Call for Feature Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Thursday, Feb 25, 2010
Why not put that gamer brain power to some good use, since we've got it doing grunt work anyway?

I did a lot of mining during my first play through of Mass Effect 2. I did a lot more than I had to, and when the game ended, I had thousands of units of resources, while at the same time I’d researched pretty much every upgrade I could. I probably spent more than two hours in excess of what was necessary guiding that scanner around planets, waiting for the squiggly line to spike, and for my controller to start vibrating in my hand. As mini-games go, it’s not thrilling. Of course, it’s not terrible either. The simple system reminds me of what using a metal detector on the beach must be like, which makes thematic sense. The hide and seek element means that technically, I guess, it’s a kind of game, albeit one requiring only patience rather than strategy or skill. However, within the context of a game in which I was heavily invested in building up my crew and doing the best job possible in my quest to save the galaxy, I mined and mined and mined with nary a complaint until now.


But as I scanned and probed, I had a lot of time to think, and I wondered if there was some more productive way that someone could exploit my mindless willingness to mine for the greater good of The Normandy and her crew. The first thing that came to mind was the work being done at reCaptcha.net. We’ve all seen captchas when registering with web sites: you have to identify the word to prove that you’re human. ReCaptcha uses two words instead of one, one is for security testing and the other is a scanned image from an old printed book. By entering what you interpret that the scan as saying, you add to the database of reliable translations of scanned texts, helping to eliminate optical character recognition errors. Obviously the Folding At Home project for Playstation 3 re-purposes the gaming console for some sort of public good, but it just takes advantage of idle CPUs, not the player’s own cognitive skills.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Feb 24, 2010
Much of Vice City's authenticity is derived less from any kind of historical reality than it is from the fiction that helped shaped a sense of Miami in the 1980s.

Top 10, Top 25, Top 50.  Lists, lists, lists.  We have just about cleared the “list season” that makes up so much of the end of year housecleaning at so many media sites.  I don’t generally read a whole lot of the “best 10 games of . . .” (because most often the most obvious suspects show up), however, I recently was perusing Steve Gaynor’s Fullbright blog, and I did check out an older post, “Design of the Decade”, that made a case for the games that “defined state of the art in game design in the ‘00’s” (Fullbright, 15 November 2009) and found myself really admiring Gaynor’s restraint in choosing a Top 10 list of games of the decade.


Given that Gaynor’s interest is in noting games of significance in terms of their innovativeness in game design, his choices seem very sound and what I found especially admirable was that they appear to be a list of games chosen not as favorites but for specific reasons related to his criteria. Making such selections without being colored by personal faves (as many lists of this sort by other critics often do) is often a pretty difficult thing to do.  Gaynor does slip in a list of his own favorite games of the decade in a longer list of 25 later in his posting, which reveals his self control.  For example, games like Rockstar’s Bully and Grand Theft Auto IV make his favorites list but not the list for best design. Grand Theft Auto III does make his best of the decade for design but not as one of his favorites at all.


It was the inclusion of Grand Theft Auto III that particularly got me thinking about the difference between taking pleasure in a game and realizing its importance from a design perspective.  My own gut level reaction when I saw it on the Top 10 list was to think about games like Bully, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas as being far superior in my estimation to GTA III and how undeserving GTA III is as representative of Rockstar’s achievements.  Then I thought about Gaynor’s categories and had to admit that he was right, and I was wrong.  GTA III might not be as masterfully crafted an open world as those other three games, but because of its seminal qualities, I have to admit that it should be there and seemingly that the other three shouldn’t make the list for design.


Games with considerably more “soul”, though, are present in the design list than GTA III. Bioshock and Portal, for example, are significant not only for design innovation but also for wedding that innovation to meaningful characterization, storylines, and especially atmosphere (the innovative design actually creates the depth of these elements in many instances). The most troublesome thing about Grand Theft Auto III from my perspective is that, while it is certainly a good game, it is a strangely soulless one with its nameless and voiceless protagonist and bizarrely designed setting in the form of the twisted and unnatural layout of Liberty City.


