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Archive for October, 2008

Blog Banter: Oldies but Goodies?

Posted by deckard47 on October 25, 2008

Welcome to the latest installment of Blog Banter, the monthly blogging extravaganza created by bs angel and coordinated by Game Couch. Blog Banter involves our cozy community of enthusiastic gaming bloggers, a common topic, and a week to post articles pertaining to said topic. The results are quite entertaining and can range from deep insight to ROFLMAO. Any questions about Blog Banter should be directed here. Check out other Blog Banter articles at the bottom of this post!

Are there any video games that possess a timeless appeal? Games that, despite constant advances in technology, retain a game engine or narrative that will forever be relevant. If so, why?

When it came time to write this article, only two games came to mind: Baldur’s Gate II and Deus Ex. Both of these games have been good friends over the years, games that I’ve picked up and played and put away countless times. These games are both brilliant, but they are both brilliant in different ways. Whereas BG II captivates me with its overly intricate plot and deep tactical play, Deus Ex allows me to customize my character in very interesting ways, ways that BG II never comes close to touching.

In turn, both games have their shortcomings: both games are buggy as hell, even after years of patches. Deus Ex is poorly, maybe even terribly acted (especially the infamous Denton brothers), strangely paced, and (from time to time), badly designed. There are whole tech and skill trees that must be avoided like the plague (Environmental training? Really?), whereas some absolutely must be invested in. The enemy AI is offensively moronic, enabling my favorite “attack, hide for 5 minutes, pop back out and attack” tactic.

BG II suffers from some of these problems, as well as a set of its own. The plot, which I love, in all of its geekery, asks us to care for causes and characters unworthy of the game’s ambitions. I know that Minsk and Imoen are classic characters, but they are not attractive, on any level, not compared to characters that one meets in Deus Ex, or Mass Effect. BG II is more about camp, revenge and epic adventure than it is about strong emotion. It’s like saying that Dragonlance is moving (and I love Dragonlance, in my way), when you could be reading His Dark Materials. Melodrama is seen as a substitute for depth of feeling or emotions that I can relate to on any level. When Aerie and Jan start blabbering, I’m fondly amused, but in no way caught up in their banter.

So, the next time I open up BG II, I wonder what my reasons will be? Often, it’s the urge to complete my favorite parts of the game with a slightly different character, because, honestly, you never play the game any differently, as Deus Ex, Mass Effect, or any other number of games force you to do. These two games are fun, interesting, and indicative of directions that the industry in general still needs to be moving in. I’ve yet to play a game, even a Bioware game, that gives me the same feeling of camaraderie delivered by rolling through a dungeon with my favorite evil-aligned team.

Likewise, I still haven’t found a game that makes me want to try all of its skills and tech-trees, not like Deus Ex does. So often, I’ll fire up another game (like Bioshock, say), and convince myself that this time, I’ll power up my Bumble Bee and Whirlwind attacks, for real. But I don’t, because the game is the same, despite how the combat might play out differently. In Deus Ex, if I hacked the right doors, I could read a missive from one NSF terrorist to another, expressing worry for her friends.

I’m not going to go play these games now (to be honest, I just got over a BG II binge), but I’ll say this: games need Deus Ex’s complexity and depth of experience, just as they need BG II’s effortless scope and character interaction. I can’t remember a game with “branching paths” or gameplay options that “change the storyline” that can even compare to Deus Ex. Likewise, Mass Effect’s characters, as amazing as they are, seem to live in a vacuum. I get the feeling that when it’s dinner time on the Normandy, there isn’t much conversation.

Anyway, that’s why these games are timeless. I just need a bit more time before I can appreciate each of them fully again. Until then.

Participants:
CrazyKinux’s Musing: The Timeless appeal of Homeworld
Lou vs. Video Games, FIGHT!: Defining the Truly Classic Video Game
Silvercublogger: Lost & Found
Hawty McBloggy: Much Like Your Mom
Game Couch: Finding Citizen Kane

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Alan Wake, meet Stephen King’s tired Plot Device!

