Call for Feature Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jul 8, 2008
Apparently, L.B. read one too many ludology versus narrative debates and decided to have a little fun...by writing a narrative about video games and plot getting divorced, from the perspective of plot.


Caught in the Act


Oh my God! Video Games! You’re home early! I…I don’t know what to say. Look, this is just a one time thing. It’s just some cheap book I found, okay? I promise the story will be dumb, I’ll hardly give her the time of day. Her name? Oh…I think it’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’ or some silly thing like that. You’ve never met her. Don’t shout at me like that! Don’t turn it into a showdown. You know what I mean, turning it into a competition where there is only a winner and a loser. You always do that! Everything has to be a score or a strategy. It’s not like you’ve never cheated on me before. I’ve seen you with those fancy visual graphics cards. “Oh what will plot care, I’m fun and you look good.” You think I don’t hear that kind of stuff? You think it doesn’t hurt me? Literature and I go way back. She’s kind, she doesn’t complain about my linearity, she doesn’t…oh, come back! Of course I think you’re art! I didn’t mean it like that.


 


The Fight


Yeah, I’ve had a bit to drink. So what? As soon as I have a couple of beers you get all fidgety and stop working. You know what? A plot like me needs a couple of beers. Sometimes more than a couple. It’s called relaxing. It’s not like you even know the meaning of that. You’re always demanding I do this meaningless nonsense. Level up the character before this scene. Let me have a sidequest. But I don’t want her to die, let me choose something else. Waah, waah. Everything is a skill tree to you. You think you’re gonna find emotion in a skill tree? You think you’re gonna find compassion? When are you ever there for me? When I’m doing something sad, you just sit and wait until you can fix it. That’s when you’re even willing to sit there! Every time I want to have a cutscene it’s just bitch, bitch. I wanna talk, me me me. You said you don’t get to talk enough when I’m telling a story, well I’m saying you can’t talk all the time either! You talk about experience. You know what I experience when I’m with you, Video Games? Do you know what happens when I finally get to the end? You making some insane last boss that makes me want to give up. I get to the end, I’ve told this great story, I’ve put up with all your bullshit, and then you save the biggest challenge for the end. When is the end of a story supposed to be the damned hard part? You could at least have the hardest level be in the third act when the conflict is peaking! Where are you going? Don’t turn your back on me, video games! Oh no! No plot twist this time. No amnesia back story, there’s no skipping this cutscene. We’re through, do you hear me? I want a divorce. Plot and video games…are no more.


 


The Divorce


I want dialog trees and map exploration. You can keep the dungeons and booby traps, but I want joint custody of crypts and underground cities. Because we already agreed you didn’t get to keep fantasy settings, Video Games. Alright, alright, take the Pokemon. It’s not like they’re happy without constant grinding anyways. I’m keeping the photo mechanic too. Oh, like you even used the thing! We already agreed to keep joint custody of art & design, so it’s not like they won’t still be able to use it. I…aw geez, don’t cry. I thought we agreed this was for the best. You can just…use a scan visor or something. I don’t know what it will say! Have it give the monster’s stats. Hey, okay, okay. It’s both our faults, alright? Look…take the Wii Fit. Yeah, take it. It’s not like I can do anything with it. You said yourself half the time you don’t even know why you keep me around. Well, half the time I wonder the same thing about you. We’re just not meant for each other. I want to tell a linear story that brings out emotion and…I guess I just don’t know how to deal with your interactivity. Damn video games you just…you keep wanting every story I tell to be about winning and player input. I can’t always do that. Not if I’m going to be true to myself. Hey, keep survival horror. Yeah, really, I mean it.


Ten Years Later


Oh wow, how’s it going? Its been ages! Yeah, yeah I’m fine. Me and Interactive Fiction started dating after you and I ended things. Lots of exploring gorgeous landscapes, talking to people, maybe pick some stuff up. We try to keep the challenge at really easy though, keep things smooth. She’s good to me, y’know? I don’t make her go through every little scene I think up and she respects my talking time. But enough of that, how are you? You look great! I hear about you and virtual reality all the time in the news. You finally got that light saber thing going, huh? Still griping about the physics and all that? Ha…man, I can’t believe I ran into you like this. Y’know, people still ask about you. About us, really. I can’t tell you how many times someone asks me to do the insult swordfighting gag. And Christ, Bioshock, no one will shut up about that one. I keep telling everyone I left half-way through, but they just shout me down. Remember Portal? I bet you do. You talked about that night like you coul-… I, no, yeah. Sorry, that was inappropriate. It’s weird, we used to fight so much. You got so mad at me for Lair. And I still don’t know if I can forgive you for making me show up to your Super Mario Galaxy party. But still…we had some good times. We should get together again.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Jul 7, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-07-07

If you stare at this week’s release list long enough, you can hear crickets chirping.  Try it.


...


See?  We’re into the sparse weeks of summer, where the games that are going to keep indoors for the season have pretty much all been released, and the winter holiday season is but a breath of anticipation, months away from beginning.  So what’s on tap for this week?


This is Civilization Revolution.  Good times.

This is Civilization Revolution.  Good times.


