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November 19, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»left4dead

Left 4 Red

Valve's new shooter, Left 4 Dead, has not made much of an impression on me, a fact that I largely blame on the fact that I have no-one to play it with.

The other night, I managed to snag the XBox away from its recent Wire-playing duties to give the game's demo a shot with That Fuzzy Bastard. It's already got a strike against it, in that I'm playing it with a gamepad, and that's just not a positive experience. I can't shoot to save my life on a console, due to the clumsiness of using a stick to mouse-aim. And frankly, when the slavering undead hordes come boiling out of the dark hallways, aim is going to be important. TFB tried to pick up the slack, but I think the game's Director took one look at my performance and eased up on us.

Not that I was planning on playing it on XBox anyway, since it's also available on Steam. But L4D is a co-op game, and while I have a meager collection of five or so friends on Live, I know only one person on Steam (and Corvus, you're great, but I'm not laying down $40 for a couple of play sessions). Moreover, it seems like a specific kind of co-op game--very LAN-party-ish--so I'm also not keen on playing with strangers.

Don't get me wrong: I think it's great that companies are designing games for groups of friends. I just have to wonder who's capable of playing them. I'm not in college anymore, with a surfeit of free time and fellow travelers. As a working adult, these days I have to fit gaming into a life that includes a full-time job, other hobbies, and a metric ton of books, TV, movies, and other games I still haven't gotten to. My circle of friends does not actually include a large proportion of dedicated gamers. The idea that I could field even just three other teammates, all of whom have also coordinated across their busy schedules, seems inconceivable to me.

Clearly, there are people who can do it. I'm sure LAN parties still thrive somewhere, too. But as far as I'm concerned, Valve might as well be selling unicorn saddles for all the use I can get out of Left 4 Dead.

November 3, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»stalker


During the opening scenes of Tarkovsky's Stalker, the scenes outside of the Zone are shot in a kind of not-quite-sepia, yellow-tinted monochrome, as if the black-and-white film were being projected onto a background of copper or gold foil. It is a striking effect, combined with the film's signature lingering camera movements, that is both beautiful and cold.

GSC Gameworld was clearly inspired by Stalker. For their game of the same title there is, in fact, a scene set within the Zone when the screen slowly tints itself gold with a pronounced film grain in imitation of the movie. The effect is slow to appear, vanishes during the transition to the next level, and is never explained or referenced--at first, you could be forgiven for thinking that the video driver has started to malfunction. Like its inspiration, it creates a mood of eerie melancholy, except for one crucial difference: instead of watching a discussion of Russian philosophy, the player is forced to frantically defend themself from crazed paramilitary troopers. Needless to say, I have mixed feeling about it.

All of Stalker (the game, now) actually has this kind of ambivalence at heart. There are moments of really fascinating simulation and mood--the acclaimed ballistics and artificial life models, the radiation filters, the untranslated Russian dialog--mixed with decisions straight out of a video game handbook--instant healing via medkits, for example, or the otherworldly artifacts represented merely as stat bonuses. It is, for me, a game that's much more interesting as an idea and a collection of potential than as an actual game.

That's not to say that Stalker isn't enjoyable. Parts of it were a lot of fun. But it's not smoothly polished the same way as games from the bigger studios, like Valve or Raven, with the sharp edges rounded off so you can't cut yourself. There's an industrial quality to it, from the throwback inventory system to the clumsy aiming and the brutally-discouraging difficulty spikes. Even with the patches cleaning up the stability issues and the passage of time easing its high system requirements, the quickload key gets a serious workout. You have to really love shooters, not to mention the game's unique setting and play style, to get through it. I qualify for both, and it still took me a long time to finish.

I mentioned the incongruity of Stalker's violence compared to the film to which it often refers, but it also contains contradictions all its own. Significant parts of its gameplay are based around open-world conceits: if the player so desires, they could easily ignore the main storyline, instead simply wandering around the landscape performing missions for other stalkers. The Zone constantly throws up confrontations, some banal, and some (like the firefights erupting between stalkers and various factions) spontaneous and immersive. And yet some of the best parts of the game, I think, are a few elaborate scripted sequences that play out semi-dynamically: the storming of Pripyat with a squad of fellow stalkers, for example, who warn each other and jeer at the enemy as they clear the streets of snipers and opposition forces.

