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Sunday, Oct 19, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-10-20...
Eternal Sonata on the PS3

Eternal Sonata on the PS3


The more you look at this week’s group of releases, the more a sense of déjà vu takes over.  So many of the big new releases this week are either sequels or rehashes that you really have to look deep—no, like seriously deep—to find anything resembling a new idea.


This is not necessarily a bad thing.  PlayStation 3 owners are finally getting a chance to play a couple of games that Xbox 360 owners have been enjoying for a while, and each with some bonus stuff to make the experience unique enough to keep PS3 owners from being slighted.  Eternal Sonata has received the biggest makeover, with new characters, outfits, and events enhancing one of the best current generation RPGs out there.  Bioshock, for its part, is basically the same game as the one on the Xbox, but with interactive loading screens and a few new challenge rooms (not to mention the Bioshock 2 trailer that’s recently hit the web).  A re-release of Portal is showing up on the Xbox 360, for those who’ve been waiting for a version of the game to be released without the rest of The Orange Box (for whatever reason), and new releases in the Spyro and Spider-Man franchises are all over the various platforms.


Guitar Hero World Tour

Guitar Hero World Tour


The one retread that simply can’t be ignored or underestimated, however, is Guitar Hero World Tour.  Out on Sunday, it’s a rehash in two separate ways: one, it’s obviously a sequel to the other three Guitar Hero games out there, and two, it’s Activision’s acknowledgement of the game-changing Rock Band, in that its approach to the rhythm game genre is almost exactly that of Rock Band‘s.  Guitar, drums, bass, and vocals—they’re all here, and they’re going to present a serious challenge to Rock Band 2‘s popularity given the sheer recognizability of the name.  Despite the fact that so much of the new iteration of Guitar Hero is simply the following of Rock Band‘s lead, the mere fact that the new Guitar Hero totally revamps the franchise while the new Rock Band simply continues it may lead people in the direction of Activision/Neversoft’s version of the band setup for the holiday stretch.


Me, I’m looking forward to playing the Death Magnetic tracks I’ve been toying with on the guitar for the last two weeks on all of those other instruments.  Hetfield’s vocals on “All Nightmare Long” should be an especially good time.  I haven’t had a good grunting ‘n growling session in a while.


Wii Music

Wii Music


The running theme for the Wii and the DS is kids’ games.  All manner of branded whatnot is showing up this week, from various Nickelodeon and Disney brands to less recognizable IPs like Ener GBuild-a-Bear is here, High School Musical is here, and even Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? gets a couple of releases.  Of course, the sore thumb here is Wii Music, a release that’s had to endure some awfully loud mocking in the gaming community since its reveal at this year’s E3.  The thing is, it can hardly be evaluated as a game.  It is a toy.  Not only that, but it’s largely a toy for kids, with very loose definitions of success via gameplay.  I can also say that, having been able to share it with my family, it absolutely is one of those magical little games that can bring the family together for an hour of light entertainment, no matter the ages of those involved.  Heck, I had my 1-year-old wailing away on drums for a couple of minutes after she got a load of the rest of us.  I don’t think it’s a classic in the making, but it certainly shouldn’t be disparaged the way it has been over the last couple of months.


All right, having jumped off of my tiny little soapbox, and acknowledging that there are about a billion things being released this week, I must ask: What are you playing?  Are you going to spring for Midnight Club, or is Barbie Horse Adventures more your speed?  Pore over the list—and a Guitar Hero World Tour vid that never fails to fascinate me—after the jump.


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Wednesday, Oct 15, 2008
One advertising company attempts to lure consumers to a new IP by faking its own popularity.

One of the interesting problems that the entertainment industry must confront in an economic downturn is finding a way to turn consumers onto new characters and games. In regards to video games, people are more inclined to spend money on sequels and games they’re already familiar with because of the supposed quality assurance. At the very least, even remaking an old classic banks on people’s nostalgia and will score a few buys. So D3 Publisher’s ad team at Maverick Public Relations had a major problem when they were handed a brand new, original Intellectual Property (IP) involving a protagonist named Matt Hazard. It involved guns, grizzled space marines, and most dangerous of all, comedy. Naturally, since they didn’t have any nostalgia or pre-existing fan base to work with, they did the next best thing and made one up.


