Friday, August 28, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

I am in lovely St. Louis, MO, for the weekend. We're going to visit the Gateway Arch, catch a Cardinals game, and barbecue. Oh God, how we will barbecue. Unless my plane crashes, that is.

What a morbid way to start a links post.

-Hardcasual is always good, but every once in awhile they really knock it out of the park. Such is the case with "Professor Layton Solves Brain Teaser, Grisly Prostitute Murder." Amazing.

-Leigh Alexander makes a good point about how the leisurely exploration gameplay of Shadow Complex seems to be at odds with its ticking-timebomb storyline. There is a point, at least, at which your character determines that he's going to go back in, which I took to mean that he was planning to arm himself to the teeth before taking on the bad guys. Still, I did follow the blue line most of the time, and I was more than satisfied with how things played out.

-Nels Anderson makes a point I often try, and fail, to make: that "fun" is the wrong word for most video games. For some people, fun clearly is the objective, and there's nothing wrong with that. But many people are seeking more meaningful interactions with games, and for those people, fun's got nothing to do with it. The more kinds of experiences games can give us, the better.

-The passage of time has enabled some more sober looks at Grand Theft Auto IV. Still a great game, but it's hard to argue with the kinds of criticisms Sparky Clarkson makes. "For me, this is the defining flaw of GTA IV — so many of the missions, cutscenes, and incidental moments actively undermine the propositions the game is trying to sell you on." Paradoxically, the more choices a game gives you, the more obvious it is when the game makes decisions for you. I've never felt constrained in a Half-Life game, for instance, even though I'm just a puppet on a string.

All right, time to party with the St. Lunatics.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

In praise of shade, complexity

Above: A different screenshot from Shadow Complex.

My review of Shadow Complex is up now at Despite yesterday's comments about Metacritic, you will not be surprised to learn that my score, and my sentiment, lands squarely in the mainstream. As a longtime Super Metroid fan, I'm quite happy to play a game that doesn't diverge too much -- okay, at all -- from that formula.

If this had come out between 1995 and 1999, it would have been a ripoff. If it had come out between 2000 and 2005, it would have been a relic. Today, it's retro!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Game Informer works for Gamestop, not for you

I keep telling myself to quit criticizing Game Informer. There's not one person alive who's confused about this magazine's mission. For me to sit here beating the dead horse probably says more about me than it does about the publication.

Except, well, this is the most widely published video game magazine in the country, and the only one that still gets scoops with regularity. GI is going to be a part of the conversation as long as things stay the way they are. And as long as that's the case, it will continue to be necessary to point out the numerous ways in which this magazine fails to serve its readers.

Case in point, in the September 2009 issue: an unsigned "feature," which is really more of an op-ed, about the influence of Metacritic scores on game development. This is fertile ground for debate. I've said before that I think Metacritic is generally a useful tool, because it does a good job of providing a snapshot of the critical landscape. It's still incumbent upon gamers to dig deeper, of course, and in many cases I think a game that creates less of a critical consensus is likely to be more interesting than one that is universally beloved or condemned. But that's my opinion as a player.

GI's feature, titled "Critical Mass," is a look at it from the developers' perspective. It extensively quotes Glen Schofield, the executive producer of Dead Space, who is open about his company's relationship with Metacritic. As Schofield tells it, one outlying negative review was the difference between his game receiving an aggregate score of 90, and its eventual score of 89. (Oddly, the accompanying screenshot of Dead Space's Metacritic page shows it as an 88 -- turns out that the PS3 version got an 88, while the Xbox 360 version earned an 89.) We don't get any details about what the brass said, but Schofield says that the psychological difference between an 89 and a 90 makes getting the lower score "a big ass deal."

Schofield seems to have been referring to the 6.5 assigned to Dead Space by Official Xbox Magazine, under the byline of one Meghan Watt. According to the visceral comments on the review (pardon the pun), it seems Watt was not a freelancer but an intern. How this invalidates her review, nobody can quite say. Apparently, one intern can single-handedly ravage the fortunes of a well-funded software developer. That this is seen as an indictment of her work, and not Metacritic's, is beyond reason.

