Thursday, December 29, 2011

New Year's Resolutions, 2012

It's hard to believe that we've reached the end of another year. For the most part, I'm happy to see it go: 2011 had more than its fair share of rough spots. Thankfully, through all the tumult, I still had video games and a forum in which to discuss them. It's nice to have a daily routine that is both structured and creative; something that keeps all the corners of my mind from gathering dust. In the spirit of staving off stagnation, I always take some time at the end of the year to reevaluate what I've been doing and what I'd like to do in the next three hundred and sixty-five days.

Now that I've done this for a few years, I can also see how I've kept up with some past goals. Last year, I resolved to broaden my horizons regarding the types of games I played. Additionally, I expressed my interest in venturing away from the major release track and exploring the independent and experimental game scenes.

Overall, I think this plan was a success: thanks to our periodic Indie game podcasts and a concerted effort to pay attention to lesser-advertised games, I was exposed to a pretty eclectic batch of games. Inside a Star-filled was an classic shooter with a philosophical slant. The Cat and the Coup was a pleasant adventure game and a much-needed history lesson. Don't take it personally, babe... reintroduced me to interactive-fiction and reminded me how terrifying high school is. A variety of other independent and browser-based games reminded me how varied the medium actually is and that innovation does not necessarily require millions of dollars and a huge R&D team.

In a way, this resolution may have been too successful: I still haven't played some of the biggest mainstream games of the year. Skyrim is no where on the horizon, Dark Souls has been passed by, and I just now started Skyward Sword. Within the next few weeks, I'm hoping to fill in the biggest hole in my 2011 release list: Portal 2. I played the first game over a year late, so I guess it's fitting that I neglect the second one as well.

All this brings me to my first resolution: to strike a balance between playing major releases and independent titles. Both spheres are important, but I'm still trying to figure out how to balance my attention between the two of them without swinging wildly between extremes.

My second resolution relates to another strange section of the video game landscape: Facebook. As regular readers and listeners know, Jorge and I have been exploring the weird world of Facebook games recently. Going in, I had the stereotypical prejudices of a "hardcore" gamer: Facebook "games" hardly deserved the title. They were unethical, get rich quick schemes that extracted time and money from players without giving anything back in return. However, after more than a month of experimenting with a small selection of games, I find some of my assumptions crumbling. It's been nice having some of my prejudices challenged, and I'm looking forward to articulating some of my findings in the coming months by both playing more Facebook games and giving them the critical treatment most non-social games get these days.

If this sounds like I've gone off the deep end and joined the cult of social games, fear not. My third resolution is squarely within the realm of "traditional" video games: I want to build a sweet gaming PC. I haven't had a PC capable of playing games since college (and the one I had then was still a clunker), so it's been far long. The advent of Steam and the indie scene's proliferation makes the PC the most versatile, democratic, and sophisticated gaming platform out there. All that being said, I'm somewhat anxious about the process: it's been a long time since I've assembled computer parts myself and the freedom you gain in the PC world often comes at the expense of a console system's reliability. It'll undoubtedly be an adventure, one I'll share with you all, regardless of how many things explode.

So there you have it: a quick recap of last year's goals and a few new ones to tackle in 2012. Now, I'll cede the floor: Do you have any video game related New Year's resolutions?

Thanks to everyone for visiting the site. Jorge and I look forward to seeing you in 2012 (assuming the Mayan apocalypse doesn't destroy us all)!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

EXP Podcast #153: Too School For Cool

Normally I try to think about high school as little as possible. But recently Kirk Hamilton of Kotaku asked us all to revisit our bygone days and think about high school as an interesting setting for videogames. This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I put on our school colors and discuss our experiences with media set in high school and the trials and tribulations of our collective youths that might make us turn on our console to visit, of all places, our own high school experiences. We encourage you to read Kirk's original piece, which you can find in the show notes below. We also want you to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Discussion starters:
- What games set in high school have interested you and why?
- What high school experiences lend themselves well to gaming?

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: 31 min 10 sec
- "High School Sucked, Can We Please Have More Games About It?," by Kirk Hamilton via Kotaku
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

2011 Runners Up

The year is coming to end. It is time to round up our top gaming experiences of 2011. Before I collect my personal favorites for the EXP Podcast or for PopMatters, I want to discuss three games that will not make my list, but nevertheless delivered some the best gaming moments I experienced this year.

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations

I have shared my thoughts on both the terrible feature creep plaguing Revelations and the interesting narrative directions Ubisoft took Ezio. The single-player portion of the game differs only slightly from its predecessors and manages to mostly satisfy when not playing the irritating tower-defense components of the game. The multiplayer, however, deserts a heaping amount of praise. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood introduced the groundbreaking game of deadly hide-and-seek in which assassin’s simultaneously hide amongst crowds of character models, some of which match their own, and stalk their prey through these same crowds, looking for the hint of bizarre movement that separates player from computer AI. I implore you: Play either Brotherhood’s or Revelations’ multiplayer game and experience one of the most interesting and unique competitive games available.

While Revelations keeps the formula relatively consistent, it does sharpen some of its features, such as refining player radar detection. It also features a traditional “deathmatch” mode, which removes the “hiding-amongst-AI-clones” element by giving players unique character models. I initially disregarded this mode as a hastily put-together addition. Now I realize it instead polishes the sensation of the hunt, requiring players use a sharp eye and quicker fingers to take down components who know exactly what the hunter looks like. Revelations might not make my short list, but its multiplayer remains as rock solid as ever and one of the year’s highlights.

Batman: Arkham Asylum

Rocksteady’s superhero star came out in 2009, but I failed to pick it up until just a couple months ago, so forgive me for stating the obvious: good god Arkham Asylum is good. Batman is already a fascinating icon, and Rocksteady pulls few punches in treating the character as the troubled, mortal, and intelligent person he is. They also put so much care in character animations that I felt very much in control, embodying Batman perfectly. I felt more like Batman playing Arkham Asylum than I ever did dressing up as the caped crusader for Halloween. I was also enamored by the island mental institution and its brilliantly situated pathways through its ever changing landscape. I am incredibly excited to watch Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises, but not as as excited as I was to get my hands on Arkham City, which just might reappear again on a year-end list.


Considering I first played Minecraft in 2010, I am hesitant to list the game on my own Game of the Year list. However, its official release occurred this past month, and it would be remiss to ignore what is undoubtedly a groundbreaking and phenomenal experience because of its strange release history. My highlights in the world of Minecraft include frantic journeys through darkened forests looking for a trace of the signal fire above my base and wandering around an immense cave system, refusing to leave until I had lit every shadowed corner. I also spent several nights exploring multiplayer servers, most notably a scale model of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middlearth built by committed fans and, without a hint of sarcasm, digital engineers. Today I rarely explore the cubed world of Minecraft, but when I do, I spend days imagining possibilities, mapping out a gorgeous base, investigating the work of others, then becoming disheartened by all the beautiful contraptions and fantasy islands I will never create. Minecraft is a world of the imaginary that takes a surprisingly large effort to shape to ones liking, but its allure is everlasting. For that alone it deserves my attention as one of the best games of the year.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Gamer Gifting

The holiday season has arrived! Although PopMatters is taking the week off, I thought I would spend some time here anyway to chat a bit about gift giving and receiving. As geek afficianados yourselves, surely you have received all sorts of terrible "game-related" merchandise from well-wishing friends and family - a game for a console you do not own, Lego Harry Potter, or a pair of Mario themed undergarments perhaps. Everyone underestimates the difficulty of shopping for game related gifts for the nerds in their life for several reasons.

