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Monday, Mar 23, 2009
A closer look at a solid take on a Michael Mann video game. Spoilers abound.

Kane & Lynch is an attempt to recreate the epic bank robbery from Heat while borrowing a few of the typical plot points from Michael Mann’s films. As in Heat and Collateral, this is a game about two dissimilar people at odds finding commonality. More specifically, it explodes the relationship between Robert DeNiro’s character and Kevin Gage (Waingro, the bearded guy DeNiro kills in the hotel). While the film is content to define the difference between these two men under codes of professionalism and brutality, the game confronts how flimsy a difference this actually is. Waingro may murder prostitutes and hostages, but how is that different from the people DeNiro shoots or the woman he abandons? Kane, depicted as the consummate professional, continues to stand by a code that has slowly destroyed his family and his own life. Lynch, relying on medication and prone to violent delusions, has no code at all. The way that their relationship develops throughout the game leads to their supposed differences slowly dissolving. I’m going to ignore the Gerstmann Gate fiasco for this breakdown of Kane & Lynch. Although the scandal may have made for good headlines, I don’t really see what it has to do with the actual game.


 


The game opens with Kane reciting a letter to his daughter on his way to Death Row. He writes, “As you know if you’ve read the papers, my life as a mercenary and all the pain I’ve caused, most of it is true. I should regret it all, I should be scared of dying, but I’m not. I can’t anymore. The only feeling I have left is regret that I’ll never get to know you.” This refusal to feel any guilt creates a kind of moral blindness in Kane. He wants his daughter to love him but is unwilling to acknowledge his own personal flaws that make him so unbearable. The game is literal about this: Kane is blind in his left eye just as he is blind to his own personal failings. This repressed guilt also comes up whenever you are wounded, the screen goes white and repressed memories will play until a squadmate rescues you. Kane’s wife screaming at him for keeping a gun in the house, children playing in a park, or Kane trying to stop himself from murdering people.


Lynch interrupts Kane’s letter monologue when a prison break occurs and Kane is freed. In terms of game design, the levels work like an organized Grand Theft Auto encounter with the police. Rather than have the game generate a steady stream of police assaulting you, it is a roller coaster of running from building to building while fending off the cops. One of the refreshing things about this being the premise of a “duck and cover” game is that the plot actually matches what you’re doing in the game. As Mitch Krpata points out about Gears of War 2, when your game design consists of ducking and crawling through a war zone it creates a dissonance with a story about being the ultimate badass. Kane & Lynch’s game design matches its plot because these are both scarred and tormented individuals. Kane has a broken nose, a blind eye, and scars that mark a person who has seen too much combat. Lynch is equally unimpressive as he is bald, overweight, and wears glasses. These are the kinds of people you’d expect to be ducking under cover just as much as you’d expect them to be up to no good.


The two chief complaints about the controls are that the camera is sluggish and the cover system is terrible. On the issue of the camera, what this complaint refers to is that the reticule moves slowly when you aim from the shoulder. It helps to consider the timing of the game’s release in regards to this design choice. Call of Duty 4 and Gears of War were the current smash hits, and they also relied heavily on aiming from the shoulder. The difference is that there was no slow down when you move to shoulder aiming in those games. Although technically the game was just relying on the exact same setup as the developer’s previous game Freedom Fighter, a lot of people try to play the game like they’re playing Call of Duty 4 or Gears of War, and it feels sluggish when you do so. You often don’t need to aim from the shoulder and these variables can be tweaked from the menu anyway.


The other complaint is about the cover system, which will automatically cause your character to drop down when you hit cover and also turns the camera around corners for you. Again, the source of the complaint mostly seems to be that it doesn’t working like Gears of War. All of these arguments boil down to a preferred method of control but blaming a game for not being like a different game seems a bit backwards. Once I broke myself of old habits while playing Kane & Lynch, the game worked fine for me.


