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Tuesday, Dec 9, 2008
The elements of our relationship with weapons in a video game.

Tom Endo at ‘The Escapist’ wrote an observational piece on weaponry in games a while back. The article explored the culture of mythical weapons in film like Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum or the importance of a gun fight in a Western. Video games, in contrast, have so much gunplay and action that these moments and weapons take on a different meaning. There was an interesting observation in the comment section made by a user named mbvmgb. The mystical element comes from observing someone use the weapon, not to the person using it. A gun becomes a tool once you become accustomed to firing it, so it makes sense that most gamers would not have a sense of personal awe for a weapon. This led to an interesting exchange between a couple of different people , myself included, about what precisely generated the mythical element in a video game since it was no longer an observation. I thought it might be making the characters or roles you inhabit mythical, others argued that there were plenty of weapons that brought out that sense of awe just in different ways. It’s an interesting question: how does one induce the mythic sense of wonder that films can find so easily when it’s the person themselves using the weapon?


A quick search on Digg brings up a 1,000 point dugg piece listing out the top ten weapons in video games. Unlike the typical list where weapon merits tend to devolve into the graphics or ever-unmeasurable ‘cool factor’, the article gives a really interesting ranking method based on how each weapon is earned by the player. How hard the quest to get it was, how expensive the item gets, or just how useful it ends up being in the actual game. The mysticism of a weapon is no longer its use but rather what it takes to attain it and what it can do for you. In many ways it’s like mbvmgb’s observation but there is also the fact that the very world that makes the weapon useful has also been created for it. Half-Life 2’s gravity gun is useful because the developers put together levels that incorporate it, Dark Sector’s glaive weapon is praised with a similar quality. The quality gauge is what kinds of puzzles the game creates for a given tool and how it compares to other weapons in the game. This value is also created by having other weapons in-game to compare it with, how efficient is this tool compared to the others? What makes a weapon better than another in a game is both its function and also the ways it can be used that are appealing to the player. What kind of problems does it allow you to overcome, how does it compare to other weapons, and the amount of time it takes to get it. Even a sword like the ultimate weapon in Disgae is admittedly unnecessary because to get it your party must already be ridiculously strong. But because of the various powers and stat boosts it has, it’s still the most useful weapon in the game compared to all others and it gets on that list as a result.


 


A similar dumpster dive in Digg brought up a top ten list of similar interest except on my own thought about appreciating the characters we play instead of the weapons they use. Double Viking’s ‘Top Ten Most Badass Video Game Characters’ uses a similarly interesting criteria about how the characters are ranked that doesn’t just rely on the nebulous “Badass” ranking. The various abilities and powers of the character are considered their main virtues. Kratos’s fiery blades, the time dagger of the Prince, or Ryu Hayabusa’s ninja skills are how we identify them. Like the gun argument, the setting is thus an inherent part of the appeal of the character. Ninja Gaiden, for example, is often not really appreciated unless you get a chance to really flex Ryu’s full range of abilities. You have to put the game on tougher difficulties or the enemies don’t stay alive long enough for you to really do a powerful combo on them. Like weapons, the interesting things you can do combined with an environment that makes those abilities exciting is the relationship that makes these characters become mythic. Each character’s actual identity or stories are only mentioned in passing, the list emphasizing that our relationship with the character is now secondary to the story. We relate to these people, first and foremost, by how capable they are in their own setting and how interesting they are to play there.


 


The coolest sword I’ve ever seen can be found in the Philadelphia Art Museum in the medieval weapons section. It’s a broadsword that has a line from The Aeneid carved into the blade. The original Latin phrase translated to “To every beginning there must be an end.” That is, without a doubt, the most stone cold shit I can think to have on your sword. I don’t remember much about the previous owners, but whoever swung that thing for a living was not someone I’d want to cross. Not so much because of the book quote, but because the person wielding that thing has made some philosophical decisions about life and the ethics of taking it. Decisions that meant taking my life was an option if the question came up. On some levels playing a character or using a weapon are similar, it’s not the tool or actions they’re capable of but the idea of it. It’s playing a person who has gone utterly berserk with rage after the loss of their wife and kids. It’s a gun that can lift any object in the game and throw it around. It’s being a Brooklyn plumber sucked into a bizarre dimension full of mushroom people and saving a princess. The mythical element of weapons in video games is fundamentally different than in movies or books because we are the ones wielding them. We are the ones pointing a .44 Magnum at a criminal and asking them if they feel lucky. If we are not experiencing awe in those moments, then we are certainly enjoying the pleasure of generating it.


