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January 16, 2014

Filed under: gaming»software

Field of Streams

At the Consumer Electronics Show, Sony showed off the fruits of their acquisition of Gaikai, a company that streams video games over the Internet. This is something with which I have a little experience: in 2012, I worked for Big Fish on the now-discontinued Big Fish Unlimited, which did the same thing but for casual games. I was pretty sure that it was doomed then, and I'm pretty sure that similar platforms — including Sony's Playstation Now and OnLive — are doomed now, and for the forseeable future. The reason is simple: streaming just doesn't scale.

Let's say you're playing a game by streaming it to yourself from another computer you own, as in Nvidia's Shield or Valve's SteamOS. To do this you need two boxes: one to actually run the game, and one to act as a thin client, providing the display and input support. There are lots of things that can cause problems here — network connectivity, slow hardware, latency — but at the very least you're always going to have enough hardware to run the game, because you own both ends of it. Streaming scales in a linear fashion.

Now pretend you're doing the same thing, but instead of running the host machine yourself, it lives in a remote datacenter. For each person who's playing, the streaming service needs another computer to run the game — the scaling is still linear. You can't cache a game on a cheap edge node like you can a regular file, because it's an interactive program. And there's no benefit to running all those games simultaneously, the way that Google can leverage millions of GMail customers to lower e-mail transmission costs and spam processing algorithms cheaper. No, you're stuck with a simple equation: n players = n servers. And those servers are not cheap: they need hefty graphics cards, local storage, cooling systems, sound cards, etc.

And it gets worse, because those players are not going to obligingly spread their playtime around the clock to keep the load constant. No, they're going to pile in every evening in much higher numbers — much higher — than any other time of the day. League of Legends, a single (albeit very popular) game has had more than 5 million concurrent players. During peak hours, streaming providers will struggle to run enough host boxes. During off hours, all that expensive hardware just sits idle, completely unused.

At first, these problems seem solvable. When you don't have a lot of customers, it's not that bad to add new hosts to compensate for growth. Those earlier players may be more forgiving of wait times, attributing them to growing pains. But consider the endgame: if something like Playstation Now achieves real, widespread success (despite all the other network latency and quality of service issues these services always face), Sony's ultimate scenario is having literally millions of rack-mounted PS4s in datacenters around the country, many of them running at peak capacity for hours on end. That's more servers than Google, Microsoft, and Facebook put together.

At Big Fish, the business argument was that casual games could be run with multiple applications to a machine, so the scaling pressure was lower. But it's still linear: you've lowered the total number of machines you might need in the long run, but there's still a direct relationship between that number and your number of players. The only way to scale online gaming gracefully is to either find a way that games can share state (i.e., MMOs), or offload more of it to the client. As a front-end JavaScript specialist, I always thought Big Fish would have better luck porting its games to the browser instead of streaming them to a Java applet.

But there's only so much you can move to the client when your selling point is "next-gen games without next-gen hardware." In the case of Sony and OnLive, no amount of browser wizardry or Playstation branding is going to solve that fundamental scaling problem. It may be workable for instant demos, or beta previews. But for mainstream gaming, without a miraculous breakthrough in the way games are built and executed, the math just isn't there.

September 18, 2013

Filed under: gaming»software»aquaria

Cave Stories

There's a fine line between nonchalance and disregard for the player, and I'm not sure that Aquaria doesn't cross over it. As one of the best games on the Shield right now, I've been playing a lot of it — or, rather, alternating between playing it and looking up clues online. In a way, I respect the sheer amount of content the developers have put together, and the confidence they have in players to discover it, but I could use a little more signposting and, to be honest, a bit more challenge.

For example, the middle section of Aquaria is mostly non-linear: certain areas are locked away until you've beaten a few bosses and taken their abilities, but the order is still mostly flexible. Although it sounds great in theory, in practice this just means you're repeatedly lost and without a real goal. Having enormous maps just makes exacerbates the problem, because it means you'll wander one way across the world only to find out that you're not quite ready yet and need to hunt down another boss somewhere — probably all the way at the other end.

