Thursday, January 28, 2010

Trigger Pastime

by C.T. Hutt

Politicians and concerned parents often criticize video games for encouraging insensitivity towards violence. Children should not be allowed to play violent video games and it is incumbent upon parents to make sure that they do not do so. That being said, it is an undeniable fact that action, and often violent action, is the central mechanic of many video games. Without a dragon to slay, a cause to fight for, or a horde to overcome, many video games would be too boring to play. This precept might explain why the romantic comedy genre has not yet found a place in the popular gaming market. Action games such as Uncharted, Half-Life, Mass Effect, and Gears of War are among the most popular games in the medium and all rely on the challenge of being an effective killer and survivor. Developers are receptive to the player’s desire for realistic action, but are also fairly sensitive to growing concerns that kill crazy violence with no moral compass is not well received by mainstream media (please see every news story ever written on GTA). As gamers we want to square off against the most dangerous prey, humanity, but also want to believe that our characters are the good guys. As such, violence in action games is usually directed at enemies which walk and talk and fight like people, but for whom we feel little pity when blowing away en masse, such as:

Automated human beings are the optimal target for ethically clear mass murder. Unfeeling machines probably don’t have children back at home and, better still, they can’t even register injury on an emotional level. If you blast the arm off a Geth in Mass Effect, not only will it not feel pain, it won’t even take it personally. So long as developers shy away from issues like programmed self awareness and virtual personality, a robot is nothing more than a toaster with a gun. Gamers can sleep very soundly on a pile of dismembered cyborg limbs without so much as a nightmare (well, they would probably have a few).

In Gears of War, gamers are called on to do a whole lot of killing. Since pushing a chainsaw bayonet through the chest of a screaming human being might be considered mentally scarring to anyone, the Cogs in Gears of War square off against an army of human-like (but not quite human) monsters called Locusts. In Dragon Age: Origins the protagonist slaughters their way through thousands of demonic Darkspawn to reach their goals. Whether you are facing off against orcs, aliens, or genetically engineered freaks, what you are really fighting against is a personification of the dark side of humanity.

Dehumanizing one’s enemies is a propaganda tactic as old as war itself. So long as we can refer to our enemies as outsiders, whether we label them as a separate species or use a racial slur to describe them, we can justify taking their lives without feeling as though we have done anything wrong. Video games let us take this idea a step further and change the actual image of adversaries rather than just our perceptions of them, allowing us to pull the trigger again and again without stopping to ask why.

Now we’ve made the cross over from inhuman to human, but zombies just barely fit the category. When you put a bullet through a zombie’s rotting brain you are really doing it a favor. They are not, in the strictest sense, alive to begin with. As such, re-killing them is not only an action done to preserve your life, but to restore the natural order of things. No matter how many of the shambling corpse folk you mow down, the actual number of human beings you’ve killed will always remain at a family friendly zero. A zombie is, for all intents and purposes, a skin robot, and all the same robot moralities apply. The rag tag survivors in Left 4 Dead don’t need to say a Hail Mary for each of the infected they destroy; they are in the clear.


Since the end of World War 2, Germany has gone to great lengths to live down its recent past. Every nation on the planet with a shred of decency or ethics must eventually come face to face with its share of national shame. As leaders in the international effort to secure transnational peace and liberalization, I’m sure this feeling is especially acute for the citizens of modern Democratic Germany when games like The Saboteur and Call of Duty are released to serve as a reminder of the terrible events perpetrated by the National Socialist Workers Party under Adolf Hitler. As the current U.S. president is fond of saying, the Third Reich was on the wrong side of history. Whatever a protagonist does to a Nazi in a video game seems justified because the people playing the game are presumably aware of the atrocities the Nazis committed during the war. Hypothetically, when you shoot a video game Nazi you are working to prevent or punish an unseen video game holocaust. Developers use a similar mentality in almost all games where you are up against some kind of army or paramilitary force. The Inglourious Bastards standard of ethics in video games (i.e., anything I do to you is alright, because you will always be worse than I am) has been an industry standard since the original Wolfenstein.

