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Text:AAA
Thursday, Dec 18, 2008
Konami's late entry into the rhythm wars has the pedigree, but the execution just isn't there.

The current craze of plastic peripheral-based rhythm games clearly started with Guitar Hero, but realistically, Guitar Hero wasn’t the first of its kind.  Konami has been producing music video games for years, through their Bemani division.  Though there were clear arcade roots, many successful ports were made, scaling down full featured, custom arcade setups for home translations of titles. However, very few were ever released in the United States.


It may be that Konami didn’t choose to pursue these properties in the United States because of a perceived lack of interest.  Alternatively, they may have thought the pervasive J-Pop soundtracks integral to the experience, and not transferable to American musical tastes.  In any case, Guitar Hero was not only able to adopt the Bemani formula, but also, by focusing on the American affinity for rock music in particular, was able to successfully make the title interesting to American gamers.  This was particularly notable given its relatively high price point.


Now that Rock Band and Guitar Hero have achieved full-on icon status (with an incredible 8 titles between them in the 3 years since the first Guitar Hero was released), Konami has chosen to try its hand at the same market with Rock Revolution.  Clearly Konami has the pedigree to create enjoyable music games, and Guitar Hero and Rock Band have essentially created a successful template for them.  Yet Rock Revolution is largely a disappointing effort, mainly because it doesn’t follow this template very well, and the specific ways in which the game departs from it serve to be fairly frustrating.


Rock Revolution has a fairly meager song list, and as yet, the available downloadable content does not contain anything on the level offered by Rock Band.  While a drum, bass, and guitar are supported, there is no support for voice, arguably one of the most enjoyable aspects of these games in a party setting.  The now ubiquitous presentation of notes arriving from the horizon has been eschewed in favor of a classic Bemani look, where the notes fall vertically from the top of the screen.  This approach allows for far fewer notes to be on screen at the same time, making difficult sections even more challenging.  One of the things Rock Revolution does right, however, is that it accepts various third party peripherals, making it unnecessary to purchase expensive instruments just for it.  In fact, the only branded Rock Revolution peripheral is a drum set, but critical response to this kit has been overwhelmingly negative.


As of this writing, Rock Revolution is available from a variety of retailers for $19.99, a full $30 off its original MSRP.  Already a budget title to begin with, perhaps this better positions Rock Revolution to essentially function as a song pack for people with existing Guitar Hero or Rock Band peripherals.  In fact, its open acceptance of various peripherals potentially positions it to be just that.  Still, whether players will be willing to sacrifice the overall polish and experience they’ve become accustomed to from the competition for Rock Revolution simply for a few extra cover songs remains to be seen.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Dec 17, 2008
A few thoughts on Jason Nelson's latest art game.

Whenever someone tells me that video games are superficial or generic it always feels a bit like having someone who only watches MTV tell you that all music is shallow and commercialized. Yes, if you only pay attention to AAA games made by companies who want to appease the largest set of consumers possible, you will probably notice that there is rarely much experimentation or issue pushing. They never totally make you happy nor do they totally piss you off, they just get the job done.


A lot of funny things start to happen to video games once you ditch the desire to make money, make people happy, or care about review scores. You start seeing games that are using the player to protest a trend in games. You start to see games that spoof their history. And sometimes you see a painting of Mega Man made out of a woman’s menstrual fluids. All signs indicate the rabbit hole keeps going after this.


Which is why Jason Nelson’s latest game I Made This. You Play This. We Are Enemies. is a welcome addition to the scene. Mixing a bit of social commentary with basic gameplay and massive amounts of abstraction, the game runs very similar to his last project game, game, game, and again game. As noted in the interview with Nelson that Popmatters did about a year ago, the principle purpose of the game design is to get the player to engage with the art. Not rack up a score, not make you feel pleasure at beating the level, and certainly not at figuring out the solution to Nelson’s nebulous art. There are a couple of basic elements that anyone playing will quickly notice. Your avatar moves in a pattern that is very similar to how your eyes travel when viewing each of the different websites being spoofed. The Yahoo News site moves up and down on platforms like one reads the columns, the Fark website moves in horizontal lines as you traverse down the page. Although being sent back to the level only mildly figured into game, game, etc., here it plays a massive role in communicating how a website sucks you in by constantly dragging you to the start. The mental trap of being stuck in ‘F5’ mode expresses itself throughout the game. Layered throughout all of these levels are Nelson’s signature eccentric videos, scribbles, and cryptic poetry.


