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

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Tuesday, Mar 23, 2010
The funniest thing about Dante’s Inferno is that the only people who will really enjoy the game are the fans of the poem.

Dante’s Inferno is not a game for someone expecting to experience a precise reading of the poem. Video games and linear storytelling don’t get along very well, and unless you’re dealing with a genre built around delivering content, the plot is always going to remain in the background. An interview with the game’s Creative Director, Jonathon Knight, at Gamasutra explains their approach, “The Divine Comedy is a three part piece that’s 14,000 lines, and… there’s a lot going on there, and I think the game is clearly taking the top couple of layers of that, but it does not go deep into the more theological, or philosophical, or what-have-you elements of the poem. Ultimately the game is this gateway into Dante’s vision of Hell, but it’s not meant to replace a reading of the poem, obviously, which is much more sophisticated” (Christian Nutt, “The Road To Hell: Creative Direction in Dante’s Inferno”, Gamasutra, 5 February 2010). Knight explains later that they wanted to rely more heavily on the unique ability of video games to create a sense of place by having the game be a brawler but featuring elaborate setpieces to break up the fighting. Since the game relies heavily on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s translation of the poem, I’ll be citing that translation for this post.


Boiling down the first book of the Divine Comedy to its surface elements is a bit trickier than it sounds because you either think the poems are about three stages of the afterlife or that they’re about Dante’s spiritual transformation as he grapples with accepting God’s authority. Dante himself wrote in a letter to Can Grande della Scala, “The subject…of the whole work, taken literally, is the condition of souls after death, simply considered…But if the work be taken allegorically, the subject is man, how by actions of merit or demerit, through freedom of the will, he justly deserves reward or punishment.” (172) Given that the game re-imagines Dante as a Crusader who wields Death’s scythe, who can absolve damned souls to Heaven, and who can shoot super spirit crosses using a crucifix, it seems safe to say that the game is not taking the literal approach to the poem.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Mar 16, 2010

One of the growing trends in cultural criticism on the internet is the YouTube video. Acting as a well organized visual presentation, a quick five or ten minute video to review pop culture is slowly becoming one of the most effective forms of critique out there. Like citing a passage from a book or play, critics can splice in a sequence of film and then break it down for the audience. There’s a lot of sub-par stuff out there, but when a capable film editor gets to work on it, the results are impressive. RedLetterMedia is the handle of a YouTube user whose video review of The Phantom Menace has recently cracked the million viewers mark, while his Star Trek reviews are all well into the six digit number of views. Striking a careful balance between being informative and entertaining, his videos delve into the nebulous realm of sci-fi film analysis with great results.


Each video features the voiceover of Mr. Plinkett. Sounding like a weird sexist nerd serial killer, Plinkett’s crazed mumblings are mixed with creepy asides and visual gags that give you something to laugh at while the video makes a larger point. I ought to stress now that this is not politically correct humor. RedLetterMedia explains in an e-mail, “When I did the first review, the Star Trek: Generations one, I started to record it in my normal voice and it was just horrible and dull. So I decided to do it in character to make it more palatable, especially since my goal wasn’t to just give a cursory review, but rather to get really detailed. It is a massive amount of pointless nerd deconstruction so there has to be a ‘wink wink’ element to it. If you didn’t have some kind of humor with the material you’d come off as either someone with no life at all (which is true in my case) or someone who’s a big armchair critic that thinks he knows everything. The character adds a certain level of irony and fun to it . . . it goes back again to short films I used to make with my friend Rich, who has only ever portrayed Mr. Plinkett in the films. He does the voice as well, but I do it in the reviews.”


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Mar 9, 2010
A post cataloging the common design elements in three of Ubisoft's Imagine games.

This post was born when, while rummaging around in a bargain bin, I saw one of Ubisoft’s Imagine games. I’d heard of the games and knew they were big sellers, so I finally cracked and decided to see what they were all about. It only took a couple of hours to plow through, and when I finished, I was not really sure what to make of it. I picked up two more games in the series and had the same reaction. Playing games targeted towards women that are not designed with the assumption that the player is male is always a different experience. There are numerous interactive options and design aesthetics that I rarely ever see in other games. What I wanted to do with this post was to just catalogue the common design elements in three different Imagine games. There’s not much to debate about the game’s stereotyping, Ubisoft’s Vice-President of Marketing settles that issue when he explains the inspiration for the games was the high sales of the Pink DS (“Powering Ahead: Video Games”, CNBC.com, 23 Nov 2009). By making the initial titles focus on cooking, fashion, and childcare they tap into gender stereotypes of traditional forms of female play that Sara M. Grimes discusses on her blog. She writes, “Adults have long sought to contain children’s play, but girls’ play in particular, for more “useful” and productive ends. For girls, this most often meant channeling play towards activities that were thought to prepare them to be good wives and mothers” (“Imagine: [Insert Gender Stereotype Here]”, Gamine Expedition, 12 Dec 2009). 


