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

 
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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Jul 15, 2009
Such complicated heroes should be allowed to age less than gracefully and having complicated characters that can age may indicate that video game narratives could be growing up a bit themselves.

Max Payne is looking pretty bad lately.


Of course, Max hasn’t lead the easiest life, but Rockstar’s latest screen shots of the two-fisted gunman indicate that some of that hard living is legitimately beginning to show.  Max is getting balder, bigger, and less beautiful by the moment.


It isn’t as if Max needs to be pretty.  What hard boiled hero has ever been able to lay claim to that particular attribute?  But, given that Max’s image is one that could at least theoretically be saved from the ravages of time (since rendered images don’t tend to suffer the ill effects of wrinkeles and weight gain), Rockstar’s choice to go ahead and allow time to leave its mark on their anti-hero is an interesting one.  It is also a choice that lacks a great many precedents in the medium of video games.


Certainly, Hideo Kojima also chose to age the hero of the Metal Gear Solid series.  Like Max, Snake in his last foray into the stealth action genre looked much the worse for wear as he confronted both a new global threat but also had to contend with his own mortality.


These couple of examples, though, tend to fly in the face of conventional serializing in the video game industry.  Most heroes and anti-heroes that get the opportunity to appear in multiple titles have a tendency to perhaps “evolve” in appearance, but they rarely do more than receive an update to their look rather than begin to look their age.  Instead, characters like Lara Croft and Mario are treated as icons, images that are recognizable and emblematic of whatever they are intended to heroically represent—be that sexy, empowered femininity or working class sticktuitiveness.


In considering the aging of characters in serial formats, it occurred to me that this same tendency to age some characters and to leave timelessly iconic other kinds of characters is also a tendency in comic books.  While I am being gravely reductionist in this observation, there has always seemed to me to be a general tendency to approach the handling of the aging super hero in two different ways by the two major comic book publishers, DC Comics and Marvel Comics.


The staple DC characters, who generally are much older than those belonging to Marvel, are usually represented in a timeless fashion.  Bruce Wayne, while having existed since 1939, remains (barring out of continuity material, like Frank Miller’s Dark Knight) seemingly forever trapped in some late-30s to late 40s version of himself.  Superman and Wonder Woman, who resemble minor deities in some way anyway, likewise remain perpetually beautiful despite similar post-World War II origins and despite their stories in serial form running regularly every month for nearly 70 years.


Many Marvel characters (at least around their point of origin, the early 1960s) tend to have experienced slightly different relationships to Father Time.  Spider-Man’s stories began with a Peter Parker still awkwardly attempting to navigate the hallways of his high school.  But Spidey’s continued adventures over the next couple of decades are backgrounded by a clear progression in time: Peter’s graduation, his entry into college, and even his eventual marriage (which, as I understand it was annulled through the intervention of a demonic deus ex machina, which may undermine my point a bit—Spidey seems to have stabilized like Bruce Wayne at some perpetual near middle age at some point fairly recently).  In other words, though, generally speaking following Spider-Man’s progress as a character over the decades also allowed readers to watch the effects of time on his alter ego, leaving Spidey less like an immortal icon and something more like a relatable human being.


It seems to me that DC’s lack of the representation of aging in their characters and Marvel’s tendency to allow characters like the Fantastic Four to age at least a bit (the marriage of Reed and Sue Richards and the eventual transformation of the Invisible Girl into the Invisible Woman are likewise emblematic of a maturation process in their characters) are related in some sense to the philosophies that each company has in regards to their characters.  DC Comics is generally interested in a romantic vision of a hero that is indeed iconic and timeless, representing larger principles like truth, justice, and the American Way, while Marvel is generally interested in more realistic and flawed characters that struggle with life in ways recognizable and comprehensible (once again, I realize that this is a broad characterization, and I can certainly think of exceptions in both comic book lines to these ideas, but my claim is one that I think is generally reasonable in considering the two companies’ approaches but simply not one without exception).


