepped the Round Table prompt about gaming's current role in my family and instead talked about gaming with my hypothetical future family. Like many of my clever schemes, it ended up backfiring on me: Corvus logically capped the discussion on families with a prompt asking us to talk about gaming's future role in our families. I had resigned to sit out until January, but then I went home and visited my parents during the holidays...

A couple of weeks ago, my dad came home from Target with a small, pearl-white companion. When I asked him what had possessed him to buy a Wii, he replied that it was in stock, it was relatively cheap, and it seemed like a fun thing for he and my mom to try out.

Because of their busy schedules, my folks barely had the thing out of its packaging when I arrived on Christmas Eve. There are four of us in the family, and I intended this to be a gaming holiday. I came loaded with the tools for fun: two extra Wii-motes and nunchuks, a copy of Wii Play, Boom Blox, and Super Smash Bros. Brawl (for Eric and me).

I held my breath while we booted up Wii Sports. After a few minutes of shaky pointing and a quick tutorial on button placement, we swung our way through a few games of doubles. Later, my mom schooled us in ten frames of Wii bowling. We capped the night by taking turns standing in front of the TV, shouting “fore,” and chasing that hole-in-one.

The day after Christmas, we made our foray into Boom Blox. My folks were pleasantly surprised at the intricacy and precision of the game's physics, and we shared a good laugh playing the Jenga-like games together. “Family game time” quickly turned into “couch diplomacy ” as everyone learned the strategies and techniques to negotiate the mechanics and social nuances of the game.

The last day of my visit happily coincided with the advent of high speed Internet in my folks' house. After making sure everything was working, I immediately connected to WiiWare, downloaded a copy of World of Goo, and called people into the family room with evangelical fervor. My brother, my dad and I all ended up playing through the first chapter. Building structures by committee is a hilarious, if chaotic experience.

In my last round table post, I wrote: “Video games always seemed to be the missing fourth pillar, as the generational gap seemed a bit too wide to for my dad to jump.” I am happy to report that this holiday season has proven that statement to narrow-minded and wrong.

While it is true that my folks and I will probably never sit down to a rousing game of Gears of War, that does not mean they are not able to play or interested in video games. The medium's diversification has my folks more interested and engaged in the gamer community than they have ever been. Regardless of what fanboys would have you believe, the Wii offers deep gaming experiences which are made more powerful by their accessibility. It felt great to spend a weekend sharing the fun with them, knowing that we were finally sharing in gaming culture together.

Last month, I imagined that the day my family would find common ground on video games was decades in the making. Today, I realize that the future is already here: my folks have a current-gen gaming machine in their house even though their kids do not live with them anymore. Most importantly, this situation did not arise from a change in their attitudes towards games. My entire family can share common video gaming experiences because gaming itself has expanded to allow for this type of sharing.

This future was unexpected, but I could not be happier about its coming to pass.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Review: Refreshing Prince of Persia

Scott and I played Prince of Persia at the same time, so this post is a departure from the norm. When we are fortunate enough to play games concurrently we will follow this formula with one of our reviews supplemented by a shorter collection of the others' thoughts. Spoilers are avoided to the best of our ability, but as always, read with discretion.

I completed Prince of Persia on the Xbox 360, Scott did so on the Playstation 3.

Prince of Persia: Risks and Rewards

Despite a respectable Metacritic score of eighty-three (eighty-six on PC and PS3), Prince of Persia, Ubisoft's latest reboot of the long existing franchise, has garnered mixed sentiments. The most prominent critique is the game's lack of difficulty. According to the game's producer Ben Mattes in a recent IGN interview, players may be overlooking the innovative risks Ubisoft took in development:

"We set out to keep a few core fundamentals but to re-imagine everything else, discarding some very well entrenched ideas not about the brand but also about videogames in general... What surprises me is how little these high level risks seem to be noticed and appreciated as attempts to shake up the industry and push things forward. Perhaps I'm an idealist, but I think perhaps I was expecting a few more virtual pats-on-the-back for our attempts to do something new."

Though the game may have been too easy, I have to agree with Mattes' statement. The art is gorgeous, movement is fluid, the node system works well, and the seamless world is a treat. The following three design choices caught my eye the most and explain why I credit Prince of Persia with delivering an entertaining and fresh experience.

On-Demand Dialogue

At any moment in Prince of Persia, the player can cue a discussion between Elika and the prince. These moments make up a large portion of the narrative elements, putting the narrative pacing almost entirely in the hands of the player. Yet the developers corralled these dialogue segments within particular environments, and included suggestive cues amidst playful banter, to encourage a steady, player-controlled progression through both story and environment.

Ubisoft supplements these short dialogue segments for the less plot interested player by including even shorter one-liners that change subtly as the story progresses, mechanics that elicit narrative meaning (as I've discussed in an earlier post), and short cut scenes after each boss that flow naturally regardless of the order they are defeated.


The life saving mechanic is still innovative despite the criticisms it receives. I have no appreciation for death as mere punishment. As I have already made clear, mortality, or the lack thereof, can serve a narrative purpose. Each time Elika saves the prince's life, the bond between the two grows stronger. One of my favorite scenes, which I won't ruin here, is the fight with the concubine, one of the four shadowy bosses. The dependence on Elika, built with this simple mechanic, is used to stunning narrative effect and asks the prince and the player to put this mechanic to the test.

Ben Mattes articulates this philosopy nicely: "The theme of love and loss was one we wanted to explore, but in a unique way - not just as a story but also through gameplay; a game where the penalty for failure is not artificially enforced by an arbitrary mechanic but rather self imposed by the player." Where the punishment system fails, the gameplay driven fairy-tale succeeds.

The Final Option

After defeating the final boss, as the prince walks slowly out of the temple, a short series of credits roll. Yet the game is not over. What then were the credits telling me? Why include credits when this is not the intended conclusion? I am not certain this is intentional, but it offers the player two finales: quit or continue. Prince of Persia makes turning off the console a narrative choice.

