Thursday, December 11, 2014

PBS Kids shows, ranked

As a parent, the most valuable skill I've been able to teach my son is to tune the channel to PBS by himself. This has saved me a lot of effort. As a result, I've seen far more PBS Kids shows than I ever anticipated. Naturally, I feel compelled to rank the ones I've seen from best to worst.

 1. Peg Plus Cat

Here is a kids' show with great music, legitimately funny jokes, likable characters, and no filler. I'm surprised it made it out of a pitch meeting. In every episode, Peg and her cat solve a problem by using math, but the problems are always hilarious -- pirates who are too scared to go to sleep at a sleepover, penguins who need help training for the Olympics -- and the math isn't laid on too thick. The songs are terrific, and not in an annoying earworm kind of way, with original ones every show. One of the characters is a pig who everybody hates, and who rarely speaks except to sing, opera-style, about how much he loves triangles. Peg Plus Cat rules. I would watch this show even if I didn't have a toddler I needed to hypnotize.


2. Sesame Street

The original and still almost the best. Although nearly all of the original Muppet performers have moved on, the replacements are terrific, and the cast is still the best in kids' TV. Sesame Street teaches important lessons without pandering. It's funny and warm-hearted and still feels like spending time with an old friend. Gripes? A few. I think it relies overmuch on pop culture parodies to keep parents interested (maybe it always did), and the heavy doses of Elmo's World and Abby's Flying Fairy School aren't as satisfying to me as day-to-day life on Sesame Street. Overall this is still a great show.

3. Martha Speaks

Supposedly educational, Martha Speaks begins with a credits sequence in which a bowlful of alphabet soup ends up going into a dog's brain instead of her stomach, granting her the ability to speak English. The bar is very low, folks. But this is a good show nonetheless. The voice acting is a cut above, and there are frequently awesome guest stars like Neil DeGrasse Tyson. It's more about telling stories than about imparting lessons, which is a nice change from the more didactic fare found elsewhere on the schedule. Best of all, on my local affiliate it only airs on weekends, so I don't have to watch it every goddamn day.


4. Curious George

This show has a laugh or two every episode, and it's more pleasing to look at than a lot of PBS Kids shows. But there's one thing I really don't like about it: George never has to face any consequences. People are always putting him in charge of important things, like spaceship launches and holiday decorating, and every single time when he makes a hash of it, people just smile and laugh. Somehow, everything always works out in the end. This is a terrible lesson for kids. I want my son to learn that retribution will be swift and merciless whenever he messes something up. That'll teach him never to try.


5. Dinosaur Train

This is the kind of million-dollar idea you want to kick yourself for not having thought of. Kids like dinosaurs... kids like trains... what if...? This show really isn't bad. The 3D animation is pretty crappy, but there are a lot of good lessons about dinosaurs, and they even take care to point out that not all dinosaurs lived at the same time by having the train travel through a "time tunnel" to different prehistoric periods. That's pretty cool. My son also likes Dr. Scott the Paleontologist, the guy who does live-action interstitials, probably because he looks more like a cartoon character than any of the dinosaurs do.


6. Super Why!

If my son were making the list, this show would be number one with a bullet. Which is appropriate, because I think about bullets a lot while watching this show, which I do about a dozen times a day. I'm all for teaching kids to read, and I think Sebastian really is learning the alphabet from his constant Super Why! binges. The problem with this show is that the super readers all claim to have different powers, but in the end for most of them it just comes down to spelling. Except for Whyatt: his super power is the power to read, and yet he always solves the problem and changes the story by inserting words. That's not reading. That's writing. This would be like having a show about a mathematics superhero who only uses his multiplication powers to figure out how many times one number can be divided into another.


7. Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood

This show is cute and it means well. In every episode, Daniel learns an important lesson about some universal fear or problem for a little kid. He might be afraid that his parents won't come back when they go out, or be afraid to eat a new dish. That's all well and good. But each of these lessons is reinforced several times per episode with a horrible, advertisement-like jingle: "Groooown-ups come back!" "You gotta try new food 'cuz it might taste goooood!" Remember when I praised the songs on Peg Plus Cat for not being earwormy? This is the shit I'm talking about. Those things get their hooks in deep, and they come out at the worst possible time, like in the office bathroom.

