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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.


Tagged as: mass effect 2
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Thursday, Mar 25, 2010

Having now completed the first large-scale expansion for Dragon Age: Origins, I have this to say: Death to Text!


Bioware, you’ve spoiled me. All your quality voice acting has left me unwilling and uninterested in reading on screen ever again, at least while I’m playing your games. I loved Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2. I’ve played through both of them, twice. I love dialogue trees and chatting with my fellow party members and all the rest. I don’t even mind the fact that Dragon Age looks kind of terrible and everyone’s swords float three inches away from their backs. It’s an age of dragons after all, so, um magic!


But what I can’t stand anymore is all the text. I want to hear my character! I want to hear my veteran rogue speak some lines besides, “Done and done,” and “That was easy.” I want her to be a character where right now she’s just sort of this blank faced, voiceless mannequin surrounded by much more interesting people. Mass Effect‘s choice to have a dedicated voice actor (two in fact) and a dedicated name for the main character was clearly the better way to go. I get that this would be a challenge for a game with two different genders and three different races. But you know what? It would’ve been worth it. I hope that the next game does. Because right now, the conversations aren’t working dramatically. I hear an actor speaking one side of the conversation, and I read some necessarily short dialogue options for the other. It just doesn’t work anymore.


And if there were a real, live voice actor behind my hero, you could also do something about the clunky way that you hand out side quests. Throughout the Awakenings expansion, I picked up letters or objects that suddenly granted me a new quest. I’d have to pause and open the quest log to see what the hell that was all about. Wouldn’t it be grand if, instead, one of the party members said, “Hey, what did you pick up there?” and then my character explained it to both the party member and me (the player) at the same time? See how elegant that is? Elegant and costly and memory hogging and what not. I know, I know. But I know that you’ve got it in you.


All of which leads me to my biggest gripe, my major complaint, the text that drove me bonkers. If I’d had a real character with a real voice, you never would have had the gall to put that tacked on ending in Awakenings. There’s just no way. I see how not having a voice is a problem there because the moment calls for the hero to make a speech, to say something profound. We won! Let’s talk about that. I wonder what happened to our other friends? But no, the quickest end boss cut scene in history. Enemy defeated, give it a blank look, turn to leave. Cut to . . . text boxes! Text box after black text box.


Even without a main character supported by a voice actor, someone should’ve been narrating this stuff. There should’ve been some animations. As it is, the game just ends, and we get to read about the consequences in squinty little white letters. The first game did this too of course but only after we’d had a chance to watch a long, interactive sequence and then talked with all our old comrades. Here, nothing but dry, history book-style text.


Look, there’s a time and a place for the written word. Right now for instance, with me ranting about it this is a good time and place. The finale of an interactive experience? Not the place. If I’d been reviewing this expansion, it would be a significant ding against Awakenings‘s final score. The disappointment was that big.


In many ways, Dragon Age: Origins is only a partial success. As noted, it looks less than thrilling a lot of the time. The combat can be clunky and frustrating. But the story, ahhh . . . the story. That’s what keeps me coming back for more. I’ll happily play along with the graphics and combat as is if only Bioware will just live up to their true, fully voiced storytelling potential.


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Wednesday, Mar 24, 2010
Hippolyta requires only perfection of the player. How elegant is that?

Last week I extolled the elegance of the shotgun in video games (Elegance is a Shotgun”, PopMatters.com, 17 March 2010).  As a tool, it rather perfectly fits into a definition of the quality of elegance as something simple, basic, and efficient.  The only real complaint that I received about this observation is that the shotgun is a weapon in games that tends to make play easier.


Now while I do think that being “easy” in some ways only furthers my point (after all, being simple and being easy are concepts that are often synonymous with one another), I do have to admit that in gaming the most elegant games are often highly complex and difficult to master, maybe in spite of being easy to learn.  Go or chess are games that, on the face of them, are elegant and simple in terms of design and the ability to teach someone the basics of how to play, yet these are games whose ability to master is not exactly “easy” to accomplish.


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