When it works, Stalker's setting is good enough that its flaws seem more like intriguing puzzles. Why aren't there any women in the Zone? (or, given the way everyone's bundled up under armor, masks, and exoskeletons, how do you know there aren't any?) Why is radiation contained only in small pockets across the landscape? What made these people suddenly so hostile to me? But when the game breaks--when you've been hammering F7 for hours trying to get past one seemingly-superhuman gunman in Lab X16--it breaks hard, and none of the atmosphere matters much, even though this capriciousness is no doubt by design. As in other methods of entertainment, we want realism only so far as it remains convenient and meets some standard of fairness. If the rules begin to seem skewed, contradictory, or inconsistent, it's hard to keep patience alive.

Still, for all its flaws, my affection for Stalker is probably rooted in my love of the PC as a gaming platform, and the vague feeling that it could have only been made there. There's not an ounce of console adaptation to be found--no autoaiming, no slot-based inventory, no hotspot interaction. It uses most of the keyboard's 102 keys for one function or another (although some of those are real oddball choices--why are 9 and 0 used to switch between auto and semi-auto modes?). It has lean keys. Even its bugginess--now apparently patched, since it almost never crashed on me--puts it firmly in the PC camp, for better or worse.

The excuse often used for console gaming is that the experience simply runs smoother--and it probably does. I think there's some confirmation bias taking place in the argument, but I won't argue that there are a lot of things you simply don't have to worry about with an XBox or PS3. But at the same time, when I look at Stalker, I see a game made by a studio effectively out in the middle of nowhere, for an audience that has decidedly hardcore values and expectations. The PC is a great leveller, when it comes to these things. It's still the place where a relatively small team can put something together for relatively little money, leading to these kinds of flawed-but-compelling experiences (see also: Croteam, Introversion, or Popcap). And so while I can't point people to Stalker without reservations, I still feel like it should be recommended, if only so they can see the other side of the slick, streamlined designs that consoles have brought into vogue.

Besides, it's based on a three hour-long Russian art film! What's next, an FPS that examines the utopian delusions of Ayn Rand?

October 6, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software

Fire Sale, Second Edition

Once again, I'm unloading surplus games on eBay for prices that are CRAAAZY! Capsule reviews follow.

  • Chocobo Tales: A fairly enjoyable cardgame wrapped around a set of minigames designed with the sole purpose of destroying your DS screen.
  • Magical Starsign: A surprisingly funny little RPG. The best thing that Brownie Brown's done in years, although that doesn't take much since they spend most of their time beating the goodwill out of the Secret of Mana horse.
  • Tony Hawk's American Skateland: A decent Tony Hawk game for a handheld. The touch controls are a bit gratuitous, though.
  • Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings: Square's idea of an RTS, this is a fairly enjoyable game, but it's got some brutally unfair missions, and it generally requires only rush tactics to get through. All the depth is in picking your troops, not generally in deploying them.
  • Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass: It's a Zelda game, basically Wind Waker in 2.5D. I don't have much to say about this one. My favorite Zelda is still Link's Awakening or the Capcom games, and everything else always seems like kind of a slog. It's pretty short, too.
  • Donkey Kong Jungle Beat: I just don't have room for the drums in the apartment any more. This is not a terribly long game, and prior to Rock Band it was the winner in the "disturb the neighbors with the sound of objects striking each other" sweepstakes. But it is a lot of fun, and on the combo-heavy levels it has a nice old-school groove to it that reminds me of Ninja Gaiden.
  • Guitar Hero III: Here's the most interesting game of the bunch--not because it's good or bad, because it's decent at what it does, but because it inadvertently exposes a lot about rhythm game timing. In GH and GH2, Harmonix tweaked the timing on hammer-ons and pull-offs, but the basic note window remained pretty tight. In an attempt to make the third game a bit more newbie-friendly, Neversoft widened the window, which had the perverse effect of decoupling notes from strums and actually made the game harder to play effectively (as the player can trigger the wrong notes during reasonably fast runs). GH3 has a fair number of other issues, including intrusive corporate sponsorships and sexism, but the timing window was the one that I found hardest to ignore.

September 16, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»mass_effect

Mass Effect and Romance: A Tragedy in Four Parts

1. In Which The Problem Is Introduced and Prodded Gently

Last week, during one of my interminable link posts (which generally signal a paucity of actual creative thought on my part, combined with the guilt of not writing something every! day! for you people, all three of you) I mentioned that Mass Effect has a romance problem. Specifically, it features a subplot dedicated to a liason between Commander Shepherd (the player's alter ego) and one of his or her crew members, but it narrowly confines this romance to set of four or five cutscenes. During missions, or during breaks between non-story-related missions, there's no hint of any personal life between Shepherd and the chosen paramour.