I’m as late to the party as ever with this game, if only because watching it make the rounds is almost more interesting than yammering about my own analysis. The principle thing most websites looking at it seemed to struggle with was whether it was gibberish or something really clever that they didn’t quite understand. Which might be one of the most interesting new developments in video games outside the mainstream. While it’s certainly true that player input is what makes these things video games, there is still quite a bit of room to explore in regards to how exactly one should be treating the player. Perhaps the thing that wears people out so much about AAA titles is that they are always treating the player like royalty and rolling everything out in a nice, neat package. One doesn’t have to drag themselves through a film like Vanilla Sky to know that part of how people define their pleasure from an experience is by contrasting it to the things that they didn’t enjoy. In Nelson’s case, chucking the player into the chaotic confusion these websites manifest through an abstract video game interpretation is not really about being clever or using gibberish as an obstacle. It’s just a part of the grander experience of not always understanding what’s going on around you.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Dec 17, 2008
All dolled up for the holidays, too.

All dolled up for the holidays, too.


All right, I suppose it’s possible that the title up there is insulting your intelligence, and you’re already fully aware of the great game writing and tightly-knit forum scene going on over at The Escapist.  Truly, it’s become one of the most essential gaming sites out there, and if you’re still just going there to look for the video with the yellow background and the guy with the sweet hat, get your weekly dose of profanity-laced insight, and leave, you’re missing out.


Combining a set of weekly features that all revolve around a common theme with daily editorials and reviews, The Escapist is one of a growing number of sites that are treating games as something more than simple diversions.  Founded by Alexander Macris (himself a Harvard Law grad), The Escapist has a way of finding angles at which to look at games that we didn’t even know existed.


As it so happens, L.B. Jeffries has the cover story over there this week, which obviously makes this the perfect time to check it out.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Dec 15, 2008
A closer look at the consequences of Manhunt 2's censoring and its message on violence. Spoilers abound.


One of the unfortunate consequences of the current AAA climate in game development is that it’s tough to find a high production game that experiments very much. Although they might slip in an interesting idea or maybe a radical plot, in terms of game design most things are by the book. Rockstar’s Manhunt 2 is a very interesting game that inadvertently, due to the controversy and subsequent censoring of its violent kill scenes, developed a very unique game design. They lobotomized the reward structure. Whereas the original appeal of the game was experimenting with weapons and seeing the various death scenes unfold, in its censored form this appeal is no longer there. The game design’s entire function was to challenge the player to get the most impressive kill and now that no longer exists. The result is the unique experience of getting to see the nuts and bolts of a game with zero appeal attached to their function. The way the game creaks and falls apart without that reward system is nearly as instructive an experience as seeing an excellent game fully intact.


Manhunt 2 is a combination of Resident Evil 4 combat and a simplified light/dark stealth system. When you bar turns blue, you’re totally invisible. Otherwise you can be seen from a certain radius. Sounds like running or knocking on a wall will attract guards. You then wait until they walk around to inspect the noise, turn their back on you, and then lock on. The longer you hold the lock, the more violent the stealth kill. Like Thief, melee combat with more than two people is suicidal so the stealth kill becomes a necessary strategy in many levels. Mixed with this are the gun portions of the game. Aiming with guns resembles Resident Evil 4 albeit clunkier and with some awkward control issues. You can also lock on and make insta-kill shots provided they are close enough. Structurally, it’s a high road vs. low road scenario to help people who are stuck on a level. Once you get sick of trying to lure a guard close enough to see their gory death, you can just shoot them and get on with it. The low road is supposed to be much less satisfying because you’re missing out on the death scenes. Now, with the last minute censorship, there is no incentive to ever take the high road. You’re just doing the simple head shot move that offers little satisfaction and trudging through the level. Playing such a game is strange because one is so accustomed to the subconscious sense of progress and reward in a game. Without a reward structure to give the incentive to self-induce more complex play, vast elements of strategy and nuance are abandoned by the player. You just run through the experience as quickly as possible, rather than exploring all the tiny details and elements of design. It’s a crisp example of what happens when a game’s rewards don’t encourage more complex play: the player inadvertently shirks themselves of the full experience of the game. Without the death scene rewards, the game doesn’t have a way to make players do anything except the same easy-to-win tactics over and over.