I'm goal-oriented in games, so this kind of ambiguity has always bugged me. The Castlevania titles post-Symphony of the Night suffer from this to some extent, but they usually offered something to do during the trip that made it feel productive--levelling up your character, or offering random weapon drops. Aquaria has a limited cooking system, but it's only really necessary in boss fights and it rarely does anything besides offer healing and specific boosts, so it's not very compelling.

According to an interview with the developers, Aquaria was originally controlled with keyboard and mouse, and they eventually moved it to mouse-only (which came in handy when it was ported to touch devices). Every now and then the original design peeks through, like when certain enemies fire projectiles in a bullet-hell shooter pattern. The Shield's twin-stick controls make this really easy (and fun) to dodge, but since the game was intended for touch, these enemies are relatively rare, and the lengthy travel through the game tends toward the monotonous.

Look, I get that we have entered a brave new world of touch-based control schemes. For the most part, I am in favor of that — I'm always happy to see innovation and experimentation. But playing Aquaria on the Shield makes it clear that there's a lot of tension between physical and touch controls, and it's easy to lose something in the transition from the former to the latter. Aquaria designed around a gamepad (and an un-obstructed screen) could be a much more interesting game. Yes, it would be harder and less accessible — but the existing game leaves us with "easy and tedious," which is arguably a worse crime.

I'm starting to think that in our rush to embrace casual, touch experiences (in no small part because of the rise of touch-only devices), we may be making assumptions about the audience that aren't true — such as the idea that it's the buttons themselves that were scary — and it's not always a net positive for game design. At its heart, Aquaria is a "core" game, not a casual game: it's just too big, and the bosses are too rough, for this to be in the same genre as Angry Birds or whatever. Compare this to Cave Story (its obvious inspiration), a game that was free to cram a ridiculous amount of non-linear content into its setting because its traditional platforming gameploy was so solid.

There is a disturbing tendency for many people to insist that there must be a winner and a loser in any choice. In the last two weeks, every tech site on the planet decided that the loser was Nintendo: why don't they just close up shop and make iPhone games? I think it's a silly idea — anyone measuring Nintendo's success now against their performance with the Wii is grading them on the wrong end of a ridiculous curve — and Aquaria only makes me feel stronger about that. For all that smartphone gaming brings us, there are some experiences that are just going to be better with buttons and real gaming hardware. As long as that's the case, consoles are in no danger of extinction.

January 3, 2013

Filed under: gaming»software»hotline_miami

REM

During one of those 24-hour colds, when I curl up under every blanket in the house and just wait for the fever to break, I often lose track of reality. It's not like I hallucinate. But, drifting in and out of consciousness with my body temperature far above normal, the line blurs between dreaming and my rational mind, which means I find myself thinking quite seriously about things that are either entirely absurd, or which never actually happened. It's the closest I get to doing drugs.

It may just be that I was playing it after recovering from a cold during the holidays, but Hotline Miami often feels like it comes from a similar place (fever or drugs, take your pick). Although it pays homage to Drive with its setting, violence, and a selection of trippy electronic dance tunes, Hotline adds a gloss of unreality: heavy filtering (including a subtle screen tilt), an increasingly unreliable narrator, and an astonishing sound design. The darker half of the soundtrack leans heavily on synth drones, distorted bass, and indistinct vocal echoes, walking a line precisely between captivating and terrifying.

So it is atmospheric. But in the wake of Newtown it is difficult to talk about Hotline Miami without talking about violence, since it is also a game about brutal, sickening violence. Dressed up in a retro 16-bit facade, the blood and gore is made more abstract, and thus more palatable, but that's a bit of a cheat, isn't it? The NRA recently blamed video games for school shootings, drawing on such contemporary examples as Mortal Kombat and Natural Born Killers, and while that's obviously laughable (and more than a little disgusting) it's hard to take the moral high ground when a prospective game of the year for many people involves beating anonymous mobsters to death with a crowbar.

