Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Oct 1, 2008
I found this flash game thanks to Play This Thing!.

There are a variety of barriers that come up when you try to coerce someone into engaging with a video game’s narrative. The first inclination is to have them roleplay a character that lives in that story. This has a few problems. For starters, the player might be repulsed by the role you’re asking them to inhabit. They might not like what they have to say and do in the story or game design. If you solve that by completely removing all traces of personality, then the player may be irritated at the lack of expression and feedback available to them as a deaf-mute protagonist. The natural solution to that dilemma is to give the player absolute control over their character’s appearance and personality, but this tends to alter the roleplay relationship into one of caring for your creation. Attempts like Mass Effect or Fallout are impressive, but they are still operating on a connection much more similar to a parent-child scenario than actual roleplay. The peak game of this parental connection, The Sims, illustrates this psychological shift best. It isn’t you inside that house, it’s your little man or woman or whatever. So it still leaves a fundamental question: is there some way to engage a player with characters and story in a game that circumvents all of this?


Yes, and it’s surprisingly simple: chuck the baby and keep the bathwater. Dan Benmergui’s Storyteller is a flash game in which you don’t play as any particular character. You instead control three separate characters in a three part story-panel. Depending on where you position the characters in the initial ‘Once upon a time’ panel will affect their presentation in the middle ‘When they grew up panel’. Put the girl on the poor, deserted half of the panel and she becomes an evil wizard. Leave one of the men on the green, white castle portion and they become an armored knight. The middle panel features a similar set of options: place the man inside the cage as the prisoner, make the woman the knight, and then dictate the outcome of her duel with the wizard (whom you created). You can use this character placement to dictate how the romantic relationships turn out in the final panel along with who dies and who wins the battle.


This engagement method is, like The Sims, founded along the principles of giving the player a dollhouse to play in. When you add a narrative though, a distinct shift occurs: I’m not guiding the characters to see what happens to them in the plot, I’m directing them to the outcome I’ve created for them. Frankly, given the amount of time I spent exploring and tweaking three little people and seeing the results, I’d say it solves the engagement problem quite nicely. You can find more of Benmergui’s stuff here.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Sep 29, 2008
The fun and wacky world of lawsuits and what may happen when they go online.

I’m going to start this blog of by saying two things.


One, I am in no way a qualified legal expert and you should consult a licensed attorney if you have further questions. Actually, it would be awesome if you didn’t even mention me. Two, all the opinions stated here are conjecture. I am simply making guesses about the future.


There, now that all that noise is out of the way, let’s talk about something that doesn’t often come up with video games: the law. More specifically, the potential lawsuits and rights that people are going to start fighting for as the internet develops. Up until this point, video game litigation hasn’t exactly been a page turner. A lot of patent, copyright, and intellectual property disputes make up the bulk of the legal questions that have gone to court. Is Donkey Kong ripping off King Kong? Nope. Does Game Genie violate Nintendo’s Intended Use policy? Nope. A couple of inventive companies have started patenting game designs…which might lead to some interesting exchanges, but given the millions it would cost to declare these illegal, most companies will just tweak their own games to not violate the patent. I could go into video game violence cases but these won’t go anywhere until quantifiable proof that games (as opposed to bad parenting, drugs, or boredom) caused the violence. But with the growing market of MMORPG’s and online services, a whole new breed of virtual lawsuit is on the horizon.


 


Griefing is when someone in an online game or community disrupts someone who is taking it seriously or having fun for the sake of getting them to lighten up. Whether it’s by screwing with an online match or hacking Second Life, playing pranks with people online can be pretty funny. I can honestly say that back when I was first getting used to internet culture, the first time I made a fool of myself by spazzing online was both humbling and helpful. You have a couple of beers, realize it’s not that big of a deal, and become a better person for it. Nor is there much to discuss in terms of legal issues. The general reaction of most courts to “they said mean things to me” is to recommend the person grow a thick skin. Short of being able to show quantifiable damage (therapy bills or worse), there isn’t really a law (depending on where the lawsuit is filed) to base a legal claim on.


What’s becoming tricky is that people ARE starting to need therapy. This is usually a little clause in the average insurance contract which explains that in the event you make a damage claim caused by someone else, the company can sue that person to get their money back. So when someone hands their insurance company a massive therapy bill for a destructive prank pulled online, the company doesn’t pay the Piper. They find the townsfolk who ticked him off. Most of this trauma is coming from MMORPG’s, where people invest years of their life into property and characters within the game. Erin Hoffman explains in an article for The Escapist the extreme trauma one player went through from losing her character and items due to pirates. We’re a long way from players buying insurance for their virtual lives, but they can certainly be traumatized by the loss at this point.