Posted by deckard47 on October 22, 2008

Two newses! Bits of news, I mean. A fancy new “cinematic” Alan Wake trailer is up. Interesting. So does he create all of the badness with his own thoughts? Kind of a cool idea… It reminds me (in an amused, bad way) of every other Stephen King book, which were always about authors who had vaguely pretentious shit happen to them (oh, and half the time, they hooked up with hot young fans… ewww). Anyway, if it ever gets released, I will be there to check it out. Remedy knows how to tell an interesting (rediculously silly) story, so they have my vote, if not necessarily my money.

Next, Bioware and the villainous Lucasarts announced the KoToR MMORPG. Boo? I’m not sure how to feel about this. They keep on tempting me, making me think I’ll be able to apply their unique brand of roleplaying and morality in an MMORPG, but then I start to worry that I’ll just be killing mynocks and shit in slightly less-shittily written fetch quests. Please, Bioware, be as awesome as I know you can be.

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Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist (hey gamers and developers!)

Posted by deckard47 on October 20, 2008

So, I just ran across an article over at Kotaku that just blew me away. I’m gonna quote the post, because it’s too dumb to rewrite here:

Last week, Sony announced a worldwide recall and delay for LittleBigPlanet after two expressions from the Qur’an were discovered in the lyrics of one of the game’s licensed music tracks. The song is titled “Tapha Niang” off the album Boulevard de l’independance.

And here are the translations of the two lines (although I can’t say for sure):

1- In the 18th second: “كل نفس ذائقة الموت” (“kollo nafsin tha’iqatol mawt”, literally: ‘Every soul shall have the taste of death’).

2- Almost immediately after, in the 27th second: “كل من عليها فان” (“kollo man alaiha fan”, literally: ‘All that is on earth will perish’).

I understand that if those lines were in there when the game shipped, people would freak. I know that people would see this (correctly) as some strong imagery. I’m sure it would offend people, Muslims, Christians and others, for different reasons.

But this is how they worded it:

“During the review process prior to the release of LittleBigPlanet, it has been brought to our attention that one of the background music tracks licensed from a record label for use in the game contains two expressions that can be found in the Qur’an.”

Forgive, if you will, my cynicism, but I’m pretty sure that if there had been lyrics like that in a song (and the lyrics came from the Christian Bible), that there would be no recall. Because it would just be how it is. As always. No one would have a problem, because it’s ok if the Bible condemns things to death, but not ok if some other Religion’s holy book does the same? I understand the censorship, I do, but this still stinks of people being scared of Islam, and of Sony making a quick (but again, admittedly business-savy) move. It’s sad. When Resistance had a level set in Manchester Cathedral and the Church of England got angry, Sony told the C of E to get bent. Sweet.

Oh, and I’m sure I’m not supposed to say this, but it’s super catchy. I hope the rest of the soundtrack is this good. Late.

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Rant: Slow Going

Posted by deckard47 on October 20, 2008

Things have been rather lazy lately chez Cross, as a result of that Villain, the Witcher. Both Owen and I are knee deep in that damn game, and sadly, he’s closer to escaping from its clutches than I am. Curses. I was also thinking about the Aliens vs. Predator games, especially the second one. What with Dead Space having just come out, just about every reviewer and their brother and their parent media company are saying something about how it’s “Aliens,” not “Alien.”

Now I know that they’re trying to dissuade the gaming populace from seeing this game as a slow, scary, “survival” horror game (apparently the fact that it isn’t one is a big deal to some people, who are now betrayed or surprised… Whatever), but I still feel that this game, no matter how good it is, is still beholden to one game that these guys haven’t mentioned yet: AvP2. It wasn’t perfect, I know it had bad graphics, and I know that Predators are silly, but that game put me in the Aliens world in a great way. Not only did it do that, but it scared me seriously, as I hope we all recall, without throwing an Alien at me for a whole hour or so. Look, an alien!

And it did it all without having “creepy” children’s songs playing in trailers (wow that was dumb…).

Plus, it threw in what was essentially the shooter multiplayer equivalent of Starcraft, using the races and tech that Starcraft basically stole. I mean, where did the drop ship pilot, marine, and every other Starcraft character get their banter? Oh yeah, a movie made by James Cameron. Back to AvP2, it fulfilled all of the broken promises made by Doom, Gears of War, Halo, and every other Space Marine/Scary action game in Space ever. I don’t care how bad the graphics were, or whether the production values were never that high, that game delivered a solid, scary, action-filled experience on all levels, and it did it without resorting to Scary Death Whispery Voices, Lots of Blood All the Time in the Dark (With Extra Blood and Gore), Angry Marines, or anything else that is now in every single game set in the future.

