Saturday, July 28, 2012

He Turned Us Into Killers

Wake Up and Smell The Ashes
 Maybe it will fade with time, but Spec Ops: The Line has had a large impact on the way I perceive and approach shooters. Much like The Incredibles and Watchmen made me reconsider how superhero stories should be told, Spec Ops seems to have shifted what I look for in video game shooters specifically, and possibly in video games as a whole. Time will tell.

Previously, the best modern war game I had played was Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. While the sequels devolved into Michael Bay absurdity, the first game in the Modern Warfare series presented a scenario perfectly pitched to play on post-9/11 fears while skillfully using the first person perspective to enhance the drama. Its story was extreme without being ridiculous, and felt believable. It still had the respectful tone towards war and soldiers which previous games in the series maintained.

It also, of course, went out of its way to make you the hero in the end. The last, slow motion sequence where the player shoots Zakhaev is one of my favorite examples of melding gameplay with cinematic trappings. After saving the world from the brink of nuclear war, you got to personally take out the diabolical mastermind behind it all. Badass status confirmed.

Spec Ops assumes you are literate in the genre it attempts to deconstruct, then forces you to confront the things you've done and why you play these games. Killing white dots from the AC-130 in Modern Warfare was a disquieting take on the way the US hunts its enemies today, but you were never forced to see the screaming victims who weren't lucky enough to be obliterated instantly. You were a force of righteous American justice, so why should you care? Spec Ops makes you hear the screams, see the missing limbs, and literally asks if you still feel like a hero. The game is still meaningful if you aren't as familiar with your standard military manshoot, but I feel the impact is lessened if you haven't shot waves of generic foes in Modern Warfare or listened to the chatty, snappy dialogue of your bros in Gears of War.

Spec Ops isn't perfect. It goes pretty far in making you feel like a standard military shooter badass. Headshots cause a short, dramatic slo-mo, and during an initial playthrough, you are bombarded with reminders of how far you have to go to unlock its many achievements. When many games pop up an achievement just for hitting the start button on the main menu, not being more subversive with the achievements in particular feels like a missed opportunity.

Perhaps we had to have games like Gears of War, Modern Warfare, and Army of Two in order to get to the point where developers are actively trying to make something different in reaction to them. Indie games seem to be perceived as the go-to place for "meaningful" games, for whatever reason. But we're getting to the point where triple-A games are moving beyond winks and nods to their influences and more towards actual commentary and incisiveness. There are more and more options available for games with good writing and thoughtful presentation while still retaining responsive gameplay and player feedback. These are the games I'm more and more drawn towards. I've played enough mindless games.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Tearing Down Walls

Last Christmas I bought I bought my mom Kirby's Epic Yarn. All the reviews I read praised its overall quality and nearly all commented on how relatively easy the game is. She got frustrated fairly early on with New Super Mario Bros on the DS and even sooner with New Super Mario Bros. Wii, so it seemed like a good fit. And yet, when we started playing together, she had the hardest time figuring out the controls. How to hold the controller, which buttons to push and when, and remembering the various moves available to her led to frustration. It seemed I had yet again failed to find a game that really resonated with her. I had hoped that the arts and crafts aesthetic of the game would draw her in, and she loved Kirby's yarn inspired animations, but the play's the thing, really, and the playing was difficult.

I visited again for Easter and fired up the game to start my own save file. My mom and sister sat watching the game as I played. At one point, a large bunch of beads was behind an indestructible wall. I immediately continued to the right, knowing there was no way for me to break it myself. Soon after, a large spiked ball starting rolling towards me. I ran back to the left, jumped on top of the wall, and the ball destroyed it, allowing me to grab the beads inside. My mom looked at me and asked, incredulously, "How did you know that?" I didn't really have a coherent answer and my sister piped up with, "Video game logic." Really, I just knew from so many games played that SOME method of breaking the wall would present itself eventually.

So, I thought I would write a post on gaming literacy and what effect playing a bunch of games in the past has on playing them now, but while looking for past articles and blog posts on the subject, I found a post by Chris Bateman written in 2008 that pretty much said everything I wanted to. You can read it here, as it's pretty excellent.

Yesterday, Kirk Hamilton wrote an article on how Portal 2 is an excellent introduction to gaming for someone who's unfamiliar with games. He also wrote a companion piece on his blog ruminating on the sometimes towering walls between those who play video games and are steeped in gaming culture and those who are not. The issues with the culture of gaming aren't as interesting to me as the experience of play, but Garrett Martin wrote an interesting article about his misgivings during PAX East, and Alex Raymond wrote a rebuttal that's also worth checking out.

