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August 7, 2007

Filed under: gaming»society»class_and_race

Ganados

The controversy over Resident Evil 5 being set in Africa, not to mention featuring a White character mowing down infected Black zombies (we hope they are zombies), has a lot of resonance. It's one of those topics that brings out the worst of the online community, and makes some of us despair. Josh covers the reasoned perspective well, I think, but I think an anecdote may explain why I both fear the worst and hope for the best.

I didn't play RE4 until about six months ago, long after it won so many awards and got ported to everything under the sun. I enjoyed it while playing, although I found myself oddly reluctant to load it up in the first place. It's a game with relatively few areas of tedium, and a number of amazing, memorable scenes. It also had a great horror movie feel, and a hilariously-overwrought level of gore: Belle walked through several times, and would always express her disgust at the exploding heads onscreen, long after I'd become inured to them.

But what I remember most from the game, and what I think was its most powerful moment, was at the very start, when Leon (the main character) first walks into the village. At that point, he (and the player, by extension) has already defended himself against a crazed misanthrope or three, but still has no idea what's going on. Entering the village proper means confronting a new set of villagers--the woman model makes an appearance for the first time, as do the alternate male villagers. So it's not just the same cookie-cutter experience of video game bad guys.

The first time I played this level, I didn't even take a shot. It was disturbing--the characters onscreen move erratically, but they're not traditional zombies. They carry tools around, and speak in gutteral Spanish--still people, in other words, ones rendered with surprising realism. I had an innate reaction to the ambiguity of it: you don't just shoot people in the head! That's wrong! And then, of course, they slaughtered me like a Christmas turkey.

After that, I dehumanized them enough to play the game without worrying about real-world legalities and ethics. But it's still unsettling to think about it. Neither Leon nor the player has any indication that the Ganados are anything other than extremely territorial farmers at that point, and yet they're terminated with extreme prejudice. To some degree, I liked that about it, because it made me re-examine just what those video game ethics really meant.

The fact that RE4 could provoke that kind of feeling is impressive and artistically pleasing, and it gives me hope that the fifth game might also give me something to think about on more than a simplistic, fictional level. But RE4 also never again really touched that kind of political or social awareness, leading me to think that Capcom probably didn't actually mean to do so sustainably, and may not have any plans to recognize how genuinely unsettling (at best) its African references could be.

August 3, 2007

Filed under: gaming»design

Reaping the Consequences

If permadeath in RPGs is anything like Fire Emblem, don't ever sign me up with the hardcore.

Permadeath--the idea that a video game character gets one life, ever, and must start completely over in case of fatality--is generally restricted to gung-ho online gamers, who can usually be considered insane in the first place, or the Steel Battallion series, which is unquestionably mad (sure, I'll pay $200 for a video game that comes with a fake cockpit for the giant robot and deletes my save game if I die. Then we can practice home trepanation for fun). But it's also a "feature" of the Fire Emblem series, a series of cute wargames that permanently removes from play any units that fall on the field.

If I were trapped on a desert island (one that somehow had power generators--what kind of desert islands are these scenarios, anyway?) with a single game, it'd be Advance Wars, so I figured I'd like Fire Emblem too--same company, same basic gameplay with a few twists. I could handle the death thing, I figured. I was wrong. When a character gets wiped out, they make this little speech about how they'll never see Paris or something, and it hits me right in the perfection reflex. I can't help it: I immediately restart the level from the beginning and try to get through it without losing any of the main characters. I have to start the battle over, actually, because the designers have anticipated that I might just save a game while everyone is alive and then reload it, so they added backup autosaves after every turn. I appreciate the idea, but I wish they'd just let me cheat.

This wouldn't be so frustrating if it weren't the astonishing weakness of some of the troops. Of course, if the player doesn't use them, they won't get any stronger, so you've got to take them out--at which point the enemy AI will probably also take them out, if you know what I mean. I've played through the fifth level at least twenty times now, and this Ross kid keeps biting the dust. Which means I keep starting over. I've about reached the limit of my patience with it.