To be clear, I'm not condemning Schofield for being upset about the way the system works. He has every incentive to try to inflate his game's Metacritic score. But besides giving him space to dismiss Watt's work, this article is frustratingly light on how the scores impact business decisions. "Some believe there is a tight relationship between [Metacritic scores and sales]," says the copy, "but that isn't always the case."

Er, some data might have been nice there. What are some games that sold well despite poor scores? What are some games that scored highly and tanked at retail? They don't say. But it's critically important in determining the real-world impact of the Metacritic score. Either there's a causative relationship or there isn't. If there isn't, as the article implies, then all Game Informer has done is smear a competitor by proxy, while providing no actual insight into the gears of the Metacritic machine.

For his complaints, Schofield also acknowledges how satisfying it is to receive accolades. "You've been working two years or whatever on the game, and you want someone to tell you that you did a good job." I can understand this. It's why we're all in this business. We want good video games to be rewarded. Frankly, the fact that one aberrant review can sink a score from the 90s into the 80s ought to give that much more weight to the games that do score in the 90s. The point is to separate the wheat from the chaff. It's a good thing that not every game is scoring that highly.

That's not how Game Informer sees it.

Having conducted an interview with their buddy Schofield, and mindful of the need to ensure editorial access to future Visceral Games projects, they close with this tut-tutting:
With the importance of aggregate scoring a constant for the foreseeable future, perhaps all that can be done is for companies to get smarter about reading the Metacritic tea leaves, and media outlets to publish quality reviews so that the hard work of developers like Schofield is not in vain.

I had to read that twice to make sure I didn't hallucinate it. It threw everything that had come before it into new light. The thought of not feeding the beast, and discarding scores altogether, has apparently not crossed anybody's mind. A challenge to myopic executives is clearly out of the question, so the mild rebuke about "reading the Metacritic tea leaves" is immediately followed up with a condemnation of writers who don't see the world the way Game Informer does, and who obviously haven't spent enough time going out for drinks with developers.

"Quality reviews" is such a loaded term in this context, especially since it is so transparently directed at OXM's review. It was not, apparently, up to Game Informer's standards. But why? Because it was (mildly) negative? Nothing is factually incorrect, and all of Watt's points are fully supported by the gameplay. I happened to like the game more than she did. Still, she's absolutely right that the mission objectives are garden variety fetch quests, in which your character blindly obeys the orders given by characters over a radio. Dead Space can rightly be praised for its execution, and criticized for a lack of imagination. Balancing these two is what critics do, and they won't always agree on where the fulcrum is. That's what makes different critical voices valuable.

And so the question is: How are we defining a quality review? Is Game Informer advocating independent-minded criticism? Obviously not. This is a magazine whose ownership is in the retail business. They would prefer that critics march in lockstep, assigning top scores to the games most likely to draw customers into their stores. (Coincidentally, in this same issue, GI reviewers assign two separate 9.5 scores to Batman: Arkham Asylum, more than a week before most other places are allowed to post their reviews.* There's still time to pre-order your copy!)

Readers and gamers -- and, yes, developers and publishers -- are all going to be better off with honest and tough reviews. Nobody is well served when we elevate every decent game to instant-classic status. Putting too much stock in Metacritic scores is a surefire way to keep game development looking backward, and not forward. Games need room to experiment, and even to fail, if they are to progress. Gamers need to look harder for quirky, idiosyncratic games that may not please everybody. And reviewers need to be the ones who make all of this happen. If we decide that our job is to praise every game just because somebody worked hard on it, then we may as well give up now.

*Full disclosure here: I want this game to be a 9.5 so bad.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

Not sure how much time I'll have for games this weekend, but I plan to head back into the Shadow Complex and try to pad my completion stats a bit. I need infinite foam, damn it!

