Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Versatility of Famous Voices in Video Games

This week at Popmatters, I wrote about celebrity voices in games.

The topic has been on my mind as of late, as I feel like the medium has reached a strange point in terms of voice acting. In story-driven games, dialogue is more important than ever. However, many games are trying to create their own self-contained world, so having a clearly-recognizable may detract from the player’s immmersion. Additionally, actors like Nolan North and Jennifer Hale are quickly becoming minor celebrities within video game culture. Perhaps the talents of celebrities who gained fame outside the medium are just an unnecessary distraction?

Then again, celebrities can sometimes strengthen a game’s artistic or cultural relevance. In addition to the sheer talent of actors that honed their craft on stage and on screen, famous actors often have personas that stretch across multiple art forms. For example, would Brutal Legend been as charming without Jack Black? The game’s mixture of camp, humor, and rock and roll reverence fits perfectly with Black’s persona. If Eddie Riggs was played by anyone else, I suspect the character would simply have felt like a Jack Black knock-off. This type of casting dances on the line separating the earnest from the self-aware.

What should we make of God of War III, in which Kevin Sorbo is cast as Hercules? While he plays it straight as far as his performance in the game, his very appearance is a wink at an audience who has come to associate him with a very different version of the famous Greek hero. He does a good job blending in with the game’s tone, which makes sorting out the intent behind his casting even trickier.

Ultimately, I suppose it all comes down to the highly-subjective measure of whether an actor “feels” right for the job. There are times for both bold assertions of celebrity and transformative performances. The trick is figuring out which approach to take, and when to take it.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

EXP Podcast #114: A Brand New Lara

Take a famous icon, smear it with mod and dim the lighting, and you've got a successful franchise reboot. At least that is what Crystal Dynamics is hoping to accomplish with their latest Lara Croft project. Even though two Tomb Raider games were released in the last three years, apparently the franchise is in need of a face lift. Join us this week on the EXP Podcast while Scott and I discuss Tomb Raider's longevity, Dragon Ball Z, Jesus, and what it means to reboot a series. As always, we encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Discussion Starters:

- What aspects of Lara Croft remain iconic for you?- Is Lara an immortal icon, or would a failed reboot mark her death knell?
- Can you think of any games that succeeding in rebooting a franchise for you?
- What games do you think desperately need a reboot?

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:

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Healing in the Net

With the launch of World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, Blizzard wrenched the world of Azeroth asunder. While the gaping holes and clefts carved into landmass most visibly alter the game, many minor adjustments have changed high-level gameplay. As a healer, the game has become significantly more difficult than before the expansion’s release. In fact, yesterday I was asked by a guild mate to explain why I liked healing in the first place, what he considered a stressful and unforgiving job. My response? Healing is a lot like playing goalie.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Double Trouble

My latest article is up on PopMatters, Double Trouble: Flawed Multiplayer in Donkey Kong Country Returns.

A few weeks ago I named Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light as one of my favorite games of 2010, primarily because of its excellent cooperative mode. For its benefit, it is not a platformer, which I have now decided do not lend themselves well to multiplayer experiences. That isn't to say it can't be done. Rather, it just becomes more difficult to ensure each player has an entertaining experience given the limitations of a two dimensional scrolling world. In fact, one of the reasons LittleBigPlanet can pull off cooperative play so well is its three layers of depth.

I briefly knock New Super Mario Bros. Wii in the article, which I hope draws Scott's attention. We have had conversations in the past regarding NSMB's difficulty spikes and how they affect multiplayer gameplay. As I see it, Nintendo fails every time someone feels they might as well not play and allow just one person to overcome a challenge. Players can counteract this by being good gaming diplomats, but the problem still stands.