The combat scenarios after the escape from Death Row continue to explore and test the relationship between the game’s two title figures. After the 7, a criminal organization Kane abandoned, kidnaps Kane’s family, they stick him with Lynch and a plot to steal a briefcase. The game’s tutorial then teaches the player by having them teach Lynch how to fight. The game tells you how to throw grenades, then you throw one, then Lynch mimics it until he understands this himself. It establishes an authoritative relationship for the player, making Lynch both distant and inferior to Kane and the player. The subsequent bank robbery and theft of the briefcase goes wrong when Lynch, while left in charge of the hostages, hallucinates and starts shooting them. In Co-Op mode the person playing Lynch will find their perspective distorted and all the hostages will literally look like cops to that player during these moments. Kane curses and swears at Lynch for being unprofessional once they escape, but, in the next level, the player has to kidnap a woman from a packed Tokyo nightclub. Once the bullets start flying, the player is stuck in a situation where they have almost no choice but to shoot a hostage themselves. The very moral stance that you criticize Lynch for in one level must be violated by the player in the next.


Kane exacerbates the situation by leaving Lynch alone with yet another kidnapped victim, resulting in Lynch losing control and accidentally killing her. Because we know Lynch is unstable, the repeat accident starts to shift the blame from Lynch to Kane’s irresponsible reliance on him. The downward spiral continues as Kane reports back to the 7 that he wasn’t able to recover the briefcase and the 7 kills his wife as a result. Sending his daughter away to “find someplace safe,” Kane abandons her to get his revenge. Throughout these exchanges, it is Lynch that is constantly seeing the hiccups in Kane’s logic. He points out that he wasn’t entirely at fault for the second hostage incident, and he points out that Kane isn’t going to be able to help his daughter by abandoning her. Kane, still blind to his own flaws, mostly just tells Lynch to shut up.


Facing the constant criticisms from his squad of “Dead Men” and Lynch, the player’s position as the superior authority that began during the tutorial slowly comes into question. Kane’s desire for revenge becomes steadily more murky as he is forced to confront the fact that, like leaving Lynch with the hostages, he shares in the blame for his wife’s death. Were it not for the botched kidnapping and Kane’s constant reliance on violence as a solution, she would still be alive. The last third of the game loses a great deal of its appeal by having the levels involve a Civil War in Havana. For a game that differentiated itself by being a hard boiled crime thriller, these final moments feel like the very games Kane & Lynch stood apart from.


The game eventually forces the player to curb the urge to just shoot their way through every problem by having Kane’s daughter be the one held hostage. If the player moves or tries to shoot the 7 while they have Jenny, they’re both gunned down. If they calm down and think up an alternative solution, they can escape.


The final level of the game echoes the decision made by Robert DeNiro in Heat. In the film, DeNiro chooses to finish off Waingro instead of walking away. In the game, Kane must choose between saving his daughter or saving his stranded men in Havana. To emphasize how trapped Kane is by his own criminal nature, the designers make either choice a hollow one. If you save Jenny, then her hatred for your own hypocrisy and refusal to care means she will despise you. If you save your men, redeeming yourself as a traitor, then Jenny will be shot and killed during the process. While Heat chose to emphasize that DeNiro’s own criminal code ended up robbing him of a decent life, Kane & Lynch forces the player to see the shallow life DeNiro would have had either way. Whether Kane saves his daughter or his men, he must still pay for his past crimes.


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Sunday, Mar 22, 2009
New releases for the week of 2009-03-23...

Yes, it’s true, I wasn’t a huge fan of Guitar Hero: World Tour.  Honestly, there’s not much that can make up for when a peripheral breaks as quickly as the World Tour drums did, and the fact that Rock Band 2 had been doing what it does for a full month before World Tour came out worked against it as well.  Despite my misgivings, however, I’ve played the game plenty, and it’s come on a bit as a favorite that I’ve pulled out even more than Rock Band in recent days—granted, that might just be because I’ve played its collection of songs less, but still.  It’s not an awful game; it’s just no Rock Band 2.