Part of the problem is that Hotline Miami is and isn't about those things. Someone playing the game isn't sitting at a computer plotting murder--they're primarily thinking about navigating space, line of sight, and the AI's predictable response. Most violent video games are only superficially violent: mechanically they're just button presses and spatial awareness. That's not an excuse, but it does explain why gamers get so huffy about the accusations of immorality. It also begs the question: if these games aren't actually about death and destruction, then why all the trappings?

In the case of Hotline Miami, there's a studied juvenile quality to the whole affair. It's the interactive version of some smart-but-disengaged stoner's doodling on their high school chemistry notebook. It's gross because its influences are gross, and because gross things are fun to draw, and because chemistry is boring, dude. This accounts for some of the feverishness as well, since it taps into the same powerful imaginative impulse that we have as kids and mostly lose when we have to start paying our own rent.

It's not a bad thing for Hotline Miami to draw on those influences, or for it to be ultra-violent. There's a place for ugly, childish things in our cultural stew: I don't think you get Death Proof without Saw or Dead Alive. I like the game. But it bothers me a little that its violence is so unremarkable, and that it wants to use self-awareness as an excuse or an explanation. Using excess to criticize gaming culture was old with Splatterhouse (another up-to-the-minute reference from the NRA, there). So since we don't have a lot of variety in video game narratives, maybe we should stop letting "bloodthirsty" pass for "profound."

December 5, 2012

Filed under: gaming»software»xcom

XCOM

Why is it all capitalized? That's what I want to know. XCOM isn't an acronym for something--presumably it stands for Extraterrestrial Combat (or Command?)--so shouldn't it be XCom? I guess that doesn't look as good on the posters. Maybe they should add an exclamation point. (Or a dash, according to the purists. Luckily, having never played the original, I'm not really interested in purity.)

There aren't a lot of games where I finish them and immediately start a new session. Mass Effect 2 was probably the last example--I did two straight playthroughs, and possibly started a third, just because the basic mechanics were so solid and enjoyable. XCOM might be just as catchy, even though I didn't expect it to be. Here are three things that surprised me the first time through:

I didn't think I'd get so attached to my squad. People talk about doing this in the old X-COM, being genuinely upset when a soldier bit the dust, and I just figured those people were crazy. But about half-way through the game, letting Col. Zahara "Werewolf" Mabuza die just stopped being acceptable. The nicknames must have a lot to do with it. I knew every nickname on my squad, especially the ones that got funnier as they got more panic-prone ("Padre," indeed).

XCOM gets a lot of mileage out of only a few maps. I think I saw in an interview that there's only 30 or so maps in XCOM, which is not a lot considering the hundreds of encounters in a typical game. Partly, the maps are just well-designed: just starting out in a different space and direction is enough to make many of the UFO capture maps completely disorienting. But they're also partially-randomized, meaning that you never entirely develop a single cover strategy for each map. Add in the day/night filters, and it feels like a lot more content than it actually is.

Everything is short. Six soldiers means that you're doing with a turn in roughly 60 seconds. A mission in XCOM takes, at most, 30 minutes. Between missions, you pick your research tasks and your engineering projects and then you hit the big "GO FAST" button in Mission Control and see how far you get before the next invasion. Sometimes a movie plays--they're all skippable, as are all the little interstitial animations (launching a fighter, landing the SkyRanger, etc). Everything in the game is made with the understanding that you Should Not Wait, a convenient side effect of which is that it's compulsively playable.

It's not a particularly profound game. It's not even particularly well-made--bugs pop up all over. Even with the tutorial, I restarted the game twice trying to figure out how to keep everything balanced, which is pretty hardcore. But it's so consistently fun that those problems don't halt the experience. I never really got the Halo philosophy of "30 seconds of fun" because I find Halo to be a boring, frat-boy knockoff of better shooters, but XCOM pulls it off.

