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Tuesday, Feb 23, 2010
The map is very literally your weapon in Modern Warfare 2.

Modern Warfare 2 and the other Call of Duty games have always been very map-reliant multiplayer games. The series abandons traditional design elements like “Race to the Gun” and emphasizes a more tactical, map-reliant approach. This isn’t really intended to be a strategy guide but rather just a discussion about how the gameplay works and feels overall. While I personally prefer lone wolfing it on Team Deathmatch, other players have different approaches and tactics. I talked with several much more advanced players than myself and relied on a couple of different gamefaqs to balance out my perspective. I also don’t really go into team play because I know nothing about it.


Generally speaking, the “Race to the Weapon” design in something like that of Halo 3, adding a layer of strategy for both good and bad players. Knowing the map and where your favorite gun drops are is essential, but for the bad player, there is always the chance to snatch the weapon before your opponent gets a hold of it. This lets that player take the advantage by forcing the player to use a weapon that they’re not quite as skilled at using. Modern Warfare 2 completely ditches this approach. You get to pick your starting guns and can change classes after death. Since players can carry two guns, they usually set up classes that balance out their range payload. Snipers equip something short range for moving from point to point as the secondary, somebody using the SCAR-H compensates for the short clip with a perk or a machine pistol. All the perks and upgrades make it possible to create this finely tuned, personalized death machine. Most guns can be tweaked up or down the range scale with attachments. Something like the F2000 or AK-47 can be used at long range if you slap an ACOG on them, so that even a relatively inaccurate gun can be used for long distances when needed.


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Saturday, Feb 20, 2010

Brian Crecente, who reviewed Dante’s Inferno for Kotaku and liked it a lot more than I did, writes the following under the subject of things he loved about the game:


“For many, gaming is a lighthearted, thought-free diversion and there are plenty of titles designed to tap into that market. But there are so few that deal with important issues in a consequential way. So the overt inclusion of a Christian Hell guided by Christan morality in a video game meant for a wide audience is a big deal. Not because of what it is saying about the afterlife, but because of what it says about the willingness of a publicly held, widely known game publisher to create something so steeped in controversy and not—beyond horrid marketing—allow that controversy to become the game. It manages to entertain and preach equally.” (Dante’s Inferno Review: Big Ideas, Small Problems, Kotaku, 9 February 2010)


This struck me as an odd thing to praise, since one of the things that I found most confusing and least appealing about Dante’s Inferno was it’s slapdash theology. I’m not a religious person, and while raised Christian, I do not subscribe to any of its dogmas or teachings. I am however familiar with them, both as a student of history and as a generally well-read member of Western civilization, and I think it can be said with some confidence that Crecente has this wrong. Dante’s Inferno does not present a Christian Hell, and the world of this game is not guided by Christian morality. In fact, while the setting has a firm basis in the Christianity of Dante Alighieri’s time, the story and actions of this game contravene those beliefs at every turn.


In the original poem, Dante (the character) is an almost entirely passive figure. Virgil and then Beatrice guide him through the sights and sounds of the afterlife, and he reacts to the horrors and wonders laid out before him. Even the slightest attempt by him to adjust the fate of any of the souls that he encounters fails. This is, indeed, one of the points of the whole poem and of the theology behind it. God has damned these people for eternity. Their own actions in life have forever decided their fate. What they did in this world determines what will happen in the next. The game Dante’s Inferno flies in the face of these bedrock beliefs, as well it should. The Dante of the poem would make a terrible action hero, and there’s not the same market for interactive 3D tour experiences (even of Hell) as there is for action-packed slashfests.


By giving Dante the Crusader the ability to redeem or admonish souls, Visceral has veered wildly from Christian theology, in which only God has such power. It makes for a more interesting character, definitely, but it raises tons of questions that it never tries to examine. Dante’s power to choose the fate of others of necessity implies that the God who damned them in the first place was either wrong or is not all powerful. The fact that as he cuts a swath through Hell’s nine levels Dante takes out some of the most important figures in the damnation process implies that God’s power is finite, that his work can be undone. That’s all great stuff, the kind of stuff that makes an interesting game. My problem is, this game never mentions it.