This gets into some fairly shaky ethical territory; all war is morally ambiguous to the people fighting in it. Again, children should not be playing these games and before anyone picked up a title like this I would encourage them to at least become acquainted with the basic history behind the game. Modern political discourse is littered with ham-fisted references to fascism and Stalinist communism on the part of both the major parties in the United States. Telling impressionable people in one area of society that it is okay to kill Nazis and telling them in another area that “the X party are a bunch of Nazis” could lead to some very foolish consequences.

Someone Wearing a Mask
If developers feel that they absolutely must include a mass of antagonists who are dead to rights human beings (and not goose-stepping swastika jockeys) they often at least have the decency to cover their faces. You may have used an X-wing to crush swarms of storm troopers in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed but they all wore their giant face covering helmets so you never saw the fear or anguish in their eyes as you did it. Similarly, the full plate mail worn by the knights in Demon’s Souls robs them of all character and individuality. You also can’t see them spit blood when you stab them. Hell, they could be smiling under all that steel for all you know. Whether you are fighting ninjas, knights, terrorists, assassins, bank robbers, or whoever, more often than not developers will cover their faces with something.

Sometimes, instead of a literal mask, developers choose to pan away from the worst of the violence taking place or, as in Empire Total War, make the characters so small and ill defined that we cannot make out their individual expressions. We are not the Joker, we don’t savor the little emotions in an opponent’s face when they expire.

This guy is just asking for it

No matter how developers dress them up, the hundreds of bad guys we waste in video games are representations of human beings. Since this is fairly apparent to anyone who stops to think about their gaming experience for a moment, one might ask why developers even bother with such elaborate disguises. I find the answer rather heartening. I believe that developers have come to realize that, while violence is often a necessary part of the action in many games, most people feel put out at the prospect of ending other peoples’ lives, even digital ones. While there are plenty of games that don’t adhere to the general categories I mentioned, most do. It’s the action and excitement of a scenario that draws us in, death is usually just an unintentional byproduct, but even so some effort is made to separate the gamer from what would be the terrible consequences of their actions. Developers do this because we are, despite what so many political blowhards and half-wit news anchors would have us believe, sensitive to violence in the real world.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Dante’s Inferno: A Failure on Two Fronts

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

When I previously wrote about the video game version of Dante’s Inferno, my perspective was colored by the fact that I had not actually played any part of the game, merely watched a few videos, trailers, and developer diaries. While I felt that I could glean the general plot and themes of the game, I had no personal experience on which to base my assumptions. Having played the demo, I believe that I can now speak with a great deal more authority when I say the following: This game is total bullshit.

I’ll elaborate. It becomes abundantly clear within the first few moments of the Dante’s Inferno demo that this game has two major sources of inspiration. The first spoken words are a few lines from the actual literary classic Dante’s Inferno, leading the player to believe that it has something in common with the poem that shares its title. The first moments of combat are almost directly taken from God of War, using the same buttons for the exact same types of attacks used in Sony Santa Monica’s Greek mythology-based epic. Despite drawing on one of the great pieces of literature and one of the modern pinnacles of action gaming, Dante’s Inferno feels clumsy and lifeless. This is because it is a failed adaptation of both of its source materials. It is a disgrace to the poem and a debasement of what made God of War such an excellent game.

Essentially, Dante’s Inferno, the original, is the story of a poet travelling through hell with another poet he admired as a guide, pining for his lost love Beatrice, a pure and holy woman. The game, on the other hand, has Dante as a murderous badass crusader with a bloodstained past, chasing the corrupted Beatrice into the depths of hell to save her from both of their sins. On the way, he kills Death, steals his scythe, and then cuts his way through the demonic hordes, either redeeming them or condemning them to (even more) torment. This entire storyline could have at least been made consistent with the original by removing the façade that the main character was Dante and the romantic interest Beatrice. Why not just place new characters in the hell that Dante envisioned, and avoid the cries of literature snobs everywhere?

But what really surprised me about the game was how completely the developers failed to learn anything from their other major influence, God of War. When Visceral Games was about to release Dead Space, they listed their influences as movies like Alien and Event Horizon, and games like Resident Evil. I thought that sounded like a good list, but remained skeptical until I saw the excellent final product. These seemed like people who knew their way around an adaptation. It was clear, at the time, that they could learn lessons from the video games and entertainment properties that came before. This makes the complete failure of Dante’s Inferno even more striking.

