Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Making a Better Spectator Game

I swear I wrote this post before AHoG, although I ended up going in a pretty different direction from Lowood's lecture on whether or not playing a game is poetic in the sense an athlete is poetic.

This was inspired, in part, by a notion Jim Rossignol brought up in his book but I thought warranted a closer look. Most e-tournaments are dull. I don't mean like they aren't interesting or that complex things aren't going on, just that it's not particularly exciting. So I got to thinking about why I watch real sports when essentially I'm just as apaethetic to them as I am an e-sports event. Gambling, booze, social conventions...I gloss over it all while trying to point out that variety is also a huge factor. I'm pretty sure if they just modified Fantasy Football to cover an e-tournament they'd probably have their ratings sky rocket.

Is there anything gambling doesn't improve?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Literary Merits of Dante's Inferno

The first person to actually get me interested in Dante’s Inferno was Simon Ferrari, though I don’t think he intended his breakdown of the game’s offensive and bizarre PR campagin to have that effect. Back before anyone knew much about the game, Ferrari theorized that EA was covering up for a mediocre brawler by having an outrageous series of campaigns that would get the gossip blogs talking. That caught my interest because that wasn’t my understanding of what a major publisher did with a game it did not believe would sell. They usually just throw it under the bus. I mentally filed the game under the ‘Odd Behavior’ folder and moved on. I wonder if, looking back now, they were instead trying to cover up the game’s literary aspirations. Nothing says fun to kids like old books, after all.

The people who made this game did their homework. They knew that the best literary adaptations in video games ditch the original book’s plot and keep the setting. To make sure this happened they borrowed from every great artistic depiction of the poems and recreated many of them in lush 3-D landscapes. They knew that the best design for creating a sense of place is a third person game, one where you can see your avatar interacting with the space so that we experience the world’s limitations vicariously. They understood that the appeal of The Divine Comedy is hearing about all the grotesque punishments Dante conceived of and debating who deserves to go there. They brought out all these elements with visuals and clever design quirks. While playing this game I kept a ragged, heavily marked up copy of the poem next to me at all times and had a blast. Finding this little bit of trivia or figuring out where they were getting a particular line from became a kind of weird literary treasure hunt. I think there was some brawling in there but I don’t remember much about it except that I watched the ‘Pillar of Death’ attack more than any person should have to.

I mumbled on Twitter a few months back that I thought Dante’s Inferno was going to be one of the most important video games of 2010. Like Far Cry 2 it is divisive, difficult to play, and flawed. Like FC2 it is bland when it emulates the traditional norms of game design and like FC2 it is uncompromisingly bold when it strikes out into new territory. As a brawler it is not particularly impressive and bears the marks of a genre that has yet to significantly evolve in ten years. As a game with aspirations to recreate a famous place from a literary work through interaction, set pieces, and meta-narrative it is possibly the best game of its kind.

If only because it’s the only game of its kind.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Moving Pixels Podcast

Hey! Rick Dakan along with the rest of the staff have started a podcast and it's up at Popmatters. G. Christopher Williams, Nick Dinicola, and Thomas Cross are all in there as well. They discuss their impressions of storytelling in games and how that trend has developed alongside the medium. I had to sit this one out because I'm up to my eyeballs in BAR review crap and honestly, I'm a bit of a frag job these days.

I like that they engage with it from a design perspective. Player motivation to keep going, how memorable a story is, and basic elements like setting & character along with presentation.

Give it a listen.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

RedLetterMedia’s Spin on the Crazed YouTube Reviewer

I think it was Chris Dahlen who said that a Youtube video or webcomic about video games, even a shitty one, gets more clicks than a well-written essay. I can’t remember the context for that statement but that part has stuck with me for a while. Kids today simply respond better to visual media and I don’t blame them. It’s more accessible, requires less thinking, and it’s easier to balance out humor while still making a larger point. Most gaming websites (or at least the ones I regularly read) have picked up on this effect and capitalized on the market. Hell, I’ll bet a hundred bucks that a video of me sitting in my bathrobe screaming at Shiren the Wanderer and knocking crap over would get more views than my average posts.

For the most part, this is a new craft and finding people who can make it work is not the norm. When I do stumble on someone doing something interesting with Youtube I like to do a write-up on them because most of these folks don’t get nearly as much credit as they deserve. Since they keep referring to the video game section of Popmatters as Multimedia, I figure I might as well take them up on it. Dictionary.com defines it as, “the combined use of several media, as sound and full-motion video in computer applications.” With limitations like that, is there anything I can’t write about that’s on the internet?

Red Letter Media is a prime example of someone negotiating all the inherent difficulties of creating an educational video without becoming tedious or having more jokes than actual content. He’s able to pull this off for a couple of different reasons but I think the core value, which we talked about over e-mail, is that deep down inside this is still a pedantic rant.The original video he crafted was a long, droning discourse on why the TNG films are terrible. He also likes to produce comedy videos or even his own stand-up. The foundation is still the pedantic rant, but he knows that for anyone to listen it also has to be entertaining. That’s the Devil’s bargain every Youtube or video reviewer strikes.

Watching the videos for yourself will do a better job of showing the quality work than me jabbering about it. Don’t be put off if you think he’s being too comical in the opening sections. Almost all of the videos start off hilarious but by the half-way marker, he knows you’re listening to the meatier portions more.

I really should consider that Youtube video thing…

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Ubisoft's Imagine Series

I'm at a conference this week, but it ain't GDC. It's something I have to do to get my lawyer license so it's not exactly a riveting intellectual experience. Lots of people telling awful disbarment stories, ominous reminders of how my entire lifestyle will soon be changing, and the very ugly reality that the legal business is not doing well.

I explain how this post came about in the beginning just because it's such an odd thing. There are different posts about these games but most of them are content breakdowns. The games are so blatantly stereotyping young girls that I just did a quick recap of how that works and instead focused on the actual mechanics themselves. How do these things play? Are they any different from games targeting other groups?

The final answer is up for debate but most of this stuff is just RPG mechanics set in different content. Instead of kill things you perform some other grind activity, money buys decorations or equipment, and you nicely progress along a reward scheme towards a final goal. Even decorating stuff, the one consistent design across all 3 games, is located in plenty of other titles. It's odd to me because it really shows how much an activity is defined by the content rather than what you're actually doing.

I still kinda want to play the one about being a Music Festival Organizer. Loved those things back when I was younger.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Troubleshooting Review

I wrote this a while back to try and get myself to write something slightly risky. I dunno if it's law school or what, but often I feel like my writing starts to feel excessively safe. Not in the sense of being overly-friendly or not saying anything batshit, there's plenty of that to go around. I mean just posting something that I don't really know what the response will be. I'm not always right when gauging the interweb's reactions but I can usually narrow it down to what ballpark I'm going to land in.

This post, instead, was just me spotting a problem that I'm not really sure will ever have a final definitive answer and throwing one out on the table anyways. As games begin to rely heavily on dialog trees, QTE's, and branching paths a reviewer can't really presume that one playthrough of a game is going to fully describe it. Time constraints make it so you also can't expect them to play the game repeatedly, leaving you with a weird problem of what exactly one is supposed to discuss when reviewing a video game.

All I propose is to just think of them like machines that produce experiences instead of experiences themselves. A lot of reviewers already do this, almost all academics I've met do. A more design-centric approach is nothing new, but what it means for a reviewer is to put a bit more effort into actually seeing if you can break the game. So many people who review games are accustomed to gaming's conventions that they often aren't really accurately describing how the game will work for someone new to the genre.

I'm guessing the reaction will be interesting.