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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Feb 24, 2009
An alright game with some interesting design ideas and a few classic problems.

One of the inevitabilities of doing critiques of video games is encountering a game that has an interesting design but dull story or good story but bad design. In the former’s case, it’s not really necessary to finish the game because after a few hours you’ll have learned the gist of the system. So I’m going to be frank and admit that I didn’t finish The Thing, but saw a lot of interesting ideas going on. I ended up quitting at about the same point as Alec Meer in his retrospective piece at Rock, Paper, Shotgun.  After the tenth time of doing the same 20 minute battle only to fall off a piece of scaffolding and start over, I’d had enough. A brutally distant save point system combined with too many awkward insta-kill puzzles resulted in a game that was too tedious. The plot itself is what would happen if you took the script of Aliens and swapped out all the words with ones from The Thing. Minus the interesting female lead, motherhood overtones, and space travel. But, beyond all of that, there is a very interesting squad game design along with an excellent illustration of misusing cutscenes.


Like any survival horror game, this is a system of managing finite resources. Going outside drains your stamina, meaning you can only be out for a certain period before you start to freeze to death. Ammo and health packs are often in short supply while enemies are in abundance. What gets added to this mix is squad mates who each have a specific job. One is a glorified key card (they’re the only ones who can fix certain electric panels), another is an unlimited source of health, and the third is an extra gun. What’s interesting is that your squads have both a trust and sanity bar. Most people you meet will think you’ve been infected by the alien (and thus under its control) so you have a variety of ways to earn their trust. What’s interesting is that all of these involve sacrificing resources. You can give them a gun, heal them, etc. This trust can also be lost if you accidentally shoot them, hide from a fight, or just ditch them. No trust means they don’t accept orders, and in the case of the medic or engineer you often need them to. The catch is that anyone you come in contact with may also be infected by the Thing. So when you’re handing over health kits to keep a squad mate alive, you might find out a few minutes later that the whole thing was a giant waste. This is a perfect example of a game design using two conflicting needs to create tension. On the one hand, you can always use an extra gunner and the medic is obviously handy. On the other hand, they are eventually going to get infected and turn on you. You can get your ammo and gun back from the corpse after you kill them, but the much rarer health kits will be long gone. Making that choice adds an unexpectedly unique kind of resource management to the game. The game does destroy the replayability of this feature by making the infections linear. The people in your party will either die or cross an invisible line and instantly become infected. There is no keeping them intact after a certain point, making it possible to maximize resources when such an ability shouldn’t exist.


 


Another interesting thing about the squad game design is the sanity meter. Whereas the average player may be quite desensitized to gore and swarms of aliens coming after them, the AI of your squadmates is not. Walk by a shredded corpse and someone on your team might vomit. Leave them in the blood filled room with human entrails and their fear will spike up. They typically tend to be less responsive to orders and less able to handle their weapons when they are frightened as well. If they get scared enough they’ll either curl into a ball crying or worse, shoot themselves. What’s remarkable about this is that the system forces the player to be aware of all the violence and gore. Most research into how games desensitize people is fairly suspect, but the more probable reason the player gets desensitized is that they are seeing the same death scenes and visuals repeatedly. To someone whose never played GTA IV, watching someone screw around with a rocket launcher might seem horrific. To that player, it’s just the same reaction they’ve seen dozens of times. Preventing that desensitization from happening, that tuning out of the game’s themes and focusing purely on victory, is a laudable goal. Every time the player notices a squad mate freaking out, looks around, and thinks “Hey, This is pretty gross”, that player is dragged back into the experience. Every time I’m getting swarmed by enemies and one of my squadmate wets their pants (this will happen) I’m reminded of how crazy the whole situation has become. Finding a new way for the game design to communicate what the plot is telling me is a remarkable accomplishment for any game.