Crecente claims that the game is notable because it “manages to entertain and preach equally”. I would maintain that the game is not preaching anything at all, indeed it actively dodges the tough questions and the even tougher lessons. Dante successfully defies God’s will at every turn, to which God reacts scarcely at all (beyond a brief appearance by an angel spouting enigmatic dialogue). The message of the game seems to be that you can defy death and damnation, that you can make your own way despite the rules. That’s the easy way out. It’s what we all want to believe. But it’s not the message of the original Divine Comedy.


The fact is, Visceral have done what artists, writers, and theologians have done for ages: taken the parts of a religious text that they liked (monsters, gruesome tortures, etc.) and ignored the parts they found inconvenient. For all its pretensions to seriousness, I think this game deals with issues of faith and damnation even less interestingly than the otherwise flirty and ridiculous (but fun!) Bayonetta does. At least that game acknowledged the inherent theological consequences of a war between forces claiming to be divine and those ascribed with infernal characteristics. Dante’s Inferno borrows all the signifiers of Hell and jams them into a game without pondering the real questions that having such an active character among these emblems of morality raises.


Unless Dante is supposed to be Jesus. Then, we’d have an interesting game…


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Friday, Feb 19, 2010
Despite popular opinion, I don't think any kind of spoiler can truly ruin your experience with any game.

Before I ever started playing the original No More Heroes I knew all that it had to offer. I knew it was one giant joke, a playful jab at the entire medium and those who love it. I knew about the purposefully empty open world, that Travis Touchdown was a blatant otaku, that he fought with a “beam” saber, and that he was a parody of the stereotypical gamer. I knew about the over-the-top action, the insane bosses, and the game’s embrace of a retro 8-bit style. I thought it sounded awesome and expected to enjoy it, but I hated it. I hated the jokes, I hated Travis, I hated the side jobs, the open world, the Lucha Libre masks, and grinding for cash.


I’ve often wondered what made me hate the game so strongly in those first few hours, and I believe I hated it because the game was spoiled for me. Much of the game’s charm stems from the joy of discovery. Not “discovery” as in environmental exploration but rather the discovery of an unexpected gem of a game. That experience was spoiled for me by the expectations that I had going in. Most talk of spoilers center around plot twists but even a discussion of the experience can spoil a game. And yet, after the wonderfully anti-climatic battle with Letz Shake, I started to warm to No More Heroes. By the time that I heard that robotic voice announce my impending fight with Harvey Moiseiwitsch Volodarskii, I was enjoying myself. And by the time I finished the game, its crazy charm had made me a fan. Despite that joy of discovery being taken away from me, despite all the hate I had for the game, I still came to love it, and I believe that speaks to just how inconsequential any kind of spoiler is to video games.


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Wednesday, Feb 17, 2010
Video games might be a more inherently democratic medium than many others.

Wallace Stevens’s poem “Study of Two Pears” is, as the title suggests, a description of a painting of two pears.  The poem carefully describes the composition of this painting and the shapes and colors that the painting contains.  It also suggests that the painting is so clearly rendered that the images of the pears can not be interpreted as anything but what they are intended to represent: “The pears are not viols,/Nudes or bottles./They resemble nothing else.”  However, as the first line implies the poem is intended as an “opusculum paedagogum” or a “little bit of instruction”.  Thus, despite its mostly descriptive qualities, interestingly the closing lines of the poem suggest that what this well described still life teaches is how framing an image is authoritarian in nature: “The pears are not seen/As the observer wills” (”Study of Two Pears”, Poetry Foundation), implying that the choice of how a subject is seen is derived from the design of the work’s creator, its author.