September 18, 2012

Filed under: gaming»software»blendo

Nuevos Aires, 1960

When I bought a new computer a little while back, I figured it would be a chance to play some of the Steam/GOG.com games that I bought while they were on sale, knowing that my laptop couldn't handle them. And in one or two cases, it is. But for the most part, I spent last week's small amount of gaming time buried back in a trio of titles from Blendo--a one-man shop that's becoming my favorite indie developer.

Blendo (AKA Brendon Chung) is best known right now for Thirty Flights of Loving, sequel to his absurdist spy short Gravity Bone. It's a funny, cinematic little nugget of first-person narrative. It's also about seven minutes long. I'm not sure it was worth the $5 asking price, but Chung's definitely playing with some ideas here that are worth rewarding.

Besides, he had my good will starting from my first minutes playing Flotilla last year. This was a game that I'd wanted, but somehow had not been able to find: full 3D space tactics within a randomly-generated campaign. The missions themselves are tense, slow-moving affairs set to classical piano pieces, while the overworld screens are Blendo's typically jazzy blend of surrealism (rastafarian pirate cats, defanged space yeti, and wandering Greek goddesses appear along your journey) and procedural storytelling (decisions along the way are assembled into an illustrated ship's log). The combination of the two should be dissonant, but instead the funny bits serve as a nice break between the tense turn-by-turn bits.

And then there's Atom Zombie Smasher, which is the most unbalanced and most compelling of the three. It's basically a tower defense game, which means I should hate it, and yet somehow I really don't. It's ridiculously unfair--sometimes you get an overwhelming mix of units for a stage, and sometimes you just get barricades and mines, meaning that I tend to win or lose the whole game depending on which two units are randomly assigned in the first stages--and yet tremendously addictive. Maybe that's just the surf guitar talking.

Ultimately, I think what charms the most about these is that they almost remind me of board games in their approach to design and replayability. Even though they're radically different genres, Blendo's stuff shares a common sensibility in the way that they construct stories out of small vignettes and procedural generation. Each takes, at most, an evening to play completely through, and yet there's plenty of detail and reward for digging in. They continue to surprise players outside of all proportion to their actual size. There aren't a lot of people making games in this space--it's all either bite-sized casual fare or sprawling epics. Chung's genius is making the former feel, if only for a little while, like the latter.

May 16, 2012

Filed under: gaming»software»mario_kart

The Blue Shell

The sound design, as usual for Nintendo, is instantly recognizable. It makes this kind of phased, dopplered hissing sound, a parody of "something going very fast." You can hear it coming up from behind a few seconds before it hits, or when it passes someone else in splitscreen mode. The latter is the really frustrating scenario: you know you're going to be knocked out of the race--the only question is, when?

The blue shell is the reason I can't play Mario Kart anymore. Belle and I started playing on the Wii again a couple of weeks ago, and for the most part I enjoy it. The boosts are toned down so that snaking can't be abused like the DS version, the tracks are decent with few outright stinkers, and I like the addition of motorcycles (even if they're unplayable with the Classic Controller). In multiplayer, I could care less: if I get knocked out and lose to Belle, it's all in good fun. But then I tried unlocking new characters in the grand prix mode, and the blue shell completely ruins that.

The thing about Mario Kart is that it's balanced via progressive taxation. Everybody in the race gets items, but the better you're doing (right at that moment) the worse those items generally are. If you're in the lead, you only get items that let you maintain that lead (but not increase it), like banana peels or fake item boxes. If you're in the back of the pack, you get items that let you jump up in line, like the star or bullet. And the game heavily incentivizes using those items quickly instead of hoarding them--a number of the other power-ups will cause you to lose anything you're holding when they hit you. It's actually an extremely clever set of interlocking mechanics, all designed to keep races unpredictable.

But the blue shell breaks that pattern. It doesn't give you a boost (even implicitly, by punishing everyone else, the way that the lightning does). In fact, if you're in the back of the pack, it probably doesn't help you at all--the second and third place racers are just going to shuffle up in position. Using a blue shell in Mario Kart has one goal, and one goal only: to ruin the third lap for the best racer on the track. It's subsidized griefing.

