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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jun 1, 2010
What keeps Zeno Clash’s strange story so intriguing is not how weird the characters are, it’s how weirdly they act.

Among Zeno Clash’s many unique characteristics, the game’s take on characterization is probably its most accomplished. While Zenozoik is certainly an exotic location, the game’s linear nature doesn’t really develop the space extensively. Few locales are named and inevitably when we are exploring there is also fighting going on. Instead, the game works a bit like a museum tour of various bizarre characters. With a combination of creative activity and clever exposition, the game introduces us to interesting people and lets us watch them act out their natures.


My playthrough for this game was on the XBLA version, which fixes a lot of the problems in the original like the difficulty balancing and hit detection. The brawling system works well as a combination of blocking, power moves, and combos. It manages to dodge the pitfalls of other FPS brawlers by encouraging the player to get up close to the opponent. If you move in and successfully dodge a punch, you can land a stronger attack instead of just whaling away. A stamina bar also keeps the game from just devolving into mashing X. Opponents can generally be divided up by their own moves like being able to do a spin kick or how adept they are at blocking. Mini-bosses can only be hurt using blunt weapons, which tends to reduce the encounters into a bull fighting experience. In that sense, characters are predictable and in the style of the brawler tradition can be beaten by memorizing their patterns. The occasional gun is thrown into the mix but they only have a few shots and take a long time to reload, meaning that enemies will usually close in on you before things get unbalanced.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
One of the best game avatars ever created is Kirby.

One of the interesting points that Scott McCloud raises in his seminal text Understanding Comics is on the nature of abstraction and how people psychologically project onto graphic images. The simpler and less detailed the image, the more a person fills in the gaps themselves and can relate to the character. In video games, those gaps aren’t just visual, it can be something like the avatar never talking or never letting the player see their face. (L.B. Jeffries, “Applying Scott McCloud’s ‘Understanding Comics’”, PopMatters, 1 Sept. 2009) Spotting features like that raise the question of what makes a good, psychologically pliant video game avatar. One of the best game avatars ever created is Kirby. A fantastic balance of empowering game design and art, Kirby embodies all of the elements that make for a game avatar which can easily fit into any person’s psyche.


From a visual perspective, Kirby is a McCloud abstraction. As the original NES game explains in the opening section: to depict Kirby you just draw a circle, some nubs for arms, shoes for feet, and then add a face. You can project anything you want into that because the face could be anybody’s. It’s interesting that the original game and several others have stressed and even encouraged people to draw Kirby. It taps into other aspects of people’s imagination because they can recreate Kirby however they like outside of the game. A quick doodle of Kirby looks just as much like the little pink ball as an expert rendition, there is no skill barrier to drawing him. Contrast that to something like Mario or Link, which people still love to draw, but can potentially be disappointed when their work doesn’t look like the original. Being able to draw Kirby easily removes a barrier to the avatar so that people can feel a greater sense of authority and control over it. I don’t mean to imply that every video game avatar ought to be easy to draw, just that it’s a potent feature in Kirby’s appeal.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
You can have all the intrigue and plot twists you want, it’s not going to amount to anything without genuine characters and interaction.

There has been a rash of FPS titles with horrendous plots lately, so it might be helpful to talk about an FPS that had a pretty simple but fun story that actually worked with its game design. As a genre, the FPS has never really required much thought in terms of writing. It can certainly feature it, but technically even Doom explained itself pretty well in just one paragraph. The concept of “demons, gun, get to it” does not really need a lot of explaining. Yet today something like Modern Warfare 2 comes out, and it’s an incoherent mess. Every mission is pulling some James Bond crap or taking place as a part of the world’s most unlikely invasion, which is a shame because the best parts of Modern Warfare and the other Call of Duty games were the moments that just felt like being a soldier. Star Wars: Republic Commando dodges these narrative pitfalls despite the fact that it even takes place in a science fiction setting. A squad-based FPS relying on a fairly nuts & bolts design, it is a great example of a game that won’t make you roll your eyes while playing.


The setup is pretty simple. You’re the leader of Delta Squad, and you have three other clone commandos working closely with you. There are four general commands (follow me, attack, go here, secure area) and hotspots scattered around the map where you can order a commando to snipe, grenade, or plant bombs. You have four basic weapon types and a fifth slot for whatever alien weapon you pick up. Most maps will feature a couple of different hotspots to drop a squadmate, and you can always leave them to their own devices. You can also set up ambushes by getting aliens to follow you or take a more aggressive approach. It’s all very simple and fluid, which means that complex maneuvers aren’t exactly an option because of gameplay that is always fast and easy. Writer Gatmog points out in his review, “I liked the way squad commands felt intuitive, but I wouldn’t call it tactics. It doesn’t require any real problem solving by the player: simply mousing over points on the map will show “hot” areas, or actions a squad member can complete. Clicking on these points will issue the associated command, but it’s not like you get the option of storming a room with thermal detonators or sneaking in quietly. The objectives and their solutions are completely transparent” (“Attack of the Commando Clones”, Tales of a Schorched Earth, 2 Feb 2005).


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
"That’s what sampling is all about – hearing something you love, no matter how short, and forming it into something bigger, more inspiring and more enjoyable."

At the Art History of Games Conference in Atlanta, Celia Pearce gave a talk about the history of interactive art before video games became popular. The difficulty that multimedia must always deal with when trying to gain access to something like a museum is that interactivity is an intrinsic part of the art work. While something like a Fluxus exhibit is easily recognized as only working if people can touch it, other forms of interactive media are often confused with their final product. A Jackson Pollock painting, for example, is just as much about the rhythm and flow of splashing the canvas as it is the final picture. For this reason, a lot of his paintings will feature a filming of the actual painting process so that the viewer has a better appreciation of a work that they might otherwise dismiss. This isn’t a concept that works just for painting. It can be relevant to any form of media.


One of the most interesting musicians making the internet rounds these days is Pogo, his music takes samples from films and converts them into unique tracks. Reworking syllables into new phrases and cutting music where there was none before, the video which accompanies the song often becomes intrinsic to enjoying the music. It resembles the need for Pollock’s painting to have an accompanying video because the two forms of media mix to create a greater appreciation in the listener. After flipping through a couple of different interviews that Pogo linked to on his website, I decided to just pick & choose the relevant responses then convert them into a post.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, May 4, 2010
There are people who make money by selling things that don’t exist.

There are people who make money by selling things that don’t exist—even when the buyer knows the thing doesn’t exist. Out of curiosity about how this works, I picked up Julian Dibbell’s Play Money, which is a personal account of his experiences working the Ultima Online gold farming scene back in 2004. I use the term grey market throughout this post because selling in game goods is not exactly illegal, just a violation of the EULA with a company. You risk getting banned and losing your accounts, which can be expensive but not dangerous in the traditional sense. In economic terms, each MMO is probably best viewed as its own independent economy. No two are precisely alike in terms of how you get rich off them. Yet there are still a couple of basic principles that are universal, and I’ve tried to extract those from the book for this post.


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