  Starting with a satirical fan site, the ad team created a long and sordid history for the Matt Hazard franchise. What began as a successful 8-bit Arcade game led to success on the consoles, 3D shooters, and adventure games. Alas, the IP had its weak moments as well such as creating bizarre spin-offs like a go-kart game and replacing an old game with Matt Hazard images. Everything from Super Mario Brothers to Duke Nukem get a smart-ass nod in the long catalogue of games such as ‘A Fistful of Hazard’, ‘Goonzilla Versus Matt Hazard’, and ‘Choking Hazard: Candy Gramm’. The website has been followed up by a mock blog created by a developer ranting about the industry and the downfall of the Matt Hazard IP he worked so hard on. It also contains the ominous screenshots of a new game that will redeem the doomed franchise. A recent Youtube video, featuring an interview with Matt claiming he nailed Lara Croft, ditches any doubts about how far they’re willing to take the joke. As commenter Lord Andrew notes on one website, “Oh man, this **** is awesome. Bring on the Hazard!” For a good interview with the ad team, check here.


I don’t normally take much interest in games that aren’t available yet just because we all know the only true test for a video game is playing it yourself. Still, one has to pause and admire a good advertisement sometimes. Given the economy and forecasts for doom & gloom in the months ahead, perhaps the ad team realized that people could use something far more important than a fake history or familiar franchise. They could use a good laugh.


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Tuesday, Oct 14, 2008
This seems as good a place as any to put a Gears of War 2 chainsaw battle pic.

This seems as good a place as any to put a
Gears of War 2 chainsaw battle pic.


Perhaps it seems a bit ridiculous to lament the embarrassment of riches we have in the next two months as far as video game releases go.  Looking at the release schedule right now, there are a ridiculous amount of great games that have either been released recently or will be in October and November. Here’s the murderer’s row of releases: Guitar Hero: World Tour, Rock Band 2, Fable 2, Left 4 Dead, The Last Remnant, Dead Space, Gears of War 2, LittleBigPlanet, Fallout 3, Far Cry 2, Resistance 2, Prince of Persia and Wii Music. I’m sure there are others I missed, but the bottom line is that this is arguably the best season ever for gaming.


Still, there are two major problems with this.
First of all, with so many triple-A titles coming out in such a short period of time, there are bound to be great titles that slip between the cracks. Last fall’s deluge of games like Mass Effect, The Orange Box, Halo 3, Bioshock, Super Mario Galaxy, Assassin’s Creed, and Call of Duty 4 meant that titles like Conan and Kane and Lynch were overshadowed and underrated. I know personally that I didn’t even get around to playing some of these games until this spring. Sure, Hollywood has their big summer blockbuster season in which a lot of the big budget movies are sandwiched between May and August, but the difference is that you can pay $10 to watch a Batman movie and be done with it in two hours. With games, there’s much more of a time and money investment.


Could something like Mirror's Edge get left behind?

Could something like Mirror’s Edge get left behind?


The second issue is that the big game release season is coming at a time when the economy is looking a little scary. Though we don’t know all the ramifications right now of the whole mess, it’s possible that unnecessary entertainment purchases like video games will suffer (Of course, an argument could be made that escapist entertainment will actually increase in popularity because people are trying to not think about the economy). In that case, with so many titles to pick from this holiday season and less money to buy them with, we could see some big budget titles disappoint and others go by the wayside.


I predict, though, that Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Gears of War 2 and anything Wii-related will do fine. It’s some of the other, lesser known games I’d be worried about.


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Monday, Oct 13, 2008
How Silent Hill 2 utilizes a restrictive gamer contract to create an intense horror experience.


Often lauded as the best in the series, Silent Hill 2 is an excellent exploration of a game that introduces intentional handicaps and limitations in the game design in order to facilitate a horror experience. It relies on an implicit contract between the game and player, a concept that Justin Keverne explores in a blog post on the topic. As he aptly summarizes about the nature of this contract, “So might players not owe it to themselves to be more forgiving, to enter into a gameplay contract with the designer whereby they will except some necessary restrictions in return for an enjoyable and engaging experience?” It’s a concept that’s key to understanding Silent Hill 2 because it forces a variety of player input handicaps to make a stressful and engaging horror experience. A camera that barely functions, a combat system that creates confusion, and a level design of constant locked doors cease to be the signs of weak programming or game design and instead become the hallmarks of terror.


