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

 
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Text:AAA
Sunday, Sep 28, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-09-29...

Old allegiances die hard.  Most gamers gave up on Sonic the Hedgehog a long time ago—granted, his first three games on the Sega Genesis are all but universally acknowledged as classics, themselves arguments for the merits of the Genesis over the Super Nintendo.  As a middle-to-high schooler who only had a Genesis and not a Super Nintendo, I looked for any reason I could to favor my system of choice over the one that all my friends seemed to like.  “Blast processing” was a sufficiently impressive-sounding (not to mention ambiguous) argument that Sega had something in their arsenal that Nintendo didn’t.  To this day, I thank the marketing minds behind Sega for coming up with that two-token buzzword.


Obviously, the more recent incarnations of Sonic, without the fate of a console on his shoulders, hasn’t fared as well.  Perhaps he no longer feels the pressure that he once did, and feels content to coast on the strength of his name alone; regardless of the reasons, though, we’ve been “treated” to debacles like the Xbox 360 / PS3 Sonic the Hedgehog, not to mention forced to spend more than 50% of games with “Sonic” in the name as characters who are very much not Sonic.  Who’s here to save the day but Bioware, the heroes of such well-regarded games as Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect taking Sonic into the realm of Western-style role playing, on the DS no less.  It’s called Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, and if you’re into the whole role-playing thing, it actually looks pretty solid.


The early returns on the game have been mixed, but if anyone can pull the blue-haired wonder from the depths of mediocrity, Bioware can.  As such, my own hopes are guardedly high.


Also showing up this week on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 is Silent Hill: Homecoming, the latest entry in the well-established (and some would say best) survival horror series.  Hey, have you noticed that survival horror, once a genre threatening to burst at the seams with knockoffs and sequels, seems awfully sparse lately?  The Silent Hill and Resident Evil series are still out there and doing just fine, but the second-tier entries just don’t seem to be garnering the sales or the recognition that they once did.  It’s not that I miss it, it’s just that it almost seems weird that the release of a survival horror game, any survival horror game, feels like a notable event.


The Wii has We Cheer, a cheerleading game that uses two Wiimotes as pom-poms, which has been (somewhat unfairly, if you asked me) largely mocked in the gaming press.  I say any game that has the musical knowledge to include two tracks from The Go! Team in a cheerleading game is worth supporting.  Plus, my (and your) daughter will probably dig it.  The more literary-inclined puzzle-solvers among you may enjoy some Hardy Boys action on the PC, a game that may well have been greenlighted in the recognition that Nancy Drew‘s business has been just fine in the PC puzzle arena.


As always, I ask you—did I miss anything?  What are you looking forward to this week?  Contemplate the question (and go ahead and comment!) as you look over this week’s release list and a trailer for Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood after the hop.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Sep 22, 2008
A discussion of the various elements of a linear game narrative and how they come together.

The ongoing debate regarding the creation of non-linear, cutscene free stories in games is founded on a very interesting premise. Video games could, with the right technology, create a completely interactive story that changes in response to the player to create a unique play experience for every person. Games like Far Cry 2, STALKER, or Fallout 3 are all pushing the envelope for simulating unique and open stories. The problem is…back here in critic town we tend to do better when we talk about what we’ve played instead of speculating. So Godspeed developers, I anxiously await your return. Instead, why not talk a bit about linear games and the experiences they create? How does one develop a story in a good old fashioned Mom & Pop linear game? How does that compare to a game with unlimited possibilities?


 


Oddly, the best place to really start getting an idea of what a story-teller does in a linear game is to watch a writer convert a video game into a movie script. In an interview with Gamasutra, Jordan Mechner describes what it was like writing both the original Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and the process of making it into a screenplay. He explains that the game starts off with everyone becoming a zombie except two or three people. That’s a fantastic way to setup an acrobatic fighting game set in Persia. The problem is that for a movie this would get old very rapidly. Watching the Prince leap up yet another pillar and stab the hundredth zombie got old in the actual game, so it’s hard to imagine this working in a screenplay. To convert a game into a film you have to start adding other characters and new plot elements, and try to maintain the spirit of the game without telling a dull story. The writer’s first job, then, in a linear game is to create a fun environment or setting for the player to interact with. Yet countless linear games take place in epic fantasy settings, recreated real-life cities, or other fascinating scenarios. What makes Prince of Persia: Sands of Time stand out in so many people’s minds?


