Friday, February 27, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

In an attempt to cram in as much snowboarding as possible before the season ends, this weekend I head to the great white north. People keep talking about how winter is dragging on and on, but I feel like it's slipping away. So no video games for me. Before then, though, some good links from the past week.

-Jorge and Scott dedicated this week's episode of the Experience Points podcast to discussion of "the fightstick question" with Street Fighter IV, as well a broader discussion of peripherals in general. What I'm afraid to do is hypothesize about playing with the stick. I can guess that playing with the stick is better, but by how much? I can't say. Therefore, I probably shouldn't. But I can say that using a gamepad is tricky. At this point, though, not a dealbreaker. The game is darn fun.

-Also on the SFIV tip, check out David Sirlin's critique of the game for some mindblowing insight. You can count me in with the people who have found this game more accessible than most head-to-head fighters these days, at least compared to the last one I played, Soul Calibur IV. But his point is well taken that there's an awful lot happening here: Focus moves, EX moves, super combos, ultra combos... Truthfully, I've yet to encounter many players who use a lot of these advanced techniques. I'm sure they're out there, but they don't need to reach up that high on the shelf for what will defeat me.

-Last on the subject, a typically solid GameSetWatch op-ed. Nayan Ramachandran wonders: Where do fighting games go from here? Fighting games, moreso than most genres, are amazingly specialized. As Sirlin intimated, what hardcore gamers call "accessible" really isn't. Ramachandran boils it down even more:
Street Fighter IV is a surprisingly accessible fighting game, and seems designed to bring back those who fell off the bandwagon years ago, but throwing a simple hadouken or shoryuken -- both of which must be mastered to be of any use when playing -- takes more practice than most new gamers are honestly willing to put in.
Probably also true. This stuff's not easy. Not only that, but in the culture of games like Street Fighter, n00bs aren't even welcome. It's as though you shouldn't be allowed to play unless you're an expert, but if you follow that logic back to the beginning, then nobody would ever have been allowed to play. There needs to be a low barrier to entry for new players, if only from a business perspective. Maybe this game's is sufficient, or maybe there are enough people who remember how to throw a hadouken to move millions of copies.

-From Kirk Hamilton, a look at the future convergence of music and software. Kirk rightly cheers on the democratization of music, which is helped more by programs like Garage Band than by Guitar Hero. Nobody thinks that playing a music game will replace actually creating music, but might our definition of creating music change as the years pass? Probably. It already has, really -- there was a time when electric guitars seemed like heresy. There are a million ways to make music these days, and that's resulted in more people celebrating the possibilities of music, not less.

-MTV Multiplayer's interview with John Carmack about Quake Live is good reading for a couple reasons. Carmack's perspicacity has always impressed me, even back in the day of .plan files. You get the sense he's got all the angles covered. It reminds me of the discussion we had recently regarding web browser games and casual games versus high-end console games. Here's what Carmack says:
Well, when people think browser-based games, they usually think about what are fairly low-end games, like Java games and Flash games. And there is a market there on the casual gaming sphere. Some people have done fairly well with that but that’s not at all the type of game that “Quake Live” is. “Quake Live” is taking something that at one time was an absolute top-notch, triple-A, very high-end title. And it is still a competitive action game. It’s not necessarily the casual game in terms of what most people would think about a puzzle game or Sudoku or whatever on that.
Sounds like a dream for the hardcasual player. I'm excited to try it myself, but apparently the open beta has lines out the door.

-One more from GSW, an interview about the audio in Flower. The aural component to this game is huge. Each color of flower emits its own chime when you open it, which feeds into the ambient soundtrack perfectly (similar to shooting enemies in Rez). Sound plays a big part in the transportive effect of the game, and it's fascinating to read about the thinking that went into making it work.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

F.E.A.R. 2 review; or, How I reached so hard for an analogy that I sprained something

Above: She's so creepy! Isn't she creepy?

My review of F.E.A.R. 2 is up now at In the course of writing it, I went back to read my review of the original F.E.A.R. to see if there were any useful comparisons to make. Instead, I found that both reviews were nearly identical, except for one specific complaint about the first game's control scheme that has been rectified for the sequel.

Each game has the same, difficult-to-define problem. You can take it apart, look at each component, and like what you see, but when you put them together something is missing. The shooting action is good, with solid enemy A.I. and really well implemented grenades. The bullet-time is neat looking. The scares are occasionally effective. These are all things I like. But I don't like the game very much -- or, more accurately, playing through both F.E.A.R. games, I felt as though I should have liked them more.

This is something I have a hard time expressing without the use of analogies, so here's one. I like pizza. I like spaghetti. I like ice cream. But I don't want to eat a spaghetti-and-ice-cream pizza. That's what this game is.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Above: Flower is a sweet game. That is not opinion. That is fact.

We live in an upside-down world, one in which power-hitting steroid users tell kids that performancing-enhancing drugs will ruin their lives, and bank CEOs lecture homeowners on personal responsibility while lobbying the government for multi-billion-dollar bailouts. And we live in a world where PS3 fanboys are so desperate for respect that they're pinning their hopes and dreams on the one thing video games do not need: another first-person shooter.

