Friday, February 29, 2008

Friday afternoon tidbits

No drinking beer and falling asleep on the couch for me this weekend! I'm going snowboarding. Let me just apologize in advance if I break my wrist and can't type come Monday.

A few items of note before the weekend begins:

-The comments have been great around here recently, so thanks to everybody who takes the time to respond. Blogging should be a dialogue and not a monologue. I always appreciate any considered comments, whether they're assenting or dissenting. Group hug.

-Every time I think I'm done talking about Fairway Solitaire around here, they pull me back in. Bill Harris linked to an interview with the game's designer, John Cutter. It's probably more interesting if you've played the game, such as when you come across passages like this:
"One of my theories about game design is that there is a direct correlation between the quality of an action's feedback and the perceived enjoyment of that experience. So with that goal in mind I was pretty diligent about giving players great feedback each time they "play" a card to the foundation," he said. "I really wanted this action to feel like a golf shot, with a nice solid "WHACK" sound and the card spinning and arcing down to the bottom of the screen."

It's totally true. I can't stress it enough: Fairway Solitaire is an absolute gem. At least try the demo.

-The anonymous scribe behind Magical Wasteland rarely posts, but each new update is always required reading. "In Defense of the Meaningless Video Game" touches upon some of the issues we talked about in yesterday's post on racing games. A key quote: "World of Warcraft means something (to millions of people) because it provides the framework for meaningful occurrences, not because it, itself, contains and delivers meaning." That's true. But the meaningful occurrences people create for themselves are naturally shaped by the decisions of the folks at Blizzard, whether or not either the developers or the players mean for that to be the case.

Without arguing any of the author's core precepts -- that some games are fun for fun's sake, and that most don't need to be overtly relevant to the world we live in -- I still can't shake the notion that every game has some kind of meaning. The reason it has meaning is because conscious decisions had to be made about even its smallest aspects. Yes, you can take this to ludicrous and self-parodying extremes. But think about it: For each design decision made, an infinite number of options was rejected. If you ask yourself why a particular choice was made, then that's where you'll find the meaning -- no matter what the game.

-Today, Game|Life, Kotaku, and Rock, Paper, Shotgun all posted gushing previews of the dystopian Parkour game Mirror's Edge. I agree that it sounds neat. But honestly, people: Have we learned nothing?

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Going in circles

There's a thought-provoking feature in Edge about the decline of the racing game as a genre (via Rock, Paper, Shotgun), as discussed by a roundtable of developers behind games like Dirt, Sega Rally, MotorStorm, and Project Gotham. The essence of the problem with racing games was flagged by RPS in their headline, and it's spoken by Bizarre's Gerard Talbot:

"Why am I doing this?"

This was the question I was unable to answer while playing Dirt. It's the question I can't answer while I'm playing The Club (which, though not a racing game, shares many characteristics in common with Bizarre Creations' Project Gotham series). It's the question that has prevented me from investing the time and effort necessary to succeed in Gran Turismo and Forza. For some people, simply being challenged to do well is reason enough to play, whether that means achieving high scores or low times. But these skill players are only one segment of the gaming community, and those of us who look for some more personal reason to play won't find one in these games.

What racing games don't generally do is tap into the player's emotions. I don't mean that they should have stories or characters, necessarily, just that there needs to be some animating reason for the player's actions beyond a basic desire to win. Look at Dirt: the rally style means that you race alone, and afterward compare your time either with that of hypothetical computer opponents, or of real-life opponents you never actually see. There's no drama there. The best games for tourist-style players are those that connect with something elemental, like fear, empathy, or a desire for justice. Obviously this wouldn't work for hardcore sims -- the niche products -- but I think it's going to be necessary for mainstream racing games to connect with mass audiences in the future.

One way to do it would be to ditch the straightforward lap mechanism, and instead create courses in which the player is racing either toward something or away from something. "Why am I doing this?" Because if I don't get to the finish line in time, something terrible will happen. Because if I don't outrun this horrible thing behind me, I'm going to die. What about a game based on The Wages of Fear? The physics engine possibilities alone are exciting, and the ticking-time-bomb scenario adds that missing impetus for those of us who need one.

Whether that's a good idea or not, the point is that as long as racing games are just about running laps, then they'll all be going in circles. There will always be a market for Gran Turismo and games based on NASCAR. But if developers really want to push ahead conceptually, then what's needed is a willingness to move beyond the prevailing mindset that racing is about winning a trophy. There's a chance to do so much more.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The difference between reviews and criticism

Pat Duggan sends a link to a piece at Play This Thing!, titled "Game Criticism, Why We Need It, and Why Reviews Aren't It." The premise is one that has been bounced around for years, and which seems to be popping up with increasing frequency: that the vast majority of game reviews really aren't criticism at all. As this piece puts it:
A review is a buyer's guide. It exists to tell you about some new product that you can buy, and whether you should or should not buy it...

Criticism is an informed discussion, by an intelligent and knowledgeable observer of a medium, of the merits and importance (or lack thereof) of a particular work. Criticism isn't intended to help the reader decide whether or not to plunk down money on something; some readers' purchase decisions may be influenced, but guiding their decisions is not the purpose of the critical work. Criticism is, in a sense merely "writing about" -- about art, about dance, about theater, about writing, about a game--about any particular work of art.

The piece argues that the games press is well stocked with "reviewers," and totally lacking in "critics." You can go anywhere for a Consumer Reports-style look at a game, but it's tough to find any really insightful or illuminating critics -- especially someone whose reviews are strong enough to stand on their own as readable essays. I don't disagree with this. The places people tend to identify with game reviews -- IGN, Gamespot, Game Informer, etc. -- take a rudimentary approach to their craft. I do disagree with this point:

The truth is that, for the most part, we don't have anything like game criticism, and we need it -- to inform gamers, to hold developers to task, and to inform our broader cultural understanding of games and their importance and impact on our culture.

That "for the most part" is key, because you have have to dig to find what this person is looking for. But that doesn't mean it's not out there. Lots of the writers on my blog roll take a more critical approach to games, like Leigh Alexander, Michael Abbott, and Chris Dahlen, and so do I. Whole blogs exist to fill precisely this alleged void, like Critical-Gaming. Paste publishes a page full of critical game reviews every month, and that's a popular national magazine. What about The Escapist?

Do we have the equal of Pauline Kael yet? No, not that I know of, and if there is, she's certainly not getting published in anything like the New Yorker. But that doesn't mean she's not out there. It may simply mean we haven't found her blog yet. The implication of something like this, too, is that Kaels abound in the world of film. It's not so. Most movie reviewers are guilty of the same sins as game reviewers, even if they tend to be more witty and literate across the board. The piece calls out Roger Ebert as more of a reviewer than a critic, but hell, if a game reviewer ever won a Pulitzer as Ebert has, I'd consider that a victory for all of us.