There are some basic mechanics that Dante’s Inferno somehow failed to purloin from its inspiration. The quick-time events, requiring a player to push specific buttons quickly when they flash on screen, made their way into Dante’s Inferno, but they managed to make them considerably less intuitive and fun than they were in God of War. Considering that this is one of the most maligned mechanics of God of War, the fact that they adapted them and made them even worse is incredible. In God of War, the button you are supposed to press appears on the screen, right where the action is taking place. It’s directly in your line of sight, helping you to clearly see what is required of you. In Dante’s Inferno, for some unknown reason, the button is placed at the top of the screen, out of the way of the action. It’s essentially a distraction from the actual action of playing the game, and entirely counter-intuitive. I understand their desire to get the button prompt out of the way of the action, but they should have attempted a solution more like the one seen in the God of War 3 demo, which also moved the button prompt to the edge of the screen, but did so on the edge of the screen that matches the placement of the button on the controller. Instead of having to look at which button is being indicated, you can just press the button on the right hand side if you see a button prompt come up on the right. This may seem a minor difference, but in a hectic action game, little changes make all the difference in the world.

Another small but important departure from God of War is the frequency with which Dante’s Inferno doles out said quick-time events. In God of War, large creatures and bosses often involved quick-time events, but Dante’s Inferno has a quick-time event in place for every single time Dante performs a grab attack on any enemy in the game. Even worse, it layers a slapdash morality system on top of that: Players can choose to redeem or punish the souls of the damned through button presses. If you choose to redeem, and wish to reach the maximum level of redemption, this means that combat will consist mostly of jamming on one button over and over again every time you grab an enemy. This is quick-time overkill, as well as an over-use of the moral choice mechanic. In Dante’s Inferno, every enemy presents the player with a hackneyed, black or white moral choice which adds nothing to the gaming experience and slows down the action considerably.

Most damning of all, combat in Dante’s Inferno feels clumsy and unsatisfying. Dante’s attacks are heavy, inaccurate, and graceless. If there was one priority that Visceral Games should have put above all others while pilfering from God of War, it would be accurately capturing the weight and rhythm of combat. In God of War, combat is fluid and filled with natural patterns of attack and defense. Although Kratos himself is a brute, his combat feels almost dancelike and elegant, with his whirling chains beating out a rhythm of death upon his enemies. Dante, by comparison, seems oafish. His attacks are dull and his timing feels off. His dodges come just a little too slow, and neither Dante nor his enemies understand how to move and signal. If great, satisfying combat is a dance, Dante would step all over his partners’ feet.

But the problems with Dante’s Inferno go well beyond the mechanics of the game. Another thing that Dante’s Inferno should have learned from God of War is the latter’s ability to stay thematically consistent with the mythology it was using. Sure, Kratos wasn’t a character in the Greek myths, and he never slew any gods or fought any of the mythical monsters he fought in the games. But God of War manages to maintain an authenticity of style: Greek mythology is just as bloody, sexual, violent and enormous as the God of War games make it seem. Dante’s Inferno, on the other hand, attempts to use Christian mythology as a source, but treats it as if it’s exactly the same as Greek mythology. Christian mythology can be sexy, certainly (see Song of Solomon if you don’t believe me), but it is not as overtly and graphically sexual as Dante’s Inferno depicts it, with nudity in almost every frame of its opening sequence, and vagina monsters galore in some of its later stages.

Inconsistencies like this are nothing compared to a few elements which display complete ignorance of the religion they are adapting into a video game. There are some glaring problems with the Dante’s Inferno game that anyone who had done an hour of research could have pointed out, the most obvious of which is that the personification of death in Christian mythology is typically an angel, not a malevolent, evil entity (though some specific sects of Christianity differ on this point). Also, as mentioned earlier, the main character is given the power to redeem the souls in hell, which makes Dante Alighieri, the poet turned ham-fisted warrior, more powerful than God from the first moments of the game. What’s going to challenge the warrior who can kill Death and subvert the judgment of the Lord Almighty? How is the player ever meant to suspend their disbelief?

