Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Hey! Listen!

By C.T. Hutt

Hey! Listen! Does that annoy you? Hey! Listen! Do you find it distracting? Hey! Listen! Do you find yourself losing interest in the article and instead fantasizing about how you could track me down and bludgeon me to death with my keyboard? Then it’s probably time to stop.

The Legend of Zelda was more than just another series to me, it was a staple of my early gaming experience. I have loved stories about swordplay and magic since I was old enough to read, and the original Zelda put me right in the driver’s seat. I faithfully played each new incarnation of my boyhood favorite, even that confused side scroller with the golden cartridge Zelda 2. Zelda for the SNES remains one of my all-time favorites and when Ocarina of Time came out for the Nintendo 64 I was positively giddy. Sadly, along with another dimension the Zelda series acquired a terrible disease: Navi.

Navi the fairy was your little guide to the world of Hyrule, constantly dispensing advice about how to overcome obstacles, no matter how banal. She was like Jiminy Cricket, only instead of guiding you through situations of moral turpitude she gave you detailed instructions on how to accomplish every task in the game. She fit right in your pocket so she was always right there, always watching, always advising. No matter how many times she repeated her advice, it was never quite enough for her. Apparently she just didn’t trust Link to get the job done, as per the example below:

Hey, listen. The spider web is in your way! You need to find a way to get past.

Hey, listen. You need to set the spider web on fire.

Hey, listen. Use a stick like a torch and set the spider web on fire.

Hey , listen. You set the stick on fire, now it is like a torch you can use to set fires.

Hey, Listen. Fire is very hot because it is flame and you can use it now to burn down things like spider webs because they are flammable.

Hey, listen. Good job, you burned down the spider web and can now progress forward past it because it is no longer in your way, because you burned it down.

Hey, listen. There’s a door. You can’t get through the door because it is locked. You need a key to unlock the door otherwise it will remain shut stopping you from passing through it.


As you can see this kind of advice goes well beyond good intentions and strays into the realm of mental abuse. I can only surmise that Navi in Zelda 64 was employed by Ganon to drive our hero insane. But Nintendo wasn’t finished defiling the series, oh no, not by a hook shot. After a lengthy hiatus I returned to my beloved series to see how it had changed during the years I was in an asylum, so a few months ago I popped in Zelda Twilight Princess for a test run. I was in sheer joy for a while; there was not a fairy in sight. My happiness was to be short lived. Enter a new side kick: Midna, who not only feels the need to vomit up unsolicited advice like her fey forbearer, but gets right into the action as well, making her abominable presence inseparable from the game play. With a sigh I set my controller down and turned away.

The Zelda series is not the only one where side characters seem to have a compulsive need to wax verbose about the obvious or the irrelevant. The Metal Gear Solid series is so thick with distractions and lengthy blather on the part of secondary and even tertiary characters that I often forget that I am playing an action game. The player cannot simply turn off their radio to ignore these chatterboxes; they make a special point of noting that the communication system in the game is wired directly to the avatar’s jaw bone. Like Zelda, I have a soft spot in my heart for the Metal Gear series, and I genuinely appreciate any game that makes an effort at adding some dialogue and plot into the mix, but when game play stops entirely to deliver dozens of communicator chats it becomes a burden rather than an enhancement.

In Okami, Capcom’s 2006 release where your avatar is a god-wolf named Amaterasu, you are accompanied by Issun, a tiny artist/sprite/insect. Issun is so tiny that he can hide on your person at all times, like a flea in Amaterasu’s divine fur, but not so tiny that he can be ignored. The otherwise beautiful game is punctuated by commentary from this miniscule vermin whose contributions to the title are limited to ham-fisted comic relief and constant re-iteration of what other characters have already said once before.

All of these side “helper” characters follow a standard formula. They are difficult to ignore and are a constant auditory distraction. They are either extremely small or incorporeal so that they cannot be thrown away, turned off, or destroyed. Without treatment I fear that these characters will find their way into other decent games like an infestation of talking pubic crabs.

I think I know why they may have originally been put into games. Developers grew so weary of people not being able to figure out and complete their games that they felt the need to over-compensate. They dropped these pint-sized nannies into the mix to spoon feed the gaming experience to us, not because we need it, not because it improves the games, but because they underestimate our ability to reason our way through their worlds. It’s a lazy, stop gap solution, and it has got to end.

