Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day

Remember the days when you brought a new game home, loaded it into your console, and then immediately started playing? Sure, NES games sometimes needed a little goosing to get them going, but in the 16-bit age we hit a sweet spot where games always worked, and they worked quickly. Even cartridges stacked with 24 huge megs of memory started up instantaneously.

With the advent of CD-ROM, suddenly we were spending half our time waiting for things to load. Wipeout XL advertised Red Bull during the downtime before races. Resident Evil played a silly animation of a door opening each time you tried to access a new area. Ridge Racer even let you play Galaga on its load screen -- which, all things considered, was pretty clever. But in each case, at least you could get started playing almost right away.

I had plenty of time to think about this subject -- indeed, enough time to relive my entire gaming life, Walk Hard-style -- while I was waiting to play Grand Theft Auto IV yesterday. For several excellent reasons, I took home the PlayStation 3 version. I haven't played anything on that system since Devil May Cry 4 in February, so when I turned it on I was informed that a system update was required. This was the big 2.30 firmware update, and all told it took about twenty minutes to download and install (this was almost, but not quite, enough time to read the entirety of Bill Simmons' epic chat).

Once that was done, it was time to play -- just after the mandatory install, that is! This one was not nearly so onerous as that of DMC4, but coming as it did on the heels of the firmware update it felt like a cruel joke. About five minutes later, GTAIV's opening cinematic started to play.

At that moment, my fiancee walked in the door and I had to turn the game off to make dinner.

I know, I know: not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. I only missed out on half an hour of play time, when I wouldn't have been able to do much anyway. I had the rest of the evening to play. And I know there are several compelling arguments for the usefulness of firmware updates and pre-installs. All of this stuff makes sense to me, intellectually. As a practical matter, what a kick in the balls! This is the price of progress, I suppose.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

We interrupt ongoing GTA coverage...

...for this Ikaruga review.

I had never played the game before, but I came away impressed, if not enthralled. Very few games fit neatly into just one of the categories I named in the New Taxonomy of Gamers series, but Ikaruga is the quintessential perfectionist game. It requires you to do the same thing over and over again as you improve only incrementally. If you find yourself able to beat it on hard mode without dying, you can upload your video to YouTube and even get mentioned in reviews! To me, the reward's not worth the effort. But I understand the temptation to master something like this. It puts you in elite company.

Still a cool game, though. I'm glad I finally played it after all this time.

Monday, April 28, 2008

All aboard the hype train! Last stop: Liberty City station

I don't know how great Grand Theft Auto IV is, but I do know this: After today, people will finally stop telling me how great it's going to be. That ranks a 10/10 on any scale.

Don't get me wrong -- I am looking forward to playing GTAIV. But there is something strange about the culture of hype that is so much a part of the gaming community. No matter how many times we get burned, we're still willing and eager to bestow "game of the year" status upon something we haven't played. We pass along screenshots, trailers, and preview pieces from the enthusiast press as though we had no idea they might be cooked. We don't consider the possibility that all these press materials are made available for the publisher's benefit, not the consumer's. It's a lesson we never learn!

Variety's video-game blog, "The Cut Scene," has a post about the troubling implications of the exclusive review, which is as pernicious a part of this process as any. The first American outlet to post a GTAIV review was IGN, which awarded it a rare 10/10. I am not surprised that the only people to have posted reviews of GTAIV prior to this weekend gave it perfect scores (besides IGN, a few European outlets gave it a go). The same thing happened last year just before Assassin's Creed was released. The Metacritic score was in the 90s until the embargo lifted, and then it dropped over ten points.

An even better example (cited in the Cut Scene post) is that of Game Informer's world-exclusive Mass Effect review. The magazine gave the game a 9.75/10, while still noting its myriad flaws. As I wondered at the time:
...what was Game Informer reviewing? The Mass Effect in front of them, or the Mass Effect they expected to arrive in stores months later? Were they willing to overlook certain problems to secure the exclusive? Were they willing to furnish a certain minimum score?

After scans of the Game Informer review popped up online, they were breathlessly reposted in a (non-game-specific) message board I frequent. I pointed out the offending paragraphs about poor AI, play control, and so on, and was told, essentially, to STFU. I felt no joy when the game turned out to be terrible, for all the reasons that Game Informer danced around.

Now, here we are again, doing the same dance with Grand Theft Auto IV. Posting screenshots. Relaying each new review as it's posted. Strenuously arguing the merits of one console version or the other. Strategizing to acquire the game at a midnight launch, as though it will rot like an avocado if not consumed immediately. Maybe it will deliver on the hype, but that would make it one of the only games ever to do so.

I'm not saying anything that people don't already know. What's strangest about a game with this level of hype is that everybody knows what's happening, and they don't care. They enjoy it. There may even be something genuinely helpful and positive about games that act as a communal touchstone, particularly when they grab the attention of casual gamers or non-gamers. But a mob mentality is always troubling, no matter what the context. There's little harm in forum wars, really, but the mindset is one that any individual should strive to avoid.

