Archive for November, 2008

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Nonsensical briefing

November 26, 2008

So I’m going to be off for a couple of days as I visit a friend for American Thanksgiving. I feel like I should head over to an animal sanctuary to feed a couple of turkeys. But I felt the need to at least post a little something before I head out onto the road in this terrible Los Angeles traffic. So here are some brief comments I have on the games I’ve played the past month.

Far Cry 2 on an unsupported graphics card makes all the textures look like solid colors used with led pencil. The frame rate is horrific and the action is god awful to play through. I’m loving it.

Fallout 3 I have made it through have way and the only quest I’ve truly loved is the Bladerunner nod to the Replicated Man. I’m about half way through and though I am enjoying it I’ve come to the point where I am just mindlessly going through routine. It’s a good game but it’s definitely not Fallout.

Mega Man 9 is wonderful though I still can’t beat Wiley’s Castle. It took me three months to finally beat Croncrete Man’s stage–that was embarrassing. My advice, start playing the game during the A.M. hours and you’ll surprisingly do much better than playing at reasonable hours of the day. Now…where’s my Game Genie?

Dead Space was beaten in a day and I felt ultimately unsatisfied at the end. It is the equivalent of of Hollywood Oscar fodder. It’s good, but everything about that game is too easy from its design to the style. The game definitely has the auro of a researched, marketed product which is a shame because the developers seemed very passionate about creating something new and original.

Mirror’s Edge is great but still full of flaws. I read an article from Keith Stuart about how reviewers don’t appreciate innovation. That is statement is absurd. If you don’t intend for to make an FPS, don’t place those elements in the game. If you want to create something new and original, don’t pander to some imaginative demographic that you probably won’t get just for a few more sales numbers. I’m hoping they refine everything about Mirror’s Edge in their next outing. Oh yes, less Quick-Time-Events please.

Super Street Fighter Turbo HD Remix is the first game that I successfully got my roommate to play. Thank goodness for this neo-retro movement as maybe I can finally get some two player action going in this non-gaming house I am in.

Left4Dead is amazing fun.

Occasionally playing Civilization 4, Peggle, World of Goo, Company of Heroes, Audiosurf, Burnout Paradise, Professor Layton and the Curious Village, Hotel Dusk, Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, Space Invaders Extreme, Animal Crossing: Wild World, and numerous flash games in between.

I’ll be back in three days to panic about the three terms papers I have yet to complete for the semester. So have a happy turkey day, watch some football, and play some games. GSG Out.

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Avant gaming – interactive art

November 22, 2008

The twitter has been a flutter with Esquire‘s recent feature article on Jason Rohrer’s 2007 game The Passage. Straddling between the line of interactive art and video games, Rohrer’s experiment comes from the same intellectual aspirations as games such as The Path and You Have to Burn the Rope. These are extremely short, linear “games” that propose to invoke emotional responses towards the player. I will not claim that repeated playthroughs will inevitably reveal the mystery of the designer’s intentions. One of the greatest debates concerning digital media is the question of ownership and this include both the player’s experience as well as the digital “property.” But I do encourage everyone to play through the game more than once. In the case of The Path you may even achieve different results upon the game’s conclusion.

By now you’re wondering why I haven’t provided a description for each game. The reason is the less you know the better the experience will undoubtedly be. I have talked about transcendental-art games the likes of Pixel Junk Eden, Everyday Shooter, and Rez in a previous post. But these games are much different. In fact, that have more in common with fl0w than the previous games I mentioned. There is no official objective, no pressing danger, or even a challenge per say. It is a the kind of avant-garde gaming that separates it from categorization in the interactive game and the puzzle game.

I have recently become enamored with digital art whether it is pixel art or the various works to come out of the demoscene. But arts from these subcultures lay upon a foundation of our previous understandings of art (i.e. photography, music, painting, etc.) There is a standard where we can refer to our critique of the work. But games like You Have to Burn the Rope are more attune to game culture not only in its dynamic-ism with player interaction but in reference to what we view as a contemporary video game. We can go on about the definition of the video game verses interactive media–which many have done with fl0w–but ultimately I must hark back to the colloquial expression: “I know it when I see it.”

What we have here is a game as well as interactive art. I will not lie, I did not achieve an emotional response playing any of these games. But I did become intellectually stimulated. Art can do either and it can do both. Of course, these are mainstream games in the slightest sense. They have more in common with experimental film. And that is perfectly fine. These are games that reside on the fringes of the Internet allowing players to discover it for themselves. In certain facets these games achieve much more than Jonathan Blow’s Braid in its simplicity of design and its immediacy in creating an affect towards the player. And I hope that these games do create a subculture of experimental gaming. You can already see its influence in recent blockbusters such as Fallout 3 and Alone in the Dark where the player is constrained to merely interact by speaking in simple infant speech or blinking.