 


Which begs the question of how one should feel about a death sequence as reward in the first place. The plot of the original Manhunt was about a snuff film director capturing a death row inmate. He then makes him run through various obstacles and abandoned buildings, brutally murdering psychopaths and gang members. Whenever you initiate a death sequence, the screen cuts to a video camera recording while the director (voiced by a fantastic Brian Cox) murmurs his praise. In the sequel, the protagonist is immediately portrayed as completely insane. The first level is your breaking free from an insane asylum while your Tyler Durden esque alternate identity Leo guides you. In those sequences it is Leo, instead of the snuff director, praising you for the brutal murders. It’s a simple metaphor: Leo/the Director both represent the player controlling this other person. Whereas both Cash/Danny have sane emotions and desires, this insane outer party is controlling them and making them do awful things because they enjoy the violence. Which is what the player of Manhunt or its sequel are thinking, they are enjoying the violence that this helpless agent is committing under their control. As the game’s violence continues to grow and serve as a reward, the disturbing epiphany that you have been complicit in the villain’s destructive love of death is its masterstroke. In either of these games, the player’s final realization is that they are the monster of the horror story.


From the very beginning it is made obvious that Leo is a figment of Danny’s mind. Whenever Danny does something awful, he becomes Leo for a brief while during the censored murder sequences. It could’ve even been an interesting foil of Danny’s denial that he himself is the killer to have this censoring, except the game doesn’t have a reward structure to replace not seeing the kill. When he is aware of the violence, Danny sometimes vomits or cries. Yet this forced innocence while he is covered in gore and murdering dozens of people becomes a source of mixed emotions for the player. Danny may be protesting his actions but there is always the second voice, Leo, shouting out support. The part of us nagging that what we are doing is wrong and sick is represented by Danny, while the voice in our heads telling us that it’s hilarious and awesome is Leo. He’ll often say after a kill, “You gave me a boy. Now I present the man!” or “Whose the alpha male buddy? YOU ARE!” The weak voiced and glasses wearing Danny, as everyman a game character as you could ask for, chooses to never question this conduct as he pursues his own goals. Violence, for both the player and Danny, is easier to just not think about and instead enjoy on a more carnal level. This pleasure is aptly paralleled in numerous levels by the sexual imagery planted throughout the game. Enjoying the adrenaline of committing a gory murder is connected with enjoying sex and other bodily pleasures. During one level the player must work his way through a whore house taking out guards and looking for a scientist. During all of the fights and kills, the sound of sex is in the background. This sex/violence analogy is ultimately made explicit when Danny walks onto a movie stage covered in blood carrying a gun to an audience of thugs. Behind him, as blunt as possible, is a softcore porn playing.


 


The final plot twist of the game is one reminiscent of the social commentary found in Myst, that if you participate in a virtual environment long enough your behavior will spill over into the real one. Towards the end of the game the player discovers that Leo is not actually a split personality but a real human being planted in Danny’s mind. The indulgence in violence’s satisfactions, our Mr. Hyde, has become a real and independent being. The final mission takes place in Danny’s mind and requires him to properly bury the wife he murdered while Leo was in control of his body. It is not so much a boss fight as it is an endurance match of lugging her corpse across the yard while Leo attacks you. Putting to rest the female figure in Danny’s life, who was only seen fighting with him in other cutscenes, is to make amends with the thing that drove Danny to signing up for the project in the first place: his inability to make enough money to feed his family. The insecurity he felt as a male, as a father who could not provide, must be buried to defeat the need for Leo’s support. It is probably this final moment that suffers the most due to the lobotomized game design. Without having done enough violence to become a monster, Danny’s catharsis ultimately is not felt by the player. We are not complicit enough in the dark fantasy the game means to lure you into, if only to give the experience of escaping from its awful reality. We are instead no better than film goers pressing a button when we are ready for the monster to make yet another kill, over and over and over.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Dec 10, 2008
Tired of slapping together creatures with the same old parts from Spore’s original creature creator? EA hopes that the Spore Creepy & Cute Parts Pack will be a shot in the arm that you, the Spore junkie, will crave.