Multiplayer aside, DKCR is a simple, albeit quite difficult, pleasure. The game could not be more appropriately titled, it as reminiscent of its predecessor as they come. So much so in fact, that the game feels too 'humdrum' to care about for long. PopMatters reviewer Arun rightly mourns no longer having the ability to switch between playing as Diddy instead of DK. I cannot help but wonder what sort of interesting mechanics Nintendo could have come up with had they not adhered so closely to the formula, regardless of how proven it is.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

EXP Podcast #113: Game Writing Roundup, 2010

There’s a huge amount of great video game writing out there. Too much for your humble hosts to ever digest by themselves. This week, we take advantage of 2010’s embarrassment of riches and discuss some of our favorite pieces of video game writing from last year. As always feel free to join in and spread the word about your favorite game-related posts, essays, novellas, treatises, and tweets!

Pieces discussed:

- “Okay, Kids, Play on my Lawn,” by Roger Ebert, via Chicago Sun-Times
- “Groping the Map”, by Justin Keverne, via Groping the Elephant
- “Video games: The Addiction,” by Tom Bissel, via The Guardian
- “Making Men Uncomfortable: What Bayonetta Should Learn From Gaga,” by Tanner Higgin, via Gaming the System: Tanner Higgin
- “Castrating the Straight Male Gaze on Bayonetta (or at least making room for other ones!),” by Amanda Phillips, via The Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory
- “The Presence of the Past in Fallout 3,” by Trevor Owens, via Play the Past
- “Riffing on the Flagpole,” by Michael Abbott, via The Brainy Gamer

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:

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Games on the Small Screen

A couple of days ago, I shared this video on Twitter. Be warned: this might be painful for those of you with low tolerances for awesomely terrible things.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve never watched a full episode of Life, so maybe it was a great show. However, I have seen plenty of TV shows portray games in the same manner. Regardless of its inadvertent hilarity, this portrayal of video games and those who play them is ignorant at best and insulting at worst.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Owning BioShock 2

My latest post is up at PopMatters. It’s about one of last year’s best games: BioShock 2.

Like most people, I loved the first BioShock and I wasn’t alone in fearing what a sequel might look like. I, along with many others, had placed BioShock on some sort of mental pedestal; while it wasn’t perfect, it was a formative experience in terms of how I viewed the medium. Unconsciously, I had turned it into a sacred object that should remain untouched.

To be fair, sequels don’t always turn out well, and an overabundance of them can kill even the mightiest of franchises; just ask Tony Hawk. Thankfully, BioShock 2 is an excellent game that managed to perform a splendid kind of blasphemy: in many ways it is better than the original.

Writing this has left me with few lingering thoughts: First, BioShock 2 has drastically increased my already high hopes (pardon the pun) for BioShock Infinite. Despite my reservations over “franchising” the series, the prospect that some of the best minds behind BioShock and BioShock 2 are working on the same game makes me giddy.

Second, has there ever been a sequel to a game of BioShock proportions that has harmed the first game? Or, to jump into another medium, does the Phantom Menace cheapen A New Hope?

The entire BioShock 2 experience has taught me to assume a more relaxed frame of mind regarding the artistic impact of sequels in general. There is no point in trying to “protect” certain games from the effects of potentially sub-par sequels. At worst, the sequels can be disregarded and one can choose to mentally envision the original as an unconnected entity. At best, a supposedly unwanted addition can expand on the original’s potential and fuse the discrete works into an entity stronger than either one of the individual pieces.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

EXP Podcast #112: Minerva's Den Debrief

This week, we stay just a bit longer under the sea, exploring the much lauded Bioshock 2 DLC, Minerva's Den. 2K's final journey into Rapture may just show other game developers how to create stand-alone additional content that puts other full length titles to shame.

Some discussion starters:

- How does Minerva's Den compare to Bioshock 2?
- How does Minerva's Den compare the DLC from other recent games?
- Does this game make you more excited/hopeful/concerned about Bioshock Infinite?