So it's kind of schizophrenic, to say the least. Absent any kind of explanation, you begin to wonder if this isn't some kind of admission on Shepherd's part that they are, in fact, basically engaging in the kind of cross-ranks fraternization (sorornization?) of which, at best, command would probably disapprove, and at worst would result in a sexual harassment charge. If so, the commander should be get some kind of award, because he (or she! this will get old fast.) certainly never lets the slightest hint of impropriety slip in front of anyone else. It's possible, but not at all believable, as anyone who's had a relationship in a workplace/team situation soon discovers.

I realize, of course, that storage space and programmer time are finite--alternate versions of almost every cutscene and line of dialog are, perhaps, too much to ask. But I wonder if there's still not a possible solution. Surely, in a game that features entirely in-engine cinematics, variations in reading could be recorded for a few lines, bringing out an undercurrent of flirtation? (Otherwise known as the "that's what she said" version.) You can't tell me the voiceover crew wouldn't have had more fun, since they don't seem to be enjoying the game's deadly earnest dialog much as it is.

2. In Which The Author Tries Not To Anger Or Embarrass His Girlfriend Too Much in Pursuit of a Deeper Truth

Now, granted, I'm hardly any kind of Casanova. I put the "awkward, halting missteps" in "relationship." So take this with a grain of salt, but I genuinely believe that great love stories are told with the little things, whether it's the stories we tell ourselves or those that we showcase through writing and film. It's the little moments--a furtive glance or touch, a quirk in a facial expression, a silly conversation--that we talk and laugh about years later.

For me, at least, that's the case. I know this because A) Belle still teases me regularly about the smallest gaffes I made during our first encounters, and B) for her part, I've read her LiveJournal entries from those first couple of months. I've snickered at the giddy inconsequentialities written there from time to time, but they also perfectly capture why I found her adorable, and I'd be heartbroken if they were ever lost.

Instead of getting into specifics, which could prove painful for me, let me propose another example: The Office. In either its British run or the first couple of seasons in the American adaptation, The Office is a show centered largely on two characters whose entire romantic arc is made up of pointless little moments. Yet through a set of glances, grins, and awkward pauses, The Office is practically drowning in romantic tension. The suspension of romantic fulfillment has been a dramatic engine for plenty of shows, from The X-Files to Arrested Development, but Gervais' sitcom shows just how exquisitely tuned that engine can be, and how much it resonates with viewers.

3. Getting Back on Topic, Before the Post Wanders Completely Out of Control

A big part of the problem with Mass Effect's approach to its love story, therefore, is how badly it handles the little things--most jarringly, the facial expressions of its characters. Bioware's art style usually stays out of the uncanny valley, but when it comes to expressing subtleties the models' faces are still too stiff and stoic, and the body language too spastic, despite moments when it almost works. That it reaches the level of community theater is to be appreciated, but not lauded.

It does not help, while we're on the subject of the visuals, that all the women coming out of the character generator bear a strong resemblance to Alan Rickman no matter what you do. I've got a lot of respect for Mr. Rickman, but it's a little weird seeing him in future-drag, flirting with his second-in-command.

Still, the graphics aren't what kill the mood, it's the writing. It's the lack of interaction. And you can have both of those on a much more limited platform. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time managed to do it, with a fairly low-tech cross-platform engine. Not only that, but it left Farah (the Prince's love interest) off-screen for the majority of the game. But in addition to a tremendously satisfying mobius strip of a plotline, PoP never went more than a few minutes without an interjection from the Prince speaking to either Farah or himself. It took every opportunity to build up a picture of his personality, his outlook, even his endearingly awful interpersonal skills. Was the romance a little one-sided? Maybe. But it was also far more involving than anything in Mass Effect.

4. And All That Could Have Been

I know, I know. There's a certain degree of armchair quarterbacking to these kinds of posts, and I get a bit sick of it myself. I guess it's just kind of jarring how a game with such a strong narrative focus can get these kinds of things wrong.

I mean, take the morality system: like most of Bioware's titles, Mass Effect boasts a simplistic Paragon/Renegade duality for players. Virtuous or lawful actions earn Paragon points, while selfish or unlawful actions increase the Renegade score. Unlike in Knights of the Old Republic or Fable, tipping the balance either way makes relatively little difference in the game or the player's appearance, and seems to mainly exist for the purposes of earning an XBox achievement.