On the flip-side of these arguably high brow games we have these pop-art games which I believe are just as compelling. Don’t Shoot the Puppy is a great experiment in player tolerance that I would defend as an a form of interactive art just as much as the game previously stated. It is not surprising the experimentation in interactive art grows out of the same atmosphere of the lowly flash developers. These are starved programmers in the same vein as starved artists. Why should it be of any surprise?


And this is all great because as videogames grow as a medium they become not only defined by its industry but of it’s subcultures. I ave become extremely pleased with this kind of punk-rock approach of the indie developer where a programmer will design the foundational structure of a game and go on a message board calling for artists to help tighten and ad assets. I love that XNA, PSN, and WiiWare are attempting to assist these indie-developers. I love that the Internet has brought a Renascence in independent flash games that eventually make it to these previously stated outlets. I love that the medium has garnered artists to explore and experiment in interactive art without the priorities of monetary reciprocity. As more as these game design assets are released such as Kongregate.com’s flash tutorial, Little Big Planet, and the multitudes of engine mods that continues to release on the PC I hope that the ease and creativity from the independent scene that has now taken to the forefront will continue to excite and inspire the new generation of games that we have yet to see.

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Egads! Return from hiatus!

November 21, 2008

As the last few weeks of the semester ramp up and finals plus term papers are just around the corner, things have been pretty slow on the site. Sorry my few but loyal readers. I have not been good to you. But I shall return! In the mean times here is a little presentation I wrote up for class to wet your pallet.

We have arrived to a point where interactive media as we know it is over 60 years old and the video game as we know it is over 30 years old. Only now the gaming culture has not only embraced a return to retrogames—and by that I mean the sense of revere gamers have for products in the vein of systems like the Commodore 64, the Atari 2600, and classic arcade games—but also the emergence of these kinds of neo-retro games. Examples today are Pac-Man Championship Edition, Super Street Fighter II Turbo: HD Remix, Bionic Commando: Rearmed, Arcanoid DS, or Space Invaders Extreme. These are games that take the foundational programming of the original series and update it with modern design techniques or graphical improvements or both. It is a reintroduction of a classical game with the sensibilities of modern audience expectations. This is opposed to the retro which is merely a re-release of a classic series as it was produced back during its time.

Mega Man 9 which was released this past September is peculiar in that it resides somewhere in-between the retro and neo-retro. Here we have a game that continues not only the aesthetic of Mega Man which was released in 1987, both in its graphical technology but in its design as well. The game also lacks many of the design evolutions of subsequent games in the series. This includes certain moves in Mega Man’s repertoire such as the “Charge-shot” or “Power-slide.” But it also diverts from the recent neo-retro trend of the series as indicated by Mega Man: Powered UP! which is a remake of the original Mega Man with a graphical overhaul and also the purely retro trend indicated by the release of Mega Man: Anniversary Collection.

But what is really strange, is the limitations that Mega Man creator Kenji Infune, placed upon the game’s conception. Returning to the 8-bit graphics the game maintains the limitations of a classic Famicom/Ninendo game. In an interview with producer Hironobu Takeshita, he reflects on the development of the game where Ifune had butt heads with the staff whom was making not only the graphics but the level design of the game too complex. But even more jarring, is inclusion of Legacy mode. Legacy mode is automatically turned on when the game is first loaded, and what it does is it turns on many of the graphical bugs in the game such as map slowdown or sprite flickering. But what it also does is open up many of the most well publicized glitches apparent in previous Mega Man games. Some of these glitches will not appear unless sought out and some may accidently appear because of the limitations of the game.

It is here that I want to that I want to draw the connection of Mega Man 9 within interactive media into the realm of film theory. And to justify this connection I want to touch upon the subject of remediation. David Bolter has written on the subject of New Media as a remediation of the old. When we look at products that not only come out of the realm of computer games or web 2.0 we directly relate these with familiar media sources of the past. In the case of video games, the focus lies on reproducing a cinema experience. But why should this merely rest upon subjects of reception, response, and immersion? And this is why I propose to integrate the theoretical approach of psychoanalysis towards the medium.

