Friday, October 30, 2009

Our House Party!

Been a long week and all signs indicate the next week is going to be worse, so I forgot this went up the other day.

The notion of a video game being a commercial is one of those things that you'd expect to see more of. Product placement in MGS4 or that creepy Burger King game aren't really the most effective examples because it's just a content job. I mean more on the scale of 1980's commercials where you watched GI Joe or The Smurfs and then the toy commercials broke things up. For a game, a product that you use heavily in the game would have a counter-part in reality that you could buy. Avatar clothing, cars, watches, etc.

That's mostly just me babbling though. Our House Party! is a Home Depot commercial that has you visit the store for stuff you don't really need in the game. While I'm not fond of someone selling me something while I play, it's hard to not notice they aren't really doing it right here.

It's otherwise a mediocre board game / mini-game collection.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


It's funny, it has been a winding road through all of these different books. I started with a book on engineering design principles, then moved on to the effects of those ideas in media via unit operations. A closer look at the nature of visual representations of those systems was followed by an exploration of how much those visuals need to hide about the system and what they should let us see. Then a comparison between two books about what effect, if any, these systems can have on a person. Next, a discourse on how the unit operations are the foundation and the rest is stacked on.

I have read a lot of f***ing books about video games this year.

It's interesting to me the surprising variety of interests that you find digging around this field. I pointed out a few posts back that video games are very handy for talking about metaphysics because you've got millions of people engaging with stuff that isn't real. Sitting and jabbering about how we don't really know what courage or virtue is can be a difficult dialog because most people are content with "I know it when I see it." Asking someone why they give a damn about their score in a video game that will get them talking. It's equally surprising that the principles of engineering connect to all this because designing something that isn't real is arguably tougher than designing something that you can hold in your hand. And how do we represent all of this? What, precisely, is the best way to show someone leveling up? How do we design that so that it feels more real? Is the plot what gets people to connect or is it the design? Can it be both?

For all these damn books, I've got more questions now than when I started out.

Espen J. Aarseth's book Cybertext is an argument for finding a new method for discussing these systems that isn't confined to just the plot or just the design. Spinning terms like 'ergodics' and arguing that some kinds of books are literally explored instead of just read, it is stunning to read something like this knowing it was written over a decade ago. What did he have to work with? Text adventures? A few platformers? Much of it has aged, but most of it we're still arguing about even today.

You may as well check out one of the biggest milestones in this debate.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Women's Murder Club: Games of Passion

As the review season launches into full gear, I always find myself opting to play the stranger titles for review. There's a lot of reasons for this, I'm more likely to get the game than an AAA title everyone on staff wants, but I also like to push my boundaries as a gamer. We all have our genres that we prefer. I like a good FPS (though I'm taking a break from them), I'll always make time for an RPG, and adventure games are always good for a dose of my childhood. I also don't feel like dealing with a wave of people brainwashed by hype when I tell them a game is just another AAA no-risk game that isn't worth 60 bucks.

The biggest reason though, particularly when dealing with something I know is going to be shovelware, is to play a crappy game. Almost all reviewers and critics that I read suffer from a quality bias. If all you do is play highly polished, sophisticated AAA games or acclaimed indie titles then you're only playing the cream of the crop. This leads to a lot of nitpicking. Complaints that the controls "could be smoother" or "the story is a bit dull" are all a bit grating because these are highly personal, impossible to perfect attributes.

Basic achievements like the game working, having a coherent story, and me not wanting to quit after ten minutes of play are all things that are difficult to put into words. They can only be understood when the critic has played something that induces these emotions and you're often not going to find it in a high-budget game. You might find something that doesn't induce mountains of joy, but it's the basics you still need to praise in those sorts of titles.

Sometimes to be a better critic you need to really familiarize yourself with what a bad game actually looks and plays like.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

ZA Critrique: Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor

A very kind favor to the BPM has made it so I have access to an I-pod Touch. It was stipulated that in exchange I start giving some air time to the games of my choosing on the little unit, so here we go.

So far most of the games seem to be a conceptualization of various ways of moving around space. Attempts to make more finite controls have all been unsuccessful from what I've tried, it's all just steering or moving an object about with finger motions. Which is certainly unique and I'm enjoying myself, I'm just uncertain what to think of it yet. The more games I play, the better feel and understanding I get, the better my analysis until it reaches the standards I hold myself to.

Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor was a bit of an easy break though, because it's such a brilliant little game. Mostly a spatial puzzler in terms of design, what's interesting is how it builds in a very ambiguous plot on top of this. Score junkies will love the game because of the multiplier system and how tricky it can be to get the max score. People who like a little bit of story will be intrigued by the way your avatar is both apathetic to the game's world and also what a strange human story it reveals.