Look, Killzone 2 might be a great game. I'm looking forward to playing it. But in the perverse and often baffling world of fansites and message boards, it has become the central front in the PlayStation 3 offensive. Why? The Xbox 360 has plenty of grim shooters. PS3 partisans' desire to have what 360 owners have, only better, will never be satisfied. There's always another GAEM OF TEH YEAR OMG BEST GAME EVAR right around the corner.

But so many wonderful things are happening right now on the PlayStation 3. The PlayStation Network has become a boutique the likes of which Xbox Live Arcade and Nintendo's Virtual Console can't match.* In a world that made sense, PS3 fanboys would be shouting from the rooftops about Flower. They'd be challenging the "Xbots" to match that, you jerks!

Here is a game that is utterly unlike any other on any system, and which is unlikely to be followed by imitators any time soon. It's transportive, exhilarating, even moving. Yes, it's simple, and no, it doesn't use 100% of the Cell processor's capability. Nor, I must sadly report, is there any way to "teabag" other users' flowers in a multiplayer mode. Nobody is trashing it in a cheap ploy for pageviews.** It seems to be drifting through the consciousness of the average gamer on a gentle breeze of its own.

My request to PS3 owners: give Flower a try. If you truly care about discovering what makes your console worth owning -- if your top priority is finding great games and not swinging your dick around on the Internet -- then play this game. Make Flower a hit.

Besides, it's only ten dollars. If you don't like it, I'll give you your money back.***

*Which is not to overlook the many gems on both of those platforms, too. I tried out Death Tank over the weekend and it was a blast -- literally.
**In fact, Edge gave Flower a 7/10, the same score they gave Killzone 2. This... is... a... lie!
***Disclaimer: If you don't like it, you actually owe me ten dollars.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A peripheral concern

Above: Just how peripheral is it, anyway?

I'm having one of my sporadic crises of conscience while trying to review a game. In this case, it's Street Fighter IV. Let me just say up front that I am awful at this game. I played a fair bit of Street Fighter 2 for the Genesis back in the day, but I never progressed beyond Ryu's triple fierce combo, which was at least sufficient to be competitive among the other kids who also sucked at it. I was always more of a Mortal Kombat guy, anyway.

This game, though, is like trying to take an advanced physics course. I tried some of the challenges just to get a handle on the mechanics, so I could stop simply throwing hadokens over and over, and it's mind-boggling that anybody masters this stuff. What really stymied me was the EX Focus Attack trial, in which you simply need to cancel a heavy kick into a focus attack which in turn you cancel by double-dashing. Total time elapsed: .001 seconds. It's crazy. And I don't doubt that there are people who can do this every time. They are the people I play online.

But that's not the real issue. I can learn to do that stuff. I won't, but I can. No, my real concern is that, on a standard gamepad, Street Fighter IV is exceedingly difficult to play. I feel for you poor bastards who are trying to play on the Xbox 360. The directional buttons on the PlayStation 3 are all right at first for doing quarter-circles, charging, and even that tricky Z-shape for the shoryuken, but when you do them over and over it starts to feel like you're ripping the skin off your thumb. Even the breakup of the traditional six-button configuration is confusing. Heavy punch and heavy kick are on the right shoulder buttons, which breaks up the logical flow of the attack intensity, in my mind.

I've seen a lot of people get around this by using a six-button arcade-style joystick. Some are reviewers who were sent promos. Others are people who take their fighting seriously, and are willing to drop more on the controller than on the game. I don't fall into either of these groups. Neither, I suspect, do the vast majority of people who want to play the game. Yet there's no doubt that playing with a joystick is preferable -- almost mandatory, if you want to get the most out of the game.

But it's not mandatory, obviously, or else Street Fighter would come bundled with a stick. Imagine if Guitar Hero had most easily been available without the guitar controller. You certainly can play it with the gamepad if you want to, but you don't have to do that to understand why it wouldn't be any fun. The hardware, in the case of Guitar Hero, is integral to the game. That's why, for a long time, you couldn't buy the software without it.

So here's my question: How do we factor in the peripheral experience when talking about this game? Someone playing with a stick is probably having a qualitatively better time than someone using a gamepad. In the case of a reviewer who used the stick to play the game, what's he really reviewing: the hardware or the software? On the flip side, is it fair to handicap the game -- to downplay its undeniable virtues -- simply because it may be so difficult or costly to reap the full benefits of them? Is the stick a luxury, or a necessity?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

I think I have a rare weekend with nothing to do. Whatever it takes, I'm going to keep it that way. I'm not even going to wear pants if I can help it. Flower and Street Fighter IV are on the docket for me -- how about you?

-I've recently begun listening to the Idle Thumbs podcast, which is always a good time. They really outdid themselves with last week's episode, "Citizen Killzone," which featured a song about the guy from PSXExtreme who took issue with Edge's Killzone 2 review. For some reason, the direct link to the MP3 isn't working right now; the link posted on GSW goes to somebody clearing his throat. But it's about halfway into the full episode. As for the PSXExtreme editorial itself, it was the kind of thing that makes me think that some of us just live in separate worlds, and no reconciliation is possible.

