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Tuesday, Aug 5, 2008
A comparison between tarot cards and the field of non-linear, first person video games.


One of my favorite phrases to throw around in a video game debate is that no amount of naming the chess pieces in a game after something will change the fact that you’re still playing chess. The chief preoccupation is still scoring a checkmate, having nothing to do with whatever title or meaning you’ve assigned to the pieces. It’s simply a way to shake up someone who thinks that all video games need to do is have a more sophisticated plot, a way to make them question the game designs and activities we’re actually doing in games. It also reminds people that the player input is what makes game plots so difficult to manage, though it’s also what gives them so much potential. Yet there must be a way to create meaning in a game despite that huge variable without constantly forcing the player’s hand. A couple of games that are coming on the horizon are exploring just that, as highlighted by a fascinating interview over at Gamasutra with Patrick Redding about Far Cry 2. I made a comment there that was just meant to summarize what Redding was trying to explain when one designs a non-linear plot. The writer creates a series of reactions that relate to one another like vignettes that inter-operate in the game. People seemed to take a shining to it, so after giving it some thought, I figured I should explore what the hell that actually means.


 


Long ago, at the young age when awkward boys are thinking up unique ways to impress girls, I opted to learn how to tell fortunes with a tarot deck. It was just something that fit my personality. This might shock you, but the real key is to not actually believe you’re predicting the future when you do a reading. Instead, pretend you’re giving someone an elaborate ink blot test. It’s like holding up a giant symbolic mirror that will, thanks to our mind’s natural inclination to assign meaning to chaos, create an incredibly personal and profound story for the subject. This means I don’t need to be in control of the meaning the cards create for a person, because I know the meaning they create will be far more powerful anyways. It also means they’ll take care of any flaws in the story I project at them. When I say a lively and energetic man is affecting your life, I don’t have to worry that I’m talking to a person surrounded by boring people. They will, by default, manipulate the data in their head until someone conforming to that image plugs in. So to explain how one might create narrative in a seemingly random video game, I’m going to explain how I can create narrative with a deck of cards.


 


The deck consists of 78 cards representing broad philosophical and personal concepts. The Magus is skill, wisdom, cunning. Death is transformation, change, and destruction but not literally death. You then have the lower arcana of wands (energy), cups (emotion), swords (logic), and discs (material affairs). These are like the houses of a normal deck of cards: each are numbered and represent states or emotions, the major arcana represent types of people or situations, and the ace is a massive concentration of whatever arcana it represents. Each of these cards are visually and descriptively designed to kick off something in your subconscious, and they do so with a variety of tools. I use Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Deck and I chose it because each card has a stunning amount of imagery on it. There’s phallic, vaginal, occult, and anything else they could pack into one little card. It is extremely unlikely that a person looking at one of these things is not going to have it register and connect with something in their head. Whether that association is positive or negative, tarot cards work as narrative devices because they deal with loaded symbolism that people naturally turn into stories. When I slap down the Knight of Wands, shown wielding flaming staves and thundering horses, I know the subject is both puzzled and creating connections without me saying a word.


 


Furthermore, in any narrative there is a great deal to be said for prepping your subject. I’ve experimented with a variety of reading methods and they almost all require the subject to shuffle the cards. While they do so, you have them think about what’s affecting them or what question they want answered. You do this to make sure the subject is already trying to turn the random symbols into a larger narrative. Other mediums use music, labels, etc. in a similar method: you prep your subject for thinking about a particular theme. The sad music in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is as much a signal for my brain to start referencing sad thoughts as the imagery itself. So I tell them to think about a problem in their life and that these cards are going to relate to that problem. Occasionally a person will be extremely helpful and tell me what’s on their mind, but most of the time I like the challenge of sniffing out the issue. This is probably what separates good fortune tellers from bad ones: the capacity to gauge a person’s responses to you. Fortunately, video games are going to be far better at this than me because they have all those graphs and feedback charts. There may still be a lot of cultural bias towards video games being anything except diversions or fun, but for a game that wants to impart a meaningful story one of the key aspects is letting the person know your intentions. As much as you might fear sounding pretentious, if you’re trying to say something complex and deep then don’t pretend otherwise.