Developers take note. Being interrupted every few seconds by an obnoxious talking flea, fairy, ghost, demon, air traffic controller, or whatever is not a fun time for us. It breaks the pacing of a game and reduces otherwise playable titles into exercises in madness. Part of the fun of being immersed in an interactive world is finding out what we are supposed to do by trial and error rather than having it constantly dripped on us like water torture. At least provide us the option of turning these annoying little helpers off.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Writing Their Way into History

By C.T. Hutt

Scribblenauts, for those who have been out of the gaming loop this last year, is a side-scrolling puzzle game by 5th cell. Your avatar solves a series of simple puzzles with the help of his magic notepad. The graphics are standard 2-D, the controls are awkward, and the plot is non-existent. In most cases I would simply dismiss such a title as tripe and move on with my day. However, Scribblenauts, despite its obvious shortcomings, employs a mechanic so revolutionary that it singlehandedly redeems the title.

The laughably simple premise of the game is to collect Starites (think coins, or points, or rings). These little things are scattered around a two dimensional world with standard physics (gravity pulls down, that’s about it). Starites are hidden in every imaginable place: up in trees, under bodies of water, in the mouths of demons, everywhere. In order to recover these little gems the player uses their stylus to write a proper noun. The item then appears on the screen for Maxwell to use. There are thousands of items to choose from all of which interact with each other and with the environment around you. For example: if you needed to sink a boat in order to acquire a Starite you could summon up an iceberg and drop it on the thing, or you could put a pile of meat on it then put a giant squid in the water, or you could strap a time bomb onto a platypus and let him swim nearby. Every puzzle has endless solutions; there is no static way to solve a given level. The fun in this game is found in the player’s own imagination and creativity. Scribblenauts is a modern playground, brilliant in its simplicity.

Bioshock was another game which presented the player with a variety of different routes to take to achieve success, but realistically there were only ever about five ways to get something done, be it the turning of a lever or the killing of some terrible mutant. While Scribblenauts lacks the superior graphics and compelling storyline of 2K’s masterpiece, its open-endedness is considerable. Given a little tweaking, almost any strategy a player can conceive of will eventually work. If this kind of variety was applied to a game with a plot and environment of Bioshock quality the result would be fantastic.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the game’s signature mechanic is how summoned items interact with each other. If you summon up a knight and a king, the knight will guard the king. If you summon up a knight and a hippie, they will regard each other with confusion. If you summon up a hippie and a bag of chips, the hippie will satisfy his munchies. While the depth for these characters and items is understandably limited, they each act according to their programmed nature. Material physics and independent NPC’s are hardly new to the medium, but I have never encountered them on such a grand scale. Scribblenauts represents a digital world where not just a few things, but nearly everything functions as it does in the drab old non-gaming world (given the limitations of the game's make up, of course). The execution of this mechanic is a little shaky in Scribblenauts, but I believe that this game represents another important step toward crossing the great valley between the artistic medium of gaming and this crazy place we call reality.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Violence Begetting Nonviolence

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Does video game violence desensitize children to real-life violence? Does it make people more likely to cause violence? These questions have been asked time and time again by the media, parents, and other concerned groups. It is possible that a violent video game may be a negative influence and it is clearly important that parents set boundaries for their children, but it also seems evident that those who take violent actions in video games (or any other form of entertainment) as inspiration for real world actions are having trouble distinguishing between reality and fantasy, which is hardly the fault of video games, films, and other media.

When I was younger, I struggled with a volatile temper. I frequently got into trouble for striking other children who made me angry and nearly lost a few friends as a result. I am a much calmer person today, so much so that newer friends express shock when they hear stories of my temperamental youth and outbursts of anger. At least partially, this may be because I have a place to vent my frustrations and violent tendencies: in a fictional world, where my actions have no real consequences. Instead of getting into real world fights, I take out my aggression in video games.

I've often made the argument that violent video games are a more helpful resource than most people realize. While they may be an inspiration to a few disturbed minds, there is no reason to believe that video games alone (or music, or film) could drive a person to real world violence. For many, however, they can be a helpful outlet instead. Video games can, essentially, be an aid to resisting anger and aggression.

