this space intentionally left blank

December 26, 2007

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

Woman's Touch

I generally like the Round Table, if for no other reason than that it gives me a topic to write about, as opposed to my increasingly common writer's block. But this month's topic, gender, is a tough one to discuss fruitfully. What are we to do? Talk about how bad depictions of women in gaming continue to be? Lament the fact that this hasn't changed? Make fun of Barbie Adventures? Dissect Tomb Raider? Mock Chris Crawford again?

As fun as those might be, they make me tired. I'm not saying that someone else shouldn't do them. They are important roles to fill, all of them. But I'm not going to fill them. I've got nothing new to add there.

So let's talk instead about a gender-related success story that few people have played/will play, the Touch Detective games. I mentioned a while back that the first game has a lot of issues, but some genuinely funny moments, and I finished the second one about a week later. They are not good games, in the way that classic adventures like Monkey Island are good games, because the designers were more interested in setting up the story scenes than making it easy to figure out how to trigger them. So I don't necessarily recommend them to people, unless you're able to suppress your guilt reflex from using GameFAQs, at which point the two titles become a lot more enjoyable--particularly the second, which has much sharper writing than the original.

In an earlier link post, I referenced The Rule, originally from the comic Dykes To Watch Out For. The Rule is a standard for movies: does a movie contain two or more women who have a conversation together about a topic other than men? I don't recommend actually following The Rule (your entertainment options will be pretty barren), but it's sometimes helpful to think about it, and realize how few movies actually qualify.

Or how few video games. I think Half-Life 2 is a pretty great piece of work, and the character of Alyx Vance is certainly a step up from Elexis Sinclaire. But the designers of HL2 have also been remarkably transparent about the guts of these games, so we can't avoid knowing that Alyx is not just a character: she's a whole set of game design mechanisms, tweaked to provide feedback to the player according to a set of psychological principles. In other words, Alyx intrinsically breaks The Rule. Much of her primary purpose is to talk to, and talk about, the player (who, even if female, is virtually embodied in the male Gordon Freeman).

Although HL2 should make a fascinating post at a future point in time, today I wanted to talk about Touch Detective instead. And the reason is that while these games were not marketed as "for girls," almost all the characters are female. And perhaps more importantly, they're female without making their gender the defining characteristic of their personality.

So when Mackenzie, the "Touch Detective" of the title, wanders around her Tim Burton-esque town to solve cases (most of which involve her flighty friend Penelope), those interactions don't usually revolve around the fact that she's a girl. It's not that Mack is genderless: touch one of the dresses in the town boutique, and she'll note that she thinks it's cute (but wouldn't suit her). But when she's forced to find a way around a barrier, her age or size (she's still in middle-school, I think) is much more likely to be the sticking point.

It's astonishing how much this changes the dynamic of the game. I know we're all tired of talking about Tomb Raider, but contrast it with Lara Croft, who even in the Legend reboot and Anniversary remake faces an almost entirely male cast. Granted, not the best example, and I'll admit that. Still: when Lara trades lines and gunfire in cutscenes with male opponents, at best there's almost always a reference to her sexuality or appearance. At worst, there's sometimes a weird, quasi-rapist vibe to those scenes that makes them painfully uncomfortable to watch. Even if these were meant to show Lara triumphing in the face of chauvinism, they can't help but grate given the heroine's presentation and the cultural context surrounding the franchise.

In other words, what Touch Detective accomplishes that Tomb Raider does not is create a safe space for its female characters--this is the essence behind The Rule. Of course, in order to do so, it only had to remove almost all the male characters, put its protagonists in middle school, and embed the story in game mechanics that actively frustrate the player. If this is a success, it's a pyrrhic one.

November 27, 2007

Filed under: gaming»impressions»ds


The funny thing about horror movies is, while I love them, I sometimes dread watching them. They're not technically a "fun" experience. Watching a good horror flick means voluntarily becoming a nervous wreck for an hour and a half. When it's over, the feeling of catharsis and relief is actually what makes it all worthwhile.

When you make a horror game, the same feeling applies. I really enjoyed Resident Evil 4, but I always had to work up the energy to actually start the game, and to keep playing when I died. If Capcom had increased the barrier to entry, or made it too annoying to continue, I wouldn't have gotten past the first village.

Which is exactly what happened with Dementium, a horror game for DS (and one of the platform's only Mature-rated games). The building blocks are well-crafted: the engine is stunningly good for a DS game, the atmosphere is refreshingly morbid, and the sound design is very, very good. But they made the decision to send players back to the start of a level after every death, sucking a lot of fun out of the game. It's not nearly so scary the second time through. Or the third, or fourth. Meanwhile, my annoyance at the game's few missteps (no directional indicator for damage?) grew, until I finally set it aside during Chapter 7 (about halfway through) and turned to Touch Detective instead.