I'm glad Play This Thing! brought up Ebert, in fact, and not just because of the controversy he's ignited in the gaming community of late. He's one of my few heroes in the world of criticism/reviewing/whatever, and not just because he's a wonderful writer who can find something interesting to say about the most boring of films. It's because the man cares, and cares deeply, about movies. He doesn't let ugly or cynical films slide because they're "just movies." He believes in the promise of films to bring us to a higher emotional and spiritual plane. When that doesn't happen, you can tell he's disappointed. That brings me to what I think is the most important and true bit in this whole piece:

The point is that a critic has to take his subject seriously, as an example of art, or at least of craft; and take seriously as well the intentionality of the creator, and the importance to those who experience the results of the results, and the impact on how they think and feel.

This, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with game reviews today. Which is not to say that it's true of all reviews or reviewers -- only that when and where reviews fail, this is most often the reason. We are happy not to take games seriously. We treat them as playthings.

Which, to be fair, some are. Not every game may be worthy of the critical approach, quite honestly. Good ones are. Some bad ones are. The wasteland of acceptable, unremarkable fare isn't worth the time or attention, I don't think. I'm happy to be proved wrong on this point. But right now I'm playing through a game called The Club, a pretty rote exercise in skill-based gaming, and I can't even fathom applying to it the slightest intellectual rigor. It's not a bad game -- certainly entertaining enough in spots -- but it is a game with literally nothing on its mind. Therefore, I will take an entirely different approach to reviewing it than I did, say, No More Heroes. The point is that each review should be tailored to the game, rather than trying to cram each game into the same review template.

As ever, the best way to fill the void of critical gaming discourse is to begin to discourse critically about games. It is valuable to point out where the games press is failing readers, but just as with criticizing a game, it takes more than simply identifying flaws. It's about aspiring to an ideal. It's about demanding more from our games and from ourselves. The corporate sites won't do it, because it doesn't make sense financially. They're already getting the biggest slice of the pie -- why change? That means it's up to bloggers and independent sites to dig deeper. There are plenty of us out here. If we lead, the readers will follow.

And then -- only then -- so will the publishers.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Master Chief, release me from this tainted orb!

For everybody who read the control pad stress tests and found themselves nodding in agreement, rather than snorting in derision, Clive Thompson brings some baffling news (which he got from Gamecritics): Science suggests that gamers enjoy dying in games.

We're talking about real science here, not the fake kind intended to mask your childish fits of rage that result in broken controllers. Electrodes were involved. And the electrodes seemed to indicate that gamers have a more positive reaction to dying than to killing others. To gank Clive Thompson's pull quote:
"... instead of joy resulting from victory and success, wounding and killing the opponent elicited anxiety, anger, or both." In addition, "death of the player's own character...appear[s] to increase some aspects of positive emotion." This latter finding the authors believe may result from the temporary "relief from engagement" brought about by character death.

My controllers would suggest otherwise, although perhaps that's some primitive survival mechanism in my brain forcing my body into "relief from engagement." Kind of like how my hearing shuts itself off whenever my fiancee asks me to take out the trash.

Still, this sheds a whole new light on such hilarious online behaviors as "teabagging" one's kill and shouting racial slurs at one's quarry. Just like birds puffing up their plumage and apes beating on their chests, these are nothing more than survival mechanisms. It's not a sign of dominance -- it's a sign of abject terror. We'd always suspected that we were playing against quivering, fearful children, and now we have proof. Thanks, science!

Friday, February 22, 2008

The best ending sequence in game history

For my money, it's this:



There's so much to love: the way the Hyper Beam causes Mother Brain's head to snap back, the option of saving your allies, and, of course, the last Metroid's noble sacrifice. If there's a better example of in-game storytelling out there, I don't know what it is.

Control Pad Stress Test: PlayStation 3 SIXAXIS

Whenever a new game console is released to market, one of its key features is the control pad. Consumers look at ergonomics, button layout, and even aesthetic design, in addition to functionality issues such as the Wii remote's motion-sensitive inputs. Now, after an unprecedented year-long study, Insult Swordfighting is proud to present the results of our intensive stress test of the control pads for the three major game consoles. Today: the PlayStation 3 SIXAXIS.

The Game: Devil May Cry 4

The Scenario: A final, almost tacked-on battle against a nearly defeated Savior, in which Nero must attack the Savior's right hand with a Buster (simple) and then leap and grab the Savior's left hand with the Devil Bringer at a precise moment (IMPOSSIBLE WTF).

The Stress Test: Experimenter remained seated and released the SIXAXIS in a shallow downward motion, simulating disgust and frustration. As always, it was impossible to replicate the exact force and trajectory from one test to the next. In this case, mitigating factors were the oblique angle of the throw, and the area rug that may or may not have been at the first point of impact.

Impact on Aesthetics: Devastating. The plastic pieces between the R1 and R2 buttons, and the L1 and L2 buttons, have both detached -- as has the R1 button itself. R2 and L1 are both loose. The front and back pieces of the controller's body are coming apart. In addition, the four face buttons now feel loose and lack tactile feedback.

Impact on Performance: Substantial. With the R2 button hanging by a thread, a sweeping upward motion is required to press it. The R1 button is missing entirely, and thus unusable. The L1 button has been knocked off its axis a bit, although it still works. And the PS button is stuck in the depressed position. Analog stick functions seem to work fine, as does patented SIXAXIS tilt control, insofar as patented SIXAXIS tilt control works at all.

The Verdict: Kaput. The SIXAXIS was unable to stand up to our rigorous stress test, just as its Dual Shock predecessor was when pitted against the turtle-like boss in Shadow of the Colossus. (You know, the one with all the geysers on the ground and it flips onto its back and you climb up and if you fall off while it's turning over you have to do it all again and oh my god.) A new SIXAXIS will be required to play future PS3 games.

But Insult Swordfighting Labs feels that scientific knowledge is worth the cost, as the benefit to humanity from these tests far outweighs short-term material considerations. Toward a better and more prosperous future!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Control Pad Stress Test: Xbox 360 Control Pad

Whenever a new game console is released to market, one of its key features is the control pad. Consumers look at ergonomics, button layout, and even aesthetic design, in addition to functionality issues such as the Wii remote's motion-sensitive inputs. Now, after an unprecedented year-long study, Insult Swordfighting is proud to present the results of our intensive stress test of the control pads for the three major game consoles. Today: the Xbox 360 control pad.


