Tuesday, June 30, 2009

ZA Critique: The Path

The magazine is on break this week but I figured I might as well keep up the blog.

After an extended rest from writing ZA Critiques, I think my pace for playing games is back to a more agreeable setting. When you're writing an essay for a game every two weeks while most games still take 10 to 15 hours to beat, eventually you're going to start getting crunched. I'm also enjoying working on much longer games and taking my time with them so that I get the full experience.

A lot of digital ink has been spilled about this game and like with Braid, I opted to produce something different. Specifically, I don't really fret over the rape symbolism that much because there's not a whole lot to add. It's there if you want it to be, if you want to interpret the symbolism a different way that's possible as well.

What instead interested me was how they used your activity in the game to change the final sequence and imagery at the end. This has been done before, the prime example being the end montages from the first two Fallout games. Depending on what you did in the game, the fate of various communities would adjust and be explained. It's a sort of weird narrative device in that the game takes a big emergent narrative structure and then repeats back what you did in it. Except instead of the generic task of helping people we are speeding young girls off to their symbolic loss of innocence. And instead of a raspy narrator explaining the fate of a city we're watching a David Lynch montage of disturbing sounds and images that adjust depending on what you did.

That's pretty interesting. The fact that the design itself encourages a lot of strange, messed up behavior in which you are driving girls to their doom makes the creation of these montages a curious paradox. You, the player, are actively pursuing things that will eventually be outside your control until you finally can only watch as it is happening to you.

Or Bioshock, except it actually works here.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Why the Angry Face?

A post way back at Brainy Gamer about how all game protagonists seem to be getting meaner and darker sparked the question of why this is so appealing to people in the first place. Even as a kid I would always doodle scowling warriors and angry robots without any real motivation for making everyone scowl except that it looked cool.


A few examples of celebrity scowls and why some are appealing and others are not. A breakdown of the psychology of runway models and how their scowls actually help sell clothes. And finally, a brief reminder that looking happy is blissfully pleasant in its own special way.

I think at some point I even remembered that the post was supposed to be about video games.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Wallace & Gromit in Fright of the Bumblebees

One of the things I most appreciate about TellTale is how their games always have a sense of rhythm. The challenge of the puzzles is paced with the narrative so that by the end, when you're ready to wrap it up, the game makes this easy to do. Everything follows a logical process and failing that, the hint system always kicks in at just the right time with just enough of a tip without giving it away.

Their take on Wallace & Gromit pretty much hits the nail on the head. It looks and plays like an episode of the show that puts me right into their perspective. Although other reviews seem to want to bitch about the game not making them breakfast in the morning and doing their taxes, I keep thinking of the same thing I said in my Sam & Max Season 1 review.

It's an adventure game, it's okay for it to be different.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The New Games Journalism

The first time someone told me that I was using NGJ style I told them I only used the first person when absolutely necessary. My impression of the style back then was that it meant writing a first person essay pretending you are actually the avatar in the game. A little bit of digging and I found out that there were quite a few definitions of the concept floating around. It means rambling about yourself instead of the game. It means explaining the specs of your system and how your tactics worked. It's a gamefaq, it's fan fiction, or it's just a great story.

If you asked me now, I think I would just explain it as incorporating a discussion of the actual experience of the game itself into your essay. Which is simple on the surface, but much more interesting once people start really talking about the things they've seen in virtual worlds.

Kieron Gillen was awesome about answering any questions I had and Rock, Paper, Shotgun was an easy resource for finding quality NGJ work.

You might as well see what all the fuss is about.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Getting Burned Out on Games

Before we begin, I'd like to congratulate HarassmentPanda, author of the excellent video game law blog Laws of Play, for the banner he created. Thank you very much to all other contributors, I know it was an act of kindness and I really appreciate the wild stuff that got sent in.

On with the week's post.

It's always an awkward topic to bring up the concept of getting burned out with someone who plays games. Many folks are used to being told that they're a waste of time (usually by someone who watches a lot of reality TV) and don't exactly want to say that they get sick of games. Instead the game is labeled bad or you get someone explaining that all video games have officially ceased to be fun. There's the added caveat that with contentious children who cannot accept critical opinions of their favorite game, well, admitting you get tired of video games is just another bullet to use against you.

Like most of you, I obviously enjoy video games. It's just a matter of accepting the fact that I get sick of them sometimes. Not all of them and not any particular genre (I'll play anything once) but rather just the huge time commitment they involve.

It's not really a problem of ALL games being too long, it's just that a lot of games are too long for their actual game design. Take the FPS. How long is running around shooting stuff going to actually stay entertaining and new? When is it eventually just going to become a grind because you know everything about the game design? Far Cry 2 got away with it for about fifteen hours, games like Call of Duty pace better but they still go on too long. The gold standard of brevity in the FPS, Portal, is not just a model game because it's fun or it has a clever design. It's the right length so that by the end, you're about done with it. There is some designer term for this, chunking I think, but I'm rushing out the door to work and would rather admit to being wrong now than have it happen in the comments.

There's lots of problems with pointing out the reality of this. People dropping 60 bucks for a game that's the proper length (see Wanted) are going to be pissed about the principle of the matter. Price drops, social change, and the growing recognition that lots of the people who play games do not have buckets of free time are all factors keeping this back.

There is a very kind group of people that are actual writers connected with the industry or who work in games that are always very eloquent and polite with me. I asked around and decided to see what they thought of getting tired of playing games.

Bless them.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Final Call for Banner Stuff

Alrighty, thanks for the interest folks. Like I said, payment will be a point gift on the game service of your choice once I pick one. 20 bucks (American) sound good?

