Thursday, September 29, 2011

No Glory for Gears

My latest PopMatters article is now live: No Glory for Gears

While the main article contains major spoilers for Gears of War 3, I'll avoid any spoilers here.
In a medium absolutely saturated with sequels and spinoffs, finales and last installments in a franchise become more significant. Can we appreciate Gears of War 3 as much if it did not some how comment on its own history, success, and failures? As I see it, Epic had a huge responsibility with this game, a capstone to a astonishingly successful, controversial, and influential franchise. This weighty burden must have come across in the game's narrative.

As is clear in the article, Gears 3 surpasses its predecessors in storytelling by a wide margin. That being said, it is still Gears, and thinks are not perfect. There are plot holes you can drive a Brumak through, and some story arcs are so shockingly convenient and unexplained, you might begin to think they wrote this script overnight. In some ways, these contrivances actually work quite nicely. Marcus and the gang are gears after all, they do respond only to the circumstance presented and seldom bother to think things over for more than a few seconds. At several points, Baird question significant plot details and then is largely ignored. The task at hand is always paramount: kill as many grubs as you can.

The killing, ie the gameplay, is as fun as ever. While I may save most of my assessment of the game for a future post, suffice it so say Epic upholds many of the feature that made the series fantastic. While I think the level design takes a step down from Gears 2, they are various enough so as to largely avoid tedium. The new weapons are not particularly interesting either, but when you have the trusty chain-saw gun, one of the weapons in any game, who can complain?

I may already be growing nostalgic for Gears, now that the series has come to an end. The story of the cogs, while not always well told, has fit so comfortably into its aesthetic environment, that its hard to call even the annoying segmens anything but a success. With this conclusion in particular, Epic has managed find a particular type of war story to match the brutality and tone of the series.

I am certain many of you have already played Gears 3. Let me know what you thought of the story in the comments section. (And be sure to mark your comments with a spoiler warning if necessary.)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

EXP Podcast #142: A New Hope in The Old Republic?

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away....Jorge and I recorded a podcast about Star Wars. Inspired by the recent announcement that the Bioware-developed MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic would indeed be released this year, we discuss our expectations and the nature of Star Wars video games in general. We've flown from one end of this galaxy to the other, and we've seen a lot of strange stuff, but finding a great Star Wars game is rare and precious thing. Many Bothans died to bring us this podcast, so make it worth their sacrifice by sharing your thoughts in the comments!

Discussion starters:

- Will Star Wars: The Old Republic become more fun than you can possibly imagine, or will it cause a great disturbance in the Force?
- What are your favorite Star Wars video games and what elements of the universe do the depict?
- Which lesser known characters or themes would you like to see in a Star Wars game?

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: 39 min 32 sec
- "Star Wars: The Old Republic Launching Dec. 20, starts at $15 per month," via Joystiq
- Wikipedia's list of Star Wars games
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The HUD and the Huddle

It's fall in the U.S., which means football season is back. After missing practically all of last season, returning to the ritual of the Sunday football marathon has been especially enjoyable. The fact that both the 49ers and Raiders are off to strong starts only sweetens the experience.

However, even when watching football, my mind never strays too far from video games. Recently, it occurred to me that football broadcasts have become increasingly similar to video games in regards to how they communicate situational information. As a way of sorting through some of the changes and challenges of designing on-screen information systems, I'll share some thoughts about the HUDs (heads-up displays) used in both video game and televised football.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Hitting Close to Home: Relating to Catherine's "Family Values"

This week's PopMatters post is about Catherine's uncomfortably-familiar story.

Plenty of people have taken Catherine to task on narrative and thematic levels. Regardless of what ending you get, Vincent seems to be one of the most hapless, unlikable characters in video game history. Most of his problems could be avoided with the slimmest shred of social competence and emotional maturity. Instead, he spends the entire game in an ill-defined personal malaise. Something is clearly wrong with him, but it's never clear what that something might be.

I think Matthew Burns is on to something when he identifies Catherine's setting as a "weird mishmash world" containing elements of both Japanese and American culture. I'd go even further and argue that Catherine is a fable for a certain segment of society in America and Japan: young adults beholden to the expectations of a world that no longer exists.

Regardless of whether Catherine takes place in America or Japan, Vincent is a member of a "lost generation." Coming of age in the midst of economic, political, and demographic catastrophes, many American and Japanese 20 and 30-somethings have realized the idealized middle-class life might be an illusion. On the bright side, they are more free than ever to marry whoever they want, whenever they want and to pursue non-traditional careers. Unfortunately, the specter of the Leave it to Beaver life looms large and success is still largely measured by one's ability to have it all: a spouse, kids, a stable job that pays the mortgage, and all the rest of Pleasantville's trappings. I speak from personal experience when I say it's a tricky balancing act.