-What's the difference between me and a guy who actually makes video games? I can't say why F.E.A.R. 2 doesn't seem to quite work, and Steve Gaynor can. My review will posted next week, but believe me when I say his post is far more illuminating.

-Mike Schiller at PopMatters took a look at the cult favorite Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, a game I desperately wanted to like. He makes some excellent points about it's mash-up of styles, and that is what made it appealing. But I had two major problems: one, the RPG aspect was oppressively deep for a game whose mechanics were based on Bejeweled-style gem swapping, and two, the computer was cheap as all hell. Will they fix this for the sequel, Galactrix? I hope so. The Flash demo has certainly hooked me.

-Variety is nuts for cutting Ben Fritz loose. He was the first I saw to break the news about cutbacks at G4, wrote a smart take on The Lost and Damned, and confirmed a skateboard peripheral for the next Tony Hawk game. Not bad for a week's work.

-The Killzone 2 TV commercial is pretty cool. This is not my opinion. This is fact. (via GiantBomb)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The argument about Guitar Hero that I never want to hear again, part two

Continued from part one.

Yesterday, I talked about how much I hate the commonly expressed opinion that people who enjoy playing music games should learn to play real instruments instead.*

The absurdity of the argument becomes pretty clear if you replace Guitar Hero or Rock Band with something else -- for example, basketball. Say you're playing HORSE with a friend or two at the playground, and some snooty douche comes along and says, "How come you don't play real basketball?"

You would immediately formulate several cogent responses. "Because there aren't enough of us for a game of basketball." "Because we're not in good enough shape for 48 minutes of vigorous athletic activity." "Because we're bad at dribbling, passing, shooting, and keeping score." "Because playing HORSE is fun, you snooty douche."

Of course, no one would ever look down his nose at you for playing HORSE instead of training for a career in the NBA, because these things are all well understood. (It's also unlikely that our fictional person in this scenario would never have played the game or even dribbled a basketball, but that's what happens with critics of music games all the time.)

What's the key here? When you play HORSE, you are not trying to be a "real" basketball player. No one thinks you are. What you're doing is related to basketball, yes, but in the same way that your housecat is related to a cheetah. Although you may even do things like count down "3... 2... 1...!" before launching a 3-point shot and mimicking a buzzer, no one wonders why you aren't trying out for the Lakers. You are adapting your enjoyment of the sport into something that allows you to participate. It doesn't stop you from watching the NBA. Nor does it stop talented athletes from pursuing a career in pro sports.

This is also true of music games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. They are an extension of our enjoyment of music, not a replacement. Playing these games shares more in common with singing in the shower and air-guitaring at your desk than it does with mastering the complexities of a musical instrument. One takes rigorous effort and discipline, while the other requires only a commitment to shaking your ass. Most of us never seriously consider dedicating a good portion of our lives to playing music, for any number of reasons. We participate in the music we like by attending concerts, by dancing or singing along, and -- to use a recent, personal example -- by cranking up the volume on the car radio when WZLX is playing a rock block of Dire Straits.**

In other words, there's a relationship between the artist and the listener, one that doesn't really change when the listener happens to be strumming along on a plastic guitar. As when you bop your head or hum, you're engaging with the artist's work when you play a music game. Maybe I'm crazy, but I think that's what the artists actually want. The obvious difference is that the Guitar Hero guitar or the Rock Band drum kit actually does affect the musical output, but there's little room to put your own imprint on it -- barely more than when you adjust the levels on your stereo. You're still consuming that which someone else has produced.

Look, we can't all be content producers. Or, at least, we can't all master the production of everything we happen to enjoy consuming. This has always been the balance. At the risk of oversimplifying it once again, the reason I don't play a real instrument is because I don't want to. I've already decided what I want to dedicate my time and effort to. I could try to be a musician, but I've chosen to be a writer instead. But I still love rock music -- it's occupied a meaningful place in my life for as long as I can remember. I have always sung along. I always will.

*Lest you think I'm just wailing on a straw man here, a recent example of this argument, and the one that has stuck in my craw since I read it weeks ago, comes from Rob Horning at PopMatters.

**We got to move these refrigerators. We got to move these color TVs.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The argument about Guitar Hero that I never want to hear again, part one

If you're interested in certain controversial subjects, you tend to run across the same facile arguments over and over. Among these are:
  • Communism works great -- in theory.
  • Religion is the cause of every major war in human history.
  • Evolution is a theory, not a fact.
All of which are shorthand for: "I don't understand what I'm talking about, and have no real desire to find out, yet I suffer from an uncontrollable compulsion to express an opinion about things." Here's another one I'd like to throw onto the pile:
Instead of playing Guitar Hero/Rock Band, you should learn to play a real instrument.

This more often expressed as a question: "Why don't you learn to play a real instrument?"

