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Text:AAA
Monday, Nov 3, 2008
A breakdown of 2K's methods of overcoming ludonarrative dissonance in a very dark, conflicted plot. Spoilers abound.


Clint Hocking once used the phrase ludonarrative dissonance to describe the times when what you’re doing in a video game in terms of the design does not merge with the plot. It’s an old post and I hate to drag out the Bioshock analysis but it could just as easily reference GTA IV or any other game. What do you do when what the game design and thus player input allows does not really make sense for the character? 2K’s The Darkness explores this question by creating a three-way relationship between the protagonist, the demon controlling him, and the player. Yes, the game’s lip animation is a bit off and the Trent Reznor-looking protagonist is a bit dated. But past the Uncanny Valley is a very sharp game design that draws the player in and supports the narrative. Given that the game is about a man losing his soul for the sake of revenge, it is quite a feat that by the end the player is just as guilty as the protagonist.


The game opens with what will become the principle theme throughout the game: the player is dragged into increasingly dangerous actions that he can only loosely control. You awaken in the backseat of a car with a driver who is fleeing the cops in the Lincoln Tunnel. As the driver steers into incoming traffic while maniacally laughing, the player is immediately frustrated at not being in control while insane mobsters are operating the car. The fact that the game design lets you swing the camera and take a few shots before the crash only reinforces this helplessness. The game then transgresses into being an FPS similar to the Call of Duty duck and cover play style. You have no explicit health bar, ammo must be checked by tapping a button, and things proceed generically until the demon (The Darkness) manifests itself. Although it has been a weird voice-over for the opening levels of the game, when it takes over Jackie’s body control is literally jerked from the player. The swarm of mobsters that have surrounded you are horribly killed…but it’s all done from a Half-life 2-esque perspective that looks exactly like how we play the game. It again establishes the theme of having control yanked away from the player, only this time it is now performing actions that the player themselves, within the context of the game design, are capable of doing. Contrast that to a cutscene of Kratos doing a bunch of flips that would be impossible to implement in regular controls: the game design is flaunting your possession just as the character of the Darkness, narrative-wise is doing the same thing.


Alone this would be nothing but a fairly gimmicky narrative/game design device. What the game does is then flesh this violation of control out with a combination of Deus Ex-style dialogue sequences and load-screen diatribes. In regards to the latter, it’s simply the protagonist giving a short speech about his feelings towards the story. Imagine Bioware’s tactic of telling backstory in load screens taken to a much grander scale. Whether it’s the protagonist talking about being beaten by his Uncle or how much he loves his girlfriend, it gets in talking time without making the player sit still more than they would anyways. As for the dialogue sections, Jackie can move around New York City and receive various side quests from homeless people, old mobsters, and friends. What makes these extremely interesting is that there are no benefits in-game for doing these missions. You get some unlockable content that can be viewed if you quit (usually a comic book), but there’s no money, weapons, or change to the plot to be had by doing this. You are also expected to behave respectfully in-game. If you walk away while someone is talking, they get upset and ignore you. If you point a gun at them, they get offended. By having no reward for these somewhat demanding side-missions the game presents an interesting option: are you such a good person that you want to actually help someone for no personal benefit?


Yet having non-rewarding missions is just one way that the game explores your eventual self-destruction, it even goes so far as to present an option for sitting down and not killing people. Just think about an FPS featuring that and you appreciate what a bold move it is. It starts with the options presented with your interactions with Jackie’s girlfriend, Jenny. Since all of the loadscene diatribes are founded on Jackie talking to Jenny (in darkness), we already have begun to develop ideas about our relationship with her. That she isn’t there to respond facilitates the player putting their own impressions on her. When you actually do meet her, the player is confronted with explaining to her why he is in trouble with the mob and the people you’ve killed. The options are startlingly frank: ‘Protect her from the truth’ is one while ‘Tell her the truth’, if selected, puts the player into an incongruous position. Jackie doesn’t want to and instead lies. Whatever you tell Jenny, she immediately assures you that you’re not really a bad guy and invites you inside. Just as doing the side missions offers no real incentives in-game neither does hanging out with Jenny. All of the exchanges with her involve mostly standing or sitting doing nothing. The Darkness, frustrated at this downtime, will declare, “She reeks of innocence!” It potentially gives voice to the more violence-prone players, while those who think of Jackie as a decent guy caught up in some trouble will be more resistant. The only reward you get for sitting on the couch for an extended period is Jenny saying that she loves you and kissing you. Yet if you want, you can watch ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in its entirety in-game with her. What better analogy for Jenny’s belief in you, the rampaging protagonist, than Atticus Finch defending a man everyone else thinks is a rapist? She is the one person who thinks Jackie is worth redeeming.