In a recent interview with The Times of India, Trinley Dorje, the Karmapa Lama (a senior Buddhist leader) said:

Well, I view video games as something of an emotional therapy, a mundane level of emotional therapy for me. We all have emotions whether we're Buddhist practitioners or not, all of us have emotions, happy emotions, sad emotions, displeased emotions and we need to figure out a way to deal with them when they arise.

So, for me sometimes it can be a relief, a kind of decompression to just play some video games. If I'm having some negative thoughts or negative feelings, video games are one way in which I can release that energy in the context of the illusion of the game. I feel better afterwards.

The aggression that comes out in the video game satiates whatever desire I might have to express that feeling. For me, that's very skilful because when I do that I don't have to go and hit anyone over the head.
It's well past time that we put the old argument of "it's just a game" behind us. Like any art form, video games can be a positive or negative influence on the people who interact with them. It all depends on how we approach them and how well we examine the experience and how it affects us. And if we walk away from a game with more violent urges or less, it is because of who we are and how we think, not because of what the game contains.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Five Stars on a Song Your Mother Should Know

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

“I’ve seen enough things that should never have become art become art that this looks like a prime candidate to me if ever there was one. Rock ’n’ roll, or the Beatles, started as just sort of hillbilly music, just a passing phase, but now it’s revered as an art form because so much has been done in it. Same with comics, and I think same with video games.”

-Paul McCartney

I was raised, like many of my generation, on balanced meals and The Beatles. Even though they had stopped making music by the time I was born, they were of such great importance to my mother that a deep love of the band was passed on to me, which makes playing The Beatles: Rock Band a total joy.

There are some who claim that they don’t like The Beatles. To that I say: poppycock! The Beatles have such a large and varied library of songs and such a palatable sound that I find it hard to believe that anyone would reject them out of anything other than pointlessly hip iconoclasm. Whether one is a Beatles fan or not, it is hard to deny that The Beatles formed the foundation of pop and rock music today. So much of what we take for granted now, like verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus song structure and three minute singles for radio play, was set into place by The Beatles over their wildly successful career. They changed music. They made rock and roll popular across the universe.

This last week, The Beatles: Rock Band was released by Harmonix, the creators of the original Guitar Hero and Rock Band (the new Guitar Hero games are now made by rival company Neversoft). Unlike other music games focused on individual bands, The Beatles: Rock Band only uses tracks performed by the titular band, and does not include any covers or music inspired by the band. In opting for such a narrow focus, Harmonix beautifully reconstructs and mythologizes the career of The Beatles, from the Ed Sullivan Show to the final rooftop concert in London. The game provides plenty of material for new and old fans alike, through beautiful visual representations of songs, animated interludes, and unlockable secrets. By progressing through the game, players will find rarities like the 1963 Beatles Christmas Record or an early video of the band goofing around on a train during their first US tour. The love and care that has gone into the crafting of this game is abundantly clear. The people at Harmonix are incredible talents as well as enormous fans.

While The Beatles: Rock Band is primarily a beautiful tribute to a well-loved band, it is also designed to bridge the gap between two generations. The game explains itself to those unfamiliar with music games and their new controllers, even going so far as to include a sheet that explains how to hook up a console to the internet to download songs. The “Easy” mode of gameplay automatically makes it impossible to fail a given song, and it includes a training mode for the drums. In a way, much like The Beatles taught a generation about a new kind of music, The Beatles: Rock Band is now teaching them a new language, one familiar to those of us who have played music games before. I get the sense that video game fans the world over are hoping that this game will continue to bridge the gap between video games and popular culture, pushing the medium further into the mainstream.

When The Beatles first came onto the scene, they changed the world of music forever. Having risen in popularity throughout the 40s and 50s, Rock and roll was not a new genre, but when The Beatles rose to fame it was clear that rock and roll was a worldwide cultural phenomenon. Similarly, video games have been gaining traction in recent years, becoming more and more a part of popular culture. Does The Beatles: Rock Band do for video games what The Beatles did for music? With the music game genre losing some of its initial luster and sales, one can’t help but wonder whether The Beatles: Rock Band is the Ed Sullivan Show for video games as a whole, or the rooftop concert for the music game genre. The Beatles and video games have come a long way over the years. It’s good to see them come together, right now, and so spectacularly.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

No Country for Old Trolls

by C.T. Hutt

The first step toward recovery is admitting you have a problem. In the darkest period of my addiction there was no questioning that things had gotten out of control. My apartment was a mess, my health was in steady decline, and I spent most of my days and nights with only the sickly blue light of my monitor to keep me company. It was as though my avatar in World of Warcraft (Troll, Hunter, Lvl 60) was slowly consuming my strength. As my life declined, he became more powerful. Thankfully, in the spring of 2005 my computer suffered a terminal meltdown forcing me to spend several weeks without my precious. In that time, I was able to re-connect to my life. I shudder to think what would have become of me if I hadn’t gotten that digital monkey off my back. Perhaps I would have simply wasted away to a shadow, leaving only my online character to wander the plains of Azeroth alone.