 


It stands out because it incorporates the dramatic and characterizing elements of a film in conjunction with this setting. Whereas the characters are the focus and the setting is secondary in a film, a linear game plot flip-flops those values. Conversation has a built-in connection with the game design, and must serve as the backdrop to the game instead of act like the main focus. Many of the game’s acrobatic puzzles involve Farah, the female love interest, as you both work together to get to the final tower. Sometimes she pulls the lever you need to keep moving and sometimes you have to press the block that helps her. All of the puzzles are linear in their solutions, but the dynamic process that gets you to the end often involves your character relying on Farah and vice-versa. There are many sections where her safety is in your hands during combat as well, further magnifying the relationship through the game design. Make no mistake, this is a tricky balance for a game to strike. Jonathon Blow notes how disingenuous this can become in a game such as Half-life 2, where the player sometimes just sees Alyx as a way to unlock doors. Kill X number of creatures, protect subject Y, and incorporate dialog is not as easy a formula as it sounds. What makes Prince of Persia work, in my opinion, is that the Prince begins to fall in love with Farah. He says so in his internal monologues while you crawl around the acrobatic puzzles. Since so much of linear video game stories involve role-play instead of player input, this important difference smooths out the harsher realities of the game design. I worry about Farah because the Prince is worried about her.


 


Another interesting take to linear plots in video games is to simply pause the rollercoaster for a few moments and ask the player what they think. Not in a literal question that affects the outcome of the plot in a meaningful way, but rather just to postulate a game design choice that induces some sort of reflection. JRPG’s are extremely good about this by providing dialogue options at key emotional moments in the game that induce reflection for the player. Do you want to go out on a date with Tifa or Aeris in Final Fantasy VII? When one of them asks you if you had a good time, do you say you wish you were with the other? None of this changes anything in terms of story, but it does create an interesting capacity for the video game to ask the player to reflect. If a film or book had a reader’s note that simply said, “Hey, think about this before continuing on” it would break up the flow of the experience. But video games can do this because they’re pausing to reflect on which direction they want things to move in. It’s all still very minor stuff in the grand scheme of the plot, but I think many players would take pause if the game asked them why they shot innocent civilians in that last level. Forcing them to say they don’t care is just as interesting a moment as having them engage emotionally.


 


Steve Gaynor comments in an essay on the merits of video games, “Video games excel at fostering the experience of being in a particular place via direct inhabitation of an autonomous agent.” To rephrase the comparison made at the start of this essay, is the game creating a virtual experience where I’m playing as myself or as someone else? That’s the difference between a linear plot and a non-linear one, one where I play as a character or where that character is me. If I’m playing as someone else, that means my game design and relationships have a logical limitation based on the character. The Prince is never, ever, going to stab Farah because he’s sick of her dying on him. The game design of a good linear story is able to engage the player because it explains the role they inhabit and makes them comfortable with the actions rather than thinking “I wanted to do it differently”. You worry about Farah because the character you play is worried about her. As David Cage earnestly explains in an interview with Gamasutra on his own linear adventure game, designers should not be so afraid of telling the player no. They’re roleplaying a character not of their own making and they should be willing to accept that this comes with certain limitations within the story. Perhaps the real key to making a linear game great is figuring out how to do that without the player being annoyed by the restrictions imposed. Instead, those restrictions are embraced as part of the story.


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Text:AAA
Sunday, Sep 21, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-09-22...
de Blob for the Wii

de Blob for the Wii


Oh, oh yes, that…that’s nice.  Look at all of those games coming out this week.  And it’s only going to get busier.  This is truly my favorite time of year.


When the release list starts to get as clogged up as this week’s looks, it tends to take something either well-established and highly anticipated or something innovative and head-turning to stand out from the pack.  I’m happy to say that this week we have what looks to be a fine example of the latter, as THQ’s de Blob is released for the Wii.  If Wikipedia is to be believed (and I’m prone to believing it), de Blob had its origins as a class project, got noticed by THQ, and got turned into a full-fledged retail game.  The mechanic of it seems perfect fo the Wii, as you roll around your blob of an avatar, dipping yourself into paint cans and rolling all over a city gone monochrome.  As you color the city, the music for that city slowly reveals itself, as painting the buildings and the scenery certain colors unlocks instrumental tracks that all fit together as theme music.


They even came up with appropriately awful box art!

They even came up with
appropriately awful box art!


Those tired of the Wii’s innovation being reduced to added waggle must be thrilled to be getting something, from a third party no less, that actually manages to not look like something we’ve seen before.  The last time a third party gave us something truly interesting-looking that would take advantage of the control scheme of the Wii was…Elebits, maybe?  Needless to say, de Blob will be a welcome sight for Wii owners on the shelves of whatever stores they frequent.