-Christian Nutt wrote a lengthy editorial about Shadow Complex and the Orson Scott Card question for Gamasutra, which is well worth your time to read, even though it doesn't have as many jokes as mine did. Take note of the comment by Peter David, the game's writer, who, understandably, is against a boycott:
I believe the answer to free speech is always more free speech. If you believe that Orson Scott Card is saying things that are wrong at the top of his lungs, then you say so at the top of yours. If he's donating money to organizations dedicated to infringing gay rights, you donate money to organizations that support them.

A society that embraces free expression depends on an unimpeded exchange of ideas.

The disconnect comes from those people who believe that boycotts are likewise a form of free expression. They're not. Boycotts are the opposite: They are designed to be punitive. To hurt someone financially.

I agree with the first part, but not so much with the second. I did not have a problem paying for this game. But choosing which companies you want to give your money to is a valuable tool in a citizen's arsenal, considering the structure of the society we live in. This almost gets close to suggesting that people should have to buy the game in order to express an opinion on Card's politics.

In fact, I do think that the conversation that has come up thanks to Shadow Complex has been a productive one, and that nobody at Chair or Epic is going be smarting financially, either.

-At Offworld, Jim Rossignol conducted a long interview with Valve's Chet Faliszek, mostly about Left 4 Dead 2, but also about the company, DLC, Steam, and much more. I appreciated how straightforward Faliszek was in responding to questions about topics like the fan boycott. He also sums up why Valve's games are always so good with this statment:

I've said this before, but when you first get people in to play your game you think: "Who are these morons? Can't they just see that's how it is supposed to work?" But you quickly learn: ten people in a row didn't figure that out, so the problem lies with us.

Creators of all types of content, not just video games, should consider the wisdom of that statement.

-While not a Madden guy myself, I really appreciate that the current generation of games includes free roster updates for things that happen after the game ships. For instance, you can download Brett Favre for the Vikings, and Michael Vick for the Eagles. The sports blog Deadspin has a little fun talking about Favre's player ratings.

-Speaking of Madden, Bill Harris's description of adjusting the game's sliders for maximum realism is essential reading. This is what engaging with a video game looks like.

-I was a bit surprised to read Matt Sakey call Far Cry 2 "a crime against gaming" in his monthly "Culture Clash" column. Sakey is a good writer who makes some excellent points here. Even in his original trashing of FC2, I can't argue with the factual accuracy of his observations. Yet his description of the game doesn't comport with my own experience at all.

When I think about Far Cry 2, I remember how dynamic and unpredictable every encounter was. I remember roaring across the savannah in a Jeep, taking my eyes off the road to consult the map on my knees as I bounced over hills and scraped against rocks. I remember scouting an outpost for five minutes, planning my assault with precision and care, only to have my weapon misfire and drop a hissing, smoking grenade at my feet. I remember these as things that I actually did, not as something that happened in a game. That's all I can ever ask.

-Lots of people, myself included, often complain about how game writing is missing its Lester Bangs. And while it's true that no game critic I'm aware of has achieved any mainstream recognition, this complaint does a disservice to the many writers who routinely produce excellent work. One of these is Jeremy Parish, whose Shadow Complex review is just fantastic: funny, insightful, surprising. If he's not getting the attention he deserves, it's not the mainstream's fault. It's ours, for not showing them what they're missing.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The violent hate speech of Shadow Complex

Above: Hateful, anti-robot bigotry.

Just kidding. There is no violent hate speech in Shadow Complex. But there has been some minor controversy around the game, due to its affiliation with science-fiction author Orson Scott Card. I should say up front that what little I know about Card is based on hearsay. I know Ender's Game is considered a classic in some circles. I know that he wrote some or all of the Insult Swordfighting lines in The Secret of Monkey Island, a debt I will never be able to repay. And I know that an awful lot of people I respect consider him a crackpot.

Card apparently has a history of borderline insane comments about homosexuality, abortion, and the dangers of liberalism. I have not read his book Empire, which created the universe in which Shadow Complex takes place, but my understanding is that it tells the tale of a second American civil war, in which the un-American bad guys are a far-left group called the Progressive Restoration. I got that from the Wikipedia entry, and am not qualified to comment further, except to note the irony of a conservative warning about the dangers of politically motivated violence from the left, considering the past 20 years or so of American history.