That said, any fan of the Guitar Hero or Rock Band series—at least, any of those fans who have managed to graduate to Expert—should be positively stoked for Sunday’s release of Guitar Hero: Metallica.  Having played through the Death Magnetic tracks on the guitar in both Guitar Hero III and World Tour and enjoying them more than pretty much everything else in either game, the prospect of playing 30 more Metallica songs is awfully, awfully appealing.  Of course, when the demo came through, I had more fun playing Queen’s “Stone Cold Crazy” than either “Sad but True” or “Seek and Destroy”.  I mean, Freddy Mercury was singing along, and it doesn’t get much better than that.  Still…I desperately want to play “Fight Fire With Fire.”  Desperately.


Also on the console front this week is Legends of Wrestlemania, in which we’ll finally be able to answer the age old (?!) question of who would win in a fight between The Rock and The Ultimate Warrior.  Honestly, just seeing the Big Boss Man on the roster brought back memories of playing the old arcade wrestling games that I used to get routinely killed in.  Even if you’ve been out of the whole video game wrestling thing for a while, THQ might be able to rope you back in with this one.


In the “Interesting Ideas” category, we have Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time coming out this week as well, which is notable because it’s the first game that will offer complete interaction between the Nintendo DS and the Wii.  The upside is that it has the potential to bring console and portable players together in a way no game has ever done.  The downside is that it could well be the worst-looking Wii game to be released at least from a purely polygons-per-square-inch viewpoint.  It’ll be fascinating to see what the response to this approach ends up being.  If nothing else, it’s another notch in the wall for innovation on the Nintendo side of the aisle, thanks to the fine minds at Square Enix.


The whole release list is after the jump - let me know what I missed and tell me what you’ll be grabbing this week.  Just don’t tell me that the rumored Guitar Hero: Van Halen is going to be better than this week’s Metallica release—I may just have to give you a piece of my mind.  You will also see something that I will never, ever be able to do on drums.


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Friday, Mar 20, 2009
Facebook has changed itself once again, this time with more than just a little influence from the upstart social networking site.

The new Facebook bears an eerie resemblance to Twitter in both function and appearance. Instead of asking for our status, we are asked to post what we are thinking. Whereas the old website broke everything into categories, everything is lumped together in a gushing stream of information. Like Twitter, Facebook is now aggregating information without prejudice.


It’s an interesting shift because on the surface Facebook would seem to have every advantage over Twitter. The culture of birthday greetings, posting links, and clever away messages is just as prevalent as ever. Facebook is also currently the number one social networking website, beating out myspace both in terms of active users and monthly visits. The crux for any of these websites is figuring out a way to keep people coming back. How do you make the incessant flow of information more presentable and easy to consume yet still need to be checked constantly? How do you make a website become a necessary part of someone’s life?


It’s tempting to automatically dismiss Twitter as standing no chance in this struggle but its rise in popularity has been incredible. Going from being ranked 22 in social networks to 3 in such a short space of time is no small task. As a user of both websites, I also use them for very different purposes. My Facebook account has always been an elaborate yearbook and text message service. Twitter, on the other hand, is where I talk with people about video games. What’s striking is that I have never met almost all of the people I exchange tweets with. Twitter has a distinct advantage over Facebook in this regard because it encourages meeting and linking with strangers. You don’t disclose personal information in your profile, so you don’t really care who reads it.


There are also several problems that Facebook’s culture is going to have when adopting Twitter’s information distribution method. It would be nice to think people have gained some sense of internet etiquette over the years, but you still encounter folks who seem to think we need to know what they’re having for breakfast. Combine this with people actually posting interesting links or comments and that girl who incessantly needs to tell me she won a free laptop and you start to encounter information overload. There are only so many people you can follow on Twitter before you just start focusing on certain people and ignoring the rest. The issue is that de-friending someone on Facebook is often taken personally, un-following someone on Twitter is just business.


Which brings up the issue of functionality that is going to dominate 2009 for both gaming and the internet as a whole. The website that is going to become a part of a person’s life, as opposed to just an escape from work, is the one that is the most useful. After four years of using Facebook, the majority of people I’m friends with no longer live near me. I don’t really need to know about their day to day lives except for the occasional nostalgia bender. Twitter and the discussion it provides with a group of likeminded people is, by comparison, something I rely on daily for news and insight. Grouping people by common interests, instead of who they know, seems to generate more traffic.