Also, all of the adult characters sound like they're on quaaludes.


8. The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That

This show is, first of all, insane. It looks weird, it sounds weird, and the premise -- two kids go on adventures with the Cat in the Hat in which they assume the attributes of certain animals in order to learn more about the natural world -- is somehow very unsettling. Some or all of this may be attributable to Martin Short's bizarre performance as the Cat, which manages to both sound mailed-in and completely unhinged simultaneously. What grinds my gears, though, is the complete perversion of Dr. Seuss's original vision. The cat was supposed to be dangerous. He was a trickster. Here, when he tells the kids that their mothers will not mind at all if they go off with him, it's not a cunning bit of psychological domination. It's true. They ask their mothers, and their mothers don't mind at all. Then, when the kids get in the Thingamawhizzer, what's the first thing they do? They buckle their seat belts. Come on.


9. Thomas and Friends

Thomas and Friends is superficially gentle and inoffensive. It's all about cooperating, being honest, and doing your best job. But there's something troubling lurking beneath the surface. Sir Topham Hatt's insistence that every train in the crew be "really useful" smacks of fascism. What of the engines who are not really useful? Do we sell them for scrap? If another train comes along who is marginally more useful than Thomas, is our brave hero suddenly obsolete? What then? The suggestion that some engines are really useful leads inescapably to the conclusion that others are useless, and therefore disposable. We've seen before where this track leads. Heil, Sir Topham Hatt!


10. Sid the Science Kid

Combine the freakish character designs of Sid and Marty Krofft, the insipid songwriting of Super Why! and Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, add a heaping helping of stultifying stupidity, and you've got Sid the Science Kid, by far the worst show I routinely suffer through on PBS Kids. Everyone on this show is a ghoul. They look creepy and sound brain-damaged. They don't even teach you anything about science. This show makes science seem uncool. Not on my watch, pal! It's Cosmos or bust in this household.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Bayhem


In a pre-credits scene in Michael Bay’s directorial debut, Bad Boys, two characters played by Martin Lawrence and Will Smith are arguing inside of a Porsche 911 Turbo. Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) is attempting to eat a combo meal from a fast food restaurant, and is vexed by the lack of any place to put his drink. He spills French fries down between the seats. The car’s owner, Mike Lowrey (Smith), is furious. This is a high-performance machine that Marcus is smearing with grease.

Not without some justification, Marcus gripes about all the things the Porsche doesn’t have. No back seat, no cupholders. What good is a car without those crucial amenities? He observes that it’s just "a shiny dick with two chairs in it," and the men are the balls, "bouncing the fuck along."

We laugh at Marcus’s inability to see the forest for the trees. Of course Mike’s Porsche doesn’t have any of that shit. It’s built for one thing, and one thing only: performance. He’ll never be able to use his car to take the kids to soccer practice or help a buddy move. He’ll only be able to use it to rev the engine and draw stares. It’s a shiny dick with two chairs in it. That’s why he bought it.

This scene is, essentially, Michael Bay’s thesis statement for the rest of his career. It’s obvious whose side he’s on. As the movie continues, Bay’s camera will ogle Mike’s Porsche and all but drool over it. That’s how Bay treats every subject in his lens: cars, women, explosions. Especially explosions. They’re all just shiny dicks on celluloid.

Bay’s critics, who hold him up as the cinematic antichrist, have for the past twenty years been playing the role of Marcus. Why don’t Bay’s films have interesting characters? Why is his editing so slapdash? Why isn’t there anywhere to put my drink?

I have always been confused as to why Bay’s critics are so bothered by what his movies lack. No, you don’t see a Bay movie for characterizations, moral quandaries, or narrative sophistication. But who says that all movies must have those things? It’s like criticizing a rap song for not having enough guitar solos.

