Thursday, February 24, 2011

Frustration, Failure, and Intent in 'New Super Mario Bros. Wii'

At the risk of becoming a caricature of myself, my latest PopMatters post is about one of my favorite games of 2010: New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Specifically, it's about the game's difficulty.

Last month, Jorge wrote a thought provoking post about the shortfalls of Donkey Kong Country Returns' cooperative multiplayer. Jorge and I have known each other for a long time, which means we know exactly what to say in order to goad one another into action. Master troll that he is, Jorge suggested that perhaps cooperative multiplayer doesn't belong in 2D sidescrollers, and cited NSMBW as an example of a game that fails because its high difficulty can dishearten less skilled players.

On the subject of difficulty, we are in complete agreement: NSMBW is hard, and things only get trickier when more people are involved. However, I feel that the game's knack for pointing out player inequality isn't a sign of failure, but rather of success.

Like all Super Mario games, NSMBW doesn't coddle its players. The language used to describe its rules, its gameplay systems, and the stated philosophies of its designers make it clear that NSMBW is a game that demands players own up to their mistakes and find ways to either compensate for them or avoid them in the future.

Repeated player failures and punishing difficulty often point to problems with a game's design, but there are games in which these exact features are signs that that the experience is playing out as intended. NSMBW is difficult: it's harsh on mistakes, it can be cruel to new players, and it requires a high level of skill. These truths are not flaws, but strengths; NSMBW is an example of a game that realizes the intent besides its design philosophy. Unfortunately for some, said philosophy can be pretty brutal.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

EXP Podcast #118: Dead Club Med

The trailer for Dead Island appeared last week and shook gaming enthusiasts to the core. The internet was positively elated by this emotionally provocative commercial, which you can find embedded below. Techland must be doing something right, the film adaptation of the game has already been optioned (Ed: Or not, although plans will certainly be underway). But how does the trailer hold-up to our critical gaze? What is all the excitement about? Join us this week while Scott and I discuss dead children, cultural expectations, and the art of a good trailer. You can find a slew of links in the show notes and, as always, we encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Some discussion starters:

- What did you think of the Dead Island trailer?
- Is it sound to try to enhance a game using material not find within it?
- Should Dead Island set a new precedent for successful game trailers?

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 this link. 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 in the address bar.

Show Notes:

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Seriously Spent

Any frequent readers of the site are aware of my interest in politics and the political aspects of games. I could babble on all day about human and turian antagonisms in Mass Effect 2. What I have not written about extensively on the site are my own academic interests, serious or social impact games. The genre, if we can call it that, is cluttered with a variety of different game types, from crowdsourced productive games to educational and persuasive games. The field even includes that oh so popular and deeply troubling word, “gamification.” My own studies center around global systems (I know, terribly vague) and game design, but I will save that topic for another day. For this post, I want to draw your attention to a game that recently caught my attention.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Sensationalist: Vengeance At Play

This post is part of "The Sensationalist," a continuing series here at Experience Points in which we examine games' abilities to evoke emotions and sensations in video game players. Please have a look at the series' introduction as well its previous entries.
My latest article is up on PopMatters. It discusses mankind's deep burning need to exact revenge, and explores what it looks like to see Vengeance At Play.

Admittedly, I missed a few examples of vengeance in games. The theme, in little ways, actually appears quite frequently. There are also a few that bare the term right in their titles, such as Far Cry 2 Vengeance and X2: Wolverine's Revenge. Although these are pretty awful. The games I selected explore revenge more thoroughly, giving it serious narrative weight or evoking some of the emotions encapsulated by the thirst for retribution. If you can think of any others, please share them in the comments section below.

One important topic I intentionally overlook for brevity's sake is vengeance in multiplayer games. Revenge is not really a narrative tool in multiplayer games. The desire to seek revenge after another player takes out your teammate, or you for that matter, is completely natural. Multiplayer gaming provides a relatively safe venue for homegrown vengeance.

