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

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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Aug 27, 2008
A new flash game pushes the boundaries of taste and forces the player to confront the overt sexuality in some games.

Editor’s Note: The portion of this blog post located after the jump is distinctly NSFW. 


I found this game thanks to Play This Thing, a superb website for all things indie.


Popping the psychological hood open on any artistic creation can garner a mixed reaction from people. Whereas some gain a deeper understanding of a work by seeing the sexual and mental impulses going on, others prefer it on a less complex level. This is particularly true in video games because the player input allows for the player to invest much more of themselves into the experience. Whereas anyone debating the phallic nature of light sabers is eventually going to have to shrug and roll their eyes, video games don’t quite allow for the same degree of neutrality. That’s because you, the player, are complicit in the action of the game. You are acting out the metaphor. When someone points out that using a gigantic sword to kill the Final Boss (with an equally large sword) has sexual overtones to it, they are implying that somehow something subconscious or sexual was going on in your mind at the time. That’s a distinct cross-over from the realm of “The artist is saying something sexual to me” and into the less secure world of “I just did something overtly sexual”. This does not, needless to say, necessarily go over well with some people.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Aug 25, 2008
It's getting near the end of the month, bills are starting to come in, and L.B. thinks up a bunch of bizarre schemes to make money.


The expense of video games has always had a tenuous relationship with what the consumer is purchasing. Sixty dollars is no small amount of money and it’s not unreasonable for a gamer to expect quite a bit of bang for their buck. A game needs to have a great solo experience, fun multi-player, generate a lot of playtime, and appeal to a wide audience to garner much critical acclaim these days. Hell, it had better jump through hoops and entertain the whole family for that kind of cost. Yet some games are definitely worth that kind of money. The sixty dollars you pay for Call of Duty 4 is going to be repaid tenfold when you go online and get absorbed into the matches. Like buying a set of golf clubs or a croquet set, you know this is a game you can play over and over again. There’s long term value in that, there’s a sense of getting your money’s worth. But for a game that’s purely single-player, that’s trying to give a tight plot and precise experience, it’s much more difficult to justify the cost. Sixty bucks for a game I’ll play once or twice is asking a lot. In a consumer culture where I can rent a series for a monthly fee or buy a long book for a few dollars, it can be hard to justify the sixty dollars for a plot-heavy Third-Person game. How do we make video games that are just about the stories work for the consumer?


 


The biggest solution going on right now is downloadable content and episodic game formats. TellTale’s Sam & Max games are doing well financially and have even been breaking into the green on metacritic. At ten bucks to download and averaging about 3 to 5 hours of gameplay, that seems like a fair deal. It’s just the right length for a lazy afternoon or spread out over several days without putting my wallet into a world of hurt. It makes the story flow a lot better as well; a game that runs ten hours suffers because the narrative ends up lagging somewhere. Your favorite book or movie still adheres to a basic formula of introduction, rising action, climax, denouement, and resolution. But when a video game tries to apply that formula, it usually stalls somewhere because it has to drag one of those elements out. You’ll spend five hours on the rising action, only to blister by the climax and have the resolution be a two minute pop song. Episodic content isn’t just a good value for a game, it’s better suited to keeping the narrative flowing properly. Portable games have also been adopting this style, with the average level or episode taking about 15 minutes to an hour to beat. This helps people who play in quick bursts on the subway, but you can also see how, inadvertently, portable games tend to have better story pacing.


 


But how can we use this design to maximize the income of a Third-Person game? Sam & Max uses a lot of great concepts like the season pass or the full season purchase, but I can’t help but wonder if the economic model is at its full potential yet. If episodic games are going to be as appealing as T.V., you’d need to distribute the games episodically for free for a limited amount of time (to get people hooked) and then recoup on advertising and season passes. As flash players become more powerful, the lucrative options of this model will soon be a reality. Little downloading, minimal hardware demands, and the necessity to stand out amongst the competition should all help drive narrative games into new and creative territory. Consumers have consistently shown their willingness to play a free game in exchange for seeing an advertisement, but people are just now beginning to offer more complex games in this model. Why not play a commercial during the load time between games? Or do as Rainbow Six Vegas did and fill the world with in-game billboards and ads. With companies producing prototypes like this for Flash 10, it’s only a matter of time before this is feasible. Graphically complex episodic games could find a home in a few years when my web browser can produce graphics as cutting edge as consoles today. But is there a chance for more? If including multi-player can expand the value of a product, what other options could be given to the player?



