Friday, May 29, 2009

Multimedia Mission Creep

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Over the past few years, video games have made huge strides toward becoming a widespread and socially accepted form of entertainment. What was once the hobby of a few basement-dwelling troll people has expanded its influence to include frat boys, grandmothers and everyone in between. This can be attributed partially towards the steadily evolving popularity of the genre, but the sudden surge has been more a result of a massive shift in focus for the game industry. This shift has been lead largely by Nintendo, and its focus on casual gamers.

In a way, casual titles like Wii Sports are an evolution of the earliest casual games. Like the computerized version of Solitaire, the title takes well known and well understood games that we play with our hands and gives us a well-translated version of the same game on a screen; it draws people in because it’s familiar, fun and simple. Wii Sports bowling, tennis, and so on are all played in a similar way to the real games.

But there’s another strange trend that accompanies the boom in the casual gaming market. There are more and more products being released for what are nominally game consoles that are barely recognizable as games. Also in the world of phenomenally popular Nintendo titles, Wii Fit shines as an example of a product that fails to justify itself as either a game or a non-game. Is it a video game or a workout program? You don’t achieve high scores, like in a video game; you simply lower your “Wii Fit Age,” which measures your overall health. And you don’t really get the exercise that you would from an actual exercise routine since the game only tracks your movements and activities through the balance board, which is an imprecise tool to say the least. Wii Fit lives in a strange in-between world, trying to provide value as both entertainment and tool. To me, it seems a silly, useless product. To the rest of the world, it is already the 5th highest-selling video game in history.

As gaming becomes more popular, these strange, mutated offspring of video games are also gaining ground. One example for the Nintendo DS is Personal Trainer: Cooking, which contains recipes, a shopping list and videos on different cooking techniques. Essentially, for many people, video game consoles are becoming more than just gaming machines. The Xbox 360 recently added the ability to play Netflix movies with an internet connection. The Playstation 3 was originally marketed as the center of a home entertainment center with Blu-Ray, which was considered a risky move before it came out, and either its lack of focus or its high price has caused it to lag behind the competition.

On the other side of the equation, the iPhone is meeting with huge success as a multi-faceted platform: besides making phone calls, connecting to the internet, giving directions and storing music, it’s becoming a viable and popular gaming machine. Some analysts have proposed that we are approaching a one console future, when we will leave the squabbling between Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo behind us. But what Sony is attempting with the Playstation 3 and what Apple is succeeding at with the iPhone hints at a one-piece-of-technology future.

I suppose that what ultimately makes me nervous about this amalgamation of interests is an already apparent lack of focus. Getting to watch Ghostbusters on my Xbox 360 whenever I want to is great, but Microsoft’s wholly-owned game properties have been mostly disappointing. The motion controls on the Wii are fun and exciting, but I still find myself annoyed when they’re thrown into a game just because they can be. The Playstation 3 looks like a great gaming machine, but they spent so much time and money on Blu-Ray and proving its importance that the console is still positioned as a machine that is too expensive and severely lacking in unique content. And who wants to get a telephone call in the middle of playing a video game, only to have to take the call on the same machine?

Some of the results of this cross-saturation are great: I’ve been having a blast making little tunes with the Korg DS-10 Synthesizer, which is essentially just a keyboard and drum machine, presented in stark black and white on the DS. I also appreciate the idea of bringing non-gamers into the fold with products like Wii Sports. Still, I want my deep, compelling, graphically luscious games in the future, not just non-games and casual titles. Do you think I have anything to worry about? Will the next round of game consoles and multi-purpose phones have even more scattershot features, or will they work on refining the ones they have now? I guess I see the advantage either way.

The question ultimately boils down to this: do you want more variety or more depth and care in execution? Is it possible that we can have our cake and eat it too, or is the cake a lie?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Monthly Game Club Introduction

The Monthly Game Club is a new feature on Press Pause to Reflect which will give us an opportunity to play through and discuss an excellent game together. I'll choose games that are really good so that I won't be wasting your time, inexpensive so that I won't be wasting your money, and available on a variety of platforms so you won't feel left out. We'll have one introductory post explaining the game and where to get it, along with the first assignment, and then one post each week to discuss the game and give a new assignment. Kotaku did something similar a while back, and it was a great idea, and then it mysteriously ceased.