If I just let the virtual grim reaper carry off the odd straggler, I'd probably have a much easier time. But games elicit a powerful impulse to do things perfectly and minimize loss. I'll only play through this thing once, probably, so I don't want to miss out, and I don't want to get slammed in later levels because I let one too many units pass on. Instead, I may just pass on the game. I am not this hardcore. I've got better things to do.

Indeed, if the permadeath experience is indicative of anything, it's how little tolerance for mistakes that games instil in players, and how players react to that. The people who are the biggest fans of permadeath are not really interested in realism, I'd guess. They're interested in perfection--they want to force players to play a completely clean, rational, sterile strategy. Perhaps it appeals to their heightened sense of order. Maybe they're just jerks. Either way, their obsession is unnatural compared to other media. While my other hobbies--music, writing, a rare sketch or two--can find new opportunities or inspiration in mistakes, I'm not aware of any game that rewards errors, other than the sense of recovering from them. That's too bad. Mistakes add richness to life. They're at the heart of scientific progress, and the inevitable byproduct of any creative endeavor. We should be encouraging mistakes in interactive media. I just have no idea how to do it.

I know how I'm not going to do it, and that's playing through level five again. It gets one more try, and then me and Fire Emblem--and permadeath with it--are quits.

July 9, 2007

Filed under: gaming»software

Fire Sale

With my contract in limbo, it makes me feel better to sell a few games. Just in case. The capsule reviews are free:

  • Mega Man ZX: It's Mega Man as reinvisioned for a sugary cartoon, with a little bit of Metroid thrown in. Everyone always talks about Mega Man games like they're the bread and butter for the hardcore, but for the most part I end up bullying my way through them based more on hoarded energy tanks than any kind of innate skill. It might be hardcore, but it's not elegantly so.
  • Trauma Center: Now this really is pretty hardcore. It's also fairly well-written, includes some clever scenarios, and makes you feel a little bit better about yourself. My only issue with it is that you cannot leave and come back a few months later, because each illness is treated in very specific ways, and the game will not prompt you after the first time.
  • Resident Evil DS: Not much to say about REDS. This was the first time that I beat the first game, although I'd played about a quarter of the way through the PC port many years ago. It's not RE4, but there's still a lot to enjoy.
  • Brothers in Arms DS: On the one hand, this game is beautifully rendered, well-animated, with lots of cool scenes going on around you the entire time. Very cinematic. On the other hand, it lasts about 3 hours all told, poses no real difficulty at all, and the controls can be a little wonky. I enjoyed it, but I don't know if I could recommend it at full price.
  • Star Trek Tactical Assault: I like this one, but other people didn't. It has its charms. Like Brothers in Arms, if it could play online or with a single-cart download, it would have a lot more going for it.
Everything starts at $5, and the Buy It Now prices are pretty reasonable, I think. Tell your friends.

June 11, 2007

Filed under: gaming»design»story

Me Me Me: Interactive Entertainment and Narcissism

So there's the story behind an acclaimed niche game, taken from Mobygames:

In an ancient time long past, a young man travels to the ends of the Earth, a place that is said to be forbidden to enter. He carries a young woman, who died from a terrible curse. He seeks the Dormin, a strange and God-like being that resides there. The Dormin is surprised that the man carries an ancient and magical sword, and speaks to the man. The man pleas for his help in bringing back the woman's cursed soul, however the being says it is the law of mortals that a dead soul cannot be brought back. He does say though, that if the man is willing to accept some heavy consequences, that there might be a way to revive her. But it will not be easy.

Our hero must embark on a quest to slay 16 colossus, giant creatures that tower hundreds of feet above the Earth. Using his ancient sword and his horse Argo, he must travel across the immense landscape seeking the colossi to save his love. Taking the form of various animals and other bipedal creatures, these colossi are tough and fierce. Their skin is tougher than leather, and the armor they wear is literally rock. However, by using his ancient sword, the man can penetrate the weak spot on them and destroy the towering beings and free his love's soul.