I was excited to see how Catherine's characters would confront this problem. My interest grew as the game's villain, Dumizid, came to represent a physical manifestation of the old, idealized, sexist interpretations of the well-lived life. Here was an opportunity to explore alternatives to either a life of conformity or an aimless existence.

Disappointingly, Catherine's characters offer little in the way of heroism. It's true that art is not obligated to offer solutions to social and cultural problems, but it was extremely depressing to see Vincent and the rest of Catherine's cast choose between living by a set of unquestioned social rules or a never-ending existence of extended adolescence. Catherine's morality system offers "freedom" and "order" as polar opposites, but fails to grasp that the two concepts are both mutually reliant and made possible by personal responsibility. Catherine posits that the lost generation find their way by either living according to fallacious social mores or embracing unchecked self-indulgence.

Catherine raises the question of what it means to be an adult in a liberal, post-industrial society and offers a few options as to how to achieve a meaningful life. It's a depressing game, not only because these solutions are distasteful, but because they are familiar. My dislike of Vincent's story is personal because it hits close to home.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

EXP Podcast #141: TGS 2011 Rundown

Like some sort of radioactive monster from the sea, the Tokyo Game Show has risen and invaded Japan. This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I discuss the most interesting tidbits out of TGS, touching on a variety of subjects, from our longing for the "Japanese" aesthetic to pregnancy peripherals and the prospects for the PS Vita and the 3DS. Let us know what news caught your eye in the comments section below, and be sure to check out the show notes for some of the games we mention in the show.

Discussion starters:
- Do you miss traditionally "Japanese" games?
- What games out of TGS piqued your curiosity?
- Are you more or less excited for the Vita? How about the 3DS?

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:

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Making "Good" Games for Change

Over the past two days, a heated and lively discussion has taken place on the listserv for Games for Change (G4C), the New York based non-profit focused on so-called "serious" and social impact games. While some have bickered, the majority of the advocates, academics, and game designers contributing to the conversation have offered well-meaning insight into the dilemma of uniformly supporting the painfully vague concept of a "game for change." After all, what kind of change are we talking about here?

The topic resulted from a question by a listserv member (none of whom I will name here), asking how best to market a free online game meant to educate youth about career opportunities in the nuclear energy industry. Nuclear power, particularly in the United States, has a tumultuous history. Naturally, another user replied with a critique of nuclear power, stating that "G4C members should seriously question whether to help a game that promotes such an industry." While the decision to help is a personal one, the issues this dilemma poses is a valuable one. As another G4C member states, "the definition of 'doing good' seems to be what is under debate here."

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Sensationalist: Assessing Digital Diseases

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 PopMatters article is now live: Assessing Digital Diseases.

I mentioned my illogical fear of diseases at the beginning of this article, but as a child it was even worse. Outbreak gave me nightmares for weeks and I absolutely refused to touch my brother's copy of Hot Zone. Contagions are absolutely terrifying. They cannot be easily fought, death may come suddenly and painfully, and people you know and love can become carriers. I find few places as conceptually frightening as quarantine zones. At least games often give me something to shoot, necromorphs, the flood, zombies, etc., physical and vulnerable embodiments of disease.

I intentionally left out tactile games, some of which capture the paranoia and desperation of an epidemic. Pandemic, which I have discussed before, pits up to four players against a host of rapidly proliferating diseases. Cities on the game board can "hot zone," spreading the plague to neighboring cities, which can cause chain reactions. The cooperative game is quite difficult, and victory often comes in a moment of complete panic and mental exhaustion. The On The Brink expansion adds disease mutations, virulent strains, and even a bio-terrorist into the mix, which in combination can wreak havoc on one's sense of safety and control, a rare and delightful treat.

The aptly named Panic Station, a board game to be released later this year, evokes the same sense of paranoia, disgust, and fear created by Jon Carpenter's The Thing (probably my favorite horror film). Set in the confines of an alien occupied military base, you and your team must arm yourselves with flamethrower fuel, then seek out and destroy the hive. However, one of your teammates is a host for the alien. Even worse, this enemy menace can infect your entire crew. Before long, the sense of paranoia and isolation that comes with survival in a hot zone becomes overwhelming.

While I have yet to play Panic Station, it and a few board games like it, including Pandemic, masterfully play with the pop culture horror of disease, manifestations of the intangible real-world fears we so long to fight.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

EXP IndieCast #7: Talking Trauma with Krystian Majewski

This week, Jorge and I are pleased to welcome Krystian Majewski back to the show! Krystian is designer of Trauma, an independent game that blends puzzle solving, exploration, and interactive storytelling.

We discuss the Trauma's development process and ask Krystian about his approach to game design. We also find time to talk about everything from urban exploration to Lego robots, and we find out whether Krystian ended up with "Katherine" or "Catherine."