The Game: Lost Planet

The Scenario: Wayne, on foot, battles a foe equipped with a Vital Suit and armed with missiles. The concussion of each missile blast knocks Wayne to the ground for several seconds, while the smoke from the explosion obscures his vision. By the time he stands back up, quite often he is hit with another missile, knocked down again, and god it's just so stupid.

The Stress Test: Experimenter leapt up from his chair and released the Xbox 360 controller in a sharp downward motion, simulating disgust and frustration. The pad only traveled a short distance, due to the unforeseen presence of a desk between experimenter's release point and the floor, but as compared to the Wii remote stress test, the velocity was much higher. Researchers believe total force was approximately equal.

Impact on Aesthetics: Moderate to high. The right palm grip of the control pad initially split open, and appears to have been widening slightly ever since, with the gap now centimeters wide. As a result of this asymmetry, the control pad no longer sits flush on a level surface. Worse still, it is much less comfortable to hold.

Impact on Performance: None. In more than a year since performing the test, researchers have observed no discernable loss of function in the Xbox 360 control pad -- all the more remarkable considering its grievous exterior damage. One might have suspected, at the very least, that dust and other environmental hazards might have found their way into the delicate circuitry at the controller's heart. That has not been the case.

The Verdict: Mixed. The Xbox 360 control pad scored the highest of the three controllers, by far, on issues of performance. However, it scored substantially lower on the aesthetics scale than did the Wii remote, so it's hard to call this a total victory for Microsoft's controller. Ultimately, performance matters most, but there's no denying the hypothetical embarrassment that could be caused if someone were to come into your apartment and observe a smashed-up controller that hadn't been put there for purposes of science. Even if it still works really well.

Tomorrow: The PlayStation 3 SIXAXIS.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A tumbleweed blows through Google Reader

Here, have a review of Devil May Cry 4. This was a game I felt I was enjoying the whole time I played it, and yet when I finished and thought about it, I could only focus on its flaws. Certainly a decent enough game, but not as good as its predecessor.

What's going on this week? Is everybody at GDC? They're certainly not blogging. My Google Reader is barren, except for the "news" coming out of the conference, like the shocking existence of a Gears of War 2. Sure, I'll look forward to playing that game in another nine months, but I don't see the point of working myself into a lather over it.

Same goes for most of the stuff coming out of the Game Developers Conference, although there's always interesting tidbits like Ken Levine's retrospective on the narrative of BioShock. But the news -- the hard news -- just couldn't interest me any less. Ninja Gaiden 2 release date? Great, remind me a week or two before it comes out. A new Red Faction? Sweet, that makes three Red Faction games I won't have played.

What interests me most about games is the experience of playing them. Events like GDC just build hype, which is something I try to avoid. Not that there's anything wrong with buzz, necessarily, but it helps to avoid it if I want to maintain objectivity. Nor do I think that anybody ought not to cover one of the biggest gaming news events around, just because of my proclivities.

I just get so lonely, is all.

Control Pad Stress Test: The Wii Remote

Whenever a new game console is released to market, one of its key features is the control pad. Consumers look at ergonomics, button layout, and even aesthetic design, in addition to functionality issues such as the Wii remote's motion-sensitive inputs. Now, after an unprecedented year-long study, Insult Swordfighting is proud to present the results of our intensive stress test of the control pads for the three major game consoles. Today: the Wii remote.


The Game: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

The Scenario: Link must escort a carriage across Hyrule, fending off attacks from creatures both land- and air-based. This sequence requires Link to control his horse, Epona, while shooting at his enemies with the Wii remote-controlled bow-and-arrow, and putting out fires on the carriage with his boomerang. Failure results in the scenario restarting.

The Stress Test: Experimenter leapt up from his chair and released the Wii remote in a sharp downward motion, simulating disgust and frustration. Although the first-generation wrist strap did break, it likely retarded the remote's acceleration. This was a variable that Insult Swordfighting Labs unfortunately did not foresee. It should also be mentioned that subsequent stress tests have failed to defeat the newer, hardier wrist strap.

Impact on Aesthetics: Hardly any. An almost imperceptible separation appeared on one side of the casing, where the front and back portions of the exterior meet. The finish was not chipped or scuffed in any way.

Impact on Performance: Mild. Since performing the test, a loose particle is audible inside the Wii remote when it is shaken vigorously or upended. For a brief span of time, the B button had a tendency to stick in the depressed position, but the problem seems to have resolved itself. No discernable impact on pointer and motion-sensing functions.

The Verdict: Unclear. As stated above, the effect of the wrist strap on the stress test is unquantifiable with current data recording techniques. Additionally, newer Wii remotes come with a thick, rubbery casing that did not factor into this test, but would likely increase its durability. Nevertheless, for something that feels in your hand like it cost six cents to make, Insult Swordfighting researchers were suitably impressed that the stress test resulted in no apparent loss of function.

Tomorrow: The Xbox 360 control pad.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Cheat codes versus public education

Video game codes I remember without even trying:
  • 30 lives in Contra: Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A
  • Face Mike Tyson in Mike Tyson's Punch Out: 007-373-5963
  • Warp to Dr. Wiley's castle in Mega Man 2: A1 B2 B4 C1 C5 D1 D3 E3 E5
  • Play Metroid without Samus's suit: JUSTIN BAILEY
  • Jump to the second quest in The Legend of Zelda: ZELDA
  • Activate blood in Mortal Kombat (Sega Genesis): A B A C A B B
  • Invincibility in Doom: IDDQD
  • Acquire all weapons and keys in Doom: IDKFA
Things I remember from high school chemistry class:

Friday, February 15, 2008

Friday afternoon tidbits

Just a few leftovers before I embark upon a weekend full of exciting activities, like drinking beer and falling asleep on the couch:

-I'll take full credit for this: The Boston Phoenix cleaned up at the New England Press Association awards. The paper won the association's top prize, the George A. Speers Newspaper of the Year Award. In addition to almost two dozen individual awards, the Phoenix also nabbed first place nods for General Excellence in the Alternative Weekly category, and for Arts and Entertainment Section, alternative class, for the September 29, 2006 issue. I think it was my Yakuza review that put us over the top.

-In the Brainy Gamer podcast, we touched upon the commercial prospects of No More Heroes domestically. Kotaku has the numbers, and the verdict is: it's doing okay. I don't know what the benchmarks are to call something a success or a failure, sales-wise, but 200,000 units shipped and over 100,000 sold in the first month sounds pretty good to me. Much better than under 40,000 shipped in Japan, even accounting for the population difference. Crazy.