 


While it doesn’t provide an option for pacifism, the game’s plot does emphasize that as Jackie’s bloodbath continues so does Uncle Paulie’s (the villain) wrath. As you wage a mob war with one another, your friends and family who you’ve been helping in the side missions get sucked into the mess. At one point, the player meets up with Jenny and sees the chaos left after Uncle Paulie has blown up your childhood home. All the while, the Darkness is making cruel comments and snide jokes, again echoing those players who would rather be shooting than listening to the story. It’s the dichotomy that the player is torn between: does one spend time developing selfless relationships or be a cold blooded killer? Is Jackie a decent person struggling against oppressors or is he just an asshole with a gun? The conduct to be either is possible. All of this culminates in what is probably one of the most tragic cutscenes ever to grace a videogame. Jenny is kidnapped and murdered in front of us. Again, it’s all Half-life 2 style and again, the Darkness has taken control from us. Claiming that “she was a burden, this is freedom”, it is a manifestation of removing that choice of staying with Jenny from the player. It is taking away the option of being a decent person. With her death, there is no longer a need for a game design with a happy ending or for anything but rampant destruction. There is no ludonarrative dissonance because our one source of options for non-violence (the only passive activity in the game is sitting with Jenny) has died. Plotwise, Jackie’s rampage is equally expected.


 


Jackie’s suicide because of losing Jenny yanks control from both the player and The Darkness and ends with him being placed in his own private hell. Rather than be irksome, it magnifies how upset Jackie is because again, in Half-Life 2 style, a gun is put to our mouth in as shocking a manner as Jenny’s loss. To Jackie Estacado and the player, Hell is a World War I battlefield. Once you collect yourself, you are put out on a mission to gain control of the Darkness so you can use its supernatural powers. Yet Estacado is eerily unwilling to explore the implications of The Darkness being just as responsible for Jenny’s death as Uncle Paulie. He instead needs those powers to get his revenge and throughout the game we are complicit in that necessity. Without the Darkness activated, we lack the shield it generates and will be ripped to shreds in most gunfights. You must accommodate the demon by destroying all of the lights so it can stay healthy. In order to level up the demon, you have to feed it the hearts of people you’ve killed. In this way the game design draws the player into actively feeding and supporting the Darkness, despite its damning nature, just as much as Estacado does. In the final moments of Hell, Jackie is even partially told how to free himself from the demon, but he isn’t interested. When the Darkness is finally weakened, the player can only merge with it so he can keep killing for revenge. It is a decision that would be bothersome for many people were it not for the fact that the game design has already made us utterly dependent on the creature. The ludonarrative dissonance is again circumvented in this moment because the game design has drawn us into Jackie’s decision to keep the demon so that we at least appreciate his motives. There is still one more person that needs killing.


The game design makes us complicit with the tragic ending because the Darkness is steadily gaining control of us with each death and consumed heart. The fact that you cannot become strong enough to survive without helping the Darkness makes this dilemma all the more difficult for the player. You have to do it to progress in the game and hunt down Uncle Paulie. In the final level of the game, the Darkness again takes control of Jackie, just as he did in the opening and with Jenny. As in those other moments, it is all actions the player himself can do such as killing swarms of people or taking down a helicopter. The Darkness literally robs the player of experiencing the last level by playing it for us. The final moments confront the player with a curious illusionary choice: kill Uncle Paulie and lose your soul to The Darkness or…nothing. You do not have any other alternative. Merging linear game design and plot, the final scene of the game forces the player to confront the truth. Sitting with Jenny was the only game option that didn’t involve killing, without her the player is just feeding the Darkness and losing the metaphorical war inside Jackie’s soul. In this way, the game design supports the linear narrative by providing motivation and necessity for the player that coincides with Jackie’s choices. When Jenny died, so did the choice we could have had in that final moment.