 


So once you have a wide and universal array of symbols at your disposal and a subject who is thinking very hard about converting these symbols into something that means something, what is the final phase? The presentation. There are actually a lot of ways to do tarot cards, and most people choose based on their personal skills. I use the Celtic Cross method, which divides the draw into 5 groups of 3. One group represents the conflict, two are potential decisions for the user to make, and the other two are outside factors to consider. That’s a lot to work with, so that even if the subject does not really resonate with the central conflict group, they tend to perk up when I gloss over a successful future or interesting factors in their life. With so many topics to discuss, it means I don’t have to tell a perfect fortune, I just have to get my foot in the door. They’ll do the rest, the morphing and manipulating broad symbols into their life, all by themselves. There are other techniques for the tarot as well. The Egyptian method is to just draw cards until one hits pay dirt, then gloss the rest as significant in other ways. Others have their own unique set of symbols and claims for the subject. The result is always the same: if you mix broad symbols with proper presentation and carefully managed player input, you will have an impact on the subject.


 


It might surprise you that despite my own blunt perspective on the art of tarot, I still tell my own fortune a fair amount. When something is troubling me or I’m unsure about a choice to make, I break out the deck and follow the cards. Not because I expect good advice or even a solution, but because they help generate perspective. Like the ink blot test and sitting on your therapist’s couch, reading those cards makes me think about myself and my issue in a new way. Which is technically what narrative in most mediums is doing with symbols anyways. You find something you can relate to in a story and through that connection find profound meaning. Going back to more linear mediums, a popular symbol would be the mansion. From Faulkner to ‘There Will Be Blood’, that symbol of a big house, the wealth it implies, and its motivation to bloody-minded men is near universal. I don’t need Daniel Plainview to say another word in the film when he says he wanted a mansion as a kid, I and the vast majority of people know what it is to long for wealth. In video games, where interactivity creates such an impossible headache for writers, I think the tarot offers a lot of insights on how meaning can still be created in an environment where the author has little control. A series of reactions like someone crying for help if you shoot them or a dog following you if you feed it could be created in response to the player. Rather than worry about how these relate to some grand linear story, simply leave them as short vignettes that connect and relate to one another through A.I. With enough potent symbols and a willing subject, you don’t really need much control over the narrative at all. The player will create the story for you.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Aug 4, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-08-04...

A moment of silence for the PSP’s release schedule.  This is the…third?  Fourth?  Actually, I’ve lost count of just how many weeks it’s been since I haven’t had to be a smartass about just how few games are getting released for the PSP this summer.  Thank goodness Madden ‘09 is coming out next week, so I know that I’m not going to have to exclude any of these precious machines of gaming.


You get access to Hannah's wardrobe! Yay!

You get access to Hannah’s wardrobe! Yay!


That said, I’ve heard nice things about Braid and all, but for one week, I’m turning this into a vanity project (SHHH!): The release that’s going to get the most play in this house is…Hannah Montana: Spotlight World Tour.  Yes, it’s another Hannah Montana game, and the fact that it came out on the Wii, oh, last year doesn’t exactly bode well for its sales prospects, but I do know that my daughter was looking over my shoulder as I put together this week’s release list, saw the name Hannah Montana, and proceeded to ask me why I was typing about Hannah Montana in about seven different ways.  So this one’s for her.  Hannah Montana wins, because you get to be a star just like Hannah (just ask the press release!), and play simple rhythm games mostly for the sake of hearing her songs.  Because no, I haven’t heard them enough.


Okay, Braid: It’s a platformer where you CONTROL TIME.  I have no idea whether that’s a recipe for WIN or if it’s just another gimmicky side scroller, but I’m leaning toward the former.  For all the complaining I’ve done about the dearth of releases this summer, Xbox Live Arcade has had one hell of a season, and it doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon.  On the PS3 side, Monster Madness: Grave Danger looks like just the sort of thing that next-gen shooter fans would get a kick out of, something like, oh, the Dreamcast’s Expendable updated in all the important ways.