Again, none of this is tied to the romantic subplot at all. Which I found a little strange, really. I mean, the three possible partners are a xenophobic human female, a not-too-bright human male, and a purportedly-female alien. All three of these have decidedly different worldviews on the other galactic inhabitants, not to mention morality. So why is it that, when I go on a mission and decide to shoot up a bunch of helpless aliens, neither of the latter two seem affected by it? Or, if I spare them, why doesn't the xenophobe comment on my weak-willed appeasement? I found myself hoping, as the game proceeded, that something I'd do would get a reaction from someone, but nothing ever did. Choose to shoot an innocent bystander right in front of them? Nobody blinks an eye. Talk about dysfunctional relationships.

You know, I'm not one of those infinite storytelling kind of people. I don't want interactive fiction if that means I've gotta write it myself. Like a lot of people, I'm more than happy to enjoy a static plot, if it's a good one. And although it's mostly standard space opera, Mass Effect has a lot going for it. It just falters over the details--and unfortunately, in any relationship, fictional or not, the details matter.

August 28, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»braid

Coming to Blows

Jonathan Blow, designer of Braid, is a smart guy. I think he makes a lot of good points, and I dig his game. But his reaction to the game's reception is drastically wrong, as evidenced in his interview with the AV Club:

And so even prior to the release of Braid, I go back and I read - I've read a lot of these blogs, hoping to read good game criticism. And it was way too much of the English major, and not enough of the Computer Science major. ... And in fact, often it'll be somebody has an agenda - like, there was a very feminist-oriented critique of Braid [on] and it was an author following her feminist agenda and interpreting the game. Which was fine, but it didn't have much to do with what I put in the game.
To begin, it's amusing that Blow thinks there have been too many "English major" critiques, since I've read several people agreeing that the only reason I could finish the game and enjoy it is my amateur CS background and left-brain tendencies. I think that's utterly wrong, of course, but even if it weren't--what's a CS perspective on Braid supposed to look like, anyway? "Hey, that's a nice switch-case statement you've got there. My, what a well-crafted particle system." Asking for a logical system of art appreciation is one slippery step away from the abomination of Randian philosophy.

Nevertheless, Blow puts too much weight on his own intentions, and rejects the player's interpretation too handily. He may disagree with the interpretation from Feministe, but it's not wrong. Likewise, he may be upset that people did not take away the same message that he claims to have put in (which seems to be some variant on materialism vs. faith), but those people are not "wrong" or "incomplete" in their thinking simply because they've reached different conclusions. Author's intention is a wonderful thing, but it's not the only thing, or even the primary thing.

That very ambiguity is one of the reasons Braid works artistically. What's it about? Who's Tim? Who's the Princess? How do each of the worlds correspond with the game's overarching theme? Blow claims that he's tied every aspect of the game to a specific, personal meaning, and I think you can tell that's the case. But he doesn't get to define, for each player, what that meaning is. He can say what he intended it to be, which is not the same, and does not preclude other, valid interpretations.

(Notably, Blow is a college dropout who double-majored in English and CS. I would argue that his kind of viewpoint is common to smart, self-educated people, who frequently look down on the literary criticism for its vague and 'unscientific' outlook. This is a mistake: learning to deal with shifting or undefined situations is a primary lesson--perhaps the lesson--of a higher education in the liberal arts.)

There is, in fact, probably a tension between Blow's outlook on art and his game design. He writes:

I'm trying to understand true things about [the universe], or to uncover things about it, in ways again that are less bullshitty than just writing words on a paper. Because somehow, and I could be totally fooling myself about this, but I believe that somehow, there is something more meaningful about creating a system. Because the universe is a system, of some kind. And writing is not a system.
Well, yes, actually. It is. The study of rhetoric and communication, not to mention (at a lower level) linguistics, exists to try to understand that system. Blow, in what's almost a stereotype of computer science, is uncomfortable with rhetorical criticism, because it's not always predictive in the same ways that physics or chemistry can be. So he's designed a game based around puzzles that many people have found too strict, while ironically surrounding them with extremely fuzzy symbols and rhetoric. Perhaps since I tend to straddle those worldviews myself, that's why I enjoy it. Likewise, perhaps Blow himself has lost sight of that part of Braid in his desire to lock its message down to a less distressing ambiguity. Take his observation of the game blog community:
...what's interesting to me is that some people get [the intention], and some people don't. But that's completely decorrelated from people's claimed positions in the sphere of commentary. By which I mean, there are lots of random blog posters on places like Gamespot or NeoGAF or whatever who show a clearer understanding of the game than people who are all, "I'm all about games, and narrative and meaning, and I write a blog just to tell you about how I analyze all these things." Those people have the same hit rate as your general forum poster.
Yeah, well: welcome to the Internet, where everyone can claim to be an expert. I'm not even necessarily saying I disagree with him, but it cuts both ways. The author of an artwork is just as disconnected from any intrinsic authority as any gaming blogger, or forum poster. This is both the advantage and disadvantage of Internet commentary: good analysis can come from anywhere and be judged on its merits, while the analysis from those crowned as authorities can be revealed as flawed in comparison (that's why newspaper editorialists should all be fired). Being the artist, you're entirely welcome to make enlightening statements about why you put something together the way you did. And I'll take that viewpoint under exactly the same consideration as I do everyone else's, because the art itself stands alone.