Well, why don't we learn to play real instruments? Because playing real instruments is hard. I know. I played the guitar daily for about a three-year period. In that time, I mastered 10 chords or so. You could say I had a repertoire of about a dozen songs, but only if you were being charitable toward me, and uncharitable toward the songs. This was something I put hundreds of hours of my life into, and I never progressed past the "woeful beginner" stage. It's no wonder -- in Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites research suggesting that approximately 10,000 hours of practice are necessary to master anything.

That's just one musician! It's even harder to get a whole band together. You need at least three people for a band, preferably four -- even, in the case of the E Street Band, several hundred. We're looking at 30,000 man-hours, minimum, just to get enough musicians together to start a decent band. But it's not enough to find people who are proficient at their instruments. They have to share a musical vision, and have the time and commitment necessary to write songs, practice, play gigs, and so on. When you look at it that way, it's a wonder there are any bands around at all, never mind good ones.

Guitar Hero and Rock Band are hard, too, but much less so, and with a much lower barrier of entry. Almost anyone can instantly get the hang of easy difficulty, and start playing whole songs right away. Even medium difficulty is within the grasp of many first-time players. It takes a while to get good enough to handle expert difficulty, but certainly not 10,000 hours.* Here's the real difference: you don't have to be an expert to play the songs and enjoy the games. If you have four people and the necessary equipment, you can tackle any song in the Rock Band library, regardless of each participant's level of ability. It doesn't really matter whether you're good at it or not. That isn't the case with real instruments, even if you're just noodling around at home.

So there you go. There's your answer. Playing instruments: hard. Playing Guitar Hero: easy.

I suspect that's not satisfying to the critics, and I'll admit that it's not satisfying to me. The reason why that's so is because the premise -- that playing Guitar Hero and Rock Band is a substitute for playing real instruments -- is false. Tomorrow, I'll explain why.

Continue to part two.

*It may very well take 10,000 hours to be able to play everything flawlessly on expert difficulty. God knows I can't do it.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Anchorage aweigh

Above: You cannot explore any of that.

My review of the Fallout 3 expansion, Operation Anchorage, is up at The short version: It probably would have been really neat as an included quest in the original game, but it's not good on its own and not worth the money. One way to look at it is that Fallout 3 cost $60, and I got 50 hours of gameplay out of it, while Operation Anchorage cost $10 and I got 2 hours of gameplay out of it. I don't expect or demand a game to meet an ideal cost-to-playtime ratio, but that seems out of whack.

The worst part is something that was too convoluted to explain fully in the review. I think it'll only make sense if you've already beaten Fallout 3. My last manual save, with my level 20 character, was in Vault 87, or past the point of no return in the main storyline. I didn't think I could backtrack from there and take care of the Operation Anchorage quest. Instead, I loaded up my last save before that one, which was about 10 hours earlier. No real problem there, except that playing the expansion also overwrote my lone auto-save, which had been at the end of the game. If I ever want to experiment with the different choices the ending sequences offers, I'll have to re-play a bunch of stuff that won't be any different.

Not that I ever planned to do that. But still. It's the principle of the thing.

Like I said, if you're still on your first playthrough, or even starting a second or third playthrough, this expansion probably would be worth it, if just for the Winterized T-51b Power Armor. But since I'd already wrung everything I could out of the retail version, Operation Anchorage did not scratch my itch.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Request hour: Sound effects, great writers, and PC vs. console

We're nearing the end of the increasingly inaccurately named "request hour."

Jorge Albor asks:
What has been your favorite audio effect in a videogame (ambient sound, music, etc.)?
Sometimes I think we underestimate the importance of sound in a video game, particularly as a feedback mechanism. I love the way coins chime when Mario picks them up, and the jingle that plays when Link opens up a secret area. You learn to associate these things so closely with success or failure that when you hear something in real life that sounds similar, you feel a little jolt. Some of my favorite sounds in games have been:
  • Mega Man teleporting ("blort" is what it sounds like in my mind)
  • The high-pitched death rattle of the Combine soldiers in Half-Life 2
  • The whispering priests in Resident Evil 4
  • Hadoken!
  • The wind in ICO
  • Reloading the double-barrelled shotgun in Doom 2
And my all-time favorite background music is in Ridley's Lair in Super Metroid.

Iroquois Pliskin asks:
Which video games writer do you read, and say to yourself: "Man I really wish I could write like *that*"

I'll give my my answer: Tycho Brahe.

Maybe you aspire to write like some non-video-game critic instead. Like, I really love Dave Hickey; I'd push quite a few old ladies down the stairs in order to write like that.

Tycho would be one of my answers, as well. He has a way with metaphor and visual imagery that seems effortless, although it's probably not. And he's damn funny. I often find myself saying exactly what you do when I read his stuff. I also admire the elegance and lucidity of Tom Chick's writing, and the raw knowledge that Jeremy Parish drops in every sentence. A bit closer to home, I'm always impressed by Duncan Fyfe's creativity, N'Gai Croal's insight, Michael Abbott's humanity, and, yes, Iroquois Pliskin's erudition. Often when we get talking about what's wrong with the way people are writing about video games, it's easy to forget how many people are doing an awesome job these days.

