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December 8, 2010

Filed under: gaming»perspective


One of Belle's favorite hobbies is to take a personality test (such as the Meyers-Briggs) once every couple of months. She makes me take the same test, and then she reads our results aloud. The description for her type never explicitly says "finds personality test results comforting," but it probably should. I'm skeptical of the whole thing, frankly, but then someone with my personality type would be.

I found myself thinking about profiles after having a conversation with a friend about the appeal of Diablo (or lack thereof). I understand the theory behind the Diablo formula--combining the random reward schedule of an MMO with a sense of punctuated but constant improvement--but games based on this structure (Torchlight, Borderlands) leave me almost entirely unmoved.

For better or worse, game design increasingly leverages psychological trickery to keep players interested. I think Jonathan Blow convincingly argues that this kind of manipulation is ethically suspect, and that it displays a lack of respect for the player as a human being But perhaps it's also an explanation for why Diablo doesn't click for me, but other people obsess over it: we've got different personality profiles.

I think the idea of a Meyers-Briggs profile for game design is kind of a funny idea. So as a thought exercise, here's a quick list I threw together of personality types, focused mainly on psychological exploits common in game design. I figure most people--and most games--have a mix of these, just in larger or smaller proportions. Some of them may even overlap a little.

  • Completionist: Enjoys the feeling of finishing all items in a list of goals. Probably has sub-categories, depending on the type of task required (story-related, achievement-based, simple collection).
    Prototypical games: Pokemon, Crackdown, Donkey Kong Country
  • Storyteller: Enjoys the creation of emergent stories, particularly in sandbox-type games. These can range from actual narratives, to the construction of Rube Goldberg-like scenarios within the rules and physics of the game world, or simply games that offer "great moments" during regular play.
    Prototypical games: The Sims, Minecraft, Deus Ex
  • Audience: Enjoys playing through a linear story. Would, if all else were equal, be just as happy watching a really good movie.
    Prototypical games: JRPGs, Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil, adventure games
  • Explorer: Enjoys finding new locations and entities inside the game world. Prefers expanse and novelty to either realism or deep-but-restricted scenarios.
    Prototypical games: Metroid, Castlevania, Fallout
  • Grinder: Enjoys the process of slowly improving an avatar, either by levelling up or obtaining new equipment, or both. Becomes invested in the game as a long-term product of effort, creating an artifact that's a source of pride.
    Prototypical games: World of Warcraft, Diablo, Borderlands
  • Mechanic: Enjoys figuring out, then mastering, the underlying gameplay system, even if that limits the overall scope of the game. Prefers rulesets that are predictable, and "levelling the player" over increasing an avatar's stats.
    Prototypical games: Street Fighter, Team Fortress 2, Legend of Zelda
  • Munchkin: Like a mechanic, but with an emphasis on learning how to break/exploit the system. Ranges from people who read David Sirlin's "Playing to Win" and loved every word, to people who just like turning on cheat codes in GTA and seeing how far they can get in the tank.
    Prototypical games: sandbox games, broken games, broken sandbox games, Marvel Vs. Capcom
  • Competitor: Enjoys being ranked against other players, either AI or human. Likes the interplay of competition and cooperation, and prefers "winning" to simply "finishing."
    Prototypical games: Halo, Geometry Wars, Defcon
  • Partier: Enjoys playing with other players, particularly in single-couch co-op. More interested in an enjoyable play session than "winning" the game.
    Prototypical games: Rock Band, Mario Party, Wii Sports
  • Thinker: Enjoys making comprehensive strategic decisions, often at a slower pace. Not necessarily a wargamer, but often is.
    Prototypical games: Advance Wars, Defense Grid, Age of Empires
  • Buttonmasher: Enjoys reflex-based games that offer a lot of rapid stimulation. Not necessarily a shooter fan, but often is.
    Prototypical games: Ikaruga, Super Mario, Demon's Souls

There's probably a good way to simplify these, or sort them into a series of binaries or groups, if you wanted to make it more like a legitimate personality quiz. Still, looking over this list, I do feel like it's better at describing my own tastes than a simple list of genres. I think I rank high for Audience, Mechanic, and Buttonmasher, and low for Storyteller, Completionist, and Grinder--makes sense for someone who loves story-driven FPS and action-RPGs, but generally dislikes open-world games and dungeon crawlers.

