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Text:AAA
Monday, Jun 23, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-06-23...

Wow.


You know, I’ve seen a lot of summers at this point, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s that video game publishers generally don’t like to release things in the summer.  It’s probably a matter of something like, oh, too many kids playing outside, or perhaps not enough gift-giving holidays in the season’s general proximity.  Whatever it is, I’m used to the summer being a slow time, a time when I can catch up on games that I didn’t give a fair shake the first time around, on games for which my Gamerscore is a highly mockable, measly 5/1000 (Hello, GTA4). 


Not this year.


This year, summer is a season of life, of flowers, of party games and shooters and the requisite movie tie-ins that usually make up the majority of the summer schedule, now relegated to the background in favor of triple-A releases given a chance to shine in the sparse desert of releases.  Except that this year (or, at least, this week), it’s not even close to sparse.


How about a little love for Tom Hamilton, am I right?

How about a little love for Tom Hamilton, am I right?


Of course, my house will certainly end up with a copy of Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, loathe as I am to admit it.  Whether I buy it at full price ($59.99?!) now or wait until it gets a bit, oh, cheaper is another story.  Hail to the Chimp looks to be a fantastic way to capitalize on election mania in party-game form, on the off-chance you’re not utterly sick of election mania yet.  Battlefield: Bad Company is the one getting all of the advertising dollars, and the advertisements have me this close to buying it, though I’m still waiting for a sense of the buzz on it to make a final decision.  Sports nuts get Top Spin 3, just in time for Wimbledon.  And there’s even plenty for the kids, what with WALL-E making its way into homes tomorrow and even an American Girl game coming out for the PC this week.  There is, in the most literal sense, something for everyone this week.


Of course, there’s nothing I could possibly be more psyched about this week than the upcoming release of Atari’s reimagination of the Alone in the Dark series.  This is a series I’ve been playing since it originally appeared on the PC in…jeez, 1992, and none of the games have really approached the wonder of the first.  Perhaps it’s because the original was the progenitor of the cinematic style that is the series’ trademark (using polygons instead of hand-drawnsprites was a pretty big idea at that point), and the rest couldn’t help but live in the shadow of the first’s definitive style and innovation, but it hasn’t quite been the same since the original adventure of Edward Carnby.


The new Carnby wields a mean sword.

The new Carnby wields a mean sword.


The new, 2008 version of Alone in the Dark appears to be trying its darndest to follow in the footsteps of the original game’s innovation, but not in the graphical arena, given that graphics are sort of plateauing right now.  No, this new Alone in the Dark has a gameplay innovation: it’s episodic, and in an interesting twist, players can play the episodes in whatever order their little hearts desire.  Want a true blockbuster experience?  Play it from beginning to end.  Want to turn it into Memento?  Play it in reverse.  Want a Tarentino-esque experience?  Play the middle episodes first.  It doesn’t matter!


What would be interesting to see is just how many people play for a while starting at the beginning, eventually get frustrated, and skip to the end.  Not that I ever would.  No sir.


The full release list, and a trailer for Alone in the Dark, is after the break.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Jun 16, 2008
Having survived ten weeks of wearing the serious game critic pants, L.B. takes a break and shares a little story about video games and himself.

Every ex-core gamer has a particular couple of games that they were really good at. Those games, back when free time was abundant, that they utterly conquered. For me, it was always Starcraft. It wasn’t that I was unbeatable and this was all before the Korean domination, but I had a weird knack for efficiency in that game. I once won a bet with a superior player because I said I could get a higher score than him. When he blew apart my last Protoss drone, I happily collected twenty bucks as my ratings for resource collection, efficiency, and kill to unit all soared past his. To this day, I have no idea how the score system worked or what I did that made me score so highly. But I still like to think that I was one of the most efficient Starcraft players back in my prime.


 


But that was another time and place. A year out of college and way out of my video game prime, I was sitting in a restaurant kitchen in Lake Tahoe wondering how I’d gotten myself into such a mess. A little too much Steinbeck and way too much fear of growing up had made me pack everything I owned in a car and drive across the continent. I moved to the first internet job I could find, patiently waited for the ski season to fire up, and on the first day of skiing I turned my left knee’s inner meniscus into jelly. The ski accident left me a limping mess with an extremely unsympathetic landlord. I couldn’t wait tables anymore and most of the other ski jobs didn’t pay enough. So I did the only thing I could: I grossly exaggerated my resume and got a job in a restaurant. I’d been a prep cook for a couple of months before the ski season hit in a cafeteria, so I figured they couldn’t be all that different. Come in early, slice & dice, drink a beer, and fight over the music on the stereo for about 6 hours.


Unfortunately, a short-order restaurant and a cafeteria are about as different as night time and a kick to the groin.


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Text:AAA
Sunday, Jun 15, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-06-16...

