Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Modern Warfare 2's Multiplayer Map Style

Slight schedule adjustment: I have enough posts to last until May now. I seem to have taken a liking to writing about games, although I'm phasing out just about everything else. I gave up Twitter for Lent and I'm starting to feel guilty about it because it was a pretty easy thing to give up. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, if you ain't paying rent you ain't getting a room.

This week's post is one tackling the multiplayer elements of Modern Warfare 2. I was touched by the various blogs struggling with claiming 'No Russian' meant something but it was just the cherry on a big sloppy mess to me. Nobody who actually plays MW2 gives a shit about the single-player component of these games. Out of the dozen or so people I've spoken to about that section of the game, most complained about not being able to run during the opening.

I interviewed and relied heavily on e-mails swapped with Simon Ferrari and Iroquis Pliskin for this piece, along with actually coughing up the cash for the strategy guide. After spotting a lot of the problems with the Halo 3 post I needed them to balance out my views. A lot of it was confirming what I'd spotted myself while playing, so I used two choice quotes at the end rather than try to balance out their input with my own.

Basically, MW2 is a map game. You learn the map, you get in position, you shoot people. That has its merits as a design and is really just a spin on what the FPS has always been about. In Goldeneye you ran to the armor or the good gun, in Halo 3 you ran for the right weapon, and so on. If anything, the game is depressingly commercialized because it will taper out so rapidly once the majority of players know the terrain. It will be too difficult for someone new to play.

Which will probably happen...oh...about when the next COD game comes out.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Peak of the Mario Franchise

I have no idea how to discuss 2-D platformers. We all play them. We play them a lot. Sonic, Kirby, Commander Keen, etc. But what am I supposed to say about them? You can engage in an intensive breakdown of the design elements but the problem is that the first rule of a well-designed 2-D platformer is that you should be intuitively sensing the spaces and actions. Any content analysis of this style of game is going to be dubious at best for the same reason. The purpose of a platformer is that you’re using a set of abilities to engage with environmental puzzles that impede your progress. Obviously I love yapping about content if the game’s design actually works with it or it’s relevant to progressing in the game, but the 2-D platformer has more in common with Tetris than it does a brawler, FPS, or RPG.

My pick for Bestest Mario Game Like Evar is Super Mario World, but that’s because I still play the game obsessively when I’m upset and need to not think. It’s a detox game to me, one that I come back to every couple of years and play from scratch to 100% completion. Mario games were a good place to figure out why this title drew me in and others did not because there are so many styles and variations. They always change the games, but just a tiny bit each time. What I concluded was that because of the way the powers and Yoshi were a bit unbalanced, I ended up enjoying the game because it let me choose how I wanted to engage with the environment. Mobility is always the power under debate in a platformer and I liked Super Mario World because it didn’t try to limit my freedom.

This post bothers me because I know there are rough edges present, but I’m not sure where they are. That’s the annoying thing about the critical process. If you want to propose a new approach, there isn’t much chance of getting it right the first time. You just have to dive in and hope for the best.

People will let you know what they think of it soon enough.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Problem With No More Heroes 2

Charles J. Pratt made an interesting point to me during the after-party of AHoG about my discussion of Retro Game Challenge over at Brainy Gamer. He disagreed with my comment that the game essentially took 8-bit classics and “fixed” them. To paraphrase his argument, they simply modernized their design to suit this era’s tastes. While I thought they had fixed all the broken elements of Galaga to make a much smoother game, he claimed they took out all the things that made the title what it was. A design aesthetic is never improved, simply changed to suit another person’s tastes.

That’s a concept I’m continuing to struggle with as I find myself steadily more perplexed with mainstream games. Take something like Farmville. As companies start to plant DLC in their games and now withhold content just to make sure they can skim off the top, the question Farmville raises is how is an AAA game different in terms of purpose? It may not be fun to you, but a Zynga game and a Bioware game are both making money by convincing players to give them cash for imaginary crap in their game. One is some kind of monopoly money for buying stuff, the other is a quest you’ve never played. While people can and will argue that they aren’t even remotely similar, from a creator perspective they intrinsically have the same goal. That’s not a bad thing. This isn’t a value judgment, money doesn’t grow on trees, and it’s not like there is a lot to go around these days. It’s just a part of the overall aesthetic of an easy, accessible game meant to sell as many copies as possible. Just like every other game that has come out the past few years.