One of the most interesting things to come from gamer culture has been the mod community, and it might be in the best interest of developers to embrace that community more fully. Why not throw the gates wide open and actively try to make creating games with the engine as easy possible? With so many brilliant mods and games coming out from the likes of RPGMaker or Garry’s mod, by letting people make outside games and hosting them on your server you could get no-risk content. Work out a licensing agreement with people who make good games, divide up the revenue, and suddenly you’ve got an army of potential narrative games to offer your consumer. I don’t mean just leaving the door unlocked, this is about making in-game tools easier to use for the player. Software that lip synchs, incredibly easy animation tools, and editors that even my grandma could use. Furthermore, you don’t even need to hand people a blank slate. You would include all the in-game art and animations and consistently add new ones as you create a larger body of work. It would be a huge boost to the Machinima scene as well. Naturally, anyone who downloaded all of this and tried to make money without the owner’s consent would be subject to legal measures. People would still be able to distribute their work for free, but perhaps by offering to sponsor a good game with professional voice work and editing you’d give them an incentive to work with you. If narrative games are eventually going to migrate to the internet to reduce costs, it is not enough to just start posting brilliant narrative games. Developers must continue to innovate in multiple fields to stand out.


 


There are plenty of other applications for video games that could generate revenue. What about a Victoria’s Secret catalogue that uses the Unreal 3 Engine to let people have their customized avatar try on clothes and see how they look? Architects already use game engines to demonstrate their designs to potential customers, why not let people check out hotels or explore national parks before they even make the trip? A lot of this article has turned into speculation and wild business proposals, but it’s important for those who enjoy plot heavy Third-Person video games to be mindful of the economics going on. It’s very hard for any story, no matter how brilliant, to get much of a chance when the gamer has spent a fortune on it. All that cynicism and irritation melts away when you’ve only spent ten or twenty bucks on the game. In those kinds of conditions, the plot is given a chance to really shine. Short of the game being perfect in every regard, would we even notice the ‘Citizen Kane’ of games after it ripped us off sixty bucks?


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Text:AAA
Sunday, Aug 24, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-08-25...

Know how to tell when the holiday gaming season, that oh-so-wondrous three-ish months that closes out the year, is around the corner?  When the list of games being released gets a lot bigger, but the number of games that you actually want to play stays pretty much the same as it’s been all summer.


This, of course, is the first week in which that particular phenomenon appears to be taking hold.  As such, we are offered such licensed audience-pleasers as Digimon World Championship and Garfield’s Fun Fest, both out for the DS this week.  Specialty racing games are also prime suspects for the pre-holiday rush, and this week we see Ferraris and demolition racers get their own games for multiple systems (the sadly toothless Need for Speed franchise gets a release as well).  And…wow.  Look at the Wii.  The poor system’s got a reputation for shovelware already, and this week is not going to help.  Another Kidz Sports game?  Something called Freddi Fish in the Kelp Seed Mystery?  And then there’s my personal favorite, Spy Fox in Dry Cereal, which sounds like one of my average Saturday mornings in the mid ‘80s.  All that list is missing is Ninjabread Man 2.


Tales of Vesperia, for the Xbox 360

Tales of Vesperia, for the Xbox 360


Counteracting this onslaught of things I’m entirely not interested in are two releases that promise to be some of the most engrossing play experiences yet released this year: Tales of Vesperia, for the Xbox 360, and Disgaea 3 for the PS3.  The first is a more traditional RPG experience (though if you’ve played the demo, you’ve already found that the combat is a little bit more hectic than that would imply), while the second is a tactical RPG.  Both are new entries in well-established franchises, both have excellent advance press, and both have the potential to utterly destroy your social life for long periods of time.  That means they’re winners in my book!


Disgaea 3, for the PS3

Disgaea 3, for the PS3


Also on the docket this week is the release of the new Tiger Woods game, which almost gets the game of the week nod on the strength of its brilliant little trailer alone.  Whatever advertising agency decided to capitalize on last year’s glitch and turn it into this year’s gold deserves a raise.  A big raise.  The ever-reliable Xbox Live Arcade gets Castle Crashers, which looks like another utterly chaotic (not to mention potentially brilliant) effort turned in by the geniuses over at The Behemoth, who have made an art form of gracefully mixing cuteness and violence.  Mario Super Sluggers has a good chance of being exactly the arcade baseball game that Wii owners have been waiting for as well.


And…aw, heck, who am I kidding.  I think I’m going to buy Spy Fox in Dry Cereal just so I can look at that name on my shelf.  Doesn’t it sound like a classic waiting to happen?


Trailers for Vesperia and Disgaea, along with the full release list, are after…the jump.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Aug 18, 2008
L.B. has an odd lapse into remorse and gives a shout-out to some of Ken Levine's best games. Spoilers abound.