Look at it pragmatically. If you convince yourself that something is going to the greatest game ever, then the best-case scenario is that it meets your expectations. More likely, the game will fall short in some way. That's no way to live. To me, nothing is better than being gobsmacked by some under-the-radar title that I had no expectations for, positive or negative.

Of course, that's not so easy with games as it is with other media. At $60 a pop, blockbuster games have an almost prohibitive barrier to entry. Imagine if the cost of a movie ticket were proportional to the budget of the film. It would cost ten times as much to see Iron Man as it would to see Son of Rambow. But that's not the case. As a result, people can afford to take a chance on something unknown, without any marketing muscle behind it. With games, though, the cost of development is passed on to the consumer. Despite a burgeoning indie scene on Xbox Live Arcade, and a vibrant one on the PC, in the world of consoles people are going to save their money for the sure thing.

It's a shame, really, and it's one of the areas in which games still can't measure up to other popular media. Despite the massive revenues the video game industry pulls in, much of that is still due to the price of software and not its ubiquity. It's much more expensive to blindly buy an Xbox 360 game than to pick up a book with an interesting cover, or download an MP3 by a band with a funny name ("Echo and the Bunnymen? I've gotta hear this!"). If buying a new game potentially means throwing away sixty dollars, then you can't blame people for not wanting to take chances. And you can't blame publishers for focusing their efforts on hype instead of gameplay.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Reconciling the irreconcilable

The story I've been alluding to for over a week now has been posted at "Sex, violence and video games." In it, I look at the merits of a few recent controversies, including the ever-present Grand Theft Auto criticism, the Mass Effect "SeXbox" flap, and, of course, the Resident Evil 5 trailer. I also take the community to task for often acting as their own worst enemies. The crux of the argument is that gamers need to be repping themselves better in the discourse, making a real effort at empathy:
The less-helpful commenters accused [critics themselves] of racism, of creating a racial divide where previously there was none. They decried an assault on Capcom’s right to free speech. But the question wasn’t whether the game’s Japanese developers had intended any racism (cultural ignorance is a commonly invoked defense among gamers), or why nobody had complained before when Resident Evil zombies had been predominantly white. It was whether those claiming free speech in defense of divisive games were willing to extend the same rights to those whom the games offended.

I also made one more attempt at demolishing the "just a game" defense.

To spend the bulk of your time and money on a hobby that can be dismissed with a wave of the hand would require an act of cognitive dissonance. Some games do have the potential to be transformative experiences. Talk to Final Fantasy VII fans about the grief they felt when Sephiroth killed Aeris. Ask a few BioShock players whether they saved or harvested the Little Sisters, and why. Such indelible moments may be rare, but they give game developers something to strive for. And they give gamers hope that the next game we play will also engage us intellectually, emotionally, and morally. I can think of no more belittling way to discuss this medium than to ever call something "just" a game. So let’s scrap that argument.

Think it'll take? Me neither.

When I began this piece, I had intended to lay the hammer down. This was to be the last word on the subject, and the spark that ignited countless fanboy epiphanies around the world. But that's not how it ended up. It is, perhaps, a good place to start, presuming that angry mobs don't do their best to prove my point. I would love to know what people think.

P.S. It's the cover story in this week's print issue, which is exciting. Pick up a copy, if you're local.

P.P.S. Also check out the brief sidebar, "Not-so-great moments in video game controversy." Nothing new or particularly illuminating, but that stuff's always good for a laugh.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A two-pronged Hump Day assault

It is apparently the law that all games bloggers must link to Zero Punctuation, so let me say how much I enjoyed this week's review of Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Yahtzee certainly has the courage of his convictions. I was gratified that he shared many of my sentiments about the game -- except his jokes were much, much better.

After I watched the episode, I revisited my own review to see where we'd overlapped, and found that a helpful reader had commented:
the writer of this article obviously has no knowledge of video games. if you are thinking about getting this game get it, it is a contender for game of the year. hopefully this joke of a review doesn't count on metacritic. PS. i suggest you find another career, seeing as you clearly suck at this one.

Sadly, it's true: My reviews don't count on Metacritic.

Also, via Andrew Sullivan: Move over, Power Glove! Emotiv Systems has introduced a mind-reading game controller. This page is woefully short on specifics, but I, for one, welcome the ability to remove my stupid, stubby thumbs from the play-control equation.

I wonder how heightened emotions would affect your digital mind waves? I get angry pretty quickly when I'm losing. If I were to try to use this to play something like Unreal Tournament, my character would soon start committing suicide upon respawning, just to save time.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The practical side of gaming green

Today is Earth Day, and, accordingly, I've seen a few sites link to's "Gaming Green" article. Being a naive liberal, the environment is fairly high on my list of concerns, but I can appreciate that some well-meaning people sincerely believe that things like global warming are a plot dreamed up by Al Gore in order to enslave God-fearing Americans and create a wacked-out leftist dystopia. So let's sidestep the political considerations for a minute, and see if applying some of these lessons can help you in your daily life without forcing you to help turn America into a worker's paradise.

