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Friday, Mar 12, 2010
Mass Effect 2 creates a well realized world that feels alive, even when we're not playing, by using only words.

Codices are nothing new in games. In fact, they’re quite old. They’re an effective tool of world building, allowing developers to explain traditions, cultures, technology, or other facts that would seem extraneous if forced into the main story. However, in Mass Effect 2, the codex is more than just a tome of fictionalized history. Such “extra information” is used to bring the world to life as well as to describe it.


Mass Effect 2 has an extensive codex, covering all the usual facts, but the actual sub-page on the main menu labeled “Codex” is just one part of a much larger well of extra information.


Tagged as: mass effect 2
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Thursday, Mar 11, 2010
But they're just toys. They fall to pieces, not into rotting corpses. It's all okay.

I have no problem with violence in video games. None. I know it’s pretend, I think it’s a ton of fun, and I shoot the hell out of digital human analogs on a pretty much daily basis. This post isn’t about that. It’s also not about hating on Toy Soldiers. In fact, I love the game and heartily recommend it to one an all. I like it more because it made me think about some kind of disturbing issues. I’m talking about using chemical weapons to kill masses of people. I’m also talking about gunning down hundreds of soldiers with concentrated machine-gun fire as they bravely charge out from the trenches. I’m talking about the worst horrors of World War I, only played out with virtual lead soldiers instead of virtual humans.


The Great War, or the War to End All Wars as it was once known, doesn’t get much attention in pop culture. There was those episodes of Young Indiana Jones that handled it pretty well and, of course, Gallipoli and All’s Quiet on the Western Front, but compared to World War II, it’s almost like a side show to history, the prequel to the big war story yet to come. I think that the reason for this is pretty clear: the trench warfare that typified the war just doesn’t have as many stories to tell. It’s always grim and static, with hopeless charges into enemy fire and clouds of poison gas choking the life out of our of helpless young men. It’s as grim as war gets, and while the horrors of WWII no doubt match them tragedy for tragedy, it was a war of movement and strategy. Or at least we see it that way. Plus, the Nazis were so damn evil that they have become undeniable, pure villains worth fighting. Most people don’t even really know what the hell World War I was all about.


Toy Soldiers captures much of this horror quite well. It is a game about chewing through wave after wave of enemy soldiers. The brief intros to each battle state only the basics: defend this, stop them, kill those. There’s no indication of why, nor does there need to be. The clockwork miniature men charge your position and die in droves. The game does the only thing that it can to make this fun to play, putting you, the player, in the role of building and operating the massive meat grinder. Your machine-gun nests, mortar positions, artillery pieces, and, yes, chemical weapons are all that stand between those metal bastards and your toy box.


The perversity of those poison gas attacks is what got me thinking a little more deeply about Toy Soldiers. It’s a weapon system with a very bad rep, the kind of thing that’s seen as the pinnacle of criminal warfare. It’s probably no worse for the victim than any number of things that a bullet can do to the body, but it seems much more indiscriminate and somehow cruel. It’s also not something that you see very often in games and not something that I’ve ever seen used as much as it is here, where you can see the toy men choking and gasping before expiring within the cloud of yellow-green death. But they’re just toys. They fall to pieces, not into rotting corpses. It’s all okay.


That, I think, is the brilliance of Toy Soldiers. They’ve managed to take the classic Tower Defense style gameplay and apply it to the only modern era war that makes sense to portray through this play style. World War I was all about static defense positions from which the boys fought off endless waves of enemies. However, a straight-forward simulation of the actual historical slaughterhouse would probably have had limited appeal. Even a jaded gamer like me might have gotten sickened just a little bit if the virtual doughboys dying on screen had been “real.” But they’re not real, they’re toys! So it’s cute fun, not horrible at all!


This is a perfect example of why game violence shouldn’t be mistaken for real violence. The Toy Soldiers version of war adds an extra layer of metaphor to disguise the real world horrors, but the fact is that all games are just toys. Thus, Toy Soldiers works as a lovely example of how players perceive violence in all types of games. We know it’s an abstraction of a type present in games like Risk, Stratego, and chess. The difference between Toy Soldiers and Modern Warfare 2 really just comes down to the difference between G.I. Joe and Playmobil. One is more “realistic” than the other, but in the end, they’re both just toys and it’s all a game that we’re playing.


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Wednesday, Mar 10, 2010
One surefire way to incite nerd rage is to ask what the best gaming console ever is. The only reasonable answer is Sony’s Playstation 2.

One surefire way to incite nerd rage is to ask what the best gaming console ever is. “Dreamcast!!”, the savvy gamers will say. “Super Nintendo, no doubt”, retro fans will argue. “Xbox 360”, the foolish young’uns will say.


However, the only reasonable answer is Sony’s Playstation 2.


I won’t recount the history of the console here.  For an in depth look For that, I’d point you to Mike Fahey’s “My Ten Years with the Playstation 2” (Kotaku, 4 March 2010).  Instead, suffice it to say that the system launched in 2000, ten years ago last week, and games are still being made for it. And it’ll probably still see new titles for one to three more years. Its library is unparalleled in terms of quality and depth, as it is home to scores of great RPGs, fighters, puzzle games, and every other genre that anyone could want. For me, it is impotant because it’s the console that turned me into a “hardcore gamer.”