First, we probably already own it. Have you seen the Steam sales lately? You can purchase an entire studio's backlog of games for the price of a single game. With a new deal every day, I would be surprised if failed to buy more gifts for myself this year than for my family. Also, did you hear Steam was giving away a prize that would grant the winner every single game available on steam? Yes. You read that right. All the games. Also, with all the sequels that have come out, your gift givers will surely think you already own that Uncharted, Gears of War, Batman, etc. game.

Second, there are so many options. More importantly, most of these options look the same. Could your grandmother tell the difference between Brink and Rage? What about Dragon Age and Skyrim? Modern Warfare 3 or Battlefield 3? We have said this time and again, but the industry does not make games accessible to outsiders particularly well. Even the games that stand out - L.A. Noire or Deus Ex: Human Revolution, for example - seem questionable from the perspective of someone who thinks all games feature soldiers or hopping Italians. If family member is going to blow sixty dollars on a holiday gift, they will want to be certain they are making a smart choice. You can imagine, then, why a Gamestop might scare them off.

Solutions? Create a wish list, Steam and Amazon perhaps. Nothing helps a shopper more than an detailed list of gift ideas. You could also request gift cards. With so many great indie titles and DLC packs, some XBLA cash goes a long way. Alternatively, ask your friends and family to donate money to Child's Play or another charitable organization of your choosing. Who are you kidding any way. Your backlog is big enough without adding another game to the docket. Why not share the gaming love by helping out those in need. Your last option, of course, is to acknowledge that kind thoughts from loved one's are more important. Besides, who doesn't love Angry Birds pajamas?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

EXP Podcast #152: Musings on Mandatory Missions

Long before the advent of Achievement Points, players have chased after goals. But are all tasks created equal, or are some more important than others? This week, inspired by Wired's two articles on mandatory missions every well-informed gamer should undertake, we discuss some of the game experiences that give us common ground. As always, feel free to jump into the comments and share your thoughts. Thanks for listening!

Discussion starters:

- What do you consider to be mandatory missions?
- Is the idea of a set of canonical video game experiences useful or realistic?
- How has time and technology affected what we would consider to be defining video game moments?

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: 34 min 07 sec
- "9 Mandatory Missions All Gaming Geeks Must Master," via Wired
- "Readers’ Picks of 9 Mandatory Gaming Moments," via Wired
- An interesting interpretation of Portal: "Still Live? She's Free?" by Steve Bowler via Game-ism
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Favorites from Recent Years

It's the time of year when everyone is either putting together "best of" lists or looking forward to 2012's releases. I'll be sharing my thoughts on both of these topics in the days to come, but today I'm going to slack off a little bit. The subtle, yet ever-present pressure to stay abreast of the latest releases is felt most acutely during the end of the year. Even so, I still can't help but come back to some of my favorites from recent years.

VVVVVV: It came out in 2010 and still manages to impress me every time I load it up. From a design perspective, it has some of the tightest, well-executed platforming dynamics of any 2D platformer. It's level design is inspired and the level editor lets you explore the game's surprisingly-complex dynamics. On top of all this, it's hard to find a more rocking soundtrack:

PixelJunk Eden: It's still my favorite PixelJunk game. Something about the mixture of intense skill challenges, ambient music, and psychedelic continually draws me back. It makes a certain amount of sense: the game is cyclical in nature. You start off by collecting a single spectra, build up to five, and then go back to one on the next level. You move by making wide, arcing jumps and spin in circles to collect points and time. I find myself looping back to the game every few months.

Vanquish: Another one of my favorite games from 2010. Despite it's fast-paced, chaotic environments, I find Vanquish strangely relaxing. Extremely precise controls and a heavy emphasis on tactics let's me achieve a flow state. When enemies attack, I know exactly what to do and how to do it. It's mixture of cover-based shooting and high-speed melee combat offers a compelling alternative to the Gears of War school of third-person shooter design.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii: New Super Mario Bros. Wii is a social game in the most traditional sense of the word. When people come over to my house, I still try to get them to play a few levels with me. Of course, playing NSMBW will test even the strongest relationships (I'm pretty sure "assault with koopa shell" is grounds for divorce in some states). Because of this, I usually play with my brother, as we are quite accustomed to each other's mischief. Our current mission is to get all of the end-game stars, which means finishing multiple playthroughs while achieving objectives like finding each star coin or dying a minimum number of times.

Looking back on this selection, I see a pretty accurate picture of my natural gaming proclivities. When I'm looking for video game "comfort food" I turn to skill-based games that test dexterity and quick thinking. I love games that take simple concepts and then iterate on them to find all their permutations. Apparently, it doesn't hurt if they do so in 2D perspective either.

The years have tendency to go by quickly, as do the games released each month. Sometimes it's nice to slow down in the middle of the year-end rush, revisit some modern classics, and savor the experiences that often get left behind. I'll go back to talking about recent games soon enough, but before I do, what are some of your favorites from recent years?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Shigeru Miyamoto's Working Retirement

This week's PopMatters post is about a topic both Nintendo and I don't want to think about: Shigeru Miyamoto's retirement.

I try not to get too involved in Internet kerfluffles, but last week's mini-panic about Miyamoto's possible retirement caught my eye. For one thing, it was interesting to see Nintendo's immediate response to people's reactions. Change is scary, and Nintendo knows it: the company was quick to reassure people that nothing was changing, that no one would ever abandon them, and that all was well in Neverland. It's unusual for companies to make such honest requests as "Please do not be concerned," but such public exhortations become more understandable when you consider that Nintendo's stock was actually affected by what was basically a joke Miyamoto made during his recent interview with Chris Kohler.

It's only natural to worry about the future of storied franchises like Mario and Zelda when you hear that their creator is stepping down, but things become less worrisome when you look at the bigger picture. For over a decade now, Miyamoto has been more of a consultant than anything else. Judging by his comments in the interview, Miyamoto appreciates the importance of this position, and is looking to both cede authority and mentor up and coming developers.

To hear Miyamoto talk about retirement is to listen to a man who sees an opportunity rather than an ending. He mentions that he would like to be more involved in the design process, make smaller games, and work with young developers. Sometimes, life is poetically cyclical: Miyamoto got his start in the arcades and gradually transitioned to big-budget console games. Now, as his exit from that scene approaches, arcade-style games have experienced a resurgence thanks to the downloadable and mobile spaces. The medium has never been more accommodating of small and experimental projects.

We may never get another Ocarina of Time from Miyamoto, but based on his comments, it seems safe to assume that he isn't planning on simply walking away from video games. His interest in pursuing smaller, more personal games and his dedication to mentoring the next generation of developers means that the medium will continue to benefit from his experience and creativity for years to come. Miyamoto's willingness to pursue unorthodox ideas was what made his games great. It seems fitting that his version of "retirement" holds the potential to carry on this innovative spirit. Miyamoto defined his generation of game designers in the 1980s and 1990s. Is it any surprise that he is trying to blaze a trail towards a new stage in life as he and his cohort approach retirement?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

EXP Podcast #151: We Got Next

No matter how many hours Scott and I spend playing, analyzing, and writing about games, there are still so many sub-cultures to which we remain largely ignorant. Competitive gaming, particular around the fighting game genre, continues relatively under the radar of both gamers and the public. I Got Next, a recently released documentary by first-time film maker Ian Cofino seeks to shine some light on the relationships players have with Street Fighter and its competitive gaming community. This week on the podcast, Scott and I discuss the movie, competitive gaming at large, and the fascinating community of Street Fighter players, friends, and rivals. As always, we encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments section below. If you would like to watch the film before listening to the podcast, you can find a direct link to the Hulu source in the show notes.