Such a list certainly helps to describe how I approach any given title: concentrating more on getting through the narrative and learning the quirks of the system, less on grabbing all the achievements or experimenting with the environment. I almost wish reviewers ranked themselves on a system like this--it'd make it a lot easier to sort out whether my priorities sync with theirs.

In general, I agree with Blow: the move toward psychological manipulation as a part of game design is at best something to be approached with great caution. At worst, it's actually dangerous--leading to the kinds of con-artistry and unhealthy addiction in Farmville and (to a lesser extent) WoW. I don't think we can eliminate these techniques entirely, because they're part of what makes gaming unique and potentially powerful. But it would probably be a good idea to understand them better, and package them in a way that people can easily learn to be aware of them, similar to the ways that we teach kids about advertising appeals now. After all, as other sectors adopt "gamification," industry-standard psychological manipulation is only going to get more widespread.

November 5, 2010

Filed under: gaming»software»torment

Death Tax

For every form of media, there are certain works that are considered essential for cultural literacy: albums, books, or films that are so influential or important to the development of the art form, a well-rounded critic should at least have glanced at them. You don't have to like them, but they're part of the zeitgeist. The same is true for gaming, I think. Maybe it hasn't had its version of The Wire yet, but there's no arguing that there are certain canonical games that you're supposed to have played.

Is Planescape: Torment one of those titles? Many people would probably say yes. I'm not sure, but I do know that I feel guilty for quitting it. Not enough to keep struggling through it, unfortunately, but guilty nonetheless. Parts of Torment are still brilliant--they make it obvious why so many people speak of the game in such reverent tones. But those pieces are wrapped in a design that has aged poorly (and it wasn't much to write home about even then).

Let's get the positives out of the way first. More than anything else, Torment's writing is fantastic. It has to be decent, since the game's graphics are crude (evocative, but crude), and there are no cutscenes or close-up shots (everything takes place from a 3/4 perspective). But the writers turned that limitation into a legitimate strength: the world and characters they describe are bizarre, comical, tragic, and rich. Even in the first few hours, they toss out more ideas than most games contain in their entirety: an underground town of well-adjusted undead, sorcery made of blood and thorns, and a main character whose body is a gnarled mess of tattoos and scars. It's hard to imagine how someone could create the kind of imagery in polygons that they accomplish with a little prose, particularly given the technology of the day.

The other thing Torment does right is to completely ignore conventional wisdom on death and experience for an RPG of the time. The Nameless One cannot die by conventional means. This makes for some fun story moments--rummaging around inside your own body for items, waking up in the morgue, using your own severed arm as a club--and if he's killed in combat, he wakes up a few feet away. As someone who hates dying in an RPG and realizing that my last save was two hours ago, I think this is brilliant. I also think it's brilliant that making clever dialog and story choices earns an order of magnitude more experience than fighting. That's a clear declaration of what's important in Torment: story, not swordplay.

But if they were willing to undermine that much of the traditional RPG design, it is simply beyond me why they didn't jettison the rest. If you're going to remove the punishment of combat death, not to mention making it largely unrewarding to fight in the first place, why keep it around at all? Why make me struggle with inventory and healing? Obviously their heart wasn't in it, but they couldn't bring themselves to anger the nerds by dropping it completely.

It's clever to make dialog count for extra experience points as an incentive. It's hateful, on the other hand, to abuse that incentive by restricting dialog choices based on the character's attribute scores. At that point, you're punishing the player for thinking that their choices during the game are meaningful, when really it was the first decision they made--assigning points during character creation--that determines success. The result is profoundly, deeply frustrating: I met a riddling skeleton, for example, but I'm not even given a chance to solve his riddles, because my scores have already determined that I'm not smart enough.

That was pretty much the point where I closed the game and put the disc away for the forseeable future, incidentally.

If only this game had been made a few years later (when RPGs started to become a more fluid genre), or a few years earlier (when adventure games were still profitable). If only it weren't shackled to the Baldur's Gate-derived, AD&D-centric Infinity Engine, or maybe if it could have been made by an indie team willing to shoulder a few more risks. There's a fantastic SCUMM-style puzzler somewhere in Torment, but it's buried under mountains of system and cruft. As it is, I know why this game is important. I know why people like it. But I can't bring myself to start it up again.