Shadow Complex sidesteps most of these concerns. Yes, the bad guys are still the Progressive Restoration, and probably want to institute mandatory abortion and recycling laws, but in practice they're your usual video game foes: faceless drones whose only talent seems to be dying in dramatic ways. We hear bits and pieces about their grand plan, usually as our hero, Jason Fleming, is sneaking through vents and overhearing their conversations. The dialogue is boilerplate evildoer stuff, no more plausible than the rantings of an old-school Bond villain. Despite the creators' use of Card as a publicity tool, his involvement was minimal.

The actual plot goes something like this:
-Boy loses girl
-Boy rescues girl, but
-Boy finds true love with high-tech armor and weaponry

Which is basically the same as every other video game ever made.

The Progressive Restoration plans to nuke the gay-friendly city of San Francisco first -- an odd choice for such a left-wing group, so long as Houston, Texas still stands. But if that's the extent of Card's homophobia coming to the fore, then I think I can live with that. Every city deserves a chance to be the terrorist target in a book, movie, or video game.

The content of Shadow Complex itself may not be the main concern. The real issue, as eloquently laid out by GayGamer's Dawdle, is whether we ought to be rewarding Card with our money. It's a tough one. We should be rewarding the people who made Shadow Complex, because it is fantastic. Plenty of people worked on this game who don't share his beliefs, including the game's real writer, Peter David.

If some fraction of our dollars ends up in Card's bank account, that may be the cost of doing business. I could try to stop patronizing any business that employed people whose politics I disagreed with, but then I would have to drop out of civilization altogether, move to a cabin in the woods, and write angry but lucid tracts about industrial society and its future.*

Dawdle's solution is pretty simple: If you're against what Card stands for, but for awesome video games, consider tossing a few bucks in the till of your favorite LGBT charity when you buy the game. Not a bad idea. But I'd like to think that we can have it both ways. We can use the sweetness of Shadow Complex as an opportunity to discuss great game design, and to remind the world that Orson Scott Card is a hateful homophobe. It's the best of both worlds.

The progressive restoration begins now, my brothers and sisters!

*In case you thought that I thought that there was no such thing as left-wing violence.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Fat Princess: Low stakes, tasty cakes

Above: Just more of her to love.

Video games are supposed to be fun, but with some notable exceptions, this does not conform to my experiences with them. Playing video games is tense, hectic, and draining. Video games make me angry. They make my heart beat fast. They frighten and excite me. They seem, while I'm playing them, like the most important thing that anybody in the world is doing right at the moment. But fun? I don't know. It's hard to have fun when the stakes are so high.

That's why Fat Princess is so much fun, and also why I'm not finding myself called back to it despite my enjoyment. The rules are standard capture-the-flag fare: You need to rescue your own princess from the opposing team's castle, and prevent them from retrieving theirs. Once you hold both princesses in your castle for a short period of time, you win. But this isn't the fast-paced CTF style I remember from my obsessive Quake 2 period. There is combat, which is mostly automated. You lock on to a nearby enemy with the left trigger, and press one of two attack buttons. Little skill seems to be involved.

Where Fat Princess diverges is in its jobs system. At any time, your elf can pick up a particular hat to change his class. Not all classes are suited for storming the opposing castle. At the beginning of every match, most people on the team grab the engineer hat, then head out into the forest to cut down trees for the lumber they need to upgrade the castle and equipment. These upgrades eventually result in each hat granting its wearer more powers: the archer gets a musket, the warrior's strength increases, and so on.

It doesn't take long for everything to be fully upgraded, and at that point the game opens up a bit. And unlike more tactical FPSes, Fat Princess seems to encourage players to go their own way. You can pick a job to do, and keep at it regardless of whatever else is happening on the game board. But -- and here's the key -- doing so still helps your team. Bringing the Princess cake will cause her to gain weight, making her harder to carry out of your castle. If you want to spend an entire round humping slices of cake across the board, instead of taking a traditional attack or defense role, you can do that.