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Tuesday, Mar 17, 2009
A look at some of the responses and coverage to the recent school shooting in Germany.

In the aftermath of the tragic shooting by Tim Kretschmer in Germany, politicians in both America and Germany are rallying behind the event to once again call for tighter restrictions on video games. Germany already has the strongest censorship laws in the EU, which short of outright banning all or most video games means there is not much left to lock down. Here in America, games are already actively not sold to minors and the video game industry has the highest success rate of any media for keeping mature rated content out of the hands of minors.


Particularly troubling is the continuing coverage of the incident which insists on the connection between playing games and violence. Politicians and ignorant parents are one thing, journalists should be held to a higher standard. The Times’ connection of the incident to Far Cry 2 (their description of the game is factually inaccurate) barely qualifies as tenuous. Kretschmer played Far Cry 2 the night before the event along with several other FPS titles. The expert consulted in the article to establish the link is Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, the man who coined the term “murder simulator” for games, and he bases his accusations on a connection between training tactics used by the military and video games. Specifically, the need to simulate the effects of shooting a person more accurately on targeting ranges (such as having targets that go limp or flail) is echoed in games. A game controller is otherwise considered the equivalent of holding a gun and firing it. The article balances out the coverage by consulting other experts on the topic who rely on psychological studies and a growing majority that have found that there is no link between video games and violence. Elements such as the father owning numerous guns, teaching Kretschmer to use guns at a young age, and a troubled childhood are all referenced as contributing factors to the crime.


Both the Telegraph and Escapist have taken the time to report on the event and also question the connection to games.


Mark David Chapman obsessively read Catcher in the Rye before shooting John Lennon. Does reading Salinger make people want to kill celebrities? Timothy McVeigh’s favorite flavor of ice cream was Ben & Jerry’s Mint Chocolate Chip. Does eating it make people want to blow up Federal buildings? Jeffrey Dahmer’s favorite horror film is Hellraiser III. Does watching it make people want to murder and eat one another? Ted Kaczynski was obsessed with Joseph Conrad and the novel, The Secret Agent, in which a professor abandons his job, lives in seclusion, and decides to bomb a scientific lab. Are other people who read the story going to act it out?


As the growing problem of youth violence and school shooting continues, perhaps the press will eventually want to stop and ask why there are so many people who play these games that don’t exhibit similar behavior.


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Monday, Mar 16, 2009
The techniques and issues in politically motivated video games.

A while back I posted an essay on how a video game placed in a relevant setting would be able to raise awareness of important issues. Since then, a little digging has revealed that there are already several games covering that ground. Although there is nothing quite on the scale of an FPS set in a real world conflict, there are now many groups on the internet that are trying to raise awareness by using the medium of video games. The results are often mixed depending on how much they actually utilize the strengths of the medium. As Ian Bogost explains thoroughly in his work with Persuasive Games, a properly designed setting and appropriate means of interaction is able to induce a mental response in the player. If you’re able to create a game design where the player needs to collect information to win, they are going to pick up on whatever that information is presenting while they pursue the goal of winning. If the player must participate in an unpleasant activity to win, they are going to maintain serious doubts about the merits of such an activity in the real world. And if you give the player the choice of trying to win in an inherently corrupt system, you might actually communicate something in a way that only video games can. Here are a couple of examples of hits and misses with these goals.


First up is the controversial PETA parody of the Cooking Mama series, Mama Kills Animals. As with PETA’s other protest games, the production values are really impressive while the actual game design revolves more around parody than actual communication. It relies on the conventions of the Cooking Mama series to coerce the player into participating in disgusting activities. To prepare Thanksgiving dinner the player must pluck feathers, remove vital organs, and stuff the Turkey while blood and squishing noises make the entire experience thoroughly uncomfortable. Intermixed with these sessions are videos depicting the horrible treatment of turkeys in farms. It’s an interesting protest game because it makes the decision to aim low in terms of getting a message across to the player. Given that PETA’s goal is to promote the ethical treatment of animals, they may have missed the mark somewhat by making the turkey so disgusting that they don’t really generate empathy for the creature.  It just makes me want to not eat turkey, which is certainly a much simpler goal that still accomplishes PETA’s agenda. This is a flash game, and the designers are presuming that you’re only going to be playing for about five minutes. Generating the kinds of emotions that would involve the player questioning society’s treatment of animals would involve a playtime that’s probably unreasonable. They grab your attention with the outrageous parody, they get you to play long enough to absorb their point, and you walk away with the unshakable knowledge that the turkey industry is not exactly a wholesome affair.


