Wednesday, March 31, 2010

PAX: Play

Above: The console freeplay room at PAX.

During the "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Game Journalism" panel, Sean Beanland asked via Twitter: "Has working in games journalism adversely impacted your love of games? Are you sometimes tired of games?"

For me, the answer to both questions is a qualified yes. It's not that I love games any less after several years of reviewing them. It's that losing control of what I want to play, and when I want to play it, has changed something fundamental in my approach to games as recreation. When I'm not playing a game for work, I'm less likely to be playing games at all.

That's why one of things I found most refreshing about PAX was how squarely it emphasized just playing games. The panels were great. Meeting people was awesome. Encountering two guys whose work I deeply admire, and telling one of them so, was something that was long overdue. At heart, though, PAX was a celebration of playing games, and much of the convention space was dedicated to that.

You had the PC freeplay lounge, where some buddies and I made yet another ill-fated attempt at Left 4 Dead 2. I am not totally convinced that I have ever gotten past the part in the "Swamp Fever" campaign where you lower the bridge from one hut to the next, and the PAX playthrough was no exception. It's been so long since I played a first-person shooter on the computer that doing so felt unfamiliar. (
And probably felt even more unfamiliar to the next poor bastard who played L4D2 on my machine, since I'd inverted the Y-axis and remapped jump to mouse2. Old habits.)

It also felt great. LAN parties were a big part of the gaming experience for me in high school and even through college, but I couldn't tell you the last time I attended one, much less one with dozens and dozens of players. I had thought that the current console generation had erased the PC's hardware advantage, but the graphics were noticeably better than on the Xbox. Some people were even playing Battlefield: Bad Company 2 in 3D. I walked out of that room thinking seriously about buying a new gaming computer. I've been missing so much!*

Much space was dedicated to console freeplay, too, of all kinds. One room had all the current-gen consoles, and a huge library of titles you could check out for 45 minutes at a time. A side room was dedicated to party games like Rock Band, DJ Hero, Puzzle Fighter, and lots more. Across the hall from there was a room dedicated to -- I kid you not -- 5-vs-5 matches of Steel Battalion. I was afraid even to peek into that room.

Walking around the classic console freeplay area felt the most like coming home. Here you had a group of guys huddled around a Dreamcast to play Power Stone, there a four-player Perfect Dark deathmatch on the N64. People played Atari 2600, Colecovision, Vectrex. I was gobsmacked to see a group of three people attempting a cooperative playthrough of Contra for the NES. I lingered in their vicinity, hoping they'd get frustrated so I could swoop in and shepherd them the rest of the way. Sadly, it didn't happen -- which is crazy, because playing that game with another person is the definition of masochism.

Here I am writing about all this now, so maybe I'm undercutting my own point, but what I loved about all of this was that I wasn't playing these games to write about them. So many of these titles occupy an exalted space in my memory, and when I watched those people play Contra I wasn't thinking about the game's roots in Reagan-era machismo, or the laughable continuity error between the end of stage 7 and the beginning of stage 8. I was remembering the first time I beat it, and was so excited that I ran to the phone so I could tell my best friend.

I can barely recall a time that I wasn't writing about games on some level. I've been doing it professionally for almost six years, but I started writing reviews for my personal website in the mid-90s. Hell, my second-grade writing project was a prose adaptation of The Legend of Zelda. Even so, there's no doubt that deadlines and paychecks have changed how I play games. PAX reminded me why I play them.

*Now that the glow has faded, I will continue to chug along on this dinosaur Dell.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

PAX: Panels

Above: I didn't photograph any of the panels, so here, have a picture of a Modern Warfare cosplayer on a Vectrex.

PAX is a feel-good event, there's no doubt about it, and I'll have more to say about the good vibes in later posts. Tucked among the warm fuzzies were some thought-provoking panels, which covered a wide range of topics and featured real talk from sharp minds. I caught as many as I could, although not as many as I would have liked, and came away impressed. I've often thought that the way to get people to take video games seriously is to take them seriously ourselves. While all of the panels left room for levity, they also consisted of earnest dialogue between people who have progressed past the point of asking whether the conversation is worth having.

I hit up as many journalism panels as I could, starting with "Journalists vs. Developers: The Ultimate Grudge Match." The panel nearly lived up to its billing, with Harmonix's John Drake deploying one M-rated word after another as he excoriated the worst excesses of game reviewers. I had to wonder what he was so mad about. It's hard to think of a developer that consistently gets better reviews than Harmonix does. (Valve, maybe.) I also appreciated Chris Kohler's candor about the limitations of game reviewers, which can be hard for any of us to admit.

The next day started with a huge line for "Kotaku vs. Croal: In Search of the Best Games Ever." Stephen Totilo and N'Gai Croal presented a game they'd created, called "Canon Fodder," which passed a list of the top 10 games of all time through the hands of one game developer after another, until they'd molded it into perfect shape. You can read about their ongoing efforts at Kotaku.

During the panel, Chris Dahlen tweeted that the audience participation made it the perfect panel, and I'd agree with the sentiment. Beloved games were removed from the list to jeers from the crowd, and new ones were added to hearty applause.

(I wish only that I'd had the guts to make the case against The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time in the top spot. I have such a vendetta against that game.)

The last journalism panel I caught was on Sunday, when I attended "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Game Journalism..." with Kyle Orland, Susan Arendt, Lev Grossman, Gus Mastrapa, and Chris Grant. This was one for the aspiring writers at the convention, as Kyle kicked off by asking how many in the crowd wanted to write about games, how many currently did, and how many were getting paid to do so. The number of hands shrank each time.

