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Monday, Aug 11, 2008
L.B. talks about the convergence of game designs and the idea of creating one universal model in a single game.


I was sitting in my friend’s apartment, watching him play Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, and ticking off the number of game design elements used. You duck and cover during the gun fights like in Gears of War. You climb around ruins like in Prince of Persia or Tomb Raider. You have rail shooting sequences. You have vehicle sections. What makes it interesting is that they are all competently sitting in one game. And it’s not just this title—many combat games are developing similar overlap in terms of their features. They are all marching towards being more realistic and giving the player all the options he could want in a fight. The question this raises is that if we are continually having our games mimic reality and allow the player to do whatever they would want to do in an actual fight, are we not basing this on a finite series of options? Isn’t there a point where you’re going to be able do whatever you want, where those features will be refined to the point of flawless? Could there eventually be one universal game design that competently lets you do anything in a game?


 


Lets not get into a semantics argument here, because I don’t mean level designs, stories, or weapons. I mean the basic physics and ways that you interact with the game environment. Nor is this really referring to an absolute recreation of reality. Games have already developed their own unique lore, as outlined in an excellent article in Popular Mechanics. Uzis are actually extremely accurate guns, but for the purpose of gameplay balance, most games make them much wilder. Pistols aren’t as useful at long distances as many games would have you believe. Not to mention the lack of recoil bruises and regenerative abilities of the average protagonist. I’m going to steer away from swords and sorcery for most of this essay, but I highly doubt many gamers would be pleased at having their sword get stuck inside an orc while swinging it either. But even deviation from the reality could merely be another choice for the player. Do you want to play on ‘real life’ difficulty, or set yourself up as a physics-defying super-human death machine? In either case, a big blow-out action sequence is still going to have a finite number of activities for you to do. Again, I’m not talking about weapons, plot, or basic environmental physics. This is just basic run, drive car, duck, reload, shoot, and electric slide actions becoming part of one unified standard.


 


With so many games copying and incorporating game designs from each other, the main difference between game options now really boils down to refinement. You might have a great FPS system in your game, but as soon as you jump into a vehicle your physics stop making sense and the cars become a pain to drive. Or, your great flight simulator becomes awful as soon as the kung-fu sequences break out. It’s a factor that developers have started to account for, and one of the most innovative ways is Midway’s method. All of the developers under that publisher share technology and resources. In the Gamasutra article cited, the developer explains that they actually borrowed the car physics and programmers from a developer who makes racing games for their free-roaming Vegas game. In return, they showed the other developer better streaming technology for their environments. Imagine a world where instead of a game being good at one thing and having a couple of mediocre sections, the mediocre sections were developed by an equally skilled group. Vehicles, gunfights, physics…these features would become so refined as to actually stream them all together. We would no longer distinguish a game about driving cars and one about shooting aliens. They would all become one game design, one epic experience.


 


A universal game design wouldn’t just stop with action games or titles where you’re directly in control of the protagonist. It could extend out to strategy, space combat, anything really. What else is Starcraft but an action game where you hover high above the battlefield? The concept has been experimented with before in games, but with the kind of refinement we’re talking about it’d be possible to mix completely unrelated players in one game. Take Left 4 Dead. One player controls all of the zombies, the others are all playing characters trapped in the fray. One is engaged in a strategic battle, the other is having a frantic shoot-out. A player who isn’t a huge fan of playing Halo may nevertheless buy a game where they get to control the battlefield while skilled players opt for FPS mode and try to take them out while they control armies overhead. Beyond the always promising broad economic perks of such a game, there’s the co-mingling of different players and preferences in one Universal Design. It’s not a game within the game, it’s a game that has every means of interaction possible in it.


Stephen Hawking once wrote that in order to create a universal formula for the universe, you’d need to design it like a series of maps. You need one kind of map to get around a park. You need another kind to tell you where a country is. One kind of map isn’t always going to suit your needs even if it’s just as accurate as another. It seems plausible that the same could be said for a Universal Game Design. You need a finite series of interactive options that change depending on what you want to do in the game. If I want to quantum leap into a space fighter and skillfully blast my way through a whole armada, it brings up a new series of options. If I want to coordinate a group of capital ships to surround that one pesky fighter, there’s a series of options for that too. A Universal Game Design doesn’t mean that there will be only one kind of game, it means that there will be one we can all play.