Returning to video game characters then, one might consider in this context the interests of game designers in keeping Lara and Mario ageless while allowing other characters like Max and Snake to indicate noticeable changes in their appearance as time and their series move forward.  Certainly, Lara Croft, like many larger than life representations of femininity in the arts, is almost unable to be aged.  Sex symbols are ruined in a culture that views “women of a certain age” as undesirable.  Lara, however, is in part intended to represent an iconic form of beauty that parallels this ideal notion of youthful beauty.  Likewise, Mario as a working class hero would suffer from being rendered in a geriatric form.  No one wants an arthritic plumber to look at that busted sink, we need someone strong and vital to do such dirty jobs (oh, and to kick turtles).  In that sense games in the Tomb Raider series and the countless titles bearing Mario’s names are ones interested in ideal heroes that represent ideals big, broad, and timeless.


However, Max and Snake occupy game worlds eminently more wed to time as they deal with personal, social, and political issues bound to the periods that they emerge from.  Unlike the explorer interested in antiquities whose adventures give nods to history but stand outside those actual historical events or the plumber who explores completely fantastical settings that are bound to no recognizable time, like mushroom kingdoms and even outer space, Max and Snake find themselves in much grimmer, grimier, and decaying worlds that clearly cannot escape the history crumbling around them.  As a result, characters like Max and Snake, despite their often extraordinary circumstance, still come off as characters that are a little bit more familiar and understandable to us, who as mortals and not gods likewise have to come to grips with time and history.


Rockstar has generally been good at creating these sorts of realistic mythologies (which sounds like an oxymoron, but I think a still reasonable description of the kind of fantastic but still historically and politically grounded worlds of the Grand Theft Auto series).  Recurring minor characters in the Grand Theft Auto games have allowed Rockstar to show that time operates in the worlds that they build.  From the balder and paunchier Ken Rosenberg appearing in the 1990s in San Andreas formerly as a slightly more vital, if completely neurotic coke head in the 1980s in Vice City to witnessing the dismemberment of Phil Cassidy in Vice City having only known him as an armless vet in the later decade represented in GTA III, GTA characters bear witness to the consequences of time on their characters and create a more realistic sense of who characters are as people, not emblems, than, perhaps, other gaming worlds often do.


This generally bodes well for Rockstar’s approach to a well seasoned Max Payne as he is a character that seems well suited to a more realistic sensibility.  Despite the bullet time balletics that are the hallmark of the series, Max is a character evocative of both sympathy and disdain.  He is not a character that represents or allows for simplistic and one dimensioanl analysis.  Such complicated heroes should be allowed to age less than gracefully and having complicated characters that can age may indicate that video game narratives could be growing up a bit themselves.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jul 14, 2009
Just a little link aggregating.
From girlgamers.co.uk

From girlgamers.co.uk


The usual BPM for this week got posted a bit earlier than usual, but you can check back here if you missed it.


As a substitute though, I thought I’d aggregate a few links to the growing discussion about video games that specifically target female gamers. An excellent post at Wired highlights some of the top contenders for most awkward thing to teach a young girl.


The games listed in the article vary in subject matter from using clothes and behavior to be accepted by the “Pretty Committee” to revolving around trying to get a boyfriend. Other titles only allow the female character to advance by purchasing clothes and jewelry. A similar post at Brainy Gamer summarizes the issue nicely:


Most video games for girls send a steady flow of narrow images and self-limiting notions about how to succeed in today’s culture. They reinforce all the worn-out essentialist tropes: be beautiful, be fashionable, be popular. If parents want to worry about the messages kids receive from video games, they should pay more attention to these.


Other than the inherent nature of the media a person playing these games are exposed to, it is hard to say what kind of effect these games may have. Craig A. Anderson, who is one of the psychologists arguing in favor of a connection between violence and video games, points out in a FAQ, “all games teach something, and that ‘something’ depends on what they require the player to practice.” Anderson is outlining how both positive and negative behavior is taught through games in that quote, but the potential for negative behavior outside of just the violence that he addresses is very real. A child who constantly acts out, achieving success through purchasing clothes and behaving how their friends want them to might be, absorbs some strange lessons.


These question are further complicated by the fact that these types of games aren’t even considered particularly popular in their target demographic. A post at Feminist Gamers points out that a survey at the Institute of Adolescent Health found that girls ranked Grand Theft Auto as their favorite game. It was followed closely by The Sims, which allows female characters to be or do just about anything. Considering that even the most violent games are just empowerment fantasies, it isn’t surprising that these can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of gender.


