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

 
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Text:AAA
Friday, Mar 6, 2009
This post acknowledges the existence of sex and various game related ways of engaging with the act. Be warned.


This post acknowledges the existence of sex and various game related ways of engaging with the act. Be warned.


As the moral outrage at a Japanese sex game involving rape called Rapelay continues to spread, game critics are confronted with a fairly tricky problem. On the one hand, why is our artistic medium not allowed to discuss rape? It’s not as if books and film did not long ago breach the topic. Blue Velvet, Boys Don’t Cry, or Thelma & Louise all feature incredibly graphic rape scenes. Literature has obviously covered the topic extensively as well, from Wuthering Heights to The Kite Runner. People arguing that these books are superior in their content because they handle the topic maturely are on shaky ground because, frankly, who wants to detail how to tastefully portray rape? As soon you establish some kind of standard you’re just going to inspire something more revolting because the entire point of discussing a topic like rape is the awfulness of it. If Rapelay is the standard of what games should not do, someone will create something just to cross the line.


On the other hand, this is not really the game to stage a protest over. This is not the first filming of two men kissing on-screen in an elegant discourse on the plight of men dealing with H.I.V. in Philadelphia or something equally valid. It’s a bad Japanese dating sim targeting people with a disturbing fetish. Another problem is that considering this is a medium that is short on female protagonists and even shorter on portraying loving relationships, video games haven’t really earned the right to talk about rape. Both film and books long ago covered love and relationships in every way imaginable before discussing this sort of violation. Video games, drawing close to 40 years old, do not have much that demonstrates they can even handle the topic of sex in the first place. So, in the spirit of our last post on sex games, we’re going to discuss another video game that handles the topic of sex responsibly.


It’s debatable whether the creators of the rumble feature in game controllers knew what they were getting into, but the uses for such a device outside strict gaming have been discussed before. A vibrating controller is going to have its uses for anyone with a private moment and a locked door. What’s interesting is that up until now there was never a game that gave you direct control over the vibrations. The girl in the linked article describes a few games where you could get this state going indefinitely, but Rez’s attempt at coordinating vibrations with techno music was the first real breakthrough in consistency for her. The Xbox Community game Rumble Massage has changed all that. For a measly 200 points you can download the game and adjust the vibration rate of your controller and massage any part of your body that you choose. Another addition allows a partner to control this aspect for you over Xbox Live. In essence, one person is moving the joystick adjusting the vibration rate while the other holds the vibrating device. It all works a bit like the vibrating egg from Shortbus without the awkward remote or invasive egg. Fans of the game, it seems safe to say, should keep one controller locked away somewhere.


It all goes back to interaction when it comes to games. The reason people get so upset about sex in games is because the player is interacting with it. The reason people have so much fun with games is because they’re interacting with it. I don’t think any of the sex games we’ve discussed in this series could accurately be called a simulation, but they do represent a unique conceptualization of sex. I’ve not played the game, but Rapelay’s biggest problem might simply be the failure to represent interacting with sex in a way that isn’t one-sided. If Rumble Massage or The Dark Room Sex Game are any indication, sex games seem to always best maintain their dignity as co-op experiences. If YouTube videos like the tasteful Everybody Daylight are acceptable depictions of the act, I suppose video games can manage something eventually.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Mar 2, 2009
A film about the healing power of Nintendo.


The idea for writing an essay on The Wizard came after watching the Angry Video Game Nerd episode about it. The basic criticism of the movie is that it’s a giant commercial for Nintendo products. While this is technically true, I’d just randomly watched The Mindscape of Alan Moore before this one and was full of some heady notions about the power of writing. When he claimed that most modern magi are drunks, neglecting their talent or working in advertising, it made me wonder what kind of magic would go into an entire film that’s about a single product. If you think about it, there aren’t too many films that can actually claim this. TV series? Sure, G.I. Joe and other shows were glorified ways to sell toys. But those were only about 24 minutes long. An entire 90 minute film that’s about selling a product to a person? That is a spectacle which, however much bullshit it may be proposing, is worth taking a look at just for its sheer audacity.


