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Friday, Feb 19, 2010
Despite popular opinion, I don't think any kind of spoiler can truly ruin your experience with any game.

Before I ever started playing the original No More Heroes I knew all that it had to offer. I knew it was one giant joke, a playful jab at the entire medium and those who love it. I knew about the purposefully empty open world, that Travis Touchdown was a blatant otaku, that he fought with a “beam” saber, and that he was a parody of the stereotypical gamer. I knew about the over-the-top action, the insane bosses, and the game’s embrace of a retro 8-bit style. I thought it sounded awesome and expected to enjoy it, but I hated it. I hated the jokes, I hated Travis, I hated the side jobs, the open world, the Lucha Libre masks, and grinding for cash.


I’ve often wondered what made me hate the game so strongly in those first few hours, and I believe I hated it because the game was spoiled for me. Much of the game’s charm stems from the joy of discovery. Not “discovery” as in environmental exploration but rather the discovery of an unexpected gem of a game. That experience was spoiled for me by the expectations that I had going in. Most talk of spoilers center around plot twists but even a discussion of the experience can spoil a game. And yet, after the wonderfully anti-climatic battle with Letz Shake, I started to warm to No More Heroes. By the time that I heard that robotic voice announce my impending fight with Harvey Moiseiwitsch Volodarskii, I was enjoying myself. And by the time I finished the game, its crazy charm had made me a fan. Despite that joy of discovery being taken away from me, despite all the hate I had for the game, I still came to love it, and I believe that speaks to just how inconsequential any kind of spoiler is to video games.


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Wednesday, Feb 17, 2010
Video games might be a more inherently democratic medium than many others.

Wallace Stevens’s poem “Study of Two Pears” is, as the title suggests, a description of a painting of two pears.  The poem carefully describes the composition of this painting and the shapes and colors that the painting contains.  It also suggests that the painting is so clearly rendered that the images of the pears can not be interpreted as anything but what they are intended to represent: “The pears are not viols,/Nudes or bottles./They resemble nothing else.”  However, as the first line implies the poem is intended as an “opusculum paedagogum” or a “little bit of instruction”.  Thus, despite its mostly descriptive qualities, interestingly the closing lines of the poem suggest that what this well described still life teaches is how framing an image is authoritarian in nature: “The pears are not seen/As the observer wills” (”Study of Two Pears”, Poetry Foundation), implying that the choice of how a subject is seen is derived from the design of the work’s creator, its author.


This kind of authoritarianism, the ability to control what is seen or how we are to know a subject, though, is implied in some way in the way that we conceive of authorship in the first place.  The word authority is derived from auctoritas, which among other things suggests “influence” and “command,” and from autorite, “a book or quotation that settles an argument” (Douglas Harper, “authority”, Online Etymology Dictionary).  We think of artists, like authors, as those who influence how we see things, and as Stevens implies about visual authorship or artistry, they do when they command what we see through drawing a line.


A similar claim might be made about the author of a novel that chooses the details that we are intended to “see” as they set a scene for us.  The claim may be somewhat more difficult in fiction, though, in which visualizing details might allow for a degree of subjectivity or misinterpretation.  We might imagine how some details might appear if the author has not specified them. However, it is, indeed more difficult to make the claim about the authority of visual arts in that it is very difficult to make your eyes “see” something that isn’t there. 


(Try it – imagine that there is a frog sitting on the edge of your computer screen.  Now, believe it, really believe it.  Tricky, no?).


Nevertheless, Stevens point may still be relevant in general about authorship, since even in written fiction, the author is at least “drawing the eye” to see details that approximate his or her own version of reality.  “Seeing” the New York skyline over the shoulder of Odysseus is imaginatively possible, I guess.  However, when you are reading The Odyssey closely, I would think that you are probably more likely visualizing that Cyclops that Homer told you was there.  Authors, then, at least “frame” the world to some degree, and through observation of what they have chosen for us to see, we (and our imaginative faculties) become subject to their influence.


Interestingly, by their very nature, video games appear to be a more democratic medium than many others.  While similar claims can be made about the “authority” of game designers in generating worlds for the player to view, nevertheless, the kind of authority that the film camera might have in choosing the subject matter for a viewer to focus on for a particular scene or that the literary author might have in setting a scene by telling the reader what details to focus on in it is less present and tyrannical in most games.  While I might be limited to viewing a suburban neighborhood in The Sims, because some of the tools of authority have been loaned out to me, the camera and building and purchasing tools, I can choose how to see the scene and add or subtract elements in the scene in a way that even literary fiction does not provide.  These changes are not merely imaginary, they make me complicit in authorship itself, adding and subtracting from a fictive and viewable reality in a substantial way that is not merely imaginative.  Video games challenge “author”-ity because they don’t force us into the “frame” of the author.