And then there's the plot summary for an acclaimed niche movie, taken from IMDB:

A dealer in outsider art threatens the equilibrium of her middle-class in-laws in North Carolina. Madeline is a go-getting art gallery owner from Chicago, recently married to George, a near-perfect Southern beau. When Madeline needs to close a deal with a reclusive North Carolina artist, George introduces her to his family: prickly mother Peg, taciturn father Eugene, cranky brother Johnny, and Johnny's pregnant, childlike wife Ashley, who is awe-struck by her glamorous sister-in-law. Madeline's presence exposes the fragile family dynamics as hidden resentments and anxieties surface.

No, that's not entirely fair--but I'm not trying to be fair. After all, I could nominate any number of movies to take the place of that latter description. They might not have the exact same theme as Junebug, but films with shaded or outright unlikeable characters, open storylines, and no clear sense of resolution are a dime a dozen. Whereas you'd be hard-pressed to find a game that doesn't put the player into the position of being a Hero in the classical sense, complete with journey and bold nemesis to be defeated. You almost certainly can't find an interactive narrative that centers around Southern family dynamics.

This isn't about the violence, per se. It's about the kinds of stories that these media can tell. See, I'm just not sure that you actually could make a game that doesn't put the player into the position of an active, heroic force. Interactivity grants agency, and agency for most people means trying to make "better" choices. Even assuming that someone could make an interactive version of Sherrybaby, for example, who'd want to play it? Would it honestly have the same impact?

The form of the medium shapes the stories that it can tell, and I wonder if we are reaching the limits of that for interactive entertainment. Maybe that's a good thing--that it is ultimately a hopeful medium. But it is also a narcissistic one. By necessity, it casts its audience as someone who can Make A Difference, and sets aside any of the smaller stories about people who can't. That might even encourage a false hope--we don't all grow up to be President, you know.

Netjak put up an editorial that scooped me on this a little, but I think they're ultimately addressing a more limited problem. Healey is asking for more than just "save the world" plots--I'm hoping for a plot that doesn't save anything at all. What do you think? Is this an inherent lack of depth in interactive entertainment? Is hopelessness part of the button-pressing palette?

Answers that we are better off without the angst in the first place will not be accepted. A little angst is good for you. It builds character.

* * *

Apparently this is now a Round Table post. Who knew?

May 22, 2007

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

Ends and Means

Corvus's gaming Round Table this month asks about goals. I'm guessing he's talking about goals inside games. I'm more interested in the ones outside.

I just finished writing the documentation for Basin IT, a water policy simulator that the Multimedia Center put together for some clients. As a game, it's not terribly captivating--the primary aim was to provide a more accessible front end to the existing river basin model. But the goal for the designers was to teach a certain skill and let people explore a situation. The goal for players is to learn how to effectively manage their water policies. To some extent, although it is (as far as I know) factually based, Basin IT expresses a judgement about what management is effective, and that too is a goal.

This may be true of so-called "serious games," that they have a real-world goal, but it is also true of entertainment to a greater or lesser degree. We discuss fictional movies and books not only in terms of their story, but also the worldview that inspires them. Spielberg's War of the Worlds is not just a movie about Tom Cruise and his alien friends (no easy jokes! we are classy joint here!), but is also (supposedly) a comment on our reactions to September 11th. Snow Crash (like much science fiction) is stuffed full of opinions on religion, libertarianism, and private enterprise. Do these works say how the world is, or how it should be? Probably that's why they're art.

It's hard to get past the initial impressions of a video game to even ask the question of its worldview. You might be tempted to ask if Super Mario is Nintendo's expression of hatred for turtles. I suppose that's possible. But I was thinking more along the lines of the Crackdown review that PeterB wrote a while back, where he refuses to excuse its racist point of view just because the mechanics of the game are enjoyable. In fact, it raises the question of whether the subject matter is even more despicable because the designers have made it fun to be a fascist supercop.

I am hard on games that waste the player's time or give simple answers to simple questions. But I think we should be. Even if it's condescending to state that violence in games causes violence in real life, it isn't improper to ask what the violence is trying to say about the real world. Nor is it impolite for design teams to come out and place both their gameplay and storylines into a real-world context, as has happened before (Metal Gear) and may be increasingly common (BioShock, by all accounts, is partly a satire of Ayn Rand's capitalist Utopia).

