Wednesday, June 30, 2010

We Need to Talk

You may have noticed that we've been less attentive of late. We just want you to know that it's not your fault. Our eyes aren't wandering to other projects because we don't like you. You're the best, you really are. In fact, you deserve better. I hope we can still be friends.

And who knows? Maybe we'll be back some day. It's possible. But let's not build up unrealistic expectations. Things change, people change. We're moving on. If we come back and you've found other blogs, we won't be angry. We hope you find happiness.

Thanks for all the memories. The archives will stay, but comments are closed.


Monday, June 7, 2010

No Need to Explain

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Alan Wake is the creator and the protagonist of the world he inhabits. Whether he is living through one of his own stories, dreaming, or insane, his personality informs every element of the narrative. After playing Remedy’s Max Payne games, I expected Wake to be more two-dimensional than he is. He is impatient and quick to anger with his wife but his devotion to her is clear. More interesting is the fact that his writing is riddled with clichés which are then reflected in the world he inhabits. In another context, I might call the Taken (shadowy figures controlled by darkness) poorly written, but Remedy has pulled a little trick to remove themselves from this criticism: They are Wake’s creation, so their cheesy design can only be blamed on him.


Friday, June 4, 2010

Collect Everything

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Collectible items have become standard fare in video games. If you haven’t collected all the flags in Assassin’s Creed or shot all the stars in Resident Evil 5, there’s still some meaningless task left to be accomplished. As irritating as those two examples are, however, it is possible to make collectible items a valuable part of the game experience.

Let’s talk about how:


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Red Dead Refreshing

by C.T. Hutt

In true Rockstar tradition, Red Dead Redemption is an open world free-for-all third person shooter with copious gunplay and significant adult themes. Instead of taking place in an urban jungle, Red Dead Redemption is set in 1911 in the untamed American South West. Gameplay-wise, aside from a great deal more cattle rustlin’, varmint shootin’, bronco wranglin’, and roamin’ across the open prairie, this title mimics many of the themes found in the much loved but highly controversial Grand Theft Auto series. Unlike GTA, Red Dead Redemption also incorporates a roleplaying element which allows the player to decide what type of range rider they wish to be. Rockstar has also made the collection side quests and achievement based rewards a seamless part of the game. These factors, combined with a vast array of interesting characters, a massive world to explore, and some of the best environmental graphics I have ever seen make this title a definite step in the right direction for Rockstar.


Friday, May 21, 2010

Violence Is Not the Problem

by Daniel Bullard-Bates


Fair warning: the following post contains descriptions of brutal violence, as well as spoilers for God of War 3 and the movie Irreversible.

We return, time and time again, to the problem of violence in video games and other media. Does watching a gory movie make the viewer more comfortable with gore? Does murdering countless innocents in a fictional airport inspire real-life terrorism? Can a bit of the old ultraviolence permanently scar society?


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Addiction or Entertainment?

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Some video games are designed to deliver a complete, finite experience. Sometimes these games deliver story and character arcs, other times merely a series of levels with little to no narrative coherency. These can vary in length, lasting anywhere from a few minutes to many hours, but at the end of that play time, the game is over.
                   
Other games are designed to be played eternally. Even their so-called endings are frail veneers of finality. There is always something more to do. Games like The Sims, World of Warcraft, and Peggle are frequently referred to as “addictive,” which is not a quality one normally seeks out in a product. Still, these games hold a powerful allure. They demand a great deal from the player. A truly addictive single player or multiplayer game can eclipse all other games.


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Humble Beginnings

by C.T. Hutt

I’d like you to imagine a major game developer. Are you picturing Activision or EA? Good choices. They work together for months creating the next blockbuster release. Like good little addicts you and I and hundreds of others line up around the block near a major retailer to be the first to put our hard-earned cash on the barrelhead and walk out of the store with a shiny new game in our clutches. However, after saving all your pennies and standing in line for hours, when you finally reach the cashier and they scan your intended purchase the price comes up as a question mark.

“What does that mean?” you ask the clerk.

“It means you can pay whatever you want,” says she.


Monday, May 10, 2010

Sleep is Death

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

When I first laid eyes on Sleep is Death, I was confounded. How can there be a compelling story with such dull, even hideous graphics? How will hosts guide an entire story in thirty seconds using this complicated interface? What if my stories don’t hold up? It takes some time to get past all that, but once the fog lifts the limitless potential of Sleep is Death is revealed.

It is difficult to talk about Sleep is Death without talking about the stories that result from play, and this is what makes Sleep is Death so fascinating: Each session is unique and personal. After spending some time familiarizing myself with the creator tools and host interface, I invited my friend Danielle to play a game with me. I’d prepared a story, using the setting included, about Lilith’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden.

The result was sometimes frustrating while we were playing, since the thirty seconds on the timer always seemed to be gone too fast, and this resulted in some unusual moments. We still had fun with our tale of dogs that could only look in one direction, women who seemed to be speaking from their nether regions, cowardly disappearing snakes, and one incredibly rude devil. Even funnier, we discovered, was the flipbook that resulted from our story. All our mistakes became part of the charm of the story.


Friday, May 7, 2010

One Up

As of today, we have been blogging for a full year. It’s been absolutely fantastic to share, argue, discuss, and refine ideas about the social and artistic merits of video games with all of you. We’ve made some good friends, talked to some great developers, and said some intelligent things and some less intelligent things. We have seen the awesome and terrible power of the internet.

Complete strangers have reposted our material and said it was worthwhile! Many thanks to everyone, and in particular to Ben Abraham, Mitch Krpata, and Eric Swain for keeping an eye on the site and deeming us worthy of a link every once in a while. We are humbled every time.

Other complete strangers have questioned us, critiqued us, and challenged our arguments! You know what? That’s valuable, too. Every comment you leave us adds to the ever-expanding dialog about our beloved medium and its place in society and the arts. Your input keeps us honest and adds to our collective understanding of video games, so keep those comments coming.

It’s been a great year, and we’re glad that you’re all here. It’s fine if you didn’t get us anything for our birthday. Your presence presents all the presents we presently desire. Oh, you insist on getting us something? Then tell your friends to swing by and check out the site if you think they might like it. There is a huge community of people out there interested in the same idea: that video games can challenge society and reach incredible artistic heights.

We want those people in our lives. Thanks for reading!


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Survival of the Daring

by C.T. Hutt

Times are tough; money is scarce. Even devoted gamers are forced to watch every penny they spend on their beloved pastime. So when a little blue hedgehog told me about a deal where I could get 48 classic Sega games for fifteen bucks I forked over the gold rings and bought a copy of Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection. I was raised in a Nintendo household, but I thought this might be a good opportunity study the fossil records of some classic games. After some contemplation, I’ve realized why Sega lost the console war of the late eighties. It wasn’t the archaic graphics or outdated control schemes that put me off these titles today; it was their total lack of innovation.

While Nintendo may be infamous for its reluctance to deal with adult themes or offer original plots and storylines, there is no denying that their innovations have shaped a great deal of the medium today. Sega, despite their superior graphics and sleeker spokes-character, was keen to refine and duplicate Nintendo’s ideas, but offered few of their own to the primordial stew of early video games.