It’s hard to say whether anyone’s actually marked their calendars for anything that’s coming out this week, save for the somewhat anticipated (not to mention a little bit dreaded in some circles) Guitar Hero on Tour for the Nintendo DS.  Yes, it’s Guitar Hero; yes, it looks as though the DS peripheral will actually be somewhat functional (though it still looks a bit like a hand cramp waiting to happen); and yes, the track list could be worse.  Still, every look at this week’s releases inspires gravitation toward a different release, something that’s making itself known on both major portable systems this week.  You know what I’m talking about: It’s none other than Space Invaders Extreme.


Acid trip color schemes also help.

Acid trip color schemes also help.


Now I’ll be the first to admit that updating a classic game with modern graphics and color palettes and then slapping the word EXTREME on the title is more than a little bit tacky.  Still, everything I’ve seen of Space Invaders Extreme is that it will be the exception to the rule.  Rather than an uninspired update, you see, Space Invaders Extreme looks like a re-imagining of the entire concept of Space Invaders.  Not only are you a little ship at the bottom of the screen blasting away at wave after wave of 2D sprites, you’re fighting organized waves, sprites that flip from 1D to 2D (like Super Paper Mario minus one dimension), and a few giant invaders.  All of it is in front of a new musical backdrop that actually manages to incorporate the in-game sounds to create a tapestry of noise that just feels right.  The early impressions that I got from it were that it was like Space Invaders meets Lumines, and I don’t know how a combination like that can possibly fail.


Not only that, but Space Invaders Extreme even has a peripheral of its own, the “Taito Paddle”, which you can use to guide your ship.  It also works with the newly-released Arkanoid DS.  Take that, Guitar Hero!


I'll admit it: I'm kind of looking forward to this tiny monstrosity.

I’ll admit it: I’m kind of looking forward to this
tiny monstrosity.


Elsewhere, it’s a pretty quiet release week, as most of the gaming community tries to recover from the behemoth release that was Metal Gear Solid 4.  Wii owners get Rock Band (huzzah!), PS3 owners get Fatal Intertia (whoopee?) and the gamers that simply won’t let go of the PC are the recipients of a little thing called The Political Machine 2008, which is unfortunately not a remake of The Incredible Machine with a bunch of obvious metaphors.  In this one, you get to be a campaign manager, which would surely have me drinking brown liquor out of the bottle in a matter of days.  This edition has Obama, Clinton, and McCain as candidates. 


What are you looking at this week?  Leave one in the comments and let us know.  The full release list (and a trailer for Space Invaders Extreme) is after…the…JUMP!


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Text:AAA
Thursday, Jun 12, 2008
As requested, a quick run-down of all 10 parts of the ZA with definitions.

You call yourself free? I want to hear your ruling thought, and not that you have escaped from a yoke.


Are you one of those entitled to escape from a yoke? There are many who cast away their final worth when they cast away their servitude.


Free from what? What does that matter! But your eye should clearly show me: free for what?
      - Thus Spoke Zarathustra


I. Introduction and Basic Concepts
What makes a video game different from a movie or a book? Player input. What controls the player input? The game design. What gives meaning to the player input? The plot or backstory. All three need to adjust to a game’s purpose and be judged by their relationship together, not just one or the other.


II. Evaluating Game Design
The most objective gauge of depth in game design would be the number of options it gives a player. A deep game takes a lot more work and can end up only being enjoyed by an elite few. A shallow game needs either a deep story or friends over to pick up the slack. Deep game design should not be considered an inherently good or bad attribute of a game in a proper critical assessment.


III. Evaluating Game Plot
The plot of a game is the part of it you cannot change: backstory, who you’re friends with, etc. Judging a game’s plot boils down to assessing what the designer’s force you to experience and its overall merits. If you cut a player totally free, the game experience will lead towards self-fulfillment. If you shove too many awful experiences on the gamer, the game might be too dark and unpleasant to justify the experience. In either case, it depends on the game.


IV. Evaluating Player-Input
The player input is your connection with the game, your means of interaction, and this piece focuses on the silent protagonist method. A connection with a game requires two elements: you interacting and the game giving you feedback. You’re both actor and audience in a video game. Judging the player input is judging how well a video game establishes and maintains this two-way connection.


V. Four Forms of Video Games
It’s becoming nonsensical to identify a game solely by its design. We should instead identify them by which element is dominate in the game experience. The other two elements still exist in varying degrees, but one factor controls the others.


First Person - The Player Input is dominant. You control both plot and how you play the game. These generally tend to be RPG’s like Mass Effect.


Second Person - The Game Design is dominant. You win the game according to its rules and not by what you or the plot dictate. Peggle is a better example than the one I used in the essay.


Third Person - The Plot is dominant. All of your actions and choices are based on the story and have meaning within it. Zelda and countless others are good examples.


Fourth Person - The three elements balance out. No one element has complete control. A lot of RTS games and some open world games develop this out, like Starcraft.


VI. Exceptions to the Four Forms
These are in no way inferior to any other type of game, we’re just distinguishing their elements and what they consist of.