Another reality is that property with genuine economic value is now at risk in-game. A recent article in Wired points out that a lot of these online games are starting to have in-game items that are worth real world money. 20 million game dollars and a fully trained technician on EVE can get you 150 dollars on Ebay, which is chump-change when you factor in Player-controlled Empires that can get into the tens of thousands in value and have hundreds of people working for them. The culture of griefing may be relatively harmless in something like Second Life or online competitions, but costing someone real money is another issue entirely. That’s a quantifiable loss you’ve inflicted. Micro-transactions make this more complicated. If the person spent real money on that starship and you just blew it up…how is that different from blowing up their car? The main defense the griefers use is a sound one: the in-game policy you’ve agreed to clearly states that it isn’t your property. The thing is, none of those companies are going to defend this once some enraged player files a class action lawsuit. This is an amateurish guess, but why would the company not merrily hand out the ID of any player someone has a claim against? Why would they spend money defending your right to make their clients miserable? The alternative is start doling out items to anyone claiming a loss, which would work fine except once these things have an economic value the company can no longer just print more money when things go sour. Other players will cry foul when their own hard earned battlecruisers are suddenly worth less.


 


Which brings us to the inevitable debate of whether anyone owns the virtual stuff in those video games anyways. As a blog post at tobolds explains, the heart of the issue is whether you really want to own stuff in an online world. The author isn’t a lawyer but the conversation in the comments properly highlights most of the problems from the gamer’s perspective. An expansion pack devalues your virtual property, but does that mean we sue over it? If it becomes recognized as property, does that mean I can be taxed for my Level 70 Paladin? What if I’m selling him? Does the company get a cut of that? If you want to get technical, the game company handed me a Level 1 Paladin and I invested hundreds of hours making him into an epic Level 70 Warlord. Who gets to keep those improvements to the property? Virtual Property rights are hardly a simple “Make it like Real life” situation. A completely different set of laws and conduct need to be established and accepted by people in the real and the virtual community.


Griefers are hardly a unified club or sect, as the Wired article mentioned above notes many are just having fun. But like any good party or fun joke, eventually someone is going to take it way, way too far. California’s reaction to such a tragedy is already setting a precedent for the Federal level, Congress is looking at drafts of a cyber bully law as I write this. Nor does allowing a company to completely own their virtual property make sense after a certain point. A lot of those games are, quite frankly, worthy of a place in history. World of Warcraft has over ten million users and changed the entire economic model of video games. Once that game stops being economically viable…what’s to keep them from just shutting it down? How do we ensure people will have an accurate understanding of the names and places of the game world? Should a historical preservation society step in, create servers, and keep the game running? Is it really all that different from preserving a piece of land? It’s hard to say where the hammer is going to come down in all this, only that it has to eventually.


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Text:AAA
Sunday, Sep 28, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-09-29...

Old allegiances die hard.  Most gamers gave up on Sonic the Hedgehog a long time ago—granted, his first three games on the Sega Genesis are all but universally acknowledged as classics, themselves arguments for the merits of the Genesis over the Super Nintendo.  As a middle-to-high schooler who only had a Genesis and not a Super Nintendo, I looked for any reason I could to favor my system of choice over the one that all my friends seemed to like.  “Blast processing” was a sufficiently impressive-sounding (not to mention ambiguous) argument that Sega had something in their arsenal that Nintendo didn’t.  To this day, I thank the marketing minds behind Sega for coming up with that two-token buzzword.


Obviously, the more recent incarnations of Sonic, without the fate of a console on his shoulders, hasn’t fared as well.  Perhaps he no longer feels the pressure that he once did, and feels content to coast on the strength of his name alone; regardless of the reasons, though, we’ve been “treated” to debacles like the Xbox 360 / PS3 Sonic the Hedgehog, not to mention forced to spend more than 50% of games with “Sonic” in the name as characters who are very much not Sonic.  Who’s here to save the day but Bioware, the heroes of such well-regarded games as Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect taking Sonic into the realm of Western-style role playing, on the DS no less.  It’s called Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, and if you’re into the whole role-playing thing, it actually looks pretty solid.


The early returns on the game have been mixed, but if anyone can pull the blue-haired wonder from the depths of mediocrity, Bioware can.  As such, my own hopes are guardedly high.