September 2, 2010

Filed under: gaming»software»final_fantasy

Press A

Literally the second thing you see after booting up Final Fantasy XIII, immediately following the Square-Enix logo, is a message asking you to "Press any button to continue." This is before you get to the title screen, mind you--before you have even mentally registered that the game could be asking you for input. It ambushes you, frankly. I thought it was a joke at first. It's not. The reward for pressing any button--for me that's the A button, being an XBox gamer by way of Nintendo, instead of whatever wacky "continue" button location Sony started using for the Playstation--is another OK-only dialog asking you to pick a location for your saved games. I don't have a memory card or anything in my XBox, so there's only one possible storage location.

That's three button presses, and no actual choices, in the first minute. First fifteen seconds, if you've seen this before and just hammer your way through it.

The Final Fantasy games have never been about open worlds and nonlinear choice, but they've at least maintained the illusion that the player has options. The thirteenth outing drops all those pretensions. It combines save points with shops and upgrade stations, so there's no side trips. It puts levelling up right in the pause menu. As of the ninth chapter (out of 13), every level is practically a straight-ahead corridor, with a handy automap that reminds you which way to run in case you forget. It is, in other words, lots of button presses, and no actual choices.

This extends to the new fight system as well, which features no small amount of hot A button action, usually to select "auto-battle" for a single character (the others are controlled by the AI). Eventually, Square introduces a "Paradigm" strategy layer on top of all the auto-battling, where you get to choose between different roles (tank, healer, mage, etc.) for party characters, but even granting that complication this is a game that my dog could probably play, if I could just train him to press the big green button on the fighting stick. And then he could play Tekken, too, which would be good for a laugh.

I've played a fair amount of this game while on a week's vacation, in between dance practice and dog walks, and at times it almost seems like it was satire. But it's Square, so of course it's hopelessly self-important. The writing's incoherent, the characters are shallow, the voice acting is sometimes flat, and the cosmology is vastly overcomplicated. If it were any more deadpan, we'd have to check for rigor mortis. On the other hand, I'm still playing and will probably finish this weekend, so it must be doing something right. Not that it would take much: bear in mind, I watch low-budget SciFi channel movies for fun.

I think what fascinates me about FF XIII is the ornery throwback quality of it all. In ruthlessly trimming everything about the game down to the very core of JRPG-ness, Square has made the game more streamlined--easing players gently from one barely-distinguishable fight to the next with only the occasional video clip to separate them--but also made it clear how little their conception of a "video game" has evolved. For all its sound and fury, the result is about two menus (and oh, how Square loves their menus still) away from Chrono Trigger.

There are some great games in my collection that you couldn't have done on a Super NES. Rock Band and Guitar Hero wouldn't work without higher-capacity media. Sands of Time really needs 3D to sell its acrobatic puzzles. And it's hard to imagine Burnout without the hyper-realistic, slow-motion car crashes. But there's very little in this Final Fantasy, apart from the admittedly-gorgeous art direction, that wouldn't play equally well in 16-bits or less.

And so ultimately, FF XIII occupies a weird space. It's clearly an incredibly expensive game in terms of production values. It's a continuation of one of the most well-respected video game franchises in existence. It's a certain amount of fun to play. And yet, if I were a complete stranger to gaming culture, I have no idea how I would react to this odd combination of lavish graphics, active time battles, and simple menu trees--a distillation of old-school RPG mechanics in a shiny new shell. I suppose I'd just have to press the A button, until it told me to stop.

July 23, 2010

Filed under: gaming»hardware»kinect

Less Than A Stance

The Internet has many virtues (and no small number of vices), but its most surprising effect has been the way it has made research both easy and addictive. While you have to be critical of what you read, of course, at no other time in our history has it been easier to scarf down information like a big bowl of knowledge-flavored ramen.