Bully, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas all resolve this problem as each one is able to breathe life into their thuggish protagonists and especially in their ability to create really meaningful worlds, each of which seemed to have a clear foundation in time and space.  It seems to me that Bioshock is likely included on the design list for thse very reasons.  One of the strengths and significances of Bioshock is its ability to generate spaces that seem real and occupied in ways that might be traced to the later Rockstar accomplishments moreso than to GTA III.


Which brings me back to my list of open world games from Rockstar.  Of the three that I have mentioned, Bully is probably my own personal favorite.  I like it as a satire of middle school years that evokes memories both pleasant but (mostly) painful.  Nevertheless, it is Vice City that gives me some pause regarding its possible unfortunate snubbing on Gaynor’s list because it precedes the other two games and what it resulted in, other open world games (and not just those desgined by Rockstar) as well as other games in other genres that accomplish not only a successful open world playstyle but the creation of worlds that seem soulful and grounded in time and space.


I have written before about the significance of the craftsmanship of the setting of Vice City before (Music, Nostalgia, and Force: Grand Theft Auto and Sensory Immersion, PopMatters.com, 22 July 2009).  However, I think it worthy of discussing some of these ideas again in order to note that the notion of creating a kind of “historical” reality in open world settings is important in understanding why more interesting open world games like The Saboteur and Assassin’s Creed have been developed in the wake of Vice City as well as the development of non-open world experiences that are examples of marvelously rendered atmospheric pieces like Bioshock and Batman: Arkham Asylum.


Vice City‘s contribution to open world design is that its development suggests that getting the mood of an era and place down is necessary to give an open world a “soul”.  The game does so in interesting ways, some of which are related to representations based on actual history and place and some of which are even more interestingly based on perceptions of actual history and place.


The most obvious historical detail that lends Vice City so much of its atmosphere is, of course, its commitment to the sound of an era.  The importance of the ability to tune the radio dial in Vice City and hear actual songs from the decade cannot be understated in its ability to evoke a sense of residing within the era.  It is likewise an element that later designers would integrate into games based on historical periods (Bioshock and The Saboteur, for instance, evoke much earlier decades through the use of ambient music).  Of course, GTA III first offered a radio dial to players as they jacked cars.  The largely unfamiliar tunes that poured out of a cars speakers leave a player relatively cold, though.  Whose music is that playing?  Seemingly it was music that belonged to a fictional space as (for the most part) these songs were being heard for the first time in a made up place called Liberty City, a place very unlike the Vice City which featured familiar and thus more “real” tunes.


Additionally, while the name, Vice City, is fictional, the details of the world have an obvious correlative to Miami, especially a Miami of the 1980s (but more on that in a moment).  As someone who spent an awful lot of time in Miami in the early 80s, none of the places in the game were obviously familiar to me, but the architecture and layout of buildings is.  In particular, the beachfront area on the southeastern portion of the island with a road bordered on one side by beach and the other side by hotels is no direct correlate to any part of Miami that I know, but it looks like it could be and I can think of places quite similar to it.


Which brings me to my second observation about the way that setting is evoked in Vice City, not just through mimicking an actual historical reality (through things like the music in the game), but also through our perception of a historical reality.  In other words, much of Vice City‘s authenticity is derived less from any kind of historical reality than it is from the fiction that helped shaped a sense of Miami in the 1980s.  With Lance Vance (especially) as well as other characters sporting fashions aped from the television show Miami Vice and Tommy Vercetti engaging in events, like the swanky yacht party thrown by Colonel Cortez near the beginning of the game, that look like something out of one of the show’s episodes, Vice City becomes our perception of Miami (whether we were ever there in the 80s or not) as generated by Miami Vice.