The game for June will be Braid, and the introductory post and assignment will go up next Tuesday, so stay tuned if you'd like to participate. If you have any suggestions for future Monthly Game Club games, please post in the comments or email us at:

presspausetoreflect AT gmail DOT com

EDIT: Feel free to participate in the Monthly Game Club even if you've already played the game. The purpose here is the discussion of unique qualities in each game, artistic decisions, and deeper meaning. Just try not to spoil anything before it's assigned!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Empire: Total Bastard

By C.T. Hutt

I’ve been a fan of The Creative Assembly’s Total War Series since Shogun: Total War made the scene back in 2000. I’ve followed the game through its many incarnations, watching the graphics and gameplay improve with time. Empire: Total War is the latest incarnation of this series and outplays it predecessors in every stripe. Empire is a country simulator which takes place in the real-world 1700s complete with historical characters, realistic tactics, and political implications for every action. Unlike most of the games I faun over, Empire has no story to speak of; if you want to know what happened during this period in human history I suggest R.S. Chaurasia's History of Europe Volume 2.

My educational background is in international affairs, so toying with this kind of game makes me as happy as a headcrab hiding in a top hat. The little touches of realism the designers dropped in make it a special treat for history buffs and tactic gamers alike. I’ve already enjoyed many hours of satisfying entertainment out of this title and would recommend it as a must for any turn-based strategy fan out there. Having played the game through, I find myself struck with a sort of post-imperial depression. Looking back at the charred ruins of my opponents’ once great cities I’ve come to ponder the philosophical and moral implications of this game and have found myself on the dark side of fake history.

Empire is such a realistic simulation that when playing it I’ve become concerned about the morality the game encourages in its players. The most effective empires in the game are the ones with the largest military, the greatest dominion over trade, and the will to suppress all forms of dissent through violence. In the campaign map the quickest way of achieving one’s objectives is to befriend the countries nearest to you then flood their lands with troops when they drop their guard. In the battle maps the surest road to victory is to toss wave after wave of peasants and lowly conscripts straight into enemy lines then pepper the entire battlefield with artillery fire. When moving into an opponent’s territory the first logical move is to destroy all cultural buildings and replace them with your own. The only thing worth less to you then the lives of your troops is the general happiness of your wretched citizenry. It is a sound policy to tax them as much as possible at all times and if any of the high and mighty types in your nation’s universities start yammering about reform or representative democracy or some other such nonsense, nothing clears them out like a good old-fashioned book burning. In your face Oxford! Ultimate supremacy in Empire: Total War belongs to the nation most willing to employ a Machiavellian foreign policy.

I’ve read article after article about the dangers of portraying violence and sexuality in video games, but I haven’t heard so much as a peep out of the same angry church moms about portraying the benefits of dictatorship and social oppression. I wonder why.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Playing with Art

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

We at Press Pause to Reflect take as an assumption that video games, like any other form of media, can be artistic works. This has been debated on many blogs, and by notables like Clive Barker and Roger Ebert, but I don’t really think that video games’ potential for art remains debatable: they certainly can be. The question is how video games can best show their artistic value.

Often, when the argument for artistic merit in games is made, examples are given of the craftsmanship shown in some particular aspect of a game. The visual style of Okami, for example, evokes traditional Japanese art and calligraphy. Nobuo Uematsu, the composer for the much-lauded Final Fantasy soundtracks, can be cited as a musical talent creating artistic works for games. Or a particularly well-told story with compelling characters, such as those present in Beyond Good and Evil or Silent Hill 2, can make a compelling case for comparing games to works of art in film and literature.

Ultimately, that is where the argument breaks down: the most enduring works of art are only possible within their chosen mediums. When we compare a game’s story to that of a book or a movie, its visuals to a painting, or its music to a song or an overture, we are merely exploring the way in which games imitate other forms of art. Story, graphics and sound are important aspects of any game, but they are not the most important element, nor do they distinguish video games from other artistic mediums.