Civilization: Revolution: looks like a winner, and so far, it’s been pretty well-received, so we’ll go with that.  The problems with translating PC-style strategy games to consoles is well-documented, particularly given most consoles’ lack of a mouse.  There are lots of PC-to-console strategy attempts, but most of them do one particular thing wrong: namely, they try to exist as straight-up ports of the originals.  So far, it seems that Civilization Revolution has avoided this pitfall, making it a must-buy for console owning sim-whatever fans.


Of course, as Joystiq points out, any game that features the physical presence of Napoleon hovering over everyone else is a little bit suspect.


Antonio Fango, one of the suspects in Nancy Drew: The Phantom of Venice

Antonio Fango, one of the suspects in Nancy
Drew: The Phantom of Venice


As for the rest of the offerings, the Wii offers lots of kids’ stuff, most notably a little bit of easy entry into the Final Fantasy series in the form of Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon, which could be a fun way to scratch the RPG itch with my kids around.  Sega has the officially licensed version of the 2008 Olympics on the way (though I suspect I’ll stick with Mario and Sonic, thank you), Unreal Tournament 3 is another PC-to-console port which might be worth looking at if the whole multiplayer FPS thing is cool for you, and hey! Nancy Drew!  Adventure fans who are sleeping on Her Interactive’s Nancy Drew series of computer games are actually seriously missing out.  Yes, even if you’re not a teenage girl.


Seriously, though, I’m off to give Civilization Revolution a look.  I’ve gotta knock that Napoleon down a few pegs, after all.  The full release list is after the break, with a Civilization Revolution trailer to get you as excited about the thing as we are.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Jul 2, 2008
Excited as anybody by the upcoming DS re-release of Chrono Trigger, I'm curious as to what makes it such a well-regarded and influential game.

Did you hear?  Did you?  Chrono Trigger is coming out for the Nintendo DS.  Chrono Trigger!


Of course, anyone who has witnessed Square Enix’s recent track record when it comes to re-releasing their old RPGs and still happens to be surprised by this isn’t really paying attention.  Chrono Trigger, which gained the majority of its notoriety as a classic RPG for the Super Nintendo, has already been re-released once, as part of Final Fantasy Chronicles for the original PlayStation, complete with a few bonus cutscenes created for the purpose of giving the included games a reason to live on the PlayStation.


Like a lot of kids who were just getting in to the whole “video games” thing in a big way during the time of the SNES, I simply didn’t notice Chrono Trigger amidst a sea of Final Fantasy games; my time with the SNES was limited as I didn’t own one, and the only RPGs that I ever played at my friends’ houses were variations on the Final Fantasy name (II/IV, III/VI, Secret of Mana and so on).  Phantasy Star was my drug of choice, RPG-wise, and Chrono Trigger barely registered a tick on my still developing hype meter.


As such, despite the fact that Square Enix might just be releasing another port for the sake of a quick buck at the hands of a ravenous fan base (most recently exemplified by The Brainy Gamer’s assembly of his RPG class syllabus and the drooling posts from some of the major blogs), I’m pretty excited about this, as it’s the first time I’m seeing Chrono Trigger during a time in which I’m actually likely to care (the PlayStation re-release came and went while I was transitioning from Nintendo 64 to PS2, unfortunately).


My question, then, is this:  What makes Chrono Trigger better than, say, Final Fantasy IV?  Or VII, for that matter?  Why should I play Chrono Trigger ahead of more advanced fare developed specifically for the DS, like the Pokémon games or Atlus’ Rondo of Swords?  It’s obviously an influential and beloved game, but why?  Or would it be better, at this point, to be surprised?


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jul 1, 2008
L.B. Jeffries goes over the various problems with gauging how hard a game should be for developers and some potential solutions.


Despite how seemingly obvious the concept may be, there is actually a great deal of discussion about how difficult a game should be. Why should a game be hard if the goal is to get as many people playing as possible? The original purpose of having challenge comes from the arcade days of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Games weren’t even meant to be beatable by the average person, just to be interesting enough to earn a set amount of money. On the Pickford Bros. blog, Pickford remembers the break from this model with the first console game he made. The publisher simply requested that the game be winnable. Now games have to have a last level, Mario actually gets the right Princess eventually, and the game has a point where it finally ends. How do you balance the desire to have the player beat the game with the need to make that accomplishment satisfying?


 


Tailoring difficulty for a player’s enjoyment is a much tougher task than it sounds. The traditional method of counting quarters was a simple gauge of success for a game; you knew the game was fun because people were playing it. Now a developer has to factor in a huge number of variables. For starters, the players themselves don’t always know where they stand with a game. The easy mode for Devil May Cry 4 may be highly appropriate for someone new to the series, while easy in Bioshock is borderline boring for anyone even remotely skilled at games. Chris Bateman explains in a fascinating blog post how tricky this balance becomes even if you have the alternative of making the game adapt to the player. With adaptive gameplay, the best strategy is to lose a few times so the game makes itself easier. If the player gets killed too many times before they have learned how to play, by the time they figure it out and are ready for a challenge it’ll be too easy. Finally, there is the simple problem of some players enjoying difficulty more than others. Challenge and overcoming it is still a source of satisfaction for some people. Bateman ends the post with the lament that there is simply too little information for developers to really know if they’ve got the right level of difficulty for their audience.