You've probably noticed that most electronics these days are always on. In fact, that's touted as a feature in things like the Wii, which can download updates from the web even when in standby mode. In my little corner of the office, where I do all my gaming, I've got the following electronics sucking juice constantly:
  • Wii
  • PlayStation 3
  • HDTV
  • Computer
  • Monitor

Even though each one draws little power by itself, multiplying all of them by 24 hours a day adds up. Then consider the living room, where the TV, DirecTV receiver, and DVD player are all doing the same thing. Add the cell phone, iPod, and laptop chargers that all pull down their own voltage, and suddenly you see how much power we're using for no real reason.

Last summer, we made the decision only to plug in our chargers when we needed them, and to connect the majority of our electronics to power strips. Now, when I'm not using the PS3 or the Wii, I cut the power to both, as well as my TV. When we're not watching anything in the living room, we turn that power strip off. All it took was the negligible initial investment in the power strips, and the presence of mind to switch them off when we leave the room. It's not hard.

The result has been a reduction of as much as $30 to our monthly electric bill. That's $360 a year! In gaming terms, the energy savings could buy me six games. Or an Xbox 360 Pro. Or more than seven years of Xbox Live.

I only wish I'd started doing this sooner, and not just for the financial and environmental benefits. If you remember, the Wii had problems overheating when left in Connect24 mode for too long. Because I had it running in standby mode for several months at a stretch, I now get graphical artifacting. Had I been cutting the power completely during that time, it would still be working perfectly.

So if you don't want to do it for the environment, or if you're tempted to spite Al Gore and his nanny-state cohort, then do it for me.

Wait, that's not right. Do it for your wallet.

Totilo scoops Krpata

Well, no reason to link my Phoenix piece now that Stephen Totilo has written essentially the same thing. Curse the lead time it takes to publish on dead trees! You'd almost think that this "internet" thing is leading to the demise of newspapers as we know them.

Still, it's good reading, and of course I endorse Totilo's sentiments. I would expound more on the subject, but I'll be flinging 2400 words of my own at you within the next couple of days. Suffice it to say that you kids are in for a talking-to!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Conflict resolved

If you've been keeping abreast of my Twitter (that sounds filthy!), you'll know I had a slight incident over the weekend involving my ankle, a game of ultimate frisbee, and a strategically placed hole in a field. I was leaping to cover somebody on the opposing team and landed in a ditch. My right ankle made two distinct popping noises that were audible at least twenty feet away, and promptly swelled up like a balloon. I spent the rest of the day with my foot propped up, applying ice periodically. The swelling's gone down a bit, although the bruising would likely make you gag.

But it's not all bad. I took the day off, and as a result finally had time to polish off Crisis Core. As usual with these games, the final boss battle was a little disappointing. I don't like my games too difficult, but it seems like if you spend even the slightest bit of time leveling up, the last boss comes off as a chump. Still, the actual fight wasn't the true conclusion of the game -- it was followed in short order by a heartbreaking playable sequence that I was hoping would never come. Made me want to play Final Fantasy VII again right away.

But for real now, Squeenix, what's the score on FFXIII? Kick-ass portable games are all well and good, but my hopes have been fully re-energized for a full-blown PlayStation 3 version. Maybe my ankle will even have healed by the time it's out.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Friday links

Still hard at work on that piece for the Phoenix, so it's been tough to devote full-time energy to blogging this week. But I've read some interesting stuff that's too good not to share.

-If you want your brain broken, Dan Bruno at Cruise Elroy is writing a multi-part thesis on the music in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. This is an insightful, illuminating series that shows how many different ways there are to go about analyzing games. And it shows how important it is to learn about things besides video games as a way of actually increasing your ability to enjoy games. Very cool.

-The Brainy Gamer is putting together a syllabus for a course on electronic RPGs. Although it's a bit past time to enter your own suggestions, I highly recommend reading the comments thread on the original post. As someone whose experience with RPGs is limited to the Final Fantasy series, with one detour into Chrono Trigger, I was amazed at the breadth of the genre, and by the passion of the commenters for their favorites. Someday, when I'm independently wealthy and retired, I'm gonna play Planescape: Torment.

-This week marked Leigh Alexander's debut as Kotaku's associate news editor. Her first piece was a look at the strife surrounding the EA-Take-Two merger. It's nice to see this kind of long-form, hard news on a game site. It's the kind of thing you might occasionally see in the Times or the Post, but it makes sense that a site like Kotaku should be leading the pack here. I'll look forward to more of this. Also, other people doing real journalism means I can continue never leaving my house.

-Apropos of the question of race in games, Matthew Gallant is posting an essay about race and rock 'n' roll in the 1950s. It's always easier to see this stuff as an historical artifact, but there's a lot of relevance to today's culture. 50 years is not a long time.

-Bill Harris on how the Resident Evil 5 trailer should have been done.