 


This is a game about crippling and confusing the player input. And it starts it off with a surprisingly logical decision: there is no in-game tutorial. Nothing is explained to you upon entering Silent Hill, a theme that is consistent with the plot and imagery as well. Players will fumble with buttons and controls until they figure out how to manipulate the environment. The problem gets further compounded by the strange and erratic camera. You’re constantly checking the map to see which way you’re facing, which way you need to go, and struggling to make sense of the world you are exploring. In this way the camera and lack of tutorial serve to induce the same state that the protagonist is having: a hallucinogenic and confusing nightmare. This works in conjunction with the combat. The camera can often leave you unable to see enemies, forcing you to rely on the scrambled radio and dark music to warn you that trouble is near. When you press L2 to get your bearings, the camera swoops and pans erratically, further enhancing the confusion and vertigo.  The game explores this idea of a handicapping game contract in the opening moments by keeping the player from doing anything but confusedly walk around as well. As Iroquis Pliskin notes in a blog about game pacing, Silent Hill 2 withholds your ability to fight for hours to induce stress and helplessness. There is a constant barrage of growling, confusing camera, and blinding mist, all while the growing apprehension that something bad is going to happen builds. The first encounter with one of the zombies is an exercise in fidgeting with controls as the player tries to figure out which buttons lock on, swing the plank, and let him dodge. The system is mastered easily enough after this initial terse encounter, but by not having a tutorial the game cleverly forces the player to experience similar confusion as James (the character you play) in that moment. Just as he is stunned by the monstrosity moving towards him and trying to cope with the threat, the player is figuring out how to fight back and keep themselves alive. This becomes a consistent theme of the Silent Hill 2 game contract: it uses the game design to force the player to experience what James is experiencing in its own distorted way.


This dangerous environment is reinforced because the game design plays on your inability to fight competently even after mastering the controls. No matter what, the player knows they are never going to be that great at combat. There is no easy way to dodge every attack, gun ammo always seems intrinsically finite (despite the mountains of bullets you gather), enemies have random amounts of health, and health kits always seem like they may run out (despite the mountains of them you find). So while in reality there is plenty of health and ammo, because of the awkward controls and atmosphere the player never loses the sense of danger. There is no colt .45 here, no katana like in subsequent games to make you feel like a badass (or even competent). Walking down that long corridor below the Silent Hill Historical Society into a dark abyss creates teeth-grinding dread because the player knows that each and every zombie or monster will have the ability to hit them. There is no dominating these creatures, as even the weakest zombie can spray you with vomit. The camera and combat make it so the player is never in full control, the sound and setting serve to remind them of how dangerous a condition they are in as a consequence. These themes are further reinforced by several encounters with the boss Pyramid Head, who has no health and cannot die. Having an unbeatable foe in a game like this draws out discovering this information in a much more horrifying way thanks to the control scheme. It is not until after several clumsy swings and stabs in the gut that we realize our efforts are having no effect whatsoever on the monster.


 


In addition to the opening in the forest, several sections of the game use level design to fill the player with apprehension. By placing people in apartment complexes, hospital wards, hotels or an underground prison the game abandons the large sprawling environments of other horror games. You are always in a confined space. Levels often feel as a rat in a caged maze would, finding dead end after dead while you seek out some item or clue on how to progress. The constant repetition of placing a door that the player can never open creates a sense of the unknown. That there are places in Silent Hill we will never go into or understand. Even when the player steps outside, often to great relief, there are still countless stores and buildings that are locked and impenetrable. It both creates the sensation of being in a real city or building but also plays on the usual Metroid design of filling out a map. In a normal game, we can go everywhere in the environment and see everything. Here, James merely marks locations that he will never access. Barriers he will never cross. The player, stuck with this unfulfilled desire, is only left more stressed and disturbed at their inability to do anything but struggle through the city.


So what kind of story is facilitated by the mechanics of this limited game contract? What is the expression permissible in this limited language as opposed to a game that gives us a broad and diverse ability to express competence and superiority? The game is about James’ nightmarish confrontation with the guilt and suffering that came from the slow death of his wife that ended with his murdering her. It is formed like a nightmare and is filled with logical inconsistencies and surreal characters. Of the few “normal” people James encounters, none of them have rational conversations or coherently discuss the hellish town they all sit in. They ultimately serve as psychological foils for James, with each character representing a part of his psyche that came about during his wife Mary’s slow death. Eddie is the gluttonous and selfish part of James that wanted his wife dead. When they finally engage in a gun duel, James has the personal revelation that he has killed another human being. Angela is the shame-filled and abused part of James that came from his torment as Mary descended into madness. Her final scenes depict fading into a burning Hell, sadly explaining that she deserves what she got. Laura, the small blonde child, represents the anger and childish hope that drives James to live in denial. Indeed, she is the character whom James follows for most of the game and in one ending literally follows her out of Silent Hill. And Maria is James’ wife restored to health. She’s lustful, coy, dependent, and totally unstable. On three separate occasions James is forced to confront her dying because of him, the slow manifestation of his realization of his own awful crime.