If you've got an I-phone or an I-pod touch, you really need to try this one.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Two Books on Games & Violence

This post ended up going a bit awry. I read two books on video game violence to pit them against one another, but ultimately Grand Theft Childhood didn't really attack the position that games make you aggressive but rather took it back to inconclusive. I already knew that, anyone who half-way thought about the research claiming there was a connection knew that. Even old judges who have never played a game in their life and highly dislike them will acknowledge that it does not meet the burden of proof.

Both books instead engage in an elaborate looking in on video game culture without really engaging with it themselves. Researchers are "shocked" to discover that kids don't actually take what they're doing in the game seriously. People tend to use video games as an escape, which can be a sign of depression or problems at school. There still isn't much distinction between different genres in either book, nor do they bother to study much of anything besides the same generic topics that have been studied to death dozens of times. The reason I like to post studies on things like the effect games have on dreams or female avatars is that at least they're looking at something new. Until you can plug a chip into my brain to monitor my emotions, you're never going to prove games make you aggressive conclusively.

Which, by the way, is going to cause a helluva lot more trouble than any of these people seem to recognize. If a video game makes you violent, what about football? Debate team? Chess? Why is simulated combat any different from inhibited combat if it's all just adrenaline and training the brain to react violently?

At this point, I am one of these children maligned by years of games. And there are plenty more just like me.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

System Gank

Got a twofer for ya, my review of Spyborgs. It's an underbudget brawler that didn't really give me a lot to chat about one way or the other. You can see what they were hoping for but aspirations are hardly in short supply these days.

In addition to the Super Metroid piece, this week's post is on the question of when a player has broken a game design. Industry terms for this vary, I think Manveer Heir called it 'Pimping the System' while the usual term is min/max scenarios. Personally, I call it system gank after a World of Warcraft meme that I always use in law school to explain a broken law. There isn't a whole lot of concise thinking on the topic. You've got the same folks who jabber that games should remain insanely hard for everyone and blah blah blah while on the other hand you have people proposing that games should be so easy that they might as well be passive. If all I have to do to progress is press a button, what is the difference between that and a remote control?

As a consequence the handful of notes and ideas I'd written on it were rotting on the slush pile. My editor, G. Christopher Williams, asked if we wanted to do a roundtable chat one week and I mentioned it. I put out a post, then he wrote one, then Nick Dinicoloa wrote a response to both of those. The end product ended up being a bit like a game of Telephone, morphing and changing the idea about as each person added their own perceptions of it.

Turned out fairly interesting, you should read all week to see the conclusion.

Tools for the Job: Asserting Femininity in Super Metroid

I originally built this piece around a couple of Laura Mulvey’s ideas about how masculine empowerment fantasy works but I ended up abandoning the notion. Approaching games from the angle of how their rule systems and plot combine means abandoning conventional understandings of scopophilia. It’s there but it doesn’t account for everything. It’s a question of the behavior that the game is inducing in relationship to what the content is broadcasting back at you. In most video games this is gibberish when it comes to female avatars, the content is telling me that I’m a sexy athlete while the design induces psychotic killing sprees that have nothing to do with being sexy. I wanted to find a game that involved a female heroine that was critically acclaimed but didn’t lapse into absolute ludonarrative dissonance and ended up going back to the classic SNES masterpiece.

Ditching scopophilia due to its purely visual foundation meant identifying game designs specifically meant for a particular gender. The leading work on this is by Henry Jenkins, which I link to in the article. This should not be confused with telling someone what they’re supposed to like or do, these distinctions are drawn across cultural norms and very old ones at that. What’s striking about Super Metroid is that it’s essentially a blending of female and male game designs. If you play the original and go up to 3, the series distinctly scales back combat in favor of puzzles. Weapons go from being novelties to intrinsic to resolving elaborate puzzles, like items in an adventure game. This is broken up with the intermittent boss battle and shoot-out, but these eventually get scaled back for the exploring. It gives what Jenkins might call a female edge over the masculine ‘pew-pew’ in the behavior the design is inducing.

Narratively, the game is essentially a spin on Aliens. Getting between a Mom and her kids is not really a good idea and the game is tugging at this idea with little bits of content constantly. The game world is literally filled with Moms & babies if you know to look for it along with more than a few vaginally shaped death rays. It deviates at numerous points from any strict recreation of the film, instead drawing out the aspects that it needs to create a video game about similar themes.

Special thanks to Kateri for looking over the rough draft and offering a lot of helpful suggestions with all this.

To me, it’s still the leading example in the industry of how to do a female protagonist right.

Friday, October 2, 2009

DiRT 2

My review for DiRT2 is up. Very good game, though I think the genre is inherently always catering to a core audience. Casual racing games with undemanding physics opt for eccentric courses and probably a fair number of wacky power-ups to keep it interesting. This game is both a nod to catering to a broader audience while still keeping the core principles in place: good driving is required to get anywhere in this game.

Lots of variety in the race courses and what is easily the most beautiful scenery I've seen in an Xbox 360 game (though I understand it's easier to pull this off in a racing game) are all nice additions as well.

If this is your thing, you need to get in on this game.