It is interesting that some games encourage the pursuit of revenge. The Modern Warfare series features a revenge bonus every time you kill a target that recently killed you. It's an ingenious feature. With so many players in a match, one could easily miss the name of their assailant. Revenge alerts give players the catharsis they forgot they wanted. It is reassuring to know we can entertain real life revenge in multiplayer games without succumbing to the unsettling power of violent retribution.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

EXP Podcast #117: Single-player Socialites

With the ubiquity of the Internet and the popularity of social games, are single-player experiences becoming a niche genre? This week, we're happy to welcome Justin Keverne back to the podcast to discuss the role of single player games in a medium currently fascinated by group experiences. An accomplished game designer and critic, Justin helps us make sense of the relationship between single-player, multiplayer, and "social" games. We cover everything from the fourth wall, to Venn diagrams, and even the behemoth that is Facebook. As you know, the podcast isn't meant to be a single-player experience, so feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

Some discussion starters:

- Is the single-player experience a historical aberration?

- How do social components effect your experience with a game? What are the differences between a collaborative playthrough of a single-player game, online leader boards, asynchronous play, and active multiplayer?

- What types of themes are best explored in a single-player game? What are some examples of games that rely on solo experiences?

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 this link. 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 in the address bar.

Show Notes:

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Jumping Back Into Canabalt

Last week, work obligations, the dreary weather, and being sick sapped my motivation to wade into a systemically deep game. Times like these call for gaming comfort food: something that doesn't require a huge investment in time or effort, but that still scratches the familiar itch. I'm not sure what it says about my conception of "relaxing," but during times like these, I turn to 2009's intense indie-platformer Canabalt. Despite its minimalist control scheme and streamlined rule set, I've always admired the game as a testament to artistic design and as a symbol of the current trends in the medium

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Race in Rapture: Black Characters in BioShock 2 and Minerva's Den

My latest post at PopMatters is up. It’s about the black characters in last year’s excellent contributions to the Rapture saga: BioShock 2 and Minerva’s Den.

The article examines the portrayals of Grace Holloway and Charles Porter and traces their connection to larger historical and cultural themes in U.S. society. It was a pleasure to write, as it required a combination of historical, artistic, and game design analysis. Though it may seem outrageous, many aspects of Rapture’s world are only slight embellishments on our own. Though it is disturbing, I highly recommend reading about Jonestown or listening to the final “audio log” from the doomed utopia.

In my opinion, the piece’s argument is not very controversial: the explicit acknowledgement of Holloway and Porter’s race strengthens the game without turning the two characters into “token blacks.” Holloway and Porter possess distinct stories and personalities, but their experiences are also shaped by their society’s prejudices.

Some of the essay’s underlying assumptions and implications might be more controversial: In a medium whose most celebrated characters are white, games that even have black characters, let alone important ones, are unfortunately rare. Artists should be free to create whatever they want; I do not strive, nor do I wish, to favor certain stories and suppress others. However, I do think it is important to realize that “blank slate” characters are rarely empty vessels. Every choice, whether it be a character’s gender, race, hair color, or stature both provide and eliminate certain creative possibilities. Had Holloway and Porter not been black, or if the game had ignored the concept of race entirely, BioShock 2’s cultural relevance would have suffered. Rapture would be a less nuanced place, and the game would have joined many others in turning a blind eye towards the impact of diversity or by implicitly endorsing a version of “normalcy” biased towards whiteness.

Additionally, concepts such as colonialism, institutional racism, the Uncle Tom archetype, and the image of the noble protector/savage brute remain contentious. Such topics can often be uncomfortable to address, but I use them here not to establish guilt or place blame; they are integral in demonstrating how race and racism manifests itself in cultural artifacts.

