Friday, May 29, 2009

Plants vs Zombies

Racing around with my head off this morning after two long nights in a row. It's a Tower Defense game mixed with Magic: The Gathering's unit system. All of this is done in charming graphics and with a great deal of style. It has, as of this writing, supposedly sold more copies than Bejeweled 2.

Good stuff.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

King's Quest VI

I think we're all probably tired of the "Oh yeah" gag at this point.

Dividing up articles and features on a website or newspaper always felt a bit like an Upton Sinclair Concrete Jungle arrangement. In the book he jokes that the factory will take two of the exact same kinds of meat and label them differently. Meat A is sold for double what Meat B is by having nicer wrapping and only sold in fancy shops. On the internet, dividing up columns and blogs seems very similar to me. It's all still just content.

But if I call it a Column and get it a bigger image on the website, it gets more clicks and more exposure than if it was just a ZA essay. I'm not complaining about the system, it just seems like a throwback to an old way of organizing information. In the eyes of Google, it's all the same. After today the blog will go handily into the vast, vast archives of Popmatters and will be stumbled upon intermittently by people reading up on the game. I suppose it's just a matter of keeping one foot in the present and one in the future when you're arranging these kinds of things.

At this point I'm thinking about taking a break from the ZA series and just doing culture commentry for a while. I've played a ton of games the past few months and would like to casually enjoy one again. Mass Effect was fifteen bucks in a bargain bin and is proving to be just as good as people have been claiming.

The piece is an exercise in taking a more contextual and historical approach. I'm going to claw my eyes out if I read another Joseph Campbell essay, so when dealing with a content heavy adventure game I decided to do something new. How the games had been evolving, Roberta Williams and her goals, how the narrative is working, etc. I'm a little nervous because I'm coming in the day after this ridiculously awesome piece on Final Fantasy 8.

For all the scrabbling and emphasis on previews for games no one has played yet, writing about old games is continuing to be far more valuable in the long term if you're willing to put the work in. No one is going to read a preview for a game after it has been released.

Nostalgia, however, lasts a very long time.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

ZA Critique: Rez HD

I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

- Frank Herbert, Dune

I've always been surprised at the strange places that little gem of a quote will come up. It's something I had memorized for a long time and that I would say to myself whenever things were getting bad. Getting lost while hiking, confronting an employer, or just when I heard a strange sound at night.

The first time I had the inspiration to use it as a mantra was from a rock climber I met out in Utah. I was laying sandstone for the SCA and building a staircase in Dinosaur National Monument. The guy had the entire quote written into his helmet. Another time it was a snowboarder in Lake Tahoe who had it customized onto his board. An attorney I met while working for the government was repeating it to himself before his trial began.

In the book it's the mantra of a sisterhood of extremely disciplined women who repeat it to themselves while they undergo their training. The counter-point to the sisters, the Mentats, are a group of men who rely purely on logic. Guzzling a kind of liquid adderall, one repeats,

It is by will alone I set my mind in motion. It is by the juice of Sapho that thoughts acquire speed, the lips acquire stains. The stains become a warning. It is by will alone I set my mind in motion.

One is a dogma of empowerment, the other is of liberation. The Mentat in the book, fully believing in his own superiority, ends up betraying the protagonists and getting himself killed by his own hubris. It is the sisterhood, and the young child they train, who go on to challenge the Imperial Order. The quest for power ultimately becomes an act of fear in the book, an action of insecurity instead of necessity. The Hero does not challenge the Emperor because he is more powerful, he challenges him because he is not afraid.

So it was with great pleasure that I heard the quote again on the fifth level of Rez HD. The game draws on a beautiful combination of music and visuals, techno and meditative cultural images, to create what is still one of my personal favorite titles.

Fear is the mind killer.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Well Played 1.0: Video Games, Value and Meaning

I had the great pleasure and fortune to participate in a collection of essays organized by Drew Davidson titled Well Played. It's hopefully the beginning of a long series of collected essays on games with a more refined sensibility and I'm delighted to take part in it. I skimmed a few of the other essays (I'm going to read it once I have it in print) and was happy with what Davidson accomplished: a diverse collection of writing styles on gaming. You can find designers dealing with mechanics, story tellers working with advanced methods for generating meaning, and other styles of criticism for popular games. The list of writers includes:

Kirk Battle (L.B. Jeffries), Mia Consalvo, Greg Costikyan, Patrick Curry, Drew Davidson, Corvus Elrod, Noah Falstein, Clara Fernandez-Vara, Mary Flanagan, Nick Fortugno, James Paul Gee, Charles Herold, Clint Hocking, Katherine Isbister, Nick Montfort, Doris Rusch, Jesse Schell, Brett Shelton, Mark Sivak, Seth Sivak, Kurt Squire, Jason Vandenberghe

You can download the book for free here or order a print copy here.