Monday, May 3, 2010

Pong

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

In the beginning, there was Pong. Glorious Pong, with its gargantuan cabinet and two shining wheels. Progenitor Pong, revered ancestor of all video games. Pong, perfect in its symmetry: two dimensions, two colors, two players. Thus began the primal story.

I am Pong and you are Pong. We fight.


Friday, April 30, 2010

Basket Weaving, Orienteering, Tekken

by C.T. Hutt

When I read this week that the Cub Scouts were offering a new merit badge based on a young person’s skills as a video gamer I was floored. We are enthusiastic proponents of the video game medium, but even we will admit that there are limits to how far digital experiences should permeate our lives. Surely the Cub Scouts, an organization dedicated to teaching young people practical skills and encouraging them to explore the outdoors, is the wrong organization to promote the merits of an inherently indoor activity.

A quick glance at the Cub Scouts’ requirements for attaining the video game merit badge sheds some much needed light on the issue. Each required step necessary to attain this mark of recognition encourages young people to not just be gamers, but to be engaged gamers. The steps teach kids to budget their time, to pay attention to the game rating system, and most importantly to seek their parents advice on the suitability of a given title.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Permanent Collection

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Do you think there is anything interesting about Gears of War or its sequel, apart from the mechanics? Anything that will make you want to return to that game in some ill-imagined future? I'm thinking of trading them in, since they don't really offer any unique experiences I can think of, beyond the first playthrough. The story is laughable and other games have stolen their mechanics and improved them.

This is true of many games: You play through them once, maybe longer if they have some appealing mechanic or compelling multiplayer, and then you forget them forever. I enjoyed Mirror's Edge, Darksiders, the Professor Layton games, and Assassin's Creed, but I don't see myself returning to them.

A lot of people trade in every game they've finished, but I keep all my favorites. There are some works of fiction that I return to frequently; I play Half-Life 2 as often as I read Slaughterhouse-Five or watch Brazil. It is unthinkable that any of them would be absent from my permanent collection.   


Monday, April 26, 2010

Violent Video Games and the Supreme Court

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

The Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari this morning in Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants, a case regarding the constitutionality of a state law which may have serious ramifications for the distribution of video games. The state of California made the appeal, asking that the Court enable states to completely ban the sale or rental of violent games to customers less than eighteen years of age.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dasvidaniya, Martian

by C.T. Hutt

By night, the streets are hushed. To a blind man it might seem as though civilization was never established on the inhospitable soil of the motherland. The disastrous economic policies of a detached and archaic government have left the once proud civilization in ruins. Clinging to a decadent past, the tyrants of old have tightened their grip around the throat of the populace, muting their cries for reform. Even still, in a dark basement in the most rural and secluded corner of the nation a few dedicated individuals dare to huddle together and between them whisper a single word against the oppressive silence: revolution.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

More Responses to Ebert

Lots of excellent responses to Ebert's article on why video games can never be art have  been cropping up since he posted it. Here are the best ones I've seen since posting my own response:

Kellee Santiago responds, explaining the talk that she gave at USC and critiquing Ebert's response to the arguments she presented in said talk.

Adam Serwer offers his perspective on the American Prospect blog.

Brian Ashcraft presents a thorough analysis of Ebert's authority as a film critic and lack of authority as a video game critic on Kotaku.

NaviFairy of GayGamer.net takes issue with Ebert's claim that you always "win" a video game.

On a lighter note, Kirk Hamilton of Gamer Melodico has put together a flow chart which Ebert should consult the next time he sits down to write about video games.

Over at IGN, Mike Thomsen points out some of the illuminating artistic criticism that has been written by actual video game critics, and eloquently explains some of the key differences between video games and other games.

Though they certainly don't need me to link to them, Penny Arcade has offered some concise commentary, both in blog and comic form.

Send us an e-mail or comment with your favorite posts or your own responses, and we'll endeavor to compile all the best arguments here.


Monday, April 19, 2010

Why Roger Ebert Is Wrong About Video Games

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

“Obviously, I’m hopelessly handicapped because of my love of cinema…”
Roger Ebert

After reading Roger Ebert’s new diatribe against video games as an art form, I wrote an obnoxiously long, point-by-point response to his arguments. Re-reading it in a less heated state, however, I found that I continued to return to one point in particular, which may be more valuable than any other in understanding Ebert’s close-mindedness. The simple response to Ebert is this: He doesn’t know very much about video games.


Friday, April 16, 2010

Brush Your Teeth, Finish Your Raid, and Go to Bed


by C.T. Hutt


Childhood videogame addiction has become the new darling scapegoat of fussy PTAs and politicians; the phenomenon is blamed for everything from slumping test scores to childhood obesity. When a new and pervasive problem like this is introduced to society, what can be done? Who could possibly step in to save helpless citizens? Say hello to our hero: a half-baked piece of domestic legislation.

The South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism announced this week that they will be implementing a country wide internet service restriction for six hours every night to curb online videogame addiction in minors. The so called “nighttime shutdown” will apply to most online video games available to young people in the hope of promoting better sleeping and study habits. This decree comes in the wake of a widely syndicated news story in Korea about a couple who let their infant child die of malnutrition while they played online games. Despite its good intentions, this decision sets a disastrous precedent for the place of government in our digital lives.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Double-Take: Rewards

by Daniel Bullard-Bates and C.T. Hutt

In our double-takes, we give our informal, conversational thoughts on a specific game or topic.

Daniel: Video games reward the player in a variety of ways. Some games reward the player's progress by showing them something awe-inspiring, be it a pre-rendered cut scene or a thrilling set piece. Others use new weapons, leveling up, and other systems of player empowerment. One classic reward system is the high score; a modern analogue is the achievement/trophy systems that have recently come into favor. No matter how a game doles them out, rewards are a key element of the pacing and design of most video games. How easily one reaps a game's rewards is also a large indicator of a game's difficulty.

So what are the most effective systems? The most satisfying rewards I have ever received from video games have been intellectual ones; to be more specific, I treasure the sense of victory that comes from solving a particularly interesting, intelligent puzzle. Braid was incredibly effective in this regard. I would get frustrated for a while, fiddle around with my various options for interaction, and eventually stumble on something that worked with a sense of sudden elation. Puzzle games are enthralling because they make the player feel intelligent when they successfully complete a challenge. This formula can also lead to discouragement and self-doubt, but to me, those hard-earned intellectual victories are worth the risk of feeling like an idiot from time to time.

So what video game rewards do you most crave, and why? 


Monday, April 12, 2010

To Thine Own Game Be True

by Daniel Bullard-Bates
I remember reading Fight Club and thinking, “There’s nobody I can think of who could better do this than [David] Fincher.” It’s like it was made for him. It’s the kind of text married to someone of his talents.
-Edward Norton, AV Club Interview
One of the greatest struggles of the artist is to discover one’s areas of expertise and come to terms with one’s limitations. This can be brutal and occasionally heartbreaking: One can’t help but feel sympathy for the person who dreams of being a painter only to discover they are colorblind, or the singer-songwriter who is hopelessly tone-deaf. It can also be empowering; discovering that one has a talent for the thing they most love to do is an awe-inspiring revelation.

