So if you haven’t noticed, it has been a week since I have posted. This is mainly because it is midterm season and I have not had the time to game nor blog. It is a popular sentiment that is being discussed about gaming in the blogosphere. Expect a post tomorrow on my own take on this topic and the obstacles of remaining a gamer as well as a graduate student.
Archive for October, 2008
Far Cry 2 looks absolutely gorgeous and I am tempted to upgrade my PC to take advantage of the visual orgasm. Now with that out of the way, I want to talk about the plot of the game. No, I won’t delve into the specifics of its mercenary structure or parallelisms into Heart of Darkness. I want to address an issue that I believe a lot of war games have: the nondescript, nonspecific, undisclosed location of the game’s setting. Far Cry 2 takes place in an unstable African state. That may suffice for a typical action game, but if the developer intended to place a greater effort into the story-which they have spoken that it was a major concern-then I don’t believe having a nondescript location helps their efforts.
Now, a fair argument can be made that this just isn’t necessary. Africa is simply enough. The player does not need any more specifics for an FPS “action game.” But I believe, that this mentality hinders the genre to grow because it takes away from what could be a very mature narrative and the impression gamers have with playing this genre. What this mindset does do is boils it down to basically a dumb-action movie. But action movies can be very stimulating-look at the Terminator series or even the Bourne series. There is no reason that video games need to be dumbed-down to the player. I even find it slightly offensive that Africa can be considered a setting that is representational of all the regions in the continent. No one would set a game simply in Europe with a single environmental backdrop and expect it to represent the entire continent. It is absolutely ludicrous.
This is highly controversial in the case of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare where it is set in an unnamed Middle East country. What the hell is that? Now before I go further, I do want to give credit that the game does have an amazingly well constructed narrative and simply one of the most memorable gaming moments of last year. But I don’t believe the game went far enough in its responsibility for depicting the consequences of modern warfare. For a game set in modern warfare, the reality of it is totally disassociated when players can bomb areas from a computer screen within the game. It is both beautiful and shocking in the amount of time, care, and detail Infinity Ward put into the game. And though I applaud COD4 as a great game, I wish they gave the player the benefit of the doubt that they can process their actions with a specific setting that purveys much more social and political intertext than simply placing it in the Middle East.
And now we come to the topic of censorship. I am sure if COD4 were to set it in a specific nation there would be huge uproar. But I believe that is a very ignorant sentiment from dissenters. By not placing the game more grounding into the current reality, players have an easier time to disconnect with it. If COD4 were set in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan (which it might as well be) I believe the narrative would become much stronger and have a larger impact on the player.
But do not confuse my intentions to have all games become overly serious. Video games are entertainment and they are an escape. Grand Theft Auto would not be what it is today if it didn’t give the player the ability for free reign. Game narratives are not required to present the players with social conniptions or epiphanies. However, they should try to push the medium in some facet whether it is narrative, game play, design, or simply perfection of certain mechanics. All I am saying is it would be nice to know where the hell and who the hell I am taking head shots at.
It was bound to happen as my current graduate curriculum has converged into my blog. Luckily, it is a subject I am completely immersed in and intellectually stimulated with at this point in the semester. It is the notion of transference between the identity of the player and the identity of the avatar, where the two subjects do not collide but exist in tangent parallels to one another. I apologize to fellow students that are currently reading my blog, but it is the “Lacanian” sense of the internal gaze where one is aware himself as himself as the other peering at himself.
This idea was sparked by the most recent post by the Brainy Gamer, Michael Abbott, who references a link from Iroquois Pliskin’s experience with the game Fallout. One particular passage caught my interest:
“You feel like you share an experience with your character, this experience of being thrust into a world you barely understand, one that is unpredictable and promising at once; and sharing an experience is the beginning of a relationship.”
What grabbed me was this shared instance with the character when the character actually is yourself. Essentially, when you a playing single-player games it is a very intimate, personal experience the player has with himself. This fits especially well with an RPG such as Fallout where the sense of loneliness is imperative to the gameplay experience. Another good example is Half-Life 2. I am, of course, ignoring the dialog that occurs between the player and the designer in this particular instance and I am sure if I were writing some sort of dissertation this element would most definitely be addressed.