In the non-game but still-critic arena, there's no one I hold in higher esteem than Roger Ebert. I also think Anthony Lane is hilarious (David Denby is fine, but when it's a Lane issue of the New Yorker, I always read the movie reviews first).

I'm also gonna throw out kind of a weird one: I have always been in awe of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 writing staff. I was flipping through The Amazing Colossal Episode Guide the other day, and I laughed all over again reading a sentence about an "oily" guy "lazing about on his grimy, sticky sheets." Their word choice is always perfect.

Ed Borden also has two questions:

Why do game on a console over a PC?

Growing up, I always did both, although I've always felt a greater affinity for consoles. I'm not sure why that is -- I have fond memories of playing Dark Castle on our Mac Plus, and then later Wolfenstein and Doom on the PC. In my high school years, I actually spent a good bit of money on graphics cards (3D accelerators!) for the family computer, so I could play the Quake games. I'm not even sure how many hundreds of hours I put into Quake 2 CTF. Had a clan and everything. A bumbling, incompetent clan, which placed dead last in the only competition we ever entered.

These days, I'm not sure I could really tell you why I don't play computer games. I almost said that it costs too much to buy a decent computer, but I've spent $1,250 on consoles since I bought my last desktop four years ago, so that can't be it. One of the reasons I bought the computer I'm using now was to play Doom 3 and Half-Life 2. I did that, and then proceeded to play nothing else. The funny thing is, I still prefer the mouse-keyboard combo to dual analog sticks in a FPS, and I'm far more proficient with it.

So the answer, clearly, is that I've been brainwashed.

Are you real, or just a construct for an ARG ad campaign?

I have some bad news for you.

That does it for request hour. Thanks to everybody who participated. I thought it was great to have the chance to explore a lot of different topics. We should do this again.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Request hour: Browser games, and the birds and bees

Greg Tannahill and Daniel Purvis ask related questions. First, Greg wonders:
Is the traditional game market in any way threatened by the rise of free-to-play browser games?

For the time being, no. There's such a gulf in the types of games available that it's hard to see anybody voluntarily giving up console or high-end PC games for browser games. Plus, I'm pretty sure that the kinds of people who play Bejeweled and its ilk exclusively are not also shelling out for fancy graphics cards and cutting edge game systems. I think we're talking about two disparate groups here.

But I could easily see something like this happening down the line. As we know, it's not always the most advanced, cutting-edge hardware that ends up getting adopted by the masses. It's all about having the right technology for the right price at the right time. With computers becoming ever more powerful and cheaper, and web access becoming ever faster and more prevalent, I could see a day where you just don't need to buy a dedicated gaming system in order to get a relatively robust gameplay experience. We could see a convergence of hardware and software such that the best possible value for your gaming dollar is simply a low-to-mid-range PC.

The real question is what the revenue model is for games of this type. Quake Live is going to be an interesting test, I think.

Daniel follows up with:

Could you live off free-to-download and play games, such as Flash and independent titles?

Would you miss the so-called "AAA" releases?

There's no way I could do this. Like anybody, I can get addicted to casual games. I already mentioned my love for FreeCell, and the Puzzle Quest Galactrix Flash demo has already sucked me in for way too many hours. But when it comes to what I really want out of a game, it's those robust, narrative experiences that you currently need a next-gen console or high-end PC to play. But maybe someday the distinction between those types of games won't be so clear.

Also, for whatever reason, I am totally ignorant of the indie scene. Not sure why.

In the spirit of openness and inclusion, I will also answer Ben Abraham's question:

Where do babies come from?

According to the introduction of Yoshi's Island, they are delivered by an incompetent stork.

Questions have been trickling in. More still tomorrow.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Request hour: Dinner for four, emulation nation, and the future of games criticism

Continuing with our reader-requested topics...

I love this one. Shoinan wants to know:
If you could have dinner with three video game characters, who would they be and why?

Phoenix Wright. He's the opposite of almost every other video game hero, most of whom preach honor and glory as they indiscriminately slaughter thousands of people. Phoenix is a bumbling, self-conscious dweeb, who also has an unshakeable sense of truth and justice. I think he'd be a great guy to hang out with. You know he'd probably suffer stoically through poor service and subpar cuisine, but if the bill was calculated wrong, he'd take care of everything.

Guybrush Threepwood. I picture him sitting there, practically breaking a sweat as he tries to remember which utensil he's supposed to use for each course. Plus, as we know from several Monkey Island games, the guy's a hell of a conversationalist. He always has at least four responses ready, no matter what you say to him.

I guess we'd need to invite a villain, just to make things interesting. There are a lot of good options here, but for some reason I keep coming back to Dracula in his Symphony of the Night incarnation. I would ask him to repeat his lines from the beginning of the game and see who else at the table cracks up first. My money's on Phoenix Wright.