On the more well-established side, it might be considered just a little bit insane just how much I’m looking forward to trying out Mega Man 9.  Yes, I’m fully aware that it’s probably going to feel just like the other Mega Man games I’ve got sitting around for the NES.  Yes, I’m also fully aware that I may break whatever controller I use to play the thing.  Don’t care.  Modern retro that actually tries to stay retro?  No HD graphics, no remade levels, no pandering to modern gamers used to cakewalks?  Yes, it’s just a completely new Mega Man adventure from the ground up.  Sign me up.


Lego Batman on the Xbox 360

Lego Batman on the Xbox 360


Lego Batman comes out for a pile of formats this week—they had me when they released the footage of Harley Quinn.  A couple of non-traditional (read: no plain old cars allowed) racers are on the scene, as Baja: Edge of Control and Pure share shelf space and target audiences, and both look like they stand a decent chance of being rather entertaining.  There’s also a little, tiny part of me that wants to get my hands on the Hamtaro game (with the properly nonsensical title of Hi! Hamtaro Ham-Ham Challenge).  Remember Hamtaro?  The hyperkinetic hamster that actually invaded the WB for a while?  Oh, the memories, of staring at the television screen in slackjawed wonder/amusement/terror. 


Obviously, there’s plenty coming out this week.  What are you picking up?  Scope out the full release list and a trailer for de Blob after…the jump.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Sep 15, 2008

A variety of science fiction authors offered theories about internet culture in the nineties, observing the potential and predicting various modes of expression possible in such a medium. William Gibson accurately guessed the artistic phenomenon of Youtube celebrities and their cult status, although he significantly over-estimated the appeal of anything beyond sneezing pandas. Ray Kurzweil, more of a futurist than a Sci-Fi author, calculated that downloadable content would replace DVD’s (as opposed to Blu-Ray) in a move that would eventually subsume all forms of media into the hands of one or two distributors. We aren’t there yet…but it is hardly as fantastic a notion now as it was ten years ago. In regards to the intellectual development of writing and communication, Neal Stephenson seemed to hit the nail on the head. In Snow Crash, he describes a type of writer called a gargoyle. Although he was certainly wrong about these people being computer-obsessed virtual junkies (I guess), their writing style he described is fairly apt. It’s a person who collects random information, researches topics online, and combines the data in unexpected and new ways.


 


For the past year or so, a growing movement of intellectual gamers has begun to take the spotlight. It is a social development that’s right on schedule (if not a bit early) in game culture, since all artistic mediums start hitting their stride once their initial fans are old enough to feel nostalgic about it. There was an interesting piece on GameSetWatch about the continuing evolution of video game journalism by Mike Walbridge. It’s a very good collection of different prominent gamerati and their takes on running a game blog. Some maintain well-developed communities, others view them more as soapboxes to stand on. He notes their curious habit of linking back & forth, discussing points raised by others, and in general functioning as an aggregate cabal of ideas. I’m reminded of Stephenson’s gargoyle term because of the way ideas flow and function amongst their blogs. They are not united by a magazine or website (though plenty write for one), they are united by an agenda: creating an intelligent and respectable discussion about video games. The way their attempts have become far more empowered than a single lonely critic or blogger is through the exact method that Stephenson predicted: aggregate ideas in new combinations are more powerful than individual ones. One blogger posts their experience designing an RTS. Another reads it, then cites it in reference to a think-tank on new RTS games. The next adds a little bit, the next adds a bit more, until a snowball effect has occurred and something wholly new is born.


 


So at what stage of intellectual development is the medium of video games right now? In an article about preserving classic video games by Michael Zenke, a particularly insightful comment summarizes it well. Danc, of Lost Garden fame explains: “As games increase in scope, play style and number, it simply isn’t possible to know all games all the time. So a curious thing occurs. You run into people who game and you have nothing in common with them…If the literary world is any indication, there will emerge an elite group that builds lists of canonical titles that everyone must play if they are to be considered ‘educated’…The existing gamer culture will fragment and adapt to this new reality of choice and variety. Entirely new cultures will emerge so that there is no longer a single ‘gamer culture’.” There’s a bit of cynicism about intellectual elitism that I cherry-picked out, but you get his point. And it’s already happening, a person playing Guitar Hero is not the same kind of person who plays FPS games, though they’re both technically playing video games. Working on the book club model, gamers are now picking a game of the month then discussing it through the internet. The aggregate cabal in motion, canonizing the revered classics and exploring different perspectives on them. Michael Abbott, a college professor and prominent blogger at Brainy Gamer, has already made plans for a course on RPG’s and created a loose list for his syllabus. Video games, in terms of development, have started to declare their touchstones, their games that all others are compared to.