 


The film begins with a troubled child lost and confused, only able to say the word “California”. We are then surrounded by his family in turmoil. A divorced mother has taken refuge with a man who doesn’t love her children. The father, unable to perform the traditional motherly functions of cooking for his children, is shown missing her. She is also sorely missed by her two boys, but when the father is asked to care for his third helpless child, the divorce blocks him because he does not have custody. Even Christian Slater, playing himself trapped in another bad movie, is acting like a dick. What could possibly heal this broken family and restore the joy to their lives? Fred Savage, equipped with his grapefruit head, only knows that family is what matters most. He traces his third brother to a mental home where he was placed by the cruel step-father. He sees the fate his brother has been doomed to: sitting blank faced, watching television, with no California in sight. What could make the activity of watching T.V. not so bland, no so emotionless? Fred Savage has a plan: sneak onto a truck full of chocolate cake while they head towards his brother’s favorite state! Fred is eventually horrified to discover that the script is going to demand someone change at some point, and storms back with the plot device that they are out of money. It is then that he discovers that his youngest brother, in a scant five minutes, has gained 50,000 points in Double Dragon. This sentence was originally a long explanation about why this was impossible, but then I realized that I’d have to do that for every other part of the film and replaced it with this.


 


Quick to notice this prowess at video games is the girl from The Goonies. Attracted by his skill at games, she is quick to recognize that his gaming abilities are a potential source of income and power for the once ostracized little brother. Fred Savage, grapefruit shining, shows his support for his little brother by betting money on his brother’s skills. The challenge does pan out but they are soon forced to find other ways to make money once the bus leaves them. Why not gambling? Indeed, risk is a fundamental theme of this film as 3 children hitch-hike across the country to a video game tournament in Los Angeles. Roger Ebert complained that the film actively promoted that children would be safe wandering the open roads. Which is true, but in the spirit of the film it is also promoting the liberation that Nintendo has provided these kids. Thanks to his ability to master Nintendo, they have money to spend, and one can’t help but notice that Fred is a little more confident with the Goonies chick. Interspersed with these successes are scenes of traveling through a vast and exciting landscape. The freedom these children have gained through Nintendo is developed by showing the oddities of the world. This is made literal by showing bikers, truckers, and all the other exciting things kids would love to do if they were truly free. Before Nintendo they were sleeping outside and hearing wolves; after Nintendo they’ve got a chick and money and the open road.


 


Christian Slater and the Dad are unable to communicate as they look for Fred Savage and the Wizard. The father’s ineptitude continues, allowing the empowerment of the son as he is the only one who can “follow the map”. Christian Slater struggles to express his feelings for the Dad until, while laying in his boxers with the Dad in a very small bed, he tells him that he loves him. The father is unable to appreciate this moment and Christian Slater is forced to retreat into video games. Despite the initial resistance of the Dad, Christian Slater awakes to see the Dad enjoying the same game. They have a newfound common ground thanks to Nintendo. Fred Savage, the Wizard, and the chick from The Goonies must continue to rely on their game skills and luck to survive. A couple of cow farmers prove that adults can’t be trusted, and some old geezers prove to be easy bait for the Wizard’s skills. But they soon realize that it’s not just adults who can’t be trusted, but kids too. A couple of older punks victimize them because of the Wizard’s Nintendo skills and beat up Fred Savage. Even worse, some gamers can actually be total assholes. The Kid With The Power Glove is quick to demonstrate his mastery of the Nintendo Universe. He owns every game (all 97) and he’s good at all of them. Our shining model for competency, the only player who is a worthy opponent of the Wizard, attained his status through practice and by buying every product possible. When he pulls out the Power Glove, everyone is in awe of its newness. The Wizard, firmly warned not to ruin the pace of the film, refuses to play against him because, “California”.


 


Throughout these moments there have been the interspersed scenes of the adult males acting out their masculine aggression in unproductive ways. A Professional Child Kidnapper and the Dad engage in several such battles with their cars. Smashing, destroying, and ruining each other’s productivity, the two men are not just at war, they are undermining their very ability to work as a business. If only something could come along that would allow them to express this sense of dominance that they mistakenly project on one another. As the Power Glove Kid and the Wizard show to us all, it is the children relying on Nintendo who have found an alternative. With these shenanigans also come the scenes of the games themselves. Rarely are we subjected to mindless slashing sessions. Driving a car in traffic, defusing bombs, and acrobatics are the themes of each gaming scene. To the parent watching Nintendo in action, they can see that this is a game system that’s about something more than just sitting front of a TV. Eventually there is a plot twist and it is revealed that the source of the Wizard’s trauma was watching his twin sister drown. The chick from The Goonies is quick to join in, admitting that her father is a trucker and that she wants to buy her own father a new home.  But the kids know they are going to have to work hard to win at Nintendo despite all these issues. Investing several hundred dollars in the Nintendo hotline, they are quick to find the information they need to become video game masters. Working tirelessly, they demonstrate the hard work and financial investment it takes to be as good at games as someone like the Kid With The Power Glove.