There is something satisfying about working behind the scenes in a team-based game such as this. Let everyone else take the glory -- I'm quite happy to repair the castle door. Still, that does eliminate those one-in-a-million moments that mark the best multiplayer games, when you bank a grenade just right, or capture the flag with a sliver of health remaining. The quotidian flavor of Fat Princess makes it an easy game to dive into and enjoy, without ever forcing you to take notice.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

By the time you read this post, I will be watching District 9. I am expecting it to be awesome. While I'm doing that, why not check out these links?

-The big story this week was the New York Times' massive article about The Beatles: Rock Band. It's an extensively reported piece with quotes from all the big players, plus some insightful commentary about the value of music games (some of which echo what I wrote about earlier this year, here and here). Excellent reading. I also realized just now that it's The Beatles: Rock Band, and not Rock Band: The Beatles, in contrast to Guitar Hero: Aerosmith and Guitar Hero: Metallica. Not that there's much to take away from that, but it's interesting.

-A rather bizarre conversation developed earlier this week, between Penny Arcade's Gabe and Tycho, on the subject of pick-up artists. Amanda Marcotte wrote a perceptive response to their exchange, with which I agree almost fully. I just want to say this: I know Gabe isn't some cretinous, cave-dwelling woman hater, but perhaps because of that, his comments go far toward illuminating the unfortunate mindset that many in our community seem to have about male-female relationships (which we also talked about a bit last week). Still, this isn't a problem exclusive to the gaming community, for better or worse.

-Since we're getting all political here, take a gander at L.B. Jeffries' explication of TIE Fighter as a post-9/11 parable. It's a fascinating and educated take on the nature of empire, which also reminded me that TIE Fighter was freaking sweet.

-Bill Harris's running series about playing through the NHL playoffs with his son nearly melted the ice around my cold, cold heart. I recommend you start from the beginning, because otherwise you probably won't be quite as mushy as I was when you get to the end.

(As I said to Dan Bruno on Twitter, this whole experiment -- in which Bill actually made a playoff schedule for him and Eli to follow -- reminded me of Ben Abraham's Far Cry 2 perma-death experiment, which is still ongoing.)

-Congratulations to Simon Parkin for his Games Media Award nomination. He's one of the best, and in very good company.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Mr. Boomtastic

Above: 'splodin'.

My review of 'Splosion Man is up now at This is a nice example of game design. It's not too fancy, but very well put together. I don't even have much to say about it beyond what's in the review! That never happens.

More generally, over the past few years I've come to appreciate the opportunity to step back from AAA titles and explore downloadable games. Although my favorite games still tend to be beefy, narrative adventures with good graphics and all that, these days games for Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network are doing an excellent job of filling the "hardcasual" role. It is nice to pay a few bucks for a game, spend a couple of hours with it, and feel like you've gotten your money's worth. It may not be as rewarding as sinking your teeth into a 40-hour blockbuster, but these days it's much more practicable.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009 User-Submitted Previews: Batman: Arkham Asylum

Above: Mitch Krpata after reading user-submitted previews of Batman: Arkham Asylum on

After a fairly dry summer for AAA titles, the fall season kicks off with the release of Batman: Arkham Asylum on August 25. As a lifelong Batfan, I'm looking forward to this one despite my better judgment. But you don't come here to find out what I think about upcoming games. You come here to find out what users think about upcoming games. Although in the case of Arkham Asylum, "think" may not be the right word.

BEST GAMER summarizes the storyline:
So far from all the previews and stuff this game looks really good and the storyline is really cool the story begin as batman bring the joker to arkham but than batman felt something was wrong because joker just surrender without a fight when really it was trap set by the joker and that's when the story begin this game is really great i can't for it to come out this i hope this is the batman game we've all been waiting for.