The phenomenon of the Wii is fascinating. Remember the initial promise of motion controls? The controller would simply be an extension of your will, and the actions you perform in real life would be immediately shown on screen. Why was Wii Sports so successful? Because the traditional abstraction of a controller was almost completely removed. To play tennis you just swing the Wii remote like you would a tennis racket. To play boxing, you punch. The bowling game is probably the most popular game in the set among people I know, but it also causes the most frustration because it requires far more button presses to play. Moving the Mii around and changing its angle is something I rarely see people do, and learning when to release the B button to release the ball takes practice. Not a lot, but enough that it's a stumbling block for new players. Otherwise, though, there were no more walls separating those who play from those who don't. No learning where the left bumper is and is that different from the trigger and oh god how do I look while moving in 3D??

Nintendo has been experimenting with controllers and how people interact with games for a while. The Gamecube controller's massive A button was one attempt. The touch screen DS is another. The Wii was the boldest experiment yet. A gesture is far more intuitive than a button press. But because the Wii remote kept all the complexity of a traditional controller, we ended up with a lot of games with typical controls and a bit of motion waggle thrown in. Developers tried to fit existing ideas onto the Wii without going far enough with the motion controls to make games that truly felt at home there.

(This isn't just a problem with the Wii. The DS, iPhone/iPod Touch, and iPad all have first person shooters on them. Why??)

Perhaps Nintendo should have removed the Wii Nunchuk entirely. Perhaps the Remote should have only had a D-pad and two buttons. Maybe that would have provided the necessary constraints to inspire true creativity on the Wii. Nintendo's baffling indifference to the quality of third party developed games means that no critical mass of high quality motion controlled games ever materialized. In terms of living up to its potential, I'd argue the Wii is a complete failure. Perhaps Microsoft was right when they said that the controller is the biggest impediment to getting more people to play games. We may roll our eyes at the "You are the controller" tagline, but they may realize that the way to force true inspiration and innovation on their platform is impose the strictest set of constraints. I don't know if Microsoft allows Kinect developers to implement hybrid controller/Kinect controls in their games. The upcoming Child of Eden will allow the player to use either method, but that seems more acceptable to me than trying to force a hybrid of both on a game. iOS devices took the same leap over the Nintendo DS and its combination of buttons and touchscreen. Some amazingly compelling games have appeared on that platform to take advantage of the touch-only interface of an iPad. Again, gesturing on a screen to control an avatar is more intuitive than pressing a button.

Portal 2 is an amazing game, and I agree with Kirk that it's a great place to start when learning how to play a first person game. But learning how to use dual analog sticks to navigate a 3D space takes a significant amount of time. Nintendo's habit of only using one analog stick on their controllers makes it simpler to move around, but it also shifts the complexity of creating a good camera system to the developer. You only have to compare Epic Mickey to Super Mario Galaxy 2 to see how this can go badly. I played shooters for years on the PC, and it still took quite a while to adjust to playing with a controller. I've seen a few people on Twitter post on how their co-op partners have struggled with using dual analog sticks to move about the world.

Video games take skill to play, and gaining those skills is a large part of why we play. Learning the basics of control is usually separate from learning to play the game though, and I believe this is the single biggest reason why so many people are reluctant to even try console video games.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Good Cop, Bad Cop

Like, I suspect, most players, when I play a game that offers two moral paths to follow, I inevitably follow the "good" path by default. While I may try the evil path in a subsequent playthrough, I've traditionally kept my characters on the straight and narrow for my first and "true" path through the game. Though some mistakes were made, my first time through Mass Effect 1 and 2 was with a full Paragon female Shepard. The mistakes I made such as accidentally missing a side quest or fumbling some dialogue and causing a less than optimal outcome in a conversation made for a richer role playing experience. My Shepard was good, but she wasn't perfect. We didn't always know the consequences of our actions, and sometimes those consequences were sobering.

I decided to change up my usual pattern for two RPGs, Dawn of War II: Chaos Rising, and the BioWare classic Knights of the Old Republic. Ostensibly a real-time strategy game, Chaos Rising eschews the traditional base-building/management gameplay of most other RTS's for a highly tactical squad-based role-playing game. For those who don't know, Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) is a Star Wars game using Dungeons and Dragons rules for its combat and leveling. Both games allow you choose a good or evil path based on your actions.

In both cases, choosing the evil path has made for an almost clinical experience while playing. Being evil in these games means killing people who don't deserve it, or simply standing aside and letting innocents die. While Chaos Rising allows you to gain corruption from the gear you equip on your squads, there are still active choices made in missions that make a large impact on your squads' corruption level. From what I've played of KOTOR so far, your dialogue choices determine whether you gain light side or dark side points. In that regard, it's more personal than Chaos Rising. Nonetheless, I have to shut off my empathy towards nearly every character I encounter. It could be allowing allied soldiers to die, or killing a woman who had a bounty on her head because she injured a man making unwanted advances on her. The protests of my squadmates or party members are ignored, along with those of my trembling victims. I have to focus more on the fact that I'm playing a game and that these digital characters aren't real. It kind of makes me feel like a sociopath.