In Rapture, as in our society, race matters. BioShock 2 and Minerva’s Den acknowledge this. Because of this, the games must be examined in the context of other historical and artistic works that explore black people’s experiences and their representations in popular culture.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

EXP Podcast #116: A Classic Conversation

We have traveled the world far and wide and brought back with us a special guest for this week's show. Joining us on this very special podcast is Professor Roger Travis from the University of Connecticut. In both his educational and literary work, Roger takes a fascinating interdisciplinary approach to games, history, and classics. Who could be more suited, then, to discuss Russian plans to retell national mythologies in videogames? Join us this week while we discuss practomime, games based learning, cold war villains, bardic storytelling, and the Arbiter. As always, we encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments section below. You can also find the original article and more of Roger's work in the show notes.

Discussion starters:

- Does does historical nostalgia manifest itself in video games?
- Do game makers have an obligation to accurately portray history?
- What are the narrative confines of heroic mythologies in games?
To listen to the podcast:

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

Show Notes:

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Fast Response Game Design

Did you notice that little thing going on in Egypt over the past few weeks? Apparently, there is some kind of world changing event happening. Hundreds of thousands of protesters have filled the streets of Cairo, with joint protests happening all over the country. Despite crackdowns on domestic and foreign media outlets, the world is attentive to the actions of a broad and largely united swath of Egyptian citizens. Right before our eyes, a thirty year old US backed dictatorship is being dismantled by a startling display of people power. This is fascinating history in the making. I think we should be asking ourselves how games can be involved.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Jumping Disappointment in 'LittleBigPlanet 2'

My latest article on PopMatters is now up: Jumping Disappointment in LittleBigPlanet  2.

Jumping in LittleBigPlanet 2 aside (which I'm actually alright with), the game is pretty amazing. Media Molecule's levels improve on their contributions to the first game. They still feel aesthetically unified and absolutely charming. They also fit into slightly adorable narrative and flow into each other quite well, sometimes literally through the use of level-joining portals, easing the transition between locations.

The real highlights are, of course, the sheer number of game types featured. The versus levels in particular show off what LBP 2 can do with its vast amount of features and contraptions - everything from side-scrolling space shooters to billiards. While I understand the concern that LBP 2 merely repackaged old genres, recreating sub-par versions of better games, I think it is overstated. Yes, there are a lot of crappy renditions of genre staples, which are pleasing for a brief moment before nostalgia and awe at their constructions start to fade. However, I think of these experiences, particular those created by Media Molecule, as proofs of concept. They show off a few neat aspects of the game and may potentially inspire others to create far more stunning LBP works of art.

Unfortunately, accessing the best user created levels takes some patience. Many of the great features in LBP 2, particularly the gravity changing features David Smith mentioned in his interview, have not be explored much at all. I played the first LBP a few months before the sequel launched and there are some fantastic user levels. Just imagine how great LBP 2 user created levels can be in two years time. Like the first, the game just gets better with age.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

EXP Podcast #115: Sidekicking It

Batman has Robin, The Green Hornet has Kato, Sherlock Holmes has Dr. Watson: Whenever a hero needs assistance, a loyal sidekick appears to lend a helping hand. This week, we use Brendan Main’s piece about a particularly controversial sidekick to explore how second bananas function in video games. Feel free to type up your thoughts in the comments. Alternatively, you can just tell your sidekick to do it for you.

Some discussion starters:

- On the subject of Navi: Love her or hate her?  Why?

- What are some examples of well-implemented sidekicks? Is their success tied to specific narrative or thematic elements, do they perform a specific function in the game, or is it some combination of both?

- How do multiplayer games encourage or inhibit leader/sidekick relationships? Is there a way to foster this relationship without devaluing the second player?

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, February 1, 2011

A Relaxing Ride with Fig. 8

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to play more independent and experimental games. Well, we’re officially one month into 2011 and I’m slowly-but-surely making some headway in terms of expanding my horizons. I have a bad habit of ignoring the critical side of my brain while playing browser-based games. It’s probably due to the amount of hype mainstream titles get and the fallacy that expense always means quality. To fight this inclination, I’ll try to offer some quick critiques of the smaller games I play. This week, I’ll talk about Fig. 8.