Also showing up this week on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 is Silent Hill: Homecoming, the latest entry in the well-established (and some would say best) survival horror series.  Hey, have you noticed that survival horror, once a genre threatening to burst at the seams with knockoffs and sequels, seems awfully sparse lately?  The Silent Hill and Resident Evil series are still out there and doing just fine, but the second-tier entries just don’t seem to be garnering the sales or the recognition that they once did.  It’s not that I miss it, it’s just that it almost seems weird that the release of a survival horror game, any survival horror game, feels like a notable event.


The Wii has We Cheer, a cheerleading game that uses two Wiimotes as pom-poms, which has been (somewhat unfairly, if you asked me) largely mocked in the gaming press.  I say any game that has the musical knowledge to include two tracks from The Go! Team in a cheerleading game is worth supporting.  Plus, my (and your) daughter will probably dig it.  The more literary-inclined puzzle-solvers among you may enjoy some Hardy Boys action on the PC, a game that may well have been greenlighted in the recognition that Nancy Drew‘s business has been just fine in the PC puzzle arena.


As always, I ask you—did I miss anything?  What are you looking forward to this week?  Contemplate the question (and go ahead and comment!) as you look over this week’s release list and a trailer for Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood after the hop.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Sep 22, 2008
A discussion of the various elements of a linear game narrative and how they come together.

The ongoing debate regarding the creation of non-linear, cutscene free stories in games is founded on a very interesting premise. Video games could, with the right technology, create a completely interactive story that changes in response to the player to create a unique play experience for every person. Games like Far Cry 2, STALKER, or Fallout 3 are all pushing the envelope for simulating unique and open stories. The problem is…back here in critic town we tend to do better when we talk about what we’ve played instead of speculating. So Godspeed developers, I anxiously await your return. Instead, why not talk a bit about linear games and the experiences they create? How does one develop a story in a good old fashioned Mom & Pop linear game? How does that compare to a game with unlimited possibilities?


 


Oddly, the best place to really start getting an idea of what a story-teller does in a linear game is to watch a writer convert a video game into a movie script. In an interview with Gamasutra, Jordan Mechner describes what it was like writing both the original Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and the process of making it into a screenplay. He explains that the game starts off with everyone becoming a zombie except two or three people. That’s a fantastic way to setup an acrobatic fighting game set in Persia. The problem is that for a movie this would get old very rapidly. Watching the Prince leap up yet another pillar and stab the hundredth zombie got old in the actual game, so it’s hard to imagine this working in a screenplay. To convert a game into a film you have to start adding other characters and new plot elements, and try to maintain the spirit of the game without telling a dull story. The writer’s first job, then, in a linear game is to create a fun environment or setting for the player to interact with. Yet countless linear games take place in epic fantasy settings, recreated real-life cities, or other fascinating scenarios. What makes Prince of Persia: Sands of Time stand out in so many people’s minds?


 


It stands out because it incorporates the dramatic and characterizing elements of a film in conjunction with this setting. Whereas the characters are the focus and the setting is secondary in a film, a linear game plot flip-flops those values. Conversation has a built-in connection with the game design, and must serve as the backdrop to the game instead of act like the main focus. Many of the game’s acrobatic puzzles involve Farah, the female love interest, as you both work together to get to the final tower. Sometimes she pulls the lever you need to keep moving and sometimes you have to press the block that helps her. All of the puzzles are linear in their solutions, but the dynamic process that gets you to the end often involves your character relying on Farah and vice-versa. There are many sections where her safety is in your hands during combat as well, further magnifying the relationship through the game design. Make no mistake, this is a tricky balance for a game to strike. Jonathon Blow notes how disingenuous this can become in a game such as Half-life 2, where the player sometimes just sees Alyx as a way to unlock doors. Kill X number of creatures, protect subject Y, and incorporate dialog is not as easy a formula as it sounds. What makes Prince of Persia work, in my opinion, is that the Prince begins to fall in love with Farah. He says so in his internal monologues while you crawl around the acrobatic puzzles. Since so much of linear video game stories involve role-play instead of player input, this important difference smooths out the harsher realities of the game design. I worry about Farah because the Prince is worried about her.


