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 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.”
*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.