Similarly, Vice City‘s many nods to Scarface further this mediated sense of what Miami is or was during this decade.  Historical Miami is mediated by our experience of the place as universalized for Americans by film and television of the era.  Someone from Boise who has never visited Miami can have a sense of what Miami is and was from the perspective of Sonny Crockett and Tony Montana.  While Montana’s mansion might not be a place that a native of Miami could actually visit, when Tommy Vercetti begins to occupy a mansion in Vice City that looks like the spitting image of Montana’s place in the film, the player familiar with Scarface will recognize the correspondence and feel that they are “there”.  It is what film has taught them to think of Miami being While certainly other games have attempted to simulate aspects of historical settings before, Vice City‘s thoroughness and level of detail and its mixture of perceived and real elements of such a setting seems to me largely unprecedented on this scale.


It is for this important way of implying correlation between real and fictive worlds and combining elements of both sight and sound from the real and fictive worlds that the game wants to make us believe in that I would argue that Vice City might be a more significant fixture in design during this decade in gaming than one might otherwise realize.  Its influence on thinking about how to make us play make believe when we enter a virtual world may even be more critically important than GTA III, which admittedly brought us a genre but may not have as much impact as making designers reconsider something more subtle, but much more impactful on immersion in a world, authenticity of setting.


On the other hand, my point is not to call Gaynor’s list out.  Again, I think that it is a well considered one.  I just might want to add a personal favorite of my own to it with what I hope are well considered reasons related to the significance of its design and not just because it is a pleasure to play.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Feb 23, 2010
The map is very literally your weapon in Modern Warfare 2.

Modern Warfare 2 and the other Call of Duty games have always been very map-reliant multiplayer games. The series abandons traditional design elements like “Race to the Gun” and emphasizes a more tactical, map-reliant approach. This isn’t really intended to be a strategy guide but rather just a discussion about how the gameplay works and feels overall. While I personally prefer lone wolfing it on Team Deathmatch, other players have different approaches and tactics. I talked with several much more advanced players than myself and relied on a couple of different gamefaqs to balance out my perspective. I also don’t really go into team play because I know nothing about it.


Generally speaking, the “Race to the Weapon” design in something like that of Halo 3, adding a layer of strategy for both good and bad players. Knowing the map and where your favorite gun drops are is essential, but for the bad player, there is always the chance to snatch the weapon before your opponent gets a hold of it. This lets that player take the advantage by forcing the player to use a weapon that they’re not quite as skilled at using. Modern Warfare 2 completely ditches this approach. You get to pick your starting guns and can change classes after death. Since players can carry two guns, they usually set up classes that balance out their range payload. Snipers equip something short range for moving from point to point as the secondary, somebody using the SCAR-H compensates for the short clip with a perk or a machine pistol. All the perks and upgrades make it possible to create this finely tuned, personalized death machine. Most guns can be tweaked up or down the range scale with attachments. Something like the F2000 or AK-47 can be used at long range if you slap an ACOG on them, so that even a relatively inaccurate gun can be used for long distances when needed.


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Text:AAA
Saturday, Feb 20, 2010

Brian Crecente, who reviewed Dante’s Inferno for Kotaku and liked it a lot more than I did, writes the following under the subject of things he loved about the game:


“For many, gaming is a lighthearted, thought-free diversion and there are plenty of titles designed to tap into that market. But there are so few that deal with important issues in a consequential way. So the overt inclusion of a Christian Hell guided by Christan morality in a video game meant for a wide audience is a big deal. Not because of what it is saying about the afterlife, but because of what it says about the willingness of a publicly held, widely known game publisher to create something so steeped in controversy and not—beyond horrid marketing—allow that controversy to become the game. It manages to entertain and preach equally.” (Dante’s Inferno Review: Big Ideas, Small Problems, Kotaku, 9 February 2010)


This struck me as an odd thing to praise, since one of the things that I found most confusing and least appealing about Dante’s Inferno was it’s slapdash theology. I’m not a religious person, and while raised Christian, I do not subscribe to any of its dogmas or teachings. I am however familiar with them, both as a student of history and as a generally well-read member of Western civilization, and I think it can be said with some confidence that Crecente has this wrong. Dante’s Inferno does not present a Christian Hell, and the world of this game is not guided by Christian morality. In fact, while the setting has a firm basis in the Christianity of Dante Alighieri’s time, the story and actions of this game contravene those beliefs at every turn.