I feel like there’s an article in why that game was great, and once I play Dead Space there had better be an article in what that game is and isn’t, but for now I’m just writing an infantile rant. Desole, I guess. So, while I go back to writing and signing and doing hideous official stuff, please go find the demo for AvP 2, or get it cheep somewhere. I promise, if you do, I’ll find my old copy, and play online with you. Maybe.

Oh, and do you know how hard it is to find a screen from that game online? Hard! Most of the results are from that hulking, reprehensible monster that hit us last Christmas.

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Dragon Age Console Attack!

Posted by deckard47 on October 16, 2008

So guess what just got dated for 360 and PS3?! Wait don’t look at the title, I bet you can’t guess. Anyway, looks like it will be showing up in time for the holiday season next year. Shit, that’s a long way from now isn’t it?

In other news, I am a bad blogger. Sorry. The Witcher Enhanced Edition, World of Goo, and Jericho (still) are keeping me busy. I have to say, when you turn the difficulty down on Jericho, it becomes much more fun. You play, you die, you heal, but you don’t have to watch that fucking fly-attack death animation every 3 minutes. Yay.

World of Goo is absolutely fantastic, but I’m already stuck. It’s in Chapter 2, with the big escape-prevention-cogs-mechanism. Help! This game is one of the most interesting, cute, funny, and beautifully made games I’ve seen in a while. I win for preordering it and getting their DRM-free online version. 2D Boy rocks my world.

I’m hoping to get my hands on Disciples 3 soon, which I hope someone cares about. Please? Time to go back to Vizima!

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GameSetWatch, Jericho, and Graffiti

Posted by deckard47 on October 12, 2008

I’ve been writing articles at GameSetWatch for a couple of weeks now, under the mysterious pseudonym Tom Cross. I’ve written a couple of articles, and I like them all (some of you may have come here from GSW, in which case, welcome), so I thought I’d set up some kind of regular link to them. I’ll do that soon, but for now, here’s a link to the most recent one, about Clive Barker’s Jericho.

More importantly, I wanted to link you to a post over at Graffiti Gamer, where Daniel Purvis takes Jericho and goes in an interesting, welcome and completely different direction. Check it out, and maybe, if you can spare the time, check out Jericho.

As always, posting has been light (how many times have I written that). Work, play, business, you know how it is. I think I might actually purchase Dead Space (although I’m broke!), and if I do, I’ll definitely let y’all know how it is, because I’m expecting good things. Aside from that, I still owe the internet my Arkham Horror post (right?). Soon, I promise. Time to go make Paella and eat home-made Challa. Sweet.

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Inspiration and Mimicry: Video Game Design

Posted by deckard47 on October 2, 2008

The mainstream press still doesn’t write much about video games.  When it does, it’s dismissive, almost always for the same reason. We’re forever hearing, in the inevitable comparison of video games to other media, that the games we enjoy are “derivative” of film and television, novels and stories.

It’s no secret that video games often want to be like other forms of media. Whether it’s novels, movies, poetry, or theatre, video games are the ultimate bastard children of the modern creative world. They’re the heirs of all of these forms of entertainment, but they have yet to master any of the things they borrow. Video games constantly strive to attain the narrative clout and cohesiveness of novels, the cinematic “flair” or style achieved by movies, the beauty and force behind good poetry, and the sense of participation and immediacy of theatre.

One can argue that video games fail in these areas because they are a medium inherently different from these others: their interactivity demands that we rethink what we mean when we talk about the narrative, style, beauty, and participation of older media.

But as I said, video games aren’t quite there yet.  They still ape other art so closely that it’s hard to see how they’re slowly changing the very forms they borrow.  Thus, the reviewer (or enthusiast) has a problem: how do we judge games today, games that are so often pale imitations of movies or books?  Do we use the standards we’d use on books and movies, knowing they’re old fashioned, or do we try to hold games to a different standard even when they so plainly want to be judged like other kinds of art?