-Magical Wasteland feels sympathy for games writers. Part of what makes blogging great is that you're not beholden to publishers or PR folks. And I can't say how grateful I am to be reviewing games for a publication like the Phoenix, which doesn't depend on ads from game companies and therefore gives me wide latitude to bash a game if I need to. On the other hand, I certainly don't have any "access, favor, or discretion," to borrow from Deadspin. The guys at Gamespot and IGN must be walking a tightrope at all times -- Matt Cassamassina needs those chummy Perrin Kaplan interviews. I also nearly jumped at a chance to apply for one of those Gamespot positions recently, before I realized that I didn't want to work 60-hour weeks. One game a week is all right with me.

-Not games related, but I've been reading Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku, and it's alternately thrilling and terrifying. The universe (multiverse?) is a strange, strange place.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Zack attack

On a cheerier note, my review of Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII is up now at I can't recommend this one highly enough.

I'm actually still trying to finish it. I put just about 20 hours into the game for the review, but I keep getting sidetracked by the missions. There are a few in-game side-quests to undertake, but the bulk of them are menu-driven: at a save point, you just select the "missions" option. While I'm not sure just how many missions there are, it's got to be in the hundreds. I think I've spent the majority of my playing time on them and I think I've only recently crested 40% completion.

Yesterday I made the mistake of taking on the mission with 1,000 Wutai soldiers, which took over an hour and ten minutes. It wasn't hard, particularly once the DMW gave me no MP cost for the duration, but the lack of difficulty almost made it more boring. And then my reward was "Mug" materia, which I am sure not to use. (Frankly, I've barely deviated from a mix of Fire/Blizzard/Thunder/Cure/MP Up/HP Up since I started, and it's served me well.)

But I'm just bitching because I thought I'd make more progress toward the main storyline. One thing I've always loved about the Final Fantasy series is how they can tell these tales about the end of the world, but the real drama is essentially between the main characters. You don't fight the bad guys just because it's the right thing to do, but because you need to put right some personal conflict. And it usually works. Certainly works here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

It's not just gamers

Lest you think the majority reaction to the Resident Evil 5 trailer is unique to the gaming community, Ryan pointed out the latest column by the ESPN ombudsman. She's discussing reader feedback when issues of race and sports intersect:
From my earliest days on this job, I noticed that whenever race was introduced into the discussion of sports -- whether on TV or, whether through polls, town hall specials, opinion shows or columns -- I would receive mail accusing ESPN of fueling or even creating racial divides in an attempt to drive ratings or page views.

The first time I noticed this reaction was in the weeks surrounding the 2007 Super Bowl, when I read mail from viewers who thought ESPN had made too much of two black coaches leading teams to the NFL championship game. That so many viewers thought ESPN was making a big deal of nothing surprised me greatly, because from the vantage point of my advanced age, this historic first was unquestionably a big deal.

I didn't know whether to feel encouraged that younger fans thought race was a nonfactor, or discouraged that history I still think of as recent and relevant seemed so ancient to them. At the time, I wished ESPN had presented more context for understanding the significance of this first.

Substitute everything about the Super Bowl with Resident Evil 5, and you basically have what we've been dealing with recently. On one hand, I'm a bit relieved that these sentiments aren't confined to the gaming community. We're not uniquely oblivious. But on the other hand, it's probably worse that it's so widespread.

Let's not overlook the generational component to this. Far from wanting to have an open, national conversation about race, it seems the younger generation wants to ignore the very idea of race itself. This is probably a better attitude than some that have prevailed in the past, but it's still not, you know, a good thing.

In the past week, I've read numerous thoughtful and sensitive posts about RE5 and racism more broadly, but Leigh Alexander made one point that I think is especially worth repeating: "Racism attacks differences; tolerance embraces them. The idea that tolerance means we're all utterly the same is fallacious; progress means to value equally the unique experiences of different cultures or ethnic groups."

We can't sweep under the rug the uglier parts of our shared heritage. We shouldn't. We should learn from them. To go back to that column, the ombudsman started off by talking about the uniformly positive praise she'd received about a documentary ESPN had produced called Black Magic, which was about black college basketball in the civil rights era. For whatever reason, when it was presented in a purely historical context, viewers did not accuse the network of "playing the race card" or seeing issues of race where none existed. Yet they're so certain that anybody who speaks about racial issues today is doing the same thing. Why?

The ombudsman seems to get to it in her conclusion:

The harsh reality is that unless ESPN's handling of race-related issues is near perfect, as it was with "Black Magic," it is not likely to get credit for trying. ESPN will keep encountering a phenomenon that has been dubbed "white fatigue" -- an impatience that wishfully equates issue-exhaustion with issue-resolution.

It should not take an elaborately researched two-part, four-hour, commercial-free primetime documentary to remove the rancor from the discussion of the intertwined history of sports and race in America. Columnists should not have to face "fire her" campaigns for trying to connect the dots between past and present. ESPN should not have its motives impugned every time it falls short of perfection on racial matters. The bar is set too high. The only alternatives are to clear it or take the lumps trying. Walking away from it is not an alternative.

Very well put. I think we face this same choice. As I said before, this controversy isn't going away. How we choose to deal with it will say a lot about who we are as a community, and could mark a real chance to elevate the status of games in popular culture.