Touch Detective has gotten kind of a bad rap for being all about pixel-hunting and bizarre object usage, but I didn't notice that on my play-through. I did figure out what might give people that impression. The game has a lot of characters that move around as the story progresses, and conversations with them are required before you can get any farther. That's in contrast with the old Lucasarts adventures, for example, where people mostly stayed in the same place--i.e., they could be counted on to be consistent pieces of the puzzle, not dramatic actors. Much like in Hotel Dusk, when the actors in Touch Detective act in unexpected ways, it can take a while to find them and figure out which one will trigger the next puzzle. But in its favor, there aren't that many locations or characters. Come on, guys, it's not that frustrating.

And the rewards for enduring those moments of confusion are a few gems of quietly oddball writing, and a genuinely funny fourth-wall gag. It doesn't hold a candle to Monkey Island, but what does? At ~$20, who cares?

October 31, 2007

Filed under: gaming»software»halo

Making Waves

Although I'm what, three years too late? to complain about Halo, I'm going to do it anyway.

When the game first came out, the standard criticism of its mid-game levels was that they were too cookie-cutter in their repetition, like Bungie just copy-pasted big chunks of architecture through the game. I can see where these complaints come from, but it didn't bother me, because at least you felt like you were making progress.

Halo's biggest sin is not that the level design is a little repetitive. It's the parts in the game where the designers literally lock you into a room and then flood it with repeated waves of enemies. Having restarted the game on Legendary, I fought through a few of these, making it to the first level on the Covenant ship, before finally giving up in disgust. Belle can attest that there was a lot of cursing and shouting along the way. By the point where I gave up, there had been three such situations: one is the initial crash-landing zone, where dropships keep swooping in, followed by the elevator lift that keeps dropping enemy squads, and then finally the first room of the Truth and Reconciliation. That one was the final straw.

Halo fans tend to repeat the same two points over and over again when praising the games. First, they talk about "30 seconds of fun" to defend the fact that Halo never changes and combat never gets more complex. Second, they refer to a pyramid of weapons--firearm, grenade, and melee attack--as being the main balance of Halo. You're supposed to swap between these three options pretty much equally, I guess, and if you can't, you won't get very far. There's no allowing for another play style--I think melee combat in shooters is ridiculous, for example, so the whole "magic triangle" is pretty much ruined for me from the start.

So it's not the endless corridors that get to me. It's the fact that when Halo decides to lock you in, the only option is to fight the way that Bungie wants you to fight: close-up, with no subtlety or potential for evasion, and without any indication when they'll let you go. You're discouraged from trying new approaches, or bringing your own style to the game. In the end, I just don't like the way Bungie wants me to play.

October 15, 2007

Filed under: gaming»perspective


Since I never tire of repeating myself, we rejoin the theme of... well, of themes in games. Today's exhibit is Harvey Smith, designer of Blacksite, speaking to Gamasutra.

HS: People give me shit off and on about the left-leaning politics in BlackSite, and I'm like, "Don't you realize that games like [Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon] are implicitly, strongly political?" There's a patriarch figure. You're a good citizen, because you follow orders. The bad guys are the guys in religious garb who are poor. The good guys are the ones with a command infrastructure and the millions of dollars worth of equipment, and are following orders. It's like, oh my god.

Gamasutra: And it's good to kill the bad guys.

HS: It's good to kill them, you're right! You're a hero for killing them. We'll give you a medal. I'm not the first person to say that, though. Ian Bell was like this total hippie developer guy. ... this awesome guy who did the game Elite [with David Braben], the space trader game. He said that he loved Elite, but he only realized years later that he had made an inherently capitalistic game that very much supported the values of the haves having more and more while the have-nots have less and less, because of positive feedback loops that are in economics.

If he had known then what he knows now, he would have tried to balance that, or put in a consequence, or shown you the difference of what happens when one company becomes a mega-monopoly, and buys the rainwater rights for a third-world city-state so they could sell the bottled water or whatever. It's like, how did this happen? It's all about positive feedback loops and emergent economics. Unless we cap it, it'll just keep running.

People make a big deal about sex in movies. There's not nearly as much fuss about movie violence, even though the violence can be not only appalling (and I say that as someone who enjoys action movies and bloody horror flicks) but also serve a misogynistic and hateful agenda. If nothing else, think about how many movies the armed forces assist with each year, films which are required to portray the military in a golden light.

