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by L.B. Jeffries

25 Feb 2009


About two months ago I made a few loose predictions about the future gaming trends for 2009. One of the things I pointed out was that the most wide-open genre of gaming for the entrepreneur was the forum game. The primary goal of this game would not really be the typical stats and sense of accomplishment that games provide. It would instead use these to encourage clicks on the website to generate ad revenue.

The closest thing I’ve seen really start pushing this agenda was Facebook’s 25 Random Things. Write 25 facts about yourself that no one knows, tag 25 friends who will be notified about it, and encourage them to do the same. The article cited goes into the various reactions to the phenomenon, some found it therapeutic while others decided it was an excuse to protest the existence of the internet. What is interesting about this Facebook note is the notion of calling it a game instead of a chain letter. I tend to change my definition of video games every couple of months because some indie game will challenge it, but for the moment I’ve been relying on Corvus Elrod’s stab at it: A game is a set of rules and/or conditions, established by a community, which serve as a bounded space for play. In that context, I’d say the 25 Random Things fits the bill nicely.

A recent title from the Global Game Jam has taken this concept of a forum game and moved it one step further. Wikipaths is an add-on for your web browser. It starts you out on one page of Wikipedia and then challenges you to use only links to get to another unrelated page. The game is timed rather than count links since presumably everything in Wikipedia links to itself eventually. As Greg Costikyan notes in his review, there is immense room for improvement here. A spider program could count the minimum number of links it actually takes and challenge the player to reach it. There is also the choice of Wikipedia as a website and the aimlessness of randomly selecting another unrelated page to link towards. The application of such a program to any website is going to be generating clicks and ad revenue, but you still need a carrot on the stick to get it working.

Future iterations could simply take this program and apply it to Facebook. Off the top of my head there are already a few games I personally play with the website when bored. How many clicks does it take to get to a blonde? How many clicks to get to someone from high school? Beyond that is applying the concept for more useful applications such as research. Going back to Wikipedia, a spider search could generate a series of documents that are all applicable not based in word content but in their connections to one another. Whether or not this produces a better search remains to be seen. As noted in the article about 2009 predictions, by the time someone nails this concept it’ll be too late to copy them.

by L.B. Jeffries

24 Feb 2009


One of the inevitabilities of doing critiques of video games is encountering a game that has an interesting design but dull story or good story but bad design. In the former’s case, it’s not really necessary to finish the game because after a few hours you’ll have learned the gist of the system. So I’m going to be frank and admit that I didn’t finish The Thing, but saw a lot of interesting ideas going on. I ended up quitting at about the same point as Alec Meer in his retrospective piece at Rock, Paper, Shotgun.  After the tenth time of doing the same 20 minute battle only to fall off a piece of scaffolding and start over, I’d had enough. A brutally distant save point system combined with too many awkward insta-kill puzzles resulted in a game that was too tedious. The plot itself is what would happen if you took the script of Aliens and swapped out all the words with ones from The Thing. Minus the interesting female lead, motherhood overtones, and space travel. But, beyond all of that, there is a very interesting squad game design along with an excellent illustration of misusing cutscenes.

Like any survival horror game, this is a system of managing finite resources. Going outside drains your stamina, meaning you can only be out for a certain period before you start to freeze to death. Ammo and health packs are often in short supply while enemies are in abundance. What gets added to this mix is squad mates who each have a specific job. One is a glorified key card (they’re the only ones who can fix certain electric panels), another is an unlimited source of health, and the third is an extra gun. What’s interesting is that your squads have both a trust and sanity bar. Most people you meet will think you’ve been infected by the alien (and thus under its control) so you have a variety of ways to earn their trust. What’s interesting is that all of these involve sacrificing resources. You can give them a gun, heal them, etc. This trust can also be lost if you accidentally shoot them, hide from a fight, or just ditch them. No trust means they don’t accept orders, and in the case of the medic or engineer you often need them to. The catch is that anyone you come in contact with may also be infected by the Thing. So when you’re handing over health kits to keep a squad mate alive, you might find out a few minutes later that the whole thing was a giant waste. This is a perfect example of a game design using two conflicting needs to create tension. On the one hand, you can always use an extra gunner and the medic is obviously handy. On the other hand, they are eventually going to get infected and turn on you. You can get your ammo and gun back from the corpse after you kill them, but the much rarer health kits will be long gone. Making that choice adds an unexpectedly unique kind of resource management to the game. The game does destroy the replayability of this feature by making the infections linear. The people in your party will either die or cross an invisible line and instantly become infected. There is no keeping them intact after a certain point, making it possible to maximize resources when such an ability shouldn’t exist.