One of the ideas that Ian Bogost outlines in Unit Operations is that our relationship with games work as a sort of response to the game’s world. That is, we look at how the game is depicting reality and contrast that with our own perspective. The things that we can do in the game that conflict with how we believe the world works generates an emotional reaction. In a game like Grand Theft Auto, my reaction to stealing a car is one of excitement because I personally could never do that. There are moral reasons for this but also social concerns that intervene like law, friends, and concern for hurting another person by taking their car. It’s fun to do it in the game because of the conflict that the activity has with my perception that what I’m doing is not possible normally.


The issue with a child playing one of these games revolves around the question of which misconception about reality is easier to correct. An adult would reasonably be able to correct a twelve year old child’s misconceptions about violence seen in a video game. But a young girl believing that the best way to make friends is through buying clothes and being pretty might be more impactful.


Put another way, you might be better off with your kid playing Grand Theft Auto after all.


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Text:AAA
Friday, Jul 10, 2009
Does the lack of a head-up display make a game more immersive?

The traditional heads-up display is more and more being treated as an unwanted intrusion on the gameplay experience. Players need the information displayed, but the HUD can sometimes be distracting. Many developers try to do away with it, hoping that will make their game more immersive, and different games take different routes with different results.


Far Cry 2 and Uncharted: Drakes’s Fortune have traditional HUDs, but try to hide them as much as possible. In both games the HUD only appears in certain situations, and then fades out of sight when it’s not needed. Far Cry 2 shows the typical health and ammo, but the health meter only shows up when the player is hurt or uses a syrette to heal, while the ammo only appears when a gun is running low and must be reloaded soon. Uncharted takes things a step further by removing any health meter, instead the bright colors of the forest fade each time Drake is hurt until the screen is black and white, and then the color returns as his health automatically regenerates. The ammo appears whenever the player shoots.


Fading a HUD into and out of view depending on the situation is a fitting compromise for these two games. A HUD, no matter how small it is, attracts the eye, so by removing it until it’s necessary the player is more likely to notice the details in the environments. Since both games have impressive environments, it’s only natural that the player be encouraged as much as possible to admire it, and not spend the game looking at a mini map, health meter, or ammo counter. But this technique doesn’t solve the problem of immersion. The character can’t see the information in the HUD so there’s a clear disconnect between us and them. We can see things they can’t. Even if the information in the HUD is limited to only things the character would know, presenting it in a floating, immovable menu still creates that disconnect.


Dead Space has a simple yet clever way of dealing with its HUD. It takes all the standard elements of a heads-up display and treats them as if they actually exist in the game world. The health meter becomes a glowing tube on Isaac’s spine, and all other relevant information is projected into the world as a hologram in front of the character: Remaining ammo floats above our gun, and the inventory hovers in the air while we select items. When the camera turns the inventory turns as well. It isn’t an immovable menu pasted over the action; it’s part of the world.


Dead Space doesn’t treat the player as separate from the character; we can only see what Isaac sees.  Since the inventory is part of the game world, the game doesn’t pause when we turn on the hologram so there’s no menu for us to retreat to if the action becomes too tense. But this real-time item management is the only tangible effect the loss of a HUD has on the game. The dark ship isn’t suddenly scarier, the art direction and sound add more to the atmosphere than the floating inventory does. While Dead Space removes the traditional HUD all together, that loss doesn’t make the game any more immersive than it would have been otherwise.


Mirror’s Edge, on the other hand, implements a unique HUD, if it can even be called that, in a way that makes the game more immersive and even adds to Faith’s character. Like Dead Space, there are no menus pasted on the screen, though there is an optional reticule to prevent players from getting dizzy. The “HUD” comes in the form of red objects scatted about the environment. These objects point the player in the proper direction to help them navigate though the levels. It’s also worth noting that when Faith picks up a gun there’s no ammo counter, the number of bullets left is unknown to her and to us.


Highlighting the path is more than just a pointer for the player, it’s a visual representation of Faith’s natural path finding ability. We’re literally seeing the world through her eyes, not just seeing what she sees but how she sees it. Instead of just making the HUD a part of the world, we’re seeing things from an individual’s unique perspective. We are Faith. When we take control of her it becomes obvious that she’s a professional Runner. Yes, the game tells us so in a cut scene, but we also get to see that fact for ourselves as she picks a path though the rooftops. Even though we don’t have her talent we see it at work, and we see the results.