I was skimming some of the pieces that have gone up for Banana Pepper Martinis here at PopMatters when I noticed something: I tend to rag on Bioshock a lot. I’m not alone in this; most critics pull it down from their dissection shelves and point to it when they are making a case. Do this, avoid that, this could’ve been better. It’s just that…there are so few games that have ever attempted to engage with art or philosophy, and here’s this game that had the guts to do it. And a lot of that criticism doesn’t just get aimed at the game, it goes to the figurehead behind it, Ken Levine. I’m guilty of ragging on him excessively as well. Ever since the GDC lecture on plot in which he advised developers to simplify their game plots, I’ve tended to call him Ken “Make The Plot As Dumb As Possible” Levine in forums. This, of course, is taking the quote totally out of context, and I’m being hypocritical because I tell people to write plainly all the time. But I’m gonna make it up to him. Folks, we’re going to talk about how awesome Ken Levine’s impact on video games has been. And best of all, I’m not going to mention Bioshock once while I do it…starting now.


The first two major games Levine helped to create used The Dark Engine, which was developed by Looking Glass Studios. A great deal of credit goes to the programmers and designers for creating a game engine that allowed the artists to independently create in-game assets without technical help. They could design and create character actions and plot elements on their own. In conjunction with a brilliant sound-detection game design, Levine got a chance to flex that writing muscle on his first game Thief. Before we get into that, there some basic themes to Levine’s writing you learn to recognize and appreciate. As a former screenwriter, Levine has a good edge with dialog and he relies on it heavily in all of his games. The plot is usually delivered via heavy-handed narration with interesting fictional quotes mixed in about the environment itself. Most action sequences are left up to the player, but when the game does have a cutscene with action, the moments are appropriately full of nuance and powerlessness for the player. Levine is a writer who is very aware of the fact that he’s writing a video game and always uses static instances when the player’s input would be irrelevant anyways. His games usually feature two morally complex philosophies in conflict, you’re usually stuck in the middle, and no one comes across as a good guy. It’s a moral predicament that Levine seems to like and it is in this setting that he evokes the settings of his games.


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Text:AAA
Sunday, Aug 17, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-08-18

While I’m not the type of person who subscribes to the idea that a gaming system or company has to have a mascot to survive, it certainly doesn’t hurt.  Despite its tremendous stable of long-running characters, Mario will always be identified as the true symbol of Nintendo.  Sega, for better (the ‘90s) or worse (the ‘00s), will always have Sonic standing at the forefront of its stable of games (maybe the angry fella at the center of MadWorld can take over next year).  At one point, Sony had Crash Bandicoot out front, but his star has lost a bit of its luster over the last 10 years or so.  So who’s taken over in the Sony stable?


Some might say that the torch bearer of the Sony brand has now become Solid Snake of the Metal Gear Solid series, and that’s not a bad guess—Snake’s current incarnation of the old man showing the kids how things are done seems particularly à propos for the place that Sony is attempting to take in the modern gaming market.  Still, no series has offered the sort of consistency and quality (not to mention a whole pile of releases) as Ratchet & Clank.  The two of them combined may well be the current face(s) of Sony; immense firepower, copious cunning, and Ratchet’s ever-present smirk seem as though they would serve Sony well, if Sony were ever to push them to the front of a marketing campaign.  They’re even kid-friendly, at least in image, which would help the company cut into the Wii family market.  Are you listening, Sony?  Everyone who was going to buy the PS3 because it’s also a Blu-Ray player has already bought the thing.  It’s time to shift your target.


The Ratchet & Clank series is relevant right now, because the latest iteration of the series is on its way this Thursday as a PlayStation Network download.  I’ve spent a lot of time this month extolling the virtues of the Xbox Live Arcade, so it’s almost as if it only seems fair that I would highlight a PlayStation Network game this week; Ratchet & Clank surely gets the nod over an(other) updated version of Galaga no matter what the updates to the latter.


Ratchet & Clank Future: Quest for Booty isn’t so much a new game as it is an episode in the mythology of the duo. as it’s only a three-to-four-hour game.  Still, despite the short length, the consensus so far is that it continues the traditionally consistent and engrossing experience of its predecessors, and that anyone who still likes to play the old pseudo-platforming action/adventure style of game will be richly rewarded by the game, even if the high won’t last all that long.


Too Human: Baldur vs. the Spider-Thing

Too Human: Baldur vs. the Spider-Thing


Elsewhere, the ever-controversial Too Human is on its way this Tuesday, a game whose controversy stems not from any objectionable content, but from the tremendous length of its development cycle.  Advance word says that the roundabout way that it eventually came to be may have hurt the play experience, but it still seems like an interesting (and graphically impressive) enough experience to warrant a look, even if it might be destined for bargain bins sooner than later.  Deadliest Catch: Alaskan Storm makes its weekly appearance on the PC release schedule (perhaps it’s time to let it go…), and hey!  It’s Anibus, for the Wii, which surely must be a…sequel?  Prequel?  Who knows?  But chances are, it has something to do with last year’s shovelware stink fest Anubis II.  So there’s that.


Looking forward to anything else this week?  The full release list, and a trailer for Quest for Booty, are after the jump.


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