 

Another interesting thing about the squad game design is the sanity meter. Whereas the average player may be quite desensitized to gore and swarms of aliens coming after them, the AI of your squadmates is not. Walk by a shredded corpse and someone on your team might vomit. Leave them in the blood filled room with human entrails and their fear will spike up. They typically tend to be less responsive to orders and less able to handle their weapons when they are frightened as well. If they get scared enough they’ll either curl into a ball crying or worse, shoot themselves. What’s remarkable about this is that the system forces the player to be aware of all the violence and gore. Most research into how games desensitize people is fairly suspect, but the more probable reason the player gets desensitized is that they are seeing the same death scenes and visuals repeatedly. To someone whose never played GTA IV, watching someone screw around with a rocket launcher might seem horrific. To that player, it’s just the same reaction they’ve seen dozens of times. Preventing that desensitization from happening, that tuning out of the game’s themes and focusing purely on victory, is a laudable goal. Every time the player notices a squad mate freaking out, looks around, and thinks “Hey, This is pretty gross”, that player is dragged back into the experience. Every time I’m getting swarmed by enemies and one of my squadmate wets their pants (this will happen) I’m reminded of how crazy the whole situation has become. Finding a new way for the game design to communicate what the plot is telling me is a remarkable accomplishment for any game.

The game suffers from a classic case of ‘I wish I was a movie’, and you get this sense from the constant barrage of cut scenes that aren’t induced by player input. Mixing cutscenes with a game is a tricky work because they always need to be voluntary, never an interruption. Given the intense difficulty the design creates, there’s no need to turn it into a cutscene every time I see someone that wants to talk. The player probably going to be willing to hear them out just to get their help. Since they don’t resemble any of the other enemies, you’re not going to accidentally shoot them like in a game full of humans. The trust meter will also deter this kind of conduct since accidentally shooting another person means they won’t take orders. If the game has to keep taking control away from the player because they don’t care what people are saying, that’s a foundational problem with the design, not an excuse to force something on the player. Any incentive to obey a game’s plot is always going to seem artificial when you look at it purely from the design perspective. You can’t let the engineer die because you need him to open a locked door. You need health so you need the medic. The motivation isn’t the much pleasanter “I can’t let him die because he’s a fellow human being” that the plot is conveying, but is that really a flaw? Every good story has basic rules of conduct and morality governing it. A system of rules is not going to generate an emotion by itself anymore than the Penal Code of your home country is going to make you love everyone because murder means going to jail. The rules establishe a mode of conduct that you cannot engage in without consequences, the people you meet and personally enjoy are what generates the higher emotions of concern. That’s how the plot/art/sound and game design interact, the design is the skeleton, the rest is the flesh & blood that gives it life. The cookie cutter plot, parade of grizzled soldiers, and the generic plot twists make The Thing do little for this idea of games. Its skeleton, however, is quite a remarkable piece of work.

by Mike Schiller

22 Feb 2009


This is it, people.  This is the week we’ve been waiting for, the week that’s been on our minds since last year, the week we sit outside the GameStops and GameCrazys of the world waiting impatiently for the doors to open as we finally have the de facto game of the year within our sights.  For many, the tears of joy have already started.

50 Cent: Blood on the Sand arrives on Tuesday.

(long pause) Too much?