Because of this, the experience for me is much more passive. I'm no longer inhabiting a role where I'm trying to be the hero who saves the day. Instead, I'm choosing the bad dialogue option and watching what unfolds. Since I can't empathize with the character I'm playing, I get the same feeling I would get from watching unlikeable characters in a movie or book do something horrible. I'm not invested in the characters, so I don't really care what happens to them, other than a vague hope that they get what's coming to them.

All BioWare RPGs (ok, most blockbuster video games) are heavy on the combat, so getting up close and personal to cut a guy up with a sword isn't a big deal, whether I'm playing a good guy or bad guy. The dialogue sections and combat are segregated enough that they're two experiences. The story telling and dialog in Dragon Age: Origins were good enough that I effectively connected with my surly, emotionally damaged city elf. In Mass Effect, the dialog wheel and, more importantly, the interrupt ability in Mass Effect 2, added a nice bit of interactivity that made me more invested in the conversations. KOTOR, unfortunately, is old enough that dialog trees feel static and there's not much in the way of nuance or shades of grey between light and dark side conversation choices (at least in the starting area I'm currently still playing). In some ways it's more thematically appropriate for the Star Wars universe, but it still feels limiting.

Chaos Rising integrates the choices you make in a more interesting way. Certain items such as weapons or armor add corruption or redemption levels to your squads. Capturing key structures in some missions will redeem your squads, while some one-time use items will add significant amounts of corruption or redemption to your squads. One of my favorite aspects of the game is the idea of items that are worn as penance to redeem a squad. Completing a mission with that item will reduce your corruption, but the effects in the mission are harsh. Redeeming armor may actually have a negative defense rating, making it likely that the squad wearing it will die frequently. Penance should be painful, after all. As you move down one moral path or the other, new abilities will also unlock. There are constant choices, large and small, with consequences reflected in both the story and the gameplay. Unfortunately, the impact of those choices is undermined by the Warhammer 40k universe the story takes place in. Dawn of War II presents its characters and world as deliberately bombastic, over the top, and campy. It's an extremely fun world to live in for a few days, but there's no nuance or subtlety. Your squadmates aren't people you connect with. They're caricatures of soldiers whose personalities match the types of guns they carry. Having no experience with the table top wargames or the legions of novels set in the Warhammer 40k universe, I can't say whether or not that's always the case.

While it's been interesting being the jerk for these games, I think I've gotten my fill of it for the foreseeable future. I'll of course finish my run through KOTOR firmly on the dark side of the Force, but in the future, games such as Dragon Age II will see me firmly ensconced in the warm embrace of the light. This taste of evil is sour.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A History of Violence

The rise of the achievement during this generation of games is a fascinating thing. Their usage and potential for both good and evil towards games and the people who play them will be debated for a long time to come.

I have no desire to talk about them in that context today, though!

Achievements, especially how they're usually implemented on the Xbox 360, tend to be little more than a meta-game. They're something to keep track of in addition to the things you may naturally do while playing. I was highly amused when achievements themselves started going meta. Well known achievements began to be referenced by other achievements. Without further ado, here are my two favorite family lines of meta-achievements on Xbox Live:


Gears of War
US Release: November 7, 2006
Seriously... 10,000 kills in multiplayer
50 Gamerscore

The Club
US Release: February 7, 2008
No, Seriously 10,001 ranked kills in multiplayer
40 Gamerscore

Battlefield: Bad Company
US Release: June 23, 2008
Beans Bullets Bandages (Online) Get 10002 kills
30 Gamerscore

Gears of War 2
US Release: November 7, 2008
Seriously 2.0 Kill 100,000 enemies (any mode)
50 Gamerscore


Dead Rising
US Release: October 8, 2006
Zombie Genocider TYPE: 1 Play REQ: Defeat at least 53,594 zombies.
20 Gamerscore

Left 4 Dead
US Release: November 20, 2008
Zombie Genocidest Kill 53,595 infected.
30 Gamerscore

Dead Rising 2
US Release: September 28, 2010
Z-Genocider 2: Genocide Harder Kill 53,596 zombies
20 Gamerscore
Zombie Genocide Master Kill 72,000 zombies
20 Gamerscore

Rock Band 3
US Release: October 26, 2010
HOPO-cidal Maniac Kill 53,596 Hammer-ons and Pull-offs
25 Gamerscore

Were you to complete all of these achievements, you would net yourself a paltry 265 points! I hope it was worth it.

Monday, December 27, 2010

There I Will Sing All Their Names

The last great unknown has passed from my life.


