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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Dec 17, 2008
All dolled up for the holidays, too.

All dolled up for the holidays, too.


All right, I suppose it’s possible that the title up there is insulting your intelligence, and you’re already fully aware of the great game writing and tightly-knit forum scene going on over at The Escapist.  Truly, it’s become one of the most essential gaming sites out there, and if you’re still just going there to look for the video with the yellow background and the guy with the sweet hat, get your weekly dose of profanity-laced insight, and leave, you’re missing out.


Combining a set of weekly features that all revolve around a common theme with daily editorials and reviews, The Escapist is one of a growing number of sites that are treating games as something more than simple diversions.  Founded by Alexander Macris (himself a Harvard Law grad), The Escapist has a way of finding angles at which to look at games that we didn’t even know existed.


As it so happens, L.B. Jeffries has the cover story over there this week, which obviously makes this the perfect time to check it out.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Dec 15, 2008
A closer look at the consequences of Manhunt 2's censoring and its message on violence. Spoilers abound.


One of the unfortunate consequences of the current AAA climate in game development is that it’s tough to find a high production game that experiments very much. Although they might slip in an interesting idea or maybe a radical plot, in terms of game design most things are by the book. Rockstar’s Manhunt 2 is a very interesting game that inadvertently, due to the controversy and subsequent censoring of its violent kill scenes, developed a very unique game design. They lobotomized the reward structure. Whereas the original appeal of the game was experimenting with weapons and seeing the various death scenes unfold, in its censored form this appeal is no longer there. The game design’s entire function was to challenge the player to get the most impressive kill and now that no longer exists. The result is the unique experience of getting to see the nuts and bolts of a game with zero appeal attached to their function. The way the game creaks and falls apart without that reward system is nearly as instructive an experience as seeing an excellent game fully intact.


Manhunt 2 is a combination of Resident Evil 4 combat and a simplified light/dark stealth system. When you bar turns blue, you’re totally invisible. Otherwise you can be seen from a certain radius. Sounds like running or knocking on a wall will attract guards. You then wait until they walk around to inspect the noise, turn their back on you, and then lock on. The longer you hold the lock, the more violent the stealth kill. Like Thief, melee combat with more than two people is suicidal so the stealth kill becomes a necessary strategy in many levels. Mixed with this are the gun portions of the game. Aiming with guns resembles Resident Evil 4 albeit clunkier and with some awkward control issues. You can also lock on and make insta-kill shots provided they are close enough. Structurally, it’s a high road vs. low road scenario to help people who are stuck on a level. Once you get sick of trying to lure a guard close enough to see their gory death, you can just shoot them and get on with it. The low road is supposed to be much less satisfying because you’re missing out on the death scenes. Now, with the last minute censorship, there is no incentive to ever take the high road. You’re just doing the simple head shot move that offers little satisfaction and trudging through the level. Playing such a game is strange because one is so accustomed to the subconscious sense of progress and reward in a game. Without a reward structure to give the incentive to self-induce more complex play, vast elements of strategy and nuance are abandoned by the player. You just run through the experience as quickly as possible, rather than exploring all the tiny details and elements of design. It’s a crisp example of what happens when a game’s rewards don’t encourage more complex play: the player inadvertently shirks themselves of the full experience of the game. Without the death scene rewards, the game doesn’t have a way to make players do anything except the same easy-to-win tactics over and over.


 


Which begs the question of how one should feel about a death sequence as reward in the first place. The plot of the original Manhunt was about a snuff film director capturing a death row inmate. He then makes him run through various obstacles and abandoned buildings, brutally murdering psychopaths and gang members. Whenever you initiate a death sequence, the screen cuts to a video camera recording while the director (voiced by a fantastic Brian Cox) murmurs his praise. In the sequel, the protagonist is immediately portrayed as completely insane. The first level is your breaking free from an insane asylum while your Tyler Durden esque alternate identity Leo guides you. In those sequences it is Leo, instead of the snuff director, praising you for the brutal murders. It’s a simple metaphor: Leo/the Director both represent the player controlling this other person. Whereas both Cash/Danny have sane emotions and desires, this insane outer party is controlling them and making them do awful things because they enjoy the violence. Which is what the player of Manhunt or its sequel are thinking, they are enjoying the violence that this helpless agent is committing under their control. As the game’s violence continues to grow and serve as a reward, the disturbing epiphany that you have been complicit in the villain’s destructive love of death is its masterstroke. In either of these games, the player’s final realization is that they are the monster of the horror story.


From the very beginning it is made obvious that Leo is a figment of Danny’s mind. Whenever Danny does something awful, he becomes Leo for a brief while during the censored murder sequences. It could’ve even been an interesting foil of Danny’s denial that he himself is the killer to have this censoring, except the game doesn’t have a reward structure to replace not seeing the kill. When he is aware of the violence, Danny sometimes vomits or cries. Yet this forced innocence while he is covered in gore and murdering dozens of people becomes a source of mixed emotions for the player. Danny may be protesting his actions but there is always the second voice, Leo, shouting out support. The part of us nagging that what we are doing is wrong and sick is represented by Danny, while the voice in our heads telling us that it’s hilarious and awesome is Leo. He’ll often say after a kill, “You gave me a boy. Now I present the man!” or “Whose the alpha male buddy? YOU ARE!” The weak voiced and glasses wearing Danny, as everyman a game character as you could ask for, chooses to never question this conduct as he pursues his own goals. Violence, for both the player and Danny, is easier to just not think about and instead enjoy on a more carnal level. This pleasure is aptly paralleled in numerous levels by the sexual imagery planted throughout the game. Enjoying the adrenaline of committing a gory murder is connected with enjoying sex and other bodily pleasures. During one level the player must work his way through a whore house taking out guards and looking for a scientist. During all of the fights and kills, the sound of sex is in the background. This sex/violence analogy is ultimately made explicit when Danny walks onto a movie stage covered in blood carrying a gun to an audience of thugs. Behind him, as blunt as possible, is a softcore porn playing.