But I find this aura of simultaneous separation and identification fascinating. It is the moment where the player thrusts himself onto the avatar, creating his own identity, yet remaining distant to the character in the game space unbeknown that that character is, in fact, himself. There is a kind of aloofness to the relationship someone has to an avatar that is extremely familiar and artificial, which I believe, Pliskin touches upon in her experience with the game.
So what does this all mean? Well, it is an experience that can be comparable to the idea audience identification within film. Where the viewer begins to not only fell empathy but identify himself as the character on screen. But, I believe, the division becomes even more blurred in video games because the player is shaping the character as himself or as whom he unconsciously wishes himself to be in the game space. While at the same time, this construction of pixels is inherently not himself and artificial. This is an experience that video games, in particular, provide almost exclusively. When this relationship becomes aware to the player, for example in a game cinematic, it disrupts the channel between the player, himself, his avatar, and the game. And that is why the video game cinematic has come under such recent contention.
I do not want to delve too deep into this dynamic relationship between the player and the avatar, but it is definitely an avenue of intellectual curiosity that I hope to revisit in the future.
If you haven’t already heard, Bioshock 2 is being developed. And, since the recent leak of the extras for the PS3 version of the game there is a trailer that is making its way through the Internet. In the trailer below which shows a very adorable little, plush Big Daddy doll and a woman looking into the see, which many have speculated to be a grown up Little Sister. The tentative title for the sequel (though it still could be a prequel) is Bioshock 2: Sea of Dreams. Thankfully, it does have the excellent song “Dream” by the Pied Pipers playing in the background.
Now, there have been a lot of message board and blog posts about the possibilities of this sequel’s plot. Will the Little Sisters have to come back to Rapture? Will we see the consequences of Jack’s actions on Rapture? What of its inhabitants? What is to become of the Big Daddies? So forth and so forth. Now, I won’t bore you with my own suggestions of the sequel’s narrative, but I do hope that the 2k Marin team does delve into one important aspect of the game, its themes.
Definitely, my favorite aspect of Bioshock was its integration of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. And if the 2k Marin team does not delve into this element of Bioshock it will be a massive failure of importance to the product in its status as a groundbreaking work of art in game narrative and maturity. It would be wonderful if who ever is helming the narrative looks further into how Andrew Ryan’s philosophy has affected the inhabitants of Rapture and even integrate elements from Rand’s Fountainhead as opposed to Atlas Shrugged.
In fact, to take it even further I would love to see the sequel of Bioshock to investigate the philosophies of Subjectivism and even Relativism as opposed to Rand’s Objectivism. What if Fountaine was right to oppose Andrew Ryan? This is a sequel that is burdened with a legacy no one initially asked for. But on the plus side, it has a world that is alive with inspiration and possibilities. Though Ken Levine may only have a consulting role this time around, I know there are others in 2K just as talented and hopeful to creating something truly unique and worth while. Here is to keeping my figures crossed and looking out into the sea of possibilities.
Film critic Roger Moore recently posted his review of the Max Payne film in the Orlando Sentinel. Surprise, surprise the movie is not garnering well-received reviews. But Moore does make a particular comment in his review concerning the emotional weight of a particular incident in the new film. Having not seen the movie, but played the games (spoiler alert!) I am sure it concerns the death of the female lead Mona Sax.
In his review, Moore writes: “But as good as a couple of its action beats are, Max still suffers from the heartlessness that makes games emotionally inferior to movies. Nobody ever shed a tear over a video-game character’s death.” Now, I don’t particularly remember crying when Mona dies in Max Payne 2: the Fall of Max Payne–personally I believe Payne’s family being brutally murdered in the first game had enough emotional weight and placing in a female love interest complete undercuts his original motivation in the first game–Moore is more or less correct.
Now, I am sure that there are millions of Final Fantasy fans spamming Moore’s e-mail about Aeris’s death. There are plenty of game characters where the player does feel empathy and regret towards like Agro in Shadow of Colossus, Dogmeat in Fallout, and even more recent games such as Metal Gear Solid 4 and Half Life: Episode 2. I am not sure if at any time these people cried upon their passing. And why not? Games, especially RPGs, allow the player vast amounts of time to become attached to characters intimately through narrative and gameplay. Personally, I don’t believe it is the fault of the narrative format but of writers unwilling to take changes in game narratives. There are plenty of moments where I believed if a character died I would honestly feel very emotional towards their death. Part of me hopes that Alex will die in Half Life: Episode 3 when it is released sometime around 2010–the emo-wuss in me hopes she doesn’t.