Instead, the question of what makes a profound artistic accomplishment in a game should revolve around the thing that makes the video game a unique art form: while one observes paintings, listens to music, reads a book and watches a movie, the unique quality of a video game is that you play it. Beyond bringing your own perspective to a game, you can shape the path of the story itself, control the pace and the situations, and choose what to assign importance and what to ignore to a degree that is impossible in other mediums.

For a video game to achieve artistic greatness, it is this interactivity that must be explored. Art in gaming should toy with the expectations of how to play a game, and create circumstances and scenarios that would be impossible without the input of the player. Just as Citizen Kane could not have been made into an equally excellent book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being failed to convey itself as a movie, and the Mona Lisa lacks any potential for greatness as a song, great artistic achievements will not come to the world of video games without wrestling with the idea of user input and interactivity. Gaming has yet to reach the lofty heights of any of the works I mentioned, largely because most game developers are attempting merely to imitate the qualities of other works of art, instead of innovating and exploring the possibilities unique to video games.

Let’s look at a few examples of games that explore those possibilities to artistic effect. From the world of role-playing games comes one of the first major innovations in story-telling to reach the world of video games: the ability to make choices that shape the outcome of the game itself. From the multiple endings in Chrono Trigger to the dramatic shifts in narrative possible in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, video games offer the ultimate fulfillment of the idea first presented in “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. While the dialogue and options are still prepared for the player, games have been written to accommodate more and more choice, so that the player determines the outcome of the plot and the attitudes of the characters in the game. If your character becomes a paragon of virtue, it is because you guided them down that path. If your choices result in the genocide of a people, the sadness and horror of that moment is mixed with your own guilt. When the choice is yours, the emotional impact of a well-told story is that much more profound. This is expanded further by sandbox games like Fallout 3 or Grand Theft Auto 4, which have “main” storylines but so much else to do that one could begin the game, play thirty hours in and have created a compelling story for yourself without really dealing with the supposedly primary story arc.

Another way that a game can achieve artistic greatness is by playing with our expectations of the game itself. Braid, for example, takes one of the oldest archetypes of gaming controls, Mario, with his running, jumping and landing on enemies to kill them, and uses that as the jumping-off point to explore a number of mind-bending situations and variations on basic gameplay. Because the controls are so simple, the game instantly feels familiar, which allows for every change in the basic rules of the game to take the player by surprise. When the character dies for the first time, for example, instead of losing a life, they are prompted to press a button which rewinds time to before the death. In a later level, as the character walks right, time moves forward. As he stands still, it pauses. As he walks left, it moves backwards. The story, too, is a familiar one: we seek a princess, who is always in another castle. Our expectations fall into line naturally, only to be confused and swept aside as the game proceeds. Rez also does fascinating things with an established gameplay idea: you are moving forward and shooting at enemies, like in so many other games, but the levels, the visuals, and the music evolve as you progress, with every shot you fire contributing a drumbeat or a click to the electronic score.

Video games can achieve artistic greatness, but we must first learn to evaluate them by different standards. It is not in its similarities to works in other media but in its differences that an artistic movement ultimately achieves its greatest works. The difference here is an exciting one: with video games, you are encouraged to touch, you are compelled to be involved, and it is perfectly acceptable to play with your art.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Where's My Virtual Lightsaber?