Willingness to tweak and make a few changes to the banner are also a must, but it won't be anything time consuming. If you got em, post in the comments below and I'll pick one by tommorow afternoon. Make sure there's some way for me to contact you (via your blog, twitter, etc.) so we can work out the tweaks. Points given upon receiving final, tweaked banner.

I'll pick one on Monday when I get back from a long trip to the woods.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Parables of Gaming

As another salvo in the ongoing campaign to commit career suicide, an article that will in no way be controversial or tick anyone off. The Youth Minister at my church also happens to enjoy video games so we ended up playing a lot together. The Escapist got to asking for an article about religion & games, so we end up talking shop a lot.

I expanded the issues tackled beyond merely how he would use games to teach religion and also criticized current religious games and various gauges for morality religious websites use. Given the choice between writing something tepid and being bold, I predictably opted for the latter.

If you are going to visit Paris, you may as well go see the Tower.

The Hipsters of Gaming

I've never cared much for the terms hardcore or casual. From their nebulous origins to today, where they are chiefly used to define something that is not on the Wii, the terms have always reeked of PR bullshit. Whether it's used to defend a mindless brawler's lack of any innovation by saying it's for the "hardcore" or to dismiss a person's gaming tastes because they don't relish in FPS titles, the term mostly gets thrown about as a defense. Companies wishing to justify making yet another game in genre X that brings nothing new to the table will claim that they are supporting the hardcore. Games that do not support a 90's aesthetic of empowerment fantasies are considered casual. Games that do not play on a certain console are considered casual.

The problem, with either term, is that they are not defined by what they are. A game with cute graphics is not automatically casual nor is a game with mountains of complexity automatically hardcore. These terms are mostly applied by the community and press to impose an aesthetic and sense of appeal in a game.

The issue I take with this is that defining yourself by what you are not is a never-ending process. The hardcore aesthetic, if it continues unabated, will continue to marginalize itself into steadily more irrelevant and more unpopular standards. Kieron Gillen made a similar point in an Escapist article way back (which I can't seem to find) with a different analogy: the hardcore is becoming the equivalent of 80's rock. I opted for a nastier comparison.

You don't need a weather man to tell which way the wind is blowing.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Actual Art Patronage

Okay, in lieu of this week's post, something has just popped into my head. Can anyone make a Banana Pepper Martinis Banner for this blog? Just a JPEG that's in the same spirit of the above images: a bunch of weird photos, strange background, Banana Pepper Martinis written somewhere, and you have to keep Thalia on the far left. She's the Muse of Comedy. Yes, it has to be that image of her specifically. Otherwise, I'm open to suggestions.

I'll figure out which one I'm going to go with (if this actually works) and gift you some points on your game downloading service of choice. WiiWare, Steam, that kind of thing. I'm still broke, so don't expect much, but I consider this a worthy investment.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Moving Pixels

I've been really happy with the new faces appearing at Moving Pixels lately and I just wanted to mention them for anyone who hasn't checked around the blog.

My current editor, G. Christopher Williams, plans to start alternating the monthly column with me and has just put up a discussion on creating a sense of roleplay in games. Nick Dinicola seems to have taken up residence on the Friday slot and has delivered four interesting posts so far. The necessity of having the romantic interest be the secondary character in Gears of War 2 is my personal favorite but more is to come.

The thing I have always enjoyed about Popmatters is that they do not expect the video game writers to go into some dark corner of the website while other mediums like films or books are given more respect. A column about an indie band gets the same treatment as one about an old video game. Same with features and blogs. This can be seen throughout the writers and critics there and it shines through whenever a writer discusses their favorite topic. They don't just have to persuade a like-minded person, they have to deal with every kind of fan and pop culture aficionado.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Female Archetype

A post over at Brainy Gamer lamenting yet another year of male empowerment fantasies in video games reminded me to finally post this.

Back when I was doing researching for the Jung piece I had originally intended to write about female empowerment archetypes along with male ones. After flipping through several essays and sources, the best book I found was Clarissa Pinkola Estes Women Who Run With the Wolves. Finding a pack to belong to, self-preservation instincts, the body, territory, motherhood, etc. It mixes mythology, religion, and psychology in precisely the same manner that Joseph Campbell and others have used to describe the male psyche. Out of all the stuff I looked through, it seemed like the best bet.

I gave up on writing the essay because, like I said in Part 4, I'm not equipped to really understand much of it. Mary Shelley made a very good point about men in Frankenstein when she explained that childbirth, to a man, seems to mostly involve stitching people's flesh together and then wandering off. In my case, that's pretty accurate. God only knows how I'd connect that to playing a JRPG or Civ 4.

I just wanted anyone to know whose interested that the research and work is there.

Art Patronage in Games

It's always interesting what kind of market scenarios will induce innovation in a medium. Saturation, for example, means that in order to stand out you're going to have to do something new. As the FPS reaches an all-time glut, companies are trying to do more innovative content or game designs to stay distinct. Another example would be reducing the costs of production so that the barrier for the more eclectic artists is not quite so high. As the indie scene continues to expand and outpace AAA games, it's impressive that the only thing holding many folks back is simply motivation.

Which can be a very tricky thing to maintain. It's hard to justify the labor, particularly the massive amounts that go into games, when you're not getting paid. It's even harder when the thing you're making is strange and probably won't sell. And yet it's those kinds of games in particular that need to be made the most right now. You don't need thousands of people to think your game is awesome.

You just need the one person who can foot the bill.