 


Another interesting take to linear plots in video games is to simply pause the rollercoaster for a few moments and ask the player what they think. Not in a literal question that affects the outcome of the plot in a meaningful way, but rather just to postulate a game design choice that induces some sort of reflection. JRPG’s are extremely good about this by providing dialogue options at key emotional moments in the game that induce reflection for the player. Do you want to go out on a date with Tifa or Aeris in Final Fantasy VII? When one of them asks you if you had a good time, do you say you wish you were with the other? None of this changes anything in terms of story, but it does create an interesting capacity for the video game to ask the player to reflect. If a film or book had a reader’s note that simply said, “Hey, think about this before continuing on” it would break up the flow of the experience. But video games can do this because they’re pausing to reflect on which direction they want things to move in. It’s all still very minor stuff in the grand scheme of the plot, but I think many players would take pause if the game asked them why they shot innocent civilians in that last level. Forcing them to say they don’t care is just as interesting a moment as having them engage emotionally.


 


Steve Gaynor comments in an essay on the merits of video games, “Video games excel at fostering the experience of being in a particular place via direct inhabitation of an autonomous agent.” To rephrase the comparison made at the start of this essay, is the game creating a virtual experience where I’m playing as myself or as someone else? That’s the difference between a linear plot and a non-linear one, one where I play as a character or where that character is me. If I’m playing as someone else, that means my game design and relationships have a logical limitation based on the character. The Prince is never, ever, going to stab Farah because he’s sick of her dying on him. The game design of a good linear story is able to engage the player because it explains the role they inhabit and makes them comfortable with the actions rather than thinking “I wanted to do it differently”. You worry about Farah because the character you play is worried about her. As David Cage earnestly explains in an interview with Gamasutra on his own linear adventure game, designers should not be so afraid of telling the player no. They’re roleplaying a character not of their own making and they should be willing to accept that this comes with certain limitations within the story. Perhaps the real key to making a linear game great is figuring out how to do that without the player being annoyed by the restrictions imposed. Instead, those restrictions are embraced as part of the story.


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Text:AAA
Sunday, Sep 21, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-09-22...
de Blob for the Wii

de Blob for the Wii


Oh, oh yes, that…that’s nice.  Look at all of those games coming out this week.  And it’s only going to get busier.  This is truly my favorite time of year.


When the release list starts to get as clogged up as this week’s looks, it tends to take something either well-established and highly anticipated or something innovative and head-turning to stand out from the pack.  I’m happy to say that this week we have what looks to be a fine example of the latter, as THQ’s de Blob is released for the Wii.  If Wikipedia is to be believed (and I’m prone to believing it), de Blob had its origins as a class project, got noticed by THQ, and got turned into a full-fledged retail game.  The mechanic of it seems perfect fo the Wii, as you roll around your blob of an avatar, dipping yourself into paint cans and rolling all over a city gone monochrome.  As you color the city, the music for that city slowly reveals itself, as painting the buildings and the scenery certain colors unlocks instrumental tracks that all fit together as theme music.


They even came up with appropriately awful box art!

They even came up with
appropriately awful box art!


Those tired of the Wii’s innovation being reduced to added waggle must be thrilled to be getting something, from a third party no less, that actually manages to not look like something we’ve seen before.  The last time a third party gave us something truly interesting-looking that would take advantage of the control scheme of the Wii was…Elebits, maybe?  Needless to say, de Blob will be a welcome sight for Wii owners on the shelves of whatever stores they frequent.


On the more well-established side, it might be considered just a little bit insane just how much I’m looking forward to trying out Mega Man 9.  Yes, I’m fully aware that it’s probably going to feel just like the other Mega Man games I’ve got sitting around for the NES.  Yes, I’m also fully aware that I may break whatever controller I use to play the thing.  Don’t care.  Modern retro that actually tries to stay retro?  No HD graphics, no remade levels, no pandering to modern gamers used to cakewalks?  Yes, it’s just a completely new Mega Man adventure from the ground up.  Sign me up.


Lego Batman on the Xbox 360

Lego Batman on the Xbox 360


Lego Batman comes out for a pile of formats this week—they had me when they released the footage of Harley Quinn.  A couple of non-traditional (read: no plain old cars allowed) racers are on the scene, as Baja: Edge of Control and Pure share shelf space and target audiences, and both look like they stand a decent chance of being rather entertaining.  There’s also a little, tiny part of me that wants to get my hands on the Hamtaro game (with the properly nonsensical title of Hi! Hamtaro Ham-Ham Challenge).  Remember Hamtaro?  The hyperkinetic hamster that actually invaded the WB for a while?  Oh, the memories, of staring at the television screen in slackjawed wonder/amusement/terror. 


Obviously, there’s plenty coming out this week.  What are you picking up?  Scope out the full release list and a trailer for de Blob after…the jump.


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