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Friday, May 22, 2009

Dom’s wife, Maria, represents a unique kind of storytelling for games. She represents a story in which we don’t play as the main character, in which we’re just an observer even though we still get to participate in all the major events of the story.


But let me back up a bit.


A player’s relationship with his avatar presents us with an interesting paradox. When I play Gears of War 2, I’m Marcus Fenix and yet I’m not Marcus Fenix. I’m also myself playing as Marcus Fenix. Unlike an actor in a movie, a player doesn’t become the character when starting a game but rather the character becomes an extension of the player. We’re both at the same time; it feels just as natural to say “I fought the Locust” as it is to say “Marcus fought the Locust.” This ever-present dichotomy is a major obstacle for any game that wants to connect with the player on an emotional level.


There will always be a disconnect between us and the characters, making certain kinds of emotional involvement difficult. We have an instant affection with our avatar because this character is us; we care about ourselves, so we care about him or her as well. But this favoritism doesn’t necessarily translate into an emotional connection. Since we’re essentially the same person we should have the same reaction to events in the game, but this rarely happens. How many times in how many games has some dramatic twist left the main character devastated and you shrugging your shoulders? The event doesn’t hold the same emotional impact for players because they don’t always see it as happening to them directly. It’s happening to the character not to me, and I know we’re not the same person…even though we are.


Gear of War 2 took a unique approach to this dilemma by not making the main character the emotional center of the game. Marcus is a stereotypical buff, gruff, badass. He’s a cliché, but he’s the very cliché that we want to play. He’s the perfect avatar, but as a character he’s very bland and uninteresting. If we didn’t play as him chances are we wouldn’t care about him. That’s fine though, because we’re not meant to care about Marcus, we’re meant to care about Dom.


Dom is by far the more interesting character of the two because he’s personally involved in the conflict. His wife is missing, and as we travel deeper into Locust territory, he hopes to find her and rescue her. Unlike Marcus, this character is not a shell that we can easily project ourselves into, from the outset he’s motivated by emotions the player could never be expected to share. Gears of War 2 realizes this, so when playing a single-player game we don\‘t play as Dom. Instead we watch him though the eyes of another, and watching his increasingly desperate attempts to find his wife is like watching a character in a movie. Since we’re not being asked to feel the same emotions, it’s easier to empathize with him, or not care at all, without breaking the fourth wall of the game.


Unfortunately, Gears of War 2 completely backtracks on this idea by making Dom a playable character in co-op. When the second player is suddenly asked to care about some woman not even mentioned in the first game, we’re immediately distanced from the character and any emotional resonance he might bring to the story. When Dom finally does find Maria, it is a powerful scene, but more so because of its shock value than as the emotional climax of the story. Gears of War 2 had a good idea, but ultimately failed to follow though on it.


If the story of Gears of War 2 was told in any other medium, Dom would be the main character because he’s the only one with an emotional arc, and arc driven by his lost wife. We only think of Marcus as the main character because he’s our avatar, but he’s a static character with no development over the course of the game. By putting us in the shoes of a supporting character, Gears of War 2 gives us a unique perspective on the story: We’re able to watch a Dom go though a dramatic arc, thereby experiencing that drama vicariously through him instead of our own avatar. I realize that this is not exactly the best use of the medium since it relies on us watching a character instead of being a character, turning the game into a literal interactive movie, but it’s still a unique idea and one I think is worth attempting again. Preferably without the co-op.


Tagged as: gears of war 2
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Tuesday, May 19, 2009
How to create a fake choice and the different forms it can come in.
From Grim Fandango, by Lucasarts

From Grim Fandango, Lucasarts


For as much as video games revolve around making choices, it’s funny to consider how much games must also rely on choices that are illusions. Although a game may give you an alternative, like telling the villain you don’t care or being able to backtrack, many times the game doesn’t really validate this option. Nothing happens, you’re blocked off, or you’re just told to try again. What is the nature of an illusionary choice? The question is surprisingly philosophical because the nature of choice is invested in the player, not really the consequences of the decision. Put another way, freedom of choice is a state of mind, not a mechanical problem with multiple outcomes. Your perspective of the decision and what you know decides whether or not it is a free choice as opposed to something forced or arbitrary. That’s the very reason so many games have fake choices in the first place, you can validate the experience of choosing without actually giving them a choice. How do these quirks of game design work?


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Text:AAA
Monday, May 18, 2009
New releases for the week of 2009-05-18!!