Interactive media differs towards cinema in a very distinct manner in that the media itself is “reactionary.” Chris Crawford’s published book The Art of Computer Game Design discusses this aspect where he contracts two forms of interactive media: the game and the puzzle. Whereas the puzzle remains static, the game by contrast changes with the player’s actions. The notion of the puzzle relates to cinema as a static product where the interaction remains much more internal for the audience in regards to the film compared to a more external interaction between the game and the player. But I would still argue that this variance in game reaction is superficial in that it is illusionary just as cinema. And therefore, as we may discuss cinema as attuned to a sort of dream, so can we do the same forvideo games as well.

This is where I would like to introduce the concept of secondary revision in terms of the game. Following Ian Bogost’s inspection in Persuasive Games, video games are considered as compact reflections of our interactions in society. We create internal games in how we function in everyday life and video games compact certain types of interactions in each game. This can also relate to the duo relationship of the subject with the unconscious when we dream while we find ourselves dreaming. Christian Metz points out that a film spectator is less invested in the image than the dreamer because the real images presented are “perceived” less real in a film. The actual perceptible object is the film itself. While watching a movie, secondary revision continuously functions on an unconscious level becoming intimately invested in the image on screen but maintaining a divisional gulf for the separation of the viewer’s status as a subject, the eye, to the object, the film. Secondary revision occurs, of course, when we realize we are aware of the object as a film similar to when we realize when we are in the act of dreaming.

The same mentality occurs if we divulge into interactive media. Even though the player becomes more of an active participate in the realm of the game, the premise remains the same. So looking at the model of secondary revision let us investigate more. The dreamer dreams while the Other maintains the realism of the dream and censors the content protecting the dreamer from ever becoming aware of his unconscious. Once the dream becomes too intense or confronts the dreamer he realizes he is in a dream and either awakes or begins lucid dreaming. It is here the process of secondary revision reveals itself as the subject attempts to recuperate the contents of the unconscious into plausible coherency. Film as an impression of reality suggests this kind of liveliness even though it is a recorded archive. This also applies towards the video game as its existence as a product is more or less identical.

In the case of Mega Man 9, if you look at it as a sort of live progression of re-designing and redistribution of the same content you see a kind of secondary revision. As games progress, the developer not only improves the design of the game, but closes out many of the glitches inherent in the programming that break the immersion of the game. These not only include graphical deficiencies but also technical ones as well. As with any sort of programming, bugs in the system break the function of the program. You would expect if you install a program it becomes invisible and functions on its terms. When there is a glitch or a bug it breaks the impression of the product’s purpose. If you look at the evolution of Mega Man it follows the same path as any other gaming franchises progressing in both technical and graphical improvement.

At this point I discuss secondary revision as form of editing the text in relation to the concept of the glitch. If a glitch becomes integrated into the text of the game, it becomes part of the programming and therefore preserves the impression of the game. This has happened before in fighting games such as Street Fighter where the glitch created attack combos for players to implement into their fighting technique. This glitch of stringing combos has become the corner-stone for fighting games since. This same concept applies in secondary revision, particularly in lucid dreaming where the trauma within the dream can allow the dreamer to maintain dreaming and therefore incorporate the awareness of dreaming within the dream.

But Mega Man 9’s bugs do not fit into this model as they for one are not integral components of the gameplay, but were previously fixed in the series and then reintroduced in this instance. So what we have is an Other, in this context Ifune, subverting the normalcy of secondary revision by purposefully allowing the disruption of immersion while not integrating it into the gameplay. But I want to emphasize that these glitches not forced upon the player but open to confrontation by the player. And therefore, the discovery of the glitch becomes a shared desire of both the Other and the player. This is the direction I want to approach my answer to this conundrum which relates back to Lacan which is the desire of the desire of the Other.

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UPDATE!

November 16, 2008

As I have been bogged down with papers hopefully I can squeeze in a post sometime before the weekend it out. But I urge everyone to read this blog post from a designer on the Spore team on the importance of the secondary-hand market. He touches upon a wonderful factor on used games as it places monetary value for the consumer as well as his own take on DLC. http://www.designer-notes.com/?p=111

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Enough with the camp

November 12, 2008

In continuing my diatribe against Gears of War 2–I’m actually joking–I have read a lot of reviews singling out the narrative elements in the game. Particularly that it is an improvement over the first game, but still fails to surpass the kinds of narrative we see in games today. A lot of people have mentioned the B-movie quality of the dialog and the story, that somehow this is acceptable in games. Are you serious? Do we not have enough B-movie schlock in games today to wet our pallet? This is not some trash media tour deforce the likes of John Waters, this is just crappy story.