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Monday, Aug 11, 2008
And so, on to looking at what's worth reading, graphic novel-speaking, before fall comes calling.

As 2008’s sultry midpoint has come and gone, the looming tower of incoming books and comics often begins to attain critical mass. Perhaps it’s the approach of the holiday season that spurs the increase, or maybe it’s nothing more than the recalcitrant procrastination of the receiving writer. Unfortunately, these books aren’t going to review themselves, though hopefully such plans are in the works at Amazon’s R&D department. One can dream…


Whatever the truth may be, the year has so far been an impressive one for graphic novels, whether they’re of the brooding caped superhero type or your standard-issue shoe-gazer indie introspective. The sheer number seems to grow from year to year, but so too does the quality increase, with a respectable stream of praiseworthy work coming out of a number of the smaller houses, who haven’t let the major publishers’ forays into the field crimp their style. And so, on to looking at what’s worth reading, graphic novel-speaking, before fall comes calling.


Good-Bye by Yoshohiro Tatsumi (Drawn & Quarterly)


Though the two artists would seem to share precious little in artistic style or worldview, if there were a Will Eisner for Japan, Yoshohiro Tatsumi would probably be it. Little known these days in Japan, and even less so here, Tatsumi’s work has nevertheless been slowly eking its way back into view, due to Drawn & Quarterly’s worthy effort to republish his shorter pieces in a series edited by Adrian Tomine. An implacably dark collection of short stories originally published in 1971 and 1972, Good-Bye has more in common with disaffected American urban novelists from the period like Bernard Malamud and John Cheever than the hyped-up sugar candy manga Japan is better known for these days. Each revolving around a different breed of lonely man (one unhealthily obsessed with the Hiroshima bombing, another anxious to enact revenge on a wife he hates), the stories are suffused with anxious, desperate sex and the dehumanizing greyness of the era’s overcrowded and ramshackle cities. While little turns out well for the men and women depicted here, there’s an appreciative humanity to Tatsumi’s work that begs attention. You can see a .pdf preview of the book here.


The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard by Eddie Campbell and Dan Best (First Second)


One has to throw at least a squib of appreciation towards a book whose first frame reads, “The amazing, remarkable LEOTARD empties his fortitudinous bowels. He combs his imposing, resplendent mustachios. And only then does he make his death-defying LEAP…” Eddie Campbell proved his mettle for dense historical graphic fiction with Alan Moore back when they were creating the masterpiece From Hell, but his sense of humor has rarely been so well displayed as in this hilarious adventure. Theoretically based on the famous acrobat who popularized the leotard, the book is really more an excuse for Campbell, and co-author Dan Best, to goof around with the increasingly outrageous and unbelievable antics that befall a fractious circus troupe trying to make its way at the end of the Victorian era. Campbell and Best rope in everything from the Titanic to Jack the Ripper, talking bears, battling dwarfs, and a giant lion-tiger hybrid called the “Ti-Lion,” blasting open the fourth wall whenever they feel like it, and generally having a blast.


Swallow Me Whole by Nate Powell (Top Shelf)


Somewhere there’s a filmmaker who could make a minor masterpiece out of Nate Powell’s suburban nightmare of a book. Equally as informed by David Lynch and Donnie Darko as it is by the darker fringes of indie graphic fiction, Swallow Me Whole initially reads as just another closely-observed mumblecore take on adolescent ennui, with its repressed family and teenage girl protagonist who can’t quite connect with anything that’s going on around her. But then she starts seeing the hordes of bugs that nobody else notices, and there’s the divine messages she starts receiving. It isn’t long before the book flies right through the looking glass into a world of drowning black terror that’s all the more frightening for how quietly and precisely Powell’s pen delivers it.


