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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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Wednesday, Oct 8, 2008
Stardock has released a reduced but free version of their political simulator.

With the conventions over and vice presidents chosen, the electoral process is in full gear in America. Both sides have chosen candidates based on the gimmicks and audience they claim as their base, manifesting political divisions that have existed since Nixon first launched a campaign based on these nonsensical cultural divides. As an impressively neutral column over at The Economist explains, any hope of those cultural divides being put aside for the sake of saving our Nation have been all but forgotten. The Republicans all jeer about the liberal media whenever the flaws in their platform are pointed out, the Democrats ignore every flaw in their economic plan that doesn’t involve taxing the rich. Palin is legitimately inexperienced and ignorant of anything beyond the few issues she dealt with in Alaska. Obama’s inexperience is equally a legitimate point, making the Third party arguments more interesting than ever before in this election. And the fact that I’m comparing the Vice-Presidential nomination and the Presidential nomination’s qualifications instead of say, how they plan on saving the economy, speaks volumes about how idiotic the process has finally become. We will, as with the past two elections, get the President we deserve in this country.


I was not overly kind in my review of Stardock’s The Political Machine 2008 but I also admitted that I could very easily be biased because I just wasn’t in the mood for a lighthearted game about Presidential Elections. I’m not sure many Americans are at this point. Yet it must be conceded that any game that induces some kind of discussion about the election has value. Stardock has recently released a free to download shrunken version of their game that takes away your ability to make up candidates or tweak variables. Instead, you play as Obama/Biden or McCain/Palin in a set 24 week period. Just the mere act of pumping deceitful ads and tweaking your campaign message to your target state as a player heightens one’s awareness of the process in the real world. It is still not the deep and complex experience I pined for in my review, but perhaps it does not need to be. Whether you’re painting Obama as a snooty liberal or McCain as a dying old man, participating in the action raises awareness. And if we can do that, perhaps we’ll deserve a better leader than the ones we’ve been getting.


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Monday, Oct 6, 2008
An in-depth analysis of Ico based on the ideas from the Zarathustran Analytics. Spoilers abound.


Fumito Ueda’s Ico is hailed as one of the first mainstream games to really inspire emotion and potent characters. Sometimes to appreciate a video game it’s best to frame it not only using a simple method but also looking at it from a critical angle. In this specific instance, Ico raises a really interesting question because it crosses the disingenuity barrier that Jonathon Blow describes in many games. Specifically, he refers to how a game where I’m waiting for a character to unlock a barrier while I defend them creates a disingenuous relationship. I’m hanging out with them because of circumstances, not because I care. I’m keeping them alive to open the door and keep the plot moving, not because I’m worried about their safety. How does Ico follow a similar game design and yet surpass this issue?


 


Ueda’s two games, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, both contain interesting elements of animation that really enhance a sense of fragility in the avatar. Both of the protagonists from his games have gawky, awkward running and walking animations. Contrast this to a game like God of War or Ninja Gaiden, where the characters move like Olympic athletes and are the epitome of physical perfection. This is also highlighted by the fact that a stick is your main weapon for much of the game. When you do make the transition to a sword in Ico, it’s heavy and you can tell it drags down Ico’s arm. This awkwardness of presentation carries over into Yorda as well. When she climbs up stairs or a ladder, she carefully steps on the same leg to get up. When Ico is pulling her across a room at full run, her arms flail and you can tell she isn’t used to moving at this pace. Contrast this to the agile and liquid fast shadows that hunt both of you while you move through the castle. A real sense of fragility, of being inferior to the monsters that hunt you is communicated through the animation. The game begins to bridge the disingenuity gap by animating the characters as fragile and thus getting the player worried about them. Contrast this to a game where you play some ultimate badass who is then handicapped with someone much weaker and you see the dilemma. If the game is making me feel like I’m a scruffy but weak kid, a different set of emotional expectations develop as opposed to being Super Death Guy.


 


The game design takes the relationship established by the animation and further enhances it.


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Monday, Oct 6, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-10-06...

It seems so long ago that LucasArts was known for anything other than their Star Wars games.  Once upon a time, it may actually have been known more for its classic point ‘n click adventure games than the prize license it wields.  Maniac Mansion, its sequel Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max Hit the Road...these are games that LucasArts built its non-Star Wars reputation on.  Lately, it’s been…well, pretty much nothing.  Nothing, that is, until tomorrow.


Now, we have Fracture, LucasArts’ foray into the world of new-IP first-person shooting.  As with any new IP in this genre that’s not exactly hurting for games, there’s a hook: namely, that one of your guns can raise and lower the surrounding terrain.  Look, this is like playing Populous as one of the people on the ground.  Potentially, this could be (pardon my gushing) AWESOME.  Raise the ground to provide yourself with some cover, reach previously unreachable platforms, really confuse some poor sap who happens to be standing on a hill…the possibilities are tremendous.  This is the sort of mechanic that tends to only reach its potential when the sequel (or the sequel to the sequel) hits, but the idea of this one sounds great.


If you can defeat your enemies by creating impromptu ponds underneath them and drowning them, I’m so there.


I talked last week about having a hard time letting go of my old devotion to Sonic the Hedgehog, and this week features another of my old standbys that I have a hard time letting go of: Crash Bandicoot.  Granted, the last couple of Crash games have been just fine, honestly, but they’re not as absorbing and certainly not as novel as the original PlayStation versions of the games.  Part of that might have something to do with the fact that Crash, as a character, was designed with the limits of the PlayStation in mind; a large part of Crash’s character design was around creating a character using polygons that looked like he was actually made up of a bunch of polygons.  Crash has always looked a little awkward, but it was perfectly natural on the PlayStation.  The current generation of systems hasn’t quite figured out how to render the bandicoot such that he looks natural in HD.  Maybe Mind Over Mutant can figure out the secret.


This year’s editions of EA and 2K’s competing NBA franchises come out this week too, and hey!  There’s an Etch-a-Sketch game of some sort coming out for the PC, too.  Who wants to bet they get sued because someone shakes the microprocessor clean out of their laptop just trying to clean the screen?


What are you looking at this week?  What did I miss?  Scope out the full release list and a trailer for Fracture after the jump!


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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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