To be fair to the games of today, especially the great ones, we need a way of talking about them, and of evaluating them, which acknowledges how indebted they are to outside sources.  In fact, we need a way that evaluates how well they manage their debt, how good they are at tying themselves to other parts of the cultural mainstream.  Even as we acknowledge the need for innovation, and for radically new ways of gaming, we need to be able to talk about the right way and the wrong way for games to be derivative. We need to see this sign of the medium’s youth for what it is—a strength and a weakness—and we need to say how and why it’s good when it’s good, bad when it’s bad.

Some games, like some movies, fall into the trap of referring to outside sources too much. Anyone who has seen the most recent Alien versus Predator movie understands what I mean: when ¾ of your movie is designed to make the viewer feel like they are watching clips stolen from other movies, your movie becomes derivative, unoriginal, and insipid. How, then, can one leverage cultural capital to create meaningful, relatable themes and characters?


It helps to have a few good writers working for you. Half Life 2 is great in part because it leverages the rhetoric of many dystopian, paranoid works of fiction. Breen’s looping speech on the intercoms of that broken Earth is friendly, convincing, and chilling. You understand why Earth gave in to their benefactors’ “benevolent,” brutal rule. But Half Life 2 doesn’t harp on this theme for the whole game. It doesn’t make the entire game about how scary and depressing everything is. It doesn’t strip-mine the great, famous dystopian narratives. Instead, it looks at the existing literature, takes what it needs, and moves on. HL2 does this for the zombie game/movie (Ravenholm), Starship Troopers (Antlions?), and modern issues and fears stemming from present-day wars (Iraq, terrorism).

The reason HL2 doesn’t offend, bore, or amuse in its clever theft is that it is interested in resonating with us at a level both more abstract and more visceral than what you get if you just cite a theme, source, or licensed property every two seconds. It doesn’t hit you over the head with the fact that you are a terrorist to Dr. Breen, or that your friends are insurgents, or that you are responsible for explosions and bombings. If it did, players would balk, they’d wonder where they’d heard this all before: people don’t like their relatable moments to be telegraphed with the subtlety of a gunshot. They like their messages carefully wrapped up, well written and acted, and then buried under interesting, exciting locations and plots.

I’ve chosen the violent and destructive aspects of Gordon Freeman’s fight for freedom for no special reason. I could have picked any number of elements from that game. That’s what makes a good game, one that teases and pleases with multiple, interesting (but never bluntly employed) connections to players’ lives.

Bioshock, The Witcher, Mass Effect, and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune all succeed in the same way the Half Life 2 does, to different degrees. The Witcher concerns itself with issues of racial discord and political intrigue. Mass Effect plays out like an extended season of Star Trek, nodding to various other sci-fi franchises along the way. Bioshock (a game made famous by its aspirations) draws on Aynn Rand, art-deco themes, and the recent surge in scary-little-girl horror movies, among other sources. Drake’s Fortune goes the route of quality over quantity: it mines various adventure and pulp entertainments, from Sahara to Romancing the Stone to Indiana Jones. It succeeds by perfectly replicating the kind of swashbuckling, otherworldly, rough-and-tumble adventure we’ve come to expect out of those kinds of films.

Many games attempt to succeed using these tactics. Often, they stumble where Drake’s Fortune doesn’t, and few if any follow the multi-referential route taken by Bioshock and Half Life 2. Max Payne 2 for example, believes that it can create an absurdly “noir” world, characters, and plot. The result is a buffoonish, “dark,” and “adult” piece of entertainment. They’re so busy slapping you in the face with how dark and tortured Max Payne is that they forget the importance of good writing, or interesting characters.

All video games up to a point are derivative. They deal in common memories and experiences, like all forms of entertainment. The difference between video games and movies, or books, is that video games have yet to discover their own set of meaningful, enduring tropes. For now, we’ll have to settle for the ideas and established themes we steal from other sources. If that’s to be the case, then developers should take a hint from these great games: there’s a difference between mimicry and inspiration. There’s a reason why Gears of War and Halo are not great games: their settings, plots, and characters have all the originality of a Michael Bay movie. Good ideas are only good as long as they are respected and improved upon, or looked at in a different light. The more people realize this, the less time I’ll spend listening to grizzled space veterans saying “fuck” 12 times a cutscene.

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