 


The culmination of the film is at Universal Studios. In a bold move, the qualifying game is Ninja Gaiden, a title whose challenge is legendary and that few can handle. The Wizard is able to deliver though, but just before he can move on to the final round the Professional Child Kidnapper is upon them. In these final moments the film makes its protagonists become parts of their very hobby. The screaming King Kong and the jets of fire all introduce fantastic elements that deliver these kids into a video game itself. The Nintendo has become real. In the nick of time they get back to the competition and the Wizard is able to play. In this final showdown, all members of the family are shown drawn together to support him. As each one roots for the Wizard, they slowly find a sense of commonality amongst each other. Even the Professional Child Kidnapper is seen rooting for him in the end. The once broken family has been healed by the power of Nintendo. The final scene shows the Wizard finally finding his peace as they drive back to Utah. Earlier in the film, the first coherent words he murmured were, “I don’t want to Quit [playing Nintendo so we can win the Big Tournament and I love you].”  Truly, it is the Wizard who senses that his gaming abilities are not just about playing games. It is he who detects the family coming back together through Nintendo, who realizes that by competing with the Kid With The Power Glove he can someday go on to put the memories of his sister to rest. The Wizard is able to succeed at this thanks to the power of, one more time, Nintendo.


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Text:AAA
Thursday, Feb 26, 2009
The recent release of NOBY NOBY BOY cements the PS3 as the most reliable destination for "play" with or without the "game".

What NOBY NOBY BOY does for you is entirely dependent on two things.


First, it depends on your tolerance for the utterly bizarre. Its entire color palette is made up of pastels—no primary colors, really, but never quite reaching the unnatural glow of pure neon. You start as a peanut-shaped thing but quickly turn yourself into a worm with a disproportionately large head and backside. You crawl around a floating, rectangular patch of land, the danger of falling off ever-looming, while you eat and poop everything you can in an effort to make your worm-like body more stretchy, and by extension longer. There’s something called a space squirrel involved. If you zoom out far enough, you get to see a space-eye view of the planet you’re on, complete with a little character of some sort sitting on the top. And, in an oddly phallic twist for an E-rated game, you (as BOY) report your length to something called GIRL whenever you feel it necessary, contributing along with the rest of the NOBY NOBY BOY community to her own eternal stretch through the solar system.


Right.


If you’re still interested, then, there’s one other thing that will determine the extent of your affinity (or lack thereof) for NOBY NOBY BOY: your willingness to self-motivate. Yes, there are trophies, but all except for one of them are hidden, and almost all of them are the sorts of things that will happen naturally through the course of exploring the game (though at least one of them is so obscure that it seems to work as a tipoff that GameFAQs was consulted for the sake of its capture). There is no death state, no love of BOY’s life to rescue, no world to save; there simply exists the directive to “explore! Have fun!”, with the cooperative objective of growing GIRL into new planets to explore.


For the most part, what this means is that there is no “game” to NOBY NOBY BOY; there is only “play”.


This sort of mechanic is becoming something of a habit for the PlayStation 3, particularly in the PlayStation Network’s library of downloadable titles. In the week before NOBY NOBY BOY was released, we saw Flower, the hype for which is actually stealing the thunder from this week’s release of Killzone 2; though we know who’s going to win in sales between those two, I don’t see Killzone getting a gushing writeup on Entertainment Weekly’s blog any time soon. Preceding Flower was flOw, another non-game with a dubious set of “goals”, and even the early PSN title Pain is little more than a sandbox in which to play. The trophies are here to satiate those who would try to wring a “game” out of these titles (and some of them present themselves as more linear and game-like than others), but the game is not the point. Simply being a part of these games’ respective worlds is the point. Even Home, the PS3’s answer to Second Life, falls into this category, giving PS3 users something else to do even as they’re not strictly gaming.


What Sony seems to have hit on here is a way to appeal to mature gamers, likely the ones who’ve been with the Sony brand since the original PlayStation, by providing a counter-argument to the idea that what mature gamers want is bigger, bloodier, and more photorealistic. By providing these open worlds, “games” with an innocence and a distinct lack of competitive appeal alongside things like Metal Gear Solid 4 and the aforementioned Killzone 2, they’re acknowledging that “mature” is a multifaceted concept; that sometimes, all we need is a little bit of peace, a little bit of joy, and maybe a little bit of community.