Personally, I believe video games have ample amounts of games producing half-hazard passable narratives in games. We don’t need more B-movie material. This was a huge problem I had with Uncharted: Drakes Fortune at it is clearly attempting to invoke this sort of B-movie rip-off of the film Romancing the Stone. Sure it is acceptable material and the production values are clearly there, but I don’t think because games have set the bar so low in narrative that we must surrender to such material. And to be honest, the bar is not that low. We already have numerous examples of games that offer great stories and memorable stories like Grim Fandango, Silent Hill 2, Shadow of the Colossus, System Shock 2, Planetscape, KOTOR, Fallout, Beyond Good and Evil, Bioshock, and the list goes on. We do not need to succumb to accepting this continuous shovel of trite game plots in our medium.

It is a feat of the medium that gameplay, mechanics, and design can be considered the core experience that can make-up for a lacking narrative. But as video games and cinema continue to merge we should expect more as it becomes a mesh of the two. This a major problem I see with the gaming community as that they were willing to overlook this major deficiency their medium. Video games is a rare medium where developers can take ideas from one another whether it is design, mechanics, or even aesthetic. Though it is looked down upon, many people still view it as a sort of technological progression. If something works why not incorporate that same innovation into your product as well. It is accepted for the same of progression and user convenience. But creatively and narrative-ly, the video game industry has speedily evolved to the level of the film industry in that it is creatively bankrupt. What we get is the same product but in a different context from the majority of material released to the public.

What is basically comes down to is admiration for the production design over the substance. What is the value of these narrative interactive experiences when the narrative does not deliver in quality? There is an admiration for special effects, costume design, set design, acting, and all the production values in films but if the story sucks the movie won’t be worth the time. Why? Because there are plenty of other movies to take its place that offer the
same high level of production. We have come to a point in the games industry, especially now, where we have a multitude of games offering similar experiences and monopolizing our time. While design is of vast importance it is no longer enough. If a game’s major selling point entails its narrative it should be placed to the high standards that have already been released in the medium.


It is vexing how accepting the gaming community is willing to overlook this issue. There is an impression that the bar is so low when in fact, once the bar is raised it is ignored. Gamers should be more vocal and critical on wanting not only a memorable interactive experience, but also a narrative experience in their narrative games. While games are excelling in the communal, social, and even artificial experience of games there is a huge lack in the singular experience. It is not surprising that players have become their own authors in their experience when it comes to sandbox gaming and open world gaming. So I implore you, whenever someone accepts below average narrative in their games call them out on it. This should no longer be accepted in the game space and we should push our developers to create memorable narrative experiences for us instead of providing the typical B-movie.

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Greed is good.

November 10, 2008

Please note the ironic title. I have not been the biggest fan of Epic Games in the past few years. I played Gears of War a year after its release and realized I was in the minority of the crowd that was displease and unimpressed with the title. I have disagreed with numerous comments made by Cliff Bleszinski. And like many PC gamers I know, there is an unwarranted begrudging feud with Epic’s output and perceived abandonment of the PC marketplace. With all the commotion for Gears of War 2 I can’t help but feel hesitant to pick up the game–especially when many reviewers claim that if you disliked the first game this will do little to change your stance. But I have grown increasingly critical of the company’s business model.

Epic boss Mike Capps commented in an interview from videogaming247.com about the company’s stance on second-hand retail sales and its effect on the game market.

“The secondary market is a huge issue in the United States. Our primary retailer makes the majority of its money off of secondary sales, and so you’re starting to see games taking proactive steps toward that… I’ve talked to some developers who are saying ‘If you want to fight the final boss you go online and pay USD 20, but if you bought the retail version you got it for free’. We don’t make any money when someone rents it, and we don’t make any money when someone buys it used.”

For those that do now know, Gears of War 2 ships with exclusive DLC in the form of weapons for purchasers of the game. This is absolutely fine, but the exaggeration that Capps makes is a frightening future. Personally, I am surprised by the stance the enthusiast press has taken upon second-hand gaming. More often than not, I have come into contact with journalists supporting developers that “force” gamers to purchase games and deter them from renting or buying used games. While they are the most vocal advocates are games as art, they have no issues with this blatant attempt at taken advantage of the user. It may not be to the scale of Activision boss Bob Koteck’s reliance on game franchises, but it is a similar philosophical sentiment.

It is confusing when the games industry is the fastest growing business market today, yet there is this perceived crisis of the second-hand market threatening games. The truth is, developers are getting greedy. This is a large factor in why Epic and many other PC developers have moved into the console space because it is widely more profitable for them. But they’re stuck in a triple “A” business model that will eventually implode on itself–this is what happened to the music industry. When games take $300 million to make there is definitely something obscene for the amount of money to make a game. This will eventually become a fiscal nightmare for studios that want to remain in the blockbuster marketplace without the finance–Midway’s gamble on Mortal Kombat vs. DC is the most recent example that comes to mind. Which is why second-hand gaming has grown to be such a large issue for developers that rely on million selling titles.