If the player exits the game, the story ends with a contemplative and perfectly satisfactory conclusion. If, as I assume, most players do not, the prince's actions that follow are implicitly that of the player as well. The immersive power or 'doing' is exactly what makes games so appealing. The player becomes an accomplice of sorts. All the doubt, shame and uncertainty the prince feels is partially owned by the player.


The interesting design choices aside, I found Prince of Persia to be a beautiful and engaging experience. Knowing the game was to be a newly imagined departure from the existing series, I was not let down by its approach to difficulty. In fact, this may be just the type of mid-range game needed to bring casual players to more "hardcore" titles. But the game does lack tension where tension is needed, a flaw Mattes is completely aware of. Prince of Persia is still young and has time to prove itself. If gamers can alter their perceptions of what Prince of Persia is supposed to be, I think they will find interesting and innovative design choices well worthy of praise.

~Jorge Albor

Second Thoughts: A Modern Prince?

Prince of Persia is a litmus test for one's feelings towards current trends in big-budget gaming.

While PoP takes full advantage of current systems' graphical power, the game's beauty stems from artistry rather than photo-realism. It follows a tradition of games like Okami and Fable 2, who use modern graphics to create cohesive worlds focused on expressing contextual believability rather than objective reality.

PoP's gameplay also represents contemporary tastes. The platforming is streamlined to the point where the rhythm of jumping takes precedence over aiming said jumps, giving the game a "Rock Band meets Mario" flavor. It is a single-player game, but is based on cooperative mechanics: the Prince and Elika never part, working in unison during exploration and combat. It seems that today, gamers want company even if they are not playing with another human.

PoP has sparked a conversation about challenge in games, but it should be noted that the game's approach to difficulty is in following with the rising prominance of story-driven titles. A "game over" screen or "re-spawn" point is apocryphal in terms of a mono-narrative: Certainly the "intended" ending of PoP is not the one where I spaz out and accidentally force the prince to jump to his doom. Ubisoft employs Elika's magic as an inventive way of addressing this problem.

Challenge still exists in the form of another modern gaming trend: the "achievement." While the game may be easy to complete, additional trials await those who seek to test themselves. Challenge is no longer a road block along the narrative's path; it is a tangent that is simultaneously easy to avoid but tempting to those so inclined.

PoP hails from a decidedly "new-school," in which games try to be everything for everyone. Like it or not, the game is a sign of the times.

~Scott Juster

Friday, December 26, 2008

Are People Playing LittleBigPlanet?

This is the fifth of five posts about LittleBigPlanet. My previous posts have each focused on specific aspects of the game:

-My first post dealt with the mechanics and deconstructionist nature of the game.
-The second post addressed the game's cooperative appeal.
-The third post examined LBP's novel means of facilitating communication.
-My fourth post analyzed the philosophy of creation and cultural ownership in relation to the game.

With this post, I want to briefly engage with some of the hand-wringing concerning LBP's sales performance, and suggest that the game's future need not be as dreary as some would say. While it may be true that LBP is off to a slow start, the marketing push and the game's style suggest that LBP is a slow burn game that is continuing to grow into its potential.

I started this series on LittleBigPlanet because I felt that the game was getting lost in the cacophony that was 2008's fall gaming season. Despite high marks from almost every media outlet, it just seemed like the game was falling outside of people's attention attention. I want to examine the reasons behind this feeling, offer some thoughts on the future of LittleBigPlanet, and suggest that, when viewed in a broad context, the story of LBP is a hopeful one.

The Numbers Game

There has been some talk about LBP's sales numbers, so I feel I should briefly comment on them.

Most feel that LBP's sales numbers are less than spectacular given the game's quality and the anticipation that seemed to surround it. I did some quick research and it seems that the US numbers shake down as follows: In the U.S., there have been 5,700,000 PS3s sold, but there have only been 356,000 copies of LBP sold. To put that in perspective, let us compare LBP to another high profile console exclusive: Gears of War 2. Gears 2 is edging towards 2 million sold, which means that approximately 13% of Xbox 360 owners already have it.

While this seems daunting, half a million people is really not that bad in the context of this fall's video game deluge. The PS3 has a vastly smaller install base than both the 360 and the Wii, and competing for people's already-scarce dollars is difficult in this economy.

Games like Fable 2, FarCry 2, Gears 2, and Fallout 3 are all appealing, well-made games that also possess the luxury of having titles that end in a numeral. Franchise branding is a valuable thing, and I think we can see that the non-sequels got the short shrift this season (consider Dead Space and Mirror's Edge). The numbers for December have not been tallied yet, so I would not be surprised if the game gains some traction as word spreads and folks buy it over the holidays.

The Marketing Game

As I have exhausted my (admittedly thin) empirical evidence, I will now fall back on anecdotes to make the following point: Sony must get its act together and start promoting this game.

I see Left4Dead billboards when I go downtown. I see Fallout 3 advertisements while watching TV on I hear Devotchka in Gears 2 TV trailers. I only see LittleBigPlanet when I seek it out myself! This is a problem when it comes to growing a game's audience.

I have talked to multiple friends who own at least two of the current-gen systems, all of whom I consider "gamers" in the traditional sense, and they still have little-to-know idea what LBP even is. My next door neighbor, who owns both a 360 and a Wii, game me a blank look when I invited him in to play LBP. A co-worker (also a avid gamer) asked me "It's like a kid's game, right?"

As a publisher and a console manufacturer, Sony's marketing approach is baffling. Sending a new franchise into the wilderness with no publicity with which to defend itself was a grave miscalculation. Delaying a game days before release and cracking down on folks who are trying to actually use the game is insanity. Finally implementing an on-line update that adds a "search" functionality is a good step, but let us not kid ourselves: that should have been live on launch day. Furthermore, the menu and community system is still disorganized. The existence of sites like Sackbook demonstrates two things:

1. People want LBP to be about community.

2. The fact that the players had to create an external website to do it show something is missing from the game.

Here are two ideas: one simple, one complex:

1. Bundle LBP with every PS3 in every region. LBP is a game that thrives off of player involvement, and it is one of the most convincing reasons to buy a PS3, as it is an exclusive experience.