This last brings us back to what is perhaps the most innovative, and potentially most interesting, feature of NOBY NOBY BOY—space exploration. The length of GIRL, at any given time, is the cumulative length that’s been reported to GIRL by every single player playing NOBY NOBY BOY on the PlayStation Network. This past Monday, four days after the game’s release, GIRL reached the moon thanks to those efforts, and now we have a new playground to play in. Somehow, knowing that those of us who bought the game early were a part of such a monumental task is enough motivation for some of us to start working on the next goal—namely, Mars, which could potentially be a long way off (scroll down to q3c’s comment in the preceding link).


This is not a cooperative goal like those of recent first-person shooters or even the hero-sidekick mechanics of something like Super Mario Galaxy; the quality of the game for everyone who plays it is entirely dependent on the willingness of its entire population of players to play it enough to expand its solar system. If the game’s fanbase quickly diminishes, we may never know the extent to which its programmers planned for GIRL to stretch, and there’s something exciting about having to depend on the rest of a world of players to find out. We may not even ever know what Mars looks like, which would be a right shame given the mass improvement that even the moon presents over the earth in terms of gameplay—the bigger surface on which to stretch and the multitude of new creatures to look at contribute to the sense of just how absolutely vital this aspect of the game is to maintaining player interest.


As such, I implore you: Buy NOBY NOBY BOY. Not because I think you’ll enjoy it—really, there’s no way of telling you whether this game will be your cup of tea or not, other than perhaps your sense of the two factors I presented at the top of this little writeup. No, I want you to buy NOBY NOBY BOY because the more of you who play, the quicker we get to Mars, which I’d like to see before my kids graduate college.


Also, it’s $5, which seems a small price to pay to help promote the sort of imagination present in an experience like NOBY NOBY BOY.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Feb 25, 2009
I found this game thanks to Play This Thing!.


About two months ago I made a few loose predictions about the future gaming trends for 2009. One of the things I pointed out was that the most wide-open genre of gaming for the entrepreneur was the forum game. The primary goal of this game would not really be the typical stats and sense of accomplishment that games provide. It would instead use these to encourage clicks on the website to generate ad revenue.


The closest thing I’ve seen really start pushing this agenda was Facebook’s 25 Random Things. Write 25 facts about yourself that no one knows, tag 25 friends who will be notified about it, and encourage them to do the same. The article cited goes into the various reactions to the phenomenon, some found it therapeutic while others decided it was an excuse to protest the existence of the internet. What is interesting about this Facebook note is the notion of calling it a game instead of a chain letter. I tend to change my definition of video games every couple of months because some indie game will challenge it, but for the moment I’ve been relying on Corvus Elrod’s stab at it: A game is a set of rules and/or conditions, established by a community, which serve as a bounded space for play. In that context, I’d say the 25 Random Things fits the bill nicely.


A recent title from the Global Game Jam has taken this concept of a forum game and moved it one step further. Wikipaths is an add-on for your web browser. It starts you out on one page of Wikipedia and then challenges you to use only links to get to another unrelated page. The game is timed rather than count links since presumably everything in Wikipedia links to itself eventually. As Greg Costikyan notes in his review, there is immense room for improvement here. A spider program could count the minimum number of links it actually takes and challenge the player to reach it. There is also the choice of Wikipedia as a website and the aimlessness of randomly selecting another unrelated page to link towards. The application of such a program to any website is going to be generating clicks and ad revenue, but you still need a carrot on the stick to get it working.


Future iterations could simply take this program and apply it to Facebook. Off the top of my head there are already a few games I personally play with the website when bored. How many clicks does it take to get to a blonde? How many clicks to get to someone from high school? Beyond that is applying the concept for more useful applications such as research. Going back to Wikipedia, a spider search could generate a series of documents that are all applicable not based in word content but in their connections to one another. Whether or not this produces a better search remains to be seen. As noted in the article about 2009 predictions, by the time someone nails this concept it’ll be too late to copy them.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Feb 24, 2009
An alright game with some interesting design ideas and a few classic problems.

One of the inevitabilities of doing critiques of video games is encountering a game that has an interesting design but dull story or good story but bad design. In the former’s case, it’s not really necessary to finish the game because after a few hours you’ll have learned the gist of the system. So I’m going to be frank and admit that I didn’t finish The Thing, but saw a lot of interesting ideas going on. I ended up quitting at about the same point as Alec Meer in his retrospective piece at Rock, Paper, Shotgun.  After the tenth time of doing the same 20 minute battle only to fall off a piece of scaffolding and start over, I’d had enough. A brutally distant save point system combined with too many awkward insta-kill puzzles resulted in a game that was too tedious. The plot itself is what would happen if you took the script of Aliens and swapped out all the words with ones from The Thing. Minus the interesting female lead, motherhood overtones, and space travel. But, beyond all of that, there is a very interesting squad game design along with an excellent illustration of misusing cutscenes.