It seems that Visceral Games has truly missed the mark on this one, taking an odd assortment of ideas, stories, and video games, and slopping them together into an incoherent, bloody mess of a product. I hope that the gaming public won’t be fooled into thinking there is a story or a game worth experiencing behind all the blood, guts and breasts. They’ve taken a piece of the most important literature in centuries and some of the most satisfying gameplay in decades, ripped them to shreds, and reassembled them into a sick parody of their former selves. Like it says on the gates of hell: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bayonetta Is Neither Feminist nor Relevant

by Danielle (guest writer)

After watching the demo of Bayonetta, subtitled First Climax, I did not come away with the feminist outrage I half-expected the game would inspire. The game seemed silly, pulling out old tropes about broken commandments and a femme fatale. I mean, the name of the demo is First Climax; it didn't really seem possible to take it seriously.

Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean the game isn't sexist - and here is where I point out that I have not played the entire game, so I cannot testify to any character development that may occur. Judging from the demo alone, Bayonetta uses her sexuality almost as a literal weapon, which I suppose does set her apart from her forebears. The femme fatale has for the most part been seen as a negative force, using her wiles to undermine the male hero. (The interest in retelling old stories that has soared lately has changed this somewhat; Lilith, after all, has gone from being a demon to being something of a feminist symbol.) In addition to all this, there is a heavy sadism theme in the demo. Bayonetta has "torture attacks," one of which involves an iron maiden and another which has Bayonetta spanking her opponent before guillotining them.

The opening cut scene does nothing in the way of hinting at any personality beyond this, nor does it forward the plot in any real way. It features Bayonetta sashaying down the aisle of a train, into a metro station, and out to a garden. Then you're right back into a crazy action sequence.

Speaking of fighting, I would be remiss if I did not bring up the hair. Bayonetta's hair forms her outfit - which is actually pretty modest, all things considered. Her hair also forms her attacks, though, leaving our poor heroine unclad when she fights except for a strip of hair/clothes down her middle. Another attack creates a monster out of her hair, leaving her nude and covered with a swirl of hair circling around her. It is basically a drawn-out striptease, promising that if the player does well, he'll get to see more. (I say "he" because, let's face it, this is a market advertised to and dominated by men.)

It is easy to say that Bayonetta provides an unrealistic depiction of women, but it's okay because the men are unrealistic too! The problem with this argument is that men are not held up to unrealistic standards presented in video games - or movies, magazines, television, etc. In fact, it's easy to find examples of shlubby dudes who get the attractive lady in the end. Women, however, are held up to these standards. So every example of a woman like Bayonetta - even in a silly video game - is another standard of beauty being imposed.

I get that this sort of game is not going to be everyone's cup of tea. Main character and sexism aside, I'm not super interested in fighting games like this. Honestly, it doesn't seem all that much worse than other games that are out there. If anything, it seems a little sillier. In a time when the video game medium is rapidly maturing and becoming more mainstream, there is no reason to sacrifice character for crazy action sequences. In a mature field, there is simply less and less room for adolescent titles like Bayonetta.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Real Sacrifice

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Fair warning: this post on sacrifice contains fairly major spoilers for Final Fantasy IV.

Final Fantasy IV contains a moment of self-sacrifice that completely shocked me. It was dramatic, emotional, and inspiring, but mostly it impressed because it was such a departure from the typical story of self-sacrifice. Since before the story of Jesus of Nazareth’s death for the sins of the world, personal sacrifice for the sake of others has been a source of fascination and praise for humanity. In modern entertainment, these moments typically take one of two forms:

1. The character is unproven, cowardly, or has caused some harm to befall the other characters previously in the story. By sacrificing themselves to delay the oncoming horde/blow up the reactor/offer their lives to a supernatural force, they redeem themselves in the eyes of the other characters in the story forever.
2. The character is a close friend or ally who lives primarily to see the mission succeed or to protect another character. By giving their lives in service of the mission/friend/lover, they forever show their dedication to that cause/friendship/love.
The latter of these two conditions has greater potential for emotional impact, since the character performing the sacrifice has a presumably deeper connection to the other characters. What both conditions have in common, however, is that after the death of the characters, it is possible to look at their lives and their choices and see how far they’ve come, how they’ve changed as people and what brought them to such a decision. By sacrificing themselves these characters purchase relevance to the story and a morally clean slate with their lives.

Self sacrifice is such an overused theme in entertainment that it has become easy, as a viewer, to accept it when a character throws their life away for the sake of others. We may be sad to see a favorite character go, but we can reconcile ourselves to the idea. In less well-written stories, we may barely be affected at all by such a dramatic moment. I doubt it would surprise many gamers if, in Gears of War 3, Dom has a dramatic moment of self-sacrifice in which he dies to save Marcus Fenix or the world. It’s almost what big, gruff secondary characters are designed to do.

