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

 
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Monday, Aug 2, 2010
A moving picture is worth 24,000 words per second. How about a game?

At the outset, the way in which video games typically use the word “genre” seems at odds with its more conventional literary and cinematic usage. However, arguably, by emphasizing a means of delivery, video game genre becomes the format informing emotion, which is not so far from the word’s more thematic meaning at all.


Just as the tropes of film genres train audiences to anticipate certain modes of behavior (we generally expect the action hero to kill to get what he wants, just as we hope that the romantic comedy lead doesn’t), video game genres emphasize the power dynamic between players and events. Players, in turn, develop distinct emotional ranges and expectations within a given genre, and these are continually modified and projected by a game’s content. You expect to exert a greater level of tactile immersion with the full sensory space in a first person shooter than you would a 2-D platformer, so a game like BioShock brings about its emotional reaction in part by violating that very expectation of (albeit illusory) player-character autonomy. Following on that idea, the comparatively high compression of a 2-D platformer’s player-space interaction means that the player’s main dialogue occurs first and foremost with the space’s physical laws, rather than with its social ones. In this way, platformers’ interests tend to fall thematically within two familiar conflicts: man versus nature and man versus himself.


Thus, in one sense, video game genres are more liberating than many others because they allow any number of thematic elements within the same conversational framework. You can have first-person shooter romantic comedies and political thrillers that are also visual novels, and these are acceptable in either case.


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Monday, Aug 2, 2010
Our regular podcast contributors take a look at the Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne and consider the evolution of Remedy Entertainment's approach to world building (culminating in their most recent release, Alan Wake).

Following up on our podcast from last month on “The World of Max Payne, our regular podcast contributors take a look at the less successful but critically acclaimed sequel to the 2001 game, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, and consider the evolution of Remedy Entertainment’s approach to world building (culminating in their most recent release, Alan Wake).


We also discuss the evolution of the character Max Payne and the gameplay mechanisms that surround him.  We also consider how a playable Mona Sax changes our sense of the series and whether Max (and the player) legitimately falls for her.


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Friday, Jul 30, 2010
Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands may take place within the Sands of Time trilogy, but it plays like a spiritual successor to the 2008 reboot of the franchise.

The 2008 Prince of Persia was all about momentum. The world was split into multiple linear tracks connected by various hubs. Once you started down a track, it was difficult to turn back. Every obstacle along these tracks corresponded to a specific button: A allowed the Prince to jump (from poles, platforms, or a double jump midair), B allowed him to grab onto hooks, and Y allowed the activation of magical plates. Players had a small window of opportunity to hit the right button at the right obstacle to keep the Prince moving forward. Since every track was placed above a huge chasm if players missed the opportunity or hit the wrong button, the Prince would fall and have to start the track over. Many reviewers compared it to a rhythm game because the platforming relied so heavily on timing and on reading the environment ahead of you.


In the beginning of The Forgotten Sands, the game plays like any other Prince of Persia game from the Sands of Time trilogy. That is to say, it has a strong focus on environmental puzzles; the fun lay in figuring out where to go. But there’s also a subtle focus on momentum and reading the environment that builds throughout the game until the end, in which The Forgotten Sands plays more like a sequel to the 2008 reboot.


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Thursday, Jul 29, 2010
Limbo's aesthetic and gameplay work in perfect synch with one another, and time and again it produces those moments of pure frisson that only a great game can give.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Limbo is art. Just look at the thing! It’s all super-artsy and stuff, with its evocative yet minimalist art style and bleak, moody, creepy, disturbing look. From moment one the game stirred emotions in me, and I think that’s what art needs to do to be art. I felt intrigued by the mysterious world and this strange boy I was controlling. The shadow-heavy world lingers just on the edge of being inscrutable, but never leaves you in doubt about the important things. And that horrifying, damnable spider from the early part of the game? Right now it has my vote for villain of the year. At first, second, and third look, Limbo drove right into my brain, eliciting a full spectrum of experiences. This is a model example of an artistic endeavor unique to gaming.


Yes, yes, Rick’s going on about art and games and stuff again. And of course I’m not the only one hurling the “A” word at Limbo. Some might even argue that the game’s trying too hard to be taken as serious art, but I think that’s a pretty ridiculous argument. Its aesthetic and gameplay work in perfect synch with one another, and time and again it produces those moments of pure frisson that only a great game can give.


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Thursday, Jul 29, 2010
Like life, Blizzard's classic RPG is often a harsh teacher, giving the test first and the lesson afterwards. But its cruelty is also among its greatest strengths.

I’d been playing the long game. While steadily making my way through the early acts of Diablo II, I’d carefully hoarded gems and runes in my private stash, sorting them meticulously by type, combining and upgrading them when opportunities arose. On approaching the end of Act IV, knowing that a confrontation with Diablo himself was close at hand, I carefully selected the ingredients that I’d need to create a weapon imbued with the powerful properties of a runeword. Checking and checking everything again, I finally took the plunge and inserted the runes into the appropriate sockets. Excitedly, I hovered the cursor over the newly runed weapon but instead of the impressive stats that I had expected, I saw a mediocre blade, crippled by my foolishly having inserted the runes into a sword classified as “rare” and invalidating the recipe. Damn it.


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