Tuesday, January 26, 2010

ZA Critrique: Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space

Twofer for ya. My review of Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles went up last week. Generally speaking, it's Resident Evil 4 without controlling where you go. The original games already made it so you can't move while your gun is out, so they were always half-way to being a light gun game anyways. Fun enough if company is over, but it seems like it would be a bit dull by yourself.

Oh, lots of things about the plot you didn't know that you didn't know are in there too.

This ZA Critique features an indie game. I realized a while back that I had never done a ZA for an indie title and I decided to change that. It's not that I ignore the indie scene (though I take my sweet time getting to some of them), it's just usually I write a review for the game instead of putting on the analysis pants.

Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space is a roguelike but based loosely around Star Control 2. Play sessions are very short, 5 to 10 minutes, and usually end with you getting blown up. It's a good example of a game that relies heavily on randomization to keep itself interesting. I borrowed heavily from a great post by Greg Costikyan over at Play This Thing! to hash out the major points. It's a bit pricey at 25 bucks, but there's no other game quite like it.

Hell, I even bought it twice after losing the first one.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Jim Rossignol's 'This Gaming Life'

The weekly post is a closer look at Jim Rossignol's newest book This Gaming Life. He makes the argument that the future of video games lies in multiplayer. While single-player games are starting to run into a brick wall in terms of possibilities, in multiplayer the possibilities are just being realized thanks to the internet. You've got the fascinating spectator culture of South Korea, the intensive global community of EVE Online, or just the FPS culture that dominates the West. The book is a closer look at all three along with some random facts and figures.

It was a nice shift from the academic stuff I'd been slogging through and reminded me that not everything has to be that particular brand of stuffy prose. It's not really about theory but rather just culture, so from that perspective it might disappoint someone looking for that type of text.

The South Korea section was what really made it worth reading in my mind.

The Film Noir Roots of Cowboy Bebop

I got a new feature up, an essay on Cowboy Bebop I wrote a while back. Rewatching the series for what is now the fourth time for me was interesting this time because I did it totally alone. The other times I'd been introducing people to the show and wowing them with the style and music. Watching the show while scribbling notes and analyzing things was surprising because I realized how truly barebones the stories are. That's not a bad thing, but it made me realize how much of the series is driven by style over substance. The show is about slick anime, fantastic music, and tight action scenes.

It's also very appropriate for film noir, because that's the gist of the genre as a whole. There are no complex moral decisions here. A guy who got dumped, a woman who won't risk another person wrecking their life, and another guy who won't take no for an answer sums up just about everyone in the formula. I think it worked then, today in stuff like Brick, Uncharted 2, my own terrible blog fiction, and finally Cowboy Bebop because these are things people can immediately relate to. You don't become too angry about the ending to Bebop because even if you don't agree, you know why Spike is making that decision. Which is all you really need to tell a good story. I broke down the basic elements of film noir and then used the film that the show was pretty blatantly copying to outline why Bebop is such a great show ten years after its release.

Plus, c'mon, the soundtrack is badass.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Style of Cel Shading

This is one of those things that you already knew, but probably have never seen someone spell out in exact detail. You know what cel shading is, you know it makes games have a different vibe than their gritty HD siblings, and you've hopefully played a few games that employed it well. I decided to write about the basic artistic effect going on based on a few architecture principles. Smooth surfaces = bouncy, light feeling, gritty surfaces = heavy, dark feeling. A few distinctions about what is not cel shading and what actually is, good examples of it being used, and then a part where I ramble about Uncharted 2's effective combination of the two elements.

Art stuff and such.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Perpetual Value Machine

After dumping buckets of money into Valve's little online service this holiday season, I got curious about how exactly they make money by charging things this cheaply. It's not exactly the same process as bulk distribution like Costco and it's not really Wal-Mart either. They basically just sell CD Keys and then wrap that up into this really handy update service with social networking. They have low overhead but not as low as their competitors. Instead, the reason Valve owns this scene is that waaaay back when Half-Life 2 came out, you had to install STEAM. They've had that policy for a while now with all their games. And it looks like it's paying off.

For some reason or another, the process reminded me of a perpetual motion machine that is supposed to generate infinite energy if you just set it up right. Prices go down, value inflates, prices go back up, sales continue. I'm not sure this would work for every single game out there, but something like Madden or Team Fortress 2 would be the prime candidates for perpetual value games.