You may look at that and simply see a garbled mess of words, with run-on sentences, disagreeing verb tenses, and nary a punctuation mark to be seen. You neanderthal. I see a linguistic gumbo that's practically Faulknerian in its depiction of sexual repression and mental retardation in the deep south.

Maybe I'm extrapolating a bit.

DLM won't take the fans' word for the quality of Arkham Asylum. He goes straight to the experts:

I can't wait for this game! Game Informer even featured it in one of their issues with really positive things to say about it. Not only game informer but and gave this game some face time. Rarely does a superhero game get this much credit from video game press.

It's true: The only surefire way to know if a game is good is to see if it has ever been previewed in the rarefied pages of Game Informer. This is like saying the Royals are a great baseball team because they get coverage in the Kansas City Star.

(Actually, I am willing to bet that this game's Metacritic average will be at least 30 points higher than the Royals' winning percentage at the end of the year, which is somehow more an indictment of the Royals than of Metacritic. Why am I talking about baseball right now.)

It wouldn't be user-submitted previews without a head-scratching factual inaccuracy. Take it away, pmilleroly27:

Well Batman is the greatest fictional character ever to who wouldn't want to try this game out. Not to mention you got Rocksteady who made Bioshock. And the writer or Batman the Animated Series making the story line oh and the voice actors from the show as well.

According to MobyGames, Rocksteady's sole shipped game to this point is Urban Chaos: Riot Response. Nothing wrong with padding the ol' resume, I suppose. No harm done. That's one of the many lessons I learned when I wrote for Kotaku.

doctor do games2 is looking ahead to the year-end lists:

i played the demo for this game and the graphics are great, the fighting style is superb, and the jokers voice and demented comedy is friggin awesome. throughout the challenge mode joker dissed batman, his own goons, and himself. i wont be suprised if this game is in the top ten in game informer.

Pfft, like a superhero game would get that kind of credit from the games press! We're talking about Game Informer here, not some hackish fanboy 'zine.

Speaking of hackish fanboys, here's batman arkham asylum rules!!!:

Batman Arkham Asylum is going to be better than COD: Modern Warfare 2 and Left For Dead 2 Combined. People think that New Super Mario Bros. Wii will get the game of the year, but they have no brains at all.

You'd have to be some kind of an idiot to think that New Super Mario Bros. will be the game of the year before you've even had a chance to play it. Obviously Batman is the best game of 2009. That's just science.

We'll leave the final word to Cuddles Von Snugglesworth:

Looks like Splinter Cell in the Batman universe!!!!!! The game looks so incredible it makes me want to stop feeding my cats and punch them in their adorable faces. The very thought of their little mouths meowing and whining for cat food drives me to a level of angry that can only be subdued by this awesome game. In fact I'm glad I'm a human and not a cat so that I can play this game and swoop down and BAM! enemies in the face! If I was a cat I'd be a Maine Coon.

At least that one was intentionally funny. Right? Now if you'll excuse me, I'm feeling a powerful urge to lock all my doors and windows.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

This weekend, I'll be nominating 25 games for a master ballot of the best games of the decade. It's harder than I would have expected. For one thing, there's a lot I haven't played. Looking through some lists on the interweb, I see possible contenders like Silent Hill 2, Eternal Darkness, and Beyond Good and Evil, and feel like I dropped the ball. (To be fair: I was dead broke during those years.) What's even crazier is how long a decade is. They were still releasing N64 games in the year 2000! That's also the year Deus Ex came out. Seems wrong, doesn't it?

-As a farewell to Hit Self-Destruct, Ben Abraham rounded up some tributes to Duncan Fyfe and posted them on Critical Distance. Part 1 has entries from L.B. Jeffries, Matthew Gallant, and me; part 2 features Nels Anderson, Eric Swain, and Ben Abraham; part 3 has Michel McBride-Charpentier, Michael Abbott, and Alexander Peterhans. Some wonderful observations here about Duncan's work. It's too bad that he died. (Oh, he only quit blogging?)