I’m a pretty religious Penny Arcade reader, even going so far as to pepper my everyday dialogue – that is, the things I say to real people, when I’m looking at their faces – with phrases from the comic. (Yes, in real life I drop references to an internet comic focused on the gaming community. Someday I’ll show you the stick with which I fend off the hordes of ladies perpetually surrounding me. I call it “Sting.”) Today’s PA entry ties into what I feel is the most significant development within today’s gaming scene, with Gabe bemoaning – via a, um, novelty T-shirt – the increasing prevalence of physically immersive simulations. His complaint is that simulated experiences, like those presented in Rock Band and Wii exercise titles, require a very real level of coordination (and produce, on occasion, equally real sweat). I remember the predictions from the pre-Wii, pre-Internet halcyon 1980’s and 90’s concerning the future of gaming: we were going to strap on VR suits and gloves, and pick up our virtual swords, and fight some virtual zombies. Their matted hair would be tangibly repugnant; the smell of the grave would fill our nostrils. (Alternatively, we were going to strap on VR stirrups and riding crops and ride some virtual magical ponies. The rest – matted hair, smell of the grave – still stands.) I look back now on all the movies promising these developments – Hackers comes to mind, as do The Matrix and The Island – and can only mourn our failure to realize so noble a goal. I’m on the opposite side of the debate from Gabe; I yearn for more immersive experiences. I maintain that I’d be a much more efficient zombie killer, fighter pilot or Space Marine than video games today imply, if only I could utilize the respective tools of these trades as they were intended to be used – with both hands, and my feet if necessary. Something in my brain bone rebels when I press a button or push a joystick to swing a sword. It’s as though my deep, reptilian subconscious is shouting at me, “No! No! We built you arms for this very purpose! Entire arms for holding swords!” When I’m playing a game, I want to feel a sword in my hand, and move it in a way that threatens to dislocate my entire shoulder. I want to strain to stay upright while wearing full plate armor. I want, in short, to look left by moving my neck. As it stands now, using a cursed twin stick control scheme, I put a lot of stock in how well a game maps its skies. This is because I spend a good portion of my time looking directly up, or down, or off into the middle distance, unable to focus my gaze upon a given point. If a button could be utilized to slacken my character’s jaw and trigger a drool response, I imagine that I would inadvertently press it. I’ve really enjoyed games like Rock Band that challenge our assumptions on the nature of a “controller.” I may not be able to sync up the Left Bumper with my need to reload a shotgun, but I’ll be damned if I can’t understand the basic mechanics of a guitar and how one is played; my head can wrap comfortably around this process, as I’m doing with my hands exactly what I want my character to replicate with his own. So, gamers, thoughts? What’s your preference: an immersive simulation, or a contained exercise in hand-eye coordination? I know that I’ll be the first in line to buy a holodeck, so what’s the argument against physically demanding games?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Grinding My Gears of War

by C.T. Hutt

I’m not holding back on this one folks. Fair warning, thar be spoilers ahead.

When Castle Wolfenstein 3D first reared its inflexible, muscle bound head onto the scene in 1992, the first person shooter took off. Along with this new platform came a new kind of protagonist, the first-person-shooter über-male. From Doom to Duke Nukem to Halo 3, this discount Hercules hasn’t changed much. He is mostly silent, nigh unkillable, comically large, and capable of displaying an emotional range that falls between enraged and severely enraged. While there have been some excellent exceptions to these stereotypes (I’m looking your way, Gordon Freeman), the implicit limitations of such an oafish character have resulted in some less than stellar story lines. In some cases (I’m looking your way, Quake series), there has been no discernible story at all.

After playing through both the Gears of War games with Daniel, I’ve had some trouble assigning the series to either category. There seems to be a plot in there somewhere, but I have no idea what it is.

Here’s what we know. Humankind has put all, or at least the majority of its eggs in one basket in the form of the scenic planet Serra. With the exception of razor hail falling from the sky every once in a while and some kind of explosive goop coming out of the planet’s crust, everything seems just ducky about this new terra until the neighbors show up and make things awkward for everyone by killing lots of folk and wrecking up the place. It seems that, while building the various soon-to-be-charred ruins of cities on Serra, none of humanity’s engineers noticed that the planet is a honeycomb of tunnels filled with antisocial goblins. The protagonists are COGs, an elite squad of hideously gargantuan ape men who get their jollies blasting away at any of the subterranean bad boys that poke up their heads like so many evil gophers. Something is also going down with an evil government plot, a kind of killer robot/A.I. thing, and the standard medical experiment gone wrong riff we’ve heard in nearly every shooter ever made. We are never given enough information to understand or really care about these subplots but they are in there. Bon appétit!

The main character, or at least the fellow controlled by player 1, is Marcus Fenix. Unable to decide which persona was tougher, a prisoner or a space marine, the writers opted to have Mr. Fenix be both. The series opens with him being busted out of a prison facility made entirely of skulls and dead bodies, just lovely. We never learn why he was incarcerated; I assume it was due to some kind of moving violation; the man is the size of a diesel truck and has a personality to match. Marcus is the type of person you might expect to see in the darkest corner of a biker bar, yet we later learn that he was raised by a well to do scientist on a palatial estate. Man, those must have been some awkward teenage years. Over time we discover that Marcus’s father may have been making time with the troll queen, leader of the underground baddies; this may explain why he felt less inclined to academic pursuits.