The game is often, at least in part, seen as the observer wills.


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Tuesday, Feb 16, 2010
The fun of 'Super Mario World' is just figuring out ways to break the level.

My favorite Mario Bros. is the SNES version. It’s not a fun issue. Super Mario Galaxy, Mario 64, and the other games in the series all have their moments. They just don’t inspire the same degree of fascination that Super Mario World has drawn out of me. I can usually plow through the game in a handful of sessions, unlocking every secret through muscle memory. I know the levels to milk for lives when you’re running low. The route to the Blue Yoshi is permanently burned into my mind. I’ve beaten the game’s 2-D predecessors without ever having much interest in going back. I play the 3-D ones, but by about the 50th star, I just want to get it over with. What is this game doing that keeps me coming back?


From a design perspective, Super Mario World is unique in the amount of options that you have when deciding how you want to begin a level. Unlike Super Mario Bros. 3, I can go back to beaten levels and snag power-ups before hitting start then select to immediately exit. There was a bit of dabbling with this in the third game with the inclusion of an inventory system, but it was always a finite resource. There are only so many treasure houses, and the results were usually random. In Super Mario World if I want a cape, I just go get one then try the level again. The DS version (calling it New Super Mario Brothers seems to just confuse people) also plays with this idea, but there were really only two power-ups to collect: big and fire flower. In the 3-D versions, you always start as Mario, and you can’t even carry powers into a level. The only time that you get the bee suit is if it’s an option that the designer includes. Likewise, the only time you get to fly is if the level is built for it in Mario 64. By contrast, the only constraint that Super Mario World imposes is in the ghost houses or castles, and even then, it just means dismounting Yoshi. You are free to bring whatever you like to most levels and engage with them on your own terms.


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Friday, Feb 12, 2010
Borderlands and Dragon Age portray the player as a traveler, but the permanent storage we get in downloadable content betrays that portrayal.

Gamers are hoarders, collectors. Games have always encouraged this behavior, both inside and outside the virtual world, tempting us with “the next big gun” and “the next big game”. But sometimes this tradition is eschewed to great effect. When Resident Evil 4 got rid of the magic storage chests that had been a staple of the series, players were forced to think about their inventory in a new way. We had to strategize, we had to choose between ammo, health, grenades, or guns, we had to predict what was coming and therefore what we would need, but we never really knew what was coming. As we left the mysterious Merchant, there was always an uneasy feeling that we were unprepared. Our limited inventory made the unknown more frightening.


More recently, Dragon Age: Origins and Borderlands forced the player to accept a limited inventory, and since their release, developers of both games have caved to public pressure and given players a storage chest through downloadable content. By adding such a chest, these two games lost one of their more unique traits: their portrayal of the player as a traveler.


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Text:AAA
Thursday, Feb 11, 2010
Clash of Heroes mixes equal parts match-three puzzle gaming and strategy with some light RPG elements.

I love strategy games on my Nintendo DS. They’re pretty much all I play on the thing, except maybe a little Tetris or Meteos from time to time. But for me, turn-based strategy games like Age of Empires, Advanced Wars: Dual Strike, and yes, oh yes, oh yes, Civilization: Revolutions are why I bought a new DS the day my old one broke. The purer the strategy, the better as far as I’m concerned, and random elements in these games just drive me nuts. Any time the digital dice contravene the odds, I’m a little peeved. I love to plan many moves ahead, make the right moves, and see my strategies give birth to victories. I guess I’m mostly just looking for really complicated versions of chess. With tanks.


So I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes, a game that mixes equal parts match-three puzzle gaming and strategy with some light RPG elements. Battles are very abstract, sort of like playing versus Bejeweled, but with dragons and vampires and demons. The two armies line up and each round you have three moves to maneuver troops so that three units of the same color line up to form either a wall or an attack formation. Bigger units like knights or those dragons requite multiple units of the same color stacked up behind them to activate. It’s a simple game with layers of interesting strategy and complications that make it a lot of fun. I recommend it, despite the trite, overwrought (but thankfully irrelevant) story.


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