But this is mainly useful for certain types of knowledge--mainly intellectual, abstract data. For example, when I was in high school I decided to learn how to play the harmonica, which is not a skillset that you can really pick up from written description (although I certainly spent enough time on the HARP-L list, just in case). Likewise, I may have mentioned my recent interest in breakdancing--you can watch a lot of videos and read a lot of forum posts, but I think that's a relatively ineffective way to learn. I don't mean to say that online communities for these activities are useless, because they have value in other ways. But for concrete tasks, you can't beat physical instruction.

So anyway, I'm kind of intrigued by Kinect (and, to a lesser extent, the Playstation Move/Eye or the Wii remote/balance board combinations). We have been working for a while now toward a world where we can query the Internet's store of information based on a macro-level location in space and time, via smartphones. Inventions like Google's local search, and to a lesser degree Foursquare or Yelp, add geographic location to human input. Kinect and its brethren, on the other hand, are attempts to turn the perspective around: interaction based on the topology of the user's body itself.

These early attempts are primitive. They'll be used in crude ways, for gaming and parlor tricks, and they'll have limitations like Kinect's inability to handle prone positions and relatively low resolution. But think of the potential here one that's only hinted at in Harmonix's Dance Central. Among other things, real motion interfaces are a first step toward extending the tremendous communication and educational value of the Internet out into the realm of physical movement. Imagine an educational program for athletic skills that could see your movements, compare them to a model, and tell you how to correct them--or a video chat session with a teacher who could walk "around" to critique your technique in 3D space. Even if it were non-interactive, this could have real advantages--I'd love to have a clean motion-capture of Vic Wooten's slap bass technique to study in slow motion. And surely there are commercial applications, like virtual dressing rooms or telepresence tourism.

Thanks to some literal handwaving, the vision of motion control since Minority Report has been to provide a fancy, grand gestural control mechanism for data manipulation--because there's a problem we've all had, right? In much the same way, the current focus on camera-view augmented reality ignores its real, current applications in relatively dull location-sensitive mapping, probably because most critics are more interested in the human-machine interface than the way these new technologies shape our culture. But surely we should have learned by now: in the age of networked communcation, it's the mundane social uses--chatting, teaching, and sharing--where innovation will get really interesting.

May 18, 2010

Filed under: gaming»software»sotc

Shadow Buffer

There are some games that you really ought to play under emulation only, and Shadow of the Colossus is going to be one of those. It's a beautiful, interesting game held back by the terrible, terrible PS2 rendering chip. Depending on your hardware, if you haven't played it already, you might even be best off emulating it now.

It was kind of surprising to me how bad the texture handling actually was. I skipped the PS2 when it was current, and only really got to sit down with one when I started using Belle's for Guitar Hero. I had bought a second-hand Dreamcast instead, or played a lot of older PC titles on my low-budget tower (calling it 'hand-built' implies, I think, a level of craftsmanship that wasn't present). Both of those had their issues, but they were capable of handling basic texture filtering, and character models didn't shake like a pair of cheap maracas, neither of which seems to have been a priority for Sony's Emotion Engine designers.

Normally, I'm not a graphics snob kind of guy. I enjoy Wii games for what they are, and I've never owned a computer capable of running new games at their top detail levels. I think Link's Awakening was one of the top two Zelda games, even in four shades of Gameboy Green. But my first reaction to SotC when I finally got around to firing it up this week was "wait, is there a way to turn off the Awful, Shimmery Moiré Filter?" Under the Playstation's dubious rendering context, anything more than five feet away from the camera becomes a shifting, grainy distraction. The development team has clearly tried to integrate this into the art style--I think the elaborate hair and stone textures, not to mention the blown-out bloom and grain filters, are a direct result of accepting the platform's limitations--but it doesn't really work. Not right away, at least, and not without interruption. And these ambitious effects come at a cost--even on native hardware, the game's framerate is notoriously unstable.

Unfortunately, the elaborate tricks used to push the PS2 as far as it can go mean that Shadow of the Colossus is a punishing feat for emulators. While recent PC hardware is easily capable of handling titles like the Final Fantasy games, SotC barely manages more than 10 frames a second on my 2007-era laptop. But it's a tantalizing slideshow: even at its native resolution, without the shaky landscape textures and shifty light bloom, you can really see just how beautifully-designed this game was. If I had a little more CPU to throw at it, I'd love to play it there instead of on Sony's temperamental black box.