The game suffers from a classic case of ‘I wish I was a movie’, and you get this sense from the constant barrage of cut scenes that aren’t induced by player input. Mixing cutscenes with a game is a tricky work because they always need to be voluntary, never an interruption. Given the intense difficulty the design creates, there’s no need to turn it into a cutscene every time I see someone that wants to talk. The player probably going to be willing to hear them out just to get their help. Since they don’t resemble any of the other enemies, you’re not going to accidentally shoot them like in a game full of humans. The trust meter will also deter this kind of conduct since accidentally shooting another person means they won’t take orders. If the game has to keep taking control away from the player because they don’t care what people are saying, that’s a foundational problem with the design, not an excuse to force something on the player. Any incentive to obey a game’s plot is always going to seem artificial when you look at it purely from the design perspective. You can’t let the engineer die because you need him to open a locked door. You need health so you need the medic. The motivation isn’t the much pleasanter “I can’t let him die because he’s a fellow human being” that the plot is conveying, but is that really a flaw? Every good story has basic rules of conduct and morality governing it. A system of rules is not going to generate an emotion by itself anymore than the Penal Code of your home country is going to make you love everyone because murder means going to jail. The rules establishe a mode of conduct that you cannot engage in without consequences, the people you meet and personally enjoy are what generates the higher emotions of concern. That’s how the plot/art/sound and game design interact, the design is the skeleton, the rest is the flesh & blood that gives it life. The cookie cutter plot, parade of grizzled soldiers, and the generic plot twists make The Thing do little for this idea of games. Its skeleton, however, is quite a remarkable piece of work.


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Text:AAA
Sunday, Feb 22, 2009
New releases for the week of 2009-02-22...

This is it, people.  This is the week we’ve been waiting for, the week that’s been on our minds since last year, the week we sit outside the GameStops and GameCrazys of the world waiting impatiently for the doors to open as we finally have the de facto game of the year within our sights.  For many, the tears of joy have already started.


50 Cent: Blood on the Sand arrives on Tuesday.


(long pause) Too much?


All right, so perhaps I’ve allowed my own preconceptions to get in the way of, I don’t know, journalistic integrity or something, but there is no way I can take 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand seriously.  Here’s the plot, courtesy of Wikipedia:


“50 Cent and his G-Unit crew finish completing a tour of shows in the Middle East. Rather than receiving cash, G-Unit is offered a diamond-embedded skull of legends. When attempting to return home, 50 Cent and his entourage are attacked, and the skull is stolen by local gangs. 50 Cent will risk whatever it takes to get his skull back.”


I have got to think that the ridiculousness of this whole premise is intentional, because the sheer ridiculousness of it is what’s got everybody talking about it.  Nobody is taking it seriously, really, but everybody seems to want to play it, because let’s face it, it actually sounds kind of fun romping around the desert as 50 Cent, taking out thugs and trying to find the


Crystal

Diamond Skull.  If Indiana Jones makes a cameo, I’m totally buying it, and I wish I was less serious than I actually am.


If I wanted to be totally truthful, it’s Killzone 2 that sticks out on this particular list.  It feels at this point like Killzone 2 has been out forever given that they lifted the embargo on reviews a full three weeks before the game is actually going to arrive on store shelves, but FPS fans who’ve had about enough of Resistance on their PS3s are about to be loving life.  Word is that the latest Killzone is pretty light on the whole “story” thing, but it gets the shooter mechanics pretty much perfect.  Here’s to finding out.


The Wii has a Dead Rising remake on the way, the 360 is seeing the new Star Ocean, and the DS gets Ys, the new Puzzle Quest, and Peggle!  It’s a light release week, but there’s truly something for everyone on the way.


Who else is oddly transfixed by the Blood on the Sand phenomenon?  Who’s going to finally turn off Flower in favor of some Killzone?  Let’s hear from you in the comments!  The full release list and trailers for Killzone 2 and 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand are after…the jump.


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Text:AAA
Thursday, Feb 19, 2009
Several interesting studies on the impact of video games on the subconscious and dreams.