Tōnoharu: Part One by Lars Martinson (Pliant)


Everybody’s heard about those great teaching jobs one can get in Japan where local language skills are barely necessary, just the ability to stand in front of a classroom and pronounce English. Easy money, in other words. Lars Martinson’s autobiographical graphic novel shows just how wrong such assumptions can be, particularly when the protagonist is a dull-faced twenty-something slacker who doesn’t seem to have any hobbies besides sleeping, watching TV, and not learning Japanese. Martinson’s art has an exquisitely etched, woodcarved look to it that’s just a hair shy of being fussy (not surprisingly, Martinson gives thanks to Chris Ware in the acknowledgements). While the book’s style can lead to some sameness in facial expression, Martinson’s depth of perception renders the aching social awkwardness being portrayed all the more potently. And this is only part one…


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Monday, Aug 11, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-08-11...

Much like the odd little release schedule of two weeks ago, there are two releases this week that are valiantly fighting for my own personal affection, one of which is a tremendous, big-ticket release, and the other of which happens to be an Xbox Live Arcade download.


Seriously, Xbox Live Arcade is on a roll this month, a roll that doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.


In only a matter of time, I'll have Marshawn Lynch rushing for 300.

In only a matter of time, I’ll have Marshawn Lynch rushing for 300.


Rather than cop out as I did those two weeks ago and choose co-winners, I’m going to embrace the elephant in the room and just acknowledge that the release that everyone has their eye on this week is Madden NFL 09.  The cultural phenomenon surrounding the tremendous franchise once known as simply John Madden Football is nothing short of fascinating, and despite the fact that every year I caution myself away from getting swept up in the unavoidable torrent of hype surrounding this yearly event, I can’t help but want to absorb every detail that might be hidden in every word written about the thing.  Sometimes I buy it, sometimes I don’t, but despite all of the advances that have come about in multiplayer gaming over the years, there’s still very little that is as exhilerating as getting the phone call: “I’ve got the new Madden.  You coming over?”


Of course, unfortunately for EA, much of the attention given to the new Madden game this year centers on its cover and not on any of the gameplay and graphics tweaks that it’s given the latest model of the flagship EA Sports franchise.  Specifically, there’s the presumed-to-be-retired Brett Favre, in glorious Packer green and gold, ready and willing to deliver a pass.  The cover was supposed to be a celebration of the player who exemplified the love of the game, a tribute to a man who in so many ways exemplified the best qualities of the game he played.  Now, of course, Brett’s a Jet, the airwaves have been saturated with the “saga” of his “battle” to return to the playing field, and nobody’s sure anymore whether his presence on that cover is helping or hurting the game that he is supposed to be symbolizing.


That aside, I almost want to get the Wii version of the game simply so that I can play the exclusive 5-on-5 mode.  As a playground touch football veteran myself, it may well trigger flashbacks of the “glory days”.


(drool)

(drool)


Of course, it’s impossible to hide my biases, and that’s why it actually crossed my mind to hand this week’s spotlight to Bionic Commando: Rearmed, the remake of perhaps my favorite game of all time.  Just having a good excuse to bust out the bionic arm again is going to be reason enough to not want to leave the house on Wednesday morning.  I can only pray that Capcom has retained the ability to take multiple approaches to beating a level, and I can’t wait to try out the Scorpion “get over here” mechanic of actually being able to use the bionic arm to pull enemies into close range.  My fingers are getting excited just thinking about this…if it lives up to the original, Bionic Commando: Rearmed might be the most fun I have with a video game all year.


Even past those two games, there are a couple more goodies on the way this week.  The DS gets Bangai-O Spirits, which should satisfy space shooter fans lamenting the dearth of such games on the Nintendo DS, and the Wii gets Line Rider 2: Unbound, which will at least be an interesting study in how to (or, perhaps, how not to) translate a flash game into a full-fledged retail title.  I mean, Line Rider is a killer little waste of time.


Check out the full release list, and let me know what you’ll be buying this week!  A Madden trailer is just past the jump.