Discussion starters:
- What are your experiences with competitive gaming?
- How might the competitive scene change if it were taken more seriously by the public? Is there something about gaming culture impeding its progress?
- What are your thoughts on the film?

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: 36 min 47 sec
- I Got Next, via Hulu
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The End of Ezio

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Assassin’s Creed: Revelations.

I am a long time fan of the Assassin’s Creed series, particularly its atmosphere and attention to detail. However, Desmond, the series protagonist, has barely piqued my interest in the slightest. Sure, I enjoy the mysteries of the Assassin brotherhood in modern times, and the always fabulous voice acting from good ol’ Nolan North, but the blank slate hero does nothing for me. Ezio, on the other hand, is actually a compelling character. After three back-to-back games with the Italian assassin taking the lead, I am ready for Signore Auditore to go, but I also have enough interest in the story to make sure Ubisoft manages his departure well.

Altair, the lead from the first Assassin’s Creed, received plenty of criticisms as a character. He comes off as shallow and uninteresting, and the sub-par voice acting did him no favors. Ubisoft surely took this precedent to heart when fashioning Ezio. From the beginning, Ezio has a family, love interests, siblings, and generally maintains clear motivations to pursue his work throughout. He also grows as a character through his three entries into the franchise - a startling departure from industry norms, I know. By the end of Revelations, Ezio retires from the franchise, and the Assassin lifestyle, with honor.

Ezio’s most interesting characteristic has been his understanding of the larger game narrative. He is not an unknowing avatar of Desmond. This fits very much into the series’ acknowledgement and inclusion of game tropes into the story. The user interface, the load screens, even player failure, all make sense within the narrative of the animus - Desmond’s, and by extension the player’s, entryway into the past. Assassin’s Creed manages to reveal the fourth wall without breaking it, wholly accepting “gamey” contrivances within the fiction of the world. Ezio plays his role within a larger narrative of which he is aware.

When the apparitions of the first civilization reveal themselves to Desmond through Ezio, for just a moment the game becomes incredibly meta. The creators of hidden secrets, the “designers” of Desmond’s fate, reveal themselves to Desmond, the “player”, through the intermediary of Ezio, the “character”. Assassin’s Creed is a story of a videogame character who becomes self-aware, knowledgeable of a secondary existence outside their own, a piece within some stranger’s personal story.

How does Ezio react? By continuing to fulfill his role. Ezio’s actions become more heroic when considering his relationship to Desmond/the player. It is rare to feel as though a character has agency outside the player without removing interactivity. Ezio, in a bizarre way, maintains a unique layer of self-awareness while also fitting naturally within the fiction of the Assassin’s Creed universe. At the end of Revelations, Ezio speaks directly to Desmond, aware that he is listening, and states “I am only a conduit for a message that eludes my understanding.” He recognizes his minimal role with a larger story that encompasses the entire series. As I sat on my couch, I heard Ezio speak, at least partially, to me. Setting the tools of his trade aside, Ezio departs the series not as an extension of my will, but as a compatriot on one leg of my journey as a player.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Logic and Illogic of Skyrim

My latest PopMatters article is now live: The Logic and Illogic of Skyrim

Until Skyrim, I had never played an Elder Scrolls game. Apparently I have been missing out on one of the most epic fantasy RPGs franchises available. I really did not enjoy my time with Fallout 3, so I had written off Skyrim initially. Then I started hearing stories. Early responses to the game barely scratched the surface of its actual mechanics and instead dished out amazing tales of encountering demigods in hidden corners of the world, or changing upon dwarven ruins while navigating the jagged rocks of looming mountain. Listening to people talk about Skyrim can feel like listening to people sharing legends. The logic of Skyrim can turn play into a mythological experience.

Allow me to describe the moment I was hooked into the world: It was my first time leaving the village of Whiteru. I had explored a nearby ruin before and explore the surrounding area superficially, but I had never strayed far from the safety of the town. In the dark of knight, I chanced upon an area full of steam vents and hot springs. I was elated and went splashing about the pools. When I looked up, I caught a glimpse of dark wings blotting out the stars and diving behind a tree. I felt as though I was being hunted, and a chill went up my spine.

I thought I knew what an open world could be. I was so, so wrong. Skyrim is so consistent and realized that it is hard to stay away. I find myself avoiding the main quest lines just to explore the world more and discover more hidden treasures. Sometimes I play specifically to undertake certain quests. Other times I just wander from town to town, hoping to encounter some strange mystery along the way.

Of course the game's many absurdities stand out, partially because everything else is so clean. Yes, I can put a bucket on someone's head and then rob their home without them noticing, and yes, sometimes dragon skeletons move of their own accord, rolling over themselves like an energetic puppy. I do my best to look away, to keep that fourth wall solid and impenetrable. Ignoring the game's most obvious blunders is not easy, but it is very much worth it. When I am truly lost in Skyrim, when I am fully immersed, it will take more than an glitchy dragon or a wandering head of cabbage to shake me out.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

EXP Podcast #150: First Facebook Forum

Admit it: You didn't think we would do it, did you? You thought all our talk of investigating Facebook games was brought on by too much turkey and an overabundance of holiday spirit. Today, Jorge and I are happy to present to you a conversation about our initial experiences with a handful of Facebook games. In addition to the games themselves, we discuss the nature of social games, monetization, and ethical design. As always, we look forward to hearing your thoughts and we invite you to join our experiment by befriending us on Facebook. Thanks for listening!

Here are our dedicated Experience Points Facebook accounts:

Jorge's account
Scott's account

Discussion starters:

- What are some of your favorite Facebook games?
- For those of you who play them, how do the social aspects of Facebook games influence your behavior while playing?
- What game genres are still underrepresented on Facebook?

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: 40 min 34 sec
- Games discussed
- Ravenwood Fair
- The Sims Social
- Hero Generations
- Dragon Age Legends
- PixelJunk Monsters
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Potential Ambassador

A while back, Jorge shared some thoughts on potential cultural ambassadors that could bridge the divide between video games and other media. When it comes to this topic, I'm usually of the mind that video games should send their stars outward instead of recruiting flag bearers from the outside. Having Martin Scorsese direct a video game might attract a few newcomers, but I think having Will Wright do the talk show circuit would raise more awareness for the medium in general. However, a recent podcast has me rethinking this opinion, at least as it pertains to one person: Guillermo del Toro.

I don't know much about del Toro's game, Insane (no one does yet). But after listening to the last two episodes of the Irrational Games podcast, I want to believe that del Toro is the real deal. Although he's best known for his directing and writing accomplishments, it at least sounds like he's taking the right approach to directing his first video game. Here are a few of the reasons why:

He Actually Plays Games

What a concept right? Actually, it seems like many film directors, including the ones who make movies based on games, don't have a huge amount of experience playing games. Del Toro is able to keep up with Ken Levine and Julian Murdoch, two sharp minds when it comes to games. He readily cites examples of his favorite moments in games and makes it clear that he's followed the medium for some time. This gives me confidence that he's aware of design trends and how players interact with game systems.