I don’t think the mere presence of a heads-up display, or lack thereof, affects a game in any meaningful way. More games are finding creative ways to avoid them, but as Dead Space proves, simply presenting a menu in a new way doesn’t make it anything more than a menu. Immersion comes from stepping into the shoes of a character, an idea that Mirror’s Edge embraces to its full extent, and since playing it I can’t help but wonder how other game characters see the world around them.


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Text:AAA
Thursday, Jul 9, 2009
A fleshing out of the current state of narrative in video games.
From www.the-feral-cats.blogspot

From www.the-feral-cats.blogspot


The relationship between plot and video games has always been an awkward one. Almost every single game out today can be isolated from its story and explained in terms of its design or vice-versa. I can tell you the plot of GTA IV without referencing the game design once. I can also explain a Mario game without mentioning the Princess. The game design doesn’t need the plot to be fun or engaging and the plot certainly doesn’t need interactivity screwing around with its authorial nature. Yet there are a huge variety of games that try to make it work, everything from arcade shooters, board games, simulations and narrative heavy adventure games that propose a wide variety of ideas on how a game’s plot should work with its design. The theory of how to connect the two sides of the experience, narrative and design, is something that is unique for each game. What are some ways to keep the design and plot working together?


From www.howstuffworks.com

From www.howstuffworks.com


When you are combining design and narrative the first thing you have to accept is that both mediums, which can stand alone, are going to have to sacrifice key elements. A plot in a video game does not have a narrative arc. You can’t control the pace of the story and thus you can’t control how the narrative is progressing. The player might get lost, quit the game, go collect random items, or just be trying to get a high score at that particular moment. A game design, once you combine it with a plot, is no longer a dynamic process. Certain elements of the game are going to be set in stone no matter what the player says or does. To give the classic argument, the plot of a football game is dynamic. Anything could potentially happen within the confines of the process. Once you insert a plot, certain things are always going to be present. This football player is always going to have this reaction to a play, this coach is always going to say this particular thing at half-time under certain conditions. Whether it’s a highly linear game or an emergent narrative with lots of vignettes scattered around a world, the plot of a game can at best only be altered a finite number of ways. An essay by Jim Bizzochi argues that the distinction with games comes from identifying what types of immersion they are creating. One type of immersion is the ‘suspension of disbelief’, which requires a narrative arc because you have to tightly pace and control what the viewer is seeing for it to happen. The essay goes on to outline several other forms of immersion, such as “challenge-based immersion” from a game design or “imaginative immersion” from a plot. The trick is that once you combine the two you have to start aiming for a different kind of immersion from the traditional ones like preventing disbelief.


Gears of War, Epic Games

Gears of War, Epic Games


Another essay from Bizzocchi and colleague Douglas Grant highlights the basic hybrid that plot and game design create when merged. You get a Joseph Campbell monomyth. The hero rises up, collects artifacts, overcomes challenges, and returns home to save the day. The characters and development cycle in these stories are convenient for the needs of the game design because they are typically static. An epic hero does not change, there is no real rebirth occurring. Instead they simply become more aware or informed about themselves. Achilles at the end of the Iliad is essentially the same person from the beginning. The events of the book do not personally change him. An epic poem or myth does not depend exclusively on a narrative arc since most portions of it can be read in any order assuming you’ll follow one of the shorter stories. Myths and legends are particularly ripe for conversion into video games because they also revolve around activities. You can explain a huge fight with a Cyclops or a sacred beast in a brawler easily enough. A different approach is to still adhere to this convention but instead develop a plot by having the game be about other characters. Nick Dinicola explains that in aGears of War 2 the main character of the game is actually Dom. Marcus is, like the player controlling him, mostly an observer. Far Cry 2 is essentially the story of the Jackal and his approach to violence in Third World countries. The solution of these games is to keep the player fully immersed in the game design while they observe a plot which, because they are not the focus, can be appreciated independently.