From brilliam:

What gaming systems have you owned in your life? Which ones did you want most and never manage to get? Would you consider going back and buying those systems now, or would you more likely just emulate whichever older games you wanted to play?

Or, to put it in a more bookish way: how important is the artifact vs. the information?

The first part is easy, at least. I've owned:

  • Atari 2600
  • NES
  • Sega Genesis
  • Sega 32X (really!)
  • Sega Saturn
  • Nintendo 64
  • Sony PlayStation
  • Super NES
  • Game Boy
  • PlayStation 2
  • Nintendo GameCube
  • Nintendo DS
  • Xbox 360
  • PSP
  • Wii
  • PlayStation 3
That's in order of when I got them, as far as I can recall. The big systems that I missed were the Dreamcast and the original Xbox. I regret never owning a Dreamcast, but given that the 360 is at least somewhat backwards compatible, I don't mind missing out on the Xbox. I never really wanted some of those crazier ones, like the Neo Geo, 3DO, or Jaguar.

The funny thing is, I've held onto most of those systems, even the truly useless ones like the GameCube and the PS1. The artifact does seem to matter. If I felt the urge to play Super Metroid, say, it would be easier to simply download it onto the Virtual Console. It would look better and wouldn't take any setup time. But it would be more satisfying to hook up the SNES and play it for real. That I didn't even hesitate to say "play it for real" probably illustrates the point nicely.

I think it's basically impossible to separate your idea of a game as software from the context in which you played it. I can't think of games like Puzzle Fighter, Mario Kart, or GoldenEye without remembering where I played them, who I played them with, and, yes, what I played them on. Emulators are a valuable way to broaden your gaming horizons, but something about playing it on the original hardware -- getting that controller in your hands -- makes the experience seem authentic.

Brian asks a few questions, which I'll split into parts.:
As both a writer who is paid by a major publication to cover games, and a blogger who writes personal pieces on his own, what are the biggest differences in your approach to the two? Which do you prefer?

The biggest difference between writing for the paper and writing in this blog is my idea of who is reading. I think of the person reading a review in the Phoenix as not a committed gamer, who would therefore be turned off by jargon and highly detailed descriptions of gameplay mechanics. I have to assume that the reader is not an expert. I'm trying to write for the person who picked up the arts section for the movie reviews, say, and is now flipping past the half-page game review. Can I get their attention? Can I make them stop and care about this?

On the blog, I assume you're already interested. I can assume a level of knowledge on your part, and a shared set of reference points. Really, though, when I write in the blog I'm just writing for myself. That is, I'm trying to produce content here that I would find interesting if I read it elsewhere. Then I hope that there are other people who feel the same way.

And if you had your way, what would games writing look like 5 years from now?

I'd like it if game writing were less time-sensitive and less event-driven. It seems like the bulk of game reviews and game topics are all about trying to rank everything, and write history as it happens. A friend of mine recently complained about the modern state of arts discussion by saying that it's all an "attempt to determine if [album, movie, game, book, or show] is the most [Adjective] of the [Time period]." He's exactly right.

I'd like to see more people try to take games on their own terms, and ask: what's this really about? What is the game asking me to do, and how are my in-game actions affecting this world? What's the fiction here? How consistent is that fiction? How meaningful is it? And so on.

Especially in light of the fact that newspapers and even sites like 1up falling apart hint that some of the current avenues may not even be available by then. Is it possible there will be no professional, full-time games writing jobs left?

I think there will always be full-time writing jobs available, but they may take different forms. Things are bad all over in print media, but web readership is only expanding, and there will naturally be winners and losers in this landscape. 1up in particular is a sad story, but it may be cause for hope that it was their online publishing that UGO felt was worth preserving. Ziff's print properties were an anchor around 1up's neck.

Hey, we're almost done. More tomorrow.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Request hour: The hardcasualist's lament, review scores, and underrated games

Tyler echoes the hardcasualist's lament:
I don't play games that often. I own a Playstation 2, and own exactly zero games for it since I lost Guitar Hero. Other than that, I'll pull out the rare old favorite for the PC, play some web-based game, or load something on my iPhone. Occasionally there's a game I really want to play (Rock Band 2!), but to lay out the cash for a current console and a game or two is just not reasonable. Basically, the bar to entry for an extremely casual gamer is way too high.

Never mind that, I'm not even sure I'd be able to figure out how to play some of the newest games coming out before getting frustrated and giving up.

What should the video game industry do about us old fogeys who have more interest in games than Windows Solitaire, but not enough to go buy a PS3? Are there PC games that are more than browser-based time-wasters but don't require the latest and greatest hardware? Or are mobile devices the next gaming platform? Or what?

I was going to say that Nintendo had people like you in mind with the Wii, but that's actually not the case. The Wii was made for lapsed gamers, not people who were priced out of the next generation. There is still a large segment of people who want the graphics and the "hardcore" experiences of the PS3 and 360, but aren't willing to commit the capital. And let's face it: the so-called casual market, the one that plays Peggle and Bejeweled, is another group of people entirely. There's kind of a donut hole here.

