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Wednesday, Jan 27, 2010
Playing a video game is fun, watching it, not so much.

Folks have noted that the aesthetics of video games have crept into Hollywood for a number of years.  One of the first times that I can recall someone discussing the idea of video games influencing film was back in 2002 at a media conference.  In a presentation called “Placing the Dominoes: The Issue of Free Will in Run, Lola, Run,” Angela Stephens noted that the titular character in Tom Tykwer’s film essentially “gets three lives” in the film to accomplish her run and that this notion may be derived from the pseudo-immortality of video game character “lives.”


While Stephens wanted to suggest that this notion complicates our own sense of free will because of how such illusions might alter our sense of how much control that we have over our own lives, such complicated readings are probably less common than the simple observation that the visual aesthetics of video games (especially action sequences) have often influenced cinematic visual aesthetics.  For instance, I recall watching Revenge of the Sith and thinking how much the sequence with Obi Wan and Anakin fighting over a lava field on chunks of rock resembled a platformer like Mario.


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Tuesday, Jan 26, 2010
What Weird Worlds offers is an enormous deck of variables: what aliens you meet and what gear you find, and shuffles them up every game.

The roguelike is a genre that is about developing skills to compete with randomness. While a basic core set of rules make-up the gameplay, the things that you will be encountering will always be presented randomly. There will be a different set of items for you to find, a different way that you’ll progress through the world, and the player must rely on their judgment and skill to progress. For many players in competitive games, the goal is to find as many ways as possible to reduce the effects of randomness so that they can always win. Greg Costikyan notes in an excellent post about randomness in games that “if we feel that we just got lucky—or, worse, that someone else won even though we were obviously the smarter player, because they just got lucky—we’re likely to think less of the game”. Yet creating a balanced game design where the randomness keeps players on their toes without seeming unfair is hard to do. One of the best examples of balanced randomness is the indie classic Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space. Playing like a cross between Solitaire and Star Control 2, it offers an interesting take on games that randomly create their worlds because many sessions do boil down to pure luck. It still stays engaging precisely because the strategy of the game is learning to work with what you’ve got.


At the start of each session, you’re asked if you want to operate as a scientist, pirate, or military vessel. Ship type will decide which scoring system will apply to that session: military awards points for signing treaties and defeating enemies while science awards points for collecting artifacts and animals.  The size of the galaxy that you’re in adjusts how long the play session will be, enemy strength can be adjusted for those wanting to rev up the combat, and nebula mass can be changed to make navigating the map more difficult. Less nebulae means that the galaxy can be travelled around much faster. Playing as the science vessel is a fairly calm experience, you don’t have enough weapons to do much combat. You move around the galaxy collecting artifacts and trying to find ways to get various aliens to talk to you. The military version, on the other hand, is a tough grind as you search for stronger weapons then start taking on anyone that you think you’ve got an edge on. Piracy is a bit more random as you snatch anything that you can find. The scientist mission usually ends peacefully because you never bother with fighting while military missions typically end violently with you biting off more than you can chew.


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Friday, Jan 22, 2010
DiRT 2 is a racing sim that does everything it can to appeal to the Burnout crowd.

There has always been a divide between fans of racing games. One side prefers racing sims like Gran Turismo, which emphasize the technical details of racing; the other side prefers arcade racers like Burnout, which emphasize speed and have a low learning curve. But the past few months have seen two racing sims come out that try to make the experience more enjoyable for those that prefer the arcade style: Forza Motorsport 3 and DiRT 2. Despite the similar features in each, and the bevy of assists in Forza 3, I believe DiRT 2 does the better job appealing to gamers of my ilk, who have always preferred Burnout over pretty much everything else.


The setting helps. By taking races off their enclosed concrete tracks, the tracks feel less formal. Yes, they are still enclosed, but there’s a rebelliousness to racing on the dirt, mud, and gravel as if Dirt 2 is upping the ante on other racing games. This feeling is reinforced by sporadic puddles and ramps. This isn’t your everyday race track; you’re fighting the environment just as much as the other racers. It doesn’t immediately look like the kind of race that would demand precision braking, it looks more accessible. Driving though such an obstacle course is fun in its own right, so even if a rookie is in last place there’s still enjoyment to be had. Never underestimate the allure of a ramp.


Tagged as: dirt 2
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Thursday, Jan 21, 2010

Dark Void ships this week, and for a certain kind of person (science geeks like me) one of the big selling points, aside from the jet packs, is that it includes famed genius inventor Nikolai Tesla as one of its main characters. The sad thing is, like Leonardo Da Vinci in Assassin’s Creed 2, Tesla is shunted off into a supporting role, the genius inventor who creates all the cool gear that the heroes use to fight evil. Sure, Ezio’s a cool cat and fun to play, but when do these inspired inventors get their time to shine? While Half-Life‘s Gordon Freeman is nominally a research scientist, not only does he not talk, we also don’t see him doing much science. But I think that the world is ready for the brains behind the bad-ass gear to lead the fight. We’ve got Iron Man‘s Tony Stark out there blazing the trail in comics and movies and people like the Mythbusters doing it in real life.


I’ve put together a list of some real world scientists and inventors who deserve games all on their own, people who’s historical lives were as interesting as Tesla’s or Da Vinci’s and who would offer thrills and chills aplenty for any gamer.


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Wednesday, Jan 20, 2010
Death and dismemberment is a given in stylish action games of this sort, but the manner in which death and dismemberment occurs is a different matter.

While I focused last week’s blog on the hypersexual and ultraviolent spectacle of Bayonetta (as many game critics seem to be doing, like Chris Dahlen and Leigh Alexander), I wanted to briefly mention a little detail about the game that I admire beyond its audaciousness, something much less spectacular at first glance: the loading screens.


Loading screens are usually viewed as an irritation by most, and most players would like to see them removed or shortened as much as possible (as my colleague, L.B. Jeffries wrote about not too long ago).  While I am no fan of staring at loading screens, I have found that occasionally they serve a useful purpose in my gaming experience.  Sometimes they teach me something.


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