The fault, I believe, primarily is attributed to the player and the sense of entitlement players expect from the developer. The trend today is for the player to make their own narrative while playing and it is doubtful that the player will want to be a sadomasochist and creative negative consequences for himself. A recent example is Fable 2 where if the player was attacked for extended periods of time it would cause irreconcilable damage and the avatar would become facially deformed. This was quickly taken out because many players did not want their avatar disfigured and would reload game to the previous save point. My apologies to Joseph Merrick.
Recently games have been receiving narrative acclaim for its simple use of interactivity in key points. Examples can be forcing the player to pull the trigger to kill The Boss in Metal Gear 3, watching To Kill A Mockingbird in The Darkness, and even blinking in Alone in the Dark. It’s a step in the right direction. Mass Effect gave the player the ability the option to chose who sacrifices their life to save the crew. But I think developers should go a step further. Specifically, in Metal Gear it should be the illusion of choice forcing the player to live with decisions that are, in all purposes, out of his hands. Shedding a tear for a character is one thing, but shedding a tear because it is your fault is a wonderful emotional avenue that I hope games will explore as they continue to mature.
So I walk into Gamestop yesterday to cancel my pre-order of Little Big Planet. I have decided that I will not have the time to utilize the level creation in the game and would rather purchase it later than having the box, still in shrink wrap, collecting dusk on my shelf. Casually, I tell the clerk that I would like to cancel my pre-order and she tells her manager that another pre-order has been canceled. The Gamestop manager proceeds to insinuate that I had purchased it from the Mom & Pop video game store across the street, Gameplay. Apparently, said store had broken the release date and started selling the game.
Now, I am not the biggest Gamestop fan but I am not a dissenter of the store chain. My brother had worked at an EB Games before the merger and I too had once worked in retail. But I do not appreciate that the fact that I am treated as some sort of criminal for cancelling my pre-order. I almost considered cancelling my Fallout 3 pre-order on the spot. This poor customer service is probably the largest fault of Gamestop–other than their status is a faceless, retail abusive corporation. I have no problem with the used-game market as it is more power to the consumer, though I do disagree with Gamestop’s policy on buying used games from customers.
The difference with the Mom & Pop store, Gameplay, is that the customer/retailer dynamic is much different. I can talk to a Gameplay employee for extended period of time without feeling compelled to purchase from the store that day. However, every employer at Gamestop feels like a salesman insisting me to pre-order a title, by some peripheral, getting a rewards card, or trying to sell a subscription to GamePro. It is a feeling of intrusiveness and dynamic where you seem more like commission number. And for the manager to relay a tone of accusation to an honest customer is down right insulting.
Though Gameplay is in the wrong for breaking the release date, it does not excuse this particular Gamestop to take out the frustration onto the customer. Though I still feel empathy for the lowly Gamestop employee that hates his manager and deplores the fact the he is required to push these ridiculous products and deals onto an unwanted customer, Gamestop can seriously f*ck off in the future.
There is a recent interview on Gamasutra with Fallout 3 director Todd Howard and near the end of the interview he talks about the perceived crazy fanbase of Fallout accolades. Howard brings up the importance of listening to this vocal minority as well as trying to justify why Fallout 3 has taken a First Person Perspective as opposed to the series’s previous Tabletop RPG perspective. And his response to the fanboys is quite reasonable.
He also brings up the many “crazies” that Blizzard has. The most recent is the outcry over the visual aesthetic of Diablo 3. For those unfamiliar, it is the presence of a more colorful visual pallet over the Diablo Universe. The joke basically boils down to the presence of a rainbow in the back ground. To the right you will see a satiric little artist rendition of the new direction Diablo 3 is taking–thank-you 4chan.
Surprisingly, the gaming press has slammed the opinions of the rabid online community. Though this is unsurprising knowing their relation to the many message board trolls on the Internet, I believe it is unfair to simply disregard the fan community in favor of trusting the developer. Especially with known franchises, such as Fallout, it is understandable to see their discontent with the preceived “corruption” of a franchise they love. Imagine if Phoenix Wright became a Third-Person Adventure game. Though this may be viewed as a massive step forward for the license, there is an impression of loss towards the historic roots of these games.