In an interview with us last month, Kellee Santiago of thatgamecompany said that they avoid overt narratives as a company because, “None of us are professional storytellers nor have much experience in it, so why would we try and compete with games that hire extremely established writers?” A statement of this kind may seem obvious to many, but artistry is never so simple. Artistic creation is the stuff of dreams. Art tells us that we can do whatever we want to do. Kellee Santiago’s statement, to me, is both encouraging and humbling.


Friday, April 9, 2010

Release Day vs. Pay Day

by C.T. Hutt

For gamers with gainful employment and bills to pay, the fiscal impact of our favored hobby is significant. Consoles aren’t cheap and the television, sound system, and extra controllers that go along with them come at a premium; this is to say nothing about the resulting electricity bills or the cost of the games themselves. Unlike Mario, we can’t just pound our heads against brick walls until gold comes out of the stones, we work for our GPs and we work hard. Finding a good deal on games is an important consideration for savvy gamers, but doing so is complicated by the rise of digital distribution services, the popularity of DLC, and games which are released for multiple platforms. Assuming the experience is more or less uniform, why would a person pay more to play a game on their XBox when they could pay less for the same experience on a computer? Sales at brick-and-mortar stores like Gamestop and online promotions only add additional layers of confusion to the debacle. No matter how convoluted the algorithm may be to find the best price on a game there is only one rule that you always need to remember: the closer you are to the release date, the higher the price will be. So why does anyone buy a game on its release date?


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Jack White, Rock Band, and Dinosaurs Fighting to the Death

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

In a news post on Kotaku, Jack White is quoted saying that new musicians need to “quit playing video games, throw away their Auto-Tune program and cut three strings off their guitar.” I don’t disagree that this combination of actions might help a person improve as a musician, but this sort of absolutist argument has become tiresome; we hear the same complaints registered against video games time and again by the older generations of musicians. They’re partially right: you’re never going to become a great guitarist by playing Guitar Hero. On the other hand, no intelligent person is playing Rock Band or Guitar Hero hoping it will turn them into a musician, and it’s not nearly as bad as the anti-video game musicians claim it is. In fact, you might get some small musical benefits out of playing a well-crafted music game.

To illustrate my point, I will have to enter into full awkward self-disclosure time: When I was living in Greensboro, North Carolina, my friend Andy and I started a story-based rock band about two dinosaurs that showed up in the present day United States, their adventures, and their inevitable Highlander-style showdown. The band was called Saurus. Our major influences were The Flaming Lips, Frank Zappa, and Jet Li’s The One. This is all true. I have proof.


Monday, April 5, 2010

PAX East Report, Part 3

by Daniel Bullard-Bates


Just a few more games to talk about from the show floor.

Mafia 2 – Sebastien played this one while I watched and took some notes. The controls are very similar to Grand Theft Auto 4, but the setting is a little more flavorful and immersive. One major improvement over GTA4 is the fact that people react more realistically to the main character’s action. When Sebastien pulled a gun out, checking the controls, a passing police car stopped and police officers got out of the car and pointed their guns at him. As soon as he fired the gun, passersby began to run and scream away from the scene. It looks interesting, and if you’re in the market for a gangster game, it might hold lasting interest, but it looked far too similar to GTA4 in both setting and style to hold my interest. It’s set in the 40s and 50s, sure, but the city still looks a lot like New York City. I am experiencing an acute case of apathy regarding any more causing of mayhem in New York City.

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands – I wasn’t even paying attention to this game, assuming that it was a quick movie tie-in for the upcoming Jerry Bruckheimer production starring shirtless Jake Gyllenhaal. The gameplay actually looks pretty amazing, though: on top of the rewinding time mechanic from the gamecube-era Prince of Persia games, they’ve added elemental combat and magic. The section I watched had the Prince freezing time and using spigots of water as poles to vault between. Some combat was shown as well, and it looked chaotic and impressive, with large numbers of enemies on screen and devastating elemental attacks being used to destroy them, along with the Prince’s impressive acrobatic attacks. This looks far more promising than I expected, and like a return to form for the Prince.


Friday, April 2, 2010

PAX East Report, Part 2

by Sebastien Bolea, Guest Writer

Here are a few thoughts on Red Dead Redemption and The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile, both games which Sebastien played on the show floor of PAX East.

Red Dead Redemption

It took about an hour and a half of waiting to get my hands on Red Dead Redemption, and the demo was only about 15 minutes, but I was happy to do it.  I've been dreaming about an open world western ever since playing Outlaws by Lucasarts back in the day, and Red Dead did not disappoint.  The demo was a quick ride through the desert to pick up a mission from a demented grave robber.  The job had me shooting my way into a mansion to get my dirty mitts on a chest full o' gold.  From start to finish, the game feels like GTA4.  Riding your horse isn't really that different from driving a car, although you can summon your ride with a whistle a la Ocarina of Time, and if you wear out the horse's stamina the proud cut stallion will buck you off.  The shooting mechanics will also feel familiar, from aiming to taking cover, only slightly more polished.  Weapons are selected on a wheel instead of cycled through a list, and your health regenerates in the style of many modern shooters.


Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Reflections with thatgamecompany

by C.T. Hutt


Last year, we awarded Flower our Select [Button] game of the year award. Kellee Santiago, Co-Founder and President of thatgamecompany, was kind enough to answer a few questions for us about the process of independent game development, the role of the gaming medium in the world of art, and what went into making such an ambitious game.

PPTR: Flower contained some significant political themes. Do you believe that game developers have a responsibility to address social issues? If so, how do you balance that responsibility against your interest to succeed financially and draw in a wide audience? 

Kellee: We left Flower open to interpretation. We wanted an experience that was evocative enough to trigger an emotional response in the player, and open-ended enough to allow the player to bring their own backgrounds, political affiliations, memories, etc to the game. Part of the core experience of Flower is that interaction of the mind, which we find to be more valuable and meaningful to people, especially older gamers.

The only responsibility I think game developers have is to use their medium wisely. Interaction is a powerful medium, and it can be used to greatly improve the quality of life for many people. At TGC's offices, we often use the word "relevant" to describe an emotional goal for our projects. We strive to create video games that anyone can relate to and derive meaning and value. We respect our player's time and money and want to show that in everything we do.


Monday, March 29, 2010

PAX East Report, Part 1

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

I just got back from PAX East this morning, and instead of sleeping all day and recuperating, I am bringing facts and impressions straight to you, dear reader. Today I will focus on the independent and less well-known games. There will be more of these in the coming days. Maybe even some photographic evidence. We'll see. Enough preamble, let's talk about some games:


Friday, March 26, 2010

Double Take: Why is that Sexy?

by Daniel Bullard-Bates and C.T. Hutt


C.T.: In the beginning, the video game consumer market was mostly composed of boys, young men (ages 6-13) who wore denim jackets and sported mullets (oh, the eighties). It was an innocent time, a time of Paperboy and Punch-Out, a time when adult themes and weighty social considerations didn’t really factor in for developers any more than it did for us. Time marched on, as it does, and we (the key market) grew up (kind of). As our intellectual curiosity began to percolate so too did a volatile potion of hormones. Suddenly, we wanted more from our games. We wanted relevance, we wanted character, and we wanted the mysteries of our lives reflected on the screen in a dazzling display of high technology with controls at our fingertips. Above all, we wanted sex. The blossoming medium and an ever expanding base of developers were happy to respond to our demands. Just like the genie of Arabic lore our wishes were granted, but not without consequences.