-Simon Parkin has written the definitive piece on Tim Langdell, the litigious head of alleged software publisher The Edge, a company that hasn't released a new game in almost 20 years but has made a healthy business in suing other people who use the word "edge" in their products.

Ironically, Langdell has a seat on the board of the International Game Developers Association. Corvus Elrod has been leading a charge to have him removed. The extent of my knowledge of the entire situation is limited to what you're reading right here, but it certainly seems like a hell of a drama. I'll be interested to see how it unfolds.

-Elysium at Gamers with Jobs makes a point I sometimes try and fail to: good graphics are an important part of a game. The issue isn't technology, it's imagination. Creative and inventive art direction is an asset for any game. As Elysium says, "Dazzle me, game developers and art designers. Show me something I’ve never seen before, whether set in the scale of the galactic or mundane. Stop wasting time seeing if you can pack a few dozen more polygons into the architecture of a bus stop and instead paint the unexpected." Games can show us new worlds in a way that books and movies never could. Why don't they?

-There's a bonus track for fans of the Big Red Potion podcast I was on earlier this week, in which we muse about the rigorous standards of secrecy regarding upcoming video games. It is pretty surprising -- video game companies guard their secrets better than the government does.

-Given the news of a gunman targeting women at a Pennsylvania gym, Brinstar's post about misogyny in gamer culture was especially timely. For reasons I don't understand, a large number of people in this country believe that there's no such thing as bigotry in any form, but if there is, the only victims are white men. (Many of these people are United States senators.) The level of hostility toward women and minorities in this country is shockingly high, all the more so because the perpetrators act so aggrieved. They actually get mad at the real victims of discrimination.

You know what else is bullshit? I go to the Huffington Post, where they've been following the Pennsylvania shooting pretty closely: "PA gunman targeted women," "PA gunman left behind online diary detailing hatred of women," etc. They helpfully linked his diary, too, in which he discussed in detail his desire to bed 20-somethings, and his frustration that he couldn't, which logically meant that he had to kill them. (And then ended up killing a few 40-somethings instead.)

To the right on the HuffPo homepage, in the "most popular" box, was a headline trumpting "Vanessa Hudgens NUDE pictures!" Vanessa Hudgens is the 20-year-old star of Disney's High School Musical films. No, we're not sending mixed messages or anything.

Do I have a solution? No. This world is completely fucked. If I ever have a daughter, I'm going to feel so goddamn guilty for what she'll have to go through. [/soapbox]

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

How PopCap blew a sale of Bookworm Adventures 2

Above: The scene of the crime, in grisly detail.

Bookworm Adventures 2 sounded right up my alley. You spell words in order to attack monsters. That's what my dreams are like every night. How could this game fail?

I decided to give the demo a spin. PopCap promised 60 minutes of gameplay, which, coincidentally, is exactly the same model that hooked me on Fairway Solitaire about a year and a half ago. I started playing, and Bookworm Adventures seemed to be delivering. With each lovingly crafted word, my little worm transformed into hammers, wrecking balls, and other instruments of death, as he lay waste to one folkloric foe after another. Even better, the killing blow sometimes came in the form of hilariously inappropriate words, like "taint." Truly, this was a game for me.

Suddenly, and without warning, I was kicked out to the desktop. I'd been enjoying myself, but I didn't think I'd gone the full hour yet. By my estimation, looking at my computer's clock, it was more like 32 minutes. Even according to the game's own count, I was correct. It's right there in the screen capture atop this post: "Trial Version -- 28 minutes Left."

Somehow, right beneath that, it also says "Game trial expired!" That's just not true. I can't imagine why it would give me contradictory information, for one thing, or why it would flat-out lie about the length of time I'd spent with the demo. All I know is that I've tried to launch it again, and it tells me I've got to pay to play.

Bookworm Adventures 2 is only $19.95. This is not a lot to spend in order to bash in the Big Bad Wolf's brains with my taint hammer. I'd estimate that, had the demo run the full 60 minutes, the odds of my purchasing the full game were running around 90%. But because PopCap couldn't even deliver the demo they'd promised, I lost faith in a full-length game justifying any purchase price. The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth.