I don’t play massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) anymore; I simply do not have the time. Whether you love them or hate them there is no denying the fact that they have become more than a passing fad. They have become a part of our culture. And I don’t mean “our” culture to mean gaming culture, American culture, or even western culture. MMOs have become a part of world culture. Eleven million people play WoW alone: from every corner of the globe people are signing in at this very moment to take a break from their lives and go slay a dragon or storm a castle with their buddies. If every single person in Ireland and every single person in Norway were to get together for one big game of capture the flag it would still be a smaller game than WoW. That goes beyond entertainment. That is a phenomenon. And WoW is hardly alone. Others like EVE online and Final Fantasy XI have respectable populations. But what are these places really? Beyond their value as amusements or distractions do they have any real social or artistic value?

Artistically, I think that so far MMOs have about as much value as a crackball machine. So long as the developers gets their nice shiny quarter and consumers get their sweet, sweet crack everyone is a winner. Crack here being entertainment value, and quarter being the eighty quarters a month players pay in subscription fees. There is no denying the presence of beautiful music, stunning visuals, and extensive creative writing present in these works. Still, MMOs are creations of function before form. If these games ever failed to keep us entertained or started losing their creators money, they would cease to be.

From a social standpoint I think MMOs are symptomatic of a colossal shift in human history. The advances furnished to us in the technological age have been so ground breaking, so fundamental to our understanding of the world and of each other that we really have no idea what they mean for society as a whole. Let’s approach WoW from a distance, cutting away all aspects such as context, style, and game play. Here is a forum where people from practically anywhere are able to gather, not physically, but using digital representatives of bodies. Anyone, from anywhere, may take part in this forum. Age, sex, race, religion, and appearance before entering the forum are completely irrelevant. Using their digital representatives, players work together and against each other to achieve various goals. I think it is either going to take historians or archaeologists to measure the width and breadth of the development of social anomalies like MMOs. Those of us stuck in the present are only seeing the very top of the rabbit hole.

I am hard pressed to think of a single other scenario where hundreds of complete strangers from all corners of the globe and all walks of life get together in their free time to work in unison to accomplish a given objective. Not only are people engaging in this activity in mind boggling numbers, they are paying for the privilege of doing so because they enjoy it so much. Taken outside of the gaming medium, what could the combined efforts of eleven million people accomplish? For some context, most modern Egyptologists believe that the pyramids where built by about twenty thousand souls, none of whom owned a PC.

I am curious to see what MMOs will evolve into as time goes on. There’s truly no limit to what they could mean to us as a society and while they may not be art themselves I appreciate the artistic aspects of them. I can only hope that developers will someday make one slightly less addictive so I can give them a try once again.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Batman: The Best Around

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

If my fifteen-year-old self had been asked to describe the ideal video game, I might have come up with something a lot like Batman: Arkham Asylum. It has all the elements a Batman game ought to have: crowd combat, stealth takedowns, even a little detective work. And it all works because the developers, Rocksteady, didn’t simply look to other games for their mechanics. Unlike in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which shamelessly apes God of War, Batman: Arkham Asylum uses unique mechanics and a by-the-comic-books approach to more accurately convey what it feels like to be Batman.

Combat has Batman whizzing from one opponent to the next, using timely button presses to counter incoming attacks, flip over the heads of opponents, and stun others. Even with a large number of thugs attacking, Batman is more than capable of holding his own. As it should be. When the enemies have guns, he takes a different approach. Sneaking around the room, swinging from a gargoyle to gargoyle, this is where the gameplay really shines. There’s no rote memorization of patrol patterns to learn here. Batman just watches until someone wanders off by themselves, and takes them down one by one. By the time there’s only one thug left, he’s panicked and his heart is racing, shooting at any noise he hears.