2. Why not turn the abomination that is "Home" into an extension of LBP? That way, players could interact with dozens of other Sackboys before breaking off into groups of four to explore levels. Instead of randomly jumping in with people, player could meet and plan strategies. Rather than take up valuable bandwidth with inane dancing, sexual harassment, and insulting micro-transaction based apartment decor, put the infrastructure towards something that would actually aid in the playing of games!

Playing the Game

LBP has been out for two months, but I feel that gamers are just beginning to come to terms with the game. It is a game whose appearance is familiar, but whose feel and message diverges from tradition. First, the game plays differently than what gamers are used to: its jumps are not Mario jumps. The swinging is not like Bionic commando. While I do believe the game would benefit from a bit of control-based tweaking, I think much of the criticism stems from it being different rather than outright broken. Trying to unlearn what one has learned is a difficult thing, especially for enthusiasts raised on platforming. Say what you will about the gameplay, but it is unified in its rules and deliberate in its choices. The least we can to is give it an honest try.

Second, LBP is a game whose "thesis" is radically different than most other games in any genre. LBP contains a small linear story to acclimate players to the world, but this quickly melts away when the player is allowed to take near total control. Creating a game takes time, and it is reassuring to see that every time I log on, a host of new, ingenious levels greet me. In many ways, people are only now starting to actually play the game as it was designed.

LittleBigPlanet is a game that deserves to succeed. If the world were a meritocracy, something so innovative and well-crafted would be an instant success. Unfortunately, things do not come that easy.

I wrote these posts to help spread the word about the game in hopes of preventing it from being lost in the increasingly complex world of video games. It is a game that gives us something new, something different, and it asks new things from us. The game can be difficult to grasp, both mechanically and philosophically, but it would be a shame if we backed away from these challenges. LittleBigPlanet presents us with a new world that is our for the taking. All we need to to is find the willingness to explore it.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

EXP Podcast #5 - And the Award Goes to...

This week on the EXP Podcast, we discuss the "prestigious" Spike TV Video Game Award show. This glamorous extravaganza aired on December 14th complete with scantily clad ladies, crotch shotguns, and some fairly insulting stereotypes. Check out the links in the show notes for photos and videos from the event, as well as the Game Developer Choice Awards as an interesting alternative to Spike's affair. Again, we encourage you all to participate by leaving your comments.

Some possible questions for discussion:
-What would you like to see in a videogame award show?
-What kind of awards would you give out?
-Who do you think should vote on the winners?

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.

Lastly, happy holidays for all those with one to celebrate!

Show Notes:

- Run Time: 30mins 1sec
- Spike TV's Video Game Award Show
- Photos of the event courtesy of MTV Multiplayer
- Game Developer Choice Awards

Monday, December 22, 2008

December '08 Round Table: A Future of Shared Stories

This post is an entry to Corvus Elrod's monthly Blog of the Roundtable. This December, Corvus asks participants to explore their future gaming expectations, how games will impact familial relations, and how game designers might facilitate a more family friendly experience. My thanks goes out to those who submitted their thoughtful entries earlier in the month. As always, your input is greatly appreciated and I encourage you to participate with posts of your own.

With my house mates gone on holiday vacation, me and my significant other had the place all to ourselves. Only the faint glow from the Christmas tree lights lit the walls and floor where we lay. We prepared ourselves to feed the desires we can seldom satiate in the usually occupied living room: we played videogames together. This experience got me thinking seriously about my future gaming habits; which have usually consisted of science fiction daydreams (virtual reality machines or bumper stickers that read "My Other Flying Car is a Mario Kart"). I have no doubt I will be gaming well into the future, but who will game with me? How will I share these experiences with non-gamer family and friends?

My girlfriend and I played World of Goo and Ico. After a few minutes of explanations and examples, she felt comfortable maneuvering World of Goo's goo balls around the environment, building complex structures and bridges. There were snags of course, goo traits I had forgotten to mention and general puzzle difficulties, but we passed four levels before I stopped the game (I was concerned my desire to beat the puzzle was overshadowing her own exploration). Ico was next, and I left it entirely in her hands (mostly). As expected, it was slow going at first. She took her time learning basic movement and combat controls, focusing on the buttons well before executing and maneuver. It was a joy watching her explore two of my favorite games, and I hope we can find time to do it again. Sharing the these gaming experiences is important to me.

The desire to share a passion with others, particularly loved ones, is only natural. I am sure many of you have your own stories about trying to get your significant other into gaming. This process can be a frustrating endeavor. one might strategize and map it out like a dangerous museum heist. Unfortunately, the barrier of entry into videogames can be monstrously high for being so easily appealing. How this is addressed should be of concern to those who want a future where they can freely share experiences with gamers and non-gamers alike.

Sharing my passion should be like sharing a book, not initiating my friends into the fine art of underwater welding. Thus, I am in full support of Spencer Greenwood's post on the necessity of democratising games, what he defines as "the process of making games more accessible to the 'non-gamer.'" Spencer cites Nintendo's success in the casual market as evidence that "to some extent, this democratisation is inevitable." World of Goo fits well into this explanation with its fun and relatively easy-to-learn mechanics. But these "simple" games are not the only ones I'd like to share, but jumping from Goo to Fallout 3 is no easy task.

The debate between "hardcore" and "casual" games may resonate because an apparent lack of middle ground. Perhaps there are not enough bridges between easy and difficult play experiences for adult non-gamers interested in the narrative depths videogames can provide. Many narrative driven games may be frustrating for non-gamers because they do not recognize the visual or auditory cues we have grown accustomed to. A stick dropped in the background, a location mentioned in passing, or a clue scrawled amongst red herrings may all be overlooked by the untrained eye, yet are the essence of some amazing stories. Without these narrative packets of information, the progress of the inexperienced player may be slowed to a crawling pace, leaving them unsatisfied. Developers can better "democratise" gaming by reexamining how information is imparted to the player with the non-gamer in mind.