As fate would have it, I've been working on a long-form piece for the Phoenix about videogame controversies, and the re-ignition of the Resident Evil 5 firestorm has meant that I've been thinking and writing about this non-stop for about a week now. I look forward to sharing this story when it runs in another week or two, but until then, I hope this is the last I have to say about it.

I mean, we're supposed to be having fun here, too.

Monday, April 14, 2008 User-Submitted Previews: Grand Theft Auto IV, Part 2

Can you feel it? The murmur of fanboy excitement building to a roar... The Internets alight with world exclusive preview information and the official OXM review (10 out of 10!)... The veins throbbing in Jack Thompson's forehead...

Yes, we are but two weeks away from the release of Grand Theft Auto IV. I already looked at the user-submitted previews for this game once before, but since then a bevy of brilliant new ones has surfed the wave of fan excitement onto the welcoming shores of I couldn't resist one more go at it.

(Also, uh, I got halfway through writing the post before I realized I'd already done it once before.) user "playerofgames" reminds us, apropos of the Resident Evil 5 controversy, that all games and gamers really are colorblind:
I am hoping for the best. In the previous although i enjoyed them i just felt like a block person running around doing pointless missions. instead of completing the campaign i spent all my time just killing cops and hookers.

Maybe I'm just a reverse racist and I'm choosing to look at issues of color where none exist, but, uh... did he mean to type "black" person right there? I really want to know. Maybe "block person" is a really term I never heard before right now.

"BIOCOMMANDO" is also skipping gleefully through a post-racial utopia:

Okay Rockstar has been making crappy GTA games lately! GTA3 was amazing, VICE CITY was the best game ever! Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories had no point first of all they were the same as there originals just with different stories and main characters, but that is an obvious one! San Andreas was the lamest game ever; I wanted another quality game not a 50 cent style stupid gangsta rap game. That totally ruined it for me, it went from high class mob to low end petty thug style to appeal to today’s modern teenage pop culture and its stupid yo yo gangsta rap phase! Now they want to make a new game with this balding old out-of-shape eastern European guy with the strongest accent! HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO RELATE WITH THAT?

Most of the new comments are more sophisticated than that. In fact, they're suspiciously highbrow. "a customer" writes:

The best thing about the new GTA is how it actually has literary themes. Of Mice and Men comes to mind. I foresee the best GTA plot yet. And not to mention, everything else.

In the previous post, Johnson commented that some of these might the product of marketers trying to drum up viral support for the game. I wonder if the above commenter was trying to preemptively block any Thompson-esque criticism of GTAIV. Also, I have to say, of all the books that come to mind when I look at this game, Of Mice and Men ranks somewhere beside Don Quixote and In Search of Lost Time.

Speaking of Proust, if you thought he digressed much, check out this comment from "metallink666":

saints row was a fun game but it never captures theth magc of gta in interesting characters awesome story (i sure hope this one has custumization new clothes tats new haistyles i loved that from gta san andreas) the coolest part is how liberty city is modeled after the atual nw york and finally we get decenttargettina gameinformer said i would be similar to crackdown so killing pedestrians will bemore fun. when i found out gta4 was coming out same day as the ps3 version that moment i became anti-playstation killzone 2 it might not even be good he first game suckd and im nota stealthactionfan so mgs s out for e too uncharted is good but with its short length and low replay value make it a rent and ratchet and clank on the easy side so a good game for kids all the ps3 has going for it is basically resistance and haze may be good and i've had problems with shooter controls on the playstation in the past so you see why im against the ps3.

He, uh, he was talking about Grand Theft Auto IV at one point, right?

One last lit note. I submit that you will not find a better use of analogy anywhere* than in this comment by "Gta 4ever":

one gta4 is not gta3 in hd. no, this time liberty city is a exact recreation of new york well the famous parts. saints row sucks compared to gta, its like having kratos(gta) fight a telytuby(saintsrow).

Why, that would be no fight at all! But Kratos against all four Teletubbies -- now you might have something.

"YNSR Smith, K." is more levelheaded than most:

honestly, i dont have a positive or negative thing to say about the game since it didnt come out. all i know is that i preordered my copy and im patiently waiting for april 29th to roll around.

Let me address you directly for a moment, YNSR Smith, K. I appreciate your honesty here. It's probably the smartest thing you could do, reserving judgment on the game until you've played it. But do you have any idea how hard you're making my job right now? Come on, at least tell me that Saints Row sux tha coq or something.

To cap it off, this installment's winner for best fanboy meltdown goes to "Evolution":

Man Rockstar are a bunch of sell outs how can they sell Grand Theft Auto 4 (the biggest title to grace a sony playstation ever) to the X-Box system? the Playstation 3 is a much more powerful machine for gaming its like the Alienware of console video games and they are more then likely going to make 1 version of the game and they will be forced to make the graphics 360 friendly. GOD i hate the 360.

I've heard about rock stars selling out before, but this is ridiculous!

Yes, I'm willing to go out on a joke that weak.

*Anywhere on, I mean.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The best cinematics ever

Well, okay, not the best cinematics ever -- just some of my favorites. I'm sure I'm missing tons of great ones. But this is the kind of thing you post on a Friday, right?