Worst. Power-up. Ever.

April 11, 2012

Filed under: gaming»software»mass_effect

Husbands and Wives

This is not a post about Mass Effect 3's ending. Of course, the ending is fine. No, it doesn't account for the whole of player choice during the last five minutes--but you get plenty of choice and repurcussion for previous choice during the entire rest of the game (I brought the same Shepherd through all three). No, the final reveal doesn't make a lot of sense--neither did the endings for BSG or Lost or every William Gibson novel ever written, but nobody started petitions to force the creators to change those. It says a lot that after years of trying to get games recognized as art, huge swathes of the community still seem to be blissfully unaware of what that would actually mean: artists don't have to alter their work just to fulfill your expectations.

Ahem. Not a post about the ending.

Although it would serve everyone right, I think, if Bioware's upcoming patch just removed the treacly "stargazer" narration from the end.

Anyway.

I think the progressive side of the gaming blog community tends to spend a lot of time calling out the many, many ways that developers screw things up, via sexism and racism and all the other various -isms. This is a good thing--public shaming can and does have an effect on the industry. But lately I've wanted, as a counterpart, to give credit where credit is due when things go right. And for all its issues, I do think Mass Effect 3 gave me a pleasant surprise when it came to its take on LGBT rights.

The game contains a number of same-sex couples, but the moment that really stuck out for me comes early on, when Commander Shepherd drops in on the ship's shuttle pilot, Steve Cortez, to find him replaying a recording by his now-deceased husband. The dialog doesn't make a big deal out of that--it's not a "More You Know" teaching moment. It's just a guy who's torn up because a loved one was killed. I like to think that it only underscores the in-game banality of gay marriage that Bioware then makes Cortez a romance option, for people who really enjoy playing as "creepy rebound Shepherd."

The usual suspects have, of course, chimed in, and it's genuinely heartwarming to see that EA isn't taking their demands seriously here or elsewhere. Although, to be fair, when the demands include people using headlines like "rebel fleet surrenders to gay empire," they're not exactly struggling against the eloquence of history's greatest activists here.

There are still plenty of other deeply problematic nits I could pick with ME3: the weird and uncomfortable "sexy robot" character, the lingering shots of Miranda's leather pants, or female Shepherd's anatomically-correct armor plate, to pick a few. The Asari still seem like they were imported from one of the Star Trek episodes where Will Riker makes out with Aliens of Low Self Esteem. But progress doesn't come all at once, and I'm glad to see that neither Bioware nor its parent company is rolling over the moment they get hit with some criticism.

Now, if they can just grow a backbone when it comes to the ending parts of the game that this post is not about.

December 20, 2011

Filed under: gaming»software

Console-less in Seattle

Belle and I thought our shipping containers full of all our worldly possessions would arrive from Virginia on December 8th. Turns out they hadn't left the East Coast. Now it's due Friday, we hope. Merry Christmas: we got ourselves all of our own stuff!

So in addition to missing our bed, our cooking utensils, and all our books, I've also been out of luck when it comes to console games this month. This is a funny reversal from the month where my laptop was out of commission. I like this better, though: PC gaming was where I started, and its independent development scene still puts together the most interesting titles anywhere, in my opinion. So I've been having fun knocking out some of my PC backlog, left over from Steam sales and random downloads. Here's a sampling:

Don't Take It Personally, Babe, It's Just Not Your Story has the longest title since the Dejobaan catalog, and if title length were an indicator of quality, it would be really good. Unfortunately, it's not. Where its predecessor, Digital: A Love Story was a mix of 1990 BBS hacking with a cute story to overcome its repetitive "hunt the phone number" mechanics, Don't Take It Personally is basically just one of those Japanese choose-your-own-adventure games, except with extra tedious high school drama. You click "next" a lot, is what I'm saying. The theme it's trying to present isn't nearly strong or coherent enough to overcome that.