He Can Think Like a Designer

On a related note, one of my favorite bits from he conversation was del Toro's description of what he and his team do after designing a sequence in Insane. After constructing a sequence meant to convey certain themes and create a specfic experience, he asks "What would the asshole do?" Del Toro repeatedly acknowledges the unpredictable dynamics of player agency, which suggests he is thinking about story telling as a series of actions and reactions instead of a linear narration. No matter how hard you work to create an illusion in a game or funnel the player through a tightly controlled sequence, there will always be people looking to tweak the system. Every developer tackles this challenge in a different way, but it's reassuring to hear del Toro openly embracing it.

He's Enthusiastic

It's difficult not to become infected by del Toro's gusto. He's candid and outspoken about his successes and failures. It's easy for him to say that he's not simply stamping his name on Insane, but his past works and overall view of video games suggest that he wouldn't be doing this if he didn't truly care about it. Films like Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy were clearly labors of love, and much of his excitement regarding video games stems from the potential of the medium itself rather than his specific game.

In this regard, he sounds very similar to people like Ken Levine or Peter Molyneux, people deeply committed to their own games, but also to the craft of storytelling. Regardless of how successful Insane ultimately is, del Toro's philosophy gives me hope that it will at least be a very interesting game.

Del Toro isn't the most mainstream Hollywood figure, but after listening to his passion for video games, I have high hopes for his ability as a cultural ambassador. Judging by the sound of it, he's working hard to make sure anyone he introduces to video games for the first time has a valuable experience.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Brave Design in Ico

This week's PopMatters post is about some of the brave design choices in Ico.

I like playing an old game in the midst of new release season, because it helps put contemporary titles into perspective. Ico came out ten years ago, but many things about it still feel unique. I recently played through Ico again while reviewing The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection and was struck by how risky the game felt in retrospect.

I had forgotten how quickly you are thrown into the game. Without any kind of tutorial, the game simply starts and lets the player learn how to navigate through experimentation. The game requires constant action: the lack of automation and quicktime events means you're responsible for making every jump and for helping Yorda over the course of the entire game. In 2001, the move towards more tightly controlled, streamlined experiences was well under way. Today, a game without an explicit tutorial and heavy automation is almost inconceivable.

Most games go to great lengths to pursue the player's attention. Flashy special effects, huge set piece moments, and extensive dialogue are standard features in most games, but Ico takes different road. Ico manages to feel large in scope without trading in bombast. Many of its most striking features are tied to its subtlety: the castle's soundtrack consists largely of wind and birds. Creaky machinery and worn stonework quietly tell the story of the game's world. Ico and Yorda's relationship is built up mostly through actions. It shows a lot of faith in the player: instead of being fed a story, you have to look for one and interpret things for yourself.

It can be hard to find thoughtful, thematically challenging games outside of the indie scene. Part of this is understandable: if you don't hook a player and keep them hooked, there's nothing stopping them from switching to another game. In some ways, it's very understandable that games assist the player and constantly present them with new stories and plot twists; it's a crowded market and people have plenty of choices when it comes to spending their time and money.

Because of this Ico strikes me as a very bold game. It requires more active investment in everything from the jumping dynamics to interpreting the story. It may have paid for its eccentricity during its initial release, but its lasting reputation and subsequent re-release vindicates Team Ico's brave choices.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

EXP IndieCast #9: 2D Literacy

This week on the EXP IndieCast, Scott and I are joined once again by game designer Nels Anderson, who's recent Montreal International Game Summit talk sparked a lively conversation about systems literacy, 2D indie-darlings, old television shows, player expectations, and so much more. Give this elongated episode and listen and let us know your thoughts by leaving your comments below. As always, you can find bonus material in the show notes 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: 1 hour 4 min 44 sec
- "MIGS Slides and Talk Text," via Above49 by Nels Anderson
- Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson
- Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows
- House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Assassin's Creep

I don’t know about you, but I was shocked to encounter tower defense elements in my Gears of War 3. To be blunt, I absolutely hate tower defense. Wave after wave of enemies flood into your base at predictable intervals while you stand aside and watch turrets do all the work. Tower defense is a genre made for armchair strategists.

Much to my surprise, the tower defense elements incorporated into Gears of War 3 enhance the game’s Horde Mode amazingly well. Horde Mode, like its tower defense cousin, has sent predictable waves at players since it first appeared in the series. The ability to construct turrets, barricades, and even mechanized suits of armor, naturally extend the genre’s features into the shooter. Many of the features simply act as extensions to the cover-based philosophy in which the landscape defines player behavior. It all makes sense!

But why is there tower defense elements in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations? Here I am, climbing the rooftops of Constantinople, executing Templar guards left and right, stalking my prey from the rooftops, when suddenly: tower defense! Set up barricades, place archers on roof tops, rinse, wash, repeat. The beauty of Assassin’s Creed is, and always has been, its vertical exploration of a rich historical atmosphere. The scenes in which Ezio must defend assassin dens against waves of minions completely abandons the mechanical, aesthetic, and narrative core of the series. Since when does Ezio build barricades? And why can’t the Templars fire rifles or arrows at their rooftop attackers, or climb up themselves for that matter? The tower defense moments make up only a small portion of Revelations. Regardless, Ezio should never have to debase himself with glorified turret placement and micromanagement.

Assassin’s Creed has succumbed to feature creep. Rather than let its mechanics evolve and mature naturally, esoteric pieces of other genres appear hastily forced into the stealth assassin formula in a bid to maintain interest in the franchise. Elaborate bomb crafting also bloats the series, offering players largely uninteresting combat tweaks that explode cracks into the game’s poorly adjusted AI. Enemies may hear an explosion, find the mangled corpse of an ally, and then trudge along their predetermined route anyway, completely oblivious to the proximity bombs littering their path. Worst of all, Revelations forces players to make use of the new features. The level design of certain scenarios demands players either utilize bombs or abandon stealth in favor of hand-to-hand combat (never the series’ strong suit).

The genre feature creep of Revelations seems the natural outcome of a yearly release cycle that threatens to bore players with repetition. We can expect no different next year, when Ubisoft will release yet another Assassin’s Creed title, this time featuring mushrooms that make Ezio grow taller.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Break

Experience Points, and PopMatters for that matter, is taking the holiday off. Before Scott and I engorge ourselves on seasonal feasts, we would like to think each and every one of you who frequents the site, reads our PopMatters articles, listens to the podcast, and share your comments with us. We are incredibly thankful to have spent the past three years with such a welcoming community. Thanks a bunch and we will be back next week!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

EXP Podcast #149: Thanksgaming 2011

It's Thanksgiving time here in the U.S., so Jorge and I decided to get into the spirit of the holiday. In this episode, we each pick a few video game concepts for which we are thankful and chat about the reasons behind our gratitude. We cover everything from Batman to sado-masochism, and we're looking forward to hearing about the game-related things that make you optimistic! Additionally, Jorge and I reveal our new initiative to learn more about a certain sizable, yet often under-analyzed, segment of the video game world and we solicit your help!

Discussion starters:

- What sorts of video game subjects or trends make you happy?
- Is there anything for which you are thankful that you originally disliked?
- What do think we'll find in our adventure into the wild blue yonder?

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: 28 min 59 sec
- Our dedicated Experience Points Facebook ccounts:
Jorge's account
Scott's account
- The infamous Minecraft housefire disaster:

- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Fusion Feedback

It's the holiday season, which means I'll be joining the hordes of joyful people spreading holiday cheer through the nation's airports. Thankfully, my trusty travel companion, the DS Lite, will also be making the journey. I always get nostalgic during the holiday season, so I decided to play a game with connections to fond memories: Metroid Fusion.