Sex and other adult themes are now a part of video gaming. As an inherently complicated subject for many homo sapiens, it is no surprise that the portrayal of sex and sexuality in games gets into some pretty dicey territory. With this Double Take we are going to be discussing instances where the medium took the inclusion of sexuality in some confusing and occasionally misguided directions.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Playing With Your Brain


by C.T. Hutt

As we discussed in a recent double take, there are certain crimes that video games can commit that make us willing to drop our controllers, jump out a window, or drop our controllers out a window. These affronts are easy to spot, but there is another subtle feature in many games which is often overlooked, but which can sink a title faster than Link’s iron boots: poor management of our mental engagement.

Most games are a study in intuitive induction. We try to make Mario jump across a chasm and then we observe the results: he falls to his death. We keep trying different things until we realize that we need the raccoon costume to fly across. Not only have we used our mental faculties to overcome this obstacle with induction, the next time we come across a chasm we can use deduction to apply the chasm/raccoon law of Mario science to the problem. To add another level of stimulation, truly outstanding games like Braid make us constantly question previously established ideas. When our minds are constantly active, the game is doing a good job.


Monday, March 22, 2010

Skip This Track

by Daniel Bullard-Bates 

“Supposedly Cousteau and his cronies invented the idea of putting walkie-talkies into the helmet. But we made ours with a special rabbit ear on the top so we could pipe in some music.”
-Steve Zissou

Modern video games give us a number of ways to customize our experiences; we can change the outfits the characters wear, the weapons and vehicles they use, and in some cases even change the appearances, skills, and powers of the characters themselves. This is one of the great advantages of the interactivity and malleability of video games: they allow us to have unique, individual experiences that fit our tastes. So why are we stuck with the soundtracks the designers have chosen?


Friday, March 19, 2010

Beyond Good and Evil

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

A great number of keyboards have been put to use decrying the simplistic moral choices that have insinuated themselves into many video games. Some developers have attempted to remedy this by presenting more complex moral conundrums, such as those present in sections of Dragon Age and Heavy Rain. However, in the process of complicating moral issues for the player, some games have changed the choices so that they are no longer about good and evil at all. BioShock 2 and Heavy Rain present players with major choices, but they ask a different question entirely: do you want to act in-character and confine yourself to the intended narrative, or exert your power of choice and do something out-of-character?

Spoilers follow for both BioShock 2 and Heavy Rain.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

It’s the War Economy, Stupid

by C.T. Hutt

"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961


Through a combination of masochism and insomnia I finished the last chapter of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots over the weekend. From a social standpoint, this game has a lot to say about the nature of war and the human capacity for violence and terror. It also offers an alternative look at history. Artistically, MGS4 boasts incredible graphics and a nuanced (though confusing) storyline. While I take issue with some of Hideo Kojima’s choices with regard to his female characters (i.e. no matter what military rank they achieve or how badass they appear, every girl secretly dreams about being a bride), there is no question that he has given each and every one of his characters a great deal of care and attention. With such a multifaceted gaming experience fresh in my mind, surely any number of these aspects of MGS4 could be the source of an interesting discussion, but I believe the most fascinating thing to consider about this title is how it addresses a topic which many people find hopelessly dull: economics.


Monday, March 15, 2010

What’s New at PPTR?

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

We’re always trying to make Press Pause to Reflect a better place for you, our readers. In light of that fact, a number of things are changing.

We are going to start doing pro bono advertising for independent games and video game related projects. Independent game designers or people with video game projects who would like to take advantage of this service should contact us at info@presspausetoreflect.com. We’re not going to advertise for something we know nothing about, so you have our personal guarantee that every advertisement on this site is for a product or project we support. We want to make sure all our content is worthy of your time and consideration.

We added a blogroll to the front page titled “Leaderboard.” The sites at the top of the list are the ones that have updated most recently, but they are all worth your time. It is currently populated by our very favorite writers and the sites that wrestle with the same ideas we find important here. If your blog is not there, and you would like it to be, e-mail us. No promises, but if we dig what you’re doing, there’s a good chance we will add you onto the list.


Friday, March 12, 2010

Double-Take: Forgiveness

by Daniel Bullard-Bates and C.T. Hutt

In our double-takes, we give our informal, conversational thoughts on a specific game or topic.

Daniel: I've been thinking a lot lately about what we can and cannot forgive in a video game. Games with completely inane characters, terrible writing, and paper-thin plots frequently sell extraordinarily well and even reach critical acclaim despite their obvious shortcomings, while some innovative, incredible games with compelling stories fly entirely under the radar when the only criticisms leveled against them are things like overly complicated control schemes or poor level design. This says a lot about the way we approach video games: if our ability to interact with a created world is in some way hampered, all the great writing and characters in the world cannot save a game from its faults. This makes sense, of course; in a video game, interactivity is the defining feature. If interacting isn't fun, neither is the game.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

That Glorious Buttwit

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom is a difficult game to sum up, but here it goes: In World 5 of Braid (“Time and Decision”), whenever the player rewinds time, it creates a copy of Tim (the avatar) which does whatever the player did before rewinding time. One strange night, “Time and Decision” met a beautiful silent film actress in a bar, one thing led to another, and they had a child. They then raised that child entirely on pie and unusual insults constructed out of made-up words. They named it The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom.


Monday, March 8, 2010

Open Inventory, Equip Popcorn

by C.T. Hutt

I feel a deep kinship with Hideo Kojima, writer and director of the Metal Gear series. Anyone who has played one of his titles can tell you that he doesn’t shy away from extensive dialogue. Many of his previous titles are replete with lengthy cut scenes and exhaustive conversations between characters. When Mr. Kojima has a thought, he takes as much time as he needs to draw it out completely. No character is too small, no topic is too obscure, and no fact is too extraneous to be neglected in the scope of his discourse. In Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, characters not only talk about the mission at hand, they also chatter about their personal lives and make a great deal of small talk. There are cut scenes in this title which stretch on for more than an hour. All of which begs the question: is there such a thing as too much plot?

I say never! If a developer feels they need to include three or four cinematic length cut scenes into their product and take the time to make those sequences really shine I have no problem sitting through them. The development team at Kojima Productions went so far as to include a limited amount of interactivity (such as the ability to occasionally change the camera angle) to their scenes, giving the player some modicum of control. My only problem with such extensive visual story telling is that I wasn’t supplied with a standard set of VCR style controls to go with it. There is a pause function in the scenes in MGS4, which is good because we humans have needs like thirst and hunger, but come on, guys; I’ve got some other stuff to do. I never thought that I would need to save in the middle of a cut scene, but times have changed.

I have always considered cut scenes as a treat, a little bonus for the player when they complete a given task. Blizzard has always been particularly reliable for tossing in a select few pieces of brilliant animation into their games to keep us motivated. I’ve also come to expect them at the end of a title, serving as the proverbial carrot which entices us through the game. Before MGS4, I had never considered them as an integral part of the gaming experience itself. Now, having seen them utilized to such an extreme degree how will I ever be satisfied with a five minute action sequence and some scrolling text again?

The plain truth is that great stories are often complicated ones. In order to thrive, they need details and subtleties and they need a great deal of them. While the storyline of the entire Metal Gear series is often convoluted, the voice acting, visuals, and gameplay are of such peerless quality that I believe they haven’t wasted a single moment of our time.