The Darkness, Starbreeze Studios

The Darkness, Starbreeze Studios


Yet it is possible to successfully merge narrative and game design so long as you are able to pace the two experiences in conjunction with one another. One of the greatest success stories of a game doing this is Starbreeze’s aThe Darkness. The opening of the game is pure shooting, giving the player a chance to engage and learn about the game design. The plot is fairly typical and easy to grasp with no major events until a little bit before the half-way marker. The point is that the developers know that the first thing the gamer is going to want is to play the game and they give that to them. When the tedium of shooting, collecting hearts, and other powers starts to grind is when they let the plot kick in. Once a player is fairly familiar with the game, they’re going to be more receptive to story because they don’t have to concentrate as much. The Darkness mixes plot and game design by also fleshing characters out with countless tiny vignettes that are snuck in at every chance. The protagonist, whose change is characterized by personal loss, is has numerous monologues while the game is loading. His condition is reflected in the design as a character dependent on a demon who is slowly taking control of him. The game’s real elegance doesn’t come from the clever plot or game design, it’s how they work together. When the game is really challenging, they don’t bother with story. When the game’s challenge is fairly easy, they let the characters and story have their time where so that they can be better appreciated.


From Immortal Defense

From Immortal Defense


There are other techniques for merging the two mediums besides just pacing plot and game design together. You can just create a series of moments where the two reflect one another. Final Fantasy IV melds game design with narrative by having a key character betray your party. In the plot it’s a hurtful moment, in the game design you’re down a key member in the middle of a very difficult dungeon. Bioshock’s Little Sisters are a symbolic choice that represents the overarching narrative: in a perfect Ayn Rand society would you choose to be altruistic or selfish? Horror games like Silent Hill 2 or Eternal Darkness both rely on the player not knowing what to do and scaring them through a hostile game design. Games like Shadow of the Colossus or Ico rely on solitude and lack of plot to create a simple but powerful narrative. Some games create their design first and then deliver a static narrative that explores the symbolic and literal implications of constantly doing such an activity like the indie gem Immortal Defense. Combining the two means that new storytelling techniques must be developed that appreciate the strengths of both artistic mediums and does not let one or the other dominate.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jul 7, 2009
A twitter poll to see what annoyed people the most about game reviews revealed a lot of surprising complaints.
From southerliving.com

From southerliving.com


Writing an in-depth outline of some common sloppy arguments in video game reviews is basically an exercise in shoving your opinion onto someone else. To try to compensate for this, I shuffled around on Twitter and got advice from several people on the most flawed arguments they see in game reviews. Contributors include 10rdBen, Nelsormensch, SparkyClarkson, mrduranpierre, PopSchiller, mkrpata, Iroquois Pliskin, traceylien, 8bithack, plushapo, Simon Ferrari, and several others. The consequence of using these outside opinions is that I’m personally guilty of several of these flawed arguments in my own reviews. Objectivity is, in many ways, impossible for any one person to manage. But that doesn’t mean we can’t strive for it. Inherent in all of these critiques is the notion that a video game should be judged by the intent of the developers and how well it delivers that experience rather than some personal view that all games should be X or Y.


From dummcomics.com

From dummcomics.com


The controls suck.


Declaring that a game’s interface is bad is usually dependent on comparing it to another game. This game controls like this and I like it, this game seems similar so it should control the same way. Kane & Lynch, for example, got a lot flak for its auto-cover system because it was contrary to how Gears of War worked. The best way to elaborate on the controls sucking is to explain that the game wants you to do X and the controls are making that hard. The issue that comes up is gauging whether or not you’re trying to make the game do something its developers didn’t really intend. It helps to remember that for the average AAA game, a lot of people have played it before it reached you and they all seemed to think it was fine. Assuming they aren’t serving paint chips in the cafeteria, there is usually an ideal way of playing a game that the developers really wish you’d adopt. Do they get that across? Why not? Why would it be better for them to do it your way?


I’m not having fun.


A game review is a consumer report that explains how well a piece of software generates an artificial experience for the user. If you’re not having fun, the game is either trying to give you an experience that doesn’t revolve around making you happy or something is broken in the system. Your job is to explain what’s busted, not tell us your feelings that day.


The graphics are terrible.


We’re talking about an artistic medium that started out as a green dot on a round screen. Everything from text to blocky 8-bit graphics has at one point been considered a great video game. The question is whether or not they communicate the information the game needs properly so that it doesn’t inhibit gameplay.