There is a moment in Final Fantasy IV, however, which affected me in a way that I was not prepared for at all. Allow me to set the scene:

When I first met Palom and Porom, I had been washed ashore after a shipwreck. I quickly realized that the nearest town was the same one that I had previously robbed and sacked, and the members of the town did nothing but torment me for my past actions. Attempting to reform my ways, I sought the guidance of a town elder who sent me up a nearby mountain to redeem myself and become a paladin. He sent two young children, twins, both aspiring wizards of considerable talent, to go with me and keep an eye on me.

Palom was a sweet girl, very polite and helpful. She specialized in magic that protects and heals. Porom was impetuous and rude, and loved to brag about his magical skill. Typical for his age, which I estimated at about ten. Together, they helped me through the trials ahead, and even decided to join me on my quest, leaving their hometown behind them.

We were fleeing a castle, and the room we were in was completely sealed. The walls were closing in. And these two impossible children, these young children with their whole lives ahead of them, consciously chose to turn themselves to stone, forever, to hold the walls at bay and allow us to escape. We tried to bring them back, but we couldn’t.

As we fled, we vowed that their sacrifice was not in vain, but I knew that it was my fault. If I’d never stolen from that town in the first place, if I’d never returned, they would still be living their lives in that peaceful little village. Maybe it wouldn’t have been peaceful for long. Maybe if they hadn’t been there to stop those walls, we all would have died and hope for the world would have died with us. Still, it was hard to come to terms with the loss of children so young. Did they really understand the sacrifice they were making? Children understand more than we give them credit for, but could they really grasp how much they were giving up?

Not knowing what was to come, I marched onward to confront the evil responsible, inspired by the bravery and selflessness of two ten-year-old children. Their sacrifice meant something. It was unexpected, and it was dramatic, and it made me think differently about them, about the evil we faced, about my resolve to destroy it, and most of all, about the emotional power that video games have held for years. Final Fantasy IV was first released in 1991. In 2010, playing it for the first time on a little handheld device on a long car ride, it showed me a more dramatic moment of personal sacrifice than most movies and books have ever done. It just goes to show that sometimes all it takes is a little twist on an old cliché to give a story a more profound emotional hook.

Friday, January 15, 2010


by C.T. Hutt

Those readers who have been watching the “Now Playing” section of our site can tell you that I have been hacking away at The Witcher by CD Projekt RED STUDIO for the better part of four months. The Witcher is a top down third person RPG with a unique storyline and an engaging combat system. Further, the voice acting is spot on, the environments are rich, and many of the characters are multi-dimensional. Beyond a regrettably small pallet used for NPCs and a long series of repetitive quests, I have very few complaints about this game, and yet, I’ve been playing this game on and off for four months. I’ve had more than enough time to bring this title to a close, so what’s the problem?

It comes down to this: even the most ardent reader can’t tackle an entire library, and the time we take to appreciate entertainment and the arts is regrettably finite. Simply put, while I want to play The Witcher, there are other games that have seduced my attentions more effectively. This is not to say that they are better games, but simply that they are more relevant to me at present. Even a great consumer of the arts cannot see every picture in the Louvre in a single day.

Accepting this premise, I am forced to examine my own motivations for sidelining this perfectly good title. A connoisseur of any medium must recognize that their interpretations of a given work of art are, ultimately, personal. Hence, while I may fancy myself a worthy and objective analyst of all things video game, faced with an apparent shortfall in my own level of interest in what ought to be an engaging title, I am forced to concede that my failure to finish The Witcher represents a defect in my own character, rather than the game. I think this title has a lot to offer, just not to me.

It is a curious distinction of the human experience that our interests and levels of enthusiasm are often fickle and random, but that does seem to be the state of things. Rather than fight against such bizarre forces in our own nature, I think it is better to embrace the things that we do find personally engaging with a full heart, rather than try to force ourselves to like things just because we think we ought to. It is said that the books we are meant to read choose us; I imagine this is true of video games as well. We can’t beat them all, fellow gamers, the medium has grown too large for that.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Difficulty Needs More Curves

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

“You are dead.”