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: 34 min 31 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Meaty Anthropology

I have been banging my head against the wall known as Super Meat Boy. It is a slow, persistent, and surprisingly enjoyable bludgeoning. This should not come as a surprise to any of you. Super Meat Boy has appeared on numerous ‘Best Games of 2010’ lists, charming the socks off of even the most timid gamers. Of course not everyone appreciates the severe psychological trauma induced by the speeding chunk of meat. Considering my own aversion to masochism, I am surprised I have taken to the game so well. The adrenaline boost from overcoming a level after dying over and over and over again is exhilarating. What find most interesting, however, is how it allows me to peek into the chaos of a gaming failures.

Super Meat Boy has earned plenty of deserved adoration, most of which has praised its replay feature, which shows players each and every way they met an untimely end. Brendan Keogh has a great piece on Kill Screen’s new online site. Grayson Davis also has an excellent and particularly pertinent article about Super Meat Boy on his blog Beeps & Bloops. Davis states:

“The reason we can spend so many hours playing Super Meat Boy, when we would give up on other platformers, is because Super Meat Boy rewards our mastery of the game. As we understand the game better, as we get better at jumping, at sliding along walls, we uncover greater depths of the game and find outlets for our creativity. Though the goal in every level is static and unchanging, and though every player has to bypass the same whirling buzzsaws, nobody takes quite the same path. You play until you find the path that works for you.”

The best thing about the replay feature is that it allows me to peak into the past. I don’t take just one path to the end, but many. Each and every meat boy symbolizes precious seconds I spent trying to achieve some outcome, not all of which are completing the level. Why did I jump to the left last time? Why did I hesitate at the wrong time? Why did I spend so much damn time trying to get that bandage when I was clearly approaching the task incorrectly? Watching those Meat Boy replays is like looking through a window into the past. It shows me the many mistakes and assumptions I made, captures all the time spent playing the game that doesn’t quite fit into the final story.
What would this replay feature look like in other games? Maybe when leaping across a gap in Mirror’s Edge, a ghostly version of Faith would jump by my side, plummeting to her death while I barely grab the ledge. Maybe the streets of Cuba in Black Ops would be crowded with the flickering corpses of versions of me. It actually sounds quite unsettling. Of course in these cases, the replay would function differently. They would occupy the play space while I was still engaged within it. Replays might reveal dangerous areas, acting as a sort of heat-map depicting fatal mistakes. It would be educational, something Meat Boy’s replays are not, at least not in the classical sense.

When hunting through the crowded streets of Rome in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood multiplayer, accidentally killing a civilian is bound to happen. When it does, a marker will inform you of the whereabouts of the target you should have killed. It is difficult to pinpoint the moment of your mistake, so showing who you should have killed acts as more of a taunt than a history lesson. Meat Boy’s replay acts similarly. The levels are short enough, and its hazards very apparent, that the dozens of doomed characters rub the past in my face.

Given, there are some players who will analyze their failures for minute changes they could make on their next attempt. Personally, my screen is too full of hopping red botches to accurately assess my mistakes. Instead, replays map my gaming past, one that generally remains hidden in most games, obliterated by the newest save file. Completing a level of Super Meat Boy is like becoming, for a moment, my own anthropologist. I enjoy the sensation, even though its the only benefit I get from reviewing my personal history.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

'Amnesia' and the Topography of Fear

My latest article is up on Popmatters: Amnesia and the Topography of Fear.

Although I generally consider myself a lightweight in the face of horror entertainment, believe me when I say Amnesia: Dark Descent is absolutely terrifying. One of the reasons I usually dislike horror, especially horror films, is that they too commonly rely on jump scares and gore. They aim to make people nervous and then nauseous. While there is certainly unsettling imagery in Amnesia, it does not induce fear with petty tricks. The mechanics and the narrative are genuinely unnerving and deeply mysterious.

The game actually feels like a playable story from H.P. Lovecraft, easily one of the most skilled horror writers whom you should all promptly read - preferably under the covers, in a dimly lit room, while a storm batters your window. Lovecraft was adept at making readers feel helpless and confused. His protagonists often wrestled with insanity, making rationalism seem like a hopelessly feeble protection against an imposing force. Lovecraft thrived on the unknown, skillfully skirting around mysterious anomalies, forcing readers to imagine incomprehensible monstrosities. My playing with light and darkness, by making a player's sanity deplete while looking at monsters, by allowing players to peak around corners, Frictional Games is constructing a similarly disturbing experience. I am certain it is no coincidence the game so closely resembles Lovecraft's story The Outsider.

I do not mention the sound at all in my PopMatters article, but the game's sound scape is absolutely fantastic. Mark my words, if Frictional does not win the IGF award for Excellence in Audio, I will eat my hat. Hiding in a closet, hearing the slow approach of some threatening nightmare, the creaky sound of the closet door as you peak out, checking for safety and a glint of comforting light, is enough to make you want to stop playing, go outside, and remind yourself Amnesia just a game.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

EXP Podcast #111: BioShock 2 Debrief

This week, we board our bathyspheres to revisit Rapture. BioShock 2 was faced with the monumental task of following one of gaming’s most revered titles and it was initially met with trepidation from fans. However, the game is much more than a cookie-cutter sequel, and we spend this episode discussing the significant systemic and narrative changes it brings to the series.

Some discussion starters:

- Did BioShock 2 alter your feelings towards the original game?

- Did the moral choices in BioShock 2 carry weight for you?

- How did the game’s emphasis on defending Little Sisters impact your play style?

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:

- “Groping the Map: Pauper's Drop”, by Justin Keverne, via Groping the Elephant
- “On My Shoulder, Whispering,” by Michael Abbott, via The Brainy Gamer
- Run time: 38 min 04 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Red Letter Criticism

Plinkett’s review of Star Wars: Episode III went up over at Red Letter Media recently, thus completing the massive critique of the ill-fated Star Wars prequels. For those who have never watched one of these things, they provide in-depth analysis of where the Star Wars prequels failed in regards to storytelling and film making techniques. If you have an extra hour or so, I recommend starting with Episode I. Overall, I find them I find them both entertaining and educational. As someone without any formal training in film criticism, I always come away from a Plinkett review with a deeper understanding of the medium as well as the specific film being reviewed. Here’s a taste of the first part of the Phantom Menace review:

Most of the criticism surrounding these reviews isn’t about the analysis, but rather the shtick. The narrator is portrayed as a fictional serial killer obsessed with murdering women and eating pizza rolls. I share the opinion that it veers too-often into self-indulgence and poor taste, but I see why the deranged nerd bit exists: comedy can liven up potentially dry criticism. After watching the latest review, I reflected thinking about some of my favorite humorous-yet-informative video game critiques.

Last February, Ryan Davis of Giant Bomb, descended into his own personal Hell while trying to review Dante’s Inferno. Watching him fail over and over again without any clear explanation demonstrated the importance of “readability” in games.

The Angry Video Game Nerd sometimes falls into the same trap Plinkett finds himself in regarding shock humor, but his videos are a nice way to remember that the past was not always as magical as we remember it:

Video isn’t the only way critics break free of the old essay format. Mitch Krpata’s “handy” tutorial on Killzone 2’s sniper rifle was short, sweet, and hilarious. Kirk Hamilton’s “Fisher-Fest 2010” illustrated the uninspired dialogue of the latest Splinter Cell game using old-fashioned transcription. My favorite thing about these two pieces is their restraint: without getting overly mean or snarky, they poke fun at problems and provide insightful analysis.

I used to watch Zero Punctuation more often, but lately I feel like it’s crossed over to the Dark Side: while Plinkett’s off-color jokes and wacky editing break up the analysis, it seems like Yahtzee’s jokes are increasingly only about shock value. I have a pretty strong tolerance for blue comedy, but the scatological and sexist humor feels a bit aimless these days. There’s nothing wrong with being filthy or controversial, but there’s a difference between the way Family Guy does it and the way George Carlin did it. Crude humor is funnier if there’s a point being made.

But, to paraphrase the Dude, “that’s just, like, my opinion, man.” I’m always on the lookout for humorous analysis and I’m interested in hearing your favorite examples.