I asked a question about whether we serve our readers by reporting press releases as news, and I think I saw actual steam shoot from Chris Grant's ears. He gave a reasonable response, which might have been better than I deserved, although I'd still maintain that I have trouble finding the original content that sites like Joystiq and Kotaku do well (like this!) amid the grinding gears of the hype machine.

Sadly, I was thwarted in my attempts to catch the "Death of Print" panel, featuring Chris Dahlen, Russ Pitts, Julian Murdoch, Jeff Green, and John Davison. It was held immediately after another panel I attended in the same room, at the end of which they cleared us all out for the massive line that had formed outside. I imagine it will be made available online somewhere. I had planned to go to others, as well, but exhaustion and poor time management took their toll.

Finally, there were the Penny Arcade panels, which I had expected would be so packed that I wasn't planning to try to go. But the main stage at Hynes has a balcony that nobody seemed to know or care about, and it turned out to be easy to stroll in and find a seat, sometimes a decent one, without much trouble. I attended all three, and they took basically the same form: Gabe and Tycho onstage, taking questions. Their rapport translates well to the live setting, which is surprising from two guys who take anti-anxiety medication. In their position, I'm sure I'd have been breathing into a paper bag instead of talking trash about Duke Nukem deathmatches.

The middle panel was the "Create a Strip," during which Tycho did most of the talking, and Gabe spent most of his time drawing Monday's strip, with his desktop displayed on two massive monitors. It was impressive. During the Winter Olympics, I found myself explaining to people that while I wasn't enamored of events like curling or cross-country skiing per se, I'm always fascinated to watch the best people in the world excel at something. Watching Gabe draw and color Monday's strip felt like that. His pen moved with grace and ease, even as the perfectionist in him would veto one attempt after another at drawing, say, a character's left eye. He even found the time to sneak in some dick jokes, which you could even argue is the lifeblood of Penny Arcade.

The PA panels were also the scenes of some of the convention's most enduring moments, but that's a subject for another post.

Monday, March 29, 2010

PAX: Preamble

Above: Sadly, the best picture I took all weekend.

No matter how many billions of dollars I see the industry earning, no matter how many people I see on the train playing iPhone Peggle, no matter how many times I try to tell people that games are firmly in the mainstream, there's still a part of me that doubts the worth of playing games. Some small part of me is still fighting it. Some voice tells me I'm wasting my time.

Oh, I can tell you stories. Like the time in sixth or seventh grade -- you know, the age when it starts to go wrong for so many formerly happy kids -- when I found myself talking to an old friend from the neighborhood on the bus ride home. We'd spent a lot of time together when we were younger, but not so much lately. He asked how my weekend had been, and I told him that I had rented RoboCop vs. Terminator for the Genesis. He seemed interested. He asked questions. I told him all about it. As I recall, it was a pretty sweet game.

A few kids got off the bus and some seats opened up, so we moved around to sit with some other kids our age from the street. I shit you not, this is the first thing this kid said to them: "Remember how nice it was outside this weekend? Well, Mitch spent all weekend inside playing video games."

They laughed.

Or the time in seventh grade when I asked my parents why they'd decided not to get me any video games for Christmas, even though my list had been full of them. I wasn't mad, just curious. "We think maybe you've played enough video games," my mother said, gingerly, "and it's time for you to move on to other things."*

You get the point. Enough times during my formative years, things happened to make me question whether my hobby was normal or acceptable. It sounds laughable now. We're talking about video games! What could be more normal than that? But it's ingrained, and that little voice speaks up every so often, asking me what the hell I'm doing with these children's toys.

That's why I was a little bit wary of attending PAX. Because that voice was saying to me, "You play games, but you're not a 'gamer.' You're not like these other guys." The denial was deep.

I walked into the convention feeling jaded, and I walked out feeling energized. People were sending out enough positive vibes to power all the electronics in the building. I was swept away by the energy of the crowds, and inspired by one-on-one interactions with several writers I admire. There was laughter and there were tears. And there was, above all, an unabashed love of games, shared by so many, expressed without constraints.

Over the next couple of days I'll write a little more about the PAX East experience. I don't doubt that, before long, that little voice will start speaking up again, possibly after I've ragequit an Xbox Live game against 13-year-olds. But if I were to say nothing else about PAX, I'd say this: Now I have an even better reason to tell that voice to shut the hell up.

*This story has a happy postscript: three years later, all I got for Christmas was video game stuff. I asked why the change of heart. My mom sighed and said, "Well, you like what you like."

Friday, March 26, 2010

PAX schedule

No links this week, as I prepare to head over to PAX. Since I've never been to one of these things before, I don't know what to expect, and it's entirely possible that I'll run screaming from the building within minutes. So we'll play it by ear. That said, I'm planning to try to hit some or all of the following panels, so stop and say hi if you're there too. You can't miss me -- I'm the white guy with the ironic t-shirt.

(All descriptions lifted shamelessly from the official PAX site.)

Journalists vs. Developers: The Ultimate Grudge Match
Manticore Theatre
Friday, 2:00pm

Game developers can't stand those damned journalists, the way they pick apart your three years of hard work with a review they wrote in an afternoon. And journalists don't understand why game developers won't listen to all of their great ideas! What happens when we force some of the industry's most opinionated writers and developers to hash out their issues in front of an audience? Will they finally see eye-to-eye, or kill each other in public? Watch as writers Chris Kohler ( and Patrick Klepek (G4) square off against game creators John Drake (Harmonix) and another guest from the industry.