The website Global Conflicts has a flash game about the harsh conditions of the maquiladoras along the Mexican-American border. The game that I played was just a demo of the full version but the setup was interesting. You have a finite amount of time to interview people in the area before the main interview with the manager of the factory. The majority of the game then involves manipulating a resource management dialogue tree with each question taking 5 minutes of your time while the clock ticks. Specific angles must be explored, questions must be left unanswered, and the resounding chime of discovering an incriminating fact hard codes information into your memory. The player ticks through lists of info like a scavenger hunt: factories often pollute without any concern for environmental laws, they abandon native workers for those in countries that pay lower wages, or they have no interest in the community. You learn all of this because you have to click through all of it, study the information, and decide whether or not it is strategically relevant. The only flaw of the game is the excessive amounts of text it throws at you. You don’t have to make everything about shooting evil aliens, but it helps to remember that there’s more than one way to communicate your message than just blocks of text. Images, game design, mission variety, and countless other options allow the player to collect information in different ways. Telling me that the maquiladoras are bad for the community is one thing, letting me see it or even better, letting me suffer consequences because of it is far more effective.


The best protest game to this day is still the McDonald’s Video Game and its success comes on several levels. The game creates a satirical business simulation because in order to succeed you must eventually compromise your own morals. It’s perfectly possible for you to run your franchise in a legitimate manner that helps the employees and doesn’t damage the third world countries that you rely on for food. But, you don’t make any money when you play this way. In order to succeed at the game, you have to turn a profit and keep the shareholders happy, which means maybe paying a bribe to government officials so you can cut corners on the meat production or slashing the salary of employees so that you can get a few points ahead. Of all the protest games that I played, this one was by far the most effective because it didn’t just communicate something as simple as PETA’s “Turkey farms are bad” or Global Conflicts’ countless rattling off of facts. It made me comprehend the dilemma on a very personal and empathetic level. Playing this game makes you realize that the people who run McDonalds aren’t evil, instead the entire system encourages corruption as the only viable way to run a corporation. It’s subversive in a way that none of the other games even bother to attempt because it communicates its message through choice. What better way to make a person realize that an entire system is corrupt than by making them realize that they would do the exact same thing if they were running a company? It’s not a question of how receptive or smart your audience is. The game uses cute graphics and an easy interface to rapidly engage any unsuspecting player. As with their later game Oiligarchy, the point is not to offend the player for becoming corrupt. The point is to make them comprehend how corruption works and why it happens.


 


Each of these games succeeds at their basic objective. PETA’s Mama Kills Animals was a massive experiment for the group that relies on satire to slip their message between the cracks. The Global Conflicts game on the maquiladoras creates a game where the player must pay attention to information in order to progress. We’re reading the information because we’re looking for the clue that will let us beat the factory manager, and it is not until after the game is over that we realize we’ve just learned a great deal. Yet I think the last one may still be the most effective of the trio because it communicates its message through the player rather than just barking it at them. There’s no arguing with their critique of Fast Food Corporations because there is no argument to be made in the face of the experience provided. I played the game, destroyed third world countries, ripped off my employees, and realized that by winning I had just made myself complicit in the entire system. Whether or not the player is bothered by this conduct is irrelevant, they now know that anytime they are dealing with a fast food franchise that the business must always face the temptation to operate in the most corrupt manner possible to gain a profit. They know it because it’s the same experience that they had experienced firsthand. Choice is what makes video games powerful, not the fact that lots of people play them or that you can trick people into absorbing information while they’re playing. If your cause is so righteous and true, then let the experience of that injustice speak for itself.


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