But it is also to remember that popcorn entertainment is not devoid of goals and implications. Michael Bay's movies may be vapid and anti-intellectual, but that doesn't mean that they don't present a desired worldview--they most certainly do, evoking goals of misplaced machismo and derision for the weak or the cooperative. It's unclear whether this is how Michael Bay sees the world, or (more likely) how he wishes it could be. It is clear that something of the same worldview does dominate in electronic entertainment, although to what extend it has been either percieved or critiqued by its audience, I couldn't say.

Who wants to talk?

May 17, 2007

Filed under: gaming»hardware»wii

First Wiik

I can maintain the puns forever, Internet. Don't try to stop me.

Positives:

  • All my Gamecube games run in progressive scan mode now.
  • The controller generally works well, and while the batteries are not terribly long-lived, I think I'm getting good use out of them. I'll still switch to rechargeables when I get the chance.
  • Internet channel! Belle thinks this is really dorky, especially since I keep my ancient laptop in the living room for emergency surfing anyway. But I love being able to turn on picture-in-picture and visit IMDB or Wikipedia while watching a movie, and the Wii's browser runs smoother than Firefox on my Celeron 366.
  • Virtual console! And everything looks SHARP. I don't ever remember N64 games looking that good. I think they cheated a little on the emulation.
  • Zelda is not awful. I don't have high expectations for 3D Zeldas, and Twilight Princess just barely clears them.
  • Wii Sports is a pretty good workout. If I started doing this and DDR on a regular basis, I might actually get into passable shape.
  • A side effect of the Home button is that you can pause anything, which is handy for those long cutscenes.

Negatives:

  • If I open up the top panel to plug in my Gamecube controllers, the cat comes and chews on the plastic. That's not really a mark against the Wii, it's just really annoying.
  • We keep the TV next to the front windows, and sometimes the remote gets confused by the light outside and goes crazy. I have to play with the blinds down. Belle would prefer I play Wii Sports with the blinds down anyway though, because it looks really stupid.
  • The keyboard on the web browser is awful. You should be able to plug a keyboard into the USB slot. Also, there's not enough memory to load Pandora, which is too bad, because I'd love to be able to play my Internet radio through the TV (while we still have Internet radio).
  • What's with the selection on the Virtual Console? Super NES games but no RPGs? Genesis but practically no fighters? Where's the NEO-GEO or CPS arcade boards? There's some weird stuff here, mixed in with the classics. And the slow release schedule is annoying.
  • There's some issues in the UI that are strange, particularly with OK/No buttons that can't decide to consistently exist on the left or the right side of each other. I'm not sure, but this may be by design to keep you from accidentally confirming destructive options.
  • Did I mention that the cat has tried to eat it? She chews on everything. We have got the weirdest cat on earth.

May 9, 2007

Filed under: gaming»software»homebrew

Nitro Pills

As far as I can tell, NitroTracker is the top of the DS homebrew world right now, if for no other reason than sheer physical convenience--any decent software really requires the GBAMP add-on for storage, and it sticks out about an inch from the DS, making it an unattractive package for MP3s or relatively shallow gaming. Music is more stationary.

Which is not to say that the experience is flawless, but the problems with it still lie mainly with the nature of the software and not with the program itself. NitroTracker is, well, a tracker. That means that it programs its sample-based music by stepping through a grid of notes like a piano roll, but less flexible. It's like writing a song in Excel (and I would know). For some genres of music--techno and house come to mind--having strict grid patterns of 4/4 eighth notes works well. But if you need to swing at all, or work in different time signatures, it gets ugly fast.

For example, the first slightly elaborate production I tried was the Galactica theme, because I knew that in 9/8 time it would be just slightly larger than a standard NitroTracker measure. It turns out pretty odd--partly because of the samples I used, but also because it's really hard to do decent timing this way (listen for yourself). This morning, on the Metro, I also put together a short version of Dave Brubeck's Take 5, which is even more difficult--not only is it 5/4 time, but it has a definite swing groove going on, which meant that I had to use 15 grid spaces to represent the song in triplets, and even then it sounds odd. To really get good exact timing, you'd need to break each quarter note into at least six grid spaces to get eights (every three spaces) and triplets (every two). That's a clumsy way to build a song. (here's an MP3 sample)