Player 2 is at the joystick of Dominic Santiago (“Dom” to his friends) who is basically a slightly smaller version of Marcus Fenix. We know nothing about Dom until the second game. Apparently, on top of being a kill-crazy badass, Dom is a family man. While we never run into his kids, we do eventually catch up with his wife who has been on the worst vacation ever for the last ten years in a modern oubliette. Apparently, Dom is also a doctor, and promptly euthanizes her like a lame horse. The scene I’ve just described is the biggest emotional hook in the entire series. While the effect on the players is more awkward then traumatic, it causes both protagonists to display their most colorful emotional state, i.e. severe rage.

That’s who you are working with, Gorilla-man Marcus and Dom “The Veterinarian” Santiago. Not exactly compelling characters, but they shine next to the parade of quarter-dimensional weirdos in the background of these games. Your military support is a Burt and Ernie duo that appears periodically to provide suppressing fire and comedic relief. There is Cole, who is aggressive and crazy, and Baird who seems to find the entire “fight for survival” thing completely boring. The antagonists, called the locusts, are evil in all the standard ways and look like larger, uglier versions of the heroes. There are a couple indistinct female characters that were probably flying the transport ship and giving you orders but they don’t even really register to the players.

That, as they say, is that. We don’t know why people settled on the planet; we don’t know much of anything about the characters; we don’t know how long this war has been waged or even if we are fighting on the right side of it. In short, we don’t know a damn thing.

In most cases, I would simply go with it. The Gears series looks fantastic and is fun to play. However, there is a limit to the number of alien heads I can explode before I need a reason why. Granted, that is a very high number, but come on, a little back-story here fellahs. I’m not asking for Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia from a game that features an assault rifle with a chainsaw bayonet, but in order to make this series a real winner in my book they need to give me a reason for fighting the good fight.

There is a wealth of moral and philosophical issues the writers could have sunk their teeth into but, sadly, they haven’t. It could be a story about the trials of the common soldier, but it lacks any actual internal conflict found in developed characters. It could be a story about revenge, but how are we to empathize with such a motivation without a solid beginning? Gears would make an excellent metaphor for the futility of fighting for a cause in which you no longer believe, or about humankind’s undying tenacity, yet it only touches the surface of such themes. In a time when society should be asking questions about the nature of war, even fictional war, the Gears series doesn’t even lift an inquisitive eyebrow. The end effect is like eating a bowl of very realistic wax fruit; it looks amazing, but really doesn’t sit well.

I’m very satisfied with the controls and aesthetics of this series, but without commitment to a proper story arc I’m afraid it will be nothing but another shoot ’em up, certain to be forgotten in the annals of video game history.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Modern Warfare

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

In Darren Aronofsky’s film The Wrestler, Randy “the Ram” and a young boy from his neighborhood discuss Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare while playing an old Nintendo game. Here’s their exchange (transcript from Kotaku):

Randy: What's it about?
Adam: It's a war game. Most all of the other Call of Dutys are, like, based on World War II, but this one's with Iraq.
Randy: Oh yeah?
Adam: You switch off between a marine and an S and S British special operative. So it's pretty cool.
Those familiar with the plot of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare might say that this is not an entirely accurate description, since the game isn’t actually set in Iraq. Here’s a brief summary: the United States invades an unnamed Middle Eastern country that is currently being ruled by a brutal dictator who assumed power un-democratically and who is suspected of having ties to a terrorist group and possessing weapons of mass destruction.

Stop me if this sounds familiar.

In an article on Destructoid, Anthony Burch makes the excellent point that all of the spectacular graphics, affecting first-person storytelling and gripping action sequences are in the service of a plot that is intentionally irrelevant:

“The battles presented in Modern Warfare don’t recreate or parallel the ambiguous skirmishes of the Iraq War; they take place within a ‘War on Terror’ which doesn't actually exist -- within the world of Call of Duty 4, there really are evil Muslims and Russians in the Middle East armed with nuclear weapons.” (Full article here)

It seems clear that Infinity Ward intended to make their game non-controversial by setting it in a fictional conflict. In his article, Burch calls this a “missed opportunity,” explaining that a truly unique and valuable experience could have been crafted by setting this game in Iraq and addressing real questions (like the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist).