In the original poem, Dante (the character) is an almost entirely passive figure. Virgil and then Beatrice guide him through the sights and sounds of the afterlife, and he reacts to the horrors and wonders laid out before him. Even the slightest attempt by him to adjust the fate of any of the souls that he encounters fails. This is, indeed, one of the points of the whole poem and of the theology behind it. God has damned these people for eternity. Their own actions in life have forever decided their fate. What they did in this world determines what will happen in the next. The game Dante’s Inferno flies in the face of these bedrock beliefs, as well it should. The Dante of the poem would make a terrible action hero, and there’s not the same market for interactive 3D tour experiences (even of Hell) as there is for action-packed slashfests.


By giving Dante the Crusader the ability to redeem or admonish souls, Visceral has veered wildly from Christian theology, in which only God has such power. It makes for a more interesting character, definitely, but it raises tons of questions that it never tries to examine. Dante’s power to choose the fate of others of necessity implies that the God who damned them in the first place was either wrong or is not all powerful. The fact that as he cuts a swath through Hell’s nine levels Dante takes out some of the most important figures in the damnation process implies that God’s power is finite, that his work can be undone. That’s all great stuff, the kind of stuff that makes an interesting game. My problem is, this game never mentions it.


Crecente claims that the game is notable because it “manages to entertain and preach equally”. I would maintain that the game is not preaching anything at all, indeed it actively dodges the tough questions and the even tougher lessons. Dante successfully defies God’s will at every turn, to which God reacts scarcely at all (beyond a brief appearance by an angel spouting enigmatic dialogue). The message of the game seems to be that you can defy death and damnation, that you can make your own way despite the rules. That’s the easy way out. It’s what we all want to believe. But it’s not the message of the original Divine Comedy.


The fact is, Visceral have done what artists, writers, and theologians have done for ages: taken the parts of a religious text that they liked (monsters, gruesome tortures, etc.) and ignored the parts they found inconvenient. For all its pretensions to seriousness, I think this game deals with issues of faith and damnation even less interestingly than the otherwise flirty and ridiculous (but fun!) Bayonetta does. At least that game acknowledged the inherent theological consequences of a war between forces claiming to be divine and those ascribed with infernal characteristics. Dante’s Inferno borrows all the signifiers of Hell and jams them into a game without pondering the real questions that having such an active character among these emblems of morality raises.


Unless Dante is supposed to be Jesus. Then, we’d have an interesting game…


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Text:AAA
Friday, Feb 19, 2010
Despite popular opinion, I don't think any kind of spoiler can truly ruin your experience with any game.

Before I ever started playing the original No More Heroes I knew all that it had to offer. I knew it was one giant joke, a playful jab at the entire medium and those who love it. I knew about the purposefully empty open world, that Travis Touchdown was a blatant otaku, that he fought with a “beam” saber, and that he was a parody of the stereotypical gamer. I knew about the over-the-top action, the insane bosses, and the game’s embrace of a retro 8-bit style. I thought it sounded awesome and expected to enjoy it, but I hated it. I hated the jokes, I hated Travis, I hated the side jobs, the open world, the Lucha Libre masks, and grinding for cash.


I’ve often wondered what made me hate the game so strongly in those first few hours, and I believe I hated it because the game was spoiled for me. Much of the game’s charm stems from the joy of discovery. Not “discovery” as in environmental exploration but rather the discovery of an unexpected gem of a game. That experience was spoiled for me by the expectations that I had going in. Most talk of spoilers center around plot twists but even a discussion of the experience can spoil a game. And yet, after the wonderfully anti-climatic battle with Letz Shake, I started to warm to No More Heroes. By the time that I heard that robotic voice announce my impending fight with Harvey Moiseiwitsch Volodarskii, I was enjoying myself. And by the time I finished the game, its crazy charm had made me a fan. Despite that joy of discovery being taken away from me, despite all the hate I had for the game, I still came to love it, and I believe that speaks to just how inconsequential any kind of spoiler is to video games.


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