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Text:AAA
Sunday, Nov 2, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-11-03...

In a holiday week where it appears that most publishers are treading water and waiting for the final holiday push to year’s end, two titles stand out as the ones that are going to be fighting for gamers’ shelf space by the time the week ends.  In an interesting twist of scheduling, however, the fight won’t be fought based on quality, necessarily, but on the basis of which players have which consoles.


First only by virtue of its release date is Resistance 2 the sequel to the game that all but single-handedly saved the PS3’s launch lineup.  When the PS3 was released, the one inescapable criticism that it couldn’t shake off was the mere fact that there were almost no games worth playing in the launch catalog; in that lineup, Resistance was a beacon of exclusively-licensed hope.  It has since stood the test of time as one of the PS3’s most celebrated shooters, and Resistance 2 stands an awfully good shot of continuing that legacy as it introduces the prospect of a simultaneous 60-person competitive multiplayer mode.  60 people.  I’m a programmer by day, and that just sounds like a nightmare of network programming to me, but more power to Insomniac for deciding to tackle such a beast.


Of course, later this week comes Gears of War 2, and having spent a little bit of time with this one myself, let me tell you (in case you hadn’t already heard), it’s really an incredible gaming experience.  The first Gears of War was a success almost entirely on its technical merits; its unse of Unreal Engine 3 was unparalleled, its cover ‘n shoot gameplay was revolutionary for its time, and its enemy design was properly scary and awe-inspiring (and need I even mention the fantastic marketing push?).  The second game, while no great departure, lives up to Epic Games’ president Mike Capps’ proclamation that Gears 2 would be “bigger, better, and more badass”.  The technical marvels are at least doubled, while a renewed focus on the story is made plainly obvious by the second part of the very first act.  Epic obviously took notes on the few gripes that players had with the first game, taking steps to correct them for the second.


Elsewhere, it seems that licensed product is commanding most of the attention.  James Bond: Quantum of Solace is being released for a whole pile of consoles this week, and despite the fact that no Bond game since Goldeneye has lived up to the way that game captivated us back in the days of the Nintendo 64, we still continue to expect just a little more of Bond than of other licensed properties; hopefully Quantum of Solace can give us some of the fun escapism that so many other more serious games are lacking of late.  WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 is also coming out for pretty much everything this week, and you probably already know if you’re buying it, but Lord knows there’s an audience for it.


As for lesser-known titles?  I’m not sure how you can turn down a game with a title like Little Red Riding Hood’s Zombie BBQ, but maybe that’s just me.


What are you picking up this week?  Is it back to work against the Locusts?  Up for another go-‘round with The Undertaker?  Or maybe that Tom Clancy game that’s sneaking quietly into the picture is more your speed?  Let us know, and remember—slow down.  Enjoy your time with your games.  There’ll be a good nine months starting in January to catch up.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Oct 29, 2008
Arun Subramanian looks at the purest bit of nostalgia yet released for the modern consoles.

It’s not difficult to imagine who the target audience for Mega Man 9 is.  A good number of gamers came of age during the heyday of the NES, when both challenge and level design encouraged multiple playthroughs of titles.  These qualities were particularly important considering both how much more $50 was then than it is now, and how many fewer people were playing video games to begin with, indicating a much more hardcore fanbase.  It doesn’t seem likely that newcomers to Mega Man will have any interest in Mega Man 9.  However, gamers who spent a good deal of time with Mega Man 1 and 2 in their formative years will very likely find the prospect of purchasing a new 8-bit Mega Man for $9.99 irresistible.


That said, it’s somewhat interesting to try and determine who will actually complete the game, given its level of difficulty.  From top to bottom, Mega Man 9 is a throwback to an another time in gaming.  The audiovisual presentation aims to match that of the earliest 8-bit titles to a fault.  Between that and the challenge presented, Mega Man 9 is strikingly content to present itself as though the last 20 years of gaming never happened.