Friday, March 5, 2010

Double-Take: Mass Effect 2

by C.T. Hutt and Daniel Bullard-Bates

We’re trying something new: giving our informal, conversational thoughts on a game we both played.

C.T.: Playing as a paragon male in Mass Effect 2, I was the soul of restraint and diplomacy. By always choosing the gentle and morally clear method of dealing with a conflict my commander Shephard saved the galaxy from annihilation, preserved the delicate political balance of the galactic council, and had a wholesome relationship with all his shipmates. What a swell guy.

Frankly, I’m all for diplomacy and reason in the real world, but between the wishy washy lectures my character delivered to his peers and the flavorless monotone of the voice acting I found myself wishing Han Solo would show up and start busting heads. While the over-arching plot was compelling enough to keep me blasting across the galaxy, I thought the main character was a real dud.

Daniel: I made the same mistake you did, Chris, but I rectified it early in the game.

I played through the first Mass Effect a few times with different characters, but my favorite two were my male paragon, Daniel, with whom I made all the decisions I thought I might make, and my female renegade, Lily (short for Lilith, of course). I started Mass Effect 2 with Daniel, but quickly became irritated with the casual style of the voice acting. There was a universe to save, and this guy just didn't seem up to the task. I switched to Lily, the female renegade, and the game unfurled gloriously before me. Jennifer Hale's voice acting is incredible, and Mass Effect 2, more than the original, seems geared towards the renegade option. I did countless amazingly badass things, cowed my shipmates into obedience, and didn't take any shit from anybody. I've heard complaints similar to yours from other people who have played the game, but only people who have played male paragons. Another friend of mine (Awkward Silence from the comments) mentioned that his Shepard would never have even worked with Cerberus, which was not a choice he had the liberty to make. I think that between the inferior voice acting and the renegade-focused storyline, the game is almost completely different depending on the character one chooses to play. This is an impressive feat in game design; it's just too bad that one of the options is a less compelling game.

The thing that impressed me most about Mass Effect 2 was the way that my character remained my own: I saw characters that I had helped or harmed, and had to come to terms with the consequences of some of my actions from the first games. There were a few quests and stories that I dropped the ball on in Mass Effect 2, but I decided not to reload and try again, instead opting to deal with the outcome in the third game. While my character's story arc was impressive, and I liked much of the supporting cast, I found the overall plot of Mass Effect 2 lackluster. Build a team, go on a tough mission, stop something bad from happening. The stakes seemed higher the first time around. It looks like they're raising them again for Mass Effect 3, though, so I'm not terribly concerned.

C.T.: I liked the story but it did seem to follow a pretty familiar formula. Evil machines want to wipe out all organic life but they need the help of some kind of bipedal organisms to do so, also some space zombies. ((BIG SPOILER)) Things felt a little bit twilight zonish when it was revealed that in order to carry out their mass cleansing they are creating a colossal genetic harbinger by distilling the essence of the most dangerous species in the galaxy: HUMANITY! How’s that for a look in the mirror, humanity? You like that? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Kind of cheesy, but not bad. I will say that I am dog tired of fighting a giant as the end boss. How many titles have we seen pull that little maneuver in the last year?

Daniel: I agree that the super giant robot person was over the top. Also, I'm not sure that the plan to create a human reaper was really that great. The Asari, for example, seem way more dangerous than humanity. How much scarier would a reaper be if it were based on a super powerful race of biotics that live for thousands of years? ((END BIG SPOILER)) It's clear to me that they didn't want to do too much to mess with the Mass Effect universe in this game so that they could make the third game make sense regardless of the choices made by players. This is sort of disappointing, but understandable.

One thing that frustrated me even more was the romantic element in the game. They did a great job of making most characters romantic possibilities, but only if you were playing a heterosexual character. As a homosexual female, my only option was Kelly, the assistant, who was perky and obnoxious and seemed to be interested, sexually, in any living being, with no real possibility for an interesting relationship. How is it that in the future, heteronormativity is even more popular than in the present? Or, for that matter, how is it that in BioWare's vision of a fantasy past (Dragon Age), there are more interesting homosexual romance options than there are in the future? Plenty of interspecies romance is acceptable in the future, but very little homosexuality? I think we've all learned, both from real history and science fiction shows like Star Trek, that societies generally become more liberal over time. Was there some big conservative resurgence around the idea of heterosexuality in the future? If so, why isn't it in the codex somewhere?

C.T.: My character made sweet wholesome love with the Quarian lady. The whole romance felt a little bit second grade.

“I like you.”
“Well gosh, Tali'Zorah vas Neema, I think you’re just a swell gal.”
“Really?”
“Really.”
*Nom nom, smack kiss*

While the two characters never shared a malt down at the diner at the edge of the universe, there didn’t seem to be much to their relationship other than a vague, stereotypical love interest. OK, granted, things became a little more interesting (read: painfully awkward) when the couple had to figure out a way to bypass the inevitable problems of cross-species copulation, but other than that it was pretty run of the mill.

That being said, they jammed a lot of material into this game. It is hard enough when developers have to work to create a believable world for us to explore, but Mass Effect takes place in a semi-open universe. That is a lot of ground for writers to cover and they still managed to do a decent job of it.

Daniel: I like that you could have a romance with a character from the first game who you didn't have feelings for at the time. It sort of implies that your character is more interested in being with people he trusts, instead of pushing his own boundaries and taking a risk on a stranger. Even if the romantic dialogue itself wasn't that interesting, I like the idea behind Tali as a romantic option. I wonder if they’ll explore the conflict that could result from your having two different love interests from the first two games. That's an area of life that most video games haven't even attempted to explore. Should be interesting.

Definitely one of the largest strengths of the Mass Effect series is the detailed universe they have created. In many ways it is based on a very generic version of science fiction, but they've imbued it with its own unique history and ideas. The Krogan genophage is a great idea that leads to a number of impressive moral quandaries, the way that the Asari reproduce neatly gets around the problem of interspecies reproduction (at least for them), and each planet has a detailed description, whether anything interesting happens there in-game or not. The universe has a history, and a well-considered one, which makes it a place worthy of exploration and I will be excited to return.

I still have so many exciting, unanswered questions: have the Reapers really existed forever, or have they just deluded themselves into believing that? Will my human-run council be any more supportive of me in the third game than the council was in the first? Will I get to punch the Illusive Man in the nose? And if the third game is the conclusion of the series, how huge will the consequences of my actions be for the universe? I'm a little disappointed by the storyline of Mass Effect 2, but as a continuation of the first and a bridge to the third, it was more than satisfying. I suppose my opinion of the first two games will be partially determined by the scope of the third.


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

BioShock 3

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

With two successful games in the BioShock franchise on store shelves, the writers and designers over at 2K Games are likely turning their minds to what comes next. Many, myself included, were concerned that BioShock needed no sequel, but BioShock 2 – while it may have lacked the raw originality of its predecessor – showed that there were great stories yet to be told in the city Andrew Ryan built. I offer up these suggestions, free of charge, for future BioShock iterations.

