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Thursday, May 29, 2008
This is a write-up about an extremely short (1-2 minutes) experiment game called Execution. The experiment will not have much effect if you read the write-up before trying it yourself.

I found this game via Brenda Brathwaite at her blog Applied Game Design and it proposes an interesting take on how to generate moral dilemmas in games. One of the major dilemmas with pushing games into more complex experiences and art forms is that games don’t necessarily generate any kind of consequences. Unlike shooting someone in real life, which leads to both moral and literal consequences, in a video game it either doesn’t matter or can be undone. If I accidentally say something awful to someone in Mass Effect and we get into a fight, I can just load my game. Few people are going to allow something like making a mistake impair their enjoyment of a game experience. They want the best items, the ‘best’ ending, and for things to generally work in their favor. So even games that do feature choices just inevitably devolve into asking someone to make a choice and then letting them keep answering until they get the right response.


There are two solutions in games to this problem. You can make the plot entirely linear, in which case the player isn’t responsible for the consequences anyways. Or you can make either choice a valid one. Although that’s an interesting solution for a morally grey scenario, it becomes problematic when we get back to the fight in Mass Effect. Sometimes what the player did was wrong, there are serious consequences to such actions, and they should be punished for them. And the only real way to do that is to take away the save game feature.


As the commenters at Brathwaite’s blog note, part of what makes the player reaction so interesting is how much they dislike the decision forced on them. Either quit the game or shoot the victim. You know shooting is bad, the game clearly warns you that there will be consequences, and then it forces them by making the little man be dead even after you restart the game. Some players just re-installed the game and made the “correct” choice and others denounced the entire process. Despite the wisdom of ‘War Games’, most people aren’t really inclined to consider quitting the game a valid choice.


This isn’t the first time a game has attempted the “Quit or Do the Wrong Thing” game design. The brilliant Immortal Defense offers a similar dilemma towards the final levels and tends to produce the same mixed-results from the player. Would it be better if the game gave me two wrong choices? Would it be better if I made the wrong choice but later on I was able to redeem myself? Whatever the game design people come up with to create consequences and morality, the greater issue almost seems to be directed at the players themselves. If we are prepared to allow a game to teach us a moral, what kind of game designs are we going to have to accept that create the consequences needed for such a lesson?


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Wednesday, May 28, 2008
G. Christopher Williams begins at the end in his first blog post for Moving Pixels.

Mind Candy is dead.  Cinderella Red is dead.  Infernal Waltz is dead.  A few little pieces of myself are dead.


I just killed my avatars.


After playing City of Heroes from its beta stages about four years ago, I have only now finally managed to cancel my account.  The wife and I have needed to cut back on some budgetary expenses, and a $14.99 bill every month for a game that I haven’t played in over a year seems a reasonable and rational expense to lose…


But, still…


The death of a number of fictional characters that you have never heard of likely means little to you.  But, my finger hung poised over the “Okay” button that would confirm my account cancellation for more than it should have if it meant so little to me.  I had to pause for a moment even though I hadn’t seen those characters in quite a while before I consigned these various creations of mine to oblivion.


I didn’t cry or anything, but I sort of think I should have.


All of this teeth gnashing may seem silly to most.  But, anyone who has invested a significant amount of time in an MMORPG probably knows something of what I mean.  Deletion, cancellation, is hard.


Character design, stat building, all of these things take time.  They indicate value.


It isn’t that I don’t realize that it’s “just a game,” “just a fictional story,” “just a fictional world,” but there was a little piece of myself in that world for awhile.


Like in other kinds of fiction, the characters that were the protagonists of this story were fictional, but, also, unlike in other kinds of fiction, they were a little bit real because they were a little bit me.  They had a bit of my personality in them.  They represented me, and they made some real friends (that were also I suppose a little bit fictional, too—but who isn’t?).


I guess all that I’m trying to say is that when you feel a little hesitation over the death of what is “just a character” that that is the great thing about the medium of video games.  It is also what is so awful about the medium.


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Monday, May 26, 2008
L.B. Jeffries offers an analysis of the various constituencies of gamers, and how the attitudes of those groups can reflect the Zarathustran Analytics approach.


I once attended an art lecture that took on the very unpopular topic of criticizing a well-liked work of art. The pieces consisted of a series of photographs, all taken from a medical journal depicting slaves that had just arrived in America. Lines of poetry were inscribed in each photo as the artist decried the anonymity and inhuman appearance depicted by the journal’s photography. The criticism that the lecturer was offering was that historically the poetry was all utter fiction. The journal hadn’t made these people anonymous at all. Their names, tribes, and even the history of those tribes were listed and often seriously conflicted with the poems themselves. Needless to say, people tended to get pretty pissed at this lecture. Why criticize a work of art because of history? It’s beautiful and evocative, why criticize it for something like accuracy? What was the point of looking at art with a historical mindset?