I am not attempting to tell you that Michael Bay is a great filmmaker. He isn’t. But he is great at one thing, and one thing only: putting arresting images onscreen. Like the Porsche that only does one thing well, Michael Bay focuses relentlessly on what he cares about and disregards everything else. The man has never composed an ugly shot in his life. Take any still frame from a Bay movie and you will see something gorgeous. Watch the movement of his camera in any shot and you will see a confident, dynamic arranging of visual elements that can be, frankly, dazzling.


Granted, most of these shots are smashed together in ways that may make little or no sense, and certainly do nothing to establish relationships between characters or any kind of human drama. What I’m saying is: who cares? You can watch other movies if you want that stuff.

How many movies do you get to watch that are such sumptuous visual feasts? How many directors can put such care into lighting, color timing, composition, and camera movement for even the most minor things? I am not saying all directors should try to do what Michael Bay does. I am saying that no other directors succeed at it.

Whenever Bay comes out with something slightly different from his norm – something like The Island or Pain and Gain – the consensus is that he’s trying, and failing, to change gears. He isn’t. Both of those movies are still about the visuals. They’re just visuals of slightly different things. (And not even that, really: Pain and Gain slobbers over its male performers bodies’ more than any shot of Megan Fox in Transformers.)

Let’s not confuse the issue. Critics and cinephiles can't stand that Bay’s movies make so much money. His commercial success really bothers them. That’s why they hate him so much.

Now, I’m not one who thinks that the market has spoken, so we’d better shut up. It’s weird to me, too, that there must be so many people in the world who only see one movie a year, and choose to make it a Transformers movie. There are so many better, more entertaining, more thoughtful, and more challenging movies to choose from. By the same token, it’s strange to me that someone who sees a hundred movies a year would refuse to number a Transformers movie among them. If you care about cinema, how could you write this guy off?

Michael Bay is exactly who he wants to be: a shiny dick in a director’s chair. His critics are the balls, bouncing the fuck along, wondering where the cupholders are.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Games of the Year 2013

It's year in review time, but for the first time in many years, I didn't play enough games to make a best-of list. I did play a fair number of games, most from this year, but not all. Rather than a traditional round-up, here's a list of all the games I can remember playing this year, more or less chronologically in order of when I played them.

The Cave (2013)

Reviewed this for Paste.

Far Cry 3 (2012)

As a charter member of the Far Cry 2 appreciation club, I find it best to take Far Cry 3 on its own terms. It's at once sillier and more controlled than its predecessor, and also, quite honestly, more successful on some counts. Far Cry 3 definitely embraces its gaminess. The entire notion of skinning animals to build bigger wallets so you can carry more money is ridiculous for almost more reasons than you can count, and yet it follows a certain internal logic and is fun to do. Why pick nits? I really enjoyed this game.

Metro 2033 (2010)

Started a fresh playthrough in 2013 after starting one a few years ago and abandoning it a few hours in. This time, I played on easy mode, which is a common theme for me these days. I just don't have the time or the interest to master games. I want to get through them and see what there is to see. There's plenty to see in Metro 2033, and I agreed with a lot of the praise I read for it when it came out. It's a great setting and a well-done storyline that doesn't rely on cutscenes to move the plot forward.

It's a short game, and each chapter is brief and to-the-point. Each focuses on some different wrinkle of gameplay. Some are based on stealth, some on action. There are turret sequences, but they don't feel gratuitous here -- they feel like a different way of experiencing the game world. Sometimes your primary concern is finding enough gas mask filters to survive in poisoned air. It's always different, always unexpected. And if you don't like the way a certain chapter is designed, at least you won't have to repeat it.

Ridiculous Fishing (2013)

I got this right after the baby was born and I needed something I could play with one hand while I was holding him. I don't understand why everyone likes this game so much. Maybe I'm associating it with a traumatic event.

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon (2013)

Reviewed this for Paste.

System Shock 2 (1999)

Quite simply one of the best games ever made. I had played it before, maybe in 2001 or so, but found that I had retained less than I thought, so it felt like I was playing for the first time. What an amazing experience. An incredible sense of place. Terrifying survival horror-style gameplay combined with deep (and, to be fair, occasionally inscrutable) RPG systems. Astounding audio design. Ambitious, unwieldy, magnificent.