Some spoilers follow, major ones for BioShock, and lesser ones for BioShock 2.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
(William Shakespeare, from Hamlet)


The villains in the BioShock series, at least thus far, have been defined by their philosophies. Andrew Ryan, creator of the underwater city of Rapture and antagonist for most of the first game, was a Randian objectivist who trusted entirely in the free market and individual self-interest. Frank Fontaine, the secondary antagonist, was the kind of villain who would thrive in such an environment. In BioShock 2, Rapture is being rebuilt and reformed by a collectivist, Sofia Lamb, who leverages her personality and knowledge of psychology to gather the remaining citizens of the sunken city under her wing.

There are, of course, a number of political philosophies that have not yet been explored by the BioShock series, but Adam Serwer makes the excellent point in this post for The Atlantic that one of the weaknesses of BioShock 2’s premise is that:
“The collectivist cult of personality Lamb creates in the aftermath of Rapture's destruction is so clearly inspired by real-life monsters responsible for the death of millions (i.e. Stalin, Mao) that there's little payoff. It's not hard to imagine how Lamb's dream got twisted.

Ryan's fall is more interesting because we've never actually seen a society completely based on extreme libertarian ideals, so the reimagined sci-fi "Galt's Gulch" is fascinating.”
So instead of turning to yet another video game Machiavellian or Marxist gone horribly awry, BioShock 3 should look to some lesser known and infrequently explored political philosophies. How about a society ruled by Plato’s philosopher king, a figure who values wisdom and a complete understanding of every situation above all else? Social contract theory has worked its way into most modern political philosophy, but Rapture is a spectacular example of a place where lives are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” as Thomas Hobbes wrote. An antagonist who offered protection and stability in exchange for the relinquishing of all personal rights might make for an interesting character, something between a mob boss and a parent.

What about a society based on a twisted version of John Stuart Mill’s principle of Utilitarianism, in which every major decision is made so that the greatest number of people will be the most happy, regardless of any overarching ideas of justice or morality? The things that would make the remaining citizens of Rapture happy could be twisted indeed. Just thinking of the outcome, I worry for the poor little sisters.

“He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
(Friedrich Nietzsche, from Beyond Good and Evil)

Perhaps an even more exciting prospect is to make the player play the part of the political reformer, either working directly for someone who seeks to redeem Rapture through a new approach to governance or by giving the main character a voice and the means to influence the lunatics and splicers that roam the hallways of the underwater city. Their intentions could be noble and easily recognizable. What if they wanted to create a simple, direct democracy, and establish a system for voting? How about a few hints of socialism to help get Rapture on its feet, like healthcare to help citizens get over their Adam addictions and back into the workplace?

Seeing a political dream that became twisted over time can make for a compelling story, but seeing your own dream and your own decisions become corrupted over time could be even more powerful. Gone would be the simple, binary moral choices of the first two games, to save or harvest, spare or kill. Each decision would change the face of Rapture itself, at least for a little while. Moral quandaries would be so much more complicated; instead of deciding whether to be greedy or merciful, the player would be deciding whether it was in the common interest to kill an enemy of the new republic. Perhaps it would save many more lives in this time of transition, but then what would have become of their dream of peace and justice?

Regardless of what 2K Games decides, I am confident that there are many more exciting stories to be told in the world of BioShock, and I’m glad that there are such talented people behind the helm of one of the best original franchises to grace the video game medium in recent years.


Friday, February 26, 2010

Rated M for Real Maturity

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Last year, I wrote about my largest disappointment with the Nintendo Wii: that while it has made great strides toward bringing video gaming into the mainstream, the resulting games have placed narrative complexity and thematic maturity as low priorities. This year, Sony took a gamble on Heavy Rain, a mature, complex thriller that considers story, character development, and adult themes more important than action and titillation. It is mature in that it deals with adult issues and situations without gratuitous vulgarity and sexuality. It is the first M-rated game that I have played which is mature both for the fact that it is inappropriate for children and for the way that it honestly wrestles with difficult, adult problems.

Heavy Rain is a thriller. The story follows the lives of four individuals who each have an interest in tracking down the Origami Killer, a serial murderer. A father, an FBI agent, a private investigator, and a journalist are all working against the clock to rescue the latest kidnapping victim before they die. The story is interesting, if somewhat cliché, and some of the motivations and story hooks are less compelling than others. All told, the plot is serviceable, but not the most impressive thing about the game.

What really blows me away about Heavy Rain is its ability to explore complex emotions and difficult decisions. Over the course of the game, I felt a number of emotions a game has never made me feel before: guilt, gratefulness, hopelessness, and hope regained. I felt concerned about a stranger’s baby. I have no children in reality, but in the game I felt prepared to do anything to save my son. And there was no sign of a simple, black and white moral choice anywhere in the game. Every moral conflict was a complicated one. Every difficult choice felt desperate.

The other major success of the game is its accessibility. Typically, games with mature content and thematic elements are designed with a hardcore video game audience in mind. But the controls for Heavy Rain are easy to learn, and the difficulty settings are based around how familiar the player is with the PlayStation 3 controller.

Heavy Rain has the most impressive quicktime events I have ever played in a game. The action can be chaotic, but it is usually clear what button the player is supposed to push. Best of all, an error in button pushing or joystick moving doesn’t result in an instant failure and the need to restart. Each missed cue results in some small error on the part of the character on the screen; just like in reality, a person can make a few mistakes and still succeed overall. It lends each action sequence an air of legitimacy, and the characters remain human.

One of the other major features that sets Heavy Rain apart is the fact that there is no such thing as a game over screen: every failure remains. Character death is possible, but the story continues without them. Every in-game possibility leads to its own ending. This is a bold move for video games, which typically rely on a lot of replaying and frustration around difficult sections. Unless the player goes out of their way to replay a section of Heavy Rain, they will never need to do so.

Heavy Rain has its fair share of flaws. Sometimes the on-screen options are frustrating in their limitations, leaving very little room for player freedom of choice. The characters are a little too stuck in their ways of thinking, which can be frustrating to the player who thinks of a better solution. And, strangely for a game so focused on story and character interaction, the writing and acting can be weak at times. Oddly, the weaknesses in the acting come mostly from the voice work; the digital characters created for Heavy Rain are the most convincingly real human beings ever seen in a video game. But none of the game's flaws counteract the fact that Heavy Rain is a leap forward for maturity in video games.

It is my sincere hope that Heavy Rain will show consumers and game designers how much more potential there is in the video game medium than they saw before. Heavy Rain is an eye-opening experience; it shows that dramatic, compelling gameplay can be found in everyday experiences and emotions, and that we don’t need to play superhuman characters to triumph in the face of adversity. Heavy Rain is a triumph, in that it opens up to a wider audience without sacrificing its ambitions or the complexity of its themes. I can’t wait to see what comes next. 


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Game Can Wait

by C.T. Hutt


My apologies to all for my recent absence; these last two weeks I’ve been snowbound in the District of Columbia, bedridden by a freakish bout of garbanzo dip food poisoning, and, most recently, wandering through the natural splendor of the Rocky Mountains. It is that most recent adventure that I write about today, but first a little back story.

