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Friday, Aug 13, 2010
Max Payne accomplished something unique with its mood and narration, creating a journey into the unraveling psyche of one man pushed to a ragged edge.

On last week’s Moving Pixels podcast, I talked about why I liked Max Payne better than its sequel, despite the fact that Max Payne 2 is a clearly better game, and I’d like to flesh out that reasoning a little more. I think the first game accomplished something truly unique with its mood and narration, something that no other game has come close to replicating. While many may remember it as the game to popularize “bullet time”, I’ll always remember it as a journey into the mind of one man.


At one point fairly early in the game, Max says, “There were only personal apocalypses. Nothing is cliché when it’s happening to you.” This seemingly throwaway line explains why the mood of Max Payne is so unique. The game revolves around Max’s own personal apocalypse, the end of his world. Everything reinforces this one intimate idea: the environment, the dialogue, the forced metaphors, the meta humor, the mythical references, and even the medium itself.


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Friday, Aug 6, 2010
Limbo is a nightmare. A dark, ethereal, and dangerous world filled with giant spiders, malicious kids, screaming machinery, and by the end, you’re no closer to understanding any of it than when you began.

I love horror games, but too many of them mistake cheap scares and gore for horror. True horror isn’t disgusting, it’s disturbing; it doesn’t make you jump, it makes you think. True horror is subtle, never showing all of its cards because the more that you don’t know, the more frightening it is. In this way, Limbo is the best horror game that I’ve played in a long time.


Limbo is a nightmare. Which is not to say that it’s hard, though some of the puzzles will strain your grey matter. You won’t jump out of your seat at regular intervals. Limbo is a nightmare because it’s disturbing in a way that’s difficult to understand. This is a dark, ethereal, and dangerous world, one filled with giant spiders, malicious older boys, and screaming machinery, and by the end, you’re no closer to understanding any of it than when you began. Limbo is filled with dream-like imagery that might be whimsical in any other context (rotating worlds, levers for rain), but here such images make Limbo feel like a waking nightmare.


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Friday, Jul 30, 2010
Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands may take place within the Sands of Time trilogy, but it plays like a spiritual successor to the 2008 reboot of the franchise.

The 2008 Prince of Persia was all about momentum. The world was split into multiple linear tracks connected by various hubs. Once you started down a track, it was difficult to turn back. Every obstacle along these tracks corresponded to a specific button: A allowed the Prince to jump (from poles, platforms, or a double jump midair), B allowed him to grab onto hooks, and Y allowed the activation of magical plates. Players had a small window of opportunity to hit the right button at the right obstacle to keep the Prince moving forward. Since every track was placed above a huge chasm if players missed the opportunity or hit the wrong button, the Prince would fall and have to start the track over. Many reviewers compared it to a rhythm game because the platforming relied so heavily on timing and on reading the environment ahead of you.


In the beginning of The Forgotten Sands, the game plays like any other Prince of Persia game from the Sands of Time trilogy. That is to say, it has a strong focus on environmental puzzles; the fun lay in figuring out where to go. But there’s also a subtle focus on momentum and reading the environment that builds throughout the game until the end, in which The Forgotten Sands plays more like a sequel to the 2008 reboot.


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Friday, Jul 23, 2010
It seems impossible to tell a story within the strict rule set of a competitive online game until you play Left 4 Dead or its sequel.

A couple weeks ago I wrote about how giving shooters a real world context could make their violence feel more real and less like mindless entertainment (“Why Do I Cheer For War?”, PopMatters, 9 July 2010). So I was very interested in trying out the Medal of Honor multiplayer beta because the game seems very committed to its realistic setting, separating players into teams of US forces and Taliban soldiers. I was curious to see if fighting against the terrorist group and not just vague “insurgents” would add some kind of poignancy to the common emergent stories of multiplayer shooters.


This did not happen. All poignancy is lost within the strict rule set of a competitive online game. In fact, it’s specifically because it’s competitive that the game part of the experience takes precedent over everything else. While not surprising, this tendency does expose the inherent limitations of storytelling in multiplayer games. You can’t tell a story in a competition; the message gets drowned out. That’s why most emergent stories that come out of multiplayer games are really just “cool moments.” There’s no narrative arc in a match, no rising and falling action, no climax, and it seems impossible to accomplish until you play Left 4 Dead or its sequel.


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Friday, Jul 16, 2010
Breaking up the party helps us identify the characters as individuals rather than as just parts of a whole.

In Final Fantasy XIII, most of the cast is introduced in the very beginning. Rather than spread these introductions out over the course of the game like other RPGs, the cast comes together after just a few hours and then breaks up again. It’s a strange series of moments, seeing your party systematically disbanded, but the reasons behind these divisions are very personal, and as we watch each character go their separate ways, we learn a lot about their inner thoughts and desires.


First some background information on the world of Final Fantasy XIII: the game takes place in Cocoon, a protective sphere separating humanity from the dangerous outer world of Pulse. The fal’Cie are powerful magical beings that reside in Pulse. They attacked Cocoon a thousand years ago and were repelled, but the attack left humanity paranoid and forever fearful of these creatures. Adding to these fears is the ability of the fal’Cie to turn humans into servants, the l’Cie. When branded as l’Cie, you’re given a vague vision of a task that you must complete. If you’re successful, you turn into crystal; fail, and you become a monster. Either way it’s a death sentence, and one more reason to fear the fal’Cie. Yet ironically, Cocoon was built and is still maintained by these magical beings. They control everything from day and night cycles to weather patterns.


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