 


Let’s take a moment to shake the magic 8-ball, blow the dust off history, and remind ourselves that this has already all been done before in other mediums. Going back to Danc’s comment about game culture fracturing, you can already begin to see the symptoms of factions in the intellectual community. It’s gettin crowded in there ya’ll. You can’t swing a digital cat without hitting another gamer with the surname intellectual, smart, sophisticated, etc. I’m not trivializing or belittling this, my own blog is called ‘Literati Game Reviews’, I’m just trying to have a chat with the kettle while we both sit on the stove. Although the internet is a wonderful place for six or seven intelligent people to chat and flesh out an idea, it is still constrained by the fundamental problem that reality has with conversations. There’s only room for so many people per conversation. A book club with forty members isn’t going to develop nearly as coherent a theme or message as one with twelve. We’ve all played enough video games made by 150+ developers to know that. Whether it’s because your favorite game isn’t on the list, they disagree with your ideas, or they just don’t have enough room for them, eventually writers are going to strike out on their own. And whether it’s from the bitterness of being ignored in one group or finding the necessary fire to get a second one started, these factions are going to start bickering.


 


Which is not such a bad thing, it’s right on course for the development of an artistic medium. Within those fights and dueling ideas is the magic that makes an artistic medium be alive instead of some dissected corpse. Within those conversations and arguments is what makes video games a living medium instead of a parade of dead people’s words or films. First you fight about the games you hate. Then you fight about the ones you love. Then you fight about what makes them great, then you fight about what made them even more. You fight about why they’ve changed.  You fight about why they stayed the same. Finally, you fight about how the medium is dying, and then you fight about how it’s gone. Then you do something new.


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Text:AAA
Sunday, Sep 14, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-09-14...
LucasArts' Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

LucasArts’ Star Wars: The Force Unleashed


There always seems to be equal amounts of trepidation and anticipation when a new Star Wars game comes out.  On one hand, there’s the chance to play as part of a universe that was an integral part of many gamers’ childhood fantasies.  On the other, it’s been proven time and again that any new entry into the lore of that universe is woefully deficient to the content of the three movies that built it.  As such, it’s with some caution that I’m looking at The Force Unleashed this week above all of the week’s other releases.


The Wii version, for its part, features light sabre action, which Wii owners have been fantasizing about since motion controls were even a suggestion.  It’s nice to be able to finally realize that dream, though the fact that the upcoming Motion Plus controls aren’t involved sort of indicates that it’s not quite going to live up to expectations.  Still, there’s still some buzz behind the game, and even with the possible light sabre goodness aside, there’s a buzz behind this game that I haven’t seen for a Star Wars game in a long time.  At the very least, the demo’s worth a shot—it’s a blast, actually.


Ubisoft's Armored Core: For Answer

Ubisoft’s Armored Core: For Answer


Elsewhere, interesting material comes from some strange places.  The prize for Most Awkward Title this week is Armored Core: For Answer, in a landslide victory.  Despite the rather strange subtitle, I’m a sucker for anything that has big giant mechs running around and blowing stuff up, so maybe it’s at least worth a rental.  Armored Core is an awfully long-running series regardless, and its devotees would certainly be wise to give it a look.


If you’ve got the power (and the original game), Crysis Warhead is another one that’ll probably be worth a purchase.  Lost in the hubbub about its system specs and the nasty computer you need to actually get something out of it, Crysis turned out to be a pretty impressive, if somewhat run-of-the-mill, shooter.  As it turns out, Warhead even has some optimizations that will allow it to run better on the machines that can handle it, so hey, maybe you can push your machine past that 8 frames-per-second max that you were getting out of the original.


Electronic Arts' Crysis Warhead

Electronic Arts’ Crysis Warhead


Of course, it’s entirely possible that I’ll ignore all of my own advice and just go buy Dragon Quest IV, given that I never met a JRPG remake that I didn’t like.


What are you playing this week?  Is anybody out there buying Zoo Hospital for the Wii?  Does anybody else have a better idea than I do of what “For Answer” means?  Are you too busy playing Rock Band 2 to leave the house?  Let us know in the comments, and enjoy the Star Wars action in the trailer after the break.


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