I believe this can be done while entertaining my future non-gamer familial relationships and myself. Perhaps a game's difficulty selection will change presentation and pace to fit the skill level of the player or include optional, but enjoyable, training sessions for the inexperienced player. The features Prince of Persia is often criticized for can also be these "bridge-like" qualities. The easily visible climbing walls and exposed platforms can be legible clues for non-gaming loved ones, while a lack death could appeal to those not looking for in-game punishment. Prince Persia could have been the Harry Potter of videogames, creating a bridge between casual gamers and the stunning worlds videogames can provide through richer works.

I am not one for fantasizing about fatherhood. The idea of little parasitic children running around my legs spouting my own sarcastic phrases at passerby is only now suddenly appealing. But if I were to have a family, storytelling would play a crucial role in our relationship (as well as dressing my children up like videogame characters). I want stories I can share, stories of all wondrous shapes and sizes: family friendly titles that spark the imagination like a candlelit fairy tale, contemplative and serious games for adult minds, and some good old fashioned swashbuckling or sci-fi thrillers for every non-gamer I can sit down in front of the television. I want my future videogame world to be all inclusive, without losing a touch its uniqueness and diversity. But I do not believe this is inevitable. If we want our future to be full of share experiences, we've got to make it so.

Friday, December 19, 2008

LittleBigPlanet and the Battle Over Culture

This is the fourth of five posts about LittleBigPlanet. My first post dealt with the mechanics and deconstructionist nature of the game, my second post addressed the game's cooperative appeal, and my third post examined LBP's novel means of facilitating communication. This post touches on what I see to be the game's philosophical quandary. As always, feel free to jump in with your thoughts as well.

LittleBigPlanet is a game that claims to be composed of people's dreams. A hefty claim to be sure, most of which is based on the game's capacity to facilitate player-created content. Creation often sparks controversy, and LBP is no exception.

LittleBigPlanet's potential to spur creation suffers due to what I call "cultural medievalism." Much like feudal lords in Europe, societal groups are trying to carve out cultural fiefdoms in hopes of controlling human expression. Whether it be music, game characters, or any other means of expression, their approach is one based on monopolizing the value of cultural symbols, regardless of whether this value is financial, ideological, or some combination thereof. This view of cultural ownership is inhumane, shortsighted, and repugnant to the supposed philosophy of LBP.

Holy War, Sackboy!

Even before its release, LBP found itself in the midst of a cultural dispute. One of the musical tracks contained verses based on passages from the Qur'an. Some people claimed offense, and a small group of people were able to effect a worldwide delay of the game.

As Jorge and I discussed, Sony's actions exemplified corporate risk-aversion at its finest. Rather than engage in a dialogue about why the musical choice was made, how it could be construed as offensive, or what claim people had over ownership of the verses, the game was sterilized. In the spirit of trying to subvert this sterilization, I ask everyone to listen to the (allegedly) offensive track. My point is not to attack any one belief system; I urge instead that we liberalize our notions of who cultural ownership:

I wonder about the number of people who were actually offended by this song. Furthermore, from everything I have read about Toumani Diabate, this song was not meant as an attack towards anyone. Additionally, I am certain I could find some Christians who find other video games' use of the word "God," offensive. One does not need to look hard to find something in any cultural product that could offend at least one group of people. So why were the lyrics scrubbed in this situation?

Sony's fear of lawsuits and controversy is understandable if viewed through the logic of cultural medievalism. While delaying a high-profile, console-exclusive game is a drastic (and unprecedented) move, the reasoning behind cultural exclusivity demanded it: Sony does not have any legal ownership over the Qur'an, and therefore ceded cultural ownership to a minority of offended Muslims, a group whose case for exclusive rights is arguably stronger than Sony's. However, I do no think that the core of this issue is a Muslim or even a religious consflict.

In setting the precedent of acknowledging and ceding cultural ownership, Sony set itself up to invoke and utilize the very same doctrine to police LBP's players.

The Picasso Problem

Pablo Picasso once said: "Good artists copy. Great artists steal." While glib, this sentiment succinctly communicates the idea that creation does not exist in a vacuum. Because of this, it impossible for someone to create a LBP level without being influenced on some level by ideas that were not "theirs." This is a scary concept for cultural medievalists.

The line between borrowing and stealing is a blurry one that continues to fade into obscurity with each passing year. Oftentimes, familiar cultural references points can be synthesized to create something new, like Danger Mouse's "Grey Album." Works like this make cultural medievalists uncomfortable because it weakens their exclusive control over cultural symbols. To them, expression is limited by strict copyright laws designed to exact immediate profit.

There is nothing wrong with crediting a work's creator and making sure they are fairly compensated for their work, but to ban LBP levels for containing user-created Sonic or Metal Gear characters is shortsighted madness. Even if one were to step away from the ideology of unlimited free expression and analyze Sony's actions in terms of current economic norms, it seems that Sony only hurts itself by implementing draconian rules on user-generated content. If a player makes a Sonic level, no one is harmed: Sony has people playing their game, Sega has people adding to their brand's visibility, players have a novel experience, and video games develop into a more layered medium.

In releasing a game whose aim is to stimulate human imagination, Sony has created an entity with the potential to develop independently of its creator. Left to its own devices, LBP is a chaotic, spontaneous creature because it is continually recreated by similarly chaotic, spontaneous creatures. Sadly, it seems that instead of letting this creature (and these creatures) develop, Sony instead seeks to lobotomize it in order to maintain exclusive control over it. In doing so, Sony keeps us enclosed in a cultural fiefdom.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

EXP Podcast #4 - This Game is Sponsored By...

This week on the EXP Podcast, we wade in to the murky waters of advertising in video games. Microsoft-owned company, Massive Inc. held a conference in which several large publishers (such as EA, Activision, and Ubisoft) discussed how to best implement commercial advertisement in games. Let's not let them be the only ones discussing this...

As gamers (and consumers), we think it is important to engage in a conversation about advertising. Take a look at the original articles in the show notes, and feel free to weigh in on the issue.