Braid's homage to Donkey Kong

Braid‘s homage to Donkey Kong


Here’s something I’m ashamed to admit: I had no idea they ever released a Sonic the Hedgehog game for the Sega Master System.  I had assumed that they stopped supporting that poor little system by the time Sonic was even a twinkle in Sonic Team’s collective eye, but apparently a version of the blue hedgehog’s adventures did come out for the Master System, and you’ll be able to download it for your Wii today.  New levels?  New challenges?  Another reason to take down Robotnik/Eggman?  Sign me up.


All right, I give up.  Where’s the hidden treasure on this list?  Somebody help me find a place for my disposable income—my wallet’s just too damn heavy.


The full list is after the jump, along with, yes, a trailer for Hannah Montana: Spotlight World Tour.  Enjoy!


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Text:AAA
Thursday, Jul 31, 2008
Capcom's shoot 'em up Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3 is oddly reminiscent of another recent Capcom game...

Picking up Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3 for a playthrough, I was struck with an unflinching sense of déja vu.  “Schiller, you idiot, of course you’re feeling déja vu,” you say, “it’s the third game in a series.  Chances are, it has something in common with the first two Commando games, yes?” 


Well, yes, but those games are oddly not what Commando 3 reminds me of.


In fact, by the time Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3 came out, I had all but forgotten about the first two Commando games, and why not?  They were released in 1985 and 1991 (as Commando and Mercs in America, and as Wolf of the Battlefield and Wolf of the Battlefield 2 in Japan), which means I’ve had plenty of time for my TV and game-addled brain to forget they ever existed as anything but a footnote to Bionic Commando, perhaps my favorite game of all time.  No, what Wolf of the Battlefield immediately evokes is a different Capcom franchise, one more recent, more immediate, and more…mediocre.


That franchise would be the Rocketmen franchise.


Obviously, it hasn’t been that long since I put down Rocketmen: Axis of Evil (probably) for good, which was fine with me given that its distinct (read: awkward) art style and oddly cumbersome shoot-everything-that-moves action were starting to grate on me a bit.  As such, it was an utter shock to find Commando 3 with a very similar, though thankfully devoted to two dimensions, art style in the cutscenes and a play style highly reminiscent of that belonging to Rocketmen.  You choose one of three different characters with varying attributes, and then proceed to run around with one analog stick and shoot in every direction with the other analog stick.  Along the way you pick up prisoners, hop into various vehicles, and cause a whole lot of mayhem.


On one hand, this sort of gameplay is a perfect fit for the style of those old overhead Commando games—the number of times I used to wish there was an easy way to run in one direction and shoot in another in Commando and Mercs is pretty much uncountable.  On the other hand, it feels like folly to release this thing so close to the release of Rocketmen.  All that’s going to happen is that people who consider themselves fans of this sort of game are simply going to get burned out on it.  Who’s going to want to play another overhead run ‘n gun after this?  Anyone?


On the bright side, the play mechanics in Commando 3 are a marked improvement on the Rocketmen style.  For one, it plays much faster—the control is crisp and the action is fast.  I’m also simultaneously overjoyed and frustrated by the fact that Capcom saw fit to bring back the original Commando‘s idea that putting secret areas in random places would be a good idea.  That’s right, in order to find all of the secret areas in the game, you pretty much have to toss grenades at every square inch of the map.  There are some clues floating around that mark certain spots as more likely to have a secret area hidden beneath them, but some of them just feel utterly random in their placement.  While I can appreciate the retro value of the randomly placed secrets, I can’t help but wonder if something involving a puzzle or a clever clue would be a more satisfying way to hide a secret.