Panelists Include: Chris Kohler [Editor, Games,], John Drake [Publicist, Harmonix Music Systems], Patrick Klepek [News Editor, G4], Jeff Green [Editor-in-Chief, EA]

Kotaku and Croal: In Search Of The Best Games Ever
Manticore Theatre
Saturday, 11:30am

What are the 10 best video games ever made? Former journalism peers and eternal game-arguing rivals N'Gai Croal (Hit Detection) and Stephen Totilo (Kotaku), have figured out how to figure it out: Make a game out of it. They've created a game that will determine the 10 best games of all time -- and roped in a host of gaming luminaries to play. Witness the birth of Kotaku and Croal's "Canon Fodder" as Stephen and N'Gai's brand-new and possibly completely foolhardy game is launched. Early tests have been successful, with zero bugs reported. This is their (well, Stephen's) quest to somehow get Yoshi's Island higher on the list than Super Mario World. Let's hope their gaming industry guests don't let them down.

Panelists Include: Stephen Totilo [Deputy Editor, Kotaku], N'Gai Croal [Founder and Principal, Hit Detection]

The Death of Print
Manticore Theatre
Saturday, 1:00pm

It´s no longer a secret: Print is a dying medium. The past few years have been brutal for print media in the game space, but the plummeting sales and editorial team layoffs came to a head in 2009. It´s no surprise many of the key players at those institutions have moved on to web-based ventures, but has the industry as a whole ultimately lost something or gained something? In this 60-minute panel, Russ Pitts, Editor-in-Chief of The Escapist speaks to several journalists who were deeply involved with the events of the past year about the run-up to the decline of print, and the effects on game journalism – and games. Panelists: John Davison, Editor of the new Gamepro Jeff Green, formerly of Games for Windows Magazine, Julian Murdoch, Freelance Writer.

Panelists Include: Russ Pitts [Editor-in-Chief, The Escapist], Julian Murdoch [journalist, freelance], Jeff Green [EA], Chris Dahlen [Managing Editor , Kill Screen], John Davison [Editor-in-Chief, Gamepro]

An Awkward Hour with Rock Band Designers
Manticore Theatre
Sunday, 10:00am

Have you ever wished to be locked in a room with the design team behind the Rock Band games and ask them anything? Well, now's your chance! Armed solely with a laptop filled with behind the scenes movies and embarrassing pictures, the team of designers behind the Rock Band games will answer your questions and reveal some of the reasons for why they made things in various ways.

Panelists Include: Dan Teasdale [Lead Designer, Harmonix Music Systems, Inc], Sylvain Dubrofsky [Senior Designer, Harmonix Music Systems, Inc], Brian Chan [Senior Designer, Harmonix Music Systems, Inc], Casey Malone [Designer, Harmonix Music Systems, Inc]

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Game Journalism...
Manticore Theatre
Sunday, 2:30pm

... but were too afraid to ask... and we didn't really want to tell you anyway... because some of it is kind of embarrassing... but we will... tell you... at this panel... because we're just that awesome. Featuring experienced game journalism professionals (including Crispy Gamer's Kyle Orland, freelancer Gus Mastrapa, The Escapist's Susan Arendt, Joystiq's Chris Grant and Time's Lev Grossman) answering any and all questions you have about the art and craft of getting paid to write about games (it's a tough life). Review scores. Swag. Junkets. Bias. The death of magazines. The rise of blogs. It's all fair game. Of course, you're not limited to those topics. THE ONLY LIMIT IS YOUR IMAGINATION!

Panelists Include: Kyle Orland [Staff Writer, Crispy Gamer], Gus Mastrapa [Freelance, Various], Chris Grant [Editor-in-Chief, Joystiq], Susan Arendt [Senior Editor, The Escapist], Stephen Totilo [Deputy Editor, Kotaku], Lev Grossman [Writer, Time]

Sequelitis Snake Oil: Quack Medicine for the Video Game Industry
Manticore Theatre
Sunday, 4:00pm

Why do passionate gamers treat the word "sequel" as a pejorative while often bestowing their highest praise upon those very same sequels? This panel will seek to diagnose the video game industry's purported "sequelitis" and – by way of discussion from thoughtful panelists, including Irrational Games' Ken Levine; Harmonix's Dan Teasdale; Giant Bomb's Jeff Gerstmann; and moderator Chris Grant, from Joystiq – debunk the quack medicine that's identified video game sequels to be symptomatic of the industry's creative bankruptcy.

Panelists Include: Christopher Grant [Editor-in-Chief, Joystiq], Ken Levine [Creative Director, Irrational Games], Chris Avellone [Creative Director, Obsidian Entertainment], Dan Teasdale [Senior Designer, Harmonix], Jeff Gerstmann [Co-founder, Giant Bomb]

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The PAX visitor's guide to Boston: Stuff you don't want to miss

Whether you're here just for PAX, or you're spending a little extra time in our fair city, there are lots of cool things to see and do that you might not know about. I would really encourage you to take some time to explore the city, because it has so much to offer. Here are just a couple of my favorite things about Boston that you might want to do if you have the time.

Check out the views

Boston has a pretty bitchin' skyline if you can see it from the right angles (not necessarily from "right angles"). My two favorite spots are halfway across the Mass Ave bridge at night, and on the Red Line from Kendall to Charles/MGH. Look out the right side of the train, and you'll see the skyline seem to spring up from the river.