Some possible questions for discussion:

-How aware are you of advertisements in games? Have any stood out, in either a positive or negative way?
-What kinds of games would you accept ads in, if any?
-What do you think about the financial argument in favor of placing ads in 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 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: 29m 26s

-The MTV Multiplayer story and the Microsoft press release

- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Touchy Subject

Outside of cut scenes, people rarely touch in videogames. The celebratory high-five is a rare sight, even considering the number of high-fives per capita in the gaming community is astronomical. Realistic physical contact is a technical feat and a luxury for developers. In-game physical contact is largely unnecessary, so most protagonists and NPCs move around in a bubble, often right through other character models.

Creating a sense of presence is a serious development challenge. Any assortment of strange body movements can make your avatar seem clunky or frighteningly spry. In a third person platformer like Prince of Persia, capturing player movement is crucial to the experience. Ubisoft went the extra mile to include realistic human interaction. The physical contact in Prince of Persia is not only well animated, but adds narrative depth and spacial dimension to the adventuring couple.

The prince, and the game itself, is very much dependant on Elika. Level progression would be impossible without her help. When you misjudge a jump and plummet, Elika will reach out her hand and pull you onto the last platform you occupied; Ubisoft's replacement for the time rewind mechanic of previous games. Likewise, Elika grabbing your arm and flinging you acts as a double-jump, allowing you to reach distant ledges. Also, She reaches out to you and pulls you onto power plates, some of which allow you to ride Elika like a flying mount.

The rest of the game is also littered with examples of physical contact. Combat often involves Elika running up your spine to attack or tossing her at opponents. She'll rely on the prince when traversing the world. When climbing on vines, Elika will hold onto you, feet dangling. Occasionally, the prince will even ask her not to squeeze so hard. Watching the characters switch places are my favorite 'touching' scenes. When hanging from a ledge, Elika will climb over and behind you. Or when swapping places on a beam, the two will cross arms, hold hands, and spin in place as if they are dancing.

All of these moments of interaction give the prince a presence, a sense of spatial dimension, unavailable to the lone adventurer. Her body reacts to yours, moving with your movement. As she grabs your hand, wraps her arm around your neck, or scampers across your back, Elika is drawing the outlines of your avatar's physical representation. When piloting the prince, I feel in control of an actual person, not the rectangular block of animation. These little touches make all the difference in a game that relies so heavily on the beauty of fluid movement.

Whether or not you consider the prince likable, his physical contact with Elika deepens their relationship in a subtle but effective way. Both characters rely upon the other's helping hand; they are both powerful and vulnerable. The result is a physical and emotional bond between these two characters, a narrative completely embedded within the game's mechanics. As the game progresses, and their relationship grows, the player can interpret there touches with greater significance.

Physical contact has achieved the same ends before in a very similar experience (no, not Army of Two). Ico has the game's titular protagonist escort Yorda through an abandoned castle. The resemblance between Elika and Yorda is so similar, Ubisoft must have been inspired by Ico.

Unlike Elika, Yorda lacks cool powers, opting
instead for pale skin and an unfortunate tendency to be kidnapped by shadow beasts. When Ico leads her away from pursuers, she will stumble and jerk his arm, altering his movement. This physical presence is most notable when quickly turning corners or pulling Yorda free of from a shadow vortex.

Many of the puzzles in Ico are designed in a way that forces you to leave Yorda's side. The detached physical connection heightens the stress and intensity of these scenes. The emotional bond is strengthened by the physical bond and the protective role you take.

Both Ico and Prince of Persia create a bond between two companions without intrusive cut scenes or extensive dialogue (Ico and Yorda don't even speak the same language). The emotional bonds we have with our compatriots are created and strengthened by physical contact, a narrative tool embedded within the games themselves. My relationship with the dog in Fable II was developed in much the same way. Touch is an important aspect of building relationships. Human interaction often depends on haptic communication and I would like to see more games do the same.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Communication in the LittleBigPlanet

This is the third of five posts about LittleBigPlanet. My first post dealt with the mechanics and deconstructionist nature of the game and my second post addressed the game's cooperative appeal. This post is somewhat related, and I will share some thoughts about communication in LittleBigPlanet. As always, feel free to jump in with your thoughts.

Last night, I decided to take a break from my diligent blogging and fire up LBP (for research purposes, of course). I chose "quick play," which drops the player into a level with a group of random folks. I popped out of the entrance to find two other players waiting. I heard no voices, and I was not using a microphone, so I put on Sackboy's happy face and waved at them.

"All right," I thought, "Let's get ready to rock!"

One of the other players opened his menu and began typing out a message. A speech bubble popped up, written in Japanese. The second player pops up a second message, also in Japanese.

I brought up my cumbersome, mobile-phone style typing pad and pecked out "speak english?"

"speak japanese?" one responded.

I shook Sackboy's head "no," and made a sad face.

I noticed a fourth person had joined the group. He must have been watching our interaction, because he typed in "Hablo Espanol."

"Well this should be interesting," I sighed.

Fifteen minutes and three successful four-player puzzles later, I exclaimed, "Well THAT was interesting!"

LBP's on-line structure does not separate people by region, so the chances are good that people who do not speak the same language will find themselves needing to communicate in order to accomplish a goal. My opening anecdote illustrates that, despite having a group of four people and three languages, communication and cooperation is still possible. Cooperation and communication is still possible due to visual communication and body language.

Although Sackboy is in most ways the quintessential platformer, he has one important attribute that sets him apart from most video game characters that allows for non-traditional in-game communication: Sackboy is extremely animated.

When I first started playing LBP, I was amused and confused by Sackboy's customizable nature. Why would Sackboy need 10 different facial expressions? Why could I tilt his head and body with the controller? What is the point of allowing each of his arms to move independently? And why would any character need so many different skins and outfits if they did not impact hisabilities? The answer: LBP builds communication into the character, rather than making it emanate solely from the player.

Playing LBP on-line without a mic, keyboard, or common language is accomplished by interpreting action and body language. Using hand gestures to direct people through puzzles and nodding to affirm level selections overcome technological and linguistic barriers.