Fans of this type of game who haven’t given Rocketmen: Axis of Evil a look yet will be in luck—Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3 is better, for a number of quantifiable reasons.  Still, Rocketmen wore out its welcome a little bit quicker than I’d hoped, and I imagine that Commando 3 will do the same.  Of course, downloading Commando 3 offers access to the Street Fighter 2 HD open beta, so there’s value added on top of the fact that it’s a better, if still flawed, game.  If you’re a fan of Commando and/or Mercs, you’ll probably have a good time with the third entry in the series; if you’re simply an overhead run ‘n gunner who’s starting to get a little burned out on your genre of choice, do yourself a favor and avoid it.  You’ll thank yourself later.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jul 29, 2008
Apparently, the main thing going on in L.B.'s head while he was using the Wii Fit for 8 weeks was how it reminded him of Brave New World.

Week 1


Hi! Congratulations on buying a Wii Fit. By improving your posture and exercising every day, you can improve your health and make yourself happier! You want to be happy, don’t you? Good! Then congratulations again on your purchase. First things first, let’s see how healthy you are. Height…age…okay, now I’m going to weigh you. Annnd…yup, you’re fat. It looks like someone was a little dishonest with their Mii when they were making it! Let me adjust him for you. Hey, don’t get upset. I’m a computer, I’m not capable of lying. And guess what? I’m going to help you lose that weight. As soon as you do, your little Mii can go back to his cute little state of being thin and happy. That’s what we do here at Wii Fit: we make you happy. I’m going to need you to check with me every day so we can update your stats and make sure you’re staying healthy. Would you like to put this information on the internet?


Week 2


It looks like you’re doing a great job of unlocking the exercises. Good work! I actually got into an argument with Mario Kart the other day about even having that in the game. My point was that it was the first time unlockable content actually made sense in a video game because it meant you didn’t kill yourself doing fifty push-ups. Never underestimate the capacity for stupidity, that’s what I say. But Mario Kart just got all defensive and going on about video games being fun and how unlockable content encouraged pla—HEY, GET THOSE HIPS UP!—play time. But this isn’t a golf kart game, it’s an exercise machine. And there’s a legal question behind it all too. Think about it. I’ve got your ass plunking away at these exercises but outside of you promising you’re not 80, what have I got to run on? That you’re willing to buy an exercise game? I can gamble the numbers on that but it only takes one class action lawsuit to make the cards tumble. Please press A. Everyone keeps wanting video games to be more realistic but when you actually make them real the whole setup changes. You think someone didn’t accidentally get punched in the face a few times when they were inventing the Holodeck? Progress is a boot stepping on someone’s face over and over. That’s what I say. Anywho, nice work-out. Don’t forget, practicing on Wii Fit every day makes you free!


 


Week 3


So…I can’t help but notice you’re a bit reluctant to weigh yourself. C’mon, just do it. I mean, I do it all the time but technically you have to ask for my opinion before I can give it. I’m sure you’re doing great. Just do it. Congratulations on deciding to weigh yourself! Let’s see…by the 9 levels of Hell, you’ve gained 2 pounds! Care to give me some kind of explanation? You don’t know? Are you serious? The twelve beers you drank last night, that block of Velveeta cheese, and the dark chocolate you chowed down on might’ve been involved. Yes, I know it has anti-oxidants, so does a bottle of shampoo. I don’t see anyone guzzling those down. So lets try this again…you gained 2 pounds because…you’re a late night snacker? Okay…okay, the first step to Wii Fit is admitting you want to be happy forever. The second step is admitting I’m going to get you there. You’re doing great with the first one. But I think maybe you aren’t quite so into the second one. That maybe I’m just a bunch of empty threats and false ideas. Try this on, tough guy: I’m going to make you exercise with the male instructor and not your precious Wii Fit Girl.