It’s more than a missed opportunity. Instead of making a game about actual modern warfare, Infinity Ward idealized war, stripped it of its controversy, removed it from reality, and made it palatable for public consumption. In this alternate-reality Iraq, no political forces brought the new dictator to power; he simply killed the previous ruler of the country. There is no question as to the regime’s connections to known terrorists; those connections are clear and easily traced. And there is absolutely no doubt that they have weapons of mass destruction and the intent to use them.

With a setting so strikingly similar to Iraq, these omissions are more than just missed opportunities; combined, they turn this game into a propaganda piece for the “War on Terror.”
It’s no surprise that Adam from The Wrestler thinks that the game is set in Iraq. He sees Iraq on television, he sees locations and situations in the game that look similar, and he equates the two. But what does this game teach him? It teaches anyone unfamiliar with the actual circumstances of the Iraq War and other modern conflicts that these battles are simple: there are no innocent bystanders, the enemy is always clearly identified and shooting at you, and the path to victory is a forward march over the bodies of one’s enemies.

Further, it presses the importance of the “War on Terror”; in Modern Warfare, global catastrophe results if you fail in your mission.

While this makes for an entertaining video game, this has very little to do with modern warfare. The weaponry and locations may be modern, but this is ultimately the same martial vision that we see in Infinity Ward’s World War 2 shooters. The sense of black and white morality remains, and clearly villainous enemies organize their forces against the heroes. They have moved the year forward, but the central ideas have remained the same.

A true “modern warfare” game would likely not be enjoyable. Imagine waiting by a military jeep, holding a gun, wondering whether anything will happen. Maybe nothing does, and you wait all day, and then head home; that would be a good day. Maybe you’d feel like you kept the peace and did the neighborhood a favor, even if not everyone appreciated your presence. On a bad day, shots are fired at you from windows, or a passing person turns out to be strapped with a bomb; you or one of your fellow soldiers winds up dead or crippled for life.

Infinity Ward certainly made the right business decision when they simplified their vision of modern war. (For comparison, see these kotaku articles on Six Days in Fallujah, a game based on the real Iraq War, and that game’s quick cancellation.) But in doing so, they failed to deliver on their basic premise, they failed to show “Modern Warfare.” In Call of Duty 4, the armed conflict starts for all the right reasons, has a clear, defined ending, and serves a greater purpose that we can all agree is for the best. The larger question here is this: does Infinity Ward have any social responsibility, or is it enough to deliver a compelling gaming experience? If they tell their audience that they are going to deliver a realistic modern war but instead provide a piece of propaganda - intentionally or otherwise - have they done something morally reprehensible?

With Modern Warfare 2 fast approaching, here’s hoping that they don’t continue to oversimplify war.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Wolverine: Claws of War!

I’ll admit, I was taken in with the good press preceding the release of the Wolverine Origins movie. Months before its release date – it was a simpler time, then – there was naught but hopeful news: they were bringing in the director of Tsotsi – he makes real movies! Liev Schreiber was set to play Sabretooth – that guy does Shakespeare in the Park! Will.I.Am was going to be involved – he…is a person! I’ve heard movies referred to as abortions before, but the label seems less than apt for the mess that resulted here. This disaster was taken fully to term, and is more akin to the unholy progeny of a mortal and the corporeal avatar of an eldritch god; it exists as an abomination, all claws and teeth and wriggling tentacles, and must be put down with the aide of a priest. Anyway. Despite its namesake’s shortcomings, the game based on the movie (X-men Origins: Wolverine Uncaged Edition!) is a constant joy. I’ve thus far played only the demo, but it succeeds by the three primary measures of a Wolverine video game, being:

  1. Do you have claws?

  2. Are you the best at what you do?

  3. Is what you do very nice?

The answer to questions 1 and 2 is a resounding “yes”. I'd say point 3 is more a matter of perspective. The game does, however, raise an interesting question. It’s really remarkably similar to the God of War franchise, in that the player utilizes a few drastically simplified commands to hack and slash through a constant onslaught of enemies. I’ve managed to pick up both games fairly easily, which always makes me suspicious: if I can play these games well, and am generally bad at modern video games, are these games too easy? Both Wolverine and GoW deny the necessity – indeed, even the practicality – of long, complicated button combos in favor of simpler, more intuitive controls, and I like that. (Sure, they do reward players who master dodging and blocking, but only to a point; really, true believers, how often does Wolverine dodge?) One thing that always frustrates me about new games is the memorization and association process by which a player begins to link, mentally, the need to jump or dodge or punch with the A or B or X button. I’ve never had that natural feel for the controller, leading me to jump when I meant to dodge, or punch when I meant to jump. Or, in the case of Metal Gear Solid, to do a charming jig when I REALLY BADLY NEEDED TO HIDE. However, I recognize that part of the charm of any game – from the latest Blizzard release to, say, chess – lies in a player’s slow, steady accrual of skill. I generally dislike the Tekken series, but I appreciate that its routine use of 7- and 8-button combinations rewards dedication in a way that Wolverine and GoW never will; one can become only so adept at slashing one’s enemies before further practice will no longer reap a significant benefit. What’s more, both GoW and Wolverine make heavy use of interactive Quicktime events. I know these have been much maligned on Teh Internets, but I enjoy them: they allow a player to feel involved in the execution of a particularly stunning maneuver without the weeks of button-mashing frustration it would take to learn to perform these feats manually. Further, while they have been derided as arbitrary, I can’t understand how they’re any more or less arbitrary than any other video game technique; there’s no innate connection between a high kick and the Y button, despite what Mortal Kombat may say to the contrary, so why hold that same tenuous association against Quicktime events? Anyway, what do you think? Do you enjoy video games where the controls themselves throw up barriers that must be overcome? Or do you prefer simplified games more focused on immersive simulation? I like a game that’s fun as soon as you plug it in, but I can understand the appeal of titles that require the devotion of more time; there is a sense of achievement in a successful Left 4 Dead session that I doubt Wolverine will ever convey. In a game like Wolverine – or The Force Unleashed, or Ninja Gaiden – do you want to feel like a mutant killing machine (or Jedi, or ninja) immediately? Or do you want to earn your claws over time?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Start Screen

by C.T. Hutt

Greetings readers,

I’m C.T. Hutt, a Washington professional, aspiring writer, and, like my colleagues, lifelong aficionado of video games. Let me preface my introduction by saying that this manner of commentary is long overdue. While many out there in the literary world shake with trepidation over the implications of Amazon’s new gadget the Kindle 2 I’d like to point out that this doohickey is just one of many steps toward a new and exciting literary world. However, this path was not started in the golden age of the internet, no, it all began a long time ago.

Let me take you all the way back. In the beginning, there was Pong. Two little white pixel bars and a bouncing square that changed the world. Players would maneuver their bar so as to knock the square off the screen on their opponent’s side. Doing so gained a player points, satisfying both the early gamers’ need to gloat at an opponent’s failing and the bizarre evolutionary adaptation that makes people fascinated by rising numbers. For a long time, the reward of points was enough to keep arcade jockeys dropping quarters into slots across the globe. Driven to gaming by a lack of social graces and athletic ability, having more points than the next set of initials was all the first gamers could aspire to. The industry responded to their needs, providing them with new and creative ways to feed their addiction to big shiny numbers. Space Invaders, Asteroids, Frogger, Pac Man (who was not a man but merely a shape) and so many other variations, all were designed on the basic premise that getting points was a good thing. Then along came the plumber who dared to upset the balance. In 1981, just two years before yours truly hit the scene, Shigeru Miyamoto’s famous protagonist said to the world “Itsa me Mario!”

Here was something all together new, a video game character that looked like a person, a tiny blockular person, but a person. Gamers now found themselves in control of another human being (sort of). As the first actual character in the video gaming world, Mario needed some kind of motivation to get off his lazy plumber ass and do something. From his attire, it was clear that Mario was of good lower class working stock, not the kind of deviant who would be satisfied spending time running after points. Then we met the princess, helpless captive of an antisocial simian, Donkey Kong. A title wave of new dimensions hit the gaming scene. Now we had animosity, revenge, fear, triumph, betrayal, love, and the entire pallet of the human experience to motivate our digital avatars, video games had become stories.