Video games do not usually engender sex scandals, with a few notable exceptions. Violence does catch the public eye, some of it with good reason. But just as with the movies, people tend to criticize the excesses without ever mentioning that the violence could be shown with less blood, but it could still promote attitudes of military capitalism. And it is not usually subtle. America's Army is now available for PC, XBox, and XBox 360. But heaven forbid that Grand Theft Auto include a hidden sex minigame, or Oblivion use anatomically-correct textures.

October 9, 2007

Filed under: gaming»software»teamfortress

Vox in Socks

Playing Team Fortress 2 is like a flashback to high school, when I first saw the original being played on Quakeworld at a friend's house. I was hooked. But I was also torn apart every time I tried to play. It was a hardcore crowd, that game. And the Classic version that came out a few years later wasn't any easier.

So it's nice that TF2 is not really being made for the hardcore, as the developers confirmed lately. The classes are more cleanly defined now, so that the supporting roles actually support, instead of being hidden offensive classes at the hands of crazed obsessive players. I'm looking at you, Medic.

But it is still possible, even in the limited beta, to get wiped out by better teams--usually not better players, although that happens, but actual teams that are obviously linked up in either a physical location or by voice. In a game like this, that communication is deadly. There are several classes--the scout, the pyro, and to some extent the spy--that I don't think come into their own until they're really used as part of a team effort. To their credit, Valve has built a voice system into Steam that should make this possible even in pickup rounds, except for one little stumbling block: it weirds me out to hear other people talking when I'm playing video games.

Actually, I think it's more that I don't like hearing strangers online. People I know would probably be more palatable, maybe. But either way, it's a new experience, having someone's voice in my ear. And the vast majority of gamers--strike that, the vast majority of people--are not mouths that you want to imagine in close proximity to your head. It may be that turning them down, so that they blend in with the soundtrack a bit more, would get me past the discomfort.

Optimally, I join a clan with Gina Gershon and Shingai Shoniwa. Barring that, I'd probably prefer voice-to-text options--less lag, faster messaging. But maybe I'm looking at this the wrong way. Perhaps there's an opportunity here. Speech training for gamers: who's up for a class?

September 21, 2007

Filed under: gaming»design»structure

Master of Unlocking

Metroid Prime 2 just makes me tired. My old roommate was a Prime nut, and bought the game to play on a GameCube that didn't even belong to him. When I moved out, he gave it to me, and it's just kind of been staring at me ever since, from the shelf where I keep all the other games that I don't play. Many of them, I will never play, but I don't get rid of them. I think in the back of my mind, I'm assuming that at some point I might contract a horrible illness or something and be bedridden for a week, in which case even Baten Kaitos might look pretty entertaining.

The original Prime is in a slightly adjacent category on the shelf: games that I've started, played a significant amount of, and then have not touched for months. I'm actually at the last boss for Prime, but I just can't bring myself to pick it up and keep going. After long enough, I start to forget where I am in these games, and then I definitely won't pick them back up, because I'll have no idea what's going on. At the same time, I certainly don't want to start over, because I remember full well how many hours it took the first time. If I don't run through a little bit of Twilight Princess soon, it's going to join the half-finished category, which would be a shame.

But with Prime 2, I just started the other day. I figured that with Prime 3 out, and being more of an FPS (my favorite genre), I might want to complete at least one game in the series before failing to finish the next one. But after fifteen minutes, I was confronted with the following demands from some half-translucent alien bug:

  1. The energy power station is broken, and should be fixed, which requires the player to
  2. "Cleanse" (i.e. sterilize with a laser beam) a Dark Temple (or some such nonsense), but you can't get into the temple until you
  3. Gather three keys that are hidden across the world, each of which will probably be placed behind impenetrable barriers until the player can
  4. Upgrade the power suit's capabilities with another beam, or visor, or something crazy like that.

I get a little Scott Evil just thinking about it. "Seriously? All that, just to fix your generator? Look, I've got a toolkit back in my spaceship. I'll go back, get a screwdriver, and we'll fix it together." And then Space Roach McGee has the nerve to tell me that I've got to do all of that three times, at which point he will send me on another long quest gathering parts to fix his lawnmower or something. Who does that?

I think what annoys me most of all about it isn't actually the fetch quests, it's that they're explained as "looking for keys." People in video games do not seem to understand the point of keys. It is a wonder that they don't suffocate after rolling the windows up in their cars. I love this idea that they have, which I think came from bad fantasy novels: when in danger, lock something up and then scatter the keys. Or even scatter them preemptively, because evildoers might be able to master hugely destructive weapons and build their own army, but they'll never take the time to look for your three hidden whatsits, right?