Visit the First Church of Christ, Scientist

You've got to see this sweet church that is just steps from Hynes Convention Center, bordering both Huntington and Mass Ave. It's incredible -- it looks like something you'd see in ancient Babylon, and there's a stunning reflecting pool outside of it. This would be a great place to go to get away from the hubbub of the show, and maybe you could even consider examining some of the Christian Science pamphlets I have here. No? Okay.

Visit the first church of baseball

Fenway Park, one of the last remaining shrines of baseball in the country, is just one T stop away from Hynes Convention Center (which means, of course, that you should walk there). It's pretty neat just to circle the place and get a sense of it, but there are also guided tours available that will give you an up-close look at icons like the famous Green Monster, the Ted Williams seat, and the stairs in section 10 where I saw a guy with a Dropkick Murphys shirt punch a hot dog vendor.

(That didn't actually happen, but you believed it for a second, right?)

Stroll the neighborhoods

There's a lot of diversity within the small urban space of Boston. Walking around Beacon Hill, with its centuries-old rowhouses, always makes me think I've been transported to Europe. Back Bay has lots of grand brownstones -- one nice route to take is along the Commonwealth Avenue mall, but I prefer the narrower and quieter Marlborough Street, one block over.

Then there's the densely settled North End, which has changed over the years but retains its Italian flavor, and the South End, which is an up-and-coming neighborhood that has restaurants and boutiques sprouting all over.

Across the river, Harvard Square is a bustling and energetic neighborhood with good shopping and cafés, Central Square has famed music venues, and Davis Square welcomes all hipsters.

Finally, you can go to Allston-Brighton if you want to see how long a dead rat can decompose on the sidewalk without anybody doing anything about it.

Enjoy green space

The Public Garden and the Boston Common together account for about 74 acres of green space in the heart of the city. The Garden is a little more famous than the Common, thanks to its prominent role in Make Way for Ducklings, and the Swan Boats that patrol the lagoon in warmer months. But you're also not really allowed to play frisbee or anything there, like you can in the Common.

Walking and biking paths run along the Boston side of the Charles River, which on a sunny day can be a gorgeous place to be. Head eastward to see the Hatch Shell and the Esplanade, the center of the annual Fourth of July celebration.

The city has vastly improved the waterfront area near the North End in recent years, and now there's plenty of outdoor space to walk and sit, and take in the views. It's a bit of a hike from where PAX will be, but a great way to spend a few spare hours.

Support alternative journalism

Pick up a Phoenix! They're in red newspaper boxes all over the city, and they're absolutely free. You get top-tier arts criticism, an unrepentant left-leaning editorial page, and magazine-style features, plus a huge section of adult personal ads you will be ashamed to be seen with. Seriously, it's a great paper and you should grab one, even though I don't have anything in it this week.

Visit a world-famous institution of higher learning

Nestled at the intersection of Boylston and Tremont Streets is Emerson College, the alma mater of such gaming luminaries as Veronica Belmont, Russ Frushtick, Bill Gardner, Abbie Heppe, and some dope named Mitch Krpata. That college owes me so much money it's ridiculous.

Oh, you can also check out the campuses of some dumb schools like Harvard and MIT, if you want to be lame. They are kind of interesting, what with their "architecture" and "campus commons" and all.

Things I beg you not to do

Please don't take your picture outside of Cheers, attempt to speak with a Boston accent, or wear any New York Yankees paraphernalia. On the flipside, if you buy Dunkin' Donuts coffee instead of Starbucks, jaywalk mercilessly, and sing along to the chorus of "Sweet Caroline" whenever you hear it, you will find that you are among friends.

Welcome to Boston!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The PAX visitor's guide to Boston: Food and drink

If there's one thing I know about gamers, it's that they like to eat. If there are two things I know about gamers, it's that they like to eat, and they don't like to spend a lot of money. Fortunately, there are plenty of good deals in and around the city, many within range of the Penny Arcade Expo.


My pick for Boston's best slice is a local chain called the Upper Crust. Their pies have a thin, crispy crust, upscale toppings, and a fantastic sauce. It's so good that I used to eat it out of the trash can after the store closed and they threw away their leftovers from the night. No, I am not joking. The nearest location to the Hynes Convention Center is right around the corner on Newbury Street.

You may be tempted to try the world-famous Pizzeria Regina in the North End. The pizza is phenomenal, it's true, but in my opinion it's not worth having to wait in a line outside for an hour so that some middle-aged waitress can sass me for trying to finish my drink after I'm done eating. (My wife would like me to tell you that she thinks Pizzeria Regina is worth waiting in line and being sassed.)

If you find yourself in Harvard Square, Oggi Gourmet makes a great slice, which is different every time. The chefs constantly experiment with the crust, sauce, and toppings. You never know what you'll get, but you know it'll be good.

Tasty beverages

Lately it seems like the number of bars and restaurants serving quality beers in Boston has skyrocketed. Just around the corner from Hynes is Bukowski's, a dive bar that serves cheap food and hundreds of different beers. The volume is ear-splitting and it's cash-only, so it's probably not a huge change from the PAX show floor.

A little further away in Kenmore Square is the Lower Depths, a cool little café with a solid selection of micro-brews, and affordable, delicious pub food. Like Bukowski's, Lower Depths is cash-only, but they got these big chewy pretzels that ashbzzzzzz FIVE DOLLARS? get outta here

If you feel like heading further afield, take the C train out to Washington Square in Brookline and check out the Publick House, whose meticulous approach to the beer menu is downright curatorial. The food is fantastic, too, mostly pub food and hearty, beer-infused entrees. Try the mac and cheese.