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Text:AAA
Sunday, Dec 7, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-12-08...

Say what you will about Sony, it is nothing less than a major technical achievement that they created when they put out the PlayStation 2.  I, along with millions of others, bought that thing in 2001.  It’s almost 2009, and here we are, looking at a release week in which a game for the PlayStation 2 towers over everything else on the list of releases.


Granted, it’s a slow release week.  Also granted, the game we’re talking about is a niche title for a devoted, but comparatively small audience.  Still, there are few games that I’ve waited for with such anticipation this year as I have waited for Persona 4.  Having played and enjoyed the third installment in the franchise, particularly with the FES add-ons that came with it, Persona 4 has looked like a shoe-in for game-of-the-year consideration since it was announced to be coming to American audiences in December.  I’m happy to have already had the pleasure of reading some positive reviews of the game, so I’m anticipating a fantastic, engrossing time sink much like the last game.  If you’re not playing Persona 4 this week, I hope you don’t consider yourself an RPG fan.


Dungeon Maker II

Dungeon Maker II


As for the rest of the release list…did I mention that it’s a slow release week?  I did?  Um, good.  Well, the DS has a couple of…well, they’re games, I know that.  Slingo Quest sounds fun, right?  I mean, it combines gambling and adventure gaming! How can you go wrong with that?  The PC and PS3 are a bit late to a couple of parties, with Prince of Persia and Sonic Unleashed respectively, and the Wii will be getting the Neopets Puzzle Adventure, which as I mentioned when it game to the DS version of the game is surprisingly good.


Oh!  And the PSP actually has something coming out this week!  Dungeon Maker II: The Hidden War may not actually convince anyone that the PSP’s not dying, but it’s something, right? 


A trailer for Persona 4, along with the full release list, is after the jump.  Give it a look, and tell us all about your adventures with the Persona series in the comments, won’t you?


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Dec 3, 2008
I found this link thanks to Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

Some very clever folks have put together a web browser version of Doom that does a decent job of recreating the original via Flash. The turn speed isn’t quite right and you can’t adjust the controls, but they still managed to put the entire first episode of the game online. Any doubts people may have about the inevitability of players streaming their games online in the future only need to give this a swing to realize the potential. Keep in mind that this technology is improving at an exponential rate.


Playing Doom again is a fairly interesting experience. Design-wise, we now have a huge variety of FPS titles to contrast it with. Since the game does not typically rely on aiming with a reticle, it automatically adjusts your shots to go up and down in conjunction with where an enemy is located. The lack of control is a bit stifling at first but eventually you start to recognize that the design essentially removes one of the essential skills we come to associate with an FPS: aiming. You still have to point your gun in the general direction of the opponent but the game will handle the rest. The level design handles this by generally focusing on corridors and large rooms, but the spatial limitation becomes a perk rather than a handicap. Maintaining health, ammo, and effectively strafing is all you really need to excel at to play the game. Ducking, aiming, or jumping are not even options. The end result feels decidedly minimalist but obviously still has a lot of appeal. It isn’t quite appropriate to call Doom a casual FPS but by today’s standards it qualifies. As outlined by the success of Wii Sports minimalist design, all you’re really doing in a casual game is taking out chunks of game design so that a beginner can grasp it. You take baseball and you trim it down to batting and pitching. You take boxing and trim it down to waving you arms in vague coordination. You don’t expect them to do fifty things at once, you start them off with five. Adopting that presumption, it seems reasonable to presume any genre of game could find ways to stay interesting while cutting down their game design to simplified but elegant levels.


Which is why having Doom in Flash, a place where many simple games find a home, is actually quite appropriate. I don’t think this version is quite there yet and the lack of multiplayer is going to keep most players restricted to nostalgia and brief distraction. The lack of music and some side effects also keeps this from becoming a definitive Flash version of the game. But given enough time, games like this could be the beginning of something very interesting for video games.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Dec 1, 2008
A breakdown of the merits and missteps of Okami's design.