 


The monsters themselves operate in a similar psychological manner. Most of them manifest James’ guilt and hatred during Mary’s final days. Some are literally walking shaped like vaginas, some are deformed nurses that represent the women James encountered whiles sitting in the hospital with his wife for days on end. Others are merely manifestations of anger, wielding giant phallic swords and screaming in rage anytime they see James. The various bosses are all variations of vaginal images or caged bodies, the latter manifesting the sense of imprisonment that James endured while his wife was sick. Finally, there is Pyramid Head. We are introduced to him in a homage to David Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’, with James peeking through the screen of a closet in horror. We then bear witness to the awful deformed sexuality of Pyramid Head and his sexual abuse of the zombies around him. Often wielding a giant spear, Pyramid Head is the manifestation of James’ shame at killing Mary. He finally understands, “I was weak. That’s why I needed you…needed someone to punish me for my sins…but that’s all over now…I know the truth.” Indeed, it is Pyramid Head who kills Maria, the incarnation of Mary, over and over. It is Pyramid Head who performs awful acts of lust and violence that James so ardently tries to deny. And throughout the various encounters James has with him, Pyramid is always unkillable. The game design does not allow James to remove his literal shame until he has confronted it within the story.


This is only one interpretation of the game. There are far more literal ways to see the events of Silent Hill 2, and subsequent games seem to indicate something more than a nightmare took place. But within this game alone, where a metal can is filled with light bulbs and buildings shift from being totally intact to crumbling into decay in a single sequence, little is certain. The greatest moment of the game is when James finally discovers that he murdered Mary. He is forced to watch this on a videotape and when it ends he is sitting in front of a white T.V. screen. Yet the scene in the game is similarly all white due to the mist and blooming effect in the room. It eerily echoes the exact same thing the player is doing: staring in disbelief at the same kind of screen as James. That moment where both the player and James are doing the same thing epitomizes what Silent Hill 2 is all about. Using a game contract that the player must accept as necessary for the experience, it puts you in the shoes of James as he lives out a dark nightmare of grief, guilt, and limited abilities as he navigates his shame.


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Monday, Oct 13, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-10-13...

Sure, I play a lot of games.  I edit the Multimedia section here at PopMatters, I write this blog, I review things, and when I’m not producing PopMatters content, chances are I’m playing (or, heck, thinking about) some sort of game.  I call it a hobby, others call it an obsession, and that’s fine.  Still, there’s a genre of game that I’ve simply never come around to: the sandbox game.  That’s why despite the fact that I think Saints Row 2 is the biggest release of the week, there’s a good chance I’m simply not going to play it—I’m basing my assumption based almost entirely upon the interests of my writers and what seems to be the gaming press at large.


It’s not that Saints Row 2 doesn’t look any fun; on the contrary, it looks like it takes the gloss, the unrepentantly crass sense of humor, and the wreak-as-much-havok-as-possible gameplay stye of the original and doubles all of it.  It’s more a matter of simply not finding the idea of driving around another huge game-generated world shooting up people who are considered your enemy at any given moment, fulfilling whatever missions happen to come up over the course of a tremendous, sprawling storyline all that appealing.  I played GTA IV, and I liked it well enough, but not so much that I was ever motivated to chase achievements or venture into its online component.  Maybe it’s a matter of simply not having large enough blocks of free time available to truly allow these game worlds to seep into me.  Maybe it’s a matter of the gritty “realism” being a little too caustic for my attempts at escapist entertainment.  Whatever it is, I’m sure plenty of you will have fun with Saints Row 2, but without even playing it, I can almost guarantee that it just ain’t for me.


Anyone who’s read this blog has probably already figured out that I’ll be too busy playing Sam & Max on the Wii this week anyway.  That’s right, Season One finally gets the console treatment, and anyone averse to PC games who’s been even the remotest bit curious about the canine detective and his rabbityish sidekick had better buy it.


Frustrated with this football season’s unpredictability?  Did your favorite team just unexpectedly lose to…ARIZONA (this being one of the few times Buffalo can empathize with Dallas)?  Maybe you can take out your frustrations with Blitz: The League II, the sequel to the EXTREME football action game from Midway.  Didn’t you hear me?  It’s EXTREME!  There are a host of Littlest Pet Shop games coming out this week for the DS, at least one of which is almost guaranteed to end up in my house right next to Sam & Max on my shelf, and if confusing game titles is your thing, you’re sure to get a kick out of Rock University Presents: The Naked Brothers Band The Game, a title that surely means something to tweens getting their kicks on Nick, but means absolutely nothing to me.


So there you go!  What releases are you looking for at the store this week?  Are there any genres out there that you have a blind spot to?  Can Spongebob possibly be slapped on any more products?  Leave a message in the comments and let me know, after you check out the Saints Row 2 trailer and the full release list after…the jump.


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