Beyond balancing difficulty is the simple question of whether it serves any purpose in the game at all. Back at the Pickford blog, another article goes into the various game design options that let a player break down the difficulty at their own pace. Although these games still utilize difficulty to a certain extent, there is always a way out. In some games, you can just level grind until your characters can overpower a boss. Interactive fiction or puzzles rarely maintain their difficulty because you can always check for hints online. The origin of such accommodations in these games was to make sure that someone who enjoyed the plot would always be able to get to the end. After all, as Pickford notes, when you’re telling a story, getting to the conclusion is the reward, not overcoming a tricky boss fight. Using GTA 4 as an example, Pickford notes that keeping up both challenging gameplay and also having a compelling narrative then becomes problematic. We all want to know what happens to Nico at the end, but doing those last couple of missions over and over can ruin the pace of the story. They just become annoying. Where is our way out if we don’t care about the satisfaction of saying we beat the game? If we’re there for the experience, is any difficulty that stops it really appropriate?


 


Yet just because the difficulty is hard to get right doesn’t mean it can’t serve another purpose. What if we used difficulty in conjunction with the plot? A more organized approach beyond just making everything have more health or deal more damage. For example, going back to Bioshock, if you play the game on Easy, hunting the Big Daddy becomes a light affair. Yet that’s contrary to their role in the story as fearsome protectors, which you appreciate more in the higher difficulty settings. You don’t really get the full narrative experience if you play it on a low difficulty. If you play the game on Hard, a Big Daddy is a very difficult, strategic affair that can take several tries. Would it have been better, for the sake of the story delivering an experience, if the Big Daddy was still hard to kill even on Easy? The method seems to work in more free-form RPG’s like Fallout. If you pick a fight with a super mutant in that game, rather than talking your way out, it is always guaranteed to be an unpleasant exchange for you. That’s consistent with the story and the setting: the super mutants are extremely dangerous and poised to take over the West Coast. Yet in the couple of instances where the game forces you to engage in direct combat with them, it offers a lot of help to lighten up the exchange. What one game does and the other doesn’t is that they adapt the difficulty with the plot. A person who is represented as a badass stays a badass.


Such considerations of difficulty become even more prevalent as multiplayer becomes a huge feature in video games. Why develop a brilliant A.I. or carefully balanced difficulty system when players can just go online and fight real people? Rankings and choice of opponents give a player the same set of options that developers spend years developing themselves. It also lets them feel that sense of accomplishment that beating a tough game provides as well. In an article with ‘The Escapist’, Kieron Gillen muses that challenging games are quickly becoming the equivalent of ‘80s metal. They’re such an acquired taste and appeal to such a small group that they aren’t able to find a home anywhere except the underground scene. This seems like a loss in terms of what difficulty could potentially add to a game if there was a bit more thought behind it. The satisfaction of beating a difficult game or having the highest score will always be there for players. It cannot hurt to wonder what other uses challenge in games may have for creating a game experience.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Jun 30, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-06-30...
From Gamecock\'s Hail to the Chimp

From Gamecock\‘s Hail to the Chimp


Is it surprising at all that there are but 11 releases (ten if you knock off one version of Gamecock’s Hail to the Chimp) for the week of the American Independence Day holiday?  Probably not.  It’s one of the first full weeks that schools are out, it’s a popular time for vacations, and it’s all but ready made for outdoor fun, what with fireworks having to be an outdoor activity and all.  Just about the last thing on anyone’s mind is finding another reason to stay indoors, and maybe that’s a good thing.


For those who absolutely must get their kicks underneath the cover of the infinite-SPF protection of a roof and walls, however, there are a few goodies in this nearly-empty bag.  Hail to the Chimp is notable for being one of the few attempts at a “party game” (does Fusion Frenzy even count?) on the Xbox 360 and PS3 platforms, and if you’re not sick of election mania already, it might just be the thing for you.  The Wii is getting a pet sim called Purr Pals this week, which surely surprises nobody, and the PSP might have a hidden treasure on the way in the form of Fading Shadows a platformer for people who like puzzles in their platforming more than baddies.


Soo…we're drawing stars on jellybeans then. (From Atlus' Trauma Center: Under the Knife 2)

Soo…we’re drawing stars on jellybeans then.
(From Atlus’ Trauma Center: Under the Knife 2)


Atlus, however, comes through again with a big release for the summer season in the form of Trauma Center: Under the Knife 2.  The original Trauma Center was one of the benchmark releases for the Nintendo DS, offering up the opportunity to use the DS stylus as a scalpel, a brilliant move on their part, especially given how obvious it seems after the fact.  The second in the series apparently addresses the consequences of the first, and you’ll surely be taking on lots of difficult surgeries and finding body parts you never knew existed.  Is that a pancreas?  To the garbage with it!


So once again, three cheers for Atlus, still giving summer gamers reasons to rejoice.  The full (or all but empty, if you prefer) release list and a trailer for Under the Knife 2 is after….the jump.


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