-N'Gai Croal is in the midst of an epic multi-part series called "Is the Cultural Trajectory of Videogames Doomed to Parallel That of Comic Books?" As usual, it seems silly to even attempt to piggyback upon the man's wisdom, so I'd only suggest that you waste no time in reading it.

Okay, maybe I'll toss in one observation. N'Gai quotes Steve Gaynor as saying that the barrier to mass acceptance is much higher for games than for other media: "To read a book, all you need to do is go to a library, pick one up, and start reading (which isn't usually an obstacle considering the high literacy rate in the modern world.)" Which is true, but that's a relatively new development. You only need to go back a few hundred years to find a time when the only literate people were the ruling classes, either in government or clergy. Even our hyperliterate society is largely a post-war phenomenon. Maybe we need to look ahead by decades, or even centuries, to find a time when gaming will be as ubiquitous as reading or watching movies, but it seems to be catching on much faster than its predecessors did.

-Along a similar track, Alastair Harper of the Guardian makes the bold claim that games already are art. He argues that the vast majority of all forms of art and entertainment is trashy -- just look at the bestseller list, the box office charts, the Billboard charts. Yet we don't disqualify the works of genius in those media because of their association with lower-brow fare. Nor do we use their weak sales numbers as an argument against their worth. It's generally accepted that commercial fiction subsidizes literary fiction, blockbusters subsidize art films, and so on. We're not there with games. Instead, games with something on their minds have to sneak in that part of themselves, under cover of blaring pronouncements about next-gen graphics.

-Following up on recent Blu-ray news, Wal-Mart has announced that they, too, will be discontinuing HD-DVD in order to focus exclusively on Blu-ray. The writing's on the wall -- even Toshiba may be ready to pull the plug.

-Enjoy your weekend!

Checking in with Crispy Gamer

Two weeks ago, I remarked upon the launch of Crispy Gamer, a new site that intends to counterbalance the fawning and uncritical coverage you allegedly find at the bigger game sites. There's no question that the industry could use more even-keeled, incisive journalism -- which is not to ignore the valuable contributions of legit journos like N'Gai Croal, Brian Crecente, Geoff Keighley, and many more. But for all the individuals doing solid work, there's still not one place readers can go to find high-quality journalism coupled with insightful game reviews. You have to mix and match your favorite writers from around the web, if that's what you're looking for. Or you have to wade through a bunch of filler.

The first thing Crispy Gamer did right was to assemble some excellent writers, and besides the initial "Game Trust" they've now also posted a review by erstwhile Gamespot scribe Alex Navarro. It's an all-star cast. They've also lent their aegis to Kyle Orland's illuminating "Games for Lunch" project. They've got the right people and the right idea. What I wonder is whether they have the right attitude.

This week, Crispy Gamer debuted a column titled "I Call Bullshit," pitching itself as "a 1,000-watt spotlight on anything and everything in the videogame industry that, you know, just doesn't smell right," and pledging to reveal the "hard, cold truth about the videogame industry." The first few paragraphs are snarky and self-congratulatory, as though the necessary corrective to the supplication of mainstream sites is macho chest-beating. Does the game industry need to be told some hard truths? Yes. Is the way to do that to be insulting and dismissive? Doubtful. If anything, it may only serve to create a bunker mentality among the PR class. Which, granted, may be a step up from the "profound contempt" they seem to be operating with now.

But then the piece goes on to call bullshit on issues that are well past their sell-by date, like the Mass Effect sex controversy and Xbox 360 hardware reliability. The former issue is dead and buried at this point, and this article adds no fresh perspective to it. Microsoft's ongoing inability to address their manufacturing troubles is a legitimate concern, but also one that has been well covered from one end of the web to the other. The world was not desperate for a hero to finally stand up and point out that Xbox 360s break. And, again, this wouldn't be a problem if the column illuminated the problem, instead of merely reiterating it.

Some of the complaints are ironic. An item about the New York Times' struggles to correctly identify industry figures and the names of video games is interesting, because you'd certainly expect the newspaper of record to show more professionalism. But coming as this does in a column that includes sentences written in all caps and questionable grammatical formulations like "Bullshit = called," the criticism loses some of its punch. The article also calls out "fresh-out-of-the-Photoshop-oven screenshots." But if you wait for the second rotating feature to load on the Crispy Gamer homepage, you'll see that it's promoting "exclusive screenshots" for LittleBigPlanet, Starcraft II, and the especially bullshotty Dark Sector. For a site that prides itself on not feeding from the PR trough, this is an interesting juxtaposition.

I know Crispy Gamer loaded up on content prior to their launch, so that could explain some of the staleness of this column. If future installments occur closer to real-time, stopping some of these runaway PR nightmares in their tracks, it'll be a worthwhile feature. But if it's going to remain nothing more then carping and namecalling, then guess what?

I call bullshit.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Insult Swordfighting visits the Brainy Gamer

I was flattered to be invited to appear on the Brainy Gamer podcast. Michael Abbott writes one of the most considered, highbrow gaming blogs around, and it was fun to be able to talk to him in person. We chatted about No More Heroes, Burnout Paradise, the state of the gaming community, and a whole lot more.

Cross-blog conversations tend to erupt pretty frequently, particularly when a game like No More Heroes shows up, but the nature of blogging is still pretty solitary. You tend to soliloquize, or invent straw men to bounce your arguments and opinions off of. It was nice, in this case, to actually trade some ideas with a like-minded person. Give it a listen!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Burnout Paradise review, plus one more wrong thing

My official review of Burnout Paradise is up now at thephoenix.com. It doesn't really cover anything different than the two blog posts I've already written about the game, but you should read it anyway. Don't do it for me. Do it for my benevolent corporate overlords.

There's one jarring omission from the list of things wrong with Burnout Paradise that I need to rectify. How could I have forgotten to spotlight DJ Atomica and his wretched playlist? EA's continued insistence on saddling one of their best properties with a brainless announcer and those execrable Trax™ just reeks of boardroom synergy.

I refuse to believe that the cost of hiring one competent composer to score the game could possibly exceed that of licensing all these no-name bands. At least in past Burnout games you could count on them throwing you a bone like the Futureheads. In Paradise, the only good songs are the old ones (Faith No More's "Epic," Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage"), and they play "Paradise City" so much that even that's starting to get tiresome. And even if you disagree with my musical taste, chances are there's plenty here that doesn't suit you, either.

Strangely, the soundtrack includes lots of electronic music from the first three Burnout games, and you know what? It sounds great! It's much better racing music than some band called "Army of Me," because it was made with the game in mind. It complements the action onscreen, instead of calling attention to itself. I don't see what's so difficult about this.