But like I said, I think Blow's a smart guy. He's thought about this a lot. I'm optimistic that he'll figure it out eventually. And I look forward to what he's capable of making once he does.

August 12, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»braid

Now We Are All Sons of Bitches

Our world, with its rules of causality, has trained us to be miserly with forgiveness. By forgiving too readily, we can be badly hurt. But if we've learned from a mistake and become better for it, shouldn't we be rewarded for learning, rather than punished for the mistake?

What if our world worked differently? Suppose we could tell her: "I didn't mean what I just said," and she would say: "It's okay, I understand," and she would not turn away and life would really proceed as though we had never said that thing? We could remove the damage but still be wiser for the experience. Tim and the Princess lounge in the castle garden, laughing together, giving names to the colorful birds. Their mistakes are hidden from each other, tucked away between the folds of time, safe.

There are going to be a lot of claims as to what Braid is really about, how its snippets of text and bizarre time-shifting translate into a story. It's about recovering from self-delusion, as far as I can tell, which is pretty impressive from a game that initially looks and acts like a Super Mario World clone.

Braid is, as its first level intro text explains, a game about a man named Tim who is looking for a princess (probably not a real princess, but whatever she is, Tim pursues her using that metaphor). He lost the princess because he made a great number of mistakes. Eventually she couldn't forgive any more and she left, "her braid lashing him with contempt." But Tim muses, in the text above, if time were so malleable that he could take things back entirely then she wouldn't have to forgive him.

If this seems a bit petulant, that's because it is. Tim begins Braid (begins being a relative term, since the narrative is clearly nonlinear) as someone who is unable to face his mistakes, and would prefer to daydream about a world in which they're instantly forgivable. In turn, the first level (World 2) introduces the rewind mechanic, where all the player's mistakes can be undone simply by rewinding time.

Each of the levels is loosely-linked to its introduction in a similar way. Tim considers a ring as a "warning" that changes his interactions with other people, and forces him to negotiate them with caution. Even so, the game says, "it doesn't get him what he needs. Tim begins to hide the ring in his pocket." What does the ring symbolize--commitment, marriage, empathy? Whatever it is, in the corresponding world the ring serves as a temporal anchor, slowing down time in its immediate surroundings. In physics, heavy objects distort gravity, causing time dilation. Perhaps the ring is also somehow heavy--with what, we have to decide for ourselves.

Or take World 4, "Time and Place." During its intro, Tim returns to several landmarks of his past: his parent's house, his university, his home. Walking to each, he thinks about how these locations are also points in his own personal timeline--the spatial and the temporal are emotionally linked. And so, in the levels of World 4, Tim's movements determine the flow of time. Moving to the left rewinds events, moving to the right advances them. By staying still, nothing changes.

These are, again, very loose metaphors, but they are leading somewhere. Gradually, if not literally, Tim is coming to grasp with his past--how did he get here? Why did the princess leave? Why is she always in another castle? Each level is a kind of fever-dream interpretation of his struggle to piece together his fractured personal narrative in a way that's free of self-deception. Tim's learning not to lie to himself, culminating in the big reveal at the end of World 1--I won't spoil it, but it's a profoundly unsettling transition. The epilogue, as described in this insightful Feministe post (spoilers!), then takes that reveal and carries it forward to a hopeful, if not happy, ending.

I enjoyed the puzzles in Braid--they're smart, layered, and playful. I liked its references, both in the narrative and in the level design, to other games--there are links to Ico, Donkey Kong, Elevator Action, Super Mario World, Prince of Persia, and others. It also incorporates images from science (the quote in the title of this post is taken from the first test of the atomic bomb) and art (each level includes as macguffin a watercolored jigsaw puzzle that must be assembled, forming an ambiguous--and often ominous--image linked to the level's narrative).