Chronologically (These are spoiler-heavy, so beware):

Ninja Gaiden (NES, 1989)

This is the first memory I have of the honest-to-goodness cinematic opening to a game. I love everything about it: the close-ups, the extreme widescreen, and especially the music. This kind of thing wasn't common when Ninja Gaiden came out. It was mind-blowing.

MechWarrior 2 (PC, 1995)

This played right as you booted up MechWarrior 2. I liked the game all right, but I must have watched this sequence -- estimating conservatively -- a hundred million times.

Resident Evil (PlayStation, 1996)


Final Fantasy VII (PlayStation, 1997)

This is the most famous sequence in the game, although another great choice would have been Sephiroth vanishing into the flames of Nibelheim. I knew this moment was coming when I finally played Final Fantasy VII in 2003, but it was no less powerful for that. It's so strange to watch this now: I remember seeing commercials for this game and thinking that the FMV looked real.

Metal Gear Solid (PlayStation, 1998)

Metal Gear Solid is essentially one long cutscene punctuated with bursts of gameplay, but when they're done this well, who cares? Each foe Snake vanquishes gets a big, dramatic death scene, but Sniper Wolf's was always my favorite. I think I like the contrast between Snake's reaction and Otacon's. "I don't have any more tears to shed" is such a good line.

Shadow of the Colossus (PlayStation 2, 2005)

Watching this now, the moment doesn't seem so dramatic, but at the time I actually yelled, "No!" Shadow of the Colossus does such a wonderful job creating an atmosphere of loneliness and desolation. Agro is your only companion -- almost the only sign of life in the whole world -- for 90% of the game. And then this happens, like a punch in the stomach.

The Darkness (PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, 2007)

This may not technically count as a cinematic, because it happens in-game, but considering that you don't control your character I think it passes the test. This is just one of the bleakest and most horrifying scenes I've ever encountered in a game, completely unleavened by irony or comic relief. Its impact is heightened by the scene earlier where you and Jenny sit on the couch together watching To Kill a Mockingbird. I wanted to kill the hell out of Uncle Paulie after this.

Post links to your favorite cinematics in the comments!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

N'Gai speak

You listen.

Look: This Resident Evil 5 controversy isn't going away. The sizable segment of the gaming community that wants it to be simply a non-issue will not find their wishes granted. In fact, N'Gai is more charitable than I am to those who took the post-racial approach to the issue:
There was a lot of imagery in that trailer that dovetailed with classic racist imagery. What was not funny, but sort of interesting, was that there were so many gamers who could not at all see it. Like literally couldn’t see it. So how could you have a conversation with people who don’t understand what you’re talking about and think that you’re sort of seeing race where nothing exists?

I considered it a willful blindness -- but even if it isn't, it's still a blindness. I think it's important for people to make an honest effort to understand better the complaints that Resident Evil 5 is going to get. It's possible to defend both the content of the game and the rights of others to be offended. "Shut up" is not an appropriate or helpful response to somebody who finds this imagery troublesome.

My thoughts haven't changed much since I opined about the trailer last summer, and N'Gai echoes some of them in the Multiplayer piece. I don't think it's necessary to rehash them here. So without going into the specifics of RE5 once more, I just want to make this general point:

Art has always been controversial. Art that challenges the status quo comes under fire from one side, and art that tries to maintain it gets criticized from the other. The conversations we have as a result of this will help to determine what we want the status quo to be, and in turn move the culture forward. Overtly racist portrayals of non-white characters used to be commonplace in American films and TV shows, until people got fed up and said enough is enough. We've made progress.

But there's this strange temptation to assume that we've arrived at a point in history where we've made it past all this stuff, despite the abundance of counter-examples. Forget about RE5 for a second: consider the Cole Train, or the "bizarre b-boy timewarp" of Unreal Tournament III. Why were those character choices made? What was the thinking (or lack thereof) behind them? What does it say about us when we don't notice racial stereotyping, either explicit or implicit? That it doesn't exist, or that we're trying to wish it away?

Art may only be a mirror to the culture that produces it, but it's important for us to look honestly at our reflection from time to time. Either you think video games belong in this conversation, or you don't. I do.

Deep thought on Battlefield: Bad Company

I am not interested in playing Battlefield: Bad Company.

(Background reading here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Insult Swordfighting levels up

Yesterday, this blog was featured on N'Gai Croal's Level Up, in a post titled "The Big Idea." It was the second in a presumably ongoing series about how we self-identify as gamers (or don't, as the case may be). N'Gai linked to the "Taxonomy of Gamers" series, and had some kind words to say about it. He's sort of the spiritual leader of a certain class of games blogger, so to get his seal of approval is flattering.

