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Thursday, Apr 1, 2010

While Playing God of War 3, my eyes kept skittering away from the big TV screen to the bookshelf in the corner. There sat a hard back copy of William Vollmann’s novel, Europe Central. I kept thinking to myself, I’ve seen this story before somewhere, or at least I’ve felt this way before. As Kratos threw aside all care and decency in his quest for violent vengeance, and Zeus and the other Olympians showed gargantuan disdain for anything but their own desires, the revelation hit me. This game is just like Europe Central!


OK, OK, I admit that on the face of it, God of War 3 is nothing like Vollman’s epic novel. That book is all about introspection, narrative experimentation, and the horrors humanity is capable of. God of War 3 is really all about the eye-goggling visuals, wild quick-time events, and over the top design. Maybe they’re more alike than I thought now that I put it that way. Both focus on style as much as they do substance. The difference is, Europe Central clearly means for the reader to feel just awful about everything that transpires on its pages. I’m not sure what feelings God of War wants me to have.


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Wednesday, Mar 31, 2010
I cared about GlaDOS only because she was the one directing me. Oh, and then I really cared about her because she wanted to kill me.

When Portal 2 was announced, mostly I felt anxious.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike Portal.  In fact, I think that Portal is one of the best games of 2007 (the only reason that I don’t say the best is that 2007 boasted what might arguably be some of the best games of all time—let alone a particular year—both Bioshock and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare were released that same year).  Instead, what concerned me about a Portal 2 announcement is directly related to its quality.  It is pretty difficult to follow up a title that is so well written and so well crafted and that created such an uncomfortable, yet compelling experience.


Game Informer recently featured a preview of Portal 2 that transformed my anxiety into anticipation though.  It was largely just a short quotation from the game’s writer, Eric Wolpaw, that turned me around:


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Tuesday, Mar 30, 2010
The elements of a good spectator sport all involve figuring out ways to get people to care about events they have no control over.

Jim Rossignol brought up an interesting point in his book This Gaming Life concerning a curious issue with most video games: the multiplayer ones aren’t very good spectator sports. There are a lot of reasons for this, including Rossignol’s claim that it’s because we just wish we were playing the game ourselves. There’s the inherent barrier to understanding what’s going on in the game. During a lecture at the Art History of Games Conference in Atlanta, Henry Lowood noted that one of the closest matches that he ever watched involved a flame shield trick so complex that even the Judges didn’t understand it until several replays. It’s also not just about appreciating the player’s skill. Consider this Halo 1 Tournament. Top player comes in at 50, next highest is 31. Not even Wil Wheaton can make the match entertaining. It’s just some kid dropping headshots with a pistol from across the map. A video of a tournament played with Halo 3 is a bit more engaging because of the teamplay, but it still seems to boil down to who can rock the battle rifle the best. They’re all very skilled, so watching it gets repetitive.


All of these issues exist in real spectator sports, and people resolve them in a couple of different ways. Take a spectator sport like baseball. What would make someone think it’s boring? Long lulls between activity, tight regulation of player choices, and potential lulls between anything exciting happening. A post over at the Brainy Gamer details one of the ways that diehard fans remain engaged: keeping score themselves. Michael Abbott writes, “We’re talking about two simultaneous experiences: playing a game and thinking about playing a game. Scorekeeping enables you to keep a close eye on both. Even though you are only watching the game being played, you are heavily invested moment by moment in real time. You are not detached. You care about the live event unfolding, even though you can’t control it” (“The Joy of Keeping Score”, Brainy Gamer, 27 June 2008), which is, in a nutshell, the problem that one is grappling with when trying to make a spectator sport entertaining. How do you get someone interested in an event that they have no control over?


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Monday, Mar 29, 2010
With a focus on combat and bloodshed, many games find themselves telling stories about human struggle of the most calamitous kind. This week the Moving Pixels podcast discusses war stories told in video games.

War?  Love?  What’s the difference? 


Last week I mistakenly identified the topic for this second part of a six part series on storytelling as concerning love stories in video games.  I’m just going to chalk up my confusion to my unmitigated faith in the philosopy of Pat Benatar. Thus, our focus will be on the battlefield this week and not so much on the love.


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Friday, Mar 26, 2010
Continuing my look at the loyalty missions of Mass Effect 2, this week I write about Zaeed, Jacob, Samara, and Grunt.

Continuing my look at the loyalty missions of Mass Effect 2, this week I write about Zaeed, Jacob, Samara, and Grunt. Next week I’ll finish the remaining squad members and offer some concluding thoughts.


Zaeed
Zaeed’s loyalty mission is given to us the moment that we pick him up. He’s been tasked with liberating a refinery from the Blue Suns mercenary group. Zaeed seems like a typical merc when we first meet him, a man with no concerns other than his missions. But when we actually land at the refinery, the mission quickly becomes far more personal. We learn that Zaeed is actually a co-founder of the Blue Suns but was betrayed by his partner Vido Santiago. Naturally Zaeed wants revenge, but the narrow scope of his revenge and the exact motivations behind it betray subtle details about his character.


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