Also, I played on easy mode and with a walkthrough.

Torchlight (2009)
Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3 (2012)

I got both of these games because they were being given away. In both cases, I played for an hour or two, had an okay enough time, and then needed to decide whether I was willing to devote any more time to them. In both cases, the answer was no.

Tomb Raider (2013)

This was a spectacular action-adventure game whose main flaw was pretending to be something other than a spectacular action-adventure game. I loved the Metroidvania-style design, and the realistic nature of Lara's power-ups. Loved the environments and the platforming. Didn't so much love the shooting, but put up with it (tried to roleplay a little and stick to bow-and-arrow and melee attacks).

But Tomb Raider kept promising something different than what it delivered. So much was made of Lara's taking a life for the first time, but then her kill count almost immediately rocketed to "Arnold at the end of Commando" levels of ludicrousness. Among her first objectives are finding something to eat and building a fire, which set up expectations of a more robust survival mechanic than what the game actually delivers (which is none, other than trying not to get shot). And for as much as the storyline is supposed to be about the birth of a survivor, it's really about the birth of a killer, and at any rate Lara's death scenes are so graphic and so numerous that not only do they belie her status as a survivor, they cross the line into brutalization more often than not.

I wanted the kills to matter more. I wanted about 1/50 as many enemies, but longer and more meaningful combat engagements. I wanted to have to hunt and survive in a way the game never demanded me to do after the first five minutes. Overall, I found myself in the odd position of truly enjoying the game I was playing, all the while wishing I were playing the game Tomb Raider pretended it wanted to be.

Just Cause 2 (2010)

I found this to be basically unplayable with a keyboard and mouse.

Gunpoint (2013)

This might have been the first game I've played in which I enjoyed the cutscenes more than the gameplay. Not that I didn't enjoy the rewiring puzzles -- just didn't flip out for them. I loved Gunpoint's approach to saving and re-loading, and then hated how it abandoned that approach in the last mission. As a result I never actually finished the last mission. Was worth the price during the Steam sale, though.

Monaco: What's Yours Is Mine (2013)

I played this for five minutes and had no idea wtf was going on.

Dishonored (2012)

My second-favorite game I played this year. I wrote about it a bit already in the post "Verbs." Nothing else to add.

BioShock Infinite (2013)

This game is such a drag. I've read some pretty well-considered takes on the problematic aspects of its story, but I can't even get to that level of scrutiny myself because I find it unpleasant to play. It brings me no joy to say this. Whether it's the way the game treats me like an idiot, still giving me onscreen reminders about everything even several hours in, or the general Potemkin village nature of the game world, it seems like a game built to keep players from getting lost in it. And it's just not fun. It is a rote, uninteresting shooter, aside from questions of story or gameworld. What a weird and unfortunate arc that has taken Irrational Games from System Shock 2 to this.

Battlefield 4 (2013)

Reviewed this for Paste. I'll add that I was a little hesitant to spend so much time harping on the bugs and crashes, especially because I thought they would be resolved quickly. Suffice it to say that ensuing events have made me feel more than vindicated. That said, I still enjoy the game quite a bit and have continued to play it when I've been able to. 

Marvel Puzzle Quest: Dark Reign (2013)

Reviewed this for Paste. This is the game that has at last displaced Fairway Solitaire as my daily dumper.

Games I acquired and didn't play:

Deus Ex
Thief
Fallout 1
Fallout 2

Surely, there will be plenty of time for Future Mitch to play these.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Verbs

Plenty of dialogue, but you don't say a word.

Many years ago, I had a conversation with the editor of the Phoenix about Grand Theft Auto. He had a young son who was interested in playing San Andreas, and wanted to know if these games could be as bad as he'd heard.

"Well," I told him, "It is true that you can do a lot of violent things. You can rob and kill people. But the thing is, the game doesn't force you to do it. And if you do go around mowing people down, there are consequences. The cops will come after you, and if you cause a lot of mayhem, eventually they'll call in the army. So it's not like it's a murder simulator. You aren't forced into anything. You can drive according to the rules if you want."