Meal deals

Almost directly across the street from Hynes Convention Center is a place called the Pour House, which will give you more bang for your buck than almost anywhere else in the neighborhood. They run specials daily, and even if you and some friends just go in on some appetizers like nachos and wings, you'll be leaving food behind. And despite what some people may say, I personally have never seen any live animals running around in there.

One of the best-kept secrets in the area is Audubon Circle, located on Beacon Street near Park Drive. Unlike the Pour House, they don't run specials or serve massive platters of greasy food. Instead, it's just a low-key place that serves quality food at a surprisingly affordable price ($9-$11 for some damn good sandwiches).

Across Mass Ave on Newbury Street is the Other Side Café, which serves mostly sandwiches in the $9-$10 range, with options you might not expect at that price, like brie cheese or prosciutto with pesto. There's also a good beer selection, including lower-end brews for three bucks.

Fast Food

Forget McDonald's and Burger King -- there are some great fast food choices right nearby PAX. Spike's Junkyard Dogs is located just a little ways down Boylston Street, and is home to tasty hot dogs served on chewy, French-style rolls. The meat is higher quality than you're probably used to for a hot dog, and the vegetarian version gets rave reviews, too.

B. Good is a local burger-and-fries place that's slightly healthier than the norm, and just as tasty. There are two locations right near Hynes -- one on Dartmouth Street, and one on Newbury Street.

Uburger in Kenmore Square is another burger joint that's better than average, serving sandwiches that are made-to-order, and hot fries right out of the oil.

Since El Pelón burned down, it's been hard to find a decent, authentic burrito in the city. (They've since opened a new location at Boston College, but, uh, don't go to Boston College.) If you want a decent, inauthentic burrito, try Boloco, around the corner from Hynes on Mass Ave. I'm a buffalo chicken man, myself.

Late night

Boston is a sleepy city with precious few choices for late-night dining. You still have a couple of 24-hour options, though they're a bit of a hike late at night. Bova's in the North End sells pizza, calzones, and other baked goods all night.

The famed South Street Diner is more than a greasy spoon -- it's a Boston institution. It's the only remaining sit-down restaurant that's open all night, and a rite of passage for all local college students.

This is but a sampling of the dining options available to you during your short stay. Nothing inflames passions like the discussion of restaurants, so I'd love to hear more recommendations in comments.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The PAX visitor's guide to Boston: Getting around

Above: The MBTA map. There will be a quiz.

Penny Arcade Expo East kicks off this Friday in my hometown of Boston. Many of you are traveling to the show from other cities, and even countries. You have the guts to do what I never could: leave the house. Well played.

To welcome you to our humble city, I thought I'd offer a few tips for how to make the most of your stay here. First: how to get around.

Most people get around Boston by subway with the help of the friendly folks at the MBTA, who run a clean, efficient, and reliable subway service that never strands you in a tunnel for 15 minutes or more with no explanation. The T, as the locals call it, may not be one of the world's greatest transit systems, but it is certainly one of the oldest, and also one of the cheapest.

You probably received a Charlie Card with your PAX badge. You can add value to the Charlie Card at subway kiosks with cash or a credit card. This may be worth it because fares with a Charlie Card are a little cheaper than paying with cash: $1.70 per ride as opposed to $2.00.

Boston is small enough that the T will get you almost anywhere you need to go, and usually in a reasonable amount of time, unless that time happens to be after 12:35 AM, because that's when the T stops running. Service resumes around 5:30 AM, if you can wait that long. Otherwise, if you're looking to stay out until last call (no later than 2:00 AM anywhere in the city, and sometimes earlier), you'll have to get a cab, or hoof it.

If you're staying at almost any of the hotels linked from the PAX site, then I'd recommend you not take the T at all. Nearly all of them are located in Back Bay, well within walking distance of the show venue. In fact, you can walk almost anywhere in Boston without too much trouble. From Back Bay it's easy to get to parks, Beacon Hill, Faneuil Hall, the North End, the South End, Kenmore, Fenway, and probably even more neighborhoods that I'm forgetting.

Even if you're not an ambulation enthusiast, if you're going five stops or less on the Green Line anywhere between Government Center and Kenmore, you're still better off walking. It's faster, cheaper, and less irritating. You may stroll through gorgeous old neighborhoods and wide-open park space, and, if you're lucky, you'll see the guy who rides around on a three-wheeled bike making siren noises with his mouth. If you are a bit further out -- say, across the river, or out in Brookline -- then taking the T probably is your best bet.

You have two choices for T service at the airport, the Blue Line and the Silver Line. The Blue Line connects with the Green Line at Government Center, and is the better choice for traveling to Back Bay, Brookline, and Allston-Brighton. The Silver Line connects with the Red Line at South Station, and is a better choice for traveling to Cambridge or Somerville.

I hope this helps some newcomers navigate the mean streets of Boston. Whether you're walking or taking the T, it's pretty easy and pleasant to get around this city. (But not if you're driving. Driving in Boston is a freaking nightmare.) If you have any specific questions, ask away and I'll try to answer. And if any other natives have some helpful tips, please leave them in comments, as well.

Oh, one more thing. For god's sake, don't just take one step onto the train and then stop right on the stairs. I'm begging you.

Monday, March 22, 2010

God of War III: Entrails yes, lovemaking no

Above: Acceptable penetration, according to the ESRB.

