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Thursday, Feb 4, 2010
It's the perfect example of casting to type for great effect, and it's why you pay extra for star power.

Yes, I’m blogging about Mass Effect 2 again. And I probably will next week too. I played through the whole game in four days, mostly in one very long Friday session of about 12 hours. I love this game, and I think it does a lot of interesting things, some of them maybe even ground breaking. Casting famous actors in lead roles is not by any means ground breaking and, indeed, might in some cases be seen as more of a publicity stunt than an artistic choice. Or maybe just a way for game developers to hang out with their favorite sci-fi celebs (I’m looking at you, Halo ODST using the cast of Firefly). Of course I have no idea how much publicity-minded planning played into casting Mass Effect 2, but I do know that some of those decisions had strong effects on how I experienced and even played the game.


There are a ton of sci-fi film and TV stars in Mass Effect 2, and I think they all do fine work. I’m concentrating here on those performances that made a difference for me in how I played the game or at least how I perceived it’s story. I know that one should take each performance on its own merits and not let past, unrelated efforts influence my impression of the piece at hand, but come on, that’s not how people work for the most part. Many stars are stars precisely because they bring along some good will and associations with them from role to role. Daniel Day Lewis manages to disappear completely into his characters, but he’s a rare talent. George Clooney, on the other hand (who I like a lot), knows how to expertly exploit his own range and tweak the overall feeling of a cool, confident, leading man to match the needs of his current film. When you cast him in a movie, you do so knowing that he brings a lot of presence to the characters that a director then doesn’t have to work quite so hard to establish.


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Wednesday, Feb 3, 2010
How does effort fit into the romance equation?

It was 1984, and I was one of those kids whose mother worked at my school (she was the school secretary).  What that essentially meant was that I had to be at school earlier than anyone else (other than my fellows in suffering, the teachers’ kids), and I would never be able to see anything but the first 10 minutes of an episode of Inspector Gadget before me and my piece of toast would have to be out in the car and off to school.  Luckily, there was the Apple II and Karateka.  God bless you, Jordan Mechner.


Much like other games of that decade, for me Karateka was largely a study in gaming as trial and error.  Featuring a robust combat system (within the context of the mid-‘80s), Karateka offered the opportunity to step into the shoes of a martial artist with six distinct attacks: low, medium, and high punches and low, medium, and high kicks.  The protagonist of Karateka also had two stances, a combat or defensive stance, which allowed the player to punch and kick along with a highly vulnerable running stance, which allowed the player to stand erect and then advance rapidly within the game world but had the disadvantage of the threat of a one shot death if the character should be hit while running.


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Tuesday, Feb 2, 2010
Between the success of the Wii, Rock Band, and cross-over titles like Puzzle Quest, two once distinct genres and communities are now beginning to find commonality.

Easily the biggest revolution in video games this past decade was the explosion of casual games. Between the success of the Wii, Rock Band, and cross-over titles like Puzzle Quest, two once distinct genres and communities are now beginning to find commonality. Jesper Juul’s latest book, The Casual Revolution, outlines the basic design principles of these games, corrects misconceptions about how they work, and makes the argument for designers to break out of their own perspectives. The last third of the book features interviews with casual game fans and the creative directors of some of the most successful games in the field.


Juul outlines two basic categories for a casual game: mimetic interfaces and downloadable casual games. In a mimetic interface, “the physical activity that the player performs mimics the game activity on the screen.” Bowling on the Wii or using a Guitar Hero controller are the prime example because the average person can look at the game and immediately grasp what they’re supposed to do. The other category is a “downloadable casual game”, which “are purchased online, can be played in short time bursts, and generally do not require an intimate knowledge of video game history in order to play” (5). A game like Bejeweled or Zuma can be understood quickly, unlike a lot of console titles which consistently presume that the player understands tenets of video game logic like “Go towards the shiny object” or “All bad guys drop ammo.” Common assumptions about the casual genre such as all gameplay must be short or that casual players don’t like challenge are untrue. Rather, it’s just that a casual game is very flexible about time commitments and difficulty. Juul writes, “a casual game is sufficiently flexible to be played with a hardcore time commitment, but a hardcore game is too inflexible to be played with a casual time commitment” (10). He uses the example of a game like Scramble, a coin-op game from the 80s. It’s an old game, but the simplicity of the design makes illustrating his point easier. You fly a ship around while bombing enemies, collecting fuel tanks, and seeing how far you can progress. The goals are explicit and only a narrow range of play styles (blow crap up, dodge bullets) will allow you to continue playing. Juul explains, “The problem with goals is that they may force us to optimize our strategy in order to win rather than do something else that we would prefer . . . games without goals or with optional goals are more flexible: they accommodate more playing styles and player types, in effect letting you choose what kind of game you want to play” (138). Examples of this principle in casual games would be Rock Band’s no-fail mode or Bejeweled’s untimed mode for those who just like to play without feeling pressured.


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Friday, Jan 29, 2010
Dragon Age: Origins constantly reminds us that our choices have consequences and that makes us feel important, but that feeling is taken away when we see the long term effects of our decisions.

So finally, Dragon Age: Origins offers an open ended, branching narrative without a karma system. This is something that gamers have long asked for from BioWare, a company known for making games that focus on choice and consequence. We know our actions have consequences because we see those consequences play out in the plot and character development. This combination of a branching narrative and plot related consequence is so effective at making our decisions feel significant that at times it seems like every little choice that we make will have a dire impact on the world. But what’s most remarkable about Dragon Age is how it can create this feeling of importance in us, and then take it all away when we actually get to see the long term effects of our actions.


There’s no explicit morality attached to our choices, and the story reinforces this ambiguity by putting us in situations that seemingly have no easy solution. A child is possessed by a demon. Do we kill the child or sacrifice his mother to kill the demon? This moral ambiguity makes any consequence more meaningful to the player since we’re not doing what the game thinks is best, but what we think is best. We’re not influenced by outside forces when making a decision, it seems.


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Thursday, Jan 28, 2010

I’m now deep into Mass Effect 2, and so far, I’m liking it a lot. I played the first game release week as well and liked it fine at the time, but I replayed it recently and enjoyed it more the second time around. I think in part that was because I was more familiar with the fictional world that Bioware has created for its sci-fi series. The more I knew, the more engrossing the story became. With that experience in mind, I decided to read the novel, Mass Effect: Ascension before diving into the new game. I’ve only read a handful of video game novels, but I liked that the author Drew Karpyshyn was also a designer on the game because it signaled to me that the book’s events were likely to be fully integrated into the canon of the games.


Mass Effect: Ascension takes place in between the events of the first and second games and features as one of its main characters Kahlee, who also featured in the other Mass Effect novel, Revelation. Here she finds herself at a facility for training young Biotics (those with psychic powers) and is particularly focused on a young girl named Gillian, who is autistic and has the potential to be a powerful Biotic.


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