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Wednesday, Apr 9, 2008
A giant box from Rockstar leads to a brief reflection on the context that swag can provide.

One of the nice byproducts of having a gaming-centric blog here at PopMatters is that we are now able to preview games, rather than just review them.  As such, there’s actually some incentive for PR to send us stuff before it actually comes out.


Today, I got some stuff.


Granted, when you get a giant box at your doorstep from Rockstar three weeks before Grand Theft Auto IV comes out, you hope there’s going to be a little, DVD-size box inside, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers.  Instead, we get:


This is the stuff.  Please ignore the berber.

This is the stuff.  Please ignore the berber.


- A giant, black and white foam hand, emblazoned with the GTAIV logo, doing the “shocker
- A crayola yellow Burgershot T-shirt
- A GTAIV sticker


You can tell a lot about a game by the swag that gets sent with it.  Hudson sent a bright green and yellow headband to promote the upcoming Deca Sports, Sony sent a funky little black necklace with an Omega charm with God of War: Chains of Olympus (which also came with some copies of the Chains of Olympus demo disc back when that was a big deal).  Both of those were subtle little touches, trinkets whose primary purpose is to evoke a mindset rather than to serve any actual tangible purpose.


There’s nothing subtle about the GTAIV promotional items, yet another sign that Rockstar is looking to hit like an 18-wheeler come April 29th.


The funny thing is, I’m a father of three.  I own a minivan.  What am I going to do with a giant foam shocker?  Give it to my kid to bring to school?


What Rockstar seems to be saying here is that GTAIV is not for people like me.  It’s not for grandmas.  It’s not for girls.  It’s for a certain audience that will appreciate the GTA brand of humor: macho, college-age boys, preferably ones that pound beers and incessantly quote raunchy comedies.


The problem, then, is that the appeal of Grand Theft Auto goes beyond that crowd, important as it may be to Rockstar’s numbers.  Grand Theft Auto III first appeared nearly seven years ago, meaning that even if everyone who played that game is in Rockstar’s apparent target demographic, those are the folks who have now moved on to SUVs and jobs and changing diapers.  Granted, that’s an awfully broad generality, but there are plenty of people with fond memories of GTAIII who could well be turned off by a giant foam shocker.  This isn’t by any means a complaint, but I hope for their sake that Rockstar’s marketing scheme stretches beyond the demographic indicated by this particular round of stuff.


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Monday, Apr 7, 2008
L.B. Jeffries kicks off his ambitious series on the state of gaming with the question of how a game can develop its own unique identity.


As the need for a critical language in assessing the art of video games becomes tantamount, the most logical place to start looking for such a language is by addressing the question of what defines the essence of a video game. What makes a video game different from a movie or a book? Player input. The interactive nature of video games is what defines them as different from other mediums, and thus arguably it defines what a game is about as well. The story and game design are certainly factors, but they are both portions of a whole. Despite the claims of wanting video games to have more sophisticated stories, good stories in games only solve half of the problem. You’d need to adapt the game design to the topic as well. Put another way, no amount of renaming the chess pieces on a game board after my childhood friends is going to make the game about my childhood. No amount of saying there are political overtones in your FPS title is going to change the fact that your game design is still just shooting people. Staging Hamlet in a game with giant mechs probably isn’t going to capture the essence of the play (but it’d be awesome if someone tried). A game’s identity is not a matter of the plot or design, it is a matter of what the player is doing.

So what then do we have the player do? How does that relate to the plot and game design as they apply to a game’s identity?


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Monday, Apr 7, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-04-07...

This week’s release list looks a lot like last week’s release list.  That is, it’s pretty sparse.  There are, once again, no huge games coming out this week, and a solid half of the week’s releases are on the PC (and half of those are re-releases of things that most fans will have been playing for months already anyway), games that are still readily available elsewhere.  Portal, as a matter of fact, could be the best three hours you ever get for 20 bucks, but it’s a game whose time has come and gone, one of the defining games of 2007, a year when our faith in the FPS was challenged and renewed.