Despite the Metroid Prime series' outstanding accomplishments, I still think of the series as a 2D institution. It's a bit strange, since I'm not necessarily an expert on the franchise: I vaguely remember Metroid, I never played Metroid 2, but I loved Super Metroid. After realizing that Metroid: Fusion, came from the same development team as Super Metroid and that it bills itself as "Metroid 4," I was more than a little excited to check it out. I'm not finished yet, and I thought I'd offer some thoughts that came to me during various take-off and landing sequences.

Metroid Has a Story

Somewhere along the line, the Metroid saga accumulated a surprisingly huge amount of lore. In my head, the game is basically a story-less shooter, but Fusion is introduced as "Metroid 4" deliberately. This is the same Samus we've known since the 1980s, and apparently her many adventures can theoretically be laid along some sort of linear narrative. At times, the plot veers into the realm of cheesy anime with overwrought dialogue and telegraphed plot twists. At this point I'm not quite sure whether I should be as confused as I am regarding all of the talk about X Parasites, Galactic Federations, and SR388s.

Looking back at Metroid: Other M now, I can see that the absurd characters didn't spontaneously appear. Reading Samus' clunky dialog and puzzling through the chain of events that left Ridley cryogenic status on a space station has reminded me that, unlike the Zelda series, the Metroid chronology is openly acknowledged. So far, there's been nothing so poignant as the baby Metroid's sacrifice at the end of Super Metroid, but I appreciate the effort (or foolhardiness?) it takes to try to maintain a consistent character.

Hardware Limitations Matter

Metroid Fusion feels very much like a shrunk-down version Super Metroid, but the transition was not without casualties. Most damaging is the loss of the two face buttons that happens when going from the Super Nintendo controller to the GBA. Without a dedicated button to select alternate weapons, the right shoulder button gets appropriated, which then shifts an aiming option over to the left shoulder button. The practical result is that aiming diagonally while moving becomes very difficult, since it involves using a shoulder button and the control pad to point in the correct direction.

Some limitations, like the loss of a dedicated dash button, lead to logical streamlining. Instead of actively choosing to dash, Samus will automatically pick up enough speed given enough room to run. Still, running sequences are always dwarfed by shooting sequences, and even after several hours of playing, I still find myself reflexively hitting the shoulder buttons to aim and being rewarded by a ridiculously errant shot.

Demanding Difficulty

These little control quirks are irritating, but most of my deaths were nobody's fault but my own. After all these years, Metroid still makes you earn your victories, especially against the bosses. I've seen people laud Dark Souls for similar reasons: the enemies have specific behaviors that can be exploited, but doing so requires concentration and manual dexterity. It's not enough to simply figure out how to beat an enemy, you have to execute your plan.

On-demand Playtime

Metroid: Fusion is creeping up on its tenth anniversary, and its structure shows how much mobile games have changed over the past decade. The game is structured exactly like a console game: you can only save at certain points on the map and any progress made must be hard-saved in order for it to count. Additionally, since it was a GBA game, closing the DS' lid does nothing to freeze the game's state. Choosing to play this game requires a level of commitment that is unheard of in today's DS/PSP/iOS landscape. Rather than conforming to your schedule, the game demands your attention by threatening your progress.

Even so, I'm more than happy to give in to Metroid: Fusion's demands. It has the same emphasis on combining strategic thinking and quick reflexes that Super Metroid possessed. The environments are a bit smaller, but there are still dozens of hidden powerups and secret passageways to seek out. 2D Samus doesn't change much, but there are enough small innovations (you can hang from ledges!) to make players who left their heart in Super Metroid feel comfortable without getting bored.

The game feels like visiting a friend after a long absence: they're essentially the same person, but with a couple of new quirks since you last saw them. In this way, Metroid: Fusion's identity as "Metroid 4" is quite fitting.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Overstaying Its Welcome: The Place of 'Uncharted 3' in the Medium

This week's PopMatters post is about Uncharted 3's existential crisis.

That sounds a bit pretentious, but I can't think of a better way to describe the position the game finds itself in. On one hand, the Uncharted 3 is an elegant roller coaster: beautiful set pieces, excellent writing, and substantive characters funnel the player along a meticulously designed track. On the other hand, Uncharted 3 is a surprisingly traditional video game: it is unforgiving of mistakes during crucial action scenes, it's combat attempts to create dynamic situation over lengthy battles, and progression is marked by contrived difficulty spikes. The game goes to impressive lengths to craft a brisk, unique plot, but its arcade-like difficulty and repetitive environments give the gameplay a retro feel. It's as if you're playing an updated version of a sidescrolling brawler, with all the frustrating deaths those games entail.

Clearly, Naughty Dog loves the Indiana Jones series. Uncharted 3 is basically a love letter to Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade Flashback that shows the childhood origins of the protagonist? Check. Scenes where the protagonist runs towards the screen, away from giant environmental hazards? Check. Caverns full of creepy crawlies? Check. Fist fights with freakishly-large enemy bruisers? Check. Chasing a jeep caravan through the desert on horseback? Check. The list goes on, but you get the idea.

Richard Lemarchand, co-lead designer of Uncharted 3, has stated that they wanted to make the video game version of a summer blockbuster. From a visual and tonal perspective, they are clearly on the right track. However, the gameplay violates key tenets of good action movies: the game is repetitive and it allows us to fail. Indy only runs away from one boulder, only encounters one cavern of snakes, and he only fights one huge brute. Things get dicey, but he never fails. In Uncharted 3, we play through the same basic action sequences (and climbing sequences, for that matter) multiple times, we repeatedly encounter supernatural spiders, and we fight gigantic dudes every couple of levels. Before too long, the mechanics lose their novelty. Waves of enemies, unexpected obstacles, and good old fashion cheap deaths detract from Nathan Drake's image as action hero who always makes it out of even the most helpless situations. Ultimately, Uncharted 3 commits the biggest mistake action movies can make: it gets dull.

Uncharted's cinematography and storytelling is the best in the business. It's become so outstanding that it has become incompatible with some of the most important traits of the video game medium. Games are excel at providing settings that allow us to experiment, challenge ourselves, and learn from failures. Repetition and iterative learning environments are what make games special, but action movies don't work that way. We don't want to see Indiana Jones fail to jump out of a burning building in time or spend half and hour shooting two-dozen faceless guards; we want to see him succeed. The same goes for Drake: seeing him repeat the same challenges and slogging through multiple botched firefights doesn't play to the game's strengths.

I think Uncharted 3 demonstrates that the series needs to move on and shed some of its more traditional game-like qualities. I have a number of ideas as to how this could be implemented (which I hope to share in the future), but for now I'll simply say that not all video game traditions are appropriate for modern titles.

In many ways, the Uncharted series is experimental: it pushes technological boundaries, explores the line between cut scenes and interactivity, and makes a huge effort to develop its characters. I think it's time for the series to bring this innovative spirit to the gameplay: shed the notion that a game needs to have so many levels or that mechanical challenge necessitates fail-states. I hope the next installment charts a course away from traditional shooters and game mechanics. If any series is in the position to explore the possibilities of "interactive experiences," as opposed to "games, it is Uncharted.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

EXP Podcast #148: Uncharted 3 Debrief

Naughty Dog's latest cinematic achievement can finally wow players with a heaping load of spectacle and a fair bit of Nolan North charm. Scott and I get in on the "taste for adventure" this week while we discuss Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. In this longer-than-normal episode, we discuss a range of issues, from the game's gun-play to its lauded story to the future of our witty treasure-hunting hero. If you have joined in on Drake's adventure, we would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

Discussion starters:

- What are your thoughts on the slightly revamped combat system in the latest Uncharted addition?
- Where would you like to see this franchise go?
- What are your thoughts on Naughty Dog's multiplayer pay wall?