The most consistent game design element in all of the Imagine games is the ability to decorate things. That seems to be true across the series, Aileen Cole’s critique of Imagine: Detective notices the feature is even in an Imagine game when it barely makes any sense (“Review: Imagine Detective (Nintendo DS)”, Die Hard Game Fan, 23 Sep 2009). In all three of the games that I played, there was no scoring factor related to decoration. That was strange to me, particularly in Imagine: Movie Star, where gameplay alternates between a weird Guitar Hero style and designing clothes. When a magazine asked me to design a sharp outfit for fall, it didn’t matter what I was wearing. So long as you change your outfit on every level (type, color, and pattern for each section of dress), the game rewards you with a perfect score. What’s even more curious is that these games are all either rehashes of older Japanese titles or independently created from one another. The primary consensus about girl games from all of these different groups is that there must be a decorating element and that it should be totally up to the player what constitutes being attractive.


Another theme that was present in all of the titles is having minimal to no fail state. While the Movie Star game ranks your ability to catch notes as they dropped, you would have to blatantly miss notes to get below an A. The Baby Sitter game works by performing mini-games that fill a happy baby bar. Nothing seems to happen if you just stare at the kid except that they gurgle and cry. The Doctor game has no fail state. You either follow the on-screen action or nothing happens at all. This trait isn’t unique to the Imagine series, it’s something that you see when developers try to make “casual” oriented Wii games. By confusing being accessible with being easy, numerous games intended for younger or inexperienced audiences become dull because there is no way to lose them.


All of the games require you to be female. The Movie Star game lets you fully adjust your avatar in terms of ethnicity, height, and weight (although this only consists of thin to really thin). I’m not in a position to judge how well it handles skin color but it’s controlled on a blending slide bar rather than just picking a pre-determined color. The other two games require you to be a white female. The doctor game puts you in the role of a blonde doctor just starting her own clinic named Abby while the babysitting game lets you pick your name as you start your college career. You study child care and education while making money babysitting on the side. On a side note, both games are pretty diverse in terms of NPCs by having you work for people from a wide variety of cultures.


Sexuality remains mostly unmentionable in the games. The movie star game expects you to go on hot dates to boost your career, but because these dates (along with acting, auditioning, and going out on the town) consist of catching notes while fashion pictures flash, the game never indicates your feelings one way or the other about those experiences. Your devotion to childcare is creepily absolute in the babysitting game. The doctor game did present a love interest in the form of a movie star named Tony. I didn’t like him. He never asked my avatar anything and every scene was just him babbling about himself. By contrast, the boyfriend in the Nancy Drew games is always willing to listen to me talk about the case and offer advice for solving puzzles.


Generally speaking, none of the games were very fun to play. In addition to criticisms about the lack of a fail state, they are all short and grind heavy. The doctor game randomly generates patients that you must diagnose and hock prescription drugs to. Doing so increases your level and . . . some sort of heart currency, both of which let you buy more equipment for your clinic and not have to outsource patient care. Patients all have the same dozen or so ailments and you always perform the same series of activities that you can’t lose. The baby sitting game is the same way. Once you have played with one baby, you have played with them all. The Movie Star game changes the songs and difficulty, but it’s always the same “catch the note” sequence or test to see if you can dress yourself. In a weird way, it destroys any fantasy that a person might have about the fun and excitement of these lifestyles once it devolves into familiarity and monotony. Heroine Sheik writes about the babysitting game, “What’s interesting is to see the role played in a structured, game format with preset gameplay rewards. Rock the cradle well, gain points. Forget to feed your charges, lose them. Oddly enough, what we’re being reminded of here is that motherhood itself—like gender—is a role to be played, not an inherent state. For such a sexist game, it’s a strangely feminist message” (Imagine Babyz: Playing Mother”, Heroine-Sheik.com, 10 Dec 2007).


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Mar 2, 2010
If a game is the space between design and content, then engaging with topics like feedback, distribution of load times, and accessibility to new players are important factors.