But ultimately, what made this game worth the $15 for me was the way that all of this is tied together. We've seen some truly impressive storytelling lately in gaming, with Portal's tragic portrait of GLaDOS and Bioshock's rich characterization and redefinition of game logic. Braid stands up to both of those, which is no small achievement. It takes Tim's internal character development and moves it outside into the players reach through both narrative and gameplay, without resorting to blatant exposition. If you're looking for art in gaming, I'd say that certainly qualifies.

August 7, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»bioshock

A Man Chooses

Note: This post is going to gleefully spoil a crucial scene from Bioshock. It will absolutely ruin the enjoyment of much of the plot if you haven't played. So if that's the case, and you're interested in playing it at some point, delete this from your feedreader and/or scroll past it. I'll try to stay fairly vague, in case your eye wanders, and try not to edit it too much.

I actually thought I had been spoiled for the twist in Bioshock before I played it, because I already knew that Jack (the main character) is actually Andrew Ryan's illegitimate son, suspected that Atlas was not who he seemed to be, and had heard that Jack was being manipulated somehow during the events in Rapture. In other games, these would be the twists.

Which is not to say that they're not in Bioshock, to some degree. The method by which Jack is controlled, along with flashbacks through the game to drive the realization home, is played for natural dramatic effect. Likewise, the game feeds you clues as to Jack's identity gradually enough that--even if you don't realize the full extent of his relationship to Ryan--you feel clever about figuring it out.

But the real killer scene is when, after revealing the method by which Jack has been manipulated throughout the game, Andrew Ryan uses it to take control of him. He delivers a short monologue (in the best tradition of his inspiration, Ayn Rand), repeating again and again that "A man chooses. A slave obeys." He demonstrates his ability to control Jack (at this point, and for the remainder of the scene, Bioshock takes over input and disables the gamepad).

And then, that plot point is still being digested, he hands Jack a club, and commands him to kill. The player is only able to watch helplessly as his alter-ego slowly beats Ryan to death, with Ryan shrieking all the while: "A man chooses! A slave obeys! Obey!" It's a tremendously shocking and disturbing tableau. I would argue that solely as a game, Bioshock doesn't provide much in the way of novelty. As a narrative, however, it is absolutely brilliant, and Ryan's death is the peak of that brilliance.

(If you don't plan on playing the game, or you want a refresher on what I'm talking about, you can watch it here. If you haven't played it, however, I suspect it'll be robbed of most of its context and resonance.)

There are several really thought-provoking things about the scene, the most obvious of which is its decision to make the player powerless. You could write the same scene in a movie, or in a book, with Jack unable to stop himself from murdering Ryan. But it's really only in a game, where the player is used to interaction, that the point can be fully driven home--a tendency Bioshock encourages by only very rarely using traditional cutscenes, generally eschewing them in favor of Half-Life's now-ubiquitous scripted events.

Immediately after Ryan's death, interestingly enough, Jack is given a new mission using the same mental control mechanism--but this time, the player is back behind the wheel. I suppose you could choose not to follow orders at this point, but you'd be forced to sit forever in a small room with no-where else to go and no plot available to you. Which is a neat way of forcing the player to bow to the plot convention, as well as a sly commentary on the nature of videogame storytelling--of course you're going to do what you're told, chump, because you literally have no choice. Interesting, too, that Jack is unknowingly coerced into following the game's missions, instead of allowing for the possibility that the player would have gone along out of altruism or curiosity if given a choice. Not to mention that no-one has to issue any commands before the player kills practically everything in sight (although I doubt this view of Bioshock's violence was intentional).

In his defense of the game against its detractors, Kieron Gillen seems to argue that designer Ken Levine is trying to send two messages in Bioshock: A) don't follow any ideology blindly, and B) killing (the Little Sisters) is morally wrong. The second point is a nice thought, but entirely speculation--Levine has stated bluntly that he never wanted to add the "bad" ending for players who harvested the Little Sisters instead of rescuing them, which would have left the game morally ambiguous if he'd had his way. The first stands on stronger ground, but I wonder if it's not undermined by the circumstances of Ryan's death. After all, if Ryan never forbade contact with the surface (a governmental control of the kind he claimed, as a Libertarian demagogue, to detest), Frank Fontaine might have never risen up to challenge him via a smuggling empire. The game isn't a ringing endorsement of Objectivism, but it's no refutation, either.