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: 57 min 10 sec
- Music provided by Greg Edmonson via the Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception Original Soundtrack (from the tracks Nate's Theme and Second-Story Work)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Home Ownership

Back in my World of Warcraft days, I often heard guild mates and fellow WoW players lament the absence of persistent character housing. Whenever Blizzard released an expansion, I always heard friends and acquaintances lament the absence of a place to hang their hat. I never quite understood the appeal of player housing. Of course I understand the values and feelings related to being at home, a sensation still too rare in videogames, but why bind players to one place in such an expansive world. What would I use a home for? Many hours into Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and I am beginning to understand the value of hearth all my own.

Above is an image of my Argonian Skyrim character in my home. It is in the town of Whiterun, nestled conveniently next to a blacksmith and a public forge, where I can craft my tools of the trade. When I fast travel to town, the house is just a moments away. It started out a cobweb infested disaster, but like most player housing, I could upgrade it piece by piece. It comes with an alchemy station where I can brew my poisons and potions. It also has a pot for cooking up restorative cuisine using food items I encounter on my journey or any of the meats, herbs, and vegetables stocked in the nearby cupboard. Chests and bookshelves sit conveniently near both the fire and the alchemy table, allowing me to store provisions I will use for later.
It feels quite “homey” if I do say so myself.

The beauty of home ownership in Skyrim is its utility. There is so much crap in this game. If it is not bolted down, you can probably add it to your inventory. Go out for a quick mission and you will return with a pack full of mushrooms, thistle, butterfly wings, and dragonflies, not to mention pounds and pounds of armor you might sell off or disenchant. Much of this stuff can be used to craft items or enhance weapons, but not necessarily right away. Yet every character can only carry so much without slowing their movement down to a crawl. The solution? By a house and store your belongings knowing you will never have to fear bandits or thieves making off with the goods.

The bookshelves are also useful not only to store interesting pieces of game lore, but to keep recipe books or notes you might want to peruse later. The home also has a weapon rack and wall plaque. Mine carries a pick axe I only use when mining and a sword I mean to enchant soon. The plaque, however, carries a useless but ceremonial axe. See, I started viewing my house as a giant chest, now I view it as a place to store my memories. I have filled my bookshelves with selectively chosen tomes my character might read, stored interesting artifacts from my journey in various cupboards, and filled my dresser with outfits I snagged outside the walls of Whiterun. I have thus far shunned owning property in other towns and often return to my cabin before logging off. I even feel a new found attachment to the town citizens.Slowly but surely, I am turning my house into a home.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Venue for Spectacle

My latest PopMatters article is now live: A Venue for Spectacle.

One thing I neglected to discuss in this article about Michael-Bay-explosive grandeur is the audience. Do you know why Bay's awful films and Roland Emmerich's nonsensical storylines earn so much money? It is because millions and millions of people love to watch huge things destroy other huge things in large scale visual spectacles.

Games have capture immense scale amazingly well for some time now. Shadow of the Colossus is every bit as thrilling as an action packed adventure offered up by so many trash directors of Hollywood. However, not that the visual fidelity and richness of our digital worlds competes with, and surpasses, the sparkling effects of Transformers and 2012, games offer a new source of spectacle for all the men and women who just want to watch the world burn.

None of his is a value judgement on the desire to simply watch gorgeous action unfold over otherworldly and immense landscapes. Sometimes I am perfectly content with watching spectacular garbage. flung at the screen, especially in 3D. But as the medium proves itself as a viable venue, or even a replacement, for the adventure spectacle long-maintained by the film industry, an audience shift may alter the entertainment landscape. An influx of adventure junkies into the games community would likely alter cinema more than it would the games industry. Action directors may find themselves producing movies more akin to games than vice versa. However, more than likely things will still roughly the same. People will always spend good money on watching things sway, topple, and go boom - more than enough money to keep the spectacle coming in triple-A games and Oscar ignore cinema.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

EXP Podcast #147: Simply Irresistible

What is the point of doing something if there aren't any points to be won? Radek Koncewicz's post on the irresistible, but ultimately pointless actions we take in games inspired us to think about the little personal flourishes we add to our game playing experiences. Maybe you're one of those folks who had to catch the Super Mario Bros. 3 wands in mid-air, or maybe you're a strict adherent to the jumping screen shift in Mega Man. Whatever the case, games are full of irresistible opportunities to form personal habits that don't always have gameplay ramifications. As always, feel free to jump into the comments to share your personal quirks. Thanks for listening!

Discussion starters:

- What are some "irresistible" actions you take?
- What are some examples of actions that blur the line between subjective choices and those that have objective ramifications on the game?
- How do rewards, achievements, and stat tracking influence your dedication to forming unique habits within certain games?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking here. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 32 min 32 sec
- "The Irresistible," by Radek Koncewicz, via Significant Bits
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Presenting Grand Theft Auto

Recently, Rockstar debuted the first trailer for Grand Theft Auto V. As is the case with most Rockstar trailers, it doesn't say much about the game's story or mechanics. Instead, like most modern Rockstar trailers, it focuses on introducing themes and setting the game's tone. After watching it, I took a quick trip down memory lane to compare the GTA V trailer to some of those made for the previous games. What I found happened to offer some insight into the last GTA game I played, GTA: Chinatown Wars.

GTA: San Andreas was the last hurrah for the PS2-era GTA games. The trailer wasn't as cinematic as subsequent ones would be, but it demonstrated how far Rockstar had come in terms of creating open worlds that possessed both distinctive settings and time periods.

Everything from the color palette, to the music, to the on-screen action sets up San Andreas as a sprawling period piece. The smoggy orange-and-brown hue of fake California and early 1990s hip hop draw inspiration from real places and the culture associated with them. Images of metropolitan sprawl and young black men clashing with police position the game as a broad take on relatively recent history. While you'll probably only control one character, the game is about more than an individual.

GTA IV's trailer was more ambitious, from both technical and thematic perspectives:

It took advantage of the more powerful hardware to draw clearer links between our world and GTA's fantasy environment. Everything from the geography to the textures mimicked New York. The tone of the trailer adopts a more sweeping scope. The operatic score suggests a darker story, and Nico's narration is serves a dual purpose. It introduces his personal plot, but also speaks to one version of the American immigrant experience. GTA IV is presented as more than a story about one man trying to start over: the trailer taps into larger issues and hints at whether starting over is even possible. GTA IV is a darker, more realistic shadow version of our world.

All of this makes GTA: Chinatown Wars seem like departure. A few months back, I played through Chinatown Wars and, while I enjoyed elements of it, the overall experience felt somewhat generic. The trailer encapsulates several reasons I found this to be the case.

As shallow as this may sound, I think GTA as a franchise has moved past stylized graphics. Thanks to the limitations of the hardware, characters and environments take on a cartoonish quality. Huang and the crooks he deals with start to resemble actual stereotypes rather than satires; the dumpy corrupt cop, the hot-tempered family scion, the Chinese dragon lady, and the evil Confucian kingpin seem too archetypal to succeed as satire.