When I was about six years old, my parents brought me to Denver for a business trip. After the meeting in the city, which I do not recall at all, we traveled up the steady climb of route 70 though the rough foothills and into the soaring heights of the Rocky Mountains. The drive through the twisting switchback roads into the Fraser Valley made an indelible imprint on my young mind. Being quite young at the time, and having read Tolkien’s The Hobbit through and through, I was enchanted. The mountains stretched from the valley floor and reached all the way to the clouds above, like the mountain pass of Caradhras. I had my original Game Boy and a few books with me, as I usually did while traveling, but during the whole ride I was unable to shift my gaze from the car window. To my young mind, the trip was a grand adventure. Surely, hidden among the tall pines and stony crags of these impossible megaliths lived all manner of goblins and dwarves. I will never forget the journey for two reasons: one being the fantastic views and otherworldly beauty of the mountains, the other being a crusty hot dog I ate at a road side diner along the way which caused me to vomit profusely for the rest of the trip.

You will be glad to know that my most recent trip went much more smoothly. While food poisoning was once again part of my adventure, thankfully I got it out of the way before I left. I will spare you the horrific details of my regurgitation escapade; suffice it to say I may never look at hummus the same way again. Thankfully, I overcame my illness in time and last week, more than two decades after my initial foray, I returned to Colorado. I was greeted at Denver international airport by my mother and our charter van which would take us and eight other souls up the very same route I had traversed in my youth to the Winter Park Ski resort nestled in the heart of Arapahoe National Park. As it happens I was seated next to a young man named Jerald, a child of six years who was visiting the mountains for the first time.

Jerald, I learned, came all the way from Louisiana and had never been skiing in his life, nor had he ever seen a snow storm. As I am sure you can imagine, I was very eager to see his reaction to the sights that had so impressed themselves on me. As our van began its steady climb through the foothills, I enthralled the other captive passengers with a discussion on my knowledge of topographic lift and federal policies relating to the preservation of national parks. Jerald had lots of questions, and I had lots of answers and was delighted to be making a new friend. I paused in my discourse, much to the relief of some, only to sneer as we passed by a certain diner and began to roll up the switchback roads to our final destination.

Without warning, a flurry of snow descended into the pass. I gazed about with awe as the images I had cherished since childhood were recalled in full force and made even more glorious with the addition of this natural wonder. An accident on the narrow roads ahead gave me the opportunity to exit the vehicle and take in the breathtaking spectacle in full panoramic. I now have new memories to augment the old and that alone made the trip worthwhile. However, when I returned to the van I was dismayed to find that Jerald was not even peering out the window. Instead he had turned his attention to Spongebob Squarepants: Atlantis Squarepantis developed by THQ for the Nintendo DS.

To my credit, I did not vocalize my displeasure to either Jerald or his oblivious parents. While I will remember my trip fondly, this one aspect of it struck me as being rather sad. Here a young person was afforded a chance to experience one of earth’s great wonders, but instead spent the time playing a game. It feels like something very important was missed, an opportunity which may never present itself again, and despite my enduring affection for the video gaming medium I feel that it played a part in this unfortunate event.

The great journeys of our lives, events which take us far outside our normal routines, are sacred things. They deserve no less than the full measure of our curiosity and attention because stepping into the great wide world expands our understanding of it and of ourselves; this is especially true for children. That being said, there are moments during the course of modern travel which are, again especially for children, dull and restless times. During the long waits at terminals, the endless stuffy confinement of flights, or the lengthy imprisonment of car rides, the human mind begs for some form of escape. Mobile game systems like the Nintendo DS or PlayStation Portable are convenient vehicles for such release, but to use them to the exclusion of an entire journey is a terrible shame.

The answer, as it is with so many problems, is a balance: a balance which adults must manage for themselves and for their children. I would no more deny a child a game system than I would a good book, but that doesn’t mean they should read all the time either. This is a world filled with wonderful sights and experiences both in the natural and digital worlds, and there is no reason a child of this modern age should grow up without experiencing both.


Monday, February 22, 2010

The Insurmountable Foe

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Minor spoilers for BioShock 2, Dead Space, and Half-Life 2 follow.

The Big Sister in BioShock 2 was terrifying, at first. I saw only glimpses of her as she exited rooms or passed by windows. I knew we would be brought to a confrontation eventually, and I had no idea what to expect. She was as sturdy as a Big Daddy, but faster and more agile. She seemed more intelligent, and had unknown powers. The first time I was alone with her, she flooded the room and escaped unharmed. Now this was a worthy foe.

It was a little longer before I faced her directly, and when I did the fight was a hectic one. I used every attack in my arsenal to fend her off, emptying my weapons and hurling explosives her way, trying to shock her to keep her in one place. By the time she fled, the edges of my vision were darkened and I was bleeding profusely. I barely made it to a healing station.

The next time we met, the ensuing battle was similarly difficult, but at the end something unexpected happened: I killed her. I stood above the corpse of my worthiest of enemies and paused to think. Was this disappointment I felt? I knew that this meant there would be other Big Sisters, but the sense of fear was gone. No longer did I wonder whether I was the equal of the Big Sister in combat. I knew I could prevail, and would prevail again in the future. In that moment, staring down at my conquered foe, I felt confident that I could face anything that came my way.

Unfortunately, this all happened in the first quarter of BioShock 2: I defeated the enemy I previously believed undefeatable, relegating the Big Sister to the status of just another enemy. Even worse, shortly after that battle it became clear that the Big Sister would only confront me directly at specifically designated times in each level, and I learned to anticipate those confrontations and prepare for them. For that first, glorious hour, the Big Sister was something special. Then she became almost mundane, a difficult foe, but one that I knew how to kill.

The insurmountable foe, when done correctly, can be a spectacular change of pace in a video game. In most action-based games, we have learned to operate under the assumption that if it is placed before us, we can defeat it. The sections in games that reject this notion are almost always a dramatic shift; instead of standing to fight, the player must run or hide from a foe they cannot hope to overcome. Perhaps later in the game a weakness will be shown, or a new weapon will allow for new possibilities, but the pacing and tension that results from a shift in power is incredible. Usually, the player has the power to kill and overcome. When faced with an unstoppable force, the player becomes powerless.

Dead Space includes one enemy who regenerates any damage done to it. When first encountered, it seems to be nothing more than a particularly large and tough necromorph and the player can, with some skill, render the thing unable to attack by removing its limbs. When it gets up again, regenerating its lost limbs, the player has no option but to run. The subsequent section of gameplay is terrifying in a very different way from the rest of Dead Space; instead of shock scares and steadily building tension, the player is put in the position of the hunted fleeing for his or her life. In a game built to inspire fear, the variety is welcome. Unfortunately, Dead Space makes a similar error to that made by BioShock 2: the moment when the tables are turned and the player finds a way to defeat the enemy comes too soon. As a result, the player can relax. Other monsters may be around the next corner, but that one is conquered.

Dead Space also telegraphs the fact that the player cannot defeat the regenerating monster; there is always someone yelling in the main character’s ear when he should run and when he should stand and fight. The tension and fear in the opening section of BioShock 2 comes from the fact that I did not know whether I could defeat this foe. This made it both more frightening leading up the confrontation and more disappointing when the first Big Sister fell before my onslaught. But BioShock 2 also didn’t really provide an opportunity to flee. Sure, I could run for a little while, but she would always catch up. It was clear that the developers meant for me to fight until one of us died or she fled. I had no other option.

