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Thursday, Feb 24, 2011
Like war in the Fallout universe, Super Mario never changes. The game may seem demanding or even harsh in terms of its skill requirements, but its rules are consistent in philosophy and practice.

As long-time readers know, it takes precious little to get me started on Super Mario analysis. Just as he expected, Jorge’s recent post on how 2D sidescrollers fail as multiplayer games (“Double Trouble: Flawed Multiplayer in Donkey Kong Country Returns, PopMatters, 20 January 2011) has inspired me to revisit one of my favorite game design topics: challenge. While I haven’t yet played Donkey Kong Country Returns, I have put a considerable (or ridiculous, depending on your interpretation) amount of time into New Super Mario Bros. Wii.


Despite its cartoonish exterior, NSMBW is a demanding game. This can lead to frustration, especially if players of unequal skill are playing together. The rhetoric embedded in the game’s rules and the philosophies of its creators argue that true success is something that the players actively obtain rather than passively achieve. From a historical perspective, NSMBW’s difficulty is in keeping with tradition, and this legacy is carried into its multiplayer mode. It then becomes understandable why the mode is frustrating; instead of minimizing differences between the players, it demands that weak players either rise above their limitations or rely on the stronger players to succeed. Frustrating as this may be, I argue that NSMBW comes by its challenge honestly and that a team’s failure in multiplayer is more a reflection on the team’s aggregate skill and cooperative dynamics than any inherent failing of the game’s systems.


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Thursday, Feb 17, 2011
The very concept of vengeance is amazingly complex, something we approach in our cultural artifacts with both awe and trepidation. By inhabiting birds, aliens, and even gods, we can explore the darker sides of being human.

Revenge. Some say it is a basic human need—when one is so grievously harmed by another, only retribution delivered in kind can provide catharsis. Others believe the Ghandian proverb that an eye for eye makes the whole world blind. The thirst for revenge has toppled kings and incited mob violence. Undoubtedly, the desire for revenge is a deeply felt human emotion, at times cold and calculating, and at other times heated and virulent.  Although the pursuit of violent retribution is commonly frowned upon, we recognize the emotion as natural, even primal. Vengeance is not equated to justice, although the terms are intimately related. Revenge is a concept laden with complex emotions. In our pursuit of evocative game design, how do video games best capture and discuss the intricacies of vengeance?


Revenge stories abound in other mediums. From Hamlet to Inglorious Basterds, victims have sought retaliation throughout the centuries. No collection of works, particularly in film, so thoroughly dissect revenge than South Korean Director Park Chan-Wook’s appropriately titled Vengeance Trilogy. Park’s three films (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) have all received considerable acclaim, and they each deal almost exclusively with revenge in its many forms. While Mr. Vengeance portrays selfish reprisal as unattractive and misguided, Lady Vengeance depicts revenge as disturbing but cathartic, unsettling but spiritually cleansing. Oldboy focuses instead on the power of vengeance, on its ability to swirl out of control, to have a mind of its own, growing inexplicably in scale and completely enveloping practitioners, driving them ever onwards towards terrible acts.


How do games approach Park’s themes? A more relatively recent example is Bioware’s Mass Effect 2, which features the topic of revenge on multiple occasions. During Garrus’s loyalty quest, titled “An Eye for an Eye”, Commander Shepard has the opportunity to prevent Garrus from assassinating Sidonis, a turian whose treacherous act took the lives of Garrus’s old team members. In this tense scene, Shepard stands between Sidonus and certain death. If the player misses the Paragon interrupt trigger, Garrus kills Sidonus without hesitation. Here, like in Oldboy, revenge is a powerful personal force, one that blinds Garrus to reason when most heated.


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Thursday, Feb 10, 2011
In BioShock 2 and Minerva’s Den, Grace Holloway and Charles Porter’s racial identities link them to specific historical and cultural subjects without turning them into stereotypes or purely symbolic characters.

BioShock 2 and its side story, Minerva’s Den, do much to expand Rapture’s universe.  In addition to new technology and physical locations, they take the story into new cultural territory.  Grace Holloway and Charles Milton Porter stand out as both the first major black characters in the BioShock universe.  However, the two characters each have unique, multifaceted lives that prevent them from being cast as the token black people in a game dominated by white characters.  At the same time, their racial identity informs their lives and connects them to wider historical events and cultural themes in African American history.


Tagged as: bioshock 2, race
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Thursday, Feb 3, 2011
We know from our everyday experiences that familiar is comfortable. What we are used to just feels right. Our brains seemed wired to appreciate and fall into normative practices. Why, then, is jumping in LittleBigPlanet 2 so unsettling?

The plush, cutesy, Stephen Fry narrated dream world of LittleBigPlanet is back, now with more brain twisting and ingenious level design and an entire assortment of mini-game remakes built right in. Developed by British based developer Media Molecule, LittleBigPlanet 2 is a surprisingly controversial game considering its unabashed attempts at charming gamers everywhere into joyful submission. PopMatters’ own Kris Ligman accurately and expertly dug into the game’s contradictory gender messages this past Tuesday, specifically revealing how Media Molecule negated their own attempt at encouraging a playful understanding of gender and identity (“Sackpersonhood: Constructing a Rhetoric of Player Identification”, PopMatters, 1 February 2011). It seems LBP’s cute aesthetic is to blame in more ways than one. Jumping, for example, in LBP 2 is largely unsatisfying, and despite attempts to blame players accustomed to jumping like Mario, Media Molecule has no one to blame but themselves.


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Thursday, Jan 27, 2011
Putting aside business machinations and corporate decision making, keeping the stars of Black Ops underground makes artistic sense because the game itself is focused on the player’s identity.

Spoken dialogue has become increasingly important to video game storytelling.  Increasingly, actors that have gained fame in film or television are lending their talents to video games.  However, not all celebrities receive the typical Hollywood treatment when they step off the red carpet and onto the digital plane.  Instead of plastering an A-list celebrity on every poster and putting them front and center, many video games deal with celebrity in subtle ways.  I’m neither a movie nor a casting director, so I can’t speak very well to the business dealings of voice acting.  But, from a player’s perspective, celebrity talent in games takes a variety of forms that range from celebrated, to subtle, to self-aware.


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