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Friday, Jun 4, 2010
When a game asks us to “Press Start", we get a glimpse of its aesthetics.

When a game asks us to “Press Start”, we can do as we’re instructed or immediately begin testing the limits of the game by hitting the A button (or X, depending on your console of choice). Like a linear game suddenly expanding into an open world, we come to the main menu, our first real taste of the game. We get a glimpse of its aesthetics (does it want to be charming or frightening?) and its priorities (does it value style over simple organization?), and through these details, the menu sets our expectations for the rest of the game.


Some menus do this better than others, and here are three of my personal favorites:


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Wednesday, Jun 2, 2010
Unfortunately, first impressions can be damning and sometimes a bad game is just exactly what it appears to be. However, writing off a few of these more recent slow starters based solely on initial experiences with them would be a mistake.

My thinking on slow starters began with Deadly Premonition.  A student had recommended the game to me because he thought that I would be interested in its metafictive qualities—more specifically the oddly schizophrenic qualities of its protagonist (”But Who Am I?: Schizophrenia as a Metaphor for the Player-Character Relationship”, PopMatters, 12 May 2010). 


What I didn’t realize is how awful the experience that I was about to have would initially be.  The opening hour of Deadly Premonition is absolutely awful, introducing the player to the worst zombie killing simulation ever.  Indeed, the game in general has lousy graphics, terrible combat, and some really poor design choices in terms of game mechanics.  However, it is now probably my favorite gaming experience so far this year.


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Tuesday, Jun 1, 2010
What keeps Zeno Clash’s strange story so intriguing is not how weird the characters are, it’s how weirdly they act.

Among Zeno Clash’s many unique characteristics, the game’s take on characterization is probably its most accomplished. While Zenozoik is certainly an exotic location, the game’s linear nature doesn’t really develop the space extensively. Few locales are named and inevitably when we are exploring there is also fighting going on. Instead, the game works a bit like a museum tour of various bizarre characters. With a combination of creative activity and clever exposition, the game introduces us to interesting people and lets us watch them act out their natures.


My playthrough for this game was on the XBLA version, which fixes a lot of the problems in the original like the difficulty balancing and hit detection. The brawling system works well as a combination of blocking, power moves, and combos. It manages to dodge the pitfalls of other FPS brawlers by encouraging the player to get up close to the opponent. If you move in and successfully dodge a punch, you can land a stronger attack instead of just whaling away. A stamina bar also keeps the game from just devolving into mashing X. Opponents can generally be divided up by their own moves like being able to do a spin kick or how adept they are at blocking. Mini-bosses can only be hurt using blunt weapons, which tends to reduce the encounters into a bull fighting experience. In that sense, characters are predictable and in the style of the brawler tradition can be beaten by memorizing their patterns. The occasional gun is thrown into the mix but they only have a few shots and take a long time to reload, meaning that enemies will usually close in on you before things get unbalanced.


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Friday, May 28, 2010
Alan Wake does not contain some of the worst product placement in gaming history. In fact, it's an example of product placement done right.

A lot of people are upset over the product placement in Alan Wake and I honestly don’t understand all the anger. I admit that there are a lot of in game ads, though they’re only really noticeable when you’re already aware of them and looking for them, and I don’t think that they’re at all intrusive or blatantly obvious, and surely they don’t single-handedly undermine the argument for games as art. In fact, I think the product-placement in Alan Wake is actually one of the better examples of the practice.


First there are the batteries, and the fact that they’re all Energizers. Granted, the first flashlight that we pick up has “Energizer” splashed across it, but that’s the only time when the brand name is easily visible. The actual battery packs are so small that I never even realized they were branded until I stopped and made a point to look my second time through the game. The only part of the package that initially stood out to me was the yellow color, which isn’t iconic of Energizer and, from a practical point of view, helps the batteries stand out on a shelf full of ammo.


Tagged as: alan wake
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Thursday, May 27, 2010
Drawing back from my own empathy for Wake, I think that most reviewers agree that, jerk or not, Alan Wake redeems himself by the end of the story.

I really loved Alan Wake. I mean both the game and the character of the same name. My Moving Pixels comrade, G. Christopher Williams, was a little harder on the game than I would’ve been, but the differences between us come down to taste and not any disagreement about what the game does well and what it doesn’t. When we discussed Alan Wake on the upcoming episode of the Moving Pixels Podcast (which you can catch on Monday), I was surprised to hear Chris, Tom, and Nick all basically agree that in the beginning of the game they thought Wake was kind of a jerk. I didn’t think he was a jerk at all. Indeed, I entirely empathized with him from the beginning.


Which is not to say that Wake doesn’t have his problems or that he doesn’t do some jerky things. But one of the game’s many virtues is that we get deep inside Alan Wake’s head, mostly filtered through the narration of the novel that we’re living with him. Alan’s a successful, super-famous novelist who’s suffering severe writer’s block and hasn’t written a word in two years. That’s some serious stress, and he’s maybe not handling it as well as he could, but he’s not terrible either. Late in the game we witness a scene in which he stays out all night and comes home drunk, but his wife is both angry and understanding. The two of them clearly have a decent, working relationship and genuinely care for one another.


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