The PS2’s father hooked me on gaming with a score of Final Fantasy titles and action games. But it was with the PS2 (and games like the Metal Gear series, God of War, Shadow of the Colossus, and, of course, more Final Fantasy titles) that I began to take gaming more seriously. I’d say that the seeds of becoming a quasi-professional games writer were planted in me in its early days.


But this is less about my experiences with Sony’s console and more about why it’s the best console ever. And really, in terms of its competition, nothing comes close.


The amount of classic games on the system is astounding: two Metal Gear games (arguably the best two in the series), two God of War games, four Final Fantasy titles, even though many discount the underrated X-2, and two surreal Katamari games to name a few. It also facilitated the birth of the Guitar Hero series and included RPG standouts like two Persona games, a Dragon Quest, and two installments of Kingdom Hearts. Oh, and Grand Theft Auto’s best are there too. It’s unreal how many AAA titles the console boasted in its decade of existence.


If the parameters for “best console ever” are quality of titles, length of run, sales, graphics, or anything else, the PS2 wins without a doubt. I have to believe that any of the big three console makers look at the PS2 as the gold standard of success. Backwards compatibility? DVD player? Price points and multiple iterations over time? It really laid the blueprint for how modern consoles work today.


However, today my PS2 is probably also on it’s last legs. I tried to play Silent Hill 2 on it recently, and it struggled and wheezed like an old dog. In many ways, it’s fitting. Mine is a first generation system that is still chugging along . . . barely—much like the PS2 as a console itself. Will I get it replaced? Probably, as there are many games that I want to continue to play on it. And anytime you can get some money out of someone for a decade-old system, that’s success.


So happy birthday PS2. May you have a great farewell run.


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Tuesday, Mar 9, 2010
A post cataloging the common design elements in three of Ubisoft's Imagine games.

This post was born when, while rummaging around in a bargain bin, I saw one of Ubisoft’s Imagine games. I’d heard of the games and knew they were big sellers, so I finally cracked and decided to see what they were all about. It only took a couple of hours to plow through, and when I finished, I was not really sure what to make of it. I picked up two more games in the series and had the same reaction. Playing games targeted towards women that are not designed with the assumption that the player is male is always a different experience. There are numerous interactive options and design aesthetics that I rarely ever see in other games. What I wanted to do with this post was to just catalogue the common design elements in three different Imagine games. There’s not much to debate about the game’s stereotyping, Ubisoft’s Vice-President of Marketing settles that issue when he explains the inspiration for the games was the high sales of the Pink DS (“Powering Ahead: Video Games”, CNBC.com, 23 Nov 2009). By making the initial titles focus on cooking, fashion, and childcare they tap into gender stereotypes of traditional forms of female play that Sara M. Grimes discusses on her blog. She writes, “Adults have long sought to contain children’s play, but girls’ play in particular, for more “useful” and productive ends. For girls, this most often meant channeling play towards activities that were thought to prepare them to be good wives and mothers” (“Imagine: [Insert Gender Stereotype Here]”, Gamine Expedition, 12 Dec 2009). 


The most consistent game design element in all of the Imagine games is the ability to decorate things. That seems to be true across the series, Aileen Cole’s critique of Imagine: Detective notices the feature is even in an Imagine game when it barely makes any sense (“Review: Imagine Detective (Nintendo DS)”, Die Hard Game Fan, 23 Sep 2009). In all three of the games that I played, there was no scoring factor related to decoration. That was strange to me, particularly in Imagine: Movie Star, where gameplay alternates between a weird Guitar Hero style and designing clothes. When a magazine asked me to design a sharp outfit for fall, it didn’t matter what I was wearing. So long as you change your outfit on every level (type, color, and pattern for each section of dress), the game rewards you with a perfect score. What’s even more curious is that these games are all either rehashes of older Japanese titles or independently created from one another. The primary consensus about girl games from all of these different groups is that there must be a decorating element and that it should be totally up to the player what constitutes being attractive.


Another theme that was present in all of the titles is having minimal to no fail state. While the Movie Star game ranks your ability to catch notes as they dropped, you would have to blatantly miss notes to get below an A. The Baby Sitter game works by performing mini-games that fill a happy baby bar. Nothing seems to happen if you just stare at the kid except that they gurgle and cry. The Doctor game has no fail state. You either follow the on-screen action or nothing happens at all. This trait isn’t unique to the Imagine series, it’s something that you see when developers try to make “casual” oriented Wii games. By confusing being accessible with being easy, numerous games intended for younger or inexperienced audiences become dull because there is no way to lose them.


All of the games require you to be female. The Movie Star game lets you fully adjust your avatar in terms of ethnicity, height, and weight (although this only consists of thin to really thin). I’m not in a position to judge how well it handles skin color but it’s controlled on a blending slide bar rather than just picking a pre-determined color. The other two games require you to be a white female. The doctor game puts you in the role of a blonde doctor just starting her own clinic named Abby while the babysitting game lets you pick your name as you start your college career. You study child care and education while making money babysitting on the side. On a side note, both games are pretty diverse in terms of NPCs by having you work for people from a wide variety of cultures.