Over at the Infovore blog, Tom Armitage wrote a very interesting essay about using games to tell stories specific to their medium. Just as a TV series is constructed differently than film in terms of story and ideas, so too should video game plots stick with their specific merits. If all you do is create a game that relies on cutscenes with basic gameplay mixed in-between, then your experience will be little better than a movie with buttons. In order for a video game to be great, it must not only draw influences from other mediums but also make them work in ways that only it can. Stories that involve accomplishment, overcoming obstacles, and other elements of “play” are adept to certain mediums. Capcom’s Okami is an excellent example of this concept in action. Though not without its faults, the game deserves some inspection for using several narrative devices that could only be used in a video game. In any other medium, it simply wouldn’t work to tell the story in Okami.


 


That story is that of being a Sun God who is spreading nature and rejuvenating the landscape. The first time this occurs in a film would be fine, but the numerous times Amaretsu restores a pool, tree, or landscape would quickly get old. In a game, however, with the reward of celestial points and the cutscene in which you see the result of your work, it suffers no feelings of repetitiveness. Healing the land over and over again combines with the sense of accomplishment in a way that allows a narrative that would otherwise be dull for a passive observer. The participation with the celestial brush uses similar elements. Seeing Amaretsu perform a miracle in a T.V. episode would easily become trite after the third or fourth time; in a game the fun of seeing people’s reaction to things changing mystically is always rewarding because it is no longer the miracle we’re looking for, it’s the reaction to what we’ve done. The moment where you must help Susano by inking in the sword slashes for him also explore a relationship that would otherwise not work: having the audience actively enjoy redeeming a fallen hero. The brush lets the player find value in redeeming Susano that would otherwise not be present for an audience. Lord of the Rings could not have had Legolas take all the credit from Aragorn without infuriating some audience members, but because it’s an element of the game design, Okami is able to competently explore such a story. We no longer look for the vindication of our hero getting credit for their actions, we feel the accomplishment of helping the bumbling underdog.


 


Analyzing the plot of a Japanese game can get tricky if it delves deeply into their culture. As a Westerner, I don’t have the understanding and basic knowledge that is necessary to appreciate Okami’s nuance. I picked up on stuff like the Nansō Satomi Hakkenden references, but constantly miss the Kanji tweaks and nuance. I’ve delved into enough anime to at least understand that a lot of complicated stuff is going on just in those tiny details. I doubt the Greek Gods make much sense to someone who hasn’t read about them extensively, so the conundrum is understandable. I also…ah…didn’t finish the game. I got about half-way through and realized I was literally forcing myself to play for the sake of some misguided sense of professionalism. I’m not alone in failing to finish the game—MTV Multiplayer did a stat crunch based off posted hours on the Wii network and deduced that on average, most Okami players go for about 15 hours and then quit. By my clock, I was in Orochi’s dungeon helping make the sacrificial dinner at that point. So whether or not you actually finished the game, let’s talk about why some people have trouble with finishing the game when it’s gorgeous, entertaining, and fun to play. What’s interesting about this is that even though I find prohibitively long games to be annoying, I also still regularly play them. For as much as much as many critics fail to grasp that a video game is not just a movie with buttons, there are still certain elements that can be borrowed from linear mediums with video games. What can be observed here?


 


It can be counter-intuitive to contrast two video games to one another, but in Okami’s case putting it next to Twilight Princess yields some interesting results. Chiefly, although Twilight Princess is a much more stereotypical game in terms of art and plot, more people statistically have finished the game. One reason might be what an IGN video review of Okami observed, the dungeons in Okami are much more organic and fluid. There isn’t always a moment where you realize you’re in a dungeon or when you’re interacting with people, the two modes are blurred. In the Moon Temple when you first go inside there are people to talk to and fetch quests to perform instead of the usual dungeon activities. Conversely, just when you’re done collecting the Dog Warriors to enter the Wind Shrine, you find out there are three more scattered all over the landscape. On the surface these don’t seem like problems because they don’t impede gameplay. What they do instead though is chop up the flow of the game. The flow of a video game is the correlation between player expectation in contrast to what the game is giving them. What Twilight Princess delivers in this regard is precisely the feature that the IGN review mentions: everything is clearly labeled and organized in that game. When you enter a dungeon, you’re going to be doing dungeon type things for a set amount of time. Usually an hour or two, with a nice new item to be found, and a big heart container at the end. The precise number of dungeons and their locations are all neatly laid out on the map and whenever I’m done screwing around the huge world, I can roll up to one and create a precise sensation of accomplishment. That doesn’t really exist in Okami. I have no idea how many Cherry Blossom trees I need to go heal, the brushstrokes are granted at seemingly random times, and I was still entering brand new portions of the landscape 15 hours deep. The result is a game where the flow just keeps going and going without me having any real way to stagger my engagement.


