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Tuesday, May 25, 2010
One of the best game avatars ever created is Kirby.

One of the interesting points that Scott McCloud raises in his seminal text Understanding Comics is on the nature of abstraction and how people psychologically project onto graphic images. The simpler and less detailed the image, the more a person fills in the gaps themselves and can relate to the character. In video games, those gaps aren’t just visual, it can be something like the avatar never talking or never letting the player see their face. (L.B. Jeffries, “Applying Scott McCloud’s ‘Understanding Comics’”, PopMatters, 1 Sept. 2009) Spotting features like that raise the question of what makes a good, psychologically pliant video game avatar. One of the best game avatars ever created is Kirby. A fantastic balance of empowering game design and art, Kirby embodies all of the elements that make for a game avatar which can easily fit into any person’s psyche.


From a visual perspective, Kirby is a McCloud abstraction. As the original NES game explains in the opening section: to depict Kirby you just draw a circle, some nubs for arms, shoes for feet, and then add a face. You can project anything you want into that because the face could be anybody’s. It’s interesting that the original game and several others have stressed and even encouraged people to draw Kirby. It taps into other aspects of people’s imagination because they can recreate Kirby however they like outside of the game. A quick doodle of Kirby looks just as much like the little pink ball as an expert rendition, there is no skill barrier to drawing him. Contrast that to something like Mario or Link, which people still love to draw, but can potentially be disappointed when their work doesn’t look like the original. Being able to draw Kirby easily removes a barrier to the avatar so that people can feel a greater sense of authority and control over it. I don’t mean to imply that every video game avatar ought to be easy to draw, just that it’s a potent feature in Kirby’s appeal.


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Monday, May 24, 2010
Assassin's Creed realizes brutal historical realities within the boundaries of simulated spaces.

The worlds of the Assassin’s Creed series are layered ones. Simulations of historical times and places are nested within a near future world of corporate intrigue and a broader vision of history defined by an ages old battle between templars and assassins.


Our podcast contributors spent this week unravelling these worlds within worlds as well as exploring their interelatedness. Join the Moving Pixels podcast for a discussion of simulations within simulations, historical recreations, and the presentation of worlds both familiar, mysterious, and most often brutally realized.


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Friday, May 21, 2010
Choice is meaningless unless we’re weak enough to be affected by it.

Choice is clichéd. We’ve been presented with so many different kinds choices so many times that the average gamer can look past the immediate conflict, whatever it may be, and see the machinations going on behind the scenes. From what suit we wear, to the survival of townships, to the outcome of wars, our choices change the world. All that power seems necessary. If the world doesn’t change, then our choices are meaningless, but that power also dilutes the consequences because nothing ever (or rarely) happens to us, the player. It’s the world that changes, and we feel the consequences indirectly.


In Fallout 3 we can save or destroy Megaton, and no matter what we do, we come out the other side pretty much unchanged; it’s everyone else whose life is at stake. Even in Mass Effect 2, in which our choices from the first game carry over into the sequel, only those directly involved with the original choice cause us to face any kind of consequence in the future. There’s a very linear progression of consequences. Nothing ever spirals out of our control.


Tagged as: bioshock 2
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Thursday, May 20, 2010
Fake gamer tags. How does this do anything other than rip away at my already fraying suspension of disbelief?

I want games to be imaginative and creative, to show me something that I haven’t seen before, or a to present a new perspective on something that I thought I was familiar with. Part of that can come from the game’s look and setting but only part of it. To really succeed, a game has to not only contain imaginative elements, it has to inspire the imaginations of those of us holding the controller. Lost Planet 2 has some striking creative pieces: giant monsters, exciting exoskeletons, and a few inspired settings. But these are mere window dressing for a core gameplay experience that not only doesn’t inspire my imagination, it actively mounts an all-out offensive against it.


Lost Planet 2 wants you to play co-op. That’s great, co-op games are fun, and I like it when developers really support it. It does cause some initial confusion that the only way to start the single player campaign is to create what looks like an online game, even if you’re not connected to the internet. But that’s just a user interface issue. Then the game begins, and you’re teamed up with three AI controlled comrades, who have their names floating above their heads. Names like, Redx4, Death Summer, and Mr baykal, that are meant to sound like fake gamer tags. Who the hell thought this was a good idea? Because it’s really not. Seeing your friends’ gamer tag when playing co-op is okay because you know he’s there, you have a whole host of associations with that person, and you can hear their voice. Who are these AI goobers with lame gamer tags? How does this do anything other than rip away at my already fraying suspension of disbelief?


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Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Let's face it, we kind of love the switch, and by “we,” I don't just mean gamers. I mean everybody.

Like most gamers, I have been thinking an awful lot about the switch. I think that usually such thoughts are characterized by questions like, “How do I get to the switch?” or more irritatingly, “Where’s the damn switch?” However, what I have been pondering is a more fundamental (and maybe less obvious) question, “Why do I always want to flip the switch?”


A lot of gamers complain about the overuse of the switch in games. It is a kind of cheap way of turning an action game into an adventure game. Finding the switch, figuring out what it does, and using it effectively is a way of adding a puzzle-like element to games that otherwise seem to merely be celebrations of violence and combat. Tomb Raider, in particular, seems to have made the switch a central element of gameplay, at least as important to that game as the combat, if not more.


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