But: the PlayStation 2 is actually still getting quite a bit of support, including Rock Band 2. You just can't download new tracks. And some noteworthy PC developers, like Valve and Blizzard, make sure to support lower-end systems, which means you don't need a cutting-edge system to play Left 4 Dead or World of Warcraft. Additionally, the Xbox 360 is rapidly approaching a true mass-market price point, so before long it may be a perfectly reasonable expenditure.

I think the most interesting part of this question is in the middle, though, about trying to learn how to play some of these new games. It's a real problem. I remember experiencing a moment of panic the first time I ever held the original Xbox controller, thinking "This is too much." But ultimately, playing games is work. They ask a lot of you. It's a matter of how much effort you're willing to put in to get out what's there.

I think the trick is to know what kind of complexity is right for you. For example, I'm fine at handling all the button combinations necessary to play a first-person shooter, but you can't streamline the interface of a strategy game enough for me. Think about it this way, too: you're a fan of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, but those certainly weren't easy to learn.

Danilo Vujevic really asked:

Do critic review scores actually mean anything?

A score can be helpful, but it's not the whole story. I make no secret of my love for Metacritic: it's an excellent way to get a snapshot of conventional wisdom. And it's often right. Games with a Metacritic score of 90 or above, in many cases, are games that I think are fully deserving. Having said that, I'm usually more interested in the score that goes completely against the grain. I'd rather read the dissenting view of a game like Fallout or Grand Theft Auto than another one that calls it the greatest game of all time. And I'm often intrigued when a game's Metacritic spread spans 40 points or more. So I guess I'd sum it up by saying that scores do mean something, but you're doing yourself a disservice if you rely on them exclusively.

Matthew Gallant asked:

What games do you feel are critically underappreciated? Games you loved that were overlooked by both bloggers and the gaming community at large.

I would have said both Yakuza and The Darkness, but at least in my circles those both seem to have gotten a little more attention recently. I still think they're both underrated and overlooked in the world at large, though. Both games have excellent stories starring fascinating lead characters, and showcase strong play mechanics. The Darkness, in particular, didn't get nearly enough credit for how well it executed its basic gameplay. Snaking along the ground as a tentacle before lashing up and eating an enemy's heart just never got old.

I'd love to dazzle you with some out-of-left-field pick from years ago, but my tastes have always run to the mainstream. Most of the games I'd pick are probably not under-represented in the hearts of people who read gaming blogs -- games like System Shock and (surprise!) The Secret of Monkey Island. But maybe you'd be surprised to learn of my deep, abiding love for FreeCell, the free Windows pack-in.

To be continued on Monday.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Request hour: Defining genre, living the dream, and required reading

Continuing Insult Swordfighting request hour. Let's see if I can get everybody's name right this time. Ahem.

Ben had two questions.
Is game genre sheerly defined by the mechanics of the game interface, or do ineffible unengineered aesthetic/artistic qualities play any deterministic role?

It doesn't always have to be this way, but I think we define genre exclusively by the interface. It's why Halo is a first-person shooter and Halo Wars is a real-time strategy game. Sometimes the aesthetics can make a difference -- I think the shift from high fantasy to sci-fi wasteland is a big reason why I loved Fallout when Oblivion had left me cold -- but ultimately I think we tend to base our gameplaying preferences around mechanics first, and aesthetics second.

Hrm, that's not really an essay question. Bonus: Who's the awesomest turtle in gaming? Show your work

My favorite has historically been Donatello, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle whose bo staff gave him excellent reach in combat (he was absurdly useful in the original TMNT game for the NES). But going the TMNT route is a little too easy, as is picking any of the Koopa Troopas. What does that leave? Nothing I can find. I defy you to find any combination of Google queries incorporating "video games" and "turtles" and not find your heroes on the half-shell exclusively. Or hey, about that turtle-like colossus in Shadow of the Colossus?

This one's from L.B. Jeffries:

You just won the lottery. Big time. Assuming you set aside enough to be comfortable for the rest of your life AND assuming you dedicate the other portion to gaming in some way...what would you do? Start a magazine? Make your own game? Start a museum?

If I won the lottery, I am pretty sure that no one would ever see or hear from me again. I would drop off the grid entirely. But I would spend plenty of money putting together the most bitchin' man cave you've ever seen, of which gaming would be the central focus. I would spend much more time playing far fewer games.

In the spirit of the question, it's entirely possible I would get bored and feel the need to give back in some way. Now that you mention it, if I could self-fund a magazine without having to worry about the bottom line, that would be a great idea. There are too many good writers spread too far apart for this not to happen. Most of my favorite writers remain either unaffiliated with professional publications, or do their most interesting writing on the periphery. It would be awesome to have a central place for all this.

Of course, there's no reason this couldn't happen now, in website form, but then I'm a lazy, lazy man. Also, I think I just described the Escapist.

Anonymous asks:

What should be essential/required reading for a college-level course on analysis and criticism of video games?