Levine himself is on record, I believe, as saying that he wanted the game's narrative to focus on how so-called perfect ideologies are invariably let down by imperfect humans. Again, I'm not sure that the narrative actually backs that up--in no small part because I believe it's a flawed premise from the start. My reading of it, backed up by Ryan's assisted suicide, is more along the lines of "be careful what you wish for." Ryan sets out to create an Objectivist state where laws are ignored and industry rules all, and Fontaine is the embodiment of that state--to Ryan's dismay (particularly since it moves him to betray those ideals in order to combat Fontaine). In the end, it's Ryan's own runaway ideology that threatens him, and rather than change his ways and live, he allows it to kill him.

Regardless of these interpretations, the fact that Bioshock can invite such investigation is a testament to the writing and the depth of characterization throughout. It's on the strength of that writing, and the uniformly excellent voice acting, that Bioshock truly succeeds, above and beyond the bare mechanics of the game itself--killing the same splicers and hacking the same machines over and over again soon becomes tedious. The promise of Rapture's secrets, on the other hand, may carry it past those problems more effectively than any straightforward gameplay could have done.

July 28, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»wii_fit

A Wii Bit More Fit

The greatest advantage of Wii Fit, for me, has been that it kept me going long enough to see some slight amount of progress: I now have an ab. Perhaps one day, I'll be able to pluralize that.

There are many reasons I'm not really into physical fitness programs. I don't like going to gyms. I am not a fan of instructors, choreography, or trainers. I am, I realize now, not really a planner--my style is to lay out a set of bullet-points and then casually work my way toward them.

Wii Fit is not really much of a workout. It rarely causes much cardiovascular stress, and it doesn't force you to do much of anything. But I could get up in the morning, meander through half an hour of exercise, and somehow I'd manage to do 40-50 jackknifes a day, plus motivate myself to lift some weights and occassionally even some push-ups. Again, it's not much of a workout, but it's more than I usually do. Hence the ab, of which I'm very proud, and which turns out to be powerful motivation to do more.

Of course, now the pain really starts. Because Belle has figured out that I haven't given up. And she is a planner. She makes Google calendars to track our progress. She's got three separate programs we're going to do. She's even started a blog for us, Nerds Get Fit, which is exactly what it sounds like. I haven't written there yet, but I'll cross-post this, because she says I get double the crunches if I don't.

If you don't hear from me in the near future, Internet, it is likely because I'm curled up on the Wii Fit board, cradling my sore muscles and remembering the good times we had together.

July 15, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»twewy


Anyone working on an RPG, particularly a portable RPG, needs to take a long, hard look at The World Ends with You, Square's recent DS game. It's filled with interesting ideas, like the slider that lets players trade levels and difficulty for item drops, or the ridiculously complicated cross-screen combat.

Most of these features are interesting, or amusing, or helpful, but they're not revolutionary. No-one's going to imitate the multitasking combat, and its "pin" system is really just a weirdly limited version of the Mega Man Battle Network games. The setting has been lauded by reviewers, but that's only because nerds love to obsess over Tokyo's Shibuya district, and the storyline is the same old adolescent angst that Square's been peddling for years now.

But if designers want to learn from TWEWY, they need to steal its experience system. Because instead of the usual grind, you can also level up in the game by turning it off and doing something else for a while. The next time you turn it on, for up to a week, your character gains experience for the the time elapsed--not enough to incentivize not playing, but it certainly takes the sting out of setting it aside if I get frustrated.

It's an astonishing development, in a way, because it reveals what almost everyone knows but game designers seem reluctant to admit: nobody likes the level grind. No-one wants to sit around playing against the same enemies over and over again in order to proceed--nobody sane, at least. That the entire MMO industry has been built around this process is a tribute to its social appeal and the polish of the surrounding parts, not the value of the grind.

I don't expect all games to implement progress-via-absence in this exact form, but at the very least it would be nice if software were smarter about time. I can't count the number of games that I've wandered away from, tried to return to at a later date, and given up simply due to lack of incentive and loss of familiarity. It would seem like an obvious choice for games (or any interactive software, honestly) to check if I've been away and adjust accordingly, perhaps asking if I need a refresher on the mechanics or a temporary difficulty drop while I get reacquainted with it. Considering that the statistics say most games go unfinished, why not make the return process as painless as possible?

July 7, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»bioshock

Against the Current

Although it took a little while to get to it, and it's also taking me a while to get into its rhythms, I'm now comfortably working my way through Bioshock on the Xbox 360. It's the kind of game I'd prefer to play on my laptop, but 2K's insistence on SecuROM copy protection pretty much nixed that idea--astonishingly, even the Steam Bioshock install includes Sony's SecuROM, despite being already wrapped in a layer of less-offensive DRM. Maybe they just decided it wasn't annoying enough.