A professor of psychology at Grant MacEwan College, Jayne Gackenbach, has conducted several studies on the relationship that gamers have with their dreams. The basic observation is that gaming has a traceable impact on the unconscious and this can often be seen in the dreams of various gamers.


So far the studies have explored three different things: cognitive factors, emotional content, and bizarreness in dreams associated with video game play. The strongest link in the studies found that high-end gamers typically experience more lucid dreams where the subject was aware that they were dreaming and could control their activities. A two-part series of studies found that although gamers were more aggressive (based on interviews) than the average person in their dreams, they also experienced aggressive dreams overall less than the norm. This led to another study, whose data is still being analyzed, but Gackenbach hypothesizes that daytime video game play may serve as a rehearsal for threat function that dreams may serve. This is based on the theory that our nightmares are actually survival mechanisms in which we undergo traumatic events in our dreams to prepare for them in the real world. The surprising discovery during many of these long interviews was that the typical “Being Chased” and “Can’t Escape” scenario of many nightmares did not frighten gamers. As Gackenbach notes in her conclusion to one of the studies, what better way to prepare for a dream than by constantly engaging in an out-of-body virtual reality?


Speaking for myself, not all of this applies to my dreams but a few elements struck a chord. I don’t often dream about things from games but I rarely have anything I’d call a nightmare. I don’t experience anything along the lines of Waking Life, but my dreams rarely feel out of control. Whenever I’m being chased in a dream, I just go someplace safe, wonder why I’m dreaming this weird stuff, get chased again, go someplace else. It’s all instinct and reaction but I rarely find any of it frightening. You can find the PowerPoint presentations and hard data from the research here. What is extremely unusual about


all

of this data is that typically lucid and out-of-body dreams require a great deal of meditation. Nightmares, which are often the product of real-life trauma such as being assaulted or post-traumatic stress disorder, may be significantly less unpleasant for people who play games.


There were several other observation that need to be corroborated with further data. Gamers may have a higher average number of dreams that feature little to no actual people and instead involve animals or other fantasy creatures. They also might experience more out of body or third person dreams than the average dreamer. It would be extremely helpful to Gackenbach’s study if anyone with a remote interest would fill out the survey offered here.


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Text:AAA
Thursday, Feb 19, 2009
Examining exactly why 2007's Puzzle Quest was such a success.

Note: Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords’ Wii version was reviewed by Jason Cook last year.  With the sequel (Puzzle Quest: Galactrix) imminent, I wanted to explore just what made the original so arresting.


The valiant knight and the ferocious minotaur speed toward each other, running full-bore toward what will surely be a fierce, violent battle for the ages. The knight’s sword is drawn, the minotaur’s horns bared and brandished, and those who may have been battling around them are now unable to avert their gaze from the spot at which the two warriors are destined to meet. Some seek cover, others exhort the heavens, but all recognize the epic scope of the clash about to take place…


...and as they approach each other, a table falls out of the sky, the two combatants pull previously unseen chairs out from some undefined space behind them for the sake of sitting at the now-landed table, and a board game ensues with the understanding that the winner gets to slit the loser’s throat.


While it may sound ridiculous, this is exactly the sort of imagery that comes to mind when one starts playing Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords for too long on too many late nights.


This is also the sort of imagery that brings to mind Clint Hocking’s “ludonarrative dissonance”; that is, the artistic phenomenon unique to gaming that places the gameplay at odds with the story. We’re taking part in a large-scale narrative that deals with warring lands, Homeric journeys and arduous quests, and yet, whenever we’re asked to do something important, we do so by playing a game of Bejeweled. One really has nothing to do with the other, except that winning means winning, so whenever there is a situation that calls for an explicit win/loss state, a ferocious casual game breaks out.


