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Thursday, Jul 1, 2010
I'm painfully aware that all that I'm really doing is pushing the right button at the right place and time. Sure, that's what many games are when you get down to it, but part of the artistry of game design comes from trying to hide this fact.

I’ve been playing Singularity. It’s a fun enough game, and it’s got some neat little tricks to it. With a central conceit built around time travel, the game offers some interesting ways to fast forward and reverse time, although even these aren’t on the level of complexity as the last Ratchet and Clank game. Even through the whole story centers around shuffling back and forth between timelines, the weapons themselves feel mostly like cheap tricks rather than an integral part of the dramatic setting of the story. Hey, it’s a game, and when we’re playing most games, we overlook these things. So let me be clear: the complaints and observations that I’m about to make don’t mean that Singularity is a bad game. It is, however, emblematic of some standard tropes that I think are common artistic failings in many games.


So what is this cheap trick that I’m bitching about? Early in the game, you get a device that can manipulate time. At first, you can cause objects to transform between ruined and pristine states. For example, broken staircases mend and crushed boxes expand into non-crushed boxes. It’s a neat little effect, and it’s used in some clever puzzles, like putting a crushed box under a partially open shutter and making it whole so it acts as a jack, making room for you to crawl under. It’s also used for some silly puzzles, like “un-crushing” a box so that you can move it in place to hop up on a ledge that, really, you should just be able to clamber up onto—except you’re in an FPS. The core issue with this time control device is that it’s just not grand and sweeping enough. It doesn’t feel like it’s part of a world gone mad. Instead it’s just a gameplay tool. You can only use it on certain things in certain places. You can “un-decay” this chalkboard but not that desk. You can dissolve that piece of cover but not most of the walls in the game.


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Wednesday, Jun 30, 2010
Sex is very often (and very unfortunately) just a game.

Sexuality abounds in video games, but authentic intimacy?  Not so much.


One can’t exactly criticize the gaming industry for a lack of tact in presenting physically intimate moments, though.  It isn’t as if Hollywood and the filmmaking industry as a whole has done a lot better than flash some skin and call it a day, mistaking titillation for an actual representation of a mature sexuality.


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Tuesday, Jun 29, 2010
Destroying the very sensation that seems to be appealing about these games is an intrinsic part of the experience.

The notion of coordinating music in block games has been around since the NES version of Tetris. Multiple tracks could be selected from the start, and the beat would speed up as you progressed in the game. Even the original Dr. Mario still has one of the catchiest 8-bit tunes ever produced. Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Lumines changes these features into a core element of the game design by having multiple tracks commissioned from various artists that are coordinated with the visuals. Like his work in Rez HD, each level produces unique sounds for block formation, which coordinates with the background music. What’s impressive about the game is the way that its shifting visuals and music become a part of the complexity in a game that on the surface seems like just another block matching game.


There’s a great article by Ian Bogost over at Gamasutra that illustrates the difficulty in explaining why one block matching game is superior to another, “The truth is, it’s hard to perform thoughtful criticism on puzzles, because they don’t carry meaning in the way novels or films or oil paintings do” (“Persuasive Games: Puzzling the Sublime”, Gamasutra, 23 December 2009). The post contrasts Janet Murray’s interpretation of Tetris as analogous to overworked office culture to Markku Eskelinen’s analysis of the game as a formal system of rules and abstractions. What is the middle ground between the abstract and the formal when analyzing a game with no plot? Bogost contends, “The problem with the Murray/Eskelinen approach to abstract puzzle games is that one wants the game to function only narratively, the other wants it to function only formally. Neither is exactly right without the other. The problem seems to be this: the ‘meaning’ of an abstract puzzle game lies in a gap between its mechanics and its dynamics, rather than in one or the other.” Using Immanuel Kant’s two types of sublimity, the mathematical (sense of vastness) and the dynamic (sense of being overwhelmed), he argues that a puzzle game’s ability to induce these sensations in us is a far better gauge of their quality than something like ‘addiction’ or ‘pretty content’.


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Monday, Jun 28, 2010
From New Austin to Nuevo Paraiso, we explore the motives and personalities that make up the plot of Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption.

Last week Nick, Tom, and Rick discussed the world and game play of Red Dead Redemption in a spoiler-free episode.


This week, Chris is back with the posse, and we delve into the storytelling and overall plot of Red Dead Redemption.  We look at the motives of John Marston, as well as those of the cavalcade of characters that make up Rockstar’s western. Spoilers abound, so consider yourself warned.


This podcast is also available via iTunes.


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Friday, Jun 25, 2010
The first level of Indigo Prophecy represents the Holy Grail of branching narratives.

Inspired by L.B. Jeffries’s post last week (“Plot Twist Overkill in Indigo Prophecy, PopMatters, 15 June 2010), I replayed a fair bit of Indigo Prophecy, and as much as I enjoy the game, his critique of it is spot on. The game’s narrative downward spiral is infamous amongst the gaming community, and it stands as a powerful reminder of what not to do with a game’s story. However, the reason that its ending is so confusing and so infamously bad is because it has such a strong beginning. The first level of Indigo Prophecy represents the Holy Grail of branching narratives; it presents you with a problem and gives you a variety of ways to solve it. However, every choice has obvious pros and cons. Unlike most games with branching paths, there isn’t a “best” choice given the situation. The game’s lack of direction in telling us what to do and our own lack of certainty regarding what we should do make the opening scene of Indigo Prophecy one of the most memorable moments in gaming.


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