Discerning the intentions and attitudes of my fellow players becomes a fun meta-game while playing on-line with strangers. I take a look at their costume to learn about their taste in clothing, which often corresponds with their temperaments. Why is it that people dressed like ninjas always seem to be great players? Some people get agitated if the team is not making fast progress, and begin hopping around with scowl on their face. Others smile and wave at encouragingly. Some players like to direct traffic during puzzle segments while others are content to follow the leader when exploring. At times, gestures and body cues break down and communication happens physically: dragging someone onto a switch or smacking a person who seems to have dozed off are common sights.

I did not come in to the game expecting to enjoy talking with a bunch of strangers. However, LBP's non-verbal communication set it apart from other games, and gave me a greater sense of immersion than talking ever could have. The universe of LBP is one in which actions take the place of words.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Cooperation in the LittleBigPlanet

This is the second of five posts about LittleBigPlanet (for those of you paying attention, yes, I did add one). My first post dealt with the mechanics and deconstructionist nature of the game. Today, I will discuss playing one of the biggest draws of playing the game: playing it with others. I hope to contribute to a discussion about what I confidently call the PS3's premier game, so I encourage everyone to jump in!

As Michael Abbott points out, LBP is a game people want to play together, regardless of their gaming habits. I have been playing the game regularly since its release and have played with people whoposses varying degrees of video game experience. Even people normally indifferent towards games seem to like LBP, and I would like to suggest two reasons for this.

A Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi: The Presentation of LittleBigPlanet

When it comes to a game's appeal, regardless of gameplay, presentation matters. LBP is a game whose style and high-quality workmanship is intuitively apparent to anyone, regardless of their video game knowledge. As Michael elegantly states, "this game was lovingly crafted by human beings."

Most importantly it is also a game crafted for human beings, in the sense that the game's appeal is not beholden to any specific group of people. Because the players have so much control over the look and structure of both Sackboy and the levels, the game can be sappy or serious, cute or homely. The imagery may be fantastic, but it is also technically impressive.

At the risk of getting overly metaphysical, I argue that LBP is a game that feels comfortable in its own skin. Its presentation suggests an earnestness behind its development. LBP is not a game designed by focus group testing; it is an organic artistic vision created by people who shared a vision.

Nothing in the game is "accidental." Each minute detail, whither it be a color, shape, animation, or sound, conveys a sense of deliberation. Even so, the game avoids feeling overwrought. Too often, games seem to be "trying" for something rather than actually "being" something. For me, the difference between the presentation ofLBP and the presentation of Gears of War is that Gears goes out of its way to remind you that you are a marine in dystopian future at every turn: "See, look how much they swear! Look how buff they are! Look at how everything is cracked and grey! This is EXTREME!" Of course, this feeling is extremely subjective, and I do not think "trying" is always a bad thing (I should point out that I like Gears, by the way).

LBP exists quietly and confidently, which is why I think people are drawn to it. LBP fosters an intuitive attraction in people, and it is only natural to want to play the game with others who share the attraction.

The Taxonomies at Play: Co-op in LittleBigPlanet

LBP offers something for everyone, regardless of where a player falls along the spectrum of Mitch Krpata's New Taxonomy of Gaming. LBP's implementation of gameplay makes cooperative gameplay essential for any type of player to derive full enjoyment of the game.

Tourists: LBP is an excellent game for folks just looking to see the sights. The developer worlds are clever, and the player created levels mean the sightseeing never has to end. But, to see all the best, most impressive levels, Tourists benefit from cooperation with bothcompletionists and perfectionists. The occasional helping hand through a difficult level, or the favorites list of a veteran player allows tourists to experience the game's highlights.

Completionists: Completionists will enjoy the respectable chunk of time required work through and unlock all of LBP's story mode levels. Because it is possible to do this alone, one can argue that completionists benefit the least from co-op in LBP. However, can one say they have "completed" LBP without experiencing the mayhem of four players on the screen at once? Is one's experience "complete" without playing the magnificentIco-themed level? LBP is a game with the potential to reinvent itself indefinitely. Large-scale communal cooperation benefits completionists : people who are basically level story mode tourists can still spend hours creating levels. Perfectionists can implement their hard-won items when creating new challenges. The dynamic between people creating and people playing continually refreshes the game for players of all styles.

Perfectionists: The scoring and ranking mechanic in LBP caters directly to perfectionists. While completely optional, the scoreboard acts as a constant motivator for those wishing to master the game. Items are unlocked for passing levels without dying, and each level has a item-collection percentage that goads perfectionists onward. Cooperation is ingeniously worked into the perfectionist's play experience: in order to attain 100% on a level, you must work with other players. Some puzzles require as many as fourSackboys to solve. As it is unlikely that four perfectionists will be playing at the same time, the perfectionist relies on both completionists and tourists to fulfill their objective.

LBP succeeds as a cooperative game because its presentation lures a wide variety of people into its world. Once in the world, players rely on one another to fully realize the kind ofgameplay they enjoy. Tourists have a beautiful world full of guides to point out the highlights, completionists have a self-perpetuating game built by their fellow players, and perfectionists can embark on a grand treasure hunt that necessitates the help of friends.

When it comes to the effect cooperation has on LBP, the game's intro says it best:

"It forms a world, an ethereal dreamscape of adventure and possibilities. An abstract plane of beautiful wonderment, just waiting to be explored."

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

EXP Podcast #3 - Scribblenautics

This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I discuss Scribblenauts, an upcoming game from 5th Cell. In an interview, the studio's creative director Jeremiah Slaczka makes some pretty big claims we are hesitant to believe. According to Jeremiah, his creation is limited only by your imagination. If the game can live up to its promise, Scribblenauts can have some major repercussions.

If you haven't seen the Scribblenauts preview, you can find the original article in the show notes below. We encourage any feedback. Also, I apologize for the tone of my voice and any sniffles you might have heard. Apparently I had snorted a cat earlier in the day.

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here.
- 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.