The plot of Batman: Arkham Asylum revolves around typical villainy by the Joker, made interesting mostly by the setting and clever use of Batman villains. How better to introduce a variety of Batman references and characters than by setting the game in the madhouse where all the Batman villains are kept? The island where Arkham Asylum sits is one of the big stars of the game, presenting a Metroid-esque level of exploration and discovery through the dark halls of the madhouse. And Joker isn’t the only member of the rogue’s gallery to make an appearance; Killer Croc, Harley Quinn and others show up, and my personal favorite Batman villain has some of the most surprising, incredible sequences in the game. I’d love to discuss them, but I wouldn’t want to spoil it.

My one complaint about the villainous cast is its relatively small size. While many villains have small cameos or references worked into the game, the asylum offers so many possibilities for villainous encounters that the absence of some major figures seems glaring. Then again, Batman villains spend about as much time broken out of Arkham as they do in it, so maybe they’re just saving a crew for the sequel.

There are some very clever touches done to make some video game clichés work in the Batman universe. The collectible items in the game, for example, are all riddles or objects left by the Riddler. Not only does it make sense for the Riddler to want to leave strange puzzles and clues all over the island, they even serve a purpose, both in experience gained to go towards a variety of skills and upgrades, and the ultimate goal of apprehending the Riddler. What is normally a tired means of extending gameplay is thus turned into something that actually makes the player feel like Batman.

The fifteen-year-old version of me would have called this game the greatest of all time. Over the years, I’ve come to look for more from my games than just a good time and some great mechanics, and I realize that my affection for the Batman character likely clouds my judgment. But Rocksteady have done something truly impressive here: they’ve created a game that accurately portrays the character, aesthetic and world of a superhero, and while the game has some issues (I agree that the final boss sequence is pretty silly), there are no faults glaring enough to spoil the experience. While the bar was not set incredibly high (superhero games are typically quite awful), they’ve easily made the best superhero game of all time. And for several days this past weekend, I felt like I was fifteen again, having a great time being Batman, just like I’ve always wanted. Hopefully this game will sell well, showing video game developers everywhere that when the superheroes we love are finally given the treatment they deserve, critics and gamers alike are thrilled.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Henry Hatsworth, the Fifth Beatle

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure is the video game equivalent of the Beatles: it has something for everyone. Well, the Beatles have a video game coming out today, so I guess that’s probably the video game equivalent of the Beatles. Maybe Henry Hatsworth is more like the fifth Beatle. You know, the elderly, adventurous, tea-swilling, robot-battle-suit-wearing Beatle. No, not Ringo. Regardless, Henry Hatsworth has all the elements needed to bridge the hardcore/casual divide, showing a great diversity of ideas and gameplay styles.

The plot of Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure is rather simple and absurd: Henry Hatsworth is an aging adventurer, seeking a legendary outfit made of gold, which has only been worn by the classiest of gentlemen. In the process of finding it, he unlocks the puzzle realm, which deposits all sorts of strange creatures into the world. Only by finding the whole golden suit will he be able to close off the nefarious puzzle realm! Weird stuff, but it fits with the odd aesthetic of the game.

What makes Henry Hatsworth so fascinating is that it/he serves as a diplomat between the hardcore and casual gaming communities. The game plays both sides, quite literally, using the DS dual-screen layout. The top screen is for the hardcore gamer: Henry Hatsworth travels the world with saber and pistol in tow, platforming and fighting monsters. There’s a combo system, special attacks, and challenging jumps to be had. Just to guarantee the affections of the hardcore, the very fact that this portion of the game takes up the top screen gives it the sense of priority and importance the hardcore gamer feels they deserve.

And then the bottom screen, devoted to the casual gamer, is a block-matching puzzle game. It’s on the user-friendly touch screen, it’s very simple to control, and the mechanics are quickly understood. Switch blocks, line up three or more of a kind, make them disappear. It can be done with the buttons or the stylus, it’s simple and fun, and it has a few flashy surprises.

The rest of the game is just unique ideas and touches of madness. Enemies defeated on the top screen enter the puzzle on the bottom. If you don’t erase them there, they return to plague the titular adventurer. There’s also a super meter that, when full, causes Hatsworth to drink some tea, shout "Good Show!" and transform into a ridiculous super robot.