As with the classic titles in the series, memorization, trial and error, and pure platforming ability are crucial to success in Mega Man 9.  Experimentation is also required in order to determine the most efficient order in which to defeat the bosses.  Again, Mega Man 9 is reminiscent of a time when beating the game was only the beginning of actually getting good at it, and punishing difficulty was welcomed, because level design and predictable enemy patterns meant that after the initial learning curve, dying was the player’s fault.


Normally, it might be difficult to argue that the “lost game”, retro feel that Mega Man 9 achieves was especially necessary in order to evoke nostalgia.  Indeed, games like Bionic Commando: Rearmed have demonstrated that the reboot of a long dormant franchise itself is likely to ensure decent enough sales among those that remember the original.  What makes Mega Man 9 unique is how active the franchise, or at least the protagonist, has been for many years regardless of the quality of individual titles.  Revisiting the early days of Mega Man when the series was at its strongest, then, is what makes the design of Mega Man 9 particularly notable. 


Although it makes perfect sense for Mega Man 9 to be distributed digitally (regardless of the brilliant limited edition physical packaging), it does seem somewhat at odds with the rest of the game’s aesthetics for there to be downloadable content and achievements for the Xbox 360 version.  But beyond that, Mega Man 9 does an admirable job of revisiting a classic gaming franchise, leaving the original presentation untouched, while offering brand new content.  For fans of the series, it offers a large amount of replay value for its relatively low price, though its retro brand of difficulty may prove too much for some.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Oct 28, 2008
Ryan Smith takes a look at the sudden onset of political ads in video games.
Image courtesy of gamepolitics.com.

Image courtesy of gamepolitics.com.


Barack Obama has often lectured kids and their parents to “put the video games away” on the campaign trail, but if people insist on playing the stupid things, they might as well vote for him. That’s the message many are getting from the news that the Democratic presidential candidate has taken out ads in 18 games for the Xbox 360 that will feature on virtual billboards and other in-game signage. The games include EA titles like Burnout Paradise, Madden 09, NHL 09, Skate, NFL on Tour, Nascar 09 and Need for Speed Carbon. Of course, the ads will only be seen by gamers in the all-important swing states playing online (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Indiana, Montana, North Carolina, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio and Wisconsin).


Evidently, both the Obama and McCain camps were approached by online advertising company Massive, but McCain’s campaign passed on the opportunity to put his message out into the virtual world—perhaps wisely considering the huge advantage Obama has in the 18 to 34-year-old demographic (though perhaps McCain maybe should have at least considered ads in a Republican-friendly NASCAR game). According to a poll of 100,000 Xbox Live users that asked gamers to select their nominee for president, 43 percent chose Obama, 31 percent went McCain and the rest were undecided or for a third-party candidate.


So maybe it’s not a bad move for Obama to ask Xbox Live users to hold off on another game of Madden long enough to get off their couch and vote for him—he certainly has the money to spare.


Image courtesy of destructoid.com.

Image courtesy of destructoid.com.


This does however beg the question of whether this convergence of politics and games is a good thing. Some gamers say they don’t like the idea of these types of real world invasions into their fantasy realms. But in reality, advertisements have been creeping into games for years now (anyone remember Marlboro ads in Sega racing games in the 80’s?). Does it really matter if it’s a giant corporation trying to sell us a product or a presidential candidate trying to grab our vote? An ad is an ad.


Also, I think an in-game billboard with Barack Obama telling you to vote seen while you’re speeding down a highway in Burnout is pretty inoffensive. If, however, Master Chief’s face got replaced by Obama’s when you turned on Halo 3—well, that’s a different story.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Oct 27, 2008
L.B. presents the argument for having more provocative and interesting settings for video games.

Part of the inherent struggle for games to be taken seriously stems from the fact that they often don’t discuss anything serious themselves. Much of Call of Duty 4’s success comes from the fact that the topics it discusses are all relevant today: terrorists, weapons of mass destruction, and modern warfare. These are all images and themes that are important to people today, as opposed to escapist fantasy or glorification of wars that ended long ago. Even going all the way back to Missile Command, which invoked the fears of the Cold War and Russia, the idea of making a relevant video game was being explored. People experience a much more profound connection with a game whose subject matter represents something that could spill over into the real world. What places and topics could games go into, particularly given their current FPS trigger happy state, that would be relevant and topical?