Sexuality remains mostly unmentionable in the games. The movie star game expects you to go on hot dates to boost your career, but because these dates (along with acting, auditioning, and going out on the town) consist of catching notes while fashion pictures flash, the game never indicates your feelings one way or the other about those experiences. Your devotion to childcare is creepily absolute in the babysitting game. The doctor game did present a love interest in the form of a movie star named Tony. I didn’t like him. He never asked my avatar anything and every scene was just him babbling about himself. By contrast, the boyfriend in the Nancy Drew games is always willing to listen to me talk about the case and offer advice for solving puzzles.


Generally speaking, none of the games were very fun to play. In addition to criticisms about the lack of a fail state, they are all short and grind heavy. The doctor game randomly generates patients that you must diagnose and hock prescription drugs to. Doing so increases your level and . . . some sort of heart currency, both of which let you buy more equipment for your clinic and not have to outsource patient care. Patients all have the same dozen or so ailments and you always perform the same series of activities that you can’t lose. The baby sitting game is the same way. Once you have played with one baby, you have played with them all. The Movie Star game changes the songs and difficulty, but it’s always the same “catch the note” sequence or test to see if you can dress yourself. In a weird way, it destroys any fantasy that a person might have about the fun and excitement of these lifestyles once it devolves into familiarity and monotony. Heroine Sheik writes about the babysitting game, “What’s interesting is to see the role played in a structured, game format with preset gameplay rewards. Rock the cradle well, gain points. Forget to feed your charges, lose them. Oddly enough, what we’re being reminded of here is that motherhood itself—like gender—is a role to be played, not an inherent state. For such a sexist game, it’s a strangely feminist message” (Imagine Babyz: Playing Mother”, Heroine-Sheik.com, 10 Dec 2007).


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Text:AAA
Monday, Mar 8, 2010
A salute to the games whose time commitments usually exceed a 40-hour work week.

Like comfort food, some video games seem made for winter. Not necessarily the season, but those situations like when a blizzard dumps 15 inches of snow in your city, forcing you into full-on hermit mode.


About 20 years ago, a game called Dragon Warrior forced NES-loving players to make a time commitment that far surpassed the usual hour or so that was required to beat Super Mario Bros.. The game required players to log in hours of time, traveling short distances in a huge world. The more you traveled, the stronger you got, the further you could travel. For a console game, Dragon Warrior was one of those games where a user could easily log in 20 hours before completion. It was a game that could only be completed during a long winter vacation stretch (or a summer vacation with a broken arm).


About ten years ago, the Nintendo 64 released its installment of the Zelda series, The Ocarina of Time. While technically not a role-playing game (the game was fairly linear in what you could accomplish), the game was a lush, beautiful masterpiece. For a college student with some time to kill, the first play through Ocarina was a great distraction between the Super Bowl and March Madness.


Of course, games (not including PC games) have only gotten more involved and required more out their players since the days of NES and N64. Perhaps no company has proven this more than Bethesda. Its Elder Scrolls series, first with Morrowind and later with Oblivion, had an almost overwhelming amount of paths for players to take. Not only was the primary quest a huge undertaking (players could assume that it would literally take days to get their character to a level where an instant death encounter with an adversary could be avoided), but smaller tasks like gathering various ingredients throughout the vast worlds to create a potion (finding out the mixture without a guide – well, some people have more patience than others) could guarantee an easy 40 to 60 hour time commitment.


Whether this time commitment is a worthy investment is subjective. But if you are looking for how these winter-killing games operate, look no further than Fallout 3, another Bethesda game. The first few hours (when your armor/strength is at its lowest) are almost maddeningly frustrating. You get bored, you try to venture further out into the game’s world where you meet a near instantaneous death. But as you slowly build up your power levels, you begin to get more engaged in the story. Upon hearing that I had just purchased Fallout 3, a coworker said that my social life would be almost non-existent for about two months.


This year it looks like the winter-killing game of the year is BioWare’s Mass Effect 2. Unlike Bethesda’s massive worlds of Oblivion and Fallout 3, Mass Effect‘s gameplay is much kinder in the instant gratification department. The game boasts a well-written storyline with a stellar voice talent team. The mix works so well that, like Avatar, you tend to forgive the fact that you’ve seen the central story played out dozens of times before in movies, books, and other video games. Upon finishing Mass Effect 2, I glanced at the final save log. Estimated time of play: 41 hours.


Games like Call of Duty and Halo have been criticized for their relatively short “main missions.” Pay no mind that almost a decade ago, a game that would take eight hours to complete was considered a lengthy game. Socially, these “winter killer” games definitely have their adverse effects. One month of Mass Effect 2 has made me five pounds pudgier and more sleep-deprived than normal. But these games can be viewed like that 900-page copy of Don Dellilo’s Underworld or that third attempt to finish The Lord of the Rings novels. It’s an undertaking that just seems appropriate for the months that force us inside. And though winter is coming to an end, I’m secretly hoping for one last blizzard so that I can finally get to level 20 on Fallout 3.


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