Unsurprisingly, we had a great time talking with Krystian and we hope you enjoy the conversation as well. Be sure to check out the links in the show notes if you're interested in Trauma, as well as Krystian's many other projects. Thanks again to Krystian, and to you all for listening!

To listen to the podcast:

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

Show notes:

- Run time: 1 hr 04 min 17 sec
- The Official Website of Trauma
- Krystian's writing on Game Design Scrapbook and Game Design Reviews
- The Monster Hunter Podcast on Social Dissonance
- Krystian's Design Portfolio Website
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Soulja Boy Silliness

Last week, I wrote a fairly serious (and lengthy!) essay about video games and art. To help make my point and to add some humor, I included a video of Soulja Boy analyzing Braid:

I didn't have room to go into all the reasons I find this clip so amusing, but I want to expand on a few of them here. Jorge and I try to strike a balance between gravity and levity in our work, and I think this video is a great example of how something can be both light-hearted and insightful.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Telling Hamlet What to Do: Video Games, Art, and Cultural Hierarchies

Brace yourselves: This week's PopMatters post is about games and art. I figure it's best to get this off my chest as we enter the big release season.

I try not to get bogged down by the "Are video games art?" question for a few reasons. There are other folks out there who have stronger philosophy and art history backgrounds. I also think that proving the case by highlighting good design and producing insightful criticism is just as important as constructing a theoretical argument. It's also easy to get sucked into a black hole inhabited by subjective statements masquerading as fact and lose sight of specific games altogether.

Fittingly, it is this last reason that prompted me to write the essay. People (myself included) often treat art as if it is akin to a physical law: "Somewhere out there is the One True Art that can be applied to all human expression!" The reality is a whole lot messier.

I use Lawrence Levine's book Highbrow/Lowbrow to demonstrate one recent example of art's ever-changing definition. In the U.S., the current concept of "high art" is a relatively recent phenomenon. By the dawning of the twentieth century, Shakespeare's works had been transformed from central pieces in U.S. popular culture into sacred icons of high culture. Along with things like classical music and the nature of museums, Shakespeare was used to solidify a change in what social elites considered "art." A cultural hierarchy that prized an artist's "pure" vision as opposed to one that could be molded and appropriated by the audience was constructed. The Shakespeare that people parodied for political satire and that audiences modified mid-performance morphed into the Shakespeare that is considered an untouchable artistic symbol.

As my editor G. Christopher Williams pointed out, this tension between the sacred and the profane (or perhaps secular?) ideas of art is not a new one, nor is Levine the first author to discuss it. For centuries, people have been writing and arguing about the impact that authorial control, democratization, and accessibility has on the things we consider art. I used Levine's study of American culture as convenient example of just how rapidly cultures change their beliefs. Spontaneously calling for a musical interlude or the extension of a fight scene in Hamlet would be unthinkable today, despite the fact that such actions were once common. The ideal form of "art" changed, and along with it our relationship to the material.

Video games pose a direct challenge to the idea of the untouchable, sacred version of art. Like early-American theatergoers, players have the ability to interact with even the most scripted material. Video games return us to a place where human expression can be a system rather than a sequence: Instead of following a single path through a film, book, or play, games explore the human condition through interactions that model our thoughts on philosophy, art, and the environment. These models are often unpredictable, but that does not necessarily mean they are less meaningful than non-interactive works; they simply don't conform to our current definition of art.

As I say in the essay: we have to be careful when arguing that games are art. All to often, we are simply chasing an ever-shifting historical illusion. Whether or not games are considered art is more of a commentary our definition of art than it is on the games themselves. The sands of time will eventually erode our current historical, ethnic, and cultural dispositions about art, but the games will remain. Therefore, we should worry less about the status of our games and instead celebrate their beauty.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

EXP Podcast #140: A Catherine Conversation

We have wrestled with sheep, turned blocks into staircases, and climbed the highest towers to bring you this Catherine themed podcast. This week on the show, Scott and I discuss the latest erotic-story-focused-puzzle game from Atlus, its cowardly and ineffectual protagonist, and its take on gender, marriage, and fidelity. As always, we encourage you to share your own thoughts on Catherine in the comments section below.

Some discussion starters:
- What do you think of Catherine's protagonist?
- Do you feel your ending fit within the story well?
- What sort of message came through Catherine?

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:

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Place and Memories of 9/11

Thomas Hoepker refused to publish the photo above until 2006, five years after he snapped this scene of New Yorkers seemingly chatting and enjoying the summer day while the city suffered and burned in the background. Of course, the reality of that moment captured in time differs from the relaxed and care-free aesthetic represented on film. Indeed, one of the men in the photograph has long since illuminated the circumstances of the scene. Regardless, the photo remains an evocative reflection on human nature in the face of catastrophe and an irreparably altered future. As Hoeker later discussed, the picture seems to ask so many questions. How could such a dramatic moment in history be met so leisurely? “Was everyone supposed to run around with a worried look on that day or the weeks after 9/11? How would I have looked on that day to a distanced observer?”