 


There are lots of games that utilize mini-episodes in a larger structure: Silent Hill 2 and Call of Duty 4 work in precisely that manner along with countless other games. The difference here is that Okami’s length starts to work against it. The blurred game activities and exploration are elegantly done throughout the game, but the problem is that it’s a steady stream of gameplay instead of organized bursts. That kind of game flow can’t sustain a player for more than…about 15 hours, I guess. What do you do for really long movie? A long book? You do exactly what Twilight Princess did, you break everything up into sections and chapters. You do what Grand Theft Auto does and make each mission take about thirty to fifty minutes before you go back to roaming the setting of the story. This isn’t supposed to be an indictment of Okami, just an exploration of why precisely it didn’t do as well at this as you’d think it would. The setting, story, and art are all perfectly gorgeous but it’s interesting to puzzle over why that still wasn’t enough to keep people playing. It’s easy to write off consumer culture as wanting nothing more than to play games about being a space marine or ultimate badasses. And the countless games that feed into that easy impulse should be criticized for it. For what it’s worth, though, there is a reason people have trouble finishing Okami, and that means they aren’t getting the full experience with it. As those who toiled through and finished the game will attest, the reason I outlined is not a very good one. It is, however, a reason.


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Text:AAA
Sunday, Nov 30, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-12-01...

Another painfully (some would say mercifully) slow release week is upon us as the year winds down and publishers allow the games that they’d never put up against anything to trickle out. 


The lone truly big-ticket item to be seen in the bunch below is Prince of Persia, for which the lack of numbers or subtitles would seem to indicate a restart for the franchise.  Interestingly, it’s a franchise whose momentum seems to be building, given some recent high-profile shoutouts from the likes of Yahtzee and the news of an upcoming movie version of the game starring none other than Jake Gyllenhaal.


Prince of Persia would seem to be the one game this week that is being released because its publisher wanted it to get the release day highlighting—and the holiday promotional push—it deserves.  It’s not too late for the Christmas rush, and yet it’s found a window in which there is very little to distract us from its release.  The Prince himself is new (and quite frankly, he sounds like kind of an ass), but the plot is basically the same—evil dark spirits are released upon the world, and the Prince must save the world with the aid of a mysterious woman named Elika (who becomes the means of saving the Prince from death when we players are inadequately suited to such a task).  If you liked the Sands of Time trilogy, it sounds like you’ll like this, and with the inadvertent spotlight put on the series thanks to the similarity of Mirror’s Edge‘s acrobatics to those of Prince of Persia, now might be just the time to get into it.


There are a couple of Mushroom Men games coming out this week as well, which may be worth a look.  The Wii version of the game (subtitled The Spore Wars) has been the recipient of some pretty decent preliminary reviews, and who doesn’t love a good platformer?  Platformers not based on already-established franchises are pretty rare these days (LittleBigPlanet notwithstanding), so it feels like something I’d want to support, anyway.


Elsewhere, SingStar Abba might just be the game that finally gets my father into video games, WiiWare might have some buried retro treasure on its hands with Space Invaders Get Even!, and The Tale of Desperaux is on its way for the kids.  Finally, there’s A Vampyre Story, which at first glance looks like your run-of-the-mill PC adventure game, but a closer look reveals that it’s been in production since at least 2004, and the folks behind it are former LucasArts adventure game developers.  If this doesn’t make you squeal with joy, you must not have played PC games in the ‘90s; for the rest of us, this could be a classic in the making.


What are you playing this week?  Have you recovered from your turkey hangover?  Let us know in the comments, and enjoy the snow.


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