The familiar words glowed on the screen in front of me as I took a deep breath. It was the twelfth time in a row that I’d been crushed, without mercy, by an unstoppable rock wall. I wanted to go to sleep, but I didn’t want to leave this section unconquered. I was ready to hurl my controller through my television screen. Just to shove my face in it, God of War asked me whether I wanted to lower the difficulty to easy. I considered it, weighing the pros and cons of giving in and losing some of my gamer credibility, when I noticed the caveat. Changing the difficulty would only affect combat.

Well, I wasn’t dying in combat. I mean, that happened from time to time, but mostly I died in the platforming or the speed-based death traps. There was no option for me. I’d just have to try again. And again. And again.

There’s really no excuse for that. For some reason, most platforming games have no difficulty option. And yet, playing God of War, it became clear to me how difficulty changes could be implemented into platforming and puzzle sections of games. Almost every time I died in God of War, it was because of the speed of the challenge: rapidly rotating blades, swiftly approaching walls of stone, or a timer that filled a room with spikes. I just didn't have enough time to think, or run, or jump, or push that block where it needed to go.

The solution is simple: when the player turns the difficulty down to easy, all these elements can just be slowed down. The turning wheel of blades goes more slowly, making it easier to navigate. The walls of stones move in to crush less often. The timer in the spike room takes just a little bit longer before destroying everything present.

Changing the difficulty in video games rarely affects the entire game. Maybe it makes enemies harder to kill, maybe it makes them deal more damage. Occasionally it changes their artificial intelligence. But there are always challenges that go unchanged, whether that be the navigation of a maze or the traversal of a platforming section. Providing a challenge for the players that want one is an admirable goal, but as the audience for video games grows, new solutions are needed to make great games like God of War approachable to new players.

Timing-based platforming is easy to change; slowing down the moving platforms, spinning logs, and falling ceilings will give the player more time to consider their options. Precision platforming and other challenges aren’t as easily changed, but we can’t fix everything at once. With more consideration and innovation, making video games accessible to a larger audience doesn’t require that those games be over-simplified.

Going forward, difficulty changes should, like this timing-based solution, cater to players seeking a challenge as well as less experienced, casual gamers. When everyone walks away with the level of challenge that they want from a game, the result is that video games reach a wider audience without alienating the hardcore. This benefits not only game designers hoping to meet with greater sales numbers, but the medium as a whole. When the same games can provide a satisfying experience to the person who has never played a game before as well as the professional gamer, video games will become a more prominent form of entertainment. Accessibility is a problem that video games do not share with other storytelling media like movies and books. Making video games accessible to anyone will help to make newly released and classic video games just as much a topic of conversation as the worlds of film, television and literature. With simple changes and creative thinking, challenges can be changed to fit any player, opening the world of video games to a wider audience.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Way We Play

by C.T. Hutt

The very first console I ever played was my neighbor’s Atari; the controllers for it were little more than simple joysticks with a pause button in the corner. The original NES found its way into my home within the year and came equipped with standard blocky controllers which left my tiny hands stinging with gamers’ arthritis. Even in those days crazy peripherals abounded. The original NES Power glove was almost completely ineffectual, but undeniably cool looking, in an eighties sort of way. Long before the Wii Fit came onto the scene, gamers were sweating bullets in front of their televisions with the Nintendo Power Pad which was little more than a Twister mat attached to a television.

The SNES controller was a similar beast to its predecessor, only there were more buttons and the edges were mercifully rounded. I got so much mileage out of that console that I actually wore out the buttons on several controllers. In hindsight, I should have kept them and had them bronzed; they would be a fine memorial to my gaming tenure.

While Nintendo was my favored console early in my gaming career, many of the other name-brand consoles followed a similar development path. As time wore on, controllers became increasingly complex and ergonomic. Vast improvements in graphics and programming technology, coupled with a growing consumer base, pushed developers to create controllers which offered superior interactivity and choice. Initially, this simply meant adding more buttons, but that was poised to change.

When the Nintendo 64 dropped into the world back in 1996 (yes, it really has been that long), everything changed. 3-D games where no longer a theoretical experiment for developers, almost overnight they had become the standard. The medium had added an entirely new dimension to itself and our controllers had to evolve in turn. Now we needed controls which not only manipulated where our avatars went and what they did but ones which altered our perspective on the action. The N64 Rumble Pac add-on brought an additional connection between the digital world and ours.