Older games are not always so kind about telegraphing their intentions. Final Fantasy IV, for example, includes a button that allows the player to flee from combat, but our experiences with most modern role-playing games teach us that most random encounters and monsters can be defeated with some good strategy. There are several enemies, even early on in Final Fantasy IV, for which this is not the case. The only way to learn is to be killed by these foes which are clearly well above the power level of the heroes. The game quickly teaches the player, through direct punishment, that when these monsters are seen, running is the only option. It’s a harsh learning curve, but effective.

There is a more elegant way of doing things, however. When looking for examples of spectacular game design, we often turn to Half-Life 2. Every time the player encounters a strider, those massive, spindly, and impossible tall tanks, the game changes into a game of cat and mouse, with the player’s shots pinging off the metallic hull until a weapon capable of taking the strider down is found. Running and gunning changes immediately into hiding, skulking and scrounging for ammunition. In Half-Life 2: Episode 2, one section in the antlion caves provides another desperate struggle. Faced with an enormous, deadly foe, Gordon Freeman’s only option is to flee from one small hiding place to the next, and hope that the enemy can’t fit in to chase him. These sections provide incredible examples of how to ratchet up the tension using enemies that can’t be stopped, even if the effect is only temporary.

One of the ways that Half-Life 2 creates this tension is by limiting the usefulness of certain weapons. Most of the guns in Half-Life 2 are entirely useless against the striders, so the player feels helpless until a rocket launcher or similarly powerful device is secured. BioShock 2 has a similar system, in which some ammunition does considerably more damage to Big Sisters than others, but a well-prepared player can make sure they are never caught at a disadvantage. Maybe this is just a sign that resources are too plentiful in the game; I only died once in the entire game, due to a distracting real-life cat. I’m not trying to brag, and I don’t consider myself an expert at first person shooters. Shooting expertise is unnecessary; you just need to manage resources well and have a sense of strategy. On the standard difficulty, resources seem abundant. Big Sisters don’t seem insurmountable; they just require a few more bullets and health kits than most enemies.

The basic benefit in including foes that cannot be stopped is the same that can be accomplished through creative level design, changes in pacing, and other tricks of design: it adds variety to the game. Sometimes the player must feel powerless so that they can feel empowered at a later time. Most video games opt for near-constant empowerment; the game may get difficult, but since the purpose of video games, for many, is escapism, the scenario is always winnable. Video game designers are so focused on making the player feel like a powerful, unstoppable winner that they forget that sometimes a great sense of triumph requires a series of failures, if only temporary ones. And everyone wants to feel, from time to time, like they achieved the impossible.


Monday, February 15, 2010

HD Violence

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Violence permeates our culture and entertainment in the United States. The film industry shows just how deeply our fascination with violence runs: the highest-grossing films of all time are mostly violent ones, like The Dark Knight and Avatar, and many of the most critically acclaimed films are steeped in violence as well, like City of God and The Wrestler. Some movies and television shows take a critical eye to the effect of violence on our culture – The Wire springs to mind – but not to the point of removing the violence from the finished work.

It goes beyond fictional entertainment as well. Football, our most popular sport in terms of television viewers, is about human beings hurling themselves into each other at high speeds, and serious injuries often result. Nascar is popular for the racing and the cars, but also for the possibility of a crash. Ultimate Fighting Championship and local fight clubs have become increasingly popular in recent years. And don’t get me started on the Saw and Hostel movies.

But nowhere is a culture of violence more clearly shown than in the world of video games. It is difficult to find non-violent video games aimed at an adult audience. In movies and television, there are comedies, histories, biographies, dramas and even musicals, none of which require violence to be compelling. But in video games, most funny or dramatic games still have violence; in fact, violence makes up the majority of gameplay. Think about the games that have come out this year. How quickly does the game teach you which button is the “attack” or “shoot” button? Even Mario leaps on his enemies’ heads and kills them. For points.

I don’t object to the idea of having violence be a major part of video games. In fact, I think many of the most impressive video games ever made have used violence as an effective part of the narrative. Half-Life 2 is a compelling story of one person’s struggle against an authoritarian government’s military might. More recently, I’ve been playing BioShock 2, which shows a world gone mad with violence as the result of political philosophies taken to their dark extremes. The violence in these games does not feel gratuitous because it serves the concept of the game. The mature content is present to fulfill the narrative and thematic goals, and not the other way around.

It is a shame, however, that the number of intelligent games that do not involve violence of any kind is so few. Non-violent, mature games are also almost entirely limited to the independent video game makers: Jason Rohrer’s Passage and thatgamecompany’s Flower are stellar examples. Portal was practically non-violent; the threat of player death was present, but for the most part there was no direct confrontation or harm caused by the player. But even less action-oriented games have become more violent in recent years: racing games have come to pride themselves on their realistic car crashes and vehicle damage. Some hockey games have whole mechanics added so that the player can get into fights in the middle of the game.

I bemoan the lack of variety in video games today, and the fact that video game makers do not believe that they could make compelling gameplay without violence, but most of all I am disturbed by the obsession with making violence more brutal, more detailed, and more gruesome. Violence is disturbing enough in reality; why would we want to make our leisure activities as horrifying as a real war or an actual car crash? Upgraded graphical possibilities lead us closer and closer to violence which looks and functions like violence does in the real world. In God of War, when Kratos pulls a polygonal enemy in half, it looks cartoonish and exaggerated. In God of War 3, when he splits open a centaur, its intestines spill out onto the ground. Suddenly this exaggerated series about the world of Greek myth is becoming gruesome and difficult to stomach.

I’m of two minds with the development of high-definition, realistic violence: in one sense, I don’t think violence should be easy to stomach. Violence is a terrible thing, and making it look less real for the sake of the audience is essentially whitewashing a real issue and creating unrealistic ideas of the consequences of terrible, violent actions. On the other hand, filling our entertainment with brutal, realistic violence desensitizes human beings to the realistic nature of violence. My stomach still turns when I see a drill in BioShock puncture a human being, no matter how spliced they are, but I am sure that there are some people who do not have that reaction. There are people across the United States, and elsewhere, who get excited about the blood and gore in the new Aliens vs. Predator game or the next in an unending series of torture porn movies. This disturbs me deeply.

Obviously, it is up to the parents of children to teach them a moral compass, explain the horrors of violence, teach them to be peaceful and kind, and keep them from consuming extremely violent media at a young, impressionable age. But as it becomes easier and easier for video games to portray realistic violence, game designers should examine how much they are willing to contribute to our society’s obsession with blood, guts and violence. While a great movie like Pan’s Labyrinth may have a few moments of brutal, realistic violence, games like BioShock 2 and God of War 3 make it the central gameplay mechanic of their entire games. Instead of one shocking and horrifying scene, gamers are playing through bloodbath after bloodbath, sometimes for hours at a time. A person with a solid moral foundation and a clear ability to distinguish fantasy from reality should be able to separate this from the real world, but that does not describe all people from all families.

Game designers should ask themselves how much responsibility they are willing to foist off onto the violence in other media and the failure of parents. Video games are not solely responsible for violence in our culture, but they are contributors, just like movies, television, and news outlets are contributors. As graphics become more realistic and the world’s fascination with violence grows, it begs several questions: How much violence do we want to add to an already violent world? Should we be striving for more realism in video game violence, or keep it so unrealistic that it is clearly separated from reality? At the very least, aren’t there a lot of other options for how to make an incredible game?