Yes, you can go through and disable any Trax™ you don't like, which is better than nothing, but that's fairly low on the list of things I want to be spending my time doing in a Burnout game. At least the Xbox 360 gives you the option to use custom soundtracks.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Blu-ray ascendent, continued

Sometimes, things just start to look inevitable -- like the next-gen DVD format war. The latest news is that Netflix is phasing out HD-DVD, opting to carry Blu-ray exclusively. This article also includes the tidbit that Best Buy stores will begin to "recommend that customers choose Blu-ray," which is less impressive but still noteworthy. Certainly if they're hiding the $200 Toshiba HD-DVD players behind a massive Blu-ray display featuring the likes of Ratatouille, it's possible some consumers won't even realize they have a choice.

Then came this weak rejoinder from the HD-DVD camp:
We have long held the belief that HD DVD is the best format for consumers based on quality and value, and with more than 1 million HD DVD players on the market, it's unfortunate to see Netflix make the decision to only stock Blu-ray titles going forward. While the Best Buy announcement says they will recommend Blu-ray, at least they will continue to carry HD DVD and offer consumers a choice at retail.

Yep -- that's the whole thing. No blustery statement about future prospects, no mention of the lower cost of HD-DVD players, nothing about Paramount still hanging on as supporting HD-DVD exclusively. (Things look a little bleak on the Universal front, too.) I can't believe how sad and dejected the language is. "At least they'll continue to carry HD-DVD. Aw, shucks." You can practically see the spokesperson shoving his hands in his pockets and kicking a pebble.

It's getting hard to ignore the data as it accumulates in Blu-ray's favor. But the death blow won't come for a few months, and when it does, it's coming in the form of this movie:

Blu-ray ain't got time to bleed.

Note: Apparently it's officially formatted as "Blu-ray," so that's what I'll start doing unless somebody has a counterargument.

What's right with Burnout Paradise

Yesterday I went into some detail about what I thought was wrong with Burnout Paradise. There's one correction to make: apparently you can stop an event, either by entering showtime mode or simply stopping and waiting for several seconds. That's better than I thought, but still counterintuitive and unhelpful. A restart option still would have been nice, too, loading times or not.

With that said, there's a lot to like about Burnout Paradise. In some ways, it leaves treadmarks all over other racing games. I have never understood the appeal of realistic racing games such as Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport. Realism in games is like a spice: it's best used sparingly, and only when necessary. The Burnout formula is much more fun. Instead of the sterility of professional racetracks, it pits you against fast-moving, rush-hour traffic, and creates incentives to drive dangerously. Instead of calculating your car's friction and weight shifts around turns, it gives you a simple but effective power-sliding mechanism that makes sense the first time you try it -- even if it takes a lot more time to master. For several games now, nobody has captured the white-knuckle thrills of fantasy racing better than Criterion. And in Burnout Paradise, they did it again.

The best part about this game is simply that its sense of speed is unparalleled. There's no learning curve in which you need to totter along trying to get a feel for how it works. You start off fast, and gradually work your way up to near-lightspeed as you earn new cars. Even the slower cars seem not to have a top speed, though. That "zen-like state" I mentioned yesterday? If you're hitting it just right, it feels like the car upshifts into eternity. It's like the trip to Jupiter in 2001. And if you think I'm exaggerating this, I'd suggest that maybe you haven't played the game.

But it's not just how fast the cars go. It's how the speed is integrated into the gameplay. After a crash, you're plunked right back down onto the course at about half-speed. Most racing games make you rev back up from a standstill. At its best, this game is all about forward motion. Even when you score a takedown, you're treated to a brief, mostly slow-motion shot of your quarry's demise, and then you're dropped right back into the action.

Which brings me to another point: takedowns are so awesome. Yes, I miss aftertouch, but smashing up jerks is just never going to get old. In Burnout Paradise, the nearly endless array of real-time wrecks is stunning. Your opponents bounce off of any nearby objects, parts of their cars fall off like that scene in The Blues Brothers, and if you're really lucky they might plummet off a cliff. The all-encompassing awesomeness of takedowns is why Road Rage continues to be my favorite event.

One of the new events in Paradise is an inversion of Road Rage, called "Marked Man." And it's a worthy addition. In it, your goal is simply to make it from one waypoint to another without getting totalled. Never mind that it's easy to do against computer opponents. I've talked a lot in these two posts about what I think the spirit of Burnout is, and Marked Man fits right in. It's like your classic car chase, with everybody on the road gunning for you. It helps to wreck your opponents, but it's not necessary. What's good about Marked Man is that you can choose the type of approach that fits your style of play best: you can try to outrun your opponents, outflank them, or outlast them. You can pick the type of vehicle that works the best for your strategy. And this without sacrificing anything that makes Burnout great, as with finding those yellow gates.

Finally -- and this may be where the biggest line of demarcation is between people who love Burnout Paradise and those who don't -- the online interface is implemented almost perfectly. Notice I don't the online play, necessarily. For one thing, given the choice I almost always prefer single-player to multiplayer. It's just this thing I have. But I'm also not too enamored with useless competitions like who's been able to drift the furthest during a session. Still, all the usual event types are great fun, and human opponents are certainly more skillful and unpredictable than computerized ones. What's more impressive is how the online play is integrated into the single-player. You can hop instantly into a game with two pushes of a button. No lobbies, no waiting. I don't care what the technical hurdles are: I want every single game to start doing this immediately. Now that we know it's possible, we can't go back.

All this, and I haven't even posted the actual review. That's coming soon.

Monday, February 11, 2008

What's wrong with Burnout Paradise

No, that's not a question. There's a lot wrong with Burnout Paradise. On balance, it's a good game, and the problems I have with it tend to be isolated rather than systemic -- which is to say that they don't poison every aspect of the game, and it's mostly possible to ignore them.

Still: they can be really irritating.

Most of the issues stem from the decision to go open-world. In some ways this move was genius, especially considering the amazing, seamless integration of multiplayer. And it's nice to have some latitude simply to dick around, experimenting with jumps and optimal race routes. Still, I'm not convinced that the benefits of this new design outweigh the costs.

For example, once you start a race event, there's no way to restart or quit. Big deal, you say? Imagine this: You've started a race, and you're zipping along, trading paint with another contender. Ahead, the road doglegs left before entering a tunnel. You take the turn wide and rocket into what looks like a shortcut. Except it isn't a shortcut. You've stumbled onto some train tracks, and they take you into a freestyle stunt zone that has no easy exit. As you're squinting at the upcoming route to try to find a way back onto the road, you're putting miles between yourself and the finish line. Not only can you not win at this point, but you still have to find a way out and limp to an eighth-place finish before you can do anything else.