Like most people born before the nineties, I remember that day with relative clarity. I first heard about an explosion in New York from the car radio on my way to school. I was tired though, and the news was difficult to hear over the grumbling of my father’s truck, so I did not comprehend the severity of the situation until I was struck by the silence and fear pervading my high school campus. We all knew class would be canceled well before the announcement over the intercom made it official. While we waited for reality to catch up, one of my teachers rolled in a television and turned on the news. We all watched in shock until some faculty member deemed the footage too disturbing and shut off the monitor.

The rest of my memory is cloudy. I remember picking up extra editions of the newspaper and watching the news at home, but that’s it. Of course the event was on all our minds at school the next day, and for some time, but so were other trivial matters. We still had chores, and grades, and rumors, and plans to make. 9/11 was a tragedy, but even on that first day, it all felt so removed, like I merely felt the aftershocks of an earthquake centered many miles away. Other days, good and bad, have since replaced my memories of that day.
This past June I spent five weeks in New York while interning for Games for Change. I stayed in Manhattan, in the Lower East Side, and worked near Union Square. I spent much of my free time exploring the city, meeting up with friends in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and doing what so many others have done before me: falling in love with the city. While I’ll always be a Californian at heart, New York did start feeling like home.

While looking at photo collections of New York on September 11th, 2001, I realized how deeply my perceptions and memories of that day have been affected by my time in New York. I have walked those streets once shrouded in dust and debris. The fear and grief on the faces of New Yorkers strike an entirely different chord now that I have walked amongst their brick and mortar homes, chatted with their barbers and bartenders, stumbled late night through their subway turnstiles, and meandered my way across Manhattan from East Harlem to the Financial District. The photographs evoke thoughts about the history and conflict that birthed that day, and all the political ideologies and misery that grew from the catastrophe. They also now illicit a new found mix of sympathy, shock, and defensiveness, undoubtedly a response to my time in Manhattan.
 Of course I can never truly share that day with New Yorkers, but my sense of place within such a diverse and iconic city has fundamentally altered my memories and understanding of September 11th, a profound moment in history. This is where videogames intersect. Games can create a sense of place like no other medium, and this sense of place can become powerfully evocative and change the way we see the past and present. I think Inside the Haiti Earthquake achieves this with its story of the island nation and its natural disaster, and Grand Theft Auto IV to some extent with New York itself. If fantastic fictional lands can captivate us so deeply, why not immerse ourselves within digital versions of real places we barely know? If we are daring enough to build them, we may find occupying a historical place more personally significant and evocative than visiting alien worlds, their vapid landscapes devoid of the memories and weighty implications imbued in our own backyard. There are so many places for games to go and so many memories to explore anew.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Exploring the Death in The End

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Exploring Death in The End.

Call me morbid, but I am fascinated by death as a sociocultural phenomenon. An huge economy exists around death and dying, and our how we respond to our own mortality has changed over the years and reflect a great deal about our culture at large. As cultural artifacts, games provide valuable insight into some of the way we approach our imminent demise.

Interestingly, Preloaded and Channel 4 Education made The End to address what they saw as a generation of youth struggling with death in a largely secular and urban culture. As an engagement tool, games lend themselves well to a young adult audience already familiar with games and social media. I mostly overlooked The End's Facebook integration, but being able to compare answers to serious philosophical questions with your friends can be immensely powerful. As teens and young adults, we may isolate ourselves amongst our friends without ever really exploring the diversity of beliefs even within our friends circle. While playing The End, if you see your friend far away from your location in the Mystic track, you may be inclined to spark up a conversation about their choices. The game's questions are deeply personal and seldom easily answered, but game seems to create a safe place to approach the subject without demonizing the beliefs of others. As a kid, struggling with my own beliefs, I certainly would have enjoyed the type of validation and exploration of belief systems offered by The End.

I should also point out most clearly that The End is actually quite fun. Several trophies and challenges offer players reasons to test their platforming skills to the limit, and multiplayer "Death Cards" allows players to challenge each other and the AI to the hex-based puzzle game. Preloaded, the game's developers, have quite a bit of experience of working with Channel 4 on both promotional and educational games, and their experience shows. With enough compelling gameplay and some allegorical elements, they manage to wrap the subject matter around the mechanics and create an overall interesting and effective experience. The accomplished this same task with 1066 as well, their excellent game about Medieval warfare.

In modern culture, we largely avoid confronting death and dying, particularly with others. How we approach death is deeply personal, but not discussing our perception on the matter can be quite isolating. Indeed, The End is designed specifically to shatter the notion that our belief systems should remain private and unexplored. Play The End, and you may find yourself confronting death in a whole new way.