As it turns out, my pick of game to watch for the week is a re-release as well, though this one’s been awfully tough to find for quite some time; that’s right, this is the week that the long-promised Ikaruga will be re-released in HD form for the Xbox Live Arcade.


Words can barely express how excited I am about this.


Ikaruga, for those who see little more than a seven-letter, four-syllable Japanese word (which, incidentally, means “spotted dove”) in the name, is a variation on the “bullet-hell” style of space shoot-‘em-up that has come to prominence in the last few years.  While it retains the property of throwing massive amounts of tiny little bullets at you, this version of the game gives you a defense:  Each bullet (and each enemy) has a “light” or a “dark” polarity.  Your ship can switch between the two.  If you are the same polarity as the bullet that hits you, you’ll absorb it, building energy that you’ll be able to use for a special attack.  The downside is that enemies of the same polarity will take more shots to destroy.  Conversely, switching to the opposite polarity of your enemies allows you to kill them quicker, but also leaves you open to death.


Master developers Treasure (who I’ll hold a candle for ‘til my dying day thanks to Gunstar Heroes) take this mechanic and run with it, often forcing the player to switch on a whim from one polarity to another just to stay alive.  This gameplay style makes the game slightly easier than the traditional bullet-hell shooter, but “slightly easier” translates to “reasonable” when you’re talking about this much stuff on the screen at once.  Add in a bonus-producing combo system and some of the most intimidating bosses out there, and you’ve got a classic.  If you have never played the GameCube or the (Japanese import) Dreamcast version of Ikaruga, a slow release week like this one is the perfect time to give it a go.  At a mere 800 Microsoft points ($10), there really is no excuse to stay away from it, unless shmups cause you to break out in hives.


Honorable mention this week goes to Baroque, whose distinct art style and vaguely gothic storyline will show up on the Wii and PS2 this week thanks to those geniuses at Atlus.  Those of you waiting for a dungeon crawler for the Wii, well, your time has finally come.


As always, the full list of this week’s releases is after the jump…


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Thursday, Apr 3, 2008
Some days I probably shouldn't click on every trailer that shows up in my mailbox...

Have you heard of the Happy Tree Friends?  I hadn’t until I saw the trailer below.  Apparently I should watch more G4 so that I can be educated on these things.


Or, maybe I’ve been better off.  I haven’t decided yet.


Once I saw the trailer, for Sega’s soon-coming Xbox Live and PC download Happy Tree Friends: False Alarm, I couldn’t help but click around and find a few other animated shorts featuring the titular “friends” on YouTube.  The unrelenting violence of these cartoons is slightly hypnotic, enough to leave your mouth agape and a slightly sick feeling in your stomach as you watch, somehow unable to turn away.


Think of the Care Bears mixed with Rocky and Bullwinkle, Ren and Stimpy, and Itchy and Scratchy.  Except more violent.  It’s like watching your childhood thrown into a wood chipper.


What do you think?  Is there merit to the Happy Tree Friends formula, or is it simply shock humor for the sake of itself?  Most important of all, did watching it just ruin your weekend?


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Wednesday, Apr 2, 2008

Times like this, I wish we had a woman on the PopMatters Multimedia staff (and hey, any who wish to apply only have to click here and follow the directions).


It being the case that we don’t, I decided to go ahead and check out this past Sunday’s Best Buy “Wii for Women” event myself.  In case you hadn’t heard of the event, either through Best Buy itself or the countless blogs that went ahead and did some of Best Buy’s advertising for them, here’s the flyer:


Right from the outset, it looks a little bit suspect—I mean, we have a flyer that’s attempting to lure women to a video game based event by making a point of offering non-video game stuff.  Granted, it’s Best Buy, so the GPS sort of makes sense, but raffling off spa visits?  Do we even have spas in Buffalo?


(Oh, stop that.  Of course we do.  Somewhere.)


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