On paper anyhow, these things never quite work like you'd expect.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A Few Notes On 2010

I was jabbering with my sister over the holidays about good television this year and the subject of Twin Peaks came up. In many ways, it was the first show to attempt the union of soap opera formula with something besides amnesiacs and hospital employees. People die in soap operas, but Twin Peaks was unique at the time for the strong emphasis on Agent Cooper and the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer. I usually tell people to watch up to about half-way through Season Two and then watch David Lynch’s movie Fire Walk With Me, which acts as a prequel. After the plot twist the writers had to reinvent the show’s driving force while David Lynch had wandered off to go do…David Lynch type things. It falls apart without the driving mystery and Lynch’s eccentric touch, replacing the concrete formula of who killed who with ham fisted mysticism and convoluted motivations.

My sister disagreed with this advice about skipping the last few episodes, arguing that the ending was a valid statement about the show’s nature. What, after all, is the defining flaw of every great show these past few years? They fuck up the ending. For shows that are all about mystery and watching people interact, tying up loose ends is inherently never going to be satisfactory. It will always disappoint. While a show like The Sopranos chose to end on a touching note before cutting to black, Lynch came back to direct the last episode and end it on an enormous cliff hanger. There are various reasons for this choice, he wanted to coerce the network into funding another season and probably had a few more stories in his head to tell. But in the end, the bluff has a larger meaning in the context of a show about people’s lives: they don’t really end. Something is always going to be happening, interesting or not.

I’m opening with that point because we’re going to talk a bit about 2010. I graduate in May from school and will be spending the summer studying for the BAR. It is not a forgiving test. You take seven 3-hour essay question sections (for each area of law) followed by a multiple choice test that covers everything they left out. I have to pass six out of the seven and correctly answer a certain percentage of the multiple choice. BAR passage is not determined by your score but rather is based on the top percentage of scores so that only so many people pass per year no matter what. Very smart people take this test. This is going to put a damper on my blog output. I will be producing the bi-monthly column as scheduled but I can’t really produce the rest of it anymore. I may discover that I still need a personal escape and continue to write posts while studying or I might be even build up a large enough surplus that you won’t even notice. More likely is that when I have a free moment I will have a glass of whiskey, a good cry, and slap myself into studying more. I’ll be done at the end of July and then I am unplugging from everything. Internet, video games…everything. I’m going to do some backpacking in Montana to figure out what to do with myself and the mess I’m in. I don’t find out my BAR results until November and there is fuck-all chance of me being hired until a firm knows whether or not I’m dead weight. I am in trouble if I don’t pass, but we’re not going to dwell on that.

This isn’t really a resignation post. I’ve got about 9 blog posts already written and have several more sketched out. That puts me well into March and probably April for when I will actually run out of material. Furthermore, Hell will freeze over before I ever quit writing. But I doubt I’ll come back quite the same. The schedule that allowed me to produce all of this material was never a realistic one, just what you can get done if you’re the sort of person whose sick of giving a shit about school and just wants their diploma. I thought about doing a bi-weekly post or maybe some ‘Link of the Week’ gimmick (I mean like jacking someone else's post and rephrasing it, not an aggregate) but I’m not really interested in half-assing something with my fake name on it. Not everything I’ve written is good, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying.

The finale of Twin Peaks is confronted with the same issue that is becoming the Achilles Heel of most television shows (or some games) today: how do you explain your big mystery? The second half of the season deals with a serial killer obsessed with the Red Lodge, a mystical place where evil spirits dwell and escape into our world. Cooper, at first only visiting there in his dreams, eventually steps through a gateway into the Red Lodge to be greeted by crashing symbols and dark flashing lights. People he has met appear, others he is only seeing for the first time. He walks about, people say weird things, and we are clued into the fact that something very bad happens to Cooper there. Not much else is ever really discussed (though do check out Fire Walk With Me if you have the inclination). What irked me about that scene was that here is the ultimate moment of the second season’s plot arc, here is the equivalent of ‘Who Killed Laura Palmer’? And it just goes by. We see the mystical place, and then the story keeps on chugging along. I suppose I resented the audacity of that, enough to tell people to skip it, but as I find myself writing this post I think I appreciate it a bit more. You’ve got to tell people something, yet all you’re really telling them is that it’s you who's changing.

So, posting will continue as normal into March or April. After that, I’ll be going on hiatus for a bit. I figure if you care enough to read my personal blog, I owe you the heads up.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Brainy Gamer Confab

Just a quick post, trying to squeeze a few more seconds of relaxation before the grind starts back up. I was really lucky to be asked back onto Michael Abbott's podcast for 2009 to discuss my GOTY for 2009. I got to chat with Steve Gaynor and Chris Dahleen as well, each of us picking out the game that most impressed us.

I won't spoil the surprise, but it's a good chat.