As a long-time PC gamer, I've been using emulation for years, and this isn't the first time that the experience has been better on a virtual machine. If nothing else, it means freedom from the idiotic "save point" systems, particularly in console RPGs. I've always preferred the ergonomics of a keyboard or my favorite PC gamepad to whatever weirdness the original manufacturer has invented for their input device (Dreamcast, I'm specifically looking at you and your RSI-triggering monstrosity of a controller).

And more importantly, emulation has historically allowed the technical limitations of the day to be upgraded behind the scenes--from removing the flicker of NES sprite rendering (then restoring it, for the diehards) to the addition of mip-mapping and texture filtering on the PS2. My favorite, of course, is the gorgeous pixel-art enhancement of the Super 2xSaI algorithm. If you ever forget how well-crafted the peak of 16-bit gaming could be, play the first few rainy minutes of A Link To The Past in high resolution through a modern emulator. I think if you look at something like Pixeljunk Shooter, it's an unmistakeable tribute not just to 2D gaming, but to the advances that were first made in emulation, now brought back into the fold.

Which brings us back to Shadow of the Colossus and the poor, palsied PS2. As one of those games that'll get name-checked for years to come, and with the PS3 dropping backwards compatibility, emulation may end up a real blessing in disguise for SotC--new players will get the benefit of its stunning art and sound design, but without the crappy rendering. It's just too bad it takes such a monster of a system--a colossus, if you will--to do it, but that problem will solve itself over time. To be honest, I'm almost a little envious.

March 15, 2010

Filed under: gaming»software»no_more_heroes

The Garden of Meh-ness

I'm still trying to figure out why I'm playing No More Heroes 2. I loved the first game, which wrapped every bizarre idea that Suda 51 has ever had in gleefully hideous, plush-velvet-and-8-bit upholstery. It was gaming's Grindhouse, all poor taste and subversion. Either the joke's wearing thin, or that's just not working anymore for the sequel.

The plot, for example, is more complicated but says less. It throws in two extra playable characters, one of whom gets only one (short, uninteresting) boss fight and neither of which is terribly interesting. It involves revenge for the death of a character that nobody remembers or cares about. Then it wraps all of the above in a series of flashbacks by some kind of stripper, the details of which are apparently supposed to be a big mystery, but who never really says anything that couldn't have been better summarized or left implicit. There's a lot going on here--and none of it hangs together particularly well. Possibly because it's actually trying too hard: attempting internal consistency asks a lot of an audience when the material is this dumb. It comes across as more unfocused than lovably eclectic.

The new game promises you a lot of fights by starting you at assassin rank 50 instead of 11, but then it cheats by jumping multiple ranks--sometimes lots of them--after a boss. The least interesting boss from the first game was probably Bad Girl, a filthy pop idol who batted bondage slaves at you from a conveyer belt. Few, if any of the new assassins manage to be so amusing, almost none of them have the elaborate setups that were the best part of NMH, and most of them (particularly the Resident Evil-ish Matt Helms and Metal Gear Solid parody Chloe Walsh) fail to rise above their obvious inspiration. Indeed, the parody settings themselves are half-hearted at best, although the bit where the stealth level almost immediately abandons sneaking in favor of killing everybody is a nice meta touch.

They kept the combat system, which is still very good and probably the main reason that I've stuck with it. They eliminated the overworld driving and replaced it with a static map, which would be fine, but then it's like they needed to do something with the old motorcycle code, so there's a couple of completely pointless driving segments (literally pointless--you can't fail them, and they don't have any enemies or challenges, just driving on a gently-curving road). Oh, and there's a gratuitous cameo by Takashi Miike for the hardcore, which is the kind of special feature I can get behind. I wish they'd pitched that in big letters on the box, just to confuse the average Best Buy shopper.

What I miss the most, oddly enough, are the phone conversations from the first NMH. Before each boss fight, assassination promoter Sylvia would call you on your cell phone, which you'd answer by pressing one of the wiimote buttons. Then you'd physically hold the thing to your ear while Travis did the same onscreen with his phone, both of you looking pretty stupid, and listen to an increasingly abusive, sociopathic, and demoralizing series of rants on the boss and your pitiful chances against it. Each ended with a plea to "trust your force, and head... for the Garden... of Madness!" Like so much of the game, they seemed mainly to exist just because the developer thought they'd be fun. But they also served to reinforce the game's driving dynamic: weird, immature nerd Travis chasing his way up the assassin rankings in order to impress a girl who is not only way out of his league, but also completely nuts.