But I do believe, that fan communities should have some sort of say when it comes to games. I come from the unpopular belief that these games should be developed for the community as opposed to the shareholders. Star Wars Galaxies is an interesting case where the developers have a close relationship with the fan community after the release of the release of the “New Game Enhancements” back in 2005. Even in the case of Team Fortress 2, fun perks such as making taunts into kills or the balancing of certain classes is very important to the continued growth and maintaining of the game.
Coming back to Fallout 3, there does come a time where a necessary change is required. For Bethesda, the change of perspective made sense for the game the developer intended to make. Whether this decision was right or wrong will be determined when the game is released. We have seen similar failures for this shift in the case of Shadowrun which was a massive gamble for the developer. Personally, I believe the sole reason Fallout 3 had garnered the pass is because of the reputation of the developer–and that is not a bad thing. Though I believe the majority of game footage released has been uninspired and completely non-indicative of the actual gamplay experience, it will be interesting the compare both Shadowrun (below) and Fallout 3 (above) with their percieved successes and failures in shifting into a different genre of gameplay for their respective franchises.
In a recent interview, game designer Tim Schafer has brought up the notion of the “Executive Gamer.” This primarily applied to the gamers in the enthusiast press who are required to review many games each month for their subscribers. The idea is that these gamers are forced to constantly play games in marathon sittings every week in order to put them out in review. The most notorious is being required to review a game like Grand Theft Auto 4 where there is over 100 hours of game play that the developer expects the gamer reviewer to finish in time to review. Schafer’s contention is that these gamers are more or less separate from the normal gamer who must save money for months to play a game that will inevitably be played for the entire month as opposed to a couple of days.
It is a reasonable contention but flawed, in my opinion. Cinephiles often watch dozens of movies a week and advent readers can go through a library of books a week as well. Does this mean that their opinion is placed at fault to what makes a memorable novel or film? I believe the conflict Schafer sees goes back to idea of the public and the critic. Video games, just as books, can be enjoyed in a single sitting or multiple sittings. But that does not mean that the person who reads a book faster than another person has any less opinion of the product. I would agree with Schafer when it comes to multiplayer experiences because the review is required to predict the loyalty of the community, the amount of enjoyment from game play variation, and how long the multiplayer should last. Every MMO does not require the same extended online activity like WoW, but players should decide for themselves if the length of the free trail is sufficient for their gaming needs.
But the idea that an avid gamer is less qualified to review games is ridiculous, and to think that these gamers are thought to be too disconnected with the public is absurd. The different between marathon gaming and periodically gaming is very little is the brand scheme of things. It comes down to opinion. And a reviewers job is to give his opinion, and more often than not their experience is similar to the one they advise to their subscribers. Readers understand the environment that these game reviews occur under and it is up to personal judgment whether they agree or not.
It has become a successful relationship between the gamer and the reviewer and I don’t believe that the idea of an “executive gamer” should not be looked down upon. And with the trend of game journalist turning over to developer side, their knowledge and expertise are not something to look over or take lightly when it comes to judgment.
This happens often playing games, where the player goes into a Zen state unaware of his actual presence while still functioning in the game world. It is a phrase 2K Boston Associate Producer Shawn Elliott refers to as savant gamers. In this particular example he is making reference to these genius FPS players that go into an almost automaton-mechanical state while playing games. People do this in WoW when their mind seems to shut off but yet they still can grind and raid.
But I do not want to have these players come off as brain-dead zombies that repeatedly perform the same robotic tasks. FPS players, in fact, actively function while playing in this state knowing how to implement patterns of movement, aim, strategy, and even teamwork. Outside the genre, a similar state-of-mind occurs in many synesthesias games and two stick shooters: Rez, Everyday Shooter, Geometry Wars, fl0w, and most recently PixelJunk Eden.
Games like Rez have, to an extend, unfairly been giving the burden of being examples of video games as art. This is easily attributed to the fact that it offers a passive experience similar to that of the spectator in cinema while retaining the players interactivity. I would disagree, however, because watching films can be an extremely active and intellectual experience. Rez, with its marraige of music and imagery is more similar to visual art than cinema. There’s a compelling quality that
attracts the player graphical nirvana on screen aligned with its audio experience as well.
fl0w is peculariar title because its notorious nature as a non-game among the gaming community. But as an interactive experience, there is an enormous sense of play with the controls, art, and loose objective of its design. While a game like Everyday Shooter is a visual and music experience in addition to being a classic two-stick shooter, fl0w runs almost like the classic arcade game Caterpillar, except the presence of score or clear cut level divisions. But the serene experience that fl0w provides is similar to the games I have mentioned before where the player will lose themselves conciously in the immersion this world.