We’ve spoken in the past about games that build bridges between hardcore and casual gamers. Some games build small highway bridges that freeze before the rest of the road. Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure is London Bridge. Good show!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Video Games Are Awesome Week

Here at Press Pause to Reflect, we spend a lot of time bemoaning the current state of affairs in the world of video games. We also love video games, which is why we want to point out the flaws and tired tropes of gaming, in the hope that they will improve under a critical eye.

This week, though, we're going to talk about a couple of recent games that are awesome for one or more reasons. Video games get enough stick from us. How about some carrot? Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Digital Ground Beneath Your Feet

By C.T. Hutt

Look up. Now down. Look at the walls surrounding you or the landscape in the distance. Disregard the people and things and consider the space. If you were a stranger to the area you are in now, what would you think of it? Does it seem comfortable? Familiar? What was this space designed to do? Was it designed at all, or does it exist naturally?

The programmers who create environments are unsung heroes of the game development world. While we often overlook something as banal as the ceiling tiles in the head-crab-infested hospital in Half-Life 2, or the water stains on the walls of ruins in Fallout 3, these minute aspects of the gaming world add immeasurably to the experience of a given title. The environment of a game is a character unto itself and unlike many facets of the medium, I believe that environmental design has been one of the greatest successes in game development history.

Shadow of the Colossus stands alone as simply one of the finest games I’ve ever played. The opening credits set the story as one of love lost, and the desperate struggle of a young man to get it back, no matter what the cost to the world, or to his own spirit. After being handed the task of killing the mighty colossi that roam the lands, your character steps out onto a vast plane, devoid of any signs of human life save for some dusty ruins. Truly massive though the colossi are, it takes considerable time to locate them in the expansive world. During the search the player has ample time to take in the scene around them. Empty would be the best way to describe the land the developers created, as empty as a broken heart. With no other characters to interact with or enemies to fight, the profound solitude of the environment is overwhelming. It sets the scene perfectly for a game as sobering as it is beautiful. And the colossi are environments to themselves, walking, living landscapes.

The strange combination of futuristic technology and old-timey decor that surrounds a player in Bioshock is overshadowed with every step by the feeling of being underwater. Not comfortably underwater mind you, but suffocating. The environment of BioShock makes the player feel as though they are dragging out the last gasp of air in drowning lungs for hours. Everything, and I do mean everything, in the environment is affected by the water. The bolts in the walls look rusty and ready to snap, the woodwork is swollen or rotted through, and everywhere you look there are puddles of brackish seawater. All these things and more are none-too-subtle reminders that the ocean does not welcome intruders and that a watery death is only ever moments away. Even if you weren’t being stalked by mutated horrors and soulless abominations, the environment in BioShock is absolutely terrifying.

It doesn’t take a huge studio or a multi-million dollar budget to create an immersive and engaging environment. The expansive woodland in The Path by Tale of Tales is a stylized version of a few acres of pine you might find behind your house. Aside from the interactive aspects of the game what makes the environment in The Path truly interesting is its subtle enhancements to reality. The light streaming through the trees, the peculiar twists of branches, it all seems very common, very real, but at the same time enhanced, altered into something more than the everyday. It took me some time to identify the feeling, but after a while it came to me. The environment in The Path is like that of a memory, sharp as a razor here and there, but soft around the edges. For a game covering themes such as the pleasures and pitfalls of innocence lost I think this was an excellent aesthetic choice on the part of Tale of Tales.

While certain aspects of gaming have been slow to evolve (story, character development, etc.) the medium as a whole has produced some incredibly immersive environments. It makes sense: aside from interactivity the greatest difference between a video games and other art forms is the worlds they take us to. Many great directors over the years have been praised for using the settings of their films as characters. Think of Ang Lee’s long shots of rolling landscapes in Brokeback Mountain or Stanley Kubrick's careful, slow pans over bright, empty outer space in 2001. But a film can survive on good characters, a fine script, and an environment that doesn’t ruin the moment.

Perhaps what sets video games apart in this regard is that the player controls the shot, not the director. The environment needs to be so much more detailed, so much more fully realized, than that of a film, because the player will push the boundaries. They will try to get behind each façade, jump off every cliff, and explore every corner. Through necessity, then, setting and environment in video games has become one of the greatest strengths of the artform: whether it is the colorful spheres of Super Mario Galaxy or the burned-out, corpse-riddled wasteland of Fallout 3, video games have done a fantastic job of building compelling worlds and environments.