- Run time: 23m 33s
- Preview and interview courtesy of IGN.
- As always, music provided by Brad Sucks.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Review: The Precarious Mirror's Edge

This week I review Mirror's Edge, a game that has already received a great deal of attention, with mixed opinions, and created a stir surrounding the process of reviewing innovative games. Also, a recent issue of contention is how to properly criticize a game that is clearly unique and innovative. The discussion has been vigorous and fascinating, with differing opinion all around. Now that the dust is beginning to settle, I hope to contribute my own thoughts, again, on DICE's parkour platformer. Also, I am lucky enough to be free of review score limitations. My thanks to all those who have already contributed their thoughts on the subject.

I played and finished Mirror's Edge on the Xbox 360. I have only played a small amount of time trial mode.

Last week I wrote an article discussing the directional guidance system available in Mirror's Edge, hoping to offer a less
prevalent criticism than most readers have come across. There seems to be a general consensus among those who have played the game, and I agree: Mirror's Edge is absolutely thrilling when moving fluidly through the environment, but frequent obstructions slow the pace, activated triggers, soldiers that need to be disposed of and inelegant combat create frustrating obstacles. Most interesting, however, is exploring why this is the case and if this could have been avoided.

At the core of Mirror's Edge is a superb free running experience. There are few games that simulate movement in such an exhilarating and teeth-clenching way. Only racing games hold a candle to the sense of speed and maneuverability you feel when traversing the ledges and overhangs of Faith's dystopian city. All other game elements are inessential to this source of entertainment. That which is most fun about the game owes nothing to, and is only hindered by, the secondary game elements.

Along with many others, I also have my moments of frustration. An only slightly misplaced leap will send me sinking to a splattering death again and again, though I know where I need to go. Or, after disabling four well armored guards, a quick gun butt to the head will send me reeling with little hope of recovery. Or, after expert maneuvering, I will get shot just before escaping a mob of troops. Sadly, these "almost got away" moments are the outliers. Far more frequently, a guard will incapacitate me before I can even get any sense of direction. The moments of speed are just too few to satisfy.

Dice built Mirror's Edge on the precarious foundation of the first-person shooter genre, although it was marketed as the first of its kind break out of the existing FPS mold by discouraging gunplay. If we wanted, Mirror's Edge could be a non-violent counterpart to traditional shooters. Why, then, does the game rely so heavily on FPS conventions? There are buttons to press, valves to turn and rooms of gunmen blocking your path. These shooter elements of Mirror's Edge, including the combat, impede fluid movement and do nothing to improve the story, which is riddled with cliches that fit naturally in any shooter title.

Mirror's Edge is very much like its protagonist. I'm sorry, but the analogy between Faith and the game is just too good to pass up. Dice took a daring innovative leap forward with Mirror's Edge, but misjudged how much distance they needed to cover between a new genre of their making and classic shooter environment. The game is burdened with needless level obstacles, activated checkpoints and cumbersome combat, left overs from its FPS origins, and falls to the ground.

Despite trying my hardest not to harm anyone, I repeatedly found myself in situations where killing was the best available option. Dice could have fit the first-person platforming into another environment and done away with this problem altogether. The worlds of Uncharted, Tomb Raider, and Prince of Persia could all have accommodated free running beautifully. Even a parkour racing game could be feasible and very engaging.

Again, when Mirror's Edge is "on" it is a unique, amazing, and beautiful adventure. Had this game been an early release on any of the next gen consoles, I think it would have been better received simply to see it stretch the boundaries of videogame movement. Mirror's Edge, as is, will leave many disappointed.

Yet this creation deserves a large heaping of praise. The movement mechanics are flawless and make this game well worth playing. But more importantly, I feel a responsibility to give Dice credit for their bravery. Developers and gamers should take note of innovation where innovation succeeds, even when the game does not. The inevitable Mirror's Edge sequel will be great if Dice is willing to brave the unconventional and leap farther into an unknown genre.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Breaking Down the LittleBigPlanet

This is the first of four posts I will be writing on LittleBigPlanet. I have been playing the game since its release day, gathering and refining my thoughts on it. I have been somewhat surprised by the lack of discussion on what I confidently call the PS3's premier game, so I encourage everyone to jump in!

LBP is billed as a game centered on creation. The game's intro sets the tone, describing people's brains as "charged with creative energy," just waiting to be set free. Of course, there is merit to this characterization, but it only partially illuminates the genius of LBP. As eye-catching as the construction of levels and of characters is, I argue that the game's subtle emphasis on deconstruction is one of its most important features.

In order to comprehend the world of LBP, the player must first break down the game's elements. Successful creation necessitates an understanding of Sackboy's abilities and his relationship to his material world (the levels). LBP is unique in comparison to other high profile games platformers: rather than hiding its pieces and their interactions, the player can see the game's guts. This serves to augment both the game's charm, and the player's understanding of how video games function.

Sackboy: An Essential Platformer

I have been playing LBP for over a month, and have seen a dizzying variety of character models. However, regardless of clothing choices or accessories, they all play the identically. Every player must navigate the levels through some combination of running, jumping, and grabbing. I characterize Sackboy's move set as mundane, but not in a pejorative way; the game strips away the complication of many 2D platform avatars, forcing the player to think about the nature of platforming games.

Sackboy interacts with the environment with in a directly physical way. Lacking tools such as whips, super missiles, and tanooki suits, Sackboy must traverse the world by utilizing his three innate abilities: running, jumping, and swinging. Tools are products of the manipulation of the environment itself, rather than the utilization of a device acting upon the level. I have played levels where Sackboy utilizes swords, horses, and keys, and all of these items were clever iterations of jumping and grabbing.

Take the modern video game character, strip away their gadgets and power-ups, and one derives Sackboy. Dress him up in countless ways, but Sackboy remains the archetypal platformer character. He illustrates the essence of 2D platforming and makes LBP a model of the fundamental mechanics of countless games.

Of Sgts. and Yankees: The Levels of Little Big Planet

LBP's level designer pushes the game beyond what is basically a fun scavenger hunt. Even if a player never makes a complete, working level, the creative tools allow for experimentation that transforms the game into a gigantic design lesson.