All right, so perhaps I’ve allowed my own preconceptions to get in the way of, I don’t know, journalistic integrity or something, but there is no way I can take 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand seriously.  Here’s the plot, courtesy of Wikipedia:

“50 Cent and his G-Unit crew finish completing a tour of shows in the Middle East. Rather than receiving cash, G-Unit is offered a diamond-embedded skull of legends. When attempting to return home, 50 Cent and his entourage are attacked, and the skull is stolen by local gangs. 50 Cent will risk whatever it takes to get his skull back.”

I have got to think that the ridiculousness of this whole premise is intentional, because the sheer ridiculousness of it is what’s got everybody talking about it.  Nobody is taking it seriously, really, but everybody seems to want to play it, because let’s face it, it actually sounds kind of fun romping around the desert as 50 Cent, taking out thugs and trying to find the

Crystal

Diamond Skull.  If Indiana Jones makes a cameo, I’m totally buying it, and I wish I was less serious than I actually am.

If I wanted to be totally truthful, it’s Killzone 2 that sticks out on this particular list.  It feels at this point like Killzone 2 has been out forever given that they lifted the embargo on reviews a full three weeks before the game is actually going to arrive on store shelves, but FPS fans who’ve had about enough of Resistance on their PS3s are about to be loving life.  Word is that the latest Killzone is pretty light on the whole “story” thing, but it gets the shooter mechanics pretty much perfect.  Here’s to finding out.

The Wii has a Dead Rising remake on the way, the 360 is seeing the new Star Ocean, and the DS gets Ys, the new Puzzle Quest, and Peggle!  It’s a light release week, but there’s truly something for everyone on the way.

Who else is oddly transfixed by the Blood on the Sand phenomenon?  Who’s going to finally turn off Flower in favor of some Killzone?  Let’s hear from you in the comments!  The full release list and trailers for Killzone 2 and 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand are after…the jump.

by L.B. Jeffries

19 Feb 2009


A professor of psychology at Grant MacEwan College, Jayne Gackenbach, has conducted several studies on the relationship that gamers have with their dreams. The basic observation is that gaming has a traceable impact on the unconscious and this can often be seen in the dreams of various gamers.

So far the studies have explored three different things: cognitive factors, emotional content, and bizarreness in dreams associated with video game play. The strongest link in the studies found that high-end gamers typically experience more lucid dreams where the subject was aware that they were dreaming and could control their activities. A two-part series of studies found that although gamers were more aggressive (based on interviews) than the average person in their dreams, they also experienced aggressive dreams overall less than the norm. This led to another study, whose data is still being analyzed, but Gackenbach hypothesizes that daytime video game play may serve as a rehearsal for threat function that dreams may serve. This is based on the theory that our nightmares are actually survival mechanisms in which we undergo traumatic events in our dreams to prepare for them in the real world. The surprising discovery during many of these long interviews was that the typical “Being Chased” and “Can’t Escape” scenario of many nightmares did not frighten gamers. As Gackenbach notes in her conclusion to one of the studies, what better way to prepare for a dream than by constantly engaging in an out-of-body virtual reality?

Speaking for myself, not all of this applies to my dreams but a few elements struck a chord. I don’t often dream about things from games but I rarely have anything I’d call a nightmare. I don’t experience anything along the lines of Waking Life, but my dreams rarely feel out of control. Whenever I’m being chased in a dream, I just go someplace safe, wonder why I’m dreaming this weird stuff, get chased again, go someplace else. It’s all instinct and reaction but I rarely find any of it frightening. You can find the PowerPoint presentations and hard data from the research here. What is extremely unusual about

all

of this data is that typically lucid and out-of-body dreams require a great deal of meditation. Nightmares, which are often the product of real-life trauma such as being assaulted or post-traumatic stress disorder, may be significantly less unpleasant for people who play games.