Obviously the game is a polished, well-crafted experience. The voice acting is particularly high in quality, while the enemy character designs are relatively lackluster. I'm not convinced that the plot's as brilliant that it's been made out to be, but it's good. Still, I keep finding myself struggling against a general sense of confinement, as if parts of Bioshock were chopped off to make it fit a console mentality. I had thought people were complaining needlessly when they called it "dumbed-down," but now I'm not so sure.

Take, for example, the almost inexplicable lack of an inventory screen. Bioshock, unlike its spiritual inspirations in the System Shock series, doesn't provide any way to manage the various objects that the player picks up in Rapture. Consumable objects are used right away, and there's no real limit on the number of weapons that can be carried. I don't really miss those "features" since cramming sprites into a grid and then rearranging them constantly is not my idea of a good time. What is limited, however, are the active and passive genetic powers accumulated during the game, and these can only be swapped out at specific Gene Bank stations. More importantly, the only place to view any equipped gene tonics is at the Gene Bank.

This is clumsy--noticeably clumsy, given the rest of the game's polish. I could understand gameplay reasons for forcing the player to stick with only a few tonics at a time, but why can't I see what I have installed? My memory only goes so far--what if I want to check what I'm currently using, since it's not always instantly obvious? What if (and this happens often to me) I haven't been playing in a while, and I've simply forgotten where I left off? When I first ran into this problem, I spent several minutes flipping between tabs on the help menu, thinking that I had just missed it. But no: there's no way to see what tonics are currently in use, except by trudging over to a Gene Bank, wherever that might be. It's amazing that a game offering instant reloads, hints, and even a guided arrow for navigation (which I quite like, honestly, in this kind of story-driven affair) doesn't offer a simple status screen.

Speaking of clumsy, how about that hacking mini-game? Somewhere out there, Pipe Dreams enthusiasts weep tears of joy. The rest of us curse at the screen. It's not that it's hard to play. It's that the mechanics of it--moving around a grid, constantly smacking the A button to uncover tiles and then swapping them with tiles in other, non-contiguous positions--are simply not well-suited to a gamepad. With a mouse cursor, the game is tolerable, if only because it's so much faster. Even giving gamers a faux-cursor controlled by the analog stick, a la Chu Chu Rocket would have helped. But as it is, it's a horrible frenzy of d-pad tapping that's out of sync with the rest of the game's navigation.

Which reminds me: the controls. Granted, I am a hostile audience for console shooters. I have joked, in the past, that people who enjoy playing first-person games with a gamepad are heathens who should be sent to live in a godforsaken wasteland like Montana, far from the rest of civilization. Bioshock works hard to keep the process painless--it boasts an auto-aim that will lock on and follow a target for a moment, as well as a turning speed that increases if the right stick is held left or right for a moment.

But these are all just lipstick on the pig. They're patches meant to make up for the fact that it's still tremendously cumbersome to control a first-person viewpoint using a thumbstick, and no amount of tweaking will change that. The gamepad alters the entire feel of things: instead of being able to whip your virtual head around naturally, you're constrained to something more tank-like and plodding. Environmental awareness is lowered, and reaction time increases. It feels like being back in 1998, playing Duke3D with the arrow keys.

(I will say that the one thing I wish PC shooters could steal from consoles is analog movement control. Going from a silent creep to a full-out run on a keyboard has the same jerky rhythm and mechanical feel as shifting gears in a car. Likewise, the ability to vary the strafe-to-run ratio on the fly gives extra fluidity to console movement. I suspect that many console gamers use this extra flexibility in maneuvering to make up for the deficiences of thumbstick aiming, but it's not enough for me.)

Fine! you may say. Take your whining and play it on your PC, if you're so frustrated by it. Hey, I'd like to, obviously. But 2K has decided, by putting SecuROM protection on the disc, that I can't trust their product to behave on my laptop. I'm just not willing to let it install an admin-level service, or to prevent me from using diagnostic tools like the Sysinternals kit. Indeed, I find it both suspicious and depressing that the programs I use to find and fix problems--and thereby keep the computer healthy for active use, including gaming--are systematically undermined by this copy protection.

This is a vicious cycle, as I've noted before. Clearly, between the two platforms, the publisher has decided to make one of them a second-class citizen. Given the choice, of course I'm going to play Bioshock on a console, where I don't have to worry about activations or rootkits, even though I find the gaming experience to be negatively affected. And when the PC version sells relatively little compared to Xbox sales, 2K will claim piracy, and use this justification to continue adding intrusive copy protection to their titles.

Other than that, the game's not bad.

Future - Present - Past