There's not anything I can think of directly related to video game criticism, in the sense that it deals with that as its subject. But I have read a few books that have broadened the way I think about games. Among them are James Paul Gee's What Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good for You, and, just this past week, Jim Rossignol's This Gaming Life. All three books take a hard look at games that isn't reflected by most mainstream reviews. The first two break down games into components much different than the usual graphics-sound-control axes, while the third book is about how games provide singular experiences that have the power to shape lives.

I'd also recommend reading Roger Ebert's Awake in the Dark, because the way Ebert writes about movies is the way I think more people should be trying to write about games: he's literate, informed, and respectful, and his love for all movies shines through everything he writes.

To be continued.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Request hour: It begins

Yesterday, I solicited questions to answer in future posts, and, uh, you guys weren't messing around. I was expecting more along the lines of "What's your favorite game ever," but there's some heavy-duty stuff in here. Let's plow right ahead with it. I'll answer in the order they were posted, and try to get as many as I can into each post. (By the way, feel free to keep adding new questions in comments to the original post.)

Krystian Majewski had two questions. I'll split them up.
What is the meaning of Braid?

(I knew this was a bad idea.)

My reading on it isn't necessarily that "it was all a dream," but rather that the game is a metaphor for Tim's anguish and regret. I never really did get the whole "atomic bomb" interpretation. I thought it was about a girl. Either way, my take is that the game takes place in a fantasy world, in which time is malleable and the usual standards of cause and effect don't apply. I saw it as a fairly straightforward lament -- wouldn't it be nice we could do the things in this game in real life, too? But we can't. It's impossible. And if you spend too much time thinking about it, you'll only end up depressed.

What is the difference between games and literature?

A reader has less control of a work of literature than a player has of a game. The author has more control of a work of literature than a developer does of a game. A book is a finished product. A game, to varying degrees, is a framework. You can't read the words in a book out of order, but a game that has no room for player choice is usually not going to be a good one. Even a linear platformer -- say, Super Mario Bros. -- can be played successfully in any number of ways, while a book can only be read from front to back.

You could make the argument that a reader does bring his own frame of reference to a book, and you'd be right, but it's an order of magnitude less than what a player brings to a game. Reading a book doesn't make you a co-author, but playing a game does, in a very real sense, make you a co-creator. The act of playing dictates what a game is, much moreso than the act of reading dictates what a book is.

Nels Anderson goes for the money:

It's been a year-ish since your Gamer Taxonomy opus. I'd like to hear a follow-up, discussing observations made about its applicability and if you feel the taxonomy is still accurate.

Nothing I've seen or heard has made me doubt the accuracy of the types I described, but I have become even more convinced of its incompleteness. One thing I missed completely was the distinction between content creators and content consumers -- something PC gamers have known about for years, but which really came into focus for console players with the release of LittleBigPlanet. Marek Bronstring wrote a good essay at GameSetWatch about "The Four Types of Player/Creators," which covers some of this ground.

There were a lot of good comments on the original piece that pointed out some further areas for exploration, such as the difference between gamers who pursue developer-defined goals and those who pursue player-defined ones. There are also gamers who want new, innovative experiences, and those wedded to the old paradigms. One commenter even suggested a further distinction between tourists: "those who tour for the cool vignettes and highlights, and those who tour for the narrative interaction." So, clearly, there's a lot of unexplored territory here.

As for how applicable it is, I couldn't say. I haven't even applied these ideas to most of the game reviews I've written in the past year. But something about it did strike a chord, so if nothing else I hope it spurred people to explore the real reasons they enjoy playing games. Is that really worth much? I'm not sure. I hope so.

Also, on a side note, I realized that although the "Skill Player vs. Tourist" thing seemed to resonate with a lot of people, the sections about financial considerations didn't gain much traction. Not sure why that was.

Anonymous asked:

Are games becoming like cinema in the sense that we have "quality" games adored by the serious critics and "mass" games selling millions units? Is that a good thing? Will we have some the Cannes and the Oscars of games fighting between them?

My sense is that the opposite is true -- that critical favorites and commercial successes are one and the same. Looking at Metacritic's top games of 2008, you see that, with few exceptions, the top-rated games were also the tentpole, "event" games. Braid and World of Goo might be good candidates for the "critical darling" honor, but if anything, they outperformed most independent games precisely because of critical adulation. (I don't know what the hell that MaBoShi thing is for the Wii, btw. That could be the real sleeper on there.) Compare this to the world of movies, where for every Slumdog Millionaire that comes along, a bunch of critics are shouting to an unreceptive readership about the greatness of Happy-Go-Lucky.

I think it is good if there is a vibrant outsider or independent scene. There's always been one on PCs, and it's nice to see some of the console makers extending that opportunity to their users, too. Although I've got to admit that my personal tastes always seem to run to the slickly produced shoot-'em-ups.

Thanks for the questions! I'll post more tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Insult Swordfighting request hour

Let's try an experiment. Ask me a question in comments, and I'll try to answer it in a future post. Your question should probably be related to video games. But I guess it doesn't have to be.

(Why yes, I am scraping for ideas this week.)