For my part, I wrote about Rockstar's Bully. It's a game that was important to me both because of what an intense subject it engages with (being a highschool student) and the fact that all of it takes place at a boarding school. As a kid I was shipped off to a co-ed boarding school and was impressed with how much they nailed the experience. The essay mixes my personal impressions of what boarding school was like and how the game generates those emotions through the design. Having tried most of Rockstar's other sandbox games, I don't think any of them even come close to the ambition, clever writing, or audacity that this game reaches for and succeeds at.

The essay was written a long time ago and was one of my first experiments with writing game criticism. I had the insight to revise it back in February before Davidson published the book, so I'm pleased with most of it, but I've come a long way in terms of technique and understanding.

Also, yes, that's my real name. I opted for using a pseudonym 3 years ago when I stopped running a private website because I didn't want my writing or opinions to be constrained by worrying about real life repercussions.

Considering that I can be a real asshole sometimes, this seemed like a good career move.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Illusionary Choices in Games

Work is tough but good, I basically read and research all day. I'm drained by the end of it all so I may be slipping off in terms of reading websites and commenting on blogs. All things considered, maybe that's for the best. Regular Tuesday postings will continue along with several of the side projects I mentioned that I'll get written over the weekends when I'm not working.

This piece is a strange combination of philosophy and legal principles, but it's basically just a collection of different false choices. How you fake them, what makes them fake, and why they are not considered real decisions. With all the chatter we do about choices in games, I figured this would be an interesting topic.

It might irritate you to find out how many choices in games are, technically, not choices at all.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

ZA Critique: Bejeweled 2

This was originally a concept I was working on earlier to try and identify game design archetypes that weren't so heavily male oriented. I got to a point where I was comfortable with the one that Bejeweled and other match 3 games revolve around, the chaos archetype, but eventually opted for a different approach.

Our psychological relationship with randomness is a very deep and unconscious one. According to Jungian chaos theory, people are drawn to putting together randomized systems simply because that is what the brain does everyday. My favorite quote (the piece is rife with them) was about how it's like waking up and finding out that it's raining. You have to put together the scrambled pieces and Bejeweled 2 taps into that.

I'm not sure this archetype covers something like Diablo 2 item drops or MMORPG's though. There is a fundamental difference between sorting through chaos and pulling the lever on a slot machine, but I'm not sure what. I tried reading some stuff on gambling addiction but they practice a similar method to AA in that abstinence is the best cure. As a consequence, there isn't much discussion on why people gamble but I'm all ears if someone has any thoughts.

Juul and Kapalka explaining the design and certain choices, the chaos argument, and my own rambling.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Travelling in Video Games

Well, I've had my ceremonial 'Running of the Brain Cells' and celebrated the end of exams. Today will be a complete bust, regular functions will resume tomorrow.

Did a summary of different modes of traveling in games and their arguments. I've been wondering what to call these pieces which are basically information aggregates but with an argument or setting behind them. There are so many websites that do these weekend round ups now but without any particular theme or topic it struck me as an interesting experiment to try and have an agenda with those links.

It drags in the middle but comes out alright in the end.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Movies with Buttons

I feel like it's the end of a TV Season or something for me. The summer is about to begin, these God awful exams will stop making it necessary for me to guzzle Red Bull and argue about every little thing, and I'll have to think up a new concept arc for a series of articles. My last exam is Monday and then I plan to catch up on all the blogs I haven't read and produce a ton of copy before my job starts.

As many people can vouch, working a full-time job as opposed to school is a bit of a gear shift. My output is probably going to slow considerably, so I need to get as much of a headstart as possible to get through the summer. Back when I worked for the government I would be so burned out when I got home, I had to start waking up at 5 a.m. and writing for an hour before the day sucked me dry. Once the summer is done I've got one more year of school left and I hope to do something special with that chance to write. I also have to focus on getting a job when school is over and depending on how that goes, passing the BAR.

I'm planning on using this brief window to branch out on the topics I've covered so far at Popmatters. An article on William Gibson's Spook Country, some work with other fiction, some film pieces. I'll be keeping the regular gaming blog posts and plan to produce several columns on games but I just need to stretch my legs a bit. Games are a very rewarding topic to write about but as with my law papers, I thought I'd remind people that I do write about stuff besides video games. Don't be too alarmed though, the main reason I started writing about games 2 years ago was that when I came home from work that was all I wanted to do most nights. Some things just never change.

Gah, it's already getting hot in the South with ladies wearing the short dresses and guy's never quite finding the appropriate pair of shorts. I like a good day on the beach with beer, but heat has never suited me that much. I think it's because I'm ungrateful for it. Since it never gets cold in South Carolina you start to just think of summer as a kind of bully who won't let other people get on the stage. Somehow I've got to figure out a way to live somewhere that has actual seasons.

Oh yeah, I wrote a big essay about how games and movies don't really have anything in common and shouldn't be treated the same way.