The text frames the story as a more narrow, personal tale. Huang goes on about his personal quest for vengeance, his own family's honor, and his personal relationship to the criminal underworld. The trailer gives us little indication as to how his story fits into the larger society. True to its name, Chinatown Wars is made to feel like a parochial conflict off from the Liberty City saga. Unlike GTA: San Andreas and GTA IV, there is little commentary on the American cultural experience; this is just a private little war.

The entire package seems more detached than the previous two games. The game is defined by its traditional camera angle: instead of being immersed in a world at the street-level, you look at everything as a distant observer. From this perspective, Liberty City loses some of its distinctive atmosphere, and the characters become flat props used to cram in unimaginative jokes. It doesn't help that these supposedly Chinese gangsters often lapse into British-isms (hearing Triads say things like "buggered" and vowing to "Get this situation sorted" is jarring).

This isn't to say that the game wasn't enjoyable. I have probably spent more time with Chinatown Wars' drug dealing simulator than with all other side quests/mini games in all other GTA games combined. The mayhem, humor, and violence that define GTA is still present, but the cultural relevance and high production values that have come to define the series is missing.

All of this brings us back to GTA V's trailer:

If this clip is any indication, GTA V is a return to form. Dramatic music, bold cinematography, and a layered message suggests that Chinatown Wars' small scale was a momentary diversion. The narrator's story of chasing the westward dream seems realistic on both personal and social levels. For years, people have dreamt about starting anew in California, only to realize that their old problems followed them and that new problems were waiting.

Maybe it's fitting that GTA V is returning to its own twisted version of Hollywood. Chinatown Wars, a game that resembles GTA's beginnings now seems out of place next to the glamorous console productions. If its reception was any indication, people aren't interested in a visually simple, top-down GTA, even if it has most of the mechanical trappings of its big-budget brothers. It's no longer enough to let players steal cars, GTA has to walk the line between crude humor and sharp social commentary, all the while keeping with the visual styling of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

'Masters of Doom:' A Great Man History of Gaming

This week's PopMatters post is historically oriented: it's a review of David Kushner's book Masters of Doom.

The book's subtitle "How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture" is representative of its focus. Kushner uses the stories of John Romero and John Carmack to trace not only the rise of id Software, but the trajectory of the medium. This works because those two guys were largely responsible for some of the most important developments in gaming. Without Carmack, who knows how long it would have taken to figure out smooth scrolling on the PC? The entire PC graphics card industry was pushed forward by his drive for increasingly complex technical feats. His consistent programming advances defined the way 3D and first-person environments were conceived and created.

Romero (a talented programmer in his own right) was an early ambassador for what we might call "gamer culture." Not only did his design and artistic insights inspire a generation of players and designers, his persona transcended his games. For better or worse, Romero came to personify the brash, raucous style of gaming that came to define the first-person shooter genre. While his enthusiasm often got him into trouble (Daikatana), his passion for the medium compelled him to unashamedly extol its virtues.

The book was written back in 2003, which makes it interesting to see where Carmack and Romero have gone since then. Their strong personalities sent them on separate paths that seem consistent with their different philosophies. Carmack is still pursuing technical excellence, perhaps at the cost innovative design (Rage) and Romero has continued his search for the medium's frontier (his most recent work has been on Facebook games). I can't help but think about how well their skills complement each other. In many ways, the two Johns go together like Lennon and McCartney, but we all know how that ended up.

Masters of Doom is also a valuable book in a historiographic sense. Video game history, especially the cultural side of it, is still a relatively new field. Kushner's work recounts historical events in an engaging manner, but it also demonstrates a strategy as to how to produce such a project. The book relies heavily on interviews and personal archives rather than technical data and periodicals. It's difficult to tease out the stories when conducting oral histories, but Kushner backs up his exhaustive reporting with a variety of sources to form a credible, entertaining story.

Video games have only been around for fifty years or so, but it's certainly not too soon to start writing the medium's history. The video game world moves fast and, as Masters of Doom shows, there's value in documenting the past while the people who helped make it are still with us.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

EXP Podcast #146: HD Recollections - Shadow of the Colossus

We have crossed ancient lands, traversed architecturally unsound bridges of questionable origin, journeyed to the heart of this forgotten temple, and placed our mics upon a demigod's alter to bring you part two of our Team Ico focused podcasts. This week, Scott and I discuss the marvels of Shadow of the Colossus as well as historical collections of notable games in general. As always, we would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

Discussion starters:

- If you played Shadow of the Colossus at launch, what were your first thoughts of the game?
- How does your play experience differ the second, third, and fourth time you play a game?
- What game series would you like to see given a collector's treatment?

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: 51 min 36 sec
- Music provided by Koh Ohtani from the Shadow of the Colossus Soundtrack.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Occupy Videogames!

The Occupy protests, the mass movement of the ninety-nine percenters rallying against the endemic greed and exploitation of the other 1%, has been underway for months. From Wall Street to Oakland and beyond, the Occupy movement has been gaining traction and attention, and may be a historical moment that demands the critical eye of the gaming community. Where then are the serious (or humorous) games about the Occupy movement? Several games appeared in response to the revolution in Libya, not all tasteful, and the WikiLeaks affairs also resulted in a variety of interesting games, yet none have yet stepped forward to immortalize the relatively leaderless movement in the digital space. There are systems at work in the Occupy movement, and all games are systems. The following are several aspects of the Occupy movement that just might spark the interest of creative indie game designers out there.

Protest Management:
As Occupy sites across the nation, state and local governments have admonished protesters over ostensible health and safety concerns, going so far as to threaten and carry out the forced removal of campers. Clever activists in Wall St. and elsewhere have offered to monitor and maintain the health and safety of their own, establishing committee’s to manage trash disposal and cleanliness issues, distribute potable food and water, organize tent arrangements and more.

This level of protest management requires administrative skills and know-how well above the exploits of Farmville. You think harvesting tomatoes is difficult? Try distributing a limited supply of coffee to an army of snow-laden protesters eager for caffeine. What about handling and dispersing the influx of donations from across the nation to an ever changing band of activist squatters with a variety of needs and desires. If Sim City can model a system of political and economic restraints, then Sim Zucotti Park can model an even more unique structure of democratic camp management.

Rhetoric and Reason:
“What do we want!?” According to plenty of news outlets, the Occupy activists do not know or cannot agree. Of course this is a dramatic oversimplification of a more nuanced context. Quite a few activists agree about plenty of actual policies and plans government officials could enact - ranging from job relief efforts to the dissolution of banks "too big to fail." Alternatively, others veer away from demands and prefer to express a general form of antagonism toward structures of oppression, corporate and otherwise.

Professor Layton has a grand time solving the riddles of townsfolk, exploring the cast of characters at Occupy Wall St. could offer eve more insight and entertaining conversations. Understanding a collection variable narratives requires some work, but could be quite rewarding for players. Exploring the values and beliefs of protesters can feel like detective work, which could work perfectly in game - extra points for locating counter-dominant narratives that illuminate the level of discussion beyond news clip rabble. These games need not glorify the movement either. I would be interested to see games explore issues of inclusivity and disagreements. There are many interesting stories with which to interact.

Scale It Up:
The Occupy movement is active well beyond Wall St. Perhaps to the surprise of pundits and protesters alike, Occupy actions have cropped up in major cities across the nation, almost spontaneously. Anyone who has worked in the non-profit sector knows how laborious it can be to wrangle a diverse group of people together for a one day event. How has the Occupy movement sustained such numbers, even in the face of sometimes violent action against participants?