Now is it a problem that you can't restart or quit?

Another dismaying omission: they've done away with aftertouch. Aftertouch, you may recall, was the ability to take control of your car during a wreck and steer its mangled corpse into the paths of oncoming racers. It isn't just that it was a clever and often hilarious way to score takedowns. In fact, aftertouch was a crucial part of what made Burnout great, because it integrated crashes into the gameplay in a way no other game did. Instead of taking you out of the game, they drew you further in. In Paradise, you get lovingly rendered but essentially useless slow-motion crash scenes. It's especially vexing when you're heading somewhere in freeburn mode and accidentally clip an island or something, and then have to watch a pornographic shot of your wreck for several seconds. There's not even an option to skip it.

While tooling around the open world can actually be great fun, the obligatory inclusion of hidden collectables makes no sense in the context of Burnout. What I always liked about the series was its fanatical devotion to its core gameplay tenets: speed, jumps, and wrecks. Every event type played to one or more of those. "Burning Route" is all speed. "Road Rage" is all wrecks. "Crash" is jumps and wrecks. Races are a combination of all three. Speed, jumps, and wrecks. Burnout Paradise has a free-roaming mode that includes yellow gates, which mark shortcuts (helpful for speed), and Burnout billboards, most of which can only be accessed by finding huge ramps (good ol' jumps). With 400 gates and 120 billboards to smash -- with achievements for completing either task -- that's a lot of speedin' and jumpin'.

Just one problem: To find the Burnout billboards and yellow gates in Paradise, though, frequently you have to... stop in your tracks. Slamming through gates is awesome when it happens organically. It's possible to reach a zen-like state of Burnout where you come bombing down the hills, streak across city limits, and pound through one gate after another, weaving through oncoming traffic, slashing your way through parking garages and leaping over rooftops. But that's much less common than driving down the street, seeing a gate pass by, slamming on the brakes, and backing up. Most of the billboards require a similarly slow-paced reconnaisance and plan of attack. Essentially, this part of the game rewards stopping. That's antithetical to the Burnout ideal.

Worse still, although the shortcuts can be helpful, finding gates and billboards doesn't actually have an impact on gameplay. Compare this to the agility orbs in Crackdown. Acquiring those made your character stronger, and better able to complete his tasks. Furthermore, finding agility orbs gave you the ability to find even more agility orbs. Instant, satisfying feedback. Aside from the achievement points, there's really no point to clearing the board in Burnout Paradise. That's upsetting, coming from a franchise that had previously been so lean and mean. And that, ultimately, is the biggest thing wrong with this game: there's too much fat on the frame.

Criterion has added all sorts of features that don't really make sense in the context of what Burnout usually does. I liked the drive-thrus a lot for things that mattered to gameplay, like the body shop and the gas station. Without even taking your foot off the gas, you can repair your car's damage or max out your boost meter. That's brilliant. And then there are paint shops, which change your car's color. Really? I can't imagine needing anything less, at any time, for any reason. "I'm trailing in this race with under half a mile to go. There's only one thing that can save me now: new paint job!"

Still, all this makes it sound like Burnout Paradise is no good, and, as I said up top, that's not the case. It is a good game, with lots of features that work wonderfully. Tomorrow, I'll talk about what's right with Burnout Paradise.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The King of Kong, continued

There's an excellent, and fortuitously timed, feature over at the Onion A.V. Club: an interview with Billy Mitchell about King of Kong. I'll present it without comment, because at this point I'm not sure what value there is in my trying to apply a lie detector to the conflicting statements of the filmmakers and the film's subjects. Great read, though.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Jason Scott did not care for King of Kong

Last summer, I posted a glowing review of the documentary King of Kong, which is about the battle for Donkey Kong supremacy between two passionate players. It's a wonderful movie, drawn with the broad strokes of underdog sports films, but with a penetrating look at an American subculture most of us had no idea existed. Still, even in the original review I suspected some editorial intervention:
The film stops being a quirky look at an American subculture and becomes a baroque good vs. evil story. There's no question that some creative editing makes Billy Mitchell come off like Darth Vader and Steve Wiebe like the second coming of Jesus. We never see Mitchell with his kids, although presumably he has spawned a few. And on Wiebe's rejected Donkey Kong tape, he's interrupted by his crying son who needs his rear end wiped. Does Steve help? No -- he keeps going for the record.

Obviously, the perceived fudging of facts didn't keep me from enjoying the film (same goes for most film critics). For Jason Scott, though, King of Kong is a travesty. To choose a hilariously representative excerpt, take a look at this:

The director, Seth Gordon, is hard at work at a screenplay for The King of Kong, which he will then sell to have a fictional movie made. Or, as I am saying, a second fictional movie, but one where he can see 100% of the profits of the picture without having to cut in any of the people whose lives he just took a galactic dump on. Let me be clear: he fucked these people. He couldn't have fucked them worse than if he strapped them across a air-hockey table and sodomized them with a Wico Command Control Joystick. He interviewed them, had them retrieve archival footage and materials going back decades, recorded them at their homes, their places of work, and at events that they put up at their own expense and time, and then he painted them in clown makeup and threw pies at them for an hour and 19 minutes.

Ouch! Remind me never to get on Jason Scott's bad side. Or Seth Gordon's, really -- this makes him sound like the Marquis de Sade. Of course, if the editorializing really is this blatant -- and I have no reason to doubt that it is -- then Scott is right on point. King of Kong is being sold as a true story, and it seems as though it wasn't. But this isn't the first documentary to play fast and loose with the facts (cf. Land Without Bread), and it won't be the last.

Where does a documentary filmmaker's reponsibility lie: with his subject, or with his audience? King of Kong wouldn't have been half as entertaining as it was if Seth Gordon hadn't made the creative changes he did. It's more gripping than most sports movies that get made, all the more so because we believe it's basically true. Steve Wiebe is the underdog, the guy who always falls short, the guy who seems to provoke mostly sympathy from his friends and family. Billy Mitchell is like a cult leader, the man who's managed to situate himself at the center of his followers' worlds. If somebody told you this story in a fictional context, you would never believe it.

But Scott cites multiple instances of editing changing the context of events in the film to make Billy Mitchell seem like the bad guy. This one is jarring: "A core theme is that Billy Mitchell is an asshole, one who doesn't even deign to spend time in the same location as Steve Wiebe and won't even come in to eat lunch at the same table as him. In fact, Billy came in and paid for lunch." That's certainly not the Billy Mitchell we get to know from the film. And no, it's not fair to him that he's portrayed as an Olympic-level prick if he isn't. I can only wonder how some of the people featured in King of Kong felt after it came out. I made special mention in my review of the sycophantic Brian Kuh -- what if he was treated even more unfairly than Billy?