I love Brendon Chung's Flotilla, which remains the weirdest--but most compelling--version of full-3D space combat I've ever been able to find, and it scratches a quick-play itch that I can't get from Sins of a Solar Empire. Since I was having a good time revisiting it, I went looking for Chung's other games and found Atom Zombie Smasher on Steam. A mix of tower defense, Risk, and randomly-generated RTS, AZS is one of those games where you think "this isn't that great," and then realize you've been playing until two in the morning. It also has a deceptively complicated learning curve.

One of the games I've had sitting around on Steam from an old sale was Far Cry (and its sequel, but I doubt my 2007-era Thinkpad will run Far Cry 2 very well). For some reason I seemed to have formed a lot of ideas about this game that weren't true: I thought it was an open-world shooter (it's not), I thought it would be dynamic like STALKER (definitely not), and I thought it was supposed to be a decent game (it's pretty boring). The one thing I'll say for it is that I do like the honest effort at making "jungle" terrain, instead of the typical "corridor shooter with tree textures," but that wasn't enough to keep me playing past the first third of the game.

Another holdover, one that fared much better, was Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath. It's not a comedy game per se, but it is often very funny: although it lacks the satirical edge and black humor of Oddysee and Exoddus, it retains their gift for writing hilariously dim-witted NPCs. It's also deeply focused on boss battles, which I kind of love (I felt the same way about No More Heroes, for similar reasons). The controls suffer a little on a PC (this is a game that really benefits from analog movement), and there are a couple of out-of-place difficulty spikes, but otherwise it was great to revisit the Oddworld.

I couldn't quite get behind indie adventure Trauma, unfortunately. It's a very PC title, part Myst and part Black and White, but it feels bloodless. Ostensibly the fever-dream of a photographer caught between life and death after a car wreck, the bland narration and ambient music never gives you any particular impulse to care about her, or reason to believe that she herself cares whether she lives or dies. An abrupt ending doesn't help. Trauma is arty, but there's no arc to it.

Speaking of indies, I finally beat the granduncle of the modern independent game, Cave Story. It's an impressive effort (especially given that there's an entire series of weapons and powerups in there that I completely skipped), but I'm not sure that I get all the love. The platforming is floaty--even at the end, there were a lot of jumps I would have missed without the jetpack--and the "experience" system seems to undermine the shooting (if you start to lose a fight, your weapons will downgrade, meaning you'll lose it faster). That said, it really does feel like a lost NES game, dug up and somehow dropped into Windows. The parts that are good--the music, the sprite art, and the Metroid-style progression--are all very good. But the parts that are frustrating, particularly a couple of incredibly frustrating checkpoints, are bad enough that I spent half the game on the edge of quitting in search of better entertainment.

Finally, I just started playing Bastion. The gorgeous texture work pushes my older video card, but I think it makes up for it by pushing a relatively low amount of geometry, so it plays pretty well. The clever narration gimmick is strong enough to make up for the fact that it's basically Diablo streamlined to the absolute minimum. I've never really been a fan of Diablo-style games--I don't care about the grind, and the controls feel strange to me--but we'll see if the story is enough to pull me through it.

November 2, 2011

Filed under: gaming»software»arkham

The Bat Mantle

Between our upcoming move and our recent wedding, it's not a great month for deep thoughts. So let's talk about something much, much shallower: Batman: Arkham City.

The going question, since it was raised by Film Crit Hulk, is "how sexist is Arkham City?" And the answer is, as it sadly tends to be in these discussions, "really sexist." But honestly, I think it's as much because the writing is very lazy this time around as it is the misogyny of the developers.

Let's be clear: there is one, and only one, reason that I like Batman, and that's the cartoon series that ran from 1992 to 1995. Striking a balance between Frank Miller's "Dark Knight" and the camp silliness of the Adam West TV show (tilted toward the former as much as a kid's show could be), it presented a version of the characters that was smart and well-shaded. It also introduced the "two voices" gimmick for Batman and Bruce Wayne, retconned several villains to be more interesting, and brought us Mark Hamill as the Joker (not to mention creating Harley Quinn as his codependent partner-in-crime--a relationship, incidentally, that Arkham City also fails to capture). That's impressive work for something that aired between "Tiny Toons" and "Freakazoid."