He later told me that he liked that answer. I did, too, at the time. But I've come to think that it was wrong -- or, perhaps, incomplete.

People will tell you that games are nothing more than sets of rules. This is obviously true, and it's often used as a defense to explain why violent games hold an appeal that may not be obvious to the casual observer. But it also strikes me as a dodge -- a way to avoid seeing what is in front of one's eyes. Because games aren't just sets of rules, they're also sets of verbs. The actions a game allows you to take, or not take, are what defines them.

Grand Theft Auto games are conspicuous in the verbs they offer to the player, and those they withhold. You can shoot or not shoot, punch or not punch, steal or not steal. What you can't do are make any meaningful choices that affect the world or the story. You can play a relatively mayhem-free game in sandbox mode, but what's the point? There is nothing else to do. And if you want to progress through the story, you are stuck with even more restrictive verbs. Rest assured, you will be punching, shooting, and stealing.*

It's for this reason that I find myself with less than no interest in playing Grand Theft Auto V. The world may be prettier, goofier stuff may happen, and maybe the story is even better, but why should I care? The series' verbs haven't changed in a decade.

Seeing things in a different light.

Recently, I played through Dishonored, a game that is all about expanding your vocabulary of verbs, and their syntax. Playing Dishonored as a pure shooter is an option, one that is supported by the game's systems but not necessarily encouraged. You can just kill everyone you see. You're also welcome to make your way through the game without killing anyone, something I attempted to do (and failed, without realizing it, at some point during the last mission). You can even make it to the end credits without an enemy ever seeing you, although I gave up on trying this almost immediately.

All this is possible because Dishonored pulls a bit of sleight-of-hand: instead of pitting you solely against opponents, it pits you against the map. This isn't a game where you're choosing between the fast gun that's inaccurate, the gun that's only powerful at close range, or the long-range weapon that takes forever to reload. It's a game where you're choosing to take a direct route through a garrison of guards, or one that goes over a rooftop and through a back entrance. And it gives you a varied collection of skills to do all this.

First and most useful is "Blink," an ability that silently teleports you to anywhere within range. The genius of Blink is that it can be used to support most any other action you might want to accomplish. In a lethal playthrough, you can Blink to a position advantageous to assassination. In a non-lethal playthrough, you can use it to sneak up behind people and incapacitate them (or use it to hide their unconscious bodies in out of the way places). In a ghost playthrough, Blink is your best tool for staying hidden while traversing a level. In a way, Blink isn't a verb -- it's an adverb.

Everything else you might choose to do in Dishonored changes your vocabulary of in-game actions. Depending on how you want to develop your character, you might unlock a double-jump. Or you might enjoy "Dark Vision," which allows you to see enemies through walls. Crucially, not all of the available powers are different ways to kill people -- but they do offer different ways to contend with the map. I loved this game.

Behold my crow-gun! Not to be confused with a Krogan.

I didn't realize how much I loved Dishonored, though, until I started playing another game. After completing the first couple acts, I wondered why I wasn't enthralled by BioShock Infinite. Certainly it wasn't the environment, which is gorgeous and imaginative, and it wasn't the story, which has my interest piqued. It seems like the sort of game I usually like. In comparison to Dishonored, the reason was obvious: the verbs.

The city of Columbia is beautiful. The architecture, the fashions, the blue sky above -- they're lush and unique. They're also a facade. In the gritty, rat-infested city of Dishonored's Dunwall, I became used to going places I wasn't allowed to be. If a door was locked, that meant it could be unlocked, or another entrance could be found. In Infinite's Columbia, a locked door is the same as a wall. It's a barrier, dressed up to look like something else. Unlocked doors tend to fly open in front of you; functionally, they may as well not be there at all. Only a few doors are interactive, usually for reasons of plot and pacing.

BioShock Infinite has a jump button, although I'm not sure why. You can't jump on anything higher than about knee level. More than once I've thrown myself against waist-high ledges, expecting to clamber over them, and been thwarted. Climb, surmount, hurdle -- these are not verbs in BioShock Infinite's vocabulary. By itself, that's not really a criticism. If a game is a set of verbs, then obviously its contents won't be, well, infinite. The problem I'm having is with the verbs BioShock Infinite does include.

