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Wednesday, Mar 17, 2010
There is nothing more elegant than punching a button and watching something die.

Taking at least one thing off before going out, the little black dress, the black tie, the shotgun. What do these things have in common?  Obviously, their elegance.


I have been groping around for years for a way to convey to others the pleasure that I get from using the shotgun in a first person shooter.  And it has finally come to me, it is the very definition of elegance.


Tagged as: doom, doom 2, elegance, fps, shotgun
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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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Friday, Mar 12, 2010
Mass Effect 2 creates a well realized world that feels alive, even when we're not playing, by using only words.

Codices are nothing new in games. In fact, they’re quite old. They’re an effective tool of world building, allowing developers to explain traditions, cultures, technology, or other facts that would seem extraneous if forced into the main story. However, in Mass Effect 2, the codex is more than just a tome of fictionalized history. Such “extra information” is used to bring the world to life as well as to describe it.


Mass Effect 2 has an extensive codex, covering all the usual facts, but the actual sub-page on the main menu labeled “Codex” is just one part of a much larger well of extra information.


Tagged as: mass effect 2
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Thursday, Mar 11, 2010
But they're just toys. They fall to pieces, not into rotting corpses. It's all okay.

I have no problem with violence in video games. None. I know it’s pretend, I think it’s a ton of fun, and I shoot the hell out of digital human analogs on a pretty much daily basis. This post isn’t about that. It’s also not about hating on Toy Soldiers. In fact, I love the game and heartily recommend it to one an all. I like it more because it made me think about some kind of disturbing issues. I’m talking about using chemical weapons to kill masses of people. I’m also talking about gunning down hundreds of soldiers with concentrated machine-gun fire as they bravely charge out from the trenches. I’m talking about the worst horrors of World War I, only played out with virtual lead soldiers instead of virtual humans.


The Great War, or the War to End All Wars as it was once known, doesn’t get much attention in pop culture. There was those episodes of Young Indiana Jones that handled it pretty well and, of course, Gallipoli and All’s Quiet on the Western Front, but compared to World War II, it’s almost like a side show to history, the prequel to the big war story yet to come. I think that the reason for this is pretty clear: the trench warfare that typified the war just doesn’t have as many stories to tell. It’s always grim and static, with hopeless charges into enemy fire and clouds of poison gas choking the life out of our of helpless young men. It’s as grim as war gets, and while the horrors of WWII no doubt match them tragedy for tragedy, it was a war of movement and strategy. Or at least we see it that way. Plus, the Nazis were so damn evil that they have become undeniable, pure villains worth fighting. Most people don’t even really know what the hell World War I was all about.


Toy Soldiers captures much of this horror quite well. It is a game about chewing through wave after wave of enemy soldiers. The brief intros to each battle state only the basics: defend this, stop them, kill those. There’s no indication of why, nor does there need to be. The clockwork miniature men charge your position and die in droves. The game does the only thing that it can to make this fun to play, putting you, the player, in the role of building and operating the massive meat grinder. Your machine-gun nests, mortar positions, artillery pieces, and, yes, chemical weapons are all that stand between those metal bastards and your toy box.


The perversity of those poison gas attacks is what got me thinking a little more deeply about Toy Soldiers. It’s a weapon system with a very bad rep, the kind of thing that’s seen as the pinnacle of criminal warfare. It’s probably no worse for the victim than any number of things that a bullet can do to the body, but it seems much more indiscriminate and somehow cruel. It’s also not something that you see very often in games and not something that I’ve ever seen used as much as it is here, where you can see the toy men choking and gasping before expiring within the cloud of yellow-green death. But they’re just toys. They fall to pieces, not into rotting corpses. It’s all okay.


That, I think, is the brilliance of Toy Soldiers. They’ve managed to take the classic Tower Defense style gameplay and apply it to the only modern era war that makes sense to portray through this play style. World War I was all about static defense positions from which the boys fought off endless waves of enemies. However, a straight-forward simulation of the actual historical slaughterhouse would probably have had limited appeal. Even a jaded gamer like me might have gotten sickened just a little bit if the virtual doughboys dying on screen had been “real.” But they’re not real, they’re toys! So it’s cute fun, not horrible at all!


This is a perfect example of why game violence shouldn’t be mistaken for real violence. The Toy Soldiers version of war adds an extra layer of metaphor to disguise the real world horrors, but the fact is that all games are just toys. Thus, Toy Soldiers works as a lovely example of how players perceive violence in all types of games. We know it’s an abstraction of a type present in games like Risk, Stratego, and chess. The difference between Toy Soldiers and Modern Warfare 2 really just comes down to the difference between G.I. Joe and Playmobil. One is more “realistic” than the other, but in the end, they’re both just toys and it’s all a game that we’re playing.


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Wednesday, Mar 10, 2010
One surefire way to incite nerd rage is to ask what the best gaming console ever is. The only reasonable answer is Sony’s Playstation 2.

One surefire way to incite nerd rage is to ask what the best gaming console ever is. “Dreamcast!!”, the savvy gamers will say. “Super Nintendo, no doubt”, retro fans will argue. “Xbox 360”, the foolish young’uns will say.


However, the only reasonable answer is Sony’s Playstation 2.


I won’t recount the history of the console here.  For an in depth look For that, I’d point you to Mike Fahey’s “My Ten Years with the Playstation 2” (Kotaku, 4 March 2010).  Instead, suffice it to say that the system launched in 2000, ten years ago last week, and games are still being made for it. And it’ll probably still see new titles for one to three more years. Its library is unparalleled in terms of quality and depth, as it is home to scores of great RPGs, fighters, puzzle games, and every other genre that anyone could want. For me, it is impotant because it’s the console that turned me into a “hardcore gamer.”


The PS2’s father hooked me on gaming with a score of Final Fantasy titles and action games. But it was with the PS2 (and games like the Metal Gear series, God of War, Shadow of the Colossus, and, of course, more Final Fantasy titles) that I began to take gaming more seriously. I’d say that the seeds of becoming a quasi-professional games writer were planted in me in its early days.


But this is less about my experiences with Sony’s console and more about why it’s the best console ever. And really, in terms of its competition, nothing comes close.


The amount of classic games on the system is astounding: two Metal Gear games (arguably the best two in the series), two God of War games, four Final Fantasy titles, even though many discount the underrated X-2, and two surreal Katamari games to name a few. It also facilitated the birth of the Guitar Hero series and included RPG standouts like two Persona games, a Dragon Quest, and two installments of Kingdom Hearts. Oh, and Grand Theft Auto’s best are there too. It’s unreal how many AAA titles the console boasted in its decade of existence.


If the parameters for “best console ever” are quality of titles, length of run, sales, graphics, or anything else, the PS2 wins without a doubt. I have to believe that any of the big three console makers look at the PS2 as the gold standard of success. Backwards compatibility? DVD player? Price points and multiple iterations over time? It really laid the blueprint for how modern consoles work today.


However, today my PS2 is probably also on it’s last legs. I tried to play Silent Hill 2 on it recently, and it struggled and wheezed like an old dog. In many ways, it’s fitting. Mine is a first generation system that is still chugging along . . . barely—much like the PS2 as a console itself. Will I get it replaced? Probably, as there are many games that I want to continue to play on it. And anytime you can get some money out of someone for a decade-old system, that’s success.


So happy birthday PS2. May you have a great farewell run.


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