And it is the world that sets these games apart from the kinds of experiences FPS, RPG, and Adventure games often provide. It is the fact that these are abstract worlds that provide little resemblance to reality. Especially Everyday Shooter and Geometry Wars which are merely shapes on a plane. These experience revert back to the days of the arcade, where abstraction was enough for games. One could say, that this unconcious experience is the foundation of what video games attempt to achieve from the player. But simply labeling these games as retro or nostalgiac debases the these games offer uniquely different experiences. The comparison of Everyday Shooter to Geometry Wars only reaches the surface. Anyone who has played both know that one cannot replace the other.
My latest addiction has been PixelJunk Eden where I can play for 30 minutes at a time unaware with the extent of time that has passed. It is a transcendent experience that not only contains this Zen quality, but also a quality that the previous games I mentioned have. It is the compelling sense of rewards and progression completely based off aesthetic. I want to continue because the next level provides an experience that is completely new yet familiar. It is the newness of the design and art, but the same unconcious interactivity that is relaxing and invigorating. It is an out-of-body experience of goes beyond the interactivity of the game. Like looking forever into a painting and understandings its aura beyond its visual appeal. It is an indescribable euphoria of being present and absent simultaniously that mediums, other than games, rarely can achieve.
So Little Big Planet has completely monopolized my time. I published my first level titled The Sack Knight and I’m currently in the process of building another movie themed level. So the lack of regular postings I am going to simply label as a “vacation.”
Probably one of the biggest changes in gaming is the perceived necessity of rewards. The rewards I am referring to are what laymen have labeled as “space points.” This are either achievement from Xbox 360 games, trophies from the PS3, and even achievements in Steam games. I know the Stardock is planning similar functionality for their games as well.
It is strange the kind of rivalry these rewards create. And it probably draws back to the days of the arcade where competitiveness was a huge draw for players to consistently play the same machine to gain the top score. The creation of a “gamer score” is ingenious, especially for games on Xbox Live Arcade, is creating inconsequential competitiveness in gamers. This competativeness is no surprise as all games have this sort of winner and status within the notion of multi-play. But the idea that a gamer score has any baring on the player is ridiculous, but yet many player still attempt to increase their “status” in the community by the number of gamers and amount of achievements they garner through their play time.
This notion definitely reflects the sentiments of what is a “hardcore” gamer. Should I care that my Steam rating is “Eagles Scream!”? Of course not–personally I am a little ashamed that it is though. Gamer status is almost a meta-game in of itself as I know many friends that shamefully compete with each other to whom has the better gamer score. What is interesting is that it is an avenue of immersion into the gamer community and even of self worth. Taking the game to know levels of invisible corporatization as opposed to visible corporatization of sports today. It is a dangerous, almost capitalistic form of slavery to constantly be aware of your gamer status compared to friends. But while these forms of achievements are another form of immersion into the game, it also breaks the core sense of immersion in games as well.
This breaking of the illusion I am referring to are the pop-up notifications that appear from the console hub while playing a game. We have all seen this pop-up noteys when friends sign-in online, a download has finished, or when we unlock a reward. These have been a staple in multiplayer for many PC servers that keep track of stats. Only recently has this phenomenon broken into the single player experience. And it is very jarring, drawing attention to the fact that you are playing a game and muting the immersive illusion of interactivity within the game world.
So what we have here is a dilemma where the player trades one kind of immersive experience for another. Personally, I do not know which one I personally prefer. Games that depend on narrative such as Silent Hill or Fallout 3 will definitely suffer from the distraction. But games such as Wipeout or Skate will definitely benefit from these awards. But I also do not want these rewards to be turned off as well has have the luxury to know that if a friend signs-on that I would definitely like to know I have the option of setting up a game with them. We have come to a stage of spoiled gamers where we won’t everything but are unwilling to give-up this sense of connectivity and community for single-player experiences. Though it does not help the escapist illusion that most entertainment medias provide, it assists in the sense of worth and addictiveness that comes into play when we game.