That kind of discussion is relevant these days in video games because people are becoming very conscious of the demographics and factions within the medium. The casual audience, hardcore gamers, and ex-core players are all becoming distinct opinions that get thrown around video game forums. Yet not everyone is happy about these labels. Jim Sterling at Destructoid posted an interesting column that bemoaned the artificial labels of ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’. He points out that people certainly play both kinds of games and it does a huge disservice to label a game as meant for one particular audience or another. And he’s right, it’s dumb to call these things audience labels because they aren’t. We all play a huge variety of games and those games often borrow liberally from countless others. What the terms casual or hardcore really signify isn’t an identity, they’re a philosophy. They are ways of thinking about the purpose of video games and what we expect from them.


How, then, do we define these philosophies if not by their consumers?


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Monday, May 26, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-05-26...

Ahh yes, quite a choice we have this week.


I must admit, there are a couple of releases this week that I’m tempted to highlight simply based on name value alone.  The Nintendo DS has a couple of them: LOL, perhaps not the first game to be named after instant message parlance (remember WTF for the PSP?), but it is the first to use that parlance in a way that would seem to be related to its origins; it’s an entirely social product with no one-player mode, which could be interesting at least.  Super Dodgeball Brawlers sounds like one of those things that’s pure awesome in theory, and utter bunk in practice.  Needless to say, I don’t know a damn thing about it.


There’s also something called Stronghold Crusader Extreme, which must be good of course, because it has the word Extreme in the title.  When you say it, actually, I’m sure you’re supposed to add a few exclamation points to the word Extreme.  You know, like Extreme!!!, or EXTREME!!!!!.  Yeah, that’s probably it, caps lock and five exclamation points.


Ditch the shovelware parade headed to the Wii, and what are we left with?


The sole release this week for the Xbox 360 and the PS3 is a little something called Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, which is finally making its way to the console scene after having eaten PC gamers’ lives since last October.  Assuming that Activision hasn’t toned down the brutal difficulty nor the map intricacy of the PC version, console gamers are in for a treat as they embark on one of the most immersive team-based FPS experiences out there.  It’s difficult to quantify, exactly, what makes Enemy Territory: Quake Wars a fantastic game, as it’s certainly not the most imaginative team-based experience out there, and the graphics fall in that all-too-familiar mix of brown, gray, and brownish-gray, but something about it is simply addicting, and you just can’t help but keep coming back until you are the team MVP (or, in my case, anything except “least accurate”).


Xbox and PS3 owners tired of Team Fortress 2 might just want to give it a look.  The full release list (and a trailer for Quake Wars) is after the jump.


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Thursday, May 22, 2008
Is it wrong to be a little bit uneasy about the use of Metacritic as part of the criteria with which to cleanse Xbox Live?

I love Metacritic.  Really, when you want to read about a game, where else can you go to find five, ten, 15 articles on that game, all offering an evaluation and some insight into what it has to offer?  I mean, Wikipedia, maybe, but not for obscure games that nobody knows about.  So please, don’t misunderstand.


The problem I have is this:  When you see rumblings, you see message board postings, you see off-handed comments on websites, but you can ignore those.  It’s no secret that there’s an uncomfortable relationship between those assigned to promote video games and those assigned to review them.  Sometimes, PR will go to great lengths to convince the critic that a game is worthwhile, offering swag, big packs of press releases espousing the virtues of the game, and even the occasional big exclusive to a big outlet (see: the hubbub over IGN’s exclusive GTA IV review).  Why do PR companies care so much what the critics think?


Because Metacritic numbers matter.  Apparently.


Gyruss, a personal favorite, is at risk for the axe.

Gyruss, a personal favorite, is at risk for the axe.


The rumblings (and if these rumblings have been confirmed somewhere and I don’t know about it, please tell me) are that PR people get bonuses if the Metacritic numbers stay at a certain level.  If this is the case, it’s not entirely fair that a PR person should be responsible for the review scores of a product that they had no part in creating, but it certainly explains why the packages we get when we get games tend to be bigger than the size of, well, games.


Microsoft made an announcement yesterday that confirms the sheer presence that Metacritic currently holds in the industry.  Microsoft is cleaning Xbox Live Arcade, removing the chaff from it, the things that nobody’s downloading, the things that were ridiculed when they came out and simply never took off.  The criteria for removing those games from the service?  A title must be six months old, it must have a 6% or less conversion rate (that is, less than 6% of those who downloaded it as a demo purchased the full version), and it must score below 65 on Metacritic.


Perhaps it’s benign, perhaps it’s just numbers and I shouldn’t make a big deal about it, but what Metacritic doesn’t reflect is the “cult classic”, Metacritic doesn’t take into account personal preference, Metacritic doesn’t take into account those games dismissed by the masses that, against all odds, develop a small, devoted, loyal following.  Metacritic is a series of numbers that adds up to one number, a number that allows for no subtlety, for no understanding of how people really feel about it.  Sometimes the most interesting games are the most polarizing, and you can’t express polarizing in a number.  And Microsoft has legitimized that number, by allowing the criteria for their Xbox Live Arcade cleaning algorithm to include it.


And, hell, where else am I going to get Triggerheart Exelica?


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