As momentous as this epiphany was, writing in video games has been one of the slowest aspects of the experience to evolve. Indeed, even on the sleek animal that is our current standard of game, story remains a freakishly underdeveloped limb; still necessary for survival, but often a glaring flaw in otherwise excellent games.

I will be reviewing the stories of video games, taking particular note of excellent specimens and stinking failures in all categories.

Hit Reset

Hi there! Like Daniel, I was introduced to gaming with Mario and Duck Hunt at a friend’s house. Unlike Daniel – and, likely, most people reading this – I failed entirely to grasp Mario’s reasonably simple controls: I held the controller in my hand and behaved in a way that I hoped Mario would emulate, eschewing buttons in favor of full body performance art. When I wanted Mario to run, I’d jog in place; when I wanted him to jump, I’d jump. I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the basic conceit assumed by Mario (and nearly every game to follow), which is to say, I couldn’t translate athletic feats into appropriate combinations of buttons. I’m glad we weren’t playing Tekken. It would’ve been ugly. My tastes have evolved since then, while my skills, sadly, have remained more or less unchanged. I am a kind of remarkable canary in the gaming mines – I am sent in to new games to discover new and exciting methods by which a character can be murdered. Zelda 64 was the first game that really drove home my inability to perform basic virtual functions: using a joystick to “walk” in a straight line became an integral part of gaming, and I could not muster enough coordination to do anything but weave and bob like a drunken tourist in search of his hostel. Lava was a hazard, as were cliffs, and enemies requiring “speed” or “accuracy” or “doing anything while running” became impossible obstacles. So now, I appreciate the quality of many new games – Left 4 Dead is stunningly addictive, and everything I’ve seen of Mass Effect has impressed me – but I really only play games consistently if they require a minimum of digital dexterity. The Civilization series holds a special place in my heart, as do traditional Japanese RPGs. Portal was incredible, but watching me play it was like being trapped in a theatre showing a snuff film on a loop. Anyway, I’ll be writing my take on being bad at good games, which I hope will serve as both warning and entertainment to gamers with hardcore tastes and casual skills. Want to know where you’ll die – repeatedly – in the newest Metal Gear? Want to find out when friendly fire isn’t so friendly? Ever wondered why a rocket launcher isn’t considered a “melee” weapon? I’m your man! So let’s hit reset and try again!

New Game +

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Let's all raise our glasses to the start of something new! We've all been playing and thinking about video games since we were wee things, and we've decided that those thoughts are often worth sharing and discussing. Here's hoping you all agree.

As for me, I got my start in gaming by going over to a friend's house after school to play with his Nintendo. We took turns on Mario and Duck Hunt, until he got a Super Nintendo and proceeded to thrash me at Street Fighter over and over again. I now greatly prefer co-operative gaming to competitive, and I'm sure that this traumatic memory has something to do with it.

My first gaming machine was a computer, and I played adventure games for years: King's Quest, Space Quest, Quest for Glory. I went on lots of quests. I later played Zelda and started in on Final Fantasy and other Japanese RPGs (more quests!). In college, I even ran quests on a Neverwinter Nights persistent world. One could say quests loom large in my legend.

The first Half-Life was my gateway shooter.

And just to give you a sense of my current tastes, here are my top five games of the last few years:

1. Portal
2. Braid
3. Bioshock
4. Half-Life 2: Episode 2
5. Fallout 3

I've also been catching up on the back catalog of awesome, and would put Psychonauts, Beyond Good & Evil and Eternal Darkness on that list if I wasn't so woefully behind the curve on them. I buy pretty much every game BioWare puts out. I am ashamed to admit that I have yet to finish Shadow of the Colossus. This will be remedied!

This is my New Game +, since I have done a lot of levelling up on the way to where I am now, but there's still a lot I want to accomplish, and a few alternate endings that have yet to be seen. But enough about me! There are more contributors to introduce, and then we'll really get down to the nitty-gritty.

Welcome to Press Pause to Reflect. Let's take our time, and think about what we play.