Simulation - A game without a plot. A game doesn’t have a plot if it doesn’t have an ending. Think Sim City.


Interactive Ficton - A game without any game design. A game doesn’t have a game design if there are zero options for the player besides the one that progresses it.


VII. Application of the New Approach
Three examples of how to approach a game in terms of the experience rather than one individual aspect. The key is to see what kind of experience the game is attempting to create and how all of the elements work towards that goal.


VIII. Factions of Gaming
The terms casual, hardcore, or ex-core are not really consumer groups, they’re philosophies about the purpose of video games. Casual players think a game should be fun. Hardcore think a game should be replayable and ex-core think the experience is what’s important. All 3 views have serious flaws. I probably would’ve been better off calling them something else, a lot of interesting stuff happens in the comments on this one. The point was to criticize the philosophies, not the groups.


IX. Flaws in Criticism Today
The culture of reviews is not the same thing as critically analyzing a game. Making jokes is fine but try to remember they still need to make a point. Most importantly of all, don’t create a bunch of pre-defined rules that inhibit people from experimenting or discovering new games. We need to give good feedback and proper explanations to reviewers so that games can get better.


X. Evaluating Game Experiences
Looking at a game experience means evaluating how the game allows you to express yourself in an experience. We have to ask ourselves what that experience is for and how can it best be used.



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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Jun 11, 2008
Jack Thompson has finally ticked off enough people to get disbarred. The final step on the way to that disbarment was just kind of sad.

“‘I strenuously object?’ Is that how it works? Hm? ‘Objection.’ ‘Overruled.’ ‘Oh, no, no, no. No, I STRENUOUSLY object.’ ‘Oh. Well, if you strenuously object then I should take some time to reconsider.’”
-Lt. Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak) to Lt. Cdr. JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) in A Few Good Men


For the last day or so, it’s been a little bit difficult to avoid coverage of the disciplinary “hearing” that Jack Thompson took part in last week to determine what sort of punishment he would undergo as a result of his being found guilty of professional misconduct.  Of course, I use the scare quotes around the word “hearing” because it wasn’t really a hearing at all, in that Thompson had no part in it except to fiddle with the podium, berate the judge, antagonize a couple of members of the press, and stomp off in a huff.  As a result, in addition to the case against Mr. Thompson, the prosecutor was also left to offer mitigations, actually helping his case to an extent in, as best as I can tell, the interest of fairness.


They strenuously object.

They strenuously object.


In the midst of his belittling of Judge Dava Tunis, Thompson even managed to forget the lesson offered by the above exchange in A Few Good Men, telling Judge Tunis that he “[objects] strenuously...to the very notion that this proceeding can even occur on various grounds.”


The excellent GamePolitics.com has a transcript of the entire exchange, while the Daily Business Review has the audio.  The audio is particularly revelatory, because Thompson sounds just as unreasonable and as belligerent as the common gamer perception of him dictates.  Is this how Thompson has always been, or has he simply been blasted by so much legal failure and so much internet hate that he’s become the caricature of himself that we’ve been led to believe is an actual portrait of the man?


I believe that, at least at the start, Thompson had good intentions, that he was truly determined to make a difference.  I know that having kids (or a close family connection of any kind, really) can make you want to make the world a better place in the worst way, I know that faith can drive someone as well, and it’s hard for me to believe that Jack Thompson was always a self-aggrandizing propagandist with an agenda, unwilling to hear two sides of an argument.  He has gone on crusades for the causes of censoring the lyrics of rap music, he has taken on morning talk radio, and he most famously espouses the evils of violent video games.  And maybe the man has a point—while violence in video games can contribute to the visceral thrill of the play experience, some would certainly argue that it occasionally has the propensity to get a bit over the top and gratuitous.


A sudden change of heart, or his next greatest foe?(Image courtesy of Kotaku)

A sudden change of heart, or his next greatest foe?
(Image courtesy of Kotaku)


Still, what once manifested itself as legal maneuvering has turned into a glorified ambulance chase.  Thompson has no issue with linking games to major tragedies involving high school and college students, regardless of whether those responsible actually played the games.  He comes off as bossy, ruthless, and a blowhard; obviously, something in him snapped somewhere along the way, and he lost the will to make the world a better place, a drive replaced by the undying need to be right.


It is this need that manifested itself in Thompson’s tantrum in court, and it is this need that bubbled up so far as to not even allow himself to hear any argument that might discredit his opinion.  Now, he’s set to be disbarred for the next ten years.  For a little perspective, that means he won’t be able to practice again until he’s 67 years old.  It’s a sad fate for the man, but perhaps it’s what he will need to regain perspective, and some sense of the honor that he left behind long ago.  I’d like to believe it’s still in him somewhere, that the parasitic brand of self-promotion he has offered can be fixed.  Of course, the next time he appears on a news program after a school shooting as an “expert” in the link between gaming violence and real-life violence, well…perhaps my optimism will be tempered.


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