This kind of authoritarianism, the ability to control what is seen or how we are to know a subject, though, is implied in some way in the way that we conceive of authorship in the first place.  The word authority is derived from auctoritas, which among other things suggests “influence” and “command,” and from autorite, “a book or quotation that settles an argument” (Douglas Harper, “authority”, Online Etymology Dictionary).  We think of artists, like authors, as those who influence how we see things, and as Stevens implies about visual authorship or artistry, they do when they command what we see through drawing a line.


A similar claim might be made about the author of a novel that chooses the details that we are intended to “see” as they set a scene for us.  The claim may be somewhat more difficult in fiction, though, in which visualizing details might allow for a degree of subjectivity or misinterpretation.  We might imagine how some details might appear if the author has not specified them. However, it is, indeed more difficult to make the claim about the authority of visual arts in that it is very difficult to make your eyes “see” something that isn’t there. 


(Try it – imagine that there is a frog sitting on the edge of your computer screen.  Now, believe it, really believe it.  Tricky, no?).


Nevertheless, Stevens point may still be relevant in general about authorship, since even in written fiction, the author is at least “drawing the eye” to see details that approximate his or her own version of reality.  “Seeing” the New York skyline over the shoulder of Odysseus is imaginatively possible, I guess.  However, when you are reading The Odyssey closely, I would think that you are probably more likely visualizing that Cyclops that Homer told you was there.  Authors, then, at least “frame” the world to some degree, and through observation of what they have chosen for us to see, we (and our imaginative faculties) become subject to their influence.


Interestingly, by their very nature, video games appear to be a more democratic medium than many others.  While similar claims can be made about the “authority” of game designers in generating worlds for the player to view, nevertheless, the kind of authority that the film camera might have in choosing the subject matter for a viewer to focus on for a particular scene or that the literary author might have in setting a scene by telling the reader what details to focus on in it is less present and tyrannical in most games.  While I might be limited to viewing a suburban neighborhood in The Sims, because some of the tools of authority have been loaned out to me, the camera and building and purchasing tools, I can choose how to see the scene and add or subtract elements in the scene in a way that even literary fiction does not provide.  These changes are not merely imaginary, they make me complicit in authorship itself, adding and subtracting from a fictive and viewable reality in a substantial way that is not merely imaginative.  Video games challenge “author”-ity because they don’t force us into the “frame” of the author.


The game is often, at least in part, seen as the observer wills.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Feb 16, 2010
The fun of 'Super Mario World' is just figuring out ways to break the level.

My favorite Mario Bros. is the SNES version. It’s not a fun issue. Super Mario Galaxy, Mario 64, and the other games in the series all have their moments. They just don’t inspire the same degree of fascination that Super Mario World has drawn out of me. I can usually plow through the game in a handful of sessions, unlocking every secret through muscle memory. I know the levels to milk for lives when you’re running low. The route to the Blue Yoshi is permanently burned into my mind. I’ve beaten the game’s 2-D predecessors without ever having much interest in going back. I play the 3-D ones, but by about the 50th star, I just want to get it over with. What is this game doing that keeps me coming back?


From a design perspective, Super Mario World is unique in the amount of options that you have when deciding how you want to begin a level. Unlike Super Mario Bros. 3, I can go back to beaten levels and snag power-ups before hitting start then select to immediately exit. There was a bit of dabbling with this in the third game with the inclusion of an inventory system, but it was always a finite resource. There are only so many treasure houses, and the results were usually random. In Super Mario World if I want a cape, I just go get one then try the level again. The DS version (calling it New Super Mario Brothers seems to just confuse people) also plays with this idea, but there were really only two power-ups to collect: big and fire flower. In the 3-D versions, you always start as Mario, and you can’t even carry powers into a level. The only time that you get the bee suit is if it’s an option that the designer includes. Likewise, the only time you get to fly is if the level is built for it in Mario 64. By contrast, the only constraint that Super Mario World imposes is in the ghost houses or castles, and even then, it just means dismounting Yoshi. You are free to bring whatever you like to most levels and engage with them on your own terms.


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