Well, honestly, the whole game was nuts. And I can't decide if my problem with No More Heroes 2 is that it's not crazy enough, or I'm now acclimated to the crazy and the seams are showing through. But I suspect it's the former. For all their flaws, I always figured that part of the fun of games by Suda 51 was that they were one-offs by a disturbed auteur, without a lot of pressure to be successful in the market. Maybe that's why his first real sequel comes across as forced. And while mechanically, it's still one of his better games, I didn't really buy it for the mechanics. There are relatively few people who can still make a video game as outright odd as Killer 7 or the first No More Heroes. It'd be a shame for that to get lost in the rush to a franchise.

March 1, 2010

Filed under: gaming»software»mass_effect


There's a moment early in Mass Effect 2 where your character, the resurrected Commander Shepherd, answers a series of questions about the events that occurred in the previous game. I think what they're trying to do is remind you about those plot points so you won't be taken quite so much by surprise when other characters mention them later on--or, if you're a new player, establish a little context so it won't seem completely random. But because the writing is a little awkward, it doesn't come across as an establishing infodump. Instead, in a surreal twist, it sounds like the characters are participating in a kind of retcon--letting the player's answers redefine their past actions. I love this idea, and wish it wasn't an accident.

A retcon, for the non-fandom crowd, is a portmanteau word for "retroactive continuity," and Wikipedia (unsurprisingly) has a fine list of examples, ranging from Nero Wolfe's birthplace to the altered appearance of Klingons in post-Kirk Star Trek. The retcon is a tradition as old as humanity, but it's rarely invoked in a planned fashion--in part, because it's usually so clumsy. Humans are good at maintaining continuity in our narratives, and we don't take kindly to authors who break their own fictional rules unless they can do so very, very elegantly.

But in video games, we have a sort of special case. Often here (and specifically in the Mass Effect games), the player is in control of continuity to a greater degree than other media. Is Commander Shepherd a woman of principle, or a ruthless pragmatist? The player chooses between these two, or even mixes them on a case-by-case basis. You don't know, necessarily, what kind of person she is until the player makes that decision: does this Commander Shepherd approve of the Genophage bioweapon, or find it deplorable? Does she believe in killing mutineers? What about the murder of treacherous former allies? And if those answers differ, it's up to the player to mentally reconcile them as a coherent character, offering up retconned justifications as necessary.

So why limit this to just the character arc, when a virtual world could offer so much more? ME2's dialog misfire offers a glimpse into a game mechanic where dialog doesn't just define a character, it can redefine the events that led up to the current moment, or the world around the player's avatar (cross a gap by insisting that you funded a bridge, perhaps, or clear out dangerous animals by bemoaning their extinction). If I had the time to spend on personal coding projects right now, that's something I'd explore: a game where you can redefine the state of play just by verbally disagreeing with it. I think it could even be an opinionated statement, not just about the way we adapt stories over time, but also the power of rhetoric to effect change, and the subjectivity of human history.

Or maybe I'm just describing a pretentious version of Scribblenauts. Either way, surely it's an opportunity missed.

December 9, 2009

Filed under: gaming»perspective


I'm thrilled, personally, to see actual actors doing voice and motion work for video games, after years of Resident Evil-style butchery. Not to mention that it's nice to see Sam Witwer (Crashdown from BSG) getting work as the Apprentice in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, or Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) taking a bit part for the Assassin's Creed games. But friends, I have to say: the weird, digital versions of these actors used onscreen are freaking me out.

We have truly reached the point of the uncanny valley in terms of real-time 3D, which is kind of impressive if you think about it. Or horrifying, if you try to play these games, and are interrupted at regular intervals by dialog from cartilage-lipped, empty-eyed mannequins. It's actually made worse by the fact that you know how these actors are supposed to look, giving rise to macabre, Lecter-esque theories to explain the discrepancies between their real-life and virtual appearance. Don't get me wrong--I'm glad that we've reached the point that such a high level of technical power is available. I'm just thinking it would be nice to be more selective about how it's used.