God of War III is a game that does not flinch away from violence. So far I've disemboweled centaurs and decapitated minotaurs. I've pulled out a titan's cracked fingernails. I've chopped off the legs of Hermes so I could wear his boots. I've yanked off Helios's head, and now I'm using it as a lantern. I've pummeled Hercules in the face until his head was shaped like a crescent moon. And it's all been shown in center stage, brightly lit and highly detailed. It's as though the developers are daring you to see how much gore you can take.

Then, when Kratos falls into bed with Aphrodite, the game gets downright bashful.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying I wanted an X-rated, fully rendered sex scene, nor do I think that God of War could have or should have tried to pull off a tasteful one,* with the more explicit maneuvers obscured by professional draping techniques. I can't believe I'm saying this, but it's true to the character that we weren't treated to a soft-focus sex scene of the kind you see on late-night Cinemax.

It's just that the contrast is so stark. God of War III rubs your face in gore from start to finish. Bones crack. Bloud spouts. Entrails festoon the columns. You see some jiggling breasts, as well, which give a whole new meaning to the phrase "bump mapping," yet the second Kratos tries a little tenderness, the camera drifts away to focus on two of Aphrodite's young (and female) pages, who watch intently.

Like most of the more dramatic game actions, the sex scene happens through button prompts, here accompanied hilariously by the grating, metallic sound of a sword being unsheathed. Match the prompts, and the voyeurs murmur with pleasure. Miss them, and they look away in disgust. It's funny, probably intentionally, but one gets the impression through much of the rest of the game that we are supposed to be taking the violence seriously on its own terms.

It's a tricky balance, because I'm not suggesting that God of War is intended as a serious dramatic work, like Heavy Rain. It is obviously supposed to be ridiculous and over the top. Still, we are meant to be in awe of Kratos's earthshaking rage. The game dares us to look unflinchingly at one blood-soaked act of brutality after another. But as soon as Kratos thinks about touching a woman, we can titter and turn away. We're like little boys who play with toy guns all day and then giggle when our parents kiss each other hello.

*"Pull off a tasteful one" might have been something users would have tried to do upon encountering an HD sex scene.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"Incredibly memorable."

Have you seen the TV commercial for Battlefield: Bad Company 2?

That's right, it's "incredibly memorable." I can't figure out why a reviewer might have thought this was a useful phrase to describe a game, or why a marketer would choose that, of all the plaudits presumably available, for the ad. Lots of things are memorable, and not always for a good reason. I have memories of Manhunt 2 that I can't get out of my head, not even with a power drill. At least when Earl Dittman of Wireless Magazines calls The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3D a masterpiece, you know exactly what he means.

On the other hand, there's something lovely about the phrase. It could work for everything, good or bad.

"How was your weekend?" "Incredibly memorable."

"Thank god that fire's out. I never thought bananas foster could be so incredibly memorable."

"Then I started throwing up everywhere and, well, I don't have to tell you that it was one of the most incredibly memorable sales presentations I've ever given."

Yes, this phrase could take off. And why not? It's incredibly memorable.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Friday afternoon tidbits

The blogs go awfully quiet during the Game Developers Conference, although Twitter has been hopping. Sounds like a great time, and I'm sorry I missed it. I'll just have to look forward to PAX. Only two weeks to go!

-I'm a few hours into Final Fantasy XIII, and still trying to get a feel for it. When I've heard it compared to Final Fantasy X, and it's intended as an insult, I've thought, "Sign me up!" That said it is almost stifling in its linearity so far, which I didn't think about FFX. Even so, I think Jeremy Parish is right on the money when he wonders why it's such a bad thing that FFXIII abandons some long-held RPG tenets. "There are no towns" not seem to me to be an incisive criticism.

-Another great post from Sparky Clarkson this week, this time about the notion of "camp" in games, vis a vis recent titles like Deadly Premonition and Heavy Rain. I've wondered before whether games can succeed as camp, and like the commenter on the post, my feeling is it's hard because the gameplay still needs to be decent for you to appreciate the campier aspects of the story. I thought No More Heroes succeeded as camp, while its sequel didn't, and it was mostly for those reasons.

I also can't believe people have me honestly considering buying Deadly Premonition. It looks truly terrible. But everyone loves it!

-Neat article in the Boston Globe this week about the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Lab, whose members are doing some interesting and forward-thinking work, though apparently they're doing it for the Nintendo 64.

-The Huffington Post put together a slideshow of "the most controversial video games ever," which is not terribly illuminating but does show that today's controversial games are a little bit further along than those in the past. The difference between Postal and MW2's "No Russian" scene is the latter was at least trying to say something. Also, the article makes it seem like Six Days in Fallujah has been released.

-Yep, you need to watch this video:

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Heavy pain

Above: Madison Paige, in a rare moment of not being exploited.

At last, my review of Heavy Rain is up at Much has been said about this game so far, both positive and negative, and part of the reason I spent an entire post talking about some of the game's flaws was to clear the decks for this uncommonly positive review. There's still mention of some of the egregious problems, but in the end I thought Heavy Rain succeeded at what it set out to accomplish, and it did so with aplomb.

Is Heavy Rain important? Is it the future of games? Is it the death knell for games as we have known and loved them for decades? Is David Cage a huge d-bag? I've read all these questions and more, and I don't know the answers to any of them. I don't think they matter. It's silly to try to predict a game's importance or impact in real time, and useless to discuss its creators by proxy. All you can say is what playing this game felt like at this time, and to me it felt momentous.