On my first play-through of LBP, I was charmed by the levels' enchanting aesthetics and ingenious constructions. Knowing that objects found in the story mode would aid in level creation, I decided to play through the entire game before delving too deep into my own levels. After completing the story, I started tinkering with the level creator. A few hours of experimentation inspired me to go back and play through all the levels again, from start to finish.

The level creator drops the player into a blank canvass under their complete control. Very little is handed out freely, thus the player must gain a deep understanding of the game's mechanics in order to create functional levels. Platforms will not simply float in the air at Sackboy's precise jumping height; they must be rigged up carefully and tested. Terrain and obstacles must be formed and placed deliberately within the game engine's multi-layered backgrounds. Even the game's camera angle, color tint, and musical arrangement is under the player's control.

The most impressive thing in all of this is realizing that all of the levels in story mode were created with the same tools and items available in the creation mode. This altered my view of the developer levels: I began to see them simultaneously as a collection of interlocking parts and as a seamless entity. Now when I swing across a chasm, I take note of the material the swing's handle is made of, the angle of the ceiling beam the bolt is attached to, and the height of the two platforms I am traversing. LBP is a game that grows more rewarding the more I break it down. Examining each part's role in forming a larger experience heightens the game's allure.

While imperfect, I find myself coming back to musical metaphors when trying to wrap my head around LBP. My current favorite: Super Mario Bros. 3 is to the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club band as LBP is to Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Both games and albums are magical achievements, but in very different ways. One pair charms us by presenting a sweeping vision that conveys a sense of effortless art while the other displays the noise, minutiae, and the sweat that went into building the grand work.

LBP works as a traditional sidescroller, but its real power lies in its deconstructive abilities. Sackboy's essentialist nature and the meticulously designed levels that can easily be parsed into their individual parts make this a game about more than platforms. LBP cultivates the player's critical eye, allowing them to revisit old games to deconstruct their elements, marvel at their creativity, and understand how a game's pieces interact to create something larger than the sum of its parts.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Experience Points Podcast #2 - Aspirational and Inspirational Gaming

It's the second episode of the Experience Points Podcast! Thanks to everyone that sent in their comments and suggestions on last week's show. We love hearing all your thoughts and feedback, and are continually looking to improve our work.

This week, we talk about a survey conducted by Guitar Center saying that a huge number of people that buy Guitar Hero are subsequently inspired to learn how to play a real guitar. We discuss the effect games have on our personal interests and explore games' abilities to inspire non-gaming action.

As far as listening to the podcast goes, here are your current options:

-For those of you who like to use iTunes to organize your podcasts, you can now find us listed in the iTunes music store! Search for "experience points" or just click here.

-For those of you who like to rage against the machine and use an iTunes alternative, here is the feed.

-You can listen to the show in your browser by left-clicking the post title or you can download the show in mp3 format by right clicking on the title and selecting "Save Link As"

-The podcast will also show up in our site feed, so you can use your RSS reader to listen in.

As always, we look forward to hearing your thoughts on the subject, so feel free to leave a comment or send us an email!

Show notes:

- Run time: 24m 12s

- The Gamasutra article

- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, December 1, 2008

Seeing Red

In between frantic rooftop escapades in Mirror's Edge, I had a chance to read a scrolling in-game news bulletin. It warned parents that a fondness for the color red may be a sign their child is a runner, the game's version of a rebellious UPS driver. In a world this white, it is hard not to be drawn immediately to anything red. Most things are painted in either of these two colors.

Beyond making the Mirror's Edge world look like a giant Target commercial, the contrast between red and white serves a functional purpose. When something on screen is glowing crimson, it lets the player know this object is useful for maneuvering through the environment. The game calls this "runner vision." I call it a failed attempt at player guidance.

The justification for seeing red is this: it simulates how useful objects may stand out to a highly skilled runner like Faith. I reluctantly accept this explanation. Most games rely a similar excuse to account for weapons glowing, or any other attention getting device. However, when the creators shepherd me through an experience, I can't help but feel manhandled.

Most scalable objects in Mirror's Edge do not glow red consistently. They often blend in with all the other white objects, only appearing red when nearby. Personally, I found this to be their biggest flaw. Countless times I would leap towards a distant ledge, pipe, or over hang, not knowing if it would change color or let me fall to my death. My training was not to move effortlessly through my surroundings, but to seek out objects that might become red. This off-and-on nature of the guidance system snapped me out of the experience, even more so than dying over and over and over again.

Dice studio saw fit to include one other directional assistance mechanic. With the press of a button, Faith can turn and look towards her primary objective. This was even more of an abysmal failure. The entire point of the game was to find a path towards a single location, a path that is almost never a straight line. Getting to a distant door or ladder is an action composed of many small steps. The immediate goal of finding the best route to move forward trumps the long term locational goal and makes this function essentially useless.

I am not strictly opposed to a little direction. Fable II's glowing breadcrumbs were not jarring in the slightest. Unlike Mirror's Edge, this trail of goodness is always present and can be set towards various locations of your choosing. The subtlety lets the line fade into the background whenever you choose to forge your own path. Like a parent teaching a child to ride a bicycle, you should easily forget the guiding hand is there and soon be able to ride all on your own.

To carry this bicycle analogy one step further, needing this assistance at all is a sign the bicycle was not built with training wheels. You wouldn't need the developer's artificial touch if the game could be "ridden" on its own. Though Fable II's trail does not draw attention to itself the way red-vision does, it is still included to replace a coherently structured and easily managed level design. Perhaps Lionhead Studios removed a map display to clean up the HUD. Or arguably, the expansive free-flowing nature of Fable II makes an easily maneuverable experience impossible. Regardless, any guidance system exists when the ideal (the player leading themselves) cannot be met.

Of course in Mirror's Edge, and Fable II, I can turn this assistance off. However, in doing so, the whitewashed buildings, without the red contrast, lose some of their meaning and become more boring than they were to begin with. Effectively, seeing red is a less than perfect band-aid for other game flaws I hope to cover next week.

Again, I am no proponent of game difficulty for its own sake. I'll gladly accept a helping hand when appropriate. It is when this hand is wearing a ruby encrusted glove that glitters in the sunlight that I am inclined to let go.