Tired of slapping together creatures with the same old parts from Spore’s original creature creator?  EA hopes that the Spore Creepy & Cute Parts Pack will be a shot in the arm that you, the Spore junkie, will crave.  But is it enough? 


Judging from the pattern established by other Maxis/EA hits like the Sims franchise, Spore C&C will be the first in a long line of updates.  As with The Sims 2, Maxis has confirmed in a press release that they will employ a two-pronged approach to deliver additional building tools (in the form of “stuff packs”) as well as altered gameplay (in the form of “expansion packs”).  The first expansion pack, scheduled for spring 2009, will add depth to the Space phase. 


This delivery model will hopefully keep the game (and its accompanying online community) fresh and growing.  It will also keep the cash flowing into EA’s coffers, and this parts pack in particular feels more like a greedy grab for green than a bona fide attempt to refresh the gameplay.  Coming just two months after Spore’s initial release, the parts pack adds 60 new body parts, 12 new paint themes, and 24 “test drive” animations.  None of these additions alter the mechanics or difficulty of the gameplay, but are intended to give players more control over the appearance and abilities of their creatures. 


I strongly suspect that Spore’s upcoming expansion will be the first in a series of four expansions that will address each of the four phases of the game after cell phase.  Many critics of the game (myself included) felt that each phase merely scratched the surface of the genre’s capabilities, and I imagine that the expansions are going to offer Spore fans an opportunity to add complexity to the phases they like best without being obligated to spend money upgrading every part of the multifaceted gameplay.  Meanwhile—and this is pure speculation—now that a collection of creature parts has been released, expect to see additional stuff packs that expand the vehicle and architecture tool sets as well. 


After installing and playing with the Spore C&C for a while, I did feel that the game benefited from the greater variety of parts available.  Still, adding a few dozen body parts to the creature creation tools seems like a disappointingly simplistic approach to sparking creativity in the user community.  I couldn’t help but think back to a simpler time, when user-created content was an indie thing that required a fairly rigorous set of digital design skills but was completely and absolutely open-ended.  It seems to me that since so much of Spore’s concept revolves around a shared, creative community, limiting players’ creativity with a pre-set collection of materials impedes the growth of the fan base.  In other words, I think it’s a big, fat, hairy mistake. 


Once upon a time, back in the dark ages of 56k dialup modems, there were games that were both fun and hackable.  Players would create their own content for their favorite games and upload it to fan sites, sharing among themselves free of charge.  Sure, you had to muck around with graphics editors and such, and the results were sometimes comically bad, but back in the early days of The Sims—and I know I am dating myself by admitting I can remember this—people just made stuff and shared it.  Independent programmers even made simple tools to help other people make stuff, and it was a labor of love. 


I mention The Sims specifically because, although there were many other mod-able games at the time, the large, creative community that emerged was an unforeseen consequence of The Sims’ open-endedness that took even Will Wright by surprise.  Later, the huge success of the fan community inspired Maxis to create tools like Creature Creator and The Sims 2’s Body Shop, which would theoretically allow more people to create more stuff with less effort. 


However, when the grassroots movement was absorbed by the establishment, as it were, Maxis wanted (and needed) to exercise control over user-created content in order to maintain their “T” rating.  In other words, bye-bye, nude skins and double-D-cup meshes.  By standardizing and controlling the tools, Maxis was able to limit inappropriate content, but they also squelched much of the creative open-endedness that was inherent in the first-generation, third-party tools.  Furthermore, they opened the floodgates for the less skilled, less devoted, and less innovative designers to create enormous truckloads of mediocre work.  In short, more people are now able to make stuff, but most of it is crap. 


Should Maxis give more control back to the players and create tools that allow users to generate their own custom body parts?  Is it worth having six hundred creatures that look like anthropomorphic genitalia if it means we also get a digital equivalent of the Venus de Milo?  For Maxis, the ability to control and regulate content is an important part of their business model, so it’s unlikely that they will be willing to relinquish that.  But it certainly would be interesting to see what would emerge if they did.


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