That's not to say that I want Heavy Rain to be the future of games. I would hate to lose games that are purely play -- not that it would happen anyway. The lesson other developers should take from this game isn't that people are clamoring to play only slow-paced, talky adventure games with no sense of humor. But they should realize that there is greater range for the medium than more shooters, more racing games, more RPGs. That they can try to make games that can be described in ways besides, "It's just like this other game, except..."

The next game I played after Heavy Rain was Battlefield: Bad Company 2, and while it's clearly well made, I couldn't escape the feeling that it existed not because somebody at DICE had a bold and daring vision for shooters, which they were willing to go through hell and high water to share with the world. I think it exists because previous Battlefield games made a lot of money, and Call of Duty games have made a hell of of a lot of money, so let's go ahead and try to move the FPS ball down the field another inch or so and see how much money we make.

Again, that's fine. I'm not saying all developers should stop making games that people already know and love, and that have a guaranteed sales base. I am saying that a few more should follow Quantic Dream's example and just freaking go for it, whatever kind of game they're trying to make. When you do that, maybe your game isn't perfect. Maybe it isn't even any good. But if you nail it, you might end up with something like Heavy Rain.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The Citizen Kane of games finally arrives

Above: Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.

Attention, iPhone and iPod touch owners! The lost classic Fox Smoking Pipe is now available in the iTunes apps store, for the low, low price of free.

First developed in the late-90s for, I don't know, the computer, Fox Smoking Pipe has been painstakingly ported to your handheld Apple phone/MP3 player/camera/gaming device. The stunningly rendered graphics showcase advanced particle effects and a bold color palette. An epic single-player campaign takes our hero, the humble Fox, across thousands of virtual miles of terrain fraught with peril.

Evoking themes of loneliness, despair, and a fox's search for meaning, Fox Smoking Pipe raises troubling philosophical questions. Can the Fox jump over every pit? Will his pipe ever run out of tobacco? Is there any way to quit the game once he starts falling? At long last, we will know the answers to these questions.

Download Fox Smoking Pipe today!

Friday, March 05, 2010

Friday afternoon tidbits

I'll be checking out Battlefield: Bad Company 2 this weekend. It's impossible not to compare every single aspect of it to Modern Warfare 2, right? Is it even worth resisting? I'm just hoping to fly helicopters into things.

Here are some links and stuff.

-Big ups to my uncle Mike, who actually did Photoshop a Cylon eye onto the PlayStation 3:

The PS3 was created by man. It rebelled.

-I'm hesitant to go too far down this path, because we shouldn't be giving a litmus test for enjoying a game, but I've been struck by the response to Heavy Rain I've seen among gamer dads. A sampling:
If you've ever been responsible for a child, either as a parent or a sibling, this game will make you feel shaky--the verisimilitude, much of the time, is stunning. There were many moments where I was more involved with my character than I've ever been in a game. I was the main character at times.
-Bill Harris, Dubious Quality
I am Julian. I am a father. I would do anything – without hesitation – to protect the 10 pounds of meconium and emerging sentience sleeping in the baby carrier in my right hand. Thankfully, I have never been tested.
Heavy Rain is, ultimately, about this: testing the resolve of parentage. That makes it a difficult game to play, as a parent.
-Julian Murdoch, Gamers with Jobs
I've spent a couple nights with Heavy Rain now and I think it's really special. If you're a parent, (especially a Dad) this game can be pretty difficult to play at times. In fact I'm curious if people who don't have kids will end up getting as much out of it. I don't know if it's an 89.85%, or a 9.7 out of 10. What I do know is that after a late night playing it, I sneak into my son's room and hug him before I go to bed.
-Gabe, Penny Arcade
When I read the varying reactions to Heavy Rain, I can't help but wonder what each player is bringing to the table. I think it's a game you have to make an effort to appreciate, but maybe that's easier for some people than others. Although I'm not a parent myself, I am at a point in my life where that's probably going to happen sooner than later. Maybe that mattered to me when I played the game. I dunno.

-The Rock Band Network store is live! This seemed like better news before I actually looked at the tracklist. I still expect great things from it.

-Great column by Jamie Madigan at GSW about the psychology of gamers called "The Glitcher's Dilemma." I love stuff like this. It's a game-theory look at playing multiplayer games in which there's a cheap path to victory, like the Zerg rush or the javelin glitch in MW2, and how it's mutually beneficial if players choose to overlook such glitches. Also interesting: the moronic first comment in response to the article.

-The funniest thing you will read this week is a re-post of a Newsweek article from 1995 about the uselessness of the internet. Among the assertions by the author, Clifford Stoll:
  • The truth in [sic] no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.
  • Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we'll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Intenet [sic]. Uh, sure.
  • come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month? Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet—which there isn't—the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople.
It seems like you'd have to have the benefit of hindsight even to get this much stuff wrong. This is why making predictions about anything is a fool's errand.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

To be fair, there are a lot of bad things in Heavy Rain

I've made no secret of my love for Heavy Rain, and I'm looking forward to writing a positive review of it for the paper. Still, I can't argue with most of the flaws that people are pointing out. They are there. So in the interest of balance, I thought I'd list just a few of the the things that don't quite work.

-We're told that the Origami Killer has claimed 8 victims in 3 years, and done so every time there has been a storm with at least 6 inches of rain. Maybe something got lost in the conversion from metric to whatever the hell we use in America, but six inches of rain is not a common occurrence. It's practically biblical. My local weatherman uses his excited voice every time we get more than two inches. A city that habitually gets that much rain in a single storm has bigger problems on its hands than a serial killer.