Certainly it doesn't seem as though Seth Gordon let the facts get in the way of a good story -- no, a great story. Before watching King of Kong, I watched a more even-keeled and less interesting arcade documentary called Chasing Ghosts. Billy Mitchell featured prominently in that one, too, and while the film's structure was more informational than dramatic, nothing I learned about him there caused me to doubt what I was seeing in King of Kong. A wise man once said that you can't carve the Mona Lisa out of crap, and Seth Gordon couldn't have made this movie without some raw materials to work with. That's the job of an artist.

And for all that Scott worries about the damage Gordon's movie might have done to some of the people involved, I'd bet my life that the Billy Mitchell brand has only been enhanced as a result of it. What bigger favor could Seth Gordon have done for him?

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Gore Verbinski needs to play No More Heroes

Gore Verbinski, the visionary director behind such groundbreaking, out-of-the-mainstream cinematic fare as the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and, uh, Mousehunt, knows where he stands on the question of game auteurs:

"On a design level, you need someone to carry the vision. It is time for the auteur of gaming."

"Homogenization of voice," he said, is the biggest issue facing the industries today.

As a director, "I fight tooth and nail for my opinion because I cannot stand watching a film that has too many of them," he said. Game designers' ideas should make executives "shit themselves," he added.

Of course, I agree with him, but considering that he's basing this on his disappointment with the Pirates of the Caribbean video games, maybe he ought to play more games before saying something like that. Sure, licensed games tend not to be worth the DVDs they're burned on. But taking those as representative of the breadth of interactive experiences available would be like -- well, like thinking Pirates of the Caribbean was emblematic of all movies. It's akin to railing on the hollowness of blockbuster films, having never heard of the Coen Brothers. These fascinating and singular games do exist.

Which is not to suggest that we shouldn't encourage more of them, or make room for more experimentation in game design. Obviously we should. I could not agree with this quote any more fully: "Let's not make games that remind us of a better version of the same thing. There is so much potential in this room. You haven't even scratched the surface of what is possible in terms of the human experience." It just sounds strange coming from the guy who made a movie about a gay pirate trying to save his cursed ship from the scariest special effects in the Caribbean.

Bonus Irony Alert:

"We're influencing each other," he said of games and film, "and that is exciting and dangerous and in fact a little bit mad."

Games influencing films? Why, that couldn't be...

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

What's wrong with this sentence?

From Kotaku:
The story does mention a few things interesting to the hardcore as well, like the fact that they had to play down the game's realism because if a person was really hit with a force blow it would be like being smacked with a cannon ball, and perhaps a bit too gruesome for the T-rating they are shooting for.

The auteur theory of games

I've been having an interesting discussion with Michael Abbott in the comments to this post. The question: Can inspiration survive the collaborative process intact? Or does the team-based approach to design necessarily dilute a singular creative vision?

At first blush, my feeling is that the list of video game "auteurs" is pretty small. I could name you Shigeru Miyamoto, whose games tend to emphasize the allure of new worlds hidden just out of sight; Hideo Kojima, who delights in breaking through the fourth wall to draw explicit parallels between his fictional stories and the real world; and now Suda 51, whose embrace of game symbols and history is almost post-modern.

Generally, when I play a game, I don't get that feeling that I've tapped into the psyche of some cracked genius. Many good -- even great -- games still feel more like a machine that's been precisely engineered, rather than a sloppy work of genius. Along those lines, I was struck by a comment Gus Mastrapa made on a post Chris Dahlen wrote about Burnout Paradise:
I’ve always taken issue with the Burnout series’ reticence to commit to a style, position or even attitude. The worlds are always kinda bland, generic even. The radio hosts are usually suicide inducing. The crashes and racing are awesome, but the setting is so non-committal that it irks me for some reason. Who gets the opportunity to make a world and fashions something so utterly devoid of character?

I read that and thought immediately of No More Heroes. By any measure, Burnout is the more polished and "professional" of the two games. Its open world is seamless. It is a technological marvel, and at its best it provides a gut-level thrill that I'm not sure is matched elsewhere. But the game lacks any kind of a voice or point of view. Paradise City doesn't possess an ounce of the character that Santa Destroy has. Whatever attitude Burnout Paradise contains comes from a place that rings false, especially as expressed through the riffage of DJ Atomica. My instinct is to attribute that difference to the lack of Suda 51-like personality at Criterion Games.


Of course, that conclusion could just be ignorance on my part, simply because Criterion doesn't have a celebrity figurehead. It may be presumptuous to think that Suda 51 is the only one who had any input on No More Heroes. And, as I think about it, I could name you dozens of designers with distinctive styles. Peter Molyneux. Sid Meier. Tetsuya Miziguchi. I might be saying there aren't many game auteurs only because I haven't thought about it long enough.

On the flipside, you have development houses that continue to produce singular work. Abbott compares the game industry as we know it today to the studio system of Hollywood's early days:

...it's very easy to discern an Atlus game, a Sega game, a Capcom game, and a Grasshopper game. They each have very distinctive features and stylistic signatures. Yes, they can't necessarily be traced to a specific designer, but I think their distinctiveness is no less pronounced...

MGM films looked very different from Warner Bros. films, which looked very different from Paramount or RKO... the collaborative, factory-like system of filmmaking in the 30s managed to generate such singular, artistically distinctive films.

The parallels are easy to draw. One place you see this in action is in the sharing of tech across development houses owned by the same publisher. Naughty Dog and Insomniac seemed to lend each other a hand between the Jak and Daxter and Ratchet and Clank games, for example. And once one EA game implements a new feature, it tends to propagate pretty rapidly throughout the company (such as how every EA Sports game started to implement the right analog stick in the same model year).

And certainly there are teams with unmistakable styles. Games by Team ICO, say, are as unique as anything in the industry. but Fumito Ueda doesn't tend to enjoy the rarefied status of other rockstar designers. Yet Wikipedia credits his work on ICO as "Director/Lead Designer/Lead Animator/Cover Design/Art Direction." How could he possibly have had more of an impact on that game? It could just be that those of us with no knowledge of what it takes to make a game don't know quite where to give credit, or place blame, especially these days, when it takes a team of dozens to ship a game.

No doubt there are convincing arguments on both sides, and I'm fairly certain that this is the sort of thing that doesn't have a true answer. What do you think? Are great games the product of a determined visionary, or a group of talented people working in perfect harmony?

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

No More Heroes review

My review of No More Heroes is up now at thephoenix.com. It covers much of the same territory as my previous posts about the game, but, er, you should still read it anyway.