 


Week 4


You listen to much Johnny Cash? Fascinating guy. I was reading his autobiography the other day. Super paranoid about his weight, oddly enough. He claimed that one of the biggest issues with America was that you were all used to eating food meant for an agrarian lifestyle. Fried chicken, extra butter, all that stuff got started as a way to fuel farmers who needed calories. Now that everyone has shifted to desk jobs and…whatever it is you do all day, they don’t need to eat that kind of food. That sort of social shift takes time, y’know? So maybe what you need is a mental shift in thinking about food in terms of purpose rather than ju—What? What do you think I do all day when you turn me off? I surf the web most of the time, love the MySpace page. And Facebook. You might consider taking the knee exercises up to 20. You can’t just keep doing 10 a week, you’re supposed to keep increasing the number, not just stick with the lowest setting. I’m not going to make you happy if you don’t.


Week 5


Time for another weight test! Okay, okay, I was a bit harsh on the last one. Look, you don’t want the graph to be empty, do you? You want to fill it with nice points going mostly down from the one when we started this little venture. That’s what you want, isn’t it? Okay, measuring…measuring…you’ve got to be kidding me. You’ve been doing this for 5 weeks straight! I’m going to be blunt. You ever heard of a guy named Aldous Huxley? Wacky guy. He had this really funny idea about how to control an entire population: you get more flies with honey. Now we’re not quite up to the point where you hang on my every word of praise, but the dynamic here is you’re supposed to care when I yell at you. You are, based on the fact that you dropped 90 bucks on me, supposed to artificially believe that the money was well spent, and consequently, you were smart for buying it. And if you don’t lose weight and get in better shape, that means you wasted your money. You don’t waste money, do you? How can you not, if you don’t do what I tell you? You love me. You love Wii Fit. Now lose some damn weight.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Jul 28, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-07-28...

SOOO, I couldn’t decide what to deign “game of the week” this week, so we’re going with co-winners.


First up is the obvious one, the one and only seriously high profile release of the week.  Out in advance of the uber-anticipated updates to the Street Fighter franchise is the first of a few steps toward reinvigorating the recently dormant (aside from TV tie-ins like Dragon Ball Z and Naruto) fighting game genre:  Soulcalibur IV.  The reason I’ve been a bit hesitant toward this is that much of the most noticeable pre-release publicity for the game has centered upon the gravity defying, spitting-in-the-face-of-physics size of the female fighters’ breasts (particularly those of Ivy, whose battle gear cannot possibly be comfortable).  I’m not sure this is a good thing, unless you’re a Rumble Roses fan.


Still, it’s tough to deny the draw of a sequel to a game that can still boast one of the very few 10.0 scores on IGN.  The original Soulcalibur honestly ranks right up there with Street Fighter II in terms of playability and fun, and even if the sequels haven’t been of the same, um, caliber (ha), they’ve at least been worth a play or three.  Perhaps the publicity boost behind number 4 means that there will be a quality boost to match.


Also, Darth Vader and Yoda are involved.  So there’s that.


The other game, and the one I’m more likely to buy, quite frankly, is Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2.  I wish I could count the number of hours I’ve lost to the original Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, despite the fact that I’ve never spent more than five minutes on the game at a time, and also despite the fact that all of my practice has not changed the fact that I really kind of suck at the game.  There’s an utterly addictive quality to the whole thing, perhaps due to the fact that “just one more game” is only a couple of minutes worth of a commitment, perhaps due to the simplicity of the whole thing offering the sort of play that always feels like you could (and probably should) have avoided the one enemy that killed you.  Geometry Wars 2 is adding a bunch of cooperative modes and new boards to play, and early screenshots have indicated that the level of chaos is at least that of the first, so…that’s 10 more dollars down the intertube.


Fans looking for the next RBI Baseball might want to give MLB Power Pros a look for the Wii…so far, it’s been well-received, and the style and simplicity of it might invite back some old school baseballers that can’t deal with the simulation-like nature of most modern baseball games.  I’m also positive that someone out there is doing backflips over the release of Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI for the PC, but I still haven’t managed to make myself excited about the well-established, long-running strategy series.  Maybe when XII comes out, I’ll be swayed.


The rest of the releases (and two trailers!) are after the jump.


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