Essentially, the only thing you can do in BioShock Infinite is shoot. So far I've picked up three "vigors" -- supernatural powers that ostensibly grant you extra abilities. One of them is the ability to throw fiery grenades, which is another way to say that it lets me shoot my enemies. One is the ability to summon a flock of ravenous crows, which is another way to say that it lets me shoot my enemies. And the first one I got, "possession," is the ability to temporarily take control of opposing persons and machines.

Dishonored has a possession ability, too, but in this case we're talking about homophones. To possess in Dishonored is to become another creature. You are a rat scurrying through a filthy tunnel connecting two rat-sized holes. You are a fish zipping through the currents under a bridge full of sentries. You are a sentry, striding through a security gate that would electrocute you in your usual form. If you're feeling sadistic, you may become a suicidal sentry, one who steps off of a rooftop with no warning. In any case, using this power grants you a new and different set of abilities, at least for a short time.

To possess in BioShock Infinite is to make other creatures become you. You are shooting at the cops with your gun, but if you choose to possess one, he will shoot at the cops with his gun. (For extra measure, he will turn the gun on himself upon returning to his senses.) You may possess a gun turret, which will shoot at the cops with itself. In no meaningful way are you controlling these entities, and in no meaningful way is this power providing you with anything more than synonyms: you're shooting, blasting, firing.

Now, it may be that as I progress into BioShock Infinite, some of this will change. Although it hasn't happened yet, there's potential for the Sky-Lines to become something interesting. The Vigors could open up more gameplay possibilities. Even if not, there's nothing inherently wrong with a game that focuses on shooting, and there's more to enjoy in the game, as I've already mentioned. My aim here isn't to slag on BioShock Infinite for not being precisely the game I might prefer it to be.

But it's been interesting to observe how games can differ from each other in more than aesthetics, and how mechanics that seem superficially similar can communicate vastly different ideas. The genetics of these games -- the rules -- aren't all that different. They're just speaking different languages.

*Grand Theft Auto games include a lot of mini-games and diversions, like playing poker, but even if partaking in them is sometimes quest-critical, I don't include them here for one important reason: there is no way to play through a Grand Theft Auto game only by playing poker.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Game informing, revisited

Four years ago, I wrote a post called "Game informing," in which I gathered the concluding sentences of several previews from a single issue of Game Informer. I did this because I possess the ability to remember things I have read in the past, and to connect those memories to things that have actually happened. Over and over I would read previews that glossed over potential problems and expressed hope that a game would be great, only to play the game for myself months or years later and discover that it had not delivered on the previewer's promises. Optimism is a good quality, but the blue-sky attitude we read in previews rarely matches up with reality.