This conversation is incredibly important if the critical community is ever going to open itself up to make room for new and innovative video games. Leigh Alexander posted a very effective rebuttal to the ”NMH2 is over-designed” complaint and she also referenced this point in her Gamasutra piece, but I like her better when she’s being blunt. I cite her points in the essay to illustrate that accusing this game of losing its character is not an exercise in pining for a busted game. As I continue to struggle with how I’m supposed to feel about one of my favorite games from 2009 being an awful broken mess, the solution does not really seem to be an elaborate logic bender of ‘Bad is Good Sometimes’. If you’re going to say that bad design is acceptable, why even call it bad anymore?

During the Q&A after a talk on the parallels between the avant garde and video game development, I asked a question in response to a mod shown of Quake by a person named Jodi. He removed the graphics and barriers, but left the design in so that you moved through this elaborate abstraction of the game to create a new experiential system. Feeling the overwhelming urge to be a little bastard, I asked what the difference was between that and a game like Big Rigs. The answer is contextual intent, but that didn’t stop me from dragging the joke out all weekend to the point that I think a few folks were ready to strangle me by Saturday. Like any rhetorical device, the reverse can be said about a game that’s well-made.

What is this crap?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Art of Place in Hitman: Blood Money

After finishing up Cybertexts I found myself going back to a concept my colleague G. Christopher Williams had written about extensively in a manuscript he e-mailed me. A couple of different people have discussed the idea of approaching a game as a conceptual place but initially looking at it purely from an architectural perspective seemed flat to me. It's big 3-D building, so what?

What Aarseth argued, very successfully in my mind, was engaging with the various elements of a game as a sum total. He uses the word ergodics, which is greek for something or another, to mean a kind of textual landscape. One that you literally move around in. The concept started to click for me when I was thinking about System Shock 2 and then more extensively when I fired up Hitman: Blood Money. It's not just a 3-D building, it's the way you tuck away details into the space and how you coordinate that with the design.

This post technically represents the latest paper while I was thinking about this approach. The other is a long, wordy breakdown of psychological spaces and then one that describes this elements from purely a game design perspective. I'm probably just going to post them on here when I get around to editing them again or maybe turn into a Moving Pixels post. I figured starting off with a simple example of the concept and then expanding out to the larger points would work a lot better than just repeating my own fumblings with the idea.

Also, Hitman: Blood Money is badass and you should play it if you haven't already.

Jesper Juul's New Book 'A Casual Revolution'

Got a hold of this one over Christmas Break and plowed through it pretty quickly. A lot of it is Juul's notes and lectures from the past year on casual games compiled into a solid reference. Not all of it was totally relevant to the topic at hand, the latter portion of the book was breakdown of how match 3 games have evolved over the years which is to say they haven't really changed all that much.

The best parts of the book are when Juul gets into solid analysis of the different variations of the casual genre and interviewing their creators to see what they were thinking when they made them. He also gets rid of a lot of bad misconceptions about casual games like the notion that they are supposed to be easy or lack a fail state. As he points out in the book, the last level of Zuma will kick your ass no matter who you are. The same goes for a lot of other matching games.

Interesting book, it got me to start looking harder at the stuff over at Popcap and take a lot of Zynga games more seriously.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Rogue Warrior and the new Genre of Games

I've never actually played a game that succeeds at being a B movie experience. It's always a catch-22 because you can't intentionally be campy. There is a certain degree of honesty that must be present in the work, a degree of sincerity from the person that holds the otherwise awful experience together.

Someone on reddit commented that Rogue Warrior might be the Plan 9 of video games and I think that's accurate. It is so incredibly bad and cliched at every level yet somehow because of how serious it takes itself the game had me dying laughing the whole time. A lot of this is because Mickey Rourke is the entire game. Literally, as in he's the only person who ever talks. Four hours of him rambling about video game logic and swearing at everything while you play this awful game makes the whole thing incredibly meta. You can catch a video of the opening level here.

As different bloggers start to recognize that No More Heroes 2 kinda sucks, I think Rogue Warrior offers a strong alternative. If having clunky game design but insane content is to become a new genre, I think the defining trait will always have to be that the game is genuinely trying.

It just keeps failing so hilariously.