The problem reminds me of movie special effects after computer graphics really hit their stride--say, around the time I was in high school, and George Lucas decided to muck around with the look of the original Star Wars trilogy, perhaps concerned that they lacked the shiny, disjointed feel of the prequels. In one scene, for example, he added a computer-generated Jabba the Hutt getting sassed by Han Solo, even though it really added nothing to the film apart from a sense of floaty unreality.

The thing is, there wasn't anything wrong with the original effects in Star Wars. They've held up surprisingly well--better than Lucas's CG replacements. The same goes for films like Star Trek II or Alien or The Thing. Even though the effects aren't exactly what we'd call "realistic," they don't kill the suspension of disbelief--and they're surprisingly charming, in a way that today's effortless CG creations are not. Scale models and people in rubber suits have a weight to them that I, personally, miss greatly (the most recent Indiana Jones movie comes to mind). When the old techniques are used--Tarantino's Death Proof, for example, or Guillermo Del Toro's creaturescapes--the results have an urgency and honesty that's refreshing.

Back in videogameland, it amazes me that no-one looks at their cutscenes during development and asks themselves "is there a better way? Is the newest really the best?" At one point, right when CD-ROM became mainstream, it looked like composite video with real human actors might be the future, a la Wing Commander. Somehow, it didn't happen (fear of Mark Hamil, maybe? Psychological scarring from Sewer Shark?). But when you're watching robot Kristen Bell shudder through a cutscene in Assassin's Creed, it's hard not to wish that you could just watch the real Bell, even through a cheesy green screen.

Or, at the very least, it'd be nice if more developers would try alternatives instead of pushing ahead with a character look that they're just not pulling off. I have had harsh words for Mirror's Edge--I believe I compared it to a flammable kitchen appliance--but the developers' choice to create animated interstitial movies instead of realtime rendering was a bold and interesting choice, particularly since the game actually boasted very well-crafted and animated character models. In-engine cutscenes may have been a great bullet-point when we made the transition to hardware-based 3D, but now that novelty has passed. We've worked for years to get to the uncanny valley: it's time to find a way out.

December 1, 2009

Filed under: gaming»software»gta

The Chinatown Episode

At some point, every American television series does The Chinatown Episode. This is particularly true for cop shows, because crimes that take place in Chinatown are always exotic entryways into an inscrutable foreign culture, while those in immigrant neighborhoods of, say, Latino or European extraction are just garden variety crimes of a Real American nature. Sometimes the showrunners will substitute another nationality of origin--Koreatown, most likely. This is because someone has told them that Asia is not a single country.

So it was probably inevitable that Grand Theft Auto, a series whose main schtick is to recycle every possible variety of gangster movie into interactive form, would do its own version of The Chinatown Episode. The surprise is that it's actually pretty good so far (I'm about halfway through, I think). Despite the name, Chinatown Wars is not really based on the immigrant experience (or some screenwriter's shallow appropriation of it). Its roots are more in Hong Kong crime dramas like Infernal Affairs, even if its ambitions are markedly lower.

I've spent a fair amount of time here picking out faults in the race or gender politics of various games--enough, perhaps, to seem a bit like a scold at times. And I didn't expect much from Rockstar, frankly. So it was a nice surprise to find that Chinatown Wars acquits itself fairly well. Nobody speaks in a chop-socky accent, and hackneyed talk about honor or faux-Confucianisms are, when used, rightfully dismissed as shameless politicking and clearly-marked irony (these are low bars, but ones which are regularly uncleared in pop culture). When the dialog is funny (and this is a funny game, albeit in a typically crude way), it's because of the exaggerated character flaws of each individual (the head gangster's idiot son, for example, or the power-hungry lieutenant) and not at their expense. There's even a few jokes about stereotypes, like this (paraphrased) exchange between the main character, Huang, and a corrupt cop:

Cop: we'll work to take down the Wonsu together.

Huang: Yeah, that's great. One question: what's this Wonsu thing you keep talking about?

Cop: It's the name for the leaders of the Korean gang.