Are you the type of gamer who needs to have things that other people don’t have?  Are you the type for whom “console exclusive” is the magic pair of words which inspires either immense pride or extreme jealousy?  Well then, for this generation, the Wii is your console.  This week demonstrates as much as well as any—look at the release lists, and you’ll see the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 each with the four same releases, while the Wii?  Seven console-exclusive releases, with the only cross-platform release being the Rock Band Classic Rock Track Pack.  Given the similarity of the Xbox 360 and PS3 processors, it simply doesn’t make sense from a financial standpoint for a third party to release exclusives on one or the other.  The Wii, as a machine with a completely different reason for being (not to mention a far weaker set of specs), almost demands exclusives, given its emphasis on control and limited graphical capabilities; even when games aren’t exclusives, parts of them are far different than versions put out for the other systems.


Of course, a look at this week’s releases also demonstrates the drawback of such a philosophy—wow, does the Wii ever attract some shovelware.


In this space, we’d rather focus on the games that aren’t shovelware, and thankfully, there are plenty of those this week as well.  At the top of the list is the Wiimake—oh…oh my…did I just write “Wiimake”?  I’m kind of ashamed, actually.  It’s the Wii remake of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! (or the exponentially less cool Punch Out!! featuring Mr. Dream, if you got to it late), whose most promising announced feature so far is the return of the classic controls with the updated graphics.  Sure, those controls won’t beat the visceral thrill of flailing about with the Wii remote and nunchuck while you try in vain to knock down the likes of Glass Joe, but we have Wii Sports’ boxing for that anyway, right?  In any case, the art style of the new Punch-Out!! is pretty appealing, and old-school nintendo fans are almost guaranteed to have a good time with it!!


If you could care less about old-time gaming, Boom Blox Bash Party is a good way to support one of the new Wii franchises.  The first Boom Blox, highly touted as Steven Spielberg’s entry into the gaming arena, was at first a victim of widespread disinterest, and it sold terribly out of the box.  That said, it’s apparently been a consistent seller for the Wii, given that it’s almost hit seven-figure sales since that slow start.  Bash Party tweaks the formula a bit with underwater and outer space levels (and all the gravity changes such environments would imply), and adds the ability to download new levels at no extra cost, which could potentially push the replay value of the game into the stratosphere.  Here’s hoping the second entry in the series doesn’t take quite so long to catch on.


As for all of those non-exclusives on the other big consoles, I would be remiss to not mention Bionic Commando.  As the modern-day update to what remains my favorite Nintendo game of all time, I’m excited and utterly skeptical at the same time.  My skepticism is mostly borne from descriptions that compare the Bionic Commando swing mechanic to the modern Spider-Man games, but I’m hoping against hope that there’s more to it than that.  If nothing else, it looks to be a fun hi-def adventure game, which is fine and all, but the Bionic Commando name deserves more.


...and how could I forget Imagine: Makeup Artist?  Oh, right.


What are you playing this week?  Is anyone else dreading the release of Bionic Commando just a little bit?  Do you know anyone who you can hold at gunpoint and force to buy Boom Blox Bash Party?  Let us know in the comments, and enjoy the atypically busy release week!!


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Text:AAA
Thursday, May 14, 2009

When Six Days in Fallujah was announced a few weeks ago, it received considerable backlash for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons were valid (“It’s too soon for a war game in Iraq,” “It could be disrespectful to soldiers”), others were not (“Games are only for escapism”), but what surprised me the most was the amount of backlash from gamers for the regenerating health system.


I admit that regenerating health is out of place in a game that’s supposed to be realistic, but also I think the word “realistic” has been unfairly applied to Six Days in Fallujah. The word “realistic” creates (ironically) unrealistic expectations for a mass-market war game. Gamers now expect their avatar to die easily; after all, it often doesn’t take more than one bullet to kill someone in real life so it shouldn’t take more than one bullet to kill our avatar. However, this kind of one-hit kill system would make the game dangerously difficult, and because of its broad intended audience, Six Days in Fallujah has to be accessible to all gamers. The subject matter itself is guaranteed to limit sales, so why further that with punishing gameplay? Concessions to reality must be made for playability. At least that’s the argument the developer made, but I believe the case for regenerating health goes beyond mere accessibility.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
A closer look at the appeal of one of the most popular video games of all time.

It’s one of gaming culture’s odd habits that developers will typically discover a successful game design without really understanding what they’ve got their hands on. You can test something out with audiences and see if people like it, but there is often little time left for the why of the whole process. One of the most prevalent places this exists is in matching games like Bejeweled and the casual knock-offs that expand on the concept. Jason Kapalka comments on an interview at Casualgames.biz that these games are almost primal in their simplicity: connect 3 blocks of a matching color in a randomly generated screen. Most Bejeweled 2 knock-offs just provide the player additional combos for the player so that it is just expanding on the original theme without changing the basic process. You are channeling the innate desire to find order in chaotic systems while balancing the need for finding that order to be easy to manage.


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