Let’s not beat around the bush, I’m talking about using violent video games to raise awareness of horrible real-life situations. So let’s start with the most popular genre: shooters. One of the tricky necessities of an FPS or basic action game is that you need a situation that involves a lot of combatants. Borrowing from action movies for a moment, what about Myanmar? Rambo 4 takes place in this country and also features the highest body count for the entire series by depicting over 260 people being shot or maimed. The radical oppression of the Karen people by the military is certainly a topic that can be addressed in a variety of ways. Indeed, outside of basic principles against violence, few seemed bothered by Rambo using a .50 caliber assault cannon to mow down dozens of soldiers. We’re not looking for an enemy that’s morally justifiable to shoot, we’re looking for one that’s morally repugnant to defend. At the very least we could teach people history by having them participate in wars and learn about atrocities that they otherwise would know little about. The Croatian War would be another interesting subject and indeed many games have begun to take place in Yugoslavia-like countries without making specific reference. Stepping away from the tasteless goal of simply finding excuses to shoot people for a moment, keep in mind that the game design could also involve more humane activities. A game set in Rwanda could be about saving refugees, a game set in Mogadishu could be about acting as a peacekeeper.


 


Yet setting a videogame in a modern setting is still going to raise the issue of tastelessness. Proper writing, mature mission themes, and engaging in conduct that isn’t wanton destruction are all going to be necessary. If you’re going to talk about mature topics, you have to handle them maturely and hope that resonates with the audience. Another issue raised is simply why bother at all? Why set a video game in a modern global conflict or historical moment that could be a blatant glorification of violence in some atrocious setting? Because raising awareness alone is a laudable goal. Going back to Rambo 4 for a moment, the movie managed to accomplish several amazing things despite its incredible violence. It raised awareness of the Myanmar situation so that aid and care were given to an otherwise ignored problem. Karen rebels received an incredible morale boost from the film and even use one of the quotes as a battle cry. A less action-based example, Hotel Rwanda came out ten years after the event but its success forced people to learn about an atrocity that was otherwise ignored. How many teens, how many potential activists, could be informed and contacted by playing a video game about an event? No matter what they’re doing in the game, how you frame and discuss the events they interact with will still control their impressions. Yes, there is potential for abuse here, but there is also great potential for good.


 


As always with the indie world, many games have begun to do this with varying results. Super Columbine Massacre RPG handles its subject matter in a very interesting way: it works like a documentary. The first half of the game is just a recreation of those events using actual documents and recordings from the tragedy. It’s disturbing yet it gives you an intense window into the events that whether or not welcome, is definitely insightful. The second half breaks from this and becomes problematic as the two characters fight through zombies in Hell…which is either very clever if you look at from a Divine Comedy perspective or just offensively celebratory. The United Nations have created a flash game about being a refugee fleeing a repressive country and trying to gain citizenship in a new one. It’s fairly basic and mostly dialog, but it’s also very informative and even provides links to other sites for those interested by what they see. Nor do these games even need to involve violence or conflict, I’m just conforming to the popular genres. Countless games explore things such as teaching people how electricity is distributed in a city, economic simulators, or basic philosophy. A great place to find them, along with countless other indie titles, is at Play This Thing!.


There are just so many topics video games could go into. Whether you acquiesce to the popular shooters of today or the RPG formulas of yesterday, the subject matter of these games is always open to change. Why not set a Grand Theft Auto-style game set in New Orleans during Katrina? Players could see the city before and after the hurricane, learn about the FEMA response, and be more politically aware of circumstances when such an event happens again. There is already a flash game on the topic. Perhaps even more compellingly, they may be inspired to go to a disaster zone and volunteer themselves. A child with ADHD who can scarcely pay attention for thirty minutes could learn a great deal about Katrina in 8 hours of game time. There will always be the protests and complaints from the media, whether to jump on the bandwagon of blaming society’s problems on video games or bemoan people profiting off the suffering of others. I would heartily recommend any game about a disaster be willing to donate a significant amount of the proceeds to aiding the cause it represents. Publishers and developers interested in creating such a game will have to be motivated by the hope of improving their public image and the image of video games themselves when creating such a title. Which was, after all, the point in the first place.


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