But my biggest issue with the current business model is that it is sacrificing content and convenience for the gamer in favor of the share holder, and it is doing it in a nontransparent fashion. Studios are stuck in this number of units shipped mentality that treats gamers as a statistic. And it is a relationship that I no longer want to be a part of. If you look today at the PC games market which has a mix of both the utmost hardcore players along with the largest number of casual players, companies are following different means of remaining a viable. Valve, Blizzard, Stardock, and PopCap have all created business models that not only provide quality content, but have a much more intimate relationship with its user base. Apart from continuous updates, user/developer interaction, transparent software, and arguable reasonable pricing for content, these developers have a better understanding of answering the demands of its users.

Currently, game studios have a tenuous relationship with its users. And that is a problem when the needs of its retailers and shareholder overshadow its customer base. We’ve seen this with EA‘s handling of Madden DLC and Activision‘s handling of Guitar Hero DLC. Criterion’s handling of its DLC and Harmonix’s approach to Rock Band song transfers are a step in the right direction. If you look at Phil Harrison’s recent tenure at Atari I believe a lot of interesting approaches for game distribution will be immerging from that company. Technology breeds a mentality of convenience and percieved rights in regards to content. And we have learned from the music industry that if a business is unwilling to adapt they will reach a crisis–which is happening now with second-hand games. Gamers have survived decades with used and rented games and this demand will no disappear. And if studios continue to combat user demand they will eventually become left behind and forgotten for good reason.

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The defining edge

November 7, 2008

While on my regular podcast runabout, I was listening to the Player One Podcast where CJ Johnston relayed a criticism about the Mirror’s Edge demo with the criticism, “It is a glorified series of Quick-Time-Events.” CJ was inclined to agree, but he was unable to elaborate a bit more about the comment.

I have previously discussed my own disdain for the QTE, both loving and loathing the simplicity of the mechanic. Omari Akil at Eat|Think|Game has informed me of his own manifesto for the QTE which includes: sparse usage, minimal button sequences, no game over on failure, never use it to end a boss battle, and use only when least suspected. These are all fair requests, though I do believe the QTE becomes confined into the horror-game arena under this itinerary.

It is not surprising that the QTE seems to work so well in horror-games because they can easily fit into this list. My major gripe with the QTE are in action games where it is much more difficult to integrate the mechanic into the genre because the player is already performing visually superior and rewarding actions. Which is why I became interested in this criticism for Mirror’s Edge as it is promoted as less of a traditional action game and more of a platformer.

Of course I have only played the demo and both CJ and the commenter have only played the demo as well. There is the chance that this may merely be over analyzing the play mechanics because a jump button is a jump button and so forth. But there is clearly something different and special about Mirror’s Edge that has prompted players to question the presentation and execution of the game’s control scheme.

By describing Mirror’s Edge as a glorified QTE I have begun to ponder to what the QTE actually is. One game that had blurred the line for definition is Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones where a flicker would appear on enemies indicating the player to press a button to time a correct attack. A similar technique was used again by Ubisoft in the battle mechanic for Assassin’s Creed. The only difference is that it does not integrate the “Simon Says:” repeat the button sequence mechanic, but still follows the importance of timing to complete the desired event.

If we a following semantics, this rhythm gameplay is basically a QTE. There really is no discernible difference except one visual is replaced for another. The largest difference is one may visually be within the game while the other gives off the impression of an in-game cinematic. So what makes Mirror’s Edge a QTE instead of a platformer? I believe it is because the visual action of sliding, jumping, rolling, and landing presents the same animation every time it is executed in the first-person perspective. And though the environments may be varied, the animations are singular. From what I have seen of the game, the protagonist Faith does not seem to have a diverse repertoire animations to prove my suspicions otherwise.

So is Mirror’s Edge a glorified QTE or merely the control and visual aesthetic of the game? Heck, even Fallout 3’s V.A.T.S. can be considered a loose QTE. I don’t think the problem with Mirror’s Edge is that it is a glorified QTE, but that the definition of QTE can be misleading, because every aspect of control mechanic can be a QTE to some extent. Perhaps we should rename it an SIP: Sequence Input Progression. If anything, the parkour elements of Mirror’s Edge can be equated to the QTE as purely a gimmick. Which, is what I believe, to be the largest criticism towards the QTE. Whether it will have the design and intelligence of last year’s Portal has yet to be seen, but luckily we do not have too long of a wait to find out.