So that's why I'm not buying Bookworm Adventures 2, and why PopCap is out my twenty bucks. I'm sure they will be crying themselves to sleep about this, on top of a pile of money.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Big Red Potion

I mentioned it in passing yesterday, and now I'm happy to post the link to Big Red Potion Episode 20, "Out of Our Hands."

I joined hosts Sinan Kubba and Joe DeLia, along with guest and friend of Insult Swordfighting, Michael Abbott, to discuss game controls. As N'Gai Croal has said, we see games with our hands. The controller is the nexus of intention and action. Yet most discussions of games skip right over this topic, or approach it with no more insight than "the control was good or bad." Or maybe we make a snarky comment about waggle.

With that in mind, we tried to take a broad view of play control. We talked about notable successes and failures in the history of peripherals (somehow without mentioning either the U-Force or the Sega Activator in the latter category), what effect the Wiimote has had on game design, and what the future holds for Project Natal and Sony Motion. And we wondered whether standard control inputs are limiting gameplay possibilities, or whether new controller types will lead to a bunch of shallow gimmickry.

It's always hard to judge one's own performance on these things (plus, the sound of my own voice gives me hives), but I can say with confidence that Sinan, Joe, and Michael all said fascinating things about this most important of videogame topics. Have a listen!

Monday, August 03, 2009

In defense of the gamepad

Above: The humble, hard-working gamepad.

Pity the poor gamepad. He's the least popular kid on the block. The ever-evolving controller has been the primary input for almost every game that's come out over the past 30 years. From the single-button Atari joystick to the precision-engineered machine you see above, the gamepad has been an integral part of the video game experience, even has the industry has grown into the multi-billion-dollar behemoth it is today.

And the console manufacturers can't kill it fast enough.

Last night, I was a guest for the recording of the Big Red Potion podcast (I'll post the link when the show is available). The topic was play control: the state of it, how it's evolved, where it's going. We spent some time talking about specialty controllers, like the Guitar Hero guitar, and the future of motion control, especially with regards to Wii MotionPlus, Project Natal, and the PlayStation motion controller. To look at the direction the hardware is going, you'd think that the gamepad has become obsolete.

Anyone would agree that game controls are more complex than they used to be. Game designers can go overboard with button combinations and functions, sometimes with hilarious results. It's not immediately clear, from looking at a gamepad, what each button and stick does. Non-gamers can be frustrated or intimidated by these bulky, multi-functional devices. This is all true.

But look at what else the gamepad does. It stands in for a steering wheel in a driving game. It replaces a stick and pedals in a flight sim. It eliminates the need for a keyboard and mouse in a first-person shooter. It supports the split-second reflexes you need to play Street Fighter or Devil May Cry, and it credibly stands in for all the sporting equipment you can think of. This thing does it all -- no bold new paradigms needed.

Gamepad design has progressed in a steady, upward fashion. Thanks to years of iterations, dozens of good ideas have become standard, while bad ideas have been phased out. Gamepads today are ergonomic, with sleek, comfortable curves (not like the pointy-cornered NES controller at all), and triggers positioned just so. Rumble is standard. Pressure-sensitive triggers have made vehicle control miles better than it used to be. For all the talk of Wii/Natal/PSMotion being a revolutionary way to play, I'd argue that nothing has fundamentally altered the way we play as much as the move from digital to analog thumbsticks. At the time, it seemed like such a small thing, but playing in three dimensions would be impossible without it.

I'm not saying the gamepad is perfect, and I'm not saying it's a good thing when overly complex control schemes put people off. Simplicity is a virtue in game design, and hardware design. What I am saying, though, is that the gamepad sometimes goes unappreciated. It's not enough for any of these brand-new control methods to have one killer app with which they work perfectly. Natal and Sony Motion are going to have to prove that they can be as versatile as traditional methods when playing traditional games. Otherwise, I'll stick with the gamepad.