 


The final plot twist of the game is one reminiscent of the social commentary found in Myst, that if you participate in a virtual environment long enough your behavior will spill over into the real one. Towards the end of the game the player discovers that Leo is not actually a split personality but a real human being planted in Danny’s mind. The indulgence in violence’s satisfactions, our Mr. Hyde, has become a real and independent being. The final mission takes place in Danny’s mind and requires him to properly bury the wife he murdered while Leo was in control of his body. It is not so much a boss fight as it is an endurance match of lugging her corpse across the yard while Leo attacks you. Putting to rest the female figure in Danny’s life, who was only seen fighting with him in other cutscenes, is to make amends with the thing that drove Danny to signing up for the project in the first place: his inability to make enough money to feed his family. The insecurity he felt as a male, as a father who could not provide, must be buried to defeat the need for Leo’s support. It is probably this final moment that suffers the most due to the lobotomized game design. Without having done enough violence to become a monster, Danny’s catharsis ultimately is not felt by the player. We are not complicit enough in the dark fantasy the game means to lure you into, if only to give the experience of escaping from its awful reality. We are instead no better than film goers pressing a button when we are ready for the monster to make yet another kill, over and over and over.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Dec 10, 2008
Tired of slapping together creatures with the same old parts from Spore’s original creature creator? EA hopes that the Spore Creepy & Cute Parts Pack will be a shot in the arm that you, the Spore junkie, will crave.

Tired of slapping together creatures with the same old parts from Spore’s original creature creator?  EA hopes that the Spore Creepy & Cute Parts Pack will be a shot in the arm that you, the Spore junkie, will crave.  But is it enough? 


Judging from the pattern established by other Maxis/EA hits like the Sims franchise, Spore C&C will be the first in a long line of updates.  As with The Sims 2, Maxis has confirmed in a press release that they will employ a two-pronged approach to deliver additional building tools (in the form of “stuff packs”) as well as altered gameplay (in the form of “expansion packs”).  The first expansion pack, scheduled for spring 2009, will add depth to the Space phase. 


This delivery model will hopefully keep the game (and its accompanying online community) fresh and growing.  It will also keep the cash flowing into EA’s coffers, and this parts pack in particular feels more like a greedy grab for green than a bona fide attempt to refresh the gameplay.  Coming just two months after Spore’s initial release, the parts pack adds 60 new body parts, 12 new paint themes, and 24 “test drive” animations.  None of these additions alter the mechanics or difficulty of the gameplay, but are intended to give players more control over the appearance and abilities of their creatures. 


I strongly suspect that Spore’s upcoming expansion will be the first in a series of four expansions that will address each of the four phases of the game after cell phase.  Many critics of the game (myself included) felt that each phase merely scratched the surface of the genre’s capabilities, and I imagine that the expansions are going to offer Spore fans an opportunity to add complexity to the phases they like best without being obligated to spend money upgrading every part of the multifaceted gameplay.  Meanwhile—and this is pure speculation—now that a collection of creature parts has been released, expect to see additional stuff packs that expand the vehicle and architecture tool sets as well. 


After installing and playing with the Spore C&C for a while, I did feel that the game benefited from the greater variety of parts available.  Still, adding a few dozen body parts to the creature creation tools seems like a disappointingly simplistic approach to sparking creativity in the user community.  I couldn’t help but think back to a simpler time, when user-created content was an indie thing that required a fairly rigorous set of digital design skills but was completely and absolutely open-ended.  It seems to me that since so much of Spore’s concept revolves around a shared, creative community, limiting players’ creativity with a pre-set collection of materials impedes the growth of the fan base.  In other words, I think it’s a big, fat, hairy mistake. 


Once upon a time, back in the dark ages of 56k dialup modems, there were games that were both fun and hackable.  Players would create their own content for their favorite games and upload it to fan sites, sharing among themselves free of charge.  Sure, you had to muck around with graphics editors and such, and the results were sometimes comically bad, but back in the early days of The Sims—and I know I am dating myself by admitting I can remember this—people just made stuff and shared it.  Independent programmers even made simple tools to help other people make stuff, and it was a labor of love. 


I mention The Sims specifically because, although there were many other mod-able games at the time, the large, creative community that emerged was an unforeseen consequence of The Sims’ open-endedness that took even Will Wright by surprise.  Later, the huge success of the fan community inspired Maxis to create tools like Creature Creator and The Sims 2’s Body Shop, which would theoretically allow more people to create more stuff with less effort. 


However, when the grassroots movement was absorbed by the establishment, as it were, Maxis wanted (and needed) to exercise control over user-created content in order to maintain their “T” rating.  In other words, bye-bye, nude skins and double-D-cup meshes.  By standardizing and controlling the tools, Maxis was able to limit inappropriate content, but they also squelched much of the creative open-endedness that was inherent in the first-generation, third-party tools.  Furthermore, they opened the floodgates for the less skilled, less devoted, and less innovative designers to create enormous truckloads of mediocre work.  In short, more people are now able to make stuff, but most of it is crap. 


Should Maxis give more control back to the players and create tools that allow users to generate their own custom body parts?  Is it worth having six hundred creatures that look like anthropomorphic genitalia if it means we also get a digital equivalent of the Venus de Milo?  For Maxis, the ability to control and regulate content is an important part of their business model, so it’s unlikely that they will be willing to relinquish that.  But it certainly would be interesting to see what would emerge if they did.


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Text:AAA
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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