Ok, indulge me, though.

After deliberately delaying and avoiding it for several years, I finally reached the clearing at the end of the long, long path laid down by Stephen King's The Dark Tower series. This was a series I began reading sometime in elementary school, when I was around 9 or 10, borrowing the beat-up copies from my dad's bookshelf. The sudden end of volume three, The Waste Lands, was my first encounter with a gut-wrenching cliffhanger at the end of a story. I would go into the Waldenbooks store in the mall and occasionally ask the employees if they knew when the next volume would be released. They never did. Waiting for that fourth volume, Wizard and Glass, was my first experience in eagerly anticipating a media release. When it finally came out I believe I bought it as a "gift" for my dad, but you better believe I read it as soon as he tore the wrapping off.

(When I asked my dad why he let me read Stephen King's books at that age, he thought about it for a minute then replied, "Well, there wasn't anything in there I thought you couldn't handle, I suppose.")

I re-read the books a few time in the next few years, and when I found out several other King books tied into the Dark Tower mythos, I read them as well. When the last three books were released six years later, though, I didn't buy them right away. I suppose I just didn't have the money at the time, and I ended up checking out Wolves of the Calla and Song of Susannah from the library. I tore through them and then just... stopped.

The series had been a part of my life for so long that I didn't want it to end. Roland and his companions had occupied a place in my mind for so long, and I had imagined how everything would end up so many times, that the journey had become more important than the end. Roland was after the Tower in order to save his world, but I knew flipping that last page would mean, in my imagination at least, an end to that world. I had grown comfortable with the mystery of what lay at the top of the Dark Tower.

At the same time, books five and six just weren't very good. They lacked the strong and lasting imagery of the earlier books: the slow mutants under the mountains; the lobstrosities; Shardik in the forest and Blaine the Mono; Rhea of the Coos and the thinny. Nothing so memorable was found in these two volumes. Song of Susannah doesn't even function as its own novel like the previous five books. I could understand an ending to an epic saga not living up to expectations, but what if it was just flat out bad? Stephen King's novels are not known for their climaxes. It's the stuff leading up to them that you remember. What if he just couldn't pull off the ending? I have no doubt the same thoughts probably passed through his own head as he wrote, but that didn't diminish them in mine.

So I passed on the last volume. Message board discussions of the series were avoided and Google searches that might have led to spoilers were only made when strictly necessary. It wasn't until last year when I started reading the graphic novels and some jerk on Twitter spoiled me on the recursive nature of the ending that I began to think I should just suck it up and find out how everything turns out. I really liked the graphic novels, but didn't want to risk being spoiled on the end, despite being prequels. And, you know, at least this series DID get its ending. Unlike Dune, Wheel of Time, and at this point probably A Song of Ice and Fire, this was one long-running series where the author got to see it through to the end.

I acquired all the books and began reading from the start for the first time since 2004. It took two or three months to get through volumes one through six again. When it came time to begin the end, it was physically difficult for me to turn to that first page. I stared at the artwork on the cover for a long time. I turned the weighty tome in my hands over and over. I found the copyright page particularly fascinating. Reading the table of contents and seeing bizarre, foreign terms that would fit right in with The Lord of the Rings helped a bit. What did devar toi, can'-ka no rey, and ves'-ka gan mean? The series had a bit of its own peculiar terminology and quite a number of memorable dialects in dialogue, but these new phrases were both ominous and inviting as I whispered them to myself. I lingered over the page with "19" and "99" printed in large type, pondered the words REPRODUCTION, REVELATION, REDEMPTION, and RESUMPTION on the next page, closely studied the black and white illustrations from Michael Whelan on the next two pages.

And, you know, once the loose ends from Song of Susannah were tied up, all was well. The birth of Mordred and his first meal marked the return of the macabre fantasy the earlier entries had done so well. Once things got moving, I found it very hard to put the book down at night. It's amazing how much suspense is built when the author tells you ahead of time a beloved character is going to die. Maybe it won't happen, right? Narrators can be unreliable. But like a monorail crashing through the end of its track, there's nothing you can do one way or the other except to watch everything unfold. With Lovecraftian horrors, devious vampires, and a surprising confrontation with the Crimson King marking the way, this was the ending given. While I don't think it was perfect, it did feel right. Ka is a wheel, and it always rolls back around to the place it started.

Roland's past was fleshed out fairly well by the graphic novels. While it bothers me that more are on their way, and that King has mentioned he's thought of writing an eighth Dark Tower novel, any mistakes that may or may not be made in the future won't detract from what exists now: an epic masterpiece that spanned worlds and decades, and whose presence has been felt for a large percentage of my life. I miss the mystery and anticipation of the unknown, but knowing has its own satisfