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Tuesday, Mar 16, 2010

One of the growing trends in cultural criticism on the internet is the YouTube video. Acting as a well organized visual presentation, a quick five or ten minute video to review pop culture is slowly becoming one of the most effective forms of critique out there. Like citing a passage from a book or play, critics can splice in a sequence of film and then break it down for the audience. There’s a lot of sub-par stuff out there, but when a capable film editor gets to work on it, the results are impressive. RedLetterMedia is the handle of a YouTube user whose video review of The Phantom Menace has recently cracked the million viewers mark, while his Star Trek reviews are all well into the six digit number of views. Striking a careful balance between being informative and entertaining, his videos delve into the nebulous realm of sci-fi film analysis with great results.


Each video features the voiceover of Mr. Plinkett. Sounding like a weird sexist nerd serial killer, Plinkett’s crazed mumblings are mixed with creepy asides and visual gags that give you something to laugh at while the video makes a larger point. I ought to stress now that this is not politically correct humor. RedLetterMedia explains in an e-mail, “When I did the first review, the Star Trek: Generations one, I started to record it in my normal voice and it was just horrible and dull. So I decided to do it in character to make it more palatable, especially since my goal wasn’t to just give a cursory review, but rather to get really detailed. It is a massive amount of pointless nerd deconstruction so there has to be a ‘wink wink’ element to it. If you didn’t have some kind of humor with the material you’d come off as either someone with no life at all (which is true in my case) or someone who’s a big armchair critic that thinks he knows everything. The character adds a certain level of irony and fun to it . . . it goes back again to short films I used to make with my friend Rich, who has only ever portrayed Mr. Plinkett in the films. He does the voice as well, but I do it in the reviews.”


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Friday, Mar 12, 2010
Mass Effect 2 creates a well realized world that feels alive, even when we're not playing, by using only words.

Codices are nothing new in games. In fact, they’re quite old. They’re an effective tool of world building, allowing developers to explain traditions, cultures, technology, or other facts that would seem extraneous if forced into the main story. However, in Mass Effect 2, the codex is more than just a tome of fictionalized history. Such “extra information” is used to bring the world to life as well as to describe it.


Mass Effect 2 has an extensive codex, covering all the usual facts, but the actual sub-page on the main menu labeled “Codex” is just one part of a much larger well of extra information.


Tagged as: mass effect 2
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Thursday, Mar 11, 2010
But they're just toys. They fall to pieces, not into rotting corpses. It's all okay.

I have no problem with violence in video games. None. I know it’s pretend, I think it’s a ton of fun, and I shoot the hell out of digital human analogs on a pretty much daily basis. This post isn’t about that. It’s also not about hating on Toy Soldiers. In fact, I love the game and heartily recommend it to one an all. I like it more because it made me think about some kind of disturbing issues. I’m talking about using chemical weapons to kill masses of people. I’m also talking about gunning down hundreds of soldiers with concentrated machine-gun fire as they bravely charge out from the trenches. I’m talking about the worst horrors of World War I, only played out with virtual lead soldiers instead of virtual humans.


The Great War, or the War to End All Wars as it was once known, doesn’t get much attention in pop culture. There was those episodes of Young Indiana Jones that handled it pretty well and, of course, Gallipoli and All’s Quiet on the Western Front, but compared to World War II, it’s almost like a side show to history, the prequel to the big war story yet to come. I think that the reason for this is pretty clear: the trench warfare that typified the war just doesn’t have as many stories to tell. It’s always grim and static, with hopeless charges into enemy fire and clouds of poison gas choking the life out of our of helpless young men. It’s as grim as war gets, and while the horrors of WWII no doubt match them tragedy for tragedy, it was a war of movement and strategy. Or at least we see it that way. Plus, the Nazis were so damn evil that they have become undeniable, pure villains worth fighting. Most people don’t even really know what the hell World War I was all about.


Toy Soldiers captures much of this horror quite well. It is a game about chewing through wave after wave of enemy soldiers. The brief intros to each battle state only the basics: defend this, stop them, kill those. There’s no indication of why, nor does there need to be. The clockwork miniature men charge your position and die in droves. The game does the only thing that it can to make this fun to play, putting you, the player, in the role of building and operating the massive meat grinder. Your machine-gun nests, mortar positions, artillery pieces, and, yes, chemical weapons are all that stand between those metal bastards and your toy box.


The perversity of those poison gas attacks is what got me thinking a little more deeply about Toy Soldiers. It’s a weapon system with a very bad rep, the kind of thing that’s seen as the pinnacle of criminal warfare. It’s probably no worse for the victim than any number of things that a bullet can do to the body, but it seems much more indiscriminate and somehow cruel. It’s also not something that you see very often in games and not something that I’ve ever seen used as much as it is here, where you can see the toy men choking and gasping before expiring within the cloud of yellow-green death. But they’re just toys. They fall to pieces, not into rotting corpses. It’s all okay.


That, I think, is the brilliance of Toy Soldiers. They’ve managed to take the classic Tower Defense style gameplay and apply it to the only modern era war that makes sense to portray through this play style. World War I was all about static defense positions from which the boys fought off endless waves of enemies. However, a straight-forward simulation of the actual historical slaughterhouse would probably have had limited appeal. Even a jaded gamer like me might have gotten sickened just a little bit if the virtual doughboys dying on screen had been “real.” But they’re not real, they’re toys! So it’s cute fun, not horrible at all!


This is a perfect example of why game violence shouldn’t be mistaken for real violence. The Toy Soldiers version of war adds an extra layer of metaphor to disguise the real world horrors, but the fact is that all games are just toys. Thus, Toy Soldiers works as a lovely example of how players perceive violence in all types of games. We know it’s an abstraction of a type present in games like Risk, Stratego, and chess. The difference between Toy Soldiers and Modern Warfare 2 really just comes down to the difference between G.I. Joe and Playmobil. One is more “realistic” than the other, but in the end, they’re both just toys and it’s all a game that we’re playing.


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Wednesday, Mar 10, 2010
One surefire way to incite nerd rage is to ask what the best gaming console ever is. The only reasonable answer is Sony’s Playstation 2.

One surefire way to incite nerd rage is to ask what the best gaming console ever is. “Dreamcast!!”, the savvy gamers will say. “Super Nintendo, no doubt”, retro fans will argue. “Xbox 360”, the foolish young’uns will say.


However, the only reasonable answer is Sony’s Playstation 2.


I won’t recount the history of the console here.  For an in depth look For that, I’d point you to Mike Fahey’s “My Ten Years with the Playstation 2” (Kotaku, 4 March 2010).  Instead, suffice it to say that the system launched in 2000, ten years ago last week, and games are still being made for it. And it’ll probably still see new titles for one to three more years. Its library is unparalleled in terms of quality and depth, as it is home to scores of great RPGs, fighters, puzzle games, and every other genre that anyone could want. For me, it is impotant because it’s the console that turned me into a “hardcore gamer.”


The PS2’s father hooked me on gaming with a score of Final Fantasy titles and action games. But it was with the PS2 (and games like the Metal Gear series, God of War, Shadow of the Colossus, and, of course, more Final Fantasy titles) that I began to take gaming more seriously. I’d say that the seeds of becoming a quasi-professional games writer were planted in me in its early days.


But this is less about my experiences with Sony’s console and more about why it’s the best console ever. And really, in terms of its competition, nothing comes close.


The amount of classic games on the system is astounding: two Metal Gear games (arguably the best two in the series), two God of War games, four Final Fantasy titles, even though many discount the underrated X-2, and two surreal Katamari games to name a few. It also facilitated the birth of the Guitar Hero series and included RPG standouts like two Persona games, a Dragon Quest, and two installments of Kingdom Hearts. Oh, and Grand Theft Auto’s best are there too. It’s unreal how many AAA titles the console boasted in its decade of existence.


If the parameters for “best console ever” are quality of titles, length of run, sales, graphics, or anything else, the PS2 wins without a doubt. I have to believe that any of the big three console makers look at the PS2 as the gold standard of success. Backwards compatibility? DVD player? Price points and multiple iterations over time? It really laid the blueprint for how modern consoles work today.


However, today my PS2 is probably also on it’s last legs. I tried to play Silent Hill 2 on it recently, and it struggled and wheezed like an old dog. In many ways, it’s fitting. Mine is a first generation system that is still chugging along . . . barely—much like the PS2 as a console itself. Will I get it replaced? Probably, as there are many games that I want to continue to play on it. And anytime you can get some money out of someone for a decade-old system, that’s success.


So happy birthday PS2. May you have a great farewell run.


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Tuesday, Mar 9, 2010
A post cataloging the common design elements in three of Ubisoft's Imagine games.

This post was born when, while rummaging around in a bargain bin, I saw one of Ubisoft’s Imagine games. I’d heard of the games and knew they were big sellers, so I finally cracked and decided to see what they were all about. It only took a couple of hours to plow through, and when I finished, I was not really sure what to make of it. I picked up two more games in the series and had the same reaction. Playing games targeted towards women that are not designed with the assumption that the player is male is always a different experience. There are numerous interactive options and design aesthetics that I rarely ever see in other games. What I wanted to do with this post was to just catalogue the common design elements in three different Imagine games. There’s not much to debate about the game’s stereotyping, Ubisoft’s Vice-President of Marketing settles that issue when he explains the inspiration for the games was the high sales of the Pink DS (“Powering Ahead: Video Games”, CNBC.com, 23 Nov 2009). By making the initial titles focus on cooking, fashion, and childcare they tap into gender stereotypes of traditional forms of female play that Sara M. Grimes discusses on her blog. She writes, “Adults have long sought to contain children’s play, but girls’ play in particular, for more “useful” and productive ends. For girls, this most often meant channeling play towards activities that were thought to prepare them to be good wives and mothers” (“Imagine: [Insert Gender Stereotype Here]”, Gamine Expedition, 12 Dec 2009). 


The most consistent game design element in all of the Imagine games is the ability to decorate things. That seems to be true across the series, Aileen Cole’s critique of Imagine: Detective notices the feature is even in an Imagine game when it barely makes any sense (“Review: Imagine Detective (Nintendo DS)”, Die Hard Game Fan, 23 Sep 2009). In all three of the games that I played, there was no scoring factor related to decoration. That was strange to me, particularly in Imagine: Movie Star, where gameplay alternates between a weird Guitar Hero style and designing clothes. When a magazine asked me to design a sharp outfit for fall, it didn’t matter what I was wearing. So long as you change your outfit on every level (type, color, and pattern for each section of dress), the game rewards you with a perfect score. What’s even more curious is that these games are all either rehashes of older Japanese titles or independently created from one another. The primary consensus about girl games from all of these different groups is that there must be a decorating element and that it should be totally up to the player what constitutes being attractive.


Another theme that was present in all of the titles is having minimal to no fail state. While the Movie Star game ranks your ability to catch notes as they dropped, you would have to blatantly miss notes to get below an A. The Baby Sitter game works by performing mini-games that fill a happy baby bar. Nothing seems to happen if you just stare at the kid except that they gurgle and cry. The Doctor game has no fail state. You either follow the on-screen action or nothing happens at all. This trait isn’t unique to the Imagine series, it’s something that you see when developers try to make “casual” oriented Wii games. By confusing being accessible with being easy, numerous games intended for younger or inexperienced audiences become dull because there is no way to lose them.


All of the games require you to be female. The Movie Star game lets you fully adjust your avatar in terms of ethnicity, height, and weight (although this only consists of thin to really thin). I’m not in a position to judge how well it handles skin color but it’s controlled on a blending slide bar rather than just picking a pre-determined color. The other two games require you to be a white female. The doctor game puts you in the role of a blonde doctor just starting her own clinic named Abby while the babysitting game lets you pick your name as you start your college career. You study child care and education while making money babysitting on the side. On a side note, both games are pretty diverse in terms of NPCs by having you work for people from a wide variety of cultures.


Sexuality remains mostly unmentionable in the games. The movie star game expects you to go on hot dates to boost your career, but because these dates (along with acting, auditioning, and going out on the town) consist of catching notes while fashion pictures flash, the game never indicates your feelings one way or the other about those experiences. Your devotion to childcare is creepily absolute in the babysitting game. The doctor game did present a love interest in the form of a movie star named Tony. I didn’t like him. He never asked my avatar anything and every scene was just him babbling about himself. By contrast, the boyfriend in the Nancy Drew games is always willing to listen to me talk about the case and offer advice for solving puzzles.


Generally speaking, none of the games were very fun to play. In addition to criticisms about the lack of a fail state, they are all short and grind heavy. The doctor game randomly generates patients that you must diagnose and hock prescription drugs to. Doing so increases your level and . . . some sort of heart currency, both of which let you buy more equipment for your clinic and not have to outsource patient care. Patients all have the same dozen or so ailments and you always perform the same series of activities that you can’t lose. The baby sitting game is the same way. Once you have played with one baby, you have played with them all. The Movie Star game changes the songs and difficulty, but it’s always the same “catch the note” sequence or test to see if you can dress yourself. In a weird way, it destroys any fantasy that a person might have about the fun and excitement of these lifestyles once it devolves into familiarity and monotony. Heroine Sheik writes about the babysitting game, “What’s interesting is to see the role played in a structured, game format with preset gameplay rewards. Rock the cradle well, gain points. Forget to feed your charges, lose them. Oddly enough, what we’re being reminded of here is that motherhood itself—like gender—is a role to be played, not an inherent state. For such a sexist game, it’s a strangely feminist message” (Imagine Babyz: Playing Mother”, Heroine-Sheik.com, 10 Dec 2007).


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