-The accents are terrible. This is the first thing most people notice, and there's no explaining it away. The problem isn't not that the characters have distinctive speech patterns -- I'm still discovering regional American dialects that I had never heard before. It's that English sounds like a second language for most of the performers. Sometimes it's charming, other times it's jarring. I can't live in a world where "been" and "bean" are pronounced the same way. Especially bad is the FBI agent's accent, which sounds like a hybrid of Bronx and Boston, by way of Sweden. It's just weird.

(On the other hand, how many times have you seen a Shakespeare play that takes place in, say, Denmark, and all the performers sound British? Nobody seems to mind about that.)

-Diction. There are some strange word choices here, not least of which is the repeated references to the "wasteland" where the bodies are found. This is not a huge problem, but occasionally a word will be off slightly, and it sounds like a musician hitting a flat note.

-So many of the details of the setting are, if not necessarily European in nature, not American. In Ethan's house, the toilet is in a different room from the shower. In the hospital, the electrical outlets are slanted. The supermarket sells live animals. Somehow, these details detract more than the accents do.

-When Ethan takes a shower at the very beginning of the game, it's in the context of a normal day. When Madison takes a shower in her introductory scene, it is creepy and weird. The camera leers at her. I felt like I needed a shower after that scene. Madison is the weakest character in the game, and is needlessly sexualized more often than not, especially when she's threatened. I recommend Denis Farr's post on the subject at the Borderhouse.

-The game is easy to break. I started a second playthrough with the intention of screwing around with it. Things came to a head when I got to the part where Agent Jayden is tying the police captain's tie. Instead of holding R1, to make him grab hold of the tie, I started tapping it. The police captain kept talking like nothing was happening, while a blank-faced Jayden kept reaching out as if to caress his tie, only to pull back at the last moment. The camera angle changed every time this happened, too. It was hilarious, and also totally at odds with the point of the game.

For all this, I still think Heavy Rain is a terrific achievement. For as much as I started this second playthrough with the intention of breaking the game, I couldn't stop myself from getting sucked in. It's a game of highs and lows, where pacing does mean slowing things down to a crawl at times. You sort of have to commit to it, like a method actor to a role.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The ballad of the first-gen PS3 owner

Above: The 60GB PS3. I'd have photoshopped a red Cylon eye on the disc drive if I knew how.

Not only did Sony once rule the video game world, they dominated it. The thought of the PlayStation brand ever faltering seemed laughable. But they've been blowing it with the PlayStation 3 from the start. And every time they seem to be righting the ship, another rogue wave comes along.

You've probably heard the latest news of a clock malfunction plaguing owners of the older, "fat" design. I don't have much to add about it. But I just want to take a second to list the ways in which being a first-gen PS3 owner has dicked me over. I bought a PS3 because I needed one for work, but also because it was a PlayStation, dammit, and the name meant quality. Sony had built up serious brand equity over the lifespan of two world-beating systems. Why would you bet against the PS3? Because you were smart enough to know that nothing lasts forever, I guess.

Anyway, I'm not mad or anything, and by the time I get home tonight I expect that the latest issue will be taken care of. I just can't believe these things all happened:
On the plus side, I have backwards compatibility. So I've got that going for me.

Monday, March 01, 2010

What's wrong with Heavy Rain's controls?

Above: Heavy Rain characters contemplate internet criticism.

On Friday, I mentioned that some of the criticisms of Heavy Rain seem off-base to me. The biggest one has to do with the controls. There seem to be two essential complaints about them. One is that you're not really controlling your character. The other is that they are arbitrary quick-time events. The result: You are providing inputs at certain times, but you're just watching the characters perform the actions.

This is factually true, and experientially insignificant. I agree with Tom Cross when he says: "I’m not sure what everyone is complaining about when it comes to Heavy Rain’s controls. They’re too abstract, or something? They’re not like 'real' game controls? It’s really unclear."

Start with the question of abstraction. Sure, buttons don't map to specific actions. That's because the actions your character can perform are so different. Using the right analog stick to perform the bulk of the character's actions does seem to me to do the job, especially since Quantic Dream made an effort to have the control input track to the onscreen action (like pressing it to the right in order to open a sliding door). I suppose you could have a context-sensitive action button instead, but, really, what's the difference? Well, I can think of one: pressing a button feels less like opening a door than moving a control stick does.

Heavy Rain does have its share of action scenes that wouldn't look out of place in other games, like fistfights, and, yes, they do control differently than you'd expect. You don't have specific actions like "punch" and "guard." Instead, you have to quickly respond to onscreen prompts within a time limit. This, again, seems to bother people who are used to more traditional playing styles. I've found it to be rather exciting. I never know what's coming next, and I tend to mess up just enough to leave the outcome of the scene in real doubt.

"But you're not really playing it!" some complain. Well, I'm pressing buttons to create onscreen action, aren't I? Maybe I'm being obtuse, but I don't see a dramatic difference between these two scenarios:

-Press X when prompted to dodge an attack (Heavy Rain)
-Press the left trigger when the opponent's weapon flashes to dodge an attack (Bayonetta)

Bayonetta has been praised as pure gameplay, while Heavy Rain has been criticized for being all cutscene. Yet in each case, it's a matter of split-second reaction to visual cues onscreen. I'm not saying they're exactly the same, but I am saying that it's a difference of degree and not of kind.

A control scheme can only be judged by how well it allows the player to experience the game. Other than the first 10 minutes or so that it took me to get used to making the characters walk around, I've found the controls of Heavy Rain to be up to the task. No, they wouldn't work in many other games. They don't need to.