There were several other observation that need to be corroborated with further data. Gamers may have a higher average number of dreams that feature little to no actual people and instead involve animals or other fantasy creatures. They also might experience more out of body or third person dreams than the average dreamer. It would be extremely helpful to Gackenbach’s study if anyone with a remote interest would fill out the survey offered here.

by Mike Schiller

19 Feb 2009


Note: Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords’ Wii version was reviewed by Jason Cook last year.  With the sequel (Puzzle Quest: Galactrix) imminent, I wanted to explore just what made the original so arresting.

The valiant knight and the ferocious minotaur speed toward each other, running full-bore toward what will surely be a fierce, violent battle for the ages. The knight’s sword is drawn, the minotaur’s horns bared and brandished, and those who may have been battling around them are now unable to avert their gaze from the spot at which the two warriors are destined to meet. Some seek cover, others exhort the heavens, but all recognize the epic scope of the clash about to take place…

...and as they approach each other, a table falls out of the sky, the two combatants pull previously unseen chairs out from some undefined space behind them for the sake of sitting at the now-landed table, and a board game ensues with the understanding that the winner gets to slit the loser’s throat.

While it may sound ridiculous, this is exactly the sort of imagery that comes to mind when one starts playing Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords for too long on too many late nights.

This is also the sort of imagery that brings to mind Clint Hocking’s “ludonarrative dissonance”; that is, the artistic phenomenon unique to gaming that places the gameplay at odds with the story. We’re taking part in a large-scale narrative that deals with warring lands, Homeric journeys and arduous quests, and yet, whenever we’re asked to do something important, we do so by playing a game of Bejeweled. One really has nothing to do with the other, except that winning means winning, so whenever there is a situation that calls for an explicit win/loss state, a ferocious casual game breaks out.

What’s interesting about this particular example of gameplay’s conflict with the narrative is that it seems to have enhanced, rather than degraded, the player’s experience. Puzzle Quest was all but universally acclaimed when it was released back in ‘07, at a time when a rather large portion of the gaming populace had already given up on the type of game from which the majority of Puzzle Quest‘s structure is derived: the JRPG. You walk around the world, occasionally getting into pseudo-random battles, doing quests and side quests for the various people you meet along the way, increasing in power as you gain levels through battle and good deeds. It’s a JRPG through and through, infused with constant Bejeweled-style battles instead of constant turn-based attack/defend/magic-style battles.

Why then, despite this apparent disconnect in genres, is Puzzle Quest such a success?  It was even in the game-of-the-year discussion for a couple of platforms in ‘07 (hello, PSP!).

Part of the reason may be that the story being at odds with the gameplay is an issue inherent in the battles of the turn-based RPG genre anyway. Instead of playing out confrontations, say, Devil May Cry or God of War-style, we’re asked to imagine the majority of the action as we slowly and deliberately decide whether our avatar(s) will attack, run, or perform one of a select group of spells. The story says the stakes are high and the action intense, while the gameplay is almost passive in its non-urgency. As such, replacing one dissonant set of actions with another actually feels like innovation, every battle its own little game-within-a-game rather than a set of almost inconsequential button presses followed by a usually predetermined outcome.

Another reason for the success? Quite frankly, adding Bejeweled to anything makes it feel more accessible. At this point, Bejeweled is an almost universal symbol of casual gaming, something that even those who run screaming from people who identify themselves as “gamers” have at least had some experience with. By introducing a Bejeweled-style battle mechanic, players who typically identify exclusively with the casual side of the game spectrum are introduced to an adventure style that they may never have had the inclination to previously attempt.

What developer Vicious Cycle seems to have done, then, is embraced the dissonance, deciding that if play befitting the narrative is not a priority for the genre anyway, why not make it more interesting?  By embracing, and even highlighting the story/gameplay disconnect, they’ve created something that somehow manages to feel innovative despite the utter lack of innovation that each portion of the gameplay presents on its own.

Perhaps this explains the game’s fascinatingly addicting quality, something that’s inexplicably ensnared this writer (in the face of things I should be playing) for the last two weeks straight. Either that, or there are just a whole lot of Bejeweled lovers in some serious denial.

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