What’s interesting about this particular example of gameplay’s conflict with the narrative is that it seems to have enhanced, rather than degraded, the player’s experience. Puzzle Quest was all but universally acclaimed when it was released back in ‘07, at a time when a rather large portion of the gaming populace had already given up on the type of game from which the majority of Puzzle Quest‘s structure is derived: the JRPG. You walk around the world, occasionally getting into pseudo-random battles, doing quests and side quests for the various people you meet along the way, increasing in power as you gain levels through battle and good deeds. It’s a JRPG through and through, infused with constant Bejeweled-style battles instead of constant turn-based attack/defend/magic-style battles.


Why then, despite this apparent disconnect in genres, is Puzzle Quest such a success?  It was even in the game-of-the-year discussion for a couple of platforms in ‘07 (hello, PSP!).


Part of the reason may be that the story being at odds with the gameplay is an issue inherent in the battles of the turn-based RPG genre anyway. Instead of playing out confrontations, say, Devil May Cry or God of War-style, we’re asked to imagine the majority of the action as we slowly and deliberately decide whether our avatar(s) will attack, run, or perform one of a select group of spells. The story says the stakes are high and the action intense, while the gameplay is almost passive in its non-urgency. As such, replacing one dissonant set of actions with another actually feels like innovation, every battle its own little game-within-a-game rather than a set of almost inconsequential button presses followed by a usually predetermined outcome.


Another reason for the success? Quite frankly, adding Bejeweled to anything makes it feel more accessible. At this point, Bejeweled is an almost universal symbol of casual gaming, something that even those who run screaming from people who identify themselves as “gamers” have at least had some experience with. By introducing a Bejeweled-style battle mechanic, players who typically identify exclusively with the casual side of the game spectrum are introduced to an adventure style that they may never have had the inclination to previously attempt.


What developer Vicious Cycle seems to have done, then, is embraced the dissonance, deciding that if play befitting the narrative is not a priority for the genre anyway, why not make it more interesting?  By embracing, and even highlighting the story/gameplay disconnect, they’ve created something that somehow manages to feel innovative despite the utter lack of innovation that each portion of the gameplay presents on its own.


Perhaps this explains the game’s fascinatingly addicting quality, something that’s inexplicably ensnared this writer (in the face of things I should be playing) for the last two weeks straight. Either that, or there are just a whole lot of Bejeweled lovers in some serious denial.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Feb 16, 2009
A few basic concepts in games and their origins.


Ralph Koster coined the term ‘game grammar’ to describe the basic systems that the average gamer becomes familiar with and relies on when trying a new game. The skills involved in moving in a 3-D space, the way interactive objects behave (as opposed to static ones), and just a fundamental grasp of game stats are all things a player learns and then relies on when trying new games. Indeed, as the smoke clears and the initial skirmishes of the console war settle into the long march Nintendo’s victory is being attributed to the fact that they invented a console which excels at teaching these mechanics to new gamers. Far from being simply casual, Nintendo has instead created a system that is playable by people who have never touched a video game in their life but would like to. Although there is still some contention on figuring out what this newfound audience wants to play, it occurred to me that perhaps we could begin work on bridge games that might draw them into the more complex genres. Lacking the ability to actually make said games, I thought I’d opt for the next best thing and try to explain the basics of gameplay to someone who has only played Wii Sports at this point in their development.


 


Moving in 3-D Spaces: In a video game you’re typically in charge of both your avatar and the camera observing him. You’re welcome to think of yourself as the “director & actor” but that’s kind of meta. Being able to maintain a decent angle on your character that lets you see the most information is the best camera angle, so it’s better to imagine that you’re a very bad cinematographer and a very good stuntman. Some games simplify this by making themselves a “First-Person” game in which your camera is lodged in your character’s skull, but those get tricky because you have to precisely aim the camera at the person you want to kill. Left analog stick controls your movement, right analog stick controls your camera. You’re always going to be pressing or moving your character in most games, so navigating in 3-D Spaces is mostly learning when it’s time to change your view.