The Playstation 2 Dual shock controller lead the way toward the adoption of the now popular double joysick multi-button controller configuration we see in all major consoles. Wireless controls have also become an industry standard, further removing us from the umbilical cords of systems past. Rather than sit inert in our hands, modern controllers, shake and pulse in sync with actions taking place in the game, some have built-in speakers for more immersive sound effects, and peripheral devices of every description litter the shelves of gaming stores.

Never content with the status quo, we now have controllers (notably for the Wii) which react to body movement rather than merely the manipulation of levers and buttons. Sony is developing similar controls for the PS3 and Microsoft has been creating a great deal of press surrounding project Natal, a devise which removes hand held controls entirely and tracks our body movements instead. The market for video games has never been larger and the developers and distributors of controllers are surging forward to capture our attention with their next great innovations. Responding to the ever growing desire for greater interactivity, they are creating systems that will allow us to control digital worlds with our very bodies and minds, and all of this progress has happened in less than thirty years. Just imagine what kinds of controllers we will be using thirty years in the future.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Nintendo Should Stop Innovating

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Of all the Nintendo franchises, Zelda has always been my favorite. The blend of action, puzzle-solving, and exploration has a special place in my heart. I’ve played a Zelda game on every console since the Super Nintendo, but I haven’t touched either of the exceedingly well-reviewed games for the Nintendo DS. It’s not that the games don’t look fun to me. I’m just trying to avoid public embarrassment.

You see, one of the mechanics that The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks have in common is that they require the player to blow into the DS microphone to accomplish certain goals. As an avid home console gamer, I use my DS almost exclusively on the bus and metro, surrounded by people I don’t know. While I may be willing to embarrass myself by flailing around in my living room with friends and loved ones present, my tolerance for doing weird things on a crowded bus is much, much lower. What would people think? Maybe if I just did it once, someone would assume I was blowing some stray dust off of the screen. More sustained blowing, however, makes the blower look steadily more insane.

There was an attack in The World Ends with You that required shouting into the DS microphone. I have no idea how useful it was, because I never used it. I’ve seen people who shout on the bus. Those people are avoided and occasionally asked to leave. In one puzzle in Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box, the solution required blowing into the DS microphone. I remember looking around, furtively, and then trying to quickly move my stylus across the microphone to mimic a blowing sound. It took a long time, but eventually worked. Of course the result was me furiously rubbing a tiny hole on my DS, which may be just as humiliating.

And Nintendo just can’t stop there. As if the microphone wasn’t enough, the DSi introduces a camera function. A few games have been announced which will allow the player to take pictures of their surroundings and use them in game. So now I’m meant to photograph strangers? This begs the question of whether I should do so openly, and hope that they take me as harmless, or be more secretive and risk looking more like a pervert. Either way, restraining orders seem likely.

A recent news post explains that Nintendo’s next generation of handhelds will use motion controls. It’s a little vague on the details: maybe you’ll flail the device itself around, threatening to strike innocent commuters, or perhaps the gesticulating will be done at the device, and it will register your movements with a camera, while others register your movements as dementia.

Slow down, Nintendo! Finding new ways to interact with video games is exciting, but the purpose of the device should be kept in mind. Handheld consoles are meant to be portable and playable in public. We already have wireless ear pieces to make us look crazy; there’s really no need to have us shouting, waving our arms around, taking photographs of people nearby, and then blowing desperately at our little screens. I’m all for pushing the boundaries of interactivity, but a modicum of common sense goes a long way. A handheld that’s too embarrassing to take out of your home loses a lot of its appeal.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Front Lines of the Censorship War

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

In 2005, Rockstar Games was riddled with controversy over the “Hot Coffee” mini-game, in which the main character from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas engaged in non-nude sexual intercourse with his in-game girlfriend. The mini-game wasn’t even directly accessible in the normal version of the game, requiring various hacking tools to play the controversial content.

Despite the fact that this scene was unintentionally left in the source code and not meant to be played, the controversy yielded a change in the rating of the game from “Mature” to “Adults Only,” which resulted in the title being pulled from store shelves until an updated version could be released. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was already an explicitly violent game, but this one tame, hidden sex scene provoked several lawsuits, which collectively resulted in enormous financial costs for Rockstar Games. On the other hand, the public nature of the controversy may have bolstered sales.