Hey, maybe they're right. Works on me. I just hope the Evil Overlord doesn't have access to a slim jim or a metaphorical credit card to slide into the door jamb.

The whole concept is just silly, and annoying, and juvenile. I almost prefer the way games used to handle it, before they started thinking that they could tell you a story. Remember how Doom handled limiting the player? Now there's a game that practically embodied the phrase "key hunt." Being a janitor in Doom must have been the worst job ever.

"Hey, I've got to mop the floors upstairs. Anyone got a key?"

"Naw, of course not. We keep the upstairs door key all the way across the building, on its own little lighted pedestal."

"Okay. I'll just grab the other keys while I'm there."

"Well, you can't do that. We keep the other key in a room over there, behind a door that you can't open without the first key."

"What is wrong with you people?"

The cleaning staff for the Doom probably cheered when the demons invaded, hoping that someone would finally give them a keyring, or a master key. I can't imagine how disappointed they were when the Imps called a staff meeting and said something like, "Now, we're going to switch all our door locks to the weird crystal skull system..."

September 11, 2007

Filed under: gaming»software»halflife


So who wants a free copy of Half-Life 2 and HL2: Episode One?

Valve opened up the pre-order process for The Orange Box today, and rolled out the Orange Box Gifts program while they were at it. Even though I already own the previous Half-Life 2 components, the Box is a great deal on Episode Two, Portal, and Team Fortress 2, so I'll end up buying it anyway. The gift program just lets me give away the parts that I've already got.

The web will be filled with gift opportunities when the Box launches on October 10th, I'm sure. But I just thought I'd make the offer now. I can give either HL2 or Episode One separately, or both together, so I could possibly hook a couple of people up if people are interested.

This is probably a real winner for Valve. I can't imagine the original title is flying off the shelves anymore, and a person who's played the previous titles is a much more likely customer for the new episode.

August 22, 2007

Filed under: gaming»software»bioshock


Because I know I was looking for this information and couldn't find it: Bioshock (the demo, at least) does run playably well on my Thinkpad, which is using an nVidia Quadro 140M (roughly equivalent to a destkop GeForce 6600). Obviously it doesn't run native resolution with everything turned up, but I seem to get good results from 854x480 and High settings, or native resolution and low settings.

Neither of these is an optimal solution, of course: replaying Halo and Half-Life 2 on the laptop, which runs them better than my old desktop, is a revelation in how much easier they are to play with high resolutions and smooth framerates. But Bioshock is certainly playable, especially considering that I beat and enjoyed both of those other games at similar view sizes (and without all the eye candy). If I were willing to try a combination of medium settings and non-native resolutions, I'm sure I could do quite well.

Actually, it does raise the question, though, of how well something has to run before it becomes unplayable or clumsy. When I used to play Counterstrike, before I realized that it wasn't much fun being beaten by obsessive players with better reflexes and equipment, I would always hear that the really competitive players turned off as much detail as they could, in order to boost the resolution and still keep a good framerate. The argument, I believe, was that it's easier to be precise when your view is sharper, even if it's not as pretty.

But then, I don't really play multiplayer anymore. So what makes the game "better?" Which side of the tradeoff between resolution and eye candy, given limited hardware (since I am never going to be the kind of person that spends $600 on a video card), works best for an individual? For me personally, I've been choosing shiny effects over more pixels, particularly for a game like F.E.A.R. where the graphics are kind of the point. I find that I don't notice the low resolution once the game is in motion anyway, especially on a 14" screen.

As for Bioshock, the demo is reasonably fun, but it's short (I downloaded two gigs for that?), and I don't really understand what all the fuss is about. It's slick and well-presented, but there are some jarring exceptions: I always thought System Shock 2's menagerie was odd-looking, and Bioshock shows that Irrational still can't do a human model that doesn't look vaguely like a creepy marionette. The hack minigame, also, is one of those things that yanks me right out of suspension of disbelief. Why am I suddenly playing Pipe Dreams? It's been thirteen years since the first System Shock game, and no-one can think of a better way to do this?

August 10, 2007

Filed under: gaming»hardware»control

Wii Point

For my own reference: WiinRemote connects a Wii remote to a Bluetooth-enabled computer for manipulating the mouse cursor or keys.

Because I could buy a Bluetooth mouse, or I could just use one of the Wiimotes that we've got, and that we almost never use...

August 7, 2007

Filed under: gaming»society»class_and_race


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.

Future - Present - Past