Taking Damage: In order to help connect you to your surroundings and develop a meaningful relationship with the things in a video game, designer often make it so they can kill you. Activities that can kill you often correspond to their real life counterparts and thanks to several advances in animating these moments will often gratuitously resemble them. If the character you are moving around is slapped with a brick, this will adversely affect their health just like it would affect yours if this happened in real life. Unlike real life, you will typically be able to absorb a large but still finite amount of visually accurate injuries.


Health: Rather than correspond to a medically or physiologically sound concept of health, games tend to think of health like a pizza. Taking damage means a certain number of slices are taken away. Yet also like pizza, slices can be replaced very easily and generically since it’s all just pizza anyways. When the pizza is gone, you will be forced to revert back to a moment in the game when you still had some pizza. Various games will allow you to replenish your pizza through items in-game that you either step on or go to a “menu” to use. Newer games, realizing that this is very troublesome for new gamers, have made it so your pizza will just grow back.


Missions: The purpose or goal of a game can vary wildly and may involve paying attention to the plot. A group of high-profile Existentialists initiated a Humanist Ontological Movement back in the early 90’s to break the nihilistic pain worshippers that came from the elitest arcade scene. These people sought to apply an outside logic to the meaningless chaos of beeping and pixels that constituted most video games. Adopting a narrative structure similar to our own psychological need to think of things as stories, these games created “missions” that the player would perform and then receive the existential leap of being released of their mortal coil and experiencing life free of all purpose, all non-purpose, and only being one with the divine urge of both purpose and fulfilling that obligation to the universe.


 


Game Items: Objects in games can typically be broken down into three categories: objects you can’t affect, objects you can pick-up, and fire barrels. An object you can’t affect will often be very deceptive and unlike taking damage, does not reflect its real life counterpart. The average tree in a video game, for example, can survive numerous grenades and heavy machine gun fire. These objects must, like death, be accepted as a part of the game. Objects you can pick up typically glow. Depending on the ease that the developers are attempting, these objects will either glow brighter than a Christmas tree or only blink when you’re looking at them. Fire Barrels are part of an international conspiracy by the game developing community to protest oil and fuel industries. In order to maximize profits and encourage people to not drive their cars by staying home and gaming, all things gasoline are highly dangerous and this subconsciously makes the player become filled with dread whenever they near a gas station. 


Sandbox Games: Not to be outdone, the nihilist arcade groups reorganized themselves into a sect of agrarian evangelical anthropromorphists and created the sandbox genre out of which the human spirit can “truly grow and prosper”. In these games the play is often confronted with a huge array of options and is encouraged to pursue them all until they discover the one “true path” to full growth and expression by following the plot missions. Their motto, “The right to die in a game is the right to succeed”, can often be found dispersed throughout their works.
Experience Points: A Japanese sect of neo-confucianists who believe in life as a series of diegetic levels created a type of role playing game in which your engagement with dull day to day tasks provides the ability for you to go on greater and more exciting missions involving the plot.


 


As you can see, there really is nothing at all to playing the more advanced games in the medium. So long as you understand the cultural trends and values going on, you should be able to start pwew pwewing in no time! If anything, part of what makes games so fun is that the player input allows you to assign your own values to the game. One person’s love interest is another person’s baggage, one person’s epic plot is another person’s skipped cutscene. As The New Yorkers write-up on Cliff Bleszinski illustrated to many readers, the meaning in games is often personally derived instead of broadcasted by an arbitrary author. While Cliff made a mission that was about going home to a place that doesn’t really exist anymore, many just players chainsawed apart another alien in co-op mode. How you play games is a part of how that meaning is derived, how you learn that play is an intrinsic part of the experience. That’s both what makes video games so profound and yet still capable of entertaining the most basic impulses and desires. It’s a good thing too, or else some batshit critic could just post a bunch of nonsense and act like he was making a point.


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