It's been interesting to see the discussion develop around the community in recent months. It seems that many people agree that the terms we have now aren't getting the job done, but their solutions vary wildly. That's a good thing. It's a conversation we need to have. As I've said, it's not so much coming up with the perfect nomenclature as it is identifying the elemental reasons we play. We just need to know what those are. The danger is that if we don't define our own identities, others will do it for us. We may not like what they come up with.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

It was a graveyard Smash

My curmudgeonly review of Super Smash Bros. Brawl is now up at Barring any unforeseen circumstances, like my Wii cheerily glowing blue to indicate a new message from Nintendo HQ that threatens my life, this post will probably be the last I have to say about it.

For all that I've already written about Smash Bros., I think the end of the review comes closest to the core of what I'm trying to say. The game derives all of its appeal from classic Nintendo games, but it doesn't give anything back to those games. This may be the sort of distinction that's clear only within my own mind, and makes no sense to anybody else. I'll try to explain, one last time.

When I play a game, especially a good game, I want to surrender myself fully to the world it depicts. I want to play make-believe for a few hours. In a strange way, Hyrule, Zebes, and the Mushroom Kingdom live on in my memory as places I've actually been, where I did things that actually mattered. This isn't to say that I can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality, only that the experience of playing a great game is one of displacement. Smash Bros. pops that bubble.

The obvious objection is that Smash Bros. is intended to be played multiplayer, which is true. But online play without headsets may as well be single-player. These days, I can't necessarily get a group of living, breathing people together to play on short notice. I did play two-player Smash Bros. with a friend of mine, though, and we had a pretty good time. The question I always ask my critic self in these situations is this: Am I having fun because I'm spending time with my friends, or because we're playing this particular game? It's usually the former.

I am willing to accept that I'm probably just off-base in some fundamental way on this game, and that's okay. It's not something like Mass Effect, where I'm pretty sure I'm taking crazy pills. I'm glad so many people are playing and enjoying Smash Bros., because anything that gets people playing and discussing games is a net positive as far as I'm concerned.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Today's must-read

MTV Multiplayer's Jason Cipriano has a good scoop: an interview with the owner of the world's only copy of an Atari 2600 game called Gamma Attack. The collector, identified only as "Phantom," posted the item on eBay for $500,000, and in the interview claims that he did so only to raise publicity for the item. He's holding onto it for now.

It's a fascinating read for several reasons. Not just because, if legitimate, Gamma Attack is a curio like few others in the retro scene. But I'm also interested in the look at the inner workings of the collectibles scene -- one I'm not familiar with. Like you'd find in any niche, it sounds like collectors are narcissistic and hyper-competitive. Someone could probably make a King of Kong-style documentary about these guys.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Overdrawn at the memory bank: The power of nostalgia in games

I've been splitting my time recently between Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII. The two games couldn't have less in common, except for one thing: they both tap into a deep well of nostalgia as an implicit part of the gameplay. These aren't your typical sequels or spin-offs. Unless you had some prior emotional attachment to the source material, it's likely that these games wouldn't make any sense to you at all.

Smash Bros. draws on well over two decades of some of the most popular and enduring gaming franchises around, from Donkey Kong through Pikmin. For those of us of a certain age in the early 1990s, the question of who would win a fight between Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog was a matter of grave import. Now, we can finally learn the answer. Hell, if you've ever played a video game in your life, you've probably spent time with more than one of the Smash Bros. roster. The whole experience of playing it is like being on a runaway train through nostalgia country.

But here's the thing I don't get about Smash Bros.'s popularity: The game is terrible.

Above: Your childhood memories exploited like the Brazilian rainforest.

I have never had fun with a Smash Bros. game in my life. Mostly, that's because the weird, floaty controls sometimes make me wonder if I'm commanding the right character. (I will grant the possibility that with four combatants onscreen, I often am trying to command the wrong character.) Now they've added a crappy adventure mode called The Subspace Emissary, and it is such a lousy example of platforming that I would have stopped playing it after about half an hour if beating it weren't the only way to unlock several major characters. The controls just aren't made for precision jumping and environmental navigation, and with few exceptions the levels are repetitive and boring.

The Subspace Emissary
, to its credit, doesn't really try to hide that it's just playing you like a fiddle. There's a story that makes no sense -- something about all the evil Nintendo characters trying to turn the good Nintendo characters into trophies -- but it's all just an excuse to burn through the cultural capital Nintendo has built up over the years. I'm reminded of when a heel pro wrestler gets on the microphone and insults the city he's in, just to score some easy boos. Smash Bros. is one cheap pop after another:

Look! It's Link, from The Legend of Zelda!


Look, it's King Dedede!


Considering that Nintendo has been coasting on its major franchises in this generation, all Smash Bros. does for me is remind me that there was a time when these characters and their accompanying motifs meant I was in for a wonderful time. For all Nintendo's innovation on the hardware side with the Wii, Twilight Princess and Metroid Prime 3 were only more of the same, with a slightly different control scheme (in fairness, Super Mario Galaxy did innovate to a greater degree). And that's the case here.

Nintendo is banking, literally, on the fact that millions of people already know and love these characters. Obviously, if you like the game to begin with, this will strike you as no problem. For me, I can't help but feel like Nintendo's exploiting their most valuable properties -- or they're exploiting me.