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Monday, Aug 11, 2008

Once upon a time, there was a small Texas paper called Montgomery County Bulletin.  It was run and published by a guy named Mike Ladyman who did everything from delivering it to apparently taking out the garbage.  He had a writer on staff called Mark Williams who wrote a lot of the music material there.  There was a little problem with Mark’s work though.  He seemed to have copied and pasted large portions of his work from other sources and didn’t attribute any of them.  One of the people he copied was Jody Rosen of Slate Magazine, who was tipped off that this was happening.  Rosen did some online legwork and found that the extent of Williams’ unattributed writing was pretty humongous.  Rosen confronted Ladyman about this and though he was polite, according to Rosen, he wasn’t very forthcoming with details.  Rosen published details of what he found in Slate. Not long after that, the Houston Press reported that the Ladyman was closing MCB, under pressure from the criticism he’s received regarding Williams’ ‘work’ (by the way, the comments to that article are very lively and instructive, including question Williams’ very existence).  In the HP article, Ladyman provides some reasons about why Williams work slipped by him and that he let him go.  In the same article, we see a response from Williams about the affair where he lashes out at Rosen, who in turn had his own response for HP not long afterwards.


OK, so what’s to be learned from this?  Obviously both Williams and Ladyman are wrong.  Williams’ letter that HP published is a masterful example of lashing out against vicitms and actually (as pointed out in the HP comments) probably the strongest piece of writing he’s done, even if it’s all bluster and unnecessarily defensive.  No matter how much work Ladyman did for the paper, to be most charitable, he was over-extended and should have at least gotten some volunteer help so that he could really edit the paper.  Plagiarism isn’t something unique to small papers- remember Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair?  The question is, what do you do when you find out that you have problems like this?  Ladyman should have responded faster and more forthright to Rosen’s requests as the whole reputation of his paper was on the line.  He did the right thing by letting Williams go and even going further by ending his disgraced paper (even if he provided some lame excused to HP about the affair).  What bigger apology can you get than that?


Plagiarists can be a tricky bunch.  Just as Glass carefully deceived his editor for a while, I found myself in the same situation with a writer once.  When I found out that they had appropriated material from elsewhere (like Rosen, I was tipped off by a reader), I confronted the writer about this and they had a similar, angry self-righteous response as Williams.  They said how hard it is to write a story and that appropriated some parts of other stories was no big deal.  I agreed on both points but that didn’t justify what they did and I decided not to work with this writer anymore.


In the Net age, it’s a lot easier to catch these things but that doesn’t mean it’s easy per se.  Diligent readers may notice egregious similarities between stories but no one’s able to scan the span of the Web to find out when and where it’s happening (and that’s not even taking into account some articles that don’t make it onto the web).  So no doubt that this will go on in small and large ways with the writers and editors thinking they’re not doing anything wrong and/or thinking that they won’t be caught.  So, what’s to be done about this problem?  Unless you have some huge program to scan the web for similarities between each new article published and other ones out there, this is going to keep happening.


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Monday, Aug 11, 2008

As a teenager I was very impressed with the profundity that began Bret Easton Ellis’s novel Less Than Zero: “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” It’s so metaphoric or something. Everyone is atomized and isolated in their technologically fashioned death machines, and they can’t achieve togetherness anymore. Not only that, they fear it. They no longer trust that they will let each other in; instead they are expecting a crash. An incisive commentary on our contemporary predicament.


This somewhat overwrought NYT Magazine article by Cynthia Gorney about merging reminded me of Ellis’s gambit, though the metaphoric implications are somewhat submerged, replaced instead with straightforward lessons about human behavior that can be drawn from traffic etiquette. There are two types of drivers, aggressive and polite, and they have the tendency to stalemate one another. When two lanes are forced to merge, some rush to the merge point, others get in line as soon as they can and seethe as the others pass them by and merge in front of them. Gorney is one of the latter, and she inexplicably expects New Yorkers to sympathize. You don’t have to spent to much time in New York City traffic to realize that the only rule of etiquette is that there are none, and you will be wasting a lot of emotional energy if you stubbornly expect other drivers to behave as if they are queued up to curtsy to the queen. Replacing deferential politeness on New York’s roadways is the predictability of aggressive action, the assurance that any perceived advantage will be seized. This clarity about what to anticipate from other drivers makes traffic move as best as possible in a near-impossible situation of overburdened roads.


But Gorney doesn’t seem to want to hear it when told by a California Highway Patrol officer that traffic is “not a matter of fairness or unfairness.” But the police officer is completely right. The road is not the place to stand stubbornly on ethical peccadilloes; it’s not wear you wage your private war against what you consider to be rudeness. It is a place where you respect everyone else’s right to be in a hurry by acting like you are in a hurry too.


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