Arkham Asylum, the previous Batman game, was written by one of the animated series' head writers, Paul Dini, and it borrowed a lot from the show's reinvention of the character. As a fan of the show, even despite the "realistic" art direction, it felt like the animated series tie-in I would have wanted as a kid. But after the first five hours of Arkham City, I had to look it up online to see if the staff from Asylum had even been involved. In comparison, the new game's premise is wildly silly, the dialog is clunky, and Batman's actions veer inconsistently back and forth to meet the demands of the plot (such as it is, being a tedious stream of fetch-quests and scripted blackouts). Where's the humor? The wit? The arresting set-pieces? Why is Batman so grumpy?

A general air of forced macho grittiness is typified by Robin's cameo partway through the game's second act, when he saves Batman during a rooftop ambush. The two immediately get into a petty, ego-driven shouting match for no apparent reason, which comes across as incredibly resentful on Batman's part given that Robin just knocked a ninja off his throat. When the Boy Wonder seems to be the more mature of the Dynamic Duo, you may want to reconsider your script.

Now, I'm not trying to excuse or minimize the sexism that exists in Arkham City. If anything, it's the opposite. In contrast to those who argue that the sexism ruins a good game, I'd say instead that the sexism simply puts the insulting cherry on top of a badly-written sundae. I mean, seriously? It's bad enough that they couldn't write a funny Joker this time around, they've got to stack it high with misogyny to boot?

(The fact that laziness and misogyny go hand in hand also says something about the tolerance for sexism in the game development community. After all, this is an industry where the art director for Deus Ex: Human Revolution felt perfectly comfortable to stand in front of a public audience and describe his philosophy of female character design as people he'd like to have sex with. It's an atmosphere only Michael Bay could love.)

The general critical consensus seems to be that such terrible writing is particularly shameful because it's a great game, but I'm honestly not that impressed with it mechanically. Arkham City is set up as a Metroid-style progression, where new gadgets open up previously-visited portions of the map. Most games of this type start out with the main character de-powered, but City gives Batman most of his gadgets from the first game. As a result, it just feels cluttered and game-y: ice grenades that create floating platforms and a zap-gun for powering doors don't feel like Batman, World's Greatest Detective. They feel like they wandered in from Zelda in order to justify a sequel.

The same thing applies to the combat, which was one of the defining high points of Arkham Asylum. The foundation is still there, but they've crammed in extra enemy types that each require a flow-breaking special combo to counter. The worst of these are the shielded enemies, who take forever to dispatch because you can't land more than a single hit on them at a time, and have a tendency to crowd in during uncancelable animation frames to knock Batman out of his combo. It's an endlessly frustrating design, compounded by the awkward controls and the fact that few (if any) of the bat-gadgets do anything demonstrably helpful during combat (or out of it, really). Meanwhile the new open-world city--which is a genuine evolution--prioritizes these imbalanced brawls over Asylum's tense stalking arenas.

Part of the danger of sequels is that they exist in an entangled state with their predecessors. A great sequel--to pick an on-topic example, Nolan's The Dark Knight--makes previous entries look better, especially if it can weave in and question their themes. Arkham City isn't all bad. I finished it (granted, it's not very long). But it's definitely a disappointment, and one that reflects badly on its inspiration. This isn't the Batman I admired as a kid anymore, because what City tries to fix about him wasn't broken.

October 5, 2011

Filed under: gaming»software»deus_ex

Illuminated

When it comes to Deus Ex, I'm a contrarian: I think the second game was far better than the first, which was an ugly, buggy, tedious mess. Having finished Deus Ex: Human Revolution, it's probably the best of the three, assuming you skip its bizarre racial stereotypes. That's not just because the mechanics are better--although they are--or that the engine no longer looks like a bad Dark Forces mod. What I find most praiseworthy about Human Revolution is the way it actually engages with science fiction on a level deeper than laser swords and nano-babble.