In 2009, The Ballad of Gay Tony was released as an add-on for Grand Theft Auto IV, and during the regular course of the game, characters have sex and perform fellatio on screen (their clothes and camera angles conceal any nudity). The previous add-on, The Lost and the Damned, included full frontal male nudity. Grand Theft Auto IV and its expansions also contain the usual high levels of violence and profanity which have become a trademark for the series. As of the time of this writing, no lawsuits or major controversies have resulted from any of this material.

I have mixed feelings about the sort of world that Grand Theft Auto presents: at best, the protagonists are murderers and thieves who care only about themselves and a handful of friends or relatives. They have some vague moral compass but they barely adhere to it. The peripheral characters are considerably more abominable: drug addicts, racists, misogynists and homophobes. To the credit of Rockstar Games, these characters are depicted in an appropriately negative light, but the social merits of the series are certainly questionable.

Harder to question, however, is the progress that the Grand Theft Auto games have made to loosen the vice grip of censorship. Material that once would have been kept from store shelves now has a place in the market due to Rockstar’s constant pushing of boundaries. Though the games themselves may be exaggerated and crass and their attempts at satire heavy handed, they have opened doors to allow other companies to make mature games that use sex, profanity, violence, and nudity in less gratuitous ways. Rockstar Games is on the front line of the censorship war, and while they may not wage that war the way I would, I’m glad that they’re clearing a way for the mature games of the future.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Defending the Re-release

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

There’s a long list of games that came out in 2009 that weren’t considered for any game of the year awards: God of War, Final Fantasy VII, and Metroid Prime among them. They’re all fantastic games, and deserving of praise, but this year wasn’t their first on store shelves. Instead of the hot new release, these games were resurrected for new consoles, offering a glimpse into video game history.

The re-release is often disparaged as a shameless cash-in on a publisher’s back catalog, but releases like God of War Collection and Metroid Prime Trilogy are more than mere products of greed. Video game re-releases allow gamers to experience the history of video games without buying older consoles or hunting down rare cartridges. At their best, a re-release offers more than the original did, whether that be updated graphics and gameplay or insight into the development of the game. Perhaps in the future, this will become something akin to the Criterion Collection for film: definitive remasters of classic games, prized for their quality and reverence to the source material.

The other appeal of re-releasing older games is giving a whole new audience a chance to experience them. As someone who only recently became invested in console gaming, this can be a very powerful motivator.

I never owned a Playstation 2, one of the most popular consoles of all time. I played some of the games, but always at a friend’s house. I held out on the Playstation 3 for a long time as well, but it wasn’t Metal Gear Solid 4, Killzone 2, or Uncharted 2: Among Thieves that finally got me to buy the system. I considered the Playstation 3 useless after backwards compatibility was removed. It was the announcement of the God of War Collection that changed my mind. Finding out that I could play these missed games told me that Sony had something resembling a plan to deliver that fantastic Playstation 2 content. Don’t get me wrong, the other games were appealing, but God of War Collection gave me hope that I would one day be able to play Shadow of the Colossus for less than a hundred dollars and an extra black box under my television.

I would consider my Xbox 360 considerably less valuable if I couldn’t play Jade Empire or Psychonauts on it, and the fact that I can play Super Metroid, Earthworm Jim and Beyond Good and Evil on the Nintendo Wii doubles the amount of time I spend with the supposedly casual device. This generation of consoles has been the first to really, thoroughly embrace the history of video games as much as their future. I think that Square Enix should probably be focusing more of their efforts on new games than they are on bringing every Final Fantasy ever made to the Nintendo DS, but I don’t mind companies taking some time to make fantastic old games available to us. And I still want that Playstation 3 re-make of Final Fantasy VII while we’re at it.

It hit me while I was playing God of War, marveling at some of the great design decisions and the intricate, incredible dungeon of the Temple of Pandora. It was new and familiar at the same time, and I could see how it spawned a whole category of action games at the same time as it drew on Zelda to create one of the most complicated dungeons I'd ever seen. I wondered how it was that I’d never played it before, and gloried in the fact that I finally could. God of War is a piece of video game history now, and while it may not be a long history, there are plenty of games worth revisiting.