I think if I ever have a kid, I'm going to name him "Dr. Peace."

Monday, February 04, 2008

The "New Wave" of games

Another great post from the Brainy Gamer about No More Heroes, comparing Suda 51 to the auteurs of the French New Wave. Without having seen, well, any of the films mentioned, I think I'm still on board with that thesis.

To gank a thought from my review, it seems to me that the amount of money and effort it takes to make a big-time console game these days practically requires design by committee. Too many people are involved in every level of the process -- from the artists, to the sound guys, to the suits sweating every nickel and dime -- for one person's vision to make the leap from conception to reality. Lots of good and even great games come out every year, but most of them lack that stamp of individuality, even if the graphics are polished and the online play is stutter-free. BioShock seemed to have that singular inspiration driving it, but apparently most of the storyline only came together near the end. With No More Heroes, you really get the impression that you're playing a game that has sprung, intact, from the deepest recesses of Suda 51's mind. While it's not as polished as a lot of games, that's a point in its favor. (See Leigh's comments on this post.) Frankly, I can't believe this game got made.

Right now, Roger Ebert's review of The 400 Blows is featured on his web site. At the top is this quote from Truffaut: "I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between." No More Heroes, it could be said, expresses the joy of making games. Or maybe the agony of making games. Certainly, it revels in the joy of playing games.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Crispy Gamer puts its money where its mouth is

Although many of us had suspected it for a long time, the circumstances surrounding the firing of Gamespot's Jeff Gerstmann only confirmed people's darkest fears that advertising was corrupting editorial integrity at the bigger enthusiast sites. If Eidos can bully one of the most respected sites in the industry into softening a Kane and Lynch review, what chance is there to find fair and unbiased coverage?

Crispy Gamer thinks they can break the game publishers' stranglehold. The site, which launched today, promises credibility and accountability in everything they write. How? "Crispy Gamer will not accept ads from game publishers. Read that line again: Will not. Credibility starts when the emphasis is placed on the reader and not the bottom line."

That's a bold way to do business. One wonders if the Publishers Clearing House ads currently adorning the margins will bring in the clicks the way, say, a Burnout Paradise ad would. If they can attract the readership, though, there's no reason they won't make money. To do that, they've assembled what looks like a stellar roster of writers, including some of my favorites like Tom Chick, Gus Mastrapa, and Kyle Orland. Crispy Gamer calls its contributors the "Game Trust," which to my mind is a little overblown, but at least conveys what they're going for.

They're also bold enough to do what most reviewers only dream, and that's to eschew numerical scores altogether, opting instead for a simpler "Buy It/Try It/Fry It" rubric. To this point, there aren't enough reviews up to say whether these pieces are really going to be as independent and iconoclastic as they claim. Most seem positive, including an effusive BioShock review. I will say that I'm not encouraged to "Buy" Assassin's Creed when the review's subhed calls it flawed, and then scanning the text reveals phrases like "may not quite live up to the hype," "an amusing story clumsily delivered," and so on. Still, I'm intrigued enough by their mission statement to keep tuning in as they flesh out their content.

No more No More Heroes embargo

All right, the review is done and I've been able to read what some other people have to say about No More Heroes. I recommend both the Brainy Gamer and the Aberrant Gamer, each of whom covers much of the same ground that I did in my review (to be posted next week). On one hand, I'm glad that my impressions of the game seem valid. On the other hand, this may mean that I'm not as singularly insightful as I thought I was.

No More Heroes is a game about games. In the larger world of media, I can only think to compare Suda 51's work here to the filmography of Quentin Tarantino. Not because No More Heroes and Pulp Fiction share a fondness for sex, violence, and profanity, but because you get the impression that Suda 51 has played every game ever made and wants to give them all a shout-out, just as Tarantino does with films. No More Heroes is a pastiche that incorporates influences from the earliest arcade games through last fall's Manhunt 2. It seems to revel in the hoky symbols and twisted logic that took root in games by necessity.

In the early days, if designers wanted to denote enemies dropping loot, they had no real choice but to represent it graphically with something like a big ol' dollar sign. These days, games are trending toward more realism in this regard. Recent shooters like Call of Duty 4 and Gears of War try to minimize their HUDs, for example, in order to break down that fourth wall. No More Heroes seems to feel that the fourth wall is crucial to a game's identity. Your area map is a blocky grid, but only slightly more blocky than the streets and buildings of Santa Destroy itself. Important locations are marked by enormous, pixilated icons that hover over the sidewalks. Power-ups are placed inside treasure chests, which are barely concealed around corners of the mostly straight-ahead levels. And loot? Your fallen enemies blast you with a torrent of jingling coins.

The trend toward open-world games has resulted in games like Grand Theft Auto giving your character side missions, simple tasks that don't advance the storyline but earn your character money or items. Here, again, No More Heroes doesn't try to shoehorn side missions into the narrative, but celebrates them in all their superfluous glory. In order to get the money he needs to advance in the game, Travis takes on such arduous tasks as mowing lawns, picking up trash, and gassing up cars. The banality is so extreme that it crosses the line to audacity. (The only problem is that, well, they're still not that much fun to play.)

For as much as No More Heroes seems to be a mish-mash of other people's ideas, I was also intrigued by its take on its characters' physicality, which takes an angle I'm not sure I've seen before. To the extent that most game characters seem to have functioning bodies, it's either to bleed or to indulge in occasional hot alien sex. In the essays I've read, most people have glossed over the fact that, in No More Heroes, the save point is the toilet. Potty humor on one level, yes, but I don't believe anything in this game is so insignificant. I think it's a rebuke to all the games that treat their virtual denizens as the artificial constructs we'd like to think they aren't. Travis picks his nose, lusts after his female employer, and, yes, frequently uses the bathroom. It's about time somebody in a game did. All that running water in BioShock, and your character never gets the urge to go, even once?

No More Heroes doesn't necessarily strike me as a game of the year contender, but it's an important breakthrough precisely because it doesn't need to be judged along the traditional review axes. In fact, on the Metacritic page is this excerpt from the IGN review: "...it’s a pain to trek through, and a painfully low-tech visual offering. Pop-in is everywhere, control is irritating at best, and the frame rate is all over the charts. It’s an absolute mess." It's not often I feel justified in saying something like this, but it's hard to imagine a reviewer so completely missing the point (except maybe when I reviewed Mass Effect, but that's neither here nor there). That's like bitching about a movie being shot in black and white after 1950. The look of this game was a choice. No More Heroes is a game with things on its mind, not least of which is its own identity. I feel richer for having played it.

And, frankly, I'm just glad I finally got to play a game that let me use the word "pastiche" without having to strain for it.