Fundamentally, this is a game about progress. The developers use transhumanism and human enhancement (not to mention stabbing people with your robot arm-swords) as proxies for the ways that innovation interacts with class, with government, and with culture. This is all pretty standard fare for sci-fi, but it's something few games set in a science fiction world bother to raise. You don't see Gears of War dwelling on the morality of war, or Portal (for all its genius) drawing explicit lines to our relationship with science. Whatever annoyances it might have, I really respect Human Revolution for grabbing a big concept and taking it seriously.

This thoughtfulness extends all through the art design, which is genuinely great--probably the best since Mirror's Edge, in the way that it's both striking and still very much a video game. The visual theme that Eidos Montreal reportedly wanted to emphasize was Rembrandt, which means there's a lot of grainy, gold light bathing the scenes, outlined in clean digital polygons for interactions. The character animation during dialog could be sharper, but the visual worldbuilding is very thorough, and there are a couple of setpieces (like the all-white room late in the game) that are quietly impressive.

The attention to visual detail extends to the costuming, which really carries the Renaissance theme. But this is also a game about people merging with machines, and so mixed in with the capes and the ruffled collars are garments made with a kind of "low-polygon model" structure of tesselated triangles--as if some future fashion designer will be inspired by Battle Area Toshinden. Which is not, honestly, at all implausible, and is a pleasant change from the usual dystopian leather fetish. Even the body armor worn by the soldiers evokes a combination of iron plate and corsetry. Also nice: Adam Jensen's obligatory black trenchcoat is topped by shiny black velvet shoulder panels in a floral pattern, which I think is what all the hip cyborg messiahs are wearing this season.

There's a long history of games that compete visually based on fidelity and/or horsepower, like every iD title ever. And then there are games that go for highly-stylized rendering methods, like Team Fortress 2 or Wind Waker. Human Revolution operates somewhere between the two: it's a mostly-realistic engine, even one that's a little bit behind the times, being used to render a realistic world with a strong editorial style. It has a fashion sense, so to speak, one that helps to pull together its theme and world. I think that's part of why it feels so much more cohesive than the generic cyberpunk of the previous two.

But does it ultimately succeed in making a statement? It's one thing to raise provocative questions, but another to actually pose an argument. I think the real shame is that Human Revolution gets held held back at the last moment by being a Deus Ex title, meaning that it privileges pointless choice over point of view. Late in the game--late enough that it's comically irrelevant to the plot--two characters make their pitches for and against regulation of human enhancement technology. Reach the very end (this is no spoiler) and you'll be given the option of picking one of those plans, or two other equally-unsubtle choices, all of which are literally just a button-press away from your final save point. It is, just as with the original games, entirely cosmetic and consequence-free.

The problem is not that the developers needed to pick a side, but that the final choice feels needlessly reductionist. It comes after hours of stories that examine the costs and benefits of progress from all angles: exploitation of workers, addiction, medical advances, relationships, and scientific ethics. Human Revolution does a surprisingly good job of presenting these with nuance and depth, and then asks you to pass judgement on the whole issue in the most biased way. In contrast, Bioshock set up its political and economic dilemmas, stewed them with a set of rich characters (goofy final boss aside), and then just left them there for you, an approach that's substantially less insulting than "Press 1 to exalt Ayn Rand's values of selfishness, press 2 to embrace socialist altruism..."

In the end, that's why I suspect that RPS's John Walker was right to say that this is smartly-made by smart people, but it's not a smart game. Mechanically, it's sound: I enjoyed playing it much more than I ever thought I'd like a Deus Ex game. It looks great. It presents a complex world filled with interesting situations. And then it undermines much of that credibility--not all, but a large majority--by reverting to Choose Your Own Adventure in the name of nostalgia. This, fellow gamers, is why we can't have nice things.

Future - Present - Past