But for all that, I can definitely see this as one of the few applications where it is actually worth the hassle of putting homebrew together. After all, that Take 5 cover uses the DS microphone to sample my voice and whistling, which is pretty cool. A clever and patient programmer could use this to build songs out of ambient noise wherever he or she went. It's quick and fairly cheap, all things considered. As of version .3, it loads samples correctly (the Galactica snippet was built using .wav files I took from Ableton Live) for expandability, and it understands MIDI over WiFi. You could conceivably build a whole row of electronic instruments out of a PC and set of homebrew-capable DS's, especially if you used the other DSMIDIWiFi apps for control and simple synths.

Filed under: gaming»hardware»wii

Wiiconomics

After several months of stopping in at retail outlets every now and then and being told "well, we had them just yesterday," I broke down and bought a Wii on eBay. It should arrive today or tomorrow. The eBay premium on this comes to about $50 after you consider sales tax, so it could be a lot worse, I guess.

I looked at the XBox 360, and it's still tempting. But it's a bit high-priced for an impulse buy, and there's nothing I'm really dying to play. The media center functionality would probably be more appealing if we didn't have TiVo and Netflix. And I'm pretty sure Belle and I will get more enjoyment together out of the Wii than we would another system (where it would basically just be for me).

I'm still just amazed by how scarce the units actually are. I'm no industry analyst, but it's been almost a year now and I still haven't even seen a box on the shelves anywhere. The hardware isn't that complicated, from what I understand. The Freakonomics blog thinks it might be artificial, but no-one really knows.

But what's undeniably true is that there's more than a couple thousand of them up on eBay at any given time, selling for (including shipping) at least 130% of the retail price. How that figures into the shortages is hard to say--two thousand isn't a very big number, spread across the whole country--but it's a little galling to see the grey market flourish like this.

April 24, 2007

Filed under: gaming»software»chocobo_tales

That Old Magic

More than anything, Chocobo Tales makes me wish I was playing Magic: The Gathering. Which is impressive, because I haven't wanted to do that since high school.

I don't even remember where I got my first deck of Magic cards. I'm pretty sure that I never spent very much money on it, although I guess $10 decks and $1 booster packs can pile up over time. At lunchtime, friends and I used to go to the library and play a few games. We weren't very serious about it, and I was less serious than most--I tended to build strange, uncompetitive decks, like one that was completely themed around rats. Eventually, we stopped playing as much, and I sold my collection to another student for enough money to buy a nice harmonica.

So Chocobo Tales reminds me of the game in a couple of ways. First, it's got a card battle system that's a bit like Magic in its simplicity, although without the metagame rule-bending that really made Richard Garfield's invention fun. Second, getting cards is an expensive pain, if you consider time to be money, because it requires you to obsess over a set of minigames that would probably be more fun if you weren't trying them for the 300th time. If it were balanced, Squaresoft would make the value of the cards recieved inversely proportional to the amount of effort required. I'm not sure yet if they've done so, and don't know if I'll bother to try to figure it out.

It's too bad that this is a one-off game, though, because with some more meat it would make a fine central concept for a full title, instead of just a boss challenge. The CCG genre is well-suited to the DS, I think, especially since WiFi is a great environment for it. But to really give depth to the experience, it needs more: more cards, more oddities, and more room for people to build their own unique decks. Maybe someone will port Magic Suitcase or Magic Workstation to the DS homebrew and fill the gap.

April 17, 2007

Filed under: gaming»media»online

Cracked

PeterB reviews Crackdown:

I wrote a review in this month's issue of PTD magazine that I'm reasonably sure is going to garner me no small amount of hate mail. I won't reiterate the entire thing here, but to make a long story short, I panned Crackdown, a game where your objective, as a cop, is to murder as many immigrants as possible. I panned it specifically because of the game's absolutely vile morals, and more specifically its vile politics.

I actually felt uncomfortable panning the game. Technically brilliant, this is still a game whose idea of a good time is shooting a rocket launcher into a crowd of racial stereotypes.

Later today I'll write about This Film is Not Yet Rated, which I think has something similar to say about the movie industry.

Future - Present - Past