Crisis Core similarly looks to the past for inspiration. It's a prequel to one of the grandest achievements in the gaming canon, Final Fantasy VII . But it does something Smash Bros. fails to do, and that's add to the original game instead of just strip-mining it for its vast, revenue-producing resources.

Above: Sustainable, long-term nostalgia farming.

Admittedly, I didn't approach Crisis Core with quite the level of built-in love for its source material as I had for some of the characters and settings in Smash Bros. (Metal Gear Solid and Metroid in particular). I played FFVII only once and loved it, but couldn't give you a detailed synopsis of the story, or the exact materia combination I used to vanquish the Ruby and Emerald Weapons. Still, the last time I played one of these FFVII spin-offs, I think I was doubly disappointed that it wasn't just a bad game -- it was a bad FFVII game.

Well, Crisis Core is a good game. A very good game. It succeeds on its own merits, as a stripped-down, portable RPG. The gameplay reminds me more of Final Fantasy X than VII -- there's no overworld screen, and your character, Zack, travels from one locale to the next essentially on rails. Zack fights battles on his own in a nearly real-time manner. Although you can queue up Zack's next action -- attack, cast a spell, use an item -- you can also guard or evade an enemy's attack at any time. Doing so uses up Action Points, which are analagous to Hit Points and Magic Points, so it's not always the best idea. It helps to streamline the gameplay, while still maintaining that basic Final Fantasy feel.

The Final Fantasy VII connection isn't the crux of Crisis Core's appeal, but it does serve to flesh out the universe and deepen the fanbase's understanding of the events of FFVII. In the original game, Zack was a character seen in flashback. He was integral to the narrative, but only in backstory. Crisis Core puts him center stage. The game essentially is that cutscene blown up to full size.

Consider how well-known characters are used. Sephiroth doesn't just pop up in a cheap cameo, like Frank Sinatra in Around the World in 80 Days. We knew, from Final Fantasy VII, what Sephiroth had done. We didn't understand why. Crisis Core fills in that picture. And in the hero, Zack, we have an inversion of the usual alienated Final Fantasy protagonist. Zack starts off as the idealistic company man, and grows disillusioned as the reality of Shinra and the SOLDIER program becomes clear to him. If you draw a line from Zack's naivete through Cloud's nihilism and his eventual redemption, you'll come up with something like a circle.

In both cases, the callbacks and references to games we already knew and loved work best when they're used as a spice, and not as the main course. Although millions of gamers genuinely enjoy the Smash Bros. gameplay, and a small minority even make money on it in competition, the latest installment strikes me as a bloated, aging rock band playing all its old hits. Nothing about it adds to our appreciation of the source material.

By contrast, Crisis Core crackles with vitality. Instead of reminding me what it felt like to play Final Fantasy VII for the first time, it's giving me something more valuable for the future: memories of what it felt like the first time I played Crisis Core.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Workers of the world unite!

File this under: "Things you don't have to worry about when you only get 150 page views a day." Employees of Gawker Media -- which includes gaming mega-blog Kotaku -- don't have any idea what they're being paid.

In short, each writer gets a base salary and then a bonus for exceeding specific page-view goals, but those goals are adjusted quarterly and Gawker's major-domo Nick Denton hasn't yet handed down the details. Gawker writers are expected to produce now without knowing how they'll be compensated. As the author of the Valleywag post, Jordan Golson, puts it:
If a potential advertiser asked Gawker to start running its ads and promised to negotiate terms later, they'd be laughed out of the room — but that is exactly what the company is asking of its writers. If I were a salesperson, I'd expect to know my quarterly sales goals well in advance.

Ironically, this particular Valleywag post will probably result in a fat payday for Mr. Golson. But I'd be interested to see if other Gawker folks pick up the gauntlet that he's thrown down, particularly the folks at Kotaku. I imagine they're not hurting for page views over there, as Technorati's 27th-ranked blog, but it would be nice to see some good old-fashioned labor strife in this new economy. Gawker is a behemoth, and it's the writers that make it happen.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Pardon the pun

Pardon the couple of puns, actually, in the hed and subhed of this Dark Sector review.

I mentioned yesterday about the silly way the sinking ship springs leaks in this game. That sort of thing pops up all over Dark Sector. Early in the game, you come across an empty room in which a projector is still showing some kind of propaganda film. It's all very atmospheric. When I walked my character in front of the projector, as you'd expect the film displayed on his back -- but his shadow didn't appear on the screen! So instead of being impressed by the mood of desolation, I was wondering why they'd think to have the image project on the character but forget to have him block the movie screen.

You'll also occasionally see things like old pieces of paper fluttering in the breeze. The aerodynamics are convincing, but the trash will pop into view out of nowhere. The little touches don't add to the ambience as they were probably intended to do. All they do is call attention to themselves.

This is a game that could divide some people, and there are definitely those online who think it's great. I wouldn't be so quick to ascribe that reaction solely to lofty expectations, as Chris does, although it's no doubt the case for some people. Instead, I think that what's good about Dark Sector is so good that it may be possible for some people to forgive its flaws. I felt the same way for the first few hours.