Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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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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Tuesday, Jan 19, 2010
Jim Rossignol’s This Gaming Life is a casual discourse on the growing culture of multiplayer gaming.

Jim Rossignol’s This Gaming Life is a casual discourse on the growing culture of multiplayer gaming. It isn’t so much an exercise in New Game Journalism as it is a look at the way that players are beginning to reflect their gaming lifestyles in the real world. From the celebrity culture of South Korea to Iceland’s bold experiment in EVE Online, all are explored as Rossignol argues the merits of online games as an after the fact situation. They are here to stay and are only getting more popular.


Rossignol describes his interest in games as casual until he took up a boring job and a copy of Quake III. He writes, “Cold mornings, adolescent disinterest, and a nagging hip injury had meant that I was banished from the sports field for many years” (7). A lot of the opening pages are spent justifying this decision, beginning with the point that, like any amusement, it’s the user who makes such decisions into something positive or negative. He points out that the art conversation hasn’t been relevant since DuChamp put a urinal on a wall and writes, “The reason for arguing that games—at least some games—deserve to be classified as art is that it offers gamers a more positive, culturally sanctioned way to describe what they do. It suggests that games are not mere trivia” (18). Borrowing from Ian Bogost’s Procedural Rhetoric, Rossignol explains that the focus of a game is complex experimentation. The plot of Super Mario Brothers is not really the point of the game, it’s about “learning how to run, jump, and open treasure chests” (20). Rather than try to make some bold argument for education or deep human experiences, Rossignol dismisses most of these claims in favor of championing what games already do quite well: fix boredom. He cites a text by Lars Svendsen that points out that boredom is in reality a very real problem today. It was not even in the English language in 1760, being coined to describe “the feeling that there’s nothing worth doing”. It’s not a matter of sitting on your ass; it’s finding nothing meaningful in your life that you want to work for. Rossignol writes, “The bored are not necessarily unhappy with life; they are simply unfulfilled by circumstances, activities, and the things around them” (31). Games are valid then to him because they help to solve this.


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Friday, Jan 15, 2010
Dragon Age: Origins improves the oft maligned mechanic of random battles in a way that improves the RPG experience rather than breaking it.

Role-playing games have changed greatly over the years. They’ve become more accessible, more forgiving, and more popular. One of the more radical changes to the genre has been the elimination of random battles. In most modern RPGs, players can see their enemies, monsters exist in the actual game world instead of an imaginary battlefield, and the genre is better for it. In retrospect, the random battle was a terrible mechanic, frustrating, relentless, and ever-present; they were a chore. So, it’s surprising that they play such a major role in Dragon Age: Origins, many gamers’ pick for the best RPG of 2009. Instead of just removing this annoying mechanic, Dragon Age: Origins twists it into something new and better, something that improves the RPG experience rather than breaking it.


Random battles never happen when you’re in control of your character, only on the world map. You get your first look at the world map a few hours into the game. It’s a literal map, with places of interest highlighted, and when you select a destination, a trail of blood droplets fall onto the paper that mark your progress across the country. This is the only time a random battle can occur: the drops stop, you hear swords clash, and you enter the battlefield. By confining these fights to the world map, Dragon Age ensures that they never become the annoying interruption that most people remember. They only happen when we’re inactive, when we’re watching instead of playing. This also encourages exploration, since we’re free to run around any environment as much as we like without fearing a constant barrage of unseen enemies.


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