Like any survival horror game, this is a system of managing finite resources. Going outside drains your stamina, meaning you can only be out for a certain period before you start to freeze to death. Ammo and health packs are often in short supply while enemies are in abundance. What gets added to this mix is squad mates who each have a specific job. One is a glorified key card (they’re the only ones who can fix certain electric panels), another is an unlimited source of health, and the third is an extra gun. What’s interesting is that your squads have both a trust and sanity bar. Most people you meet will think you’ve been infected by the alien (and thus under its control) so you have a variety of ways to earn their trust. What’s interesting is that all of these involve sacrificing resources. You can give them a gun, heal them, etc. This trust can also be lost if you accidentally shoot them, hide from a fight, or just ditch them. No trust means they don’t accept orders, and in the case of the medic or engineer you often need them to. The catch is that anyone you come in contact with may also be infected by the Thing. So when you’re handing over health kits to keep a squad mate alive, you might find out a few minutes later that the whole thing was a giant waste. This is a perfect example of a game design using two conflicting needs to create tension. On the one hand, you can always use an extra gunner and the medic is obviously handy. On the other hand, they are eventually going to get infected and turn on you. You can get your ammo and gun back from the corpse after you kill them, but the much rarer health kits will be long gone. Making that choice adds an unexpectedly unique kind of resource management to the game. The game does destroy the replayability of this feature by making the infections linear. The people in your party will either die or cross an invisible line and instantly become infected. There is no keeping them intact after a certain point, making it possible to maximize resources when such an ability shouldn’t exist.


 


Another interesting thing about the squad game design is the sanity meter. Whereas the average player may be quite desensitized to gore and swarms of aliens coming after them, the AI of your squadmates is not. Walk by a shredded corpse and someone on your team might vomit. Leave them in the blood filled room with human entrails and their fear will spike up. They typically tend to be less responsive to orders and less able to handle their weapons when they are frightened as well. If they get scared enough they’ll either curl into a ball crying or worse, shoot themselves. What’s remarkable about this is that the system forces the player to be aware of all the violence and gore. Most research into how games desensitize people is fairly suspect, but the more probable reason the player gets desensitized is that they are seeing the same death scenes and visuals repeatedly. To someone whose never played GTA IV, watching someone screw around with a rocket launcher might seem horrific. To that player, it’s just the same reaction they’ve seen dozens of times. Preventing that desensitization from happening, that tuning out of the game’s themes and focusing purely on victory, is a laudable goal. Every time the player notices a squad mate freaking out, looks around, and thinks “Hey, This is pretty gross”, that player is dragged back into the experience. Every time I’m getting swarmed by enemies and one of my squadmate wets their pants (this will happen) I’m reminded of how crazy the whole situation has become. Finding a new way for the game design to communicate what the plot is telling me is a remarkable accomplishment for any game.


The game suffers from a classic case of ‘I wish I was a movie’, and you get this sense from the constant barrage of cut scenes that aren’t induced by player input. Mixing cutscenes with a game is a tricky work because they always need to be voluntary, never an interruption. Given the intense difficulty the design creates, there’s no need to turn it into a cutscene every time I see someone that wants to talk. The player probably going to be willing to hear them out just to get their help. Since they don’t resemble any of the other enemies, you’re not going to accidentally shoot them like in a game full of humans. The trust meter will also deter this kind of conduct since accidentally shooting another person means they won’t take orders. If the game has to keep taking control away from the player because they don’t care what people are saying, that’s a foundational problem with the design, not an excuse to force something on the player. Any incentive to obey a game’s plot is always going to seem artificial when you look at it purely from the design perspective. You can’t let the engineer die because you need him to open a locked door. You need health so you need the medic. The motivation isn’t the much pleasanter “I can’t let him die because he’s a fellow human being” that the plot is conveying, but is that really a flaw? Every good story has basic rules of conduct and morality governing it. A system of rules is not going to generate an emotion by itself anymore than the Penal Code of your home country is going to make you love everyone because murder means going to jail. The rules establishe a mode of conduct that you cannot engage in without consequences, the people you meet and personally enjoy are what generates the higher emotions of concern. That’s how the plot/art/sound and game design interact, the design is the skeleton, the rest is the flesh & blood that gives it life. The cookie cutter plot, parade of grizzled soldiers, and the generic plot twists make The Thing do little for this idea of games. Its skeleton, however, is quite a remarkable piece of work.


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