There are no new game mechanics.


Video games by their nature rely on the pre-existing skills of the player. Part of the way a game appeals to an audience is by being like other games, an FPS plays like an FPS and a Third Person game works on the same basic principles. So it’s inherent for there to be a lot of overlap in any game while changing up weapons and play styles. If you find yourself thinking that the game needs new game mechanics, it’s probably due to dull level design and not working with what it has creatively. Also, complaining that there is no new gameplay in an episodic game series is pretty mind-boggling for the exact same reasons: episodic games by their nature are content delivery systems. The person who plays them does so because it stays familiar, not because they want to play a tutorial every time they fire it up.


The game is too easy.


The odds are that someone who writes reviews of video games has probably been playing them a long time. They are, as a consequence, better at video games than the average person. Staying objective here usually means just playing a game at its normal setting and having some kind of standard based on the game’s intent. Call of Duty 4’s difficulty works because if I go running ahead of my squad and start firing everywhere I’ll die. Bioshock’s kinda breaks down because I can just kill a Big Daddy with a pistol on Normal. If anything, a game that’s too hard even for a game reviewer is the most problematic because it’s catering to a niche audience way more than a game that’s too easy. Does the difficulty stay rational and maintain a sense of fairness about what’s expected of you?


The mini-games don’t have any depth.


I’ve actually read this before so there is apparently some kind of expectation that a mini-game be anything other than a short diversion. The basic use of these things in something like Grand Theft Auto or Zelda is to give you something to do when you get stuck or tired of the main game. Beyond Good & Evil took it one step further by having the entire game be made out of a string of mini-games, but that’s a different bag. The point is that they’re functionally icing on the cake. You aren’t supposed to automatically want to sit there and play them for hours. If you do, like a fishing game or bowling, then the more the merrier. But it’s not really a valid complaint to say that a superficial diversion is, in fact, a superficial diversion.


Criticizing gameplay elements in isolation.


This would be the classic scenario of “Resident Evil 4 sucks because you can’t move while shooting” or “Bionic Commando sucks because you can’t jump”. Which is a totally legitimate reason to not like a game and people should be told that. But taking it as a reason to knock the entire game misses the point the design is trying to make. Bionic Commando wants you to use the arm, Resident Evil 4 stays scary by making you vulnerable when you’re shooting. If the overall game design doesn’t really come together that’s one thing, but taking one tiny portion and considering it inherently bad misses the forest for the trees.


Complaining that a fighting game doesn’t have a deep story.


Seeing this in a review gives new meaning to the term “reaching”. For some genres plot is very important, for others it’s barely even a factor.


Complaining that a Game Doesn’t Have Multiplayer.


This is one of those criticisms that didn’t even make sense back when people made it ten years ago. When the original Darkforces came out, most magazines labeled it as inferior to Doom because it didn’t have multiplayer. The problem with that complaint is that 1) the levels wouldn’t even remotely work for multiplayer and 2) the guns were ridiculously unbalanced. It was an FPS trying to deliver a solid single-player experience and they didn’t have time to balance and organize a game that wasn’t one-sided. Now, thanks to years of people dropping this mindless complaint, games will add piss-poor multiplayer without much development or planning. Should the price change if the game doesn’t have multiplayer? Definitely. Is it a flaw to not be able to go online inherently? Not really.


From universal.com

From universal.com


Complaining that a re-released classic title is old.


This is a real head scratcher. Complaining that ChronoTrigger is the exact same as it was 16 years ago is a bit like whining about Oliver Twist still being the same old book. The game is a JRPG classic and when someone buys it, that’s what they want. The same applies for retro-remakes. If they’re blatantly trying to remake a 1980’s style game for older gamers (the average age is 30, remember?), that’s what they want. Getting annoyed at The Dark Spire for making you need graph paper, being ridiculously hard, and requiring tons of grinding misses the point that it’s a pitch-perfect homage to Wizardry. If the developer’s intent is to appeal to nostalgia, you have to gauge how well they do it, not compare it to today’s standards. A younger gamer can just read “It’s old school design” and know what they’re getting into. There are, believe it or not, people of all ages and backgrounds playing video games regularly.


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