It's not a problem unique to Game Informer. A lot of previews are too credulous. But I thought it might be worth revisiting that post and seeing what came to pass with those games.
Splinter Cell: Conviction -- "Let's just hope Sam doesn't sneak past his fall release, because we've been waiting long enough to play what's looking like one of the best games of the year."
It sucked. (Partly for this reason.)
The Last Guardian -- "With the PS3 breaking down technical barriers, the possibilities with Team Ico's next masterpiece seem to be endless."
The possibilities are always endless for a game that still doesn't exist.
God of War III -- "With the massive titans waging war, more gods entering the fray, and Kratos determined to topple Olympus, God of War III will be packed with jaw-dropping moments worthy of passing into legend."
It was boring.
Assassin's Creed II -- "We'll know more about whether our high hopes are justified as we get hands on time with the game in the coming months."
They weren't.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves -- "Our time with the game left us confident that Drake's second big journey may be just what Sony needs to draw in PS3 doubters."
This was true.
ModNation Racers -- "If the gameplay shows even half the potential of its customization tools, ModNation Racers might be the game that finally drags the kart-racing genre into the 21st century."
I have no idea what this game is.
New Super Mario Bros. Wii -- "There definitely were bigger, more graphically impressive games at E3, but we'll be surprised if many of them are as anticipated as New Super Mario Bros. Wii."
Sure, I guess.
Dirt 2 -- "We're eager to see what other cities Codemasters has transformed into rally circuits."
Hands up if, in the year 2013, you can name even one city in Dirt 2.
Heavy Rain -- "We can't wait to meet the remaining protagonists in the upcoming months to see if they, too, can dodge a grisly end."
Some of them could! Also, this is way less effusive than most of the rest of these lines, and then Heavy Rain turned out to be the best game of 2010.
Alan Wake -- "While we still have nearly a year before this spooky narrative finally hits the Xbox 360, it looks like the title will be worth the long wait."
It wasn't. I mean, it was a fine game, but it wasn't worth the long wait.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow -- "But if the final game can live up to the excitement caused by the trailer... Lords of Shadow may finally give gamers a 3D action title worthy of the Castlevania name, even if some series staples are missing."
It couldn't.
Borderlands -- "With fast-paced action, strong co-op, and this much variety, we can't wait to gather some treasure hunters and start exploring this promising wasteland."
Again, this is one of the most restrained lines in the whole piece, and it's about the game that ended up as my 2009 GOTY.
Homefront -- "Though it wasn't shown or talked about in detail... what little we've seen of Homefront looks good."
This sounds even dumber today than it did then.
League of Legends: Clash of Fates -- "We've spent a lot of time with DotA and other games, and League of Legends is clearly the most exciting title in the sub-genre to date."
Vindicated!

Thanks to @oldgameswriting for reminding me that this post existed.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Quiz: The Citizen Kane of games


Which game is being called the Citizen Kane of games?

1. ...not just the finest game that [the developer] has yet crafted and an easy contender for the best game of this console generation, it may also prove to be gaming’s Citizen Kane moment – a masterpiece that will be looked back upon favourably for decades.

2. ...the writer and creative director... wanted to have a chat, writer-to-writer-to-writer, about what we thought. Now, if you're at all interested in action video games, video-game writing, or video-game narrative, this was a little like being summoned to a screening of a 90 percent–edited version of Citizen Kane and having lunch with Orson Welles afterward.

3. "Call of Duty is huge, but it would never be mistaken for Citizen Kane," says McCaffrey, who gave [the game] a 9.4 rating out of 10 in his recent review. "[this], on the other hand, is as close as video games have gotten in a while. The story, game play, characters and fantastical... setting all combine to pull you in and keep you engaged until it's over."

4. The game industry is not waiting for its formative masterpieces to materialize from the hazy future. They're here, right now, walking among us... Like Citizen Kane, [this] is a landmark in both technical innovation and pure creativity.

5. Anyone who wants to know what makes a video game a video game — what makes it different from movies, television, books — can find the answer in [this game]. In a non-narrative sense, the Citizen Kane comparison may still be apt. That film represented the movies’ coming of age — the point when they ceased to be filmed versions of stage plays and asserted their identity in a language all their own. In the same way, [this game] is, for better and worse, definitive.

A. Grand Theft Auto IV
B. BioShock Infinite
C. The Last of Us
D. BioShock Infinite, again
E. Metroid Prime

Answers:
1. C (Empire)
2. D (Grantland)
3. B (USA Today)
4. E (IGN)


Friday, May 31, 2013

Inconsolable

It was just past 9 on a Friday night. The baby was asleep. My wife was turning in early. Finally, I had a chance to pop in the copy of Tomb Raider that a friend had lent to me. Not to go all sitcom-dad on you, but I was practically giddy to have a couple of hours to myself. I poured a drink and fired up the PS3.

"The latest update data has been found."

Okay. Fair enough. We're six and a half years into this thing. I'm used to it by now. And, as PlayStation 3 patches go, this wasn't a bad one.

At the title screen, the display glitched in an ominous way I've seen before. But I thought it might have been intentional. Maybe Tomb Raider attempts some Kojima-style breaking of the fourth wall.

Nope. I made it as far as inverting the Y-axis -- inverted being the one true Y-axis -- and then the PlayStation beeped and the screen went black. I tried to restart it, but it wouldn't power on. I couldn't even eject the disc, which, remember, I had borrowed from a friend.