Huang: Right. Why would you assume I know that terminology? Racist idiot.

This is not to say, as I've continued to play through, that it's all sunshine and kittens. There's still a fair amount of sexism, a near-total lack of actual female characters (the most interesting of whom is killed about 30 seconds in), and some jokes that edge into homophobia. A lot of the material also probably falls under "satire," which I'm normally happy to engage with, but at some point in Rockstar's career the satire excuse has started to seem a little strained, particularly given their geographic location (the UK) and resulting distance from the material they're satirizing.

I haven't played a lot of GTA, for one reason or another, so from a purely mechanical perspective it's been interesting so far. The series is often described as being "sandbox" games, but I think that's a misnomer. They give you a big level to play in, sure, but it's less wide-open and more just non-linear--you don't have to jump on the main quest right away. At one point, maybe that was more revolutionary than it is now, I don't know, but with every game I play these days offering about a million collectibles and side missions, I'm not exactly suffering for choice. Besides, when I think of a sandbox game, I think about something that lets me build, like Simcity. There's not a lot of building or world-changing in Chinatown Wars.

The real genius of it, and maybe what leads people to use "sandbox" as a description, is the mechanic for the wanted meter. The rules for when the meter goes up or down are simple and easy to understand, and the cop AI is (intentionally) stupid and suffering from tunnel vision. You can raise the heat, wreak some havoc, and then clear out the meter and keep going, which is a nice way to blow off some steam. This is probably why every time I've seen someone play GTA in the past, they're usually going for a joyride in a tank and seeing how far they can get before the SWAT team takes them out.

This is something that was always frustrating about Assassin's Creed (the first one, the second is currently sitting outside my apartment door), because losing your pursuers was more complicated--more "realistic"--than it needed to be. There were places you could hide, which wouldn't always work, or you could run far enough away, depending on the size of the alarm, but it was never entirely cut-and-dried. The result was that you felt less like an invisible killer and more like a grade-schooler playing hide-and-seek. Realism, counter-intuitively, becomes the enemy of immersion. GTA's wanted level, like the combat system in Arkham Asylum, is all about taking skilled actions that are appropriate for the main character and making them fun and easy for the player to accomplish. Developers should simulate for the narrative feel, in other words, not for the nitty-gritty.

And seriously, let's make a promise: after this, no more Chinatown Episodes in games. There's only so much cliche a single medium can take.

November 5, 2009

Filed under: gaming»hardware»wii

Stalled Out

Last week I got a used copy of Excite Truck in the mail as a trade, but life's been busy, so I didn't get around to popping it into the Wii for a few days. When I did, while I enjoyed the game itself, it was with the bittersweet realization that this is the first time I've turned Nintendo's little white box on in many, many months.

It's true that I'm gaming a little less at the moment than I normally would--breaking practice is taking up a lot of that time--but that doesn't explain it. It's not the graphical difference between the Wii and the XBox 360, since I could honestly care less. And it's not the network infrastructure, although Nintendo's take on multiplayer is still shamefully backwards. The explanation is simpler: there's nothing decent to play.

When the Wii has good titles, they're very good. Metroid Prime 3, No More Heroes, and Super Paper Mario all come to mind. I've played through all of those. And I own a Wii Fit board, so it's not like I haven't done the crazy lifestyle game thing too. But two years into owning the console, it seems to have hit a drought. I can name plenty of XBox or PC games, either recently released or on the horizon, that I'm anticipating. But I've only got two on Wii (NMH2 and Muramasa) for which I can really say the same. And I've played all the GameCube games that I wanted to play. At this point, what's left? Apart from Excite Truck, the only reason I turn the Wii on is if I left my smartphone in the other room and don't want to get up to watch YouTube or check an IMDB entry.

At its introduction, the Wii was meant to be a new paradigm for console gaming: family-friendly, cheap, innovative, and a bit silly. It lived up to some of those promises, and then just seems to have completely lost momentum. Was it too weird for third-party developers? Too difficult to write ports? Or just abandoned by the manufacturer? I don't regret the purchase, I'm just kind of saddened by the neglect. We've already got one Dreamcast, I can't keep collecting "wacky" consoles forever.

Future - Present - Past