As a game reviewer (and maybe this is true even more so than for any other form of criticism), you can never quite shake the fear that maybe it’s just you who doesn’t like a game. Or conversely, maybe it’s just you who could ever enjoy the twisted thing. While something like New Games Journalism (“The New Games Journalism”, Popmatters.com, 18 June 2009) attempts to articulate the individual experience, the hazard with a game review is that your experience might ultimately be too unique. A reviewer might have played every single FPS that came out in 2009 and nothing short of the second coming is going to impress them. A reviewer who has been a fan of every single Bioware RPG is probably going to be able to figure out a game’s system much more quickly than someone who has never touched one. Review sites like IGN or Kotaku mitigate this problem by breaking things into categories like Story, Presentation, Likes, or Dislikes but these are hardly objective standards. It’s easy to dismiss technical critiques like bugs or load times as irrelevant to a game’s value, but the notion of bringing them up still has merit. What can be gained by approaching a game review from a more technical perspective than things like fun factor or story? Looking at a game from a technical perspective really just means treating games like experience generating machines instead of experiences themselves.


I’m not talking about just rattling off stats, I mean applying a technical methodology normally used to test for things like bugs to gauge the value of the game itself. If a game is the space between design and content, then engaging with topics like feedback, distribution of load times, and accessibility to new players are important factors. How much of a beating can a game take if you play badly? A Gamasutra article by David Wilson on QA styles highlights several interesting testing methods. The Ad-Hoc style is one in which the QA tester is constantly screwing with the system. If they spot a hole, they try to jump into it. If they see a weird nook in a fence, they plow into it with the strongest attack. The article explains, “This is where ad-hoc testing becomes an art: finding things that the end-user may attempt that the developers haven’t planned for” (“Quality Quality Assurance: A Methodology for Wide-Spectrum Game Testing”, Gamasutra, 28 April 2009). A more reasonable test for a reviewer is one in which the QA lets the screen fill up with monsters then tries to save or perform a move that will tax the hardware to the brink. If it’s a mission in which you are supposed to be following an NPC, what happens if I turn around and go back to the start of the level? If I’m supposed to be guarding an NPC, does friendly fire hurt them? Explosives? How many bullets does it take before they drop? The purpose of these tests is to undermine the fact that as a game reviewer or experienced player, you might not run into these problems. Rather than try to break it down into “I found this easily” you can just say, “The NPC can only take five bullets and will stop moving at key intervals if you forget them”. Consider the last level of Half Life 2: Episode 2. Anthony Burch points out in an article for The Escapist (“String Theory: The Illusion of Videogame Interactivity”, The Escapist, 31 March 2009) that the whole level is an elaborate feedback system. It’s designed to just put you on the brink. Based on your health and location, X number of spider tanks will come after the base.  As more games begin to revolve around adapting to player input to perfect the player’s experience, spotting the edges of the system can only be done if you do some serious poking around.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Feb 23, 2010
The map is very literally your weapon in Modern Warfare 2.

Modern Warfare 2 and the other Call of Duty games have always been very map-reliant multiplayer games. The series abandons traditional design elements like “Race to the Gun” and emphasizes a more tactical, map-reliant approach. This isn’t really intended to be a strategy guide but rather just a discussion about how the gameplay works and feels overall. While I personally prefer lone wolfing it on Team Deathmatch, other players have different approaches and tactics. I talked with several much more advanced players than myself and relied on a couple of different gamefaqs to balance out my perspective. I also don’t really go into team play because I know nothing about it.


Generally speaking, the “Race to the Weapon” design in something like that of Halo 3, adding a layer of strategy for both good and bad players. Knowing the map and where your favorite gun drops are is essential, but for the bad player, there is always the chance to snatch the weapon before your opponent gets a hold of it. This lets that player take the advantage by forcing the player to use a weapon that they’re not quite as skilled at using. Modern Warfare 2 completely ditches this approach. You get to pick your starting guns and can change classes after death. Since players can carry two guns, they usually set up classes that balance out their range payload. Snipers equip something short range for moving from point to point as the secondary, somebody using the SCAR-H compensates for the short clip with a perk or a machine pistol. All the perks and upgrades make it possible to create this finely tuned, personalized death machine. Most guns can be tweaked up or down the range scale with attachments. Something like the F2000 or AK-47 can be used at long range if you slap an ACOG on them, so that even a relatively inaccurate gun can be used for long distances when needed.


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