Kaput.

The gaming situation is less than optimal in the Krpata household right now. The Xbox 360 has been out of commission since last fall thanks to, let's say, an incident involving the collision of a gamepad with a wall. With the PS3 out of the picture, that leaves a mid-range PC that is starting to show its age.

In the past, when I was reviewing games on the regular, I replaced hardware as needed. It paid for itself, and was a tax write-off. These days, circumstances are different. To replace a console is a big investment. And with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right around the corner, it seems counterproductive to replace a current-gen system, especially since they're still charging three hundred goddamn dollars are you kidding me for a new PlayStation 3. Better to grab a Blu-ray player with wi-fi for under a hundo, and get 90% of what I was using the PS3 for anyway.

All this has gotten me thinking about game consoles in the big picture: what they're for, how we use them, and whether we even need them anymore.

Obviously, the console manufacturers have been wondering the same things. They're trying to make themselves indispensable with carrots (new features, more powerful hardware) and with sticks (no used games). They're trying to become all-in-one entertainment solutions, which not coincidentally allow you to make all your entertainment purchases directly through them. But the tighter they try to keep consumers in their grasp, the more we want to escape.

Let me make an observation: I've already had to repair or replace each console from the current generation, but my 15-year-old Super Nintendo works just fine. (And my saved games are still intact on my Super Metroid cartridge!) Of course today's consoles can do a lot more than my SNES ever could. But what is reliability worth?

Even when modern systems work, they don't work. The PlayStation 3's system updates and pre-installs are the stuff of legend at this point (and I thought it was interesting that Sony reps made a point of assuring us that the PS4 will handle these things in the background). The Wii's vaunted motion controls were so bad that even a game like Skyward Sword, which required an additional peripheral to function at all, included a manual override for all the times it got messed up. I guess the Xbox 360 pretty much did what it was supposed to, provided your console didn't RRoD or you didn't get a Kinect.

You can't just own a console anymore; now, you have to manage it. It takes three separate subscriptions to watch the new season of Arrested Development on your Xbox. On the PS3 you can subscribe to a monthly service, the PlayStation Network, in order to sometimes be able to pay less for other things you can buy. I don't even know what the hell you need to do with Nintendo's online service, but in fairness, I don't think Nintendo does either. The PC used to be better about this, but I was just trying to figure out how I could take advantage of an Amazon sale on BioShock 2 to install it on Steam so I could buy "Minerva's Den" from Games for Windows Live, and ultimately decided that five bucks was still too much to spend to deal with that. Sorry, Steve.

I haven't been a foot soldier for one console maker or another since the 16-bit days. I learned my lesson when I finally got a SNES after years of proselytizing for the Genesis and discovered, to my shame, that it ruled. Since then, I've been omnivorous. So, when I say that I'm going to have to think long and hard about which next-gen console to buy, it's not about brand loyalty. It's about whether I need to buy any of them at all. It's about whether I want the effort of owning them.

Based on what I know right now, I don't want what Sony and Microsoft are selling to me. I don't want to buy a game system and then have to pay a fee to use it. I don't want to spend several hundred dollars on a piece of hardware that can do everything but stay up and running for more than three years. I want something that runs video games. If it can do other things as well, fine -- I'm happy to stream Netflix through wherever. But if it isn't fucking great for playing games, then I am not interested.

So far, I'm not convinced that I must have either the PlayStation 4 or the Xbox One. Not with cheaper alternatives for their non-gaming functions, and especially not with a backlog of great games I've missed that I can still play today. I haven't played much new recently, but in the past couple of months I've made my way through Metro 2033 and Super Metroid, and right now I'm waist-deep in System Shock 2. None of this has made me feel as though I need a new console, that's for sure.

I recognize that I'm an old man having his get-off-my-lawn moment. But I'm not trying to argue that games today are crap and that everything was ideal back in my day. My concern is that the barriers are getting ever higher. If you can't borrow a game from a friend, if you can't play a single-player game without an internet connection, if you can't trust your expensive hardware to last its intended lifespan, then where does all this lead?

Maybe it leads to the end of consoles.