Large scale analysis of the Occupy protests from a state, national, and global level could prove both entertaining and educational. In a digital system, we could test hypotheses about resource investment, the spread of popular protests, and public reactions to changing contexts. Could you maximum your protest score by allocating enough resources to the right locations? Could you adapt a national movement according to law enforcement actions and weather conditions to create a persuasive force? There are large scale systems at work with every major movement, and now is a great time to explore these political and social systems at play.

. . . . . .

These are just a few ideas of interesting aspects of the Occupy protests that could inhabit the digital games space. There are, of course, many more options available. You could make an allegorical game - I would happily fight an octopus with a top-hat. Also, protests and marches might lend themselves well to game treatment, particularly when facing police forces. Of course game designers must always navigate carefully serious issues such as these. Make corralling protesters too much fun, you might get across precisely the wrong idea. That being said, the Occupy movement is the political zeitgeist of the moment and certainly deserves the attention of “serious games” developers. For now I will occupy this little corner of the internet, eager to see what you all create.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Commercial Success: Positioning Games in Pop-Culture

My latest PopMatters article is now live - Commercial Success: Positioning Games in Pop Culture

This piece is just an exploration of how three commercials that have caught my attention and the attention of some other Moving Pixels writers position games within popular culture at large. But for this addendum, I want to talk a bit about gamer icons.

I have mixed reactions to watching Harrison Ford play Uncharted 3. One one hand, I find him genuinely charming, every bit representative of the swashbucklers he has played on the big screen. On the other hand, he is clearly getting old. I almost feel bad for the guy. Did Sony really need to trot out an aging icon to convince Japanese consumers to buy Uncharted 3? Couldn't they have connected video games to film culture differently?

This raises an interesting question. Setting aside the oft cited dilemma regarding game designer auteurs, who might we turn to for game icons and ambassadors? At first I thought of other actors. Ryan Gosling is an upcoming action star; maybe he could bring some credibility to the Driver series. Sure there are some actors out there who genuinely enjoy video games and the culture that surrounds them. If it were Nathan Fillion on the couch playing Uncharted, would he better convey the relationship between storytelling in film and storytelling in games? Maybe actors will always come off as artificial, never quite reflecting the unique place games hold in popular culture.

I then moved on to other creative minds. What if a famous director appeared in a commercial instead, conveying to the audience an appreciation for design. Spielberg knows about world building, maybe he could convey the awe of inhabiting a rich interactive environment with credibility. Someone could tell Christopher Nolan to talk to non-gamers about the value of games.

Ah, that brings up an even better games ambassador: Batman. Specifically, the transmedia icon occupies popular culture through a variety of media. Rather than scaring non-gamers off with that bar room full of frightening player avatars worshiping some guy named Michael, Sony could use Batman as a bridge between consumers of all forms of media. Nolan's Dark Knight, the animated version of the bat, and Rocksteady's bulky hero, could all say "I'm batman" and speak the truth. Check out this commercial for Arkham City Walmart put out. The game appears predominantly in the background, secondary to a comedic bit about the caped icon himself. In this approach, games are positioned as one piece of a larger pop culture diet, offering one aspect of a story that has transcended its original medium. He might not be an appropriate ambassador for all games, but I could be comfortable with Batman as my icon of choice. Yet the positioning of games in pop culture is far from over.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

EXP IndieCast #8: Closed, Fantasy, and Aquatic Worlds

It's time once again for an independent game roundup! This week, Jorge and I discuss A Closed World, A Tale By Alex, and Fisher-Diver. All three games are free to play and boast interesting mechanical and thematic features. Each game is thought-provoking and well-worth playing; we have a wide ranging conversation that encompasses everything from considering the difficulties of incorporating LGBTQ themes in games to hunting the most dangerous game. As always, thanks for listening and fell 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: 33 min 11 sec

- A Closed World
- A Tale by Alex
- Fisher-Diver

Additional reading on A Closed World:
- "A Closed World: A Game About LGBTQ Themes," by Hal, via GayGamer
- "Interview: How GAMBIT's A Closed World Tackles Sexuality, Identity," by Leigh Alexander, via Gamasutra
- "'A Closed World' and thoughts on gay video games." and "LGBTQ game design knife fight!" by Robert Yang
- "a closed mind," by Anna Anthropy
- "Anna Anthropy on 'A Closed World,'" by Christine Love

- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Fall Classic

If you've been watching the World Series (and chances are you haven't), then you've been treated to a particularly exciting contest. The Rangers and the Cardinals might not be the biggest names in the league, but they've put on an exciting show. I still have a soft spot for Tony LaRussa thanks to his time with the A's, but I'm mainly rooting for the St. Louis in hopes of getting to see a seventh game. Today's a travel day, so at the risk of losing my sports credibility, I thought I'd share some thoughts on my favorite baseball video game: Ken Griffey, Jr. Presents Major League Baseball.

As regular readers know, I don't play many sports games. It's not for lack of interest; I love watching sports and am quite interested in the strategy and athleticism behind them. It's just that sports games, like many other genres, have become increasingly specialized over the years. Imagine if someone who only played Doom dove right in to Battlefield 3? It's hard to simply jump into a current version of Madden or The Show without feeling overwhelmed. I played Griffey when it came out in 1994, and that's pretty much where my skill at baseball video games peaked.

Griffey came out at a time when the line between arcade and simulation styles was blurrier than it is today. The game had deep rosters, accurate player statistics, and realistic representations of every major league stadium. At the same time, player collisions resulted in cartoonish fainting spells, fielders ran at twice the speed of on-base runners, and players routinely broke bats over their knees. It was the kind of game that let you play through an entire season and also regularly blast 500-foot homers.

For some reason, my friends, cousins, and brother took a shining to the quirky title. Because the game wasn't licensed by the players' union, all the names (except for Griffey's) had been changed to thematic pseudonyms. The A's were made up of famous authors like Byron and Twain. Seattle unsurprisingly boasted a roster of Nintendo employees like Howard Lincoln and Dan Owsen. Because the stats, numbers, and teams were true to life, it was easy to figure out who was who, but I never bothered editing most of the names. There was something great about seeing "J. Wayne" of the Angels hit grand slams.

When it got too dark to play three flies up, we would head inside and huddle around the TV, taunting each other with slow moves to first and disrespectful tag-outs. The hitting and pitching systems are rudimentary by today's standards, but they were more than adequate for strategic play as well as mind games. Just like in the real game, Griffey was as much about anticipating your opponent's decision as it was executing the play. Of course, the pros don't have to worry about their friends trying to slap the controller out of their hands in hopes of messing up an easy fly ball.

Today, I can still remember that iconic intro song that played over the title screen. It's as if Joe Satriani was distilled into MIDI format. Also: check out the sick base solo at 1:24.

It was the 1990's y'all! I spent so much time playing the game that modern sports games still strike me as eerily quiet. Alas, I feel like the day of digital organ-laden melodic loops are long passed.

Perhaps more so than any other American sport, Baseball is steeped nostalgia. Our memories of it goes deeper than the stats we record about every pitch. The game marks the change in the seasons and gets intertwined with memories of growing up. In this way, Ken Griffey, Jr. Presents Major League Baseball is a fitting tribute to the sport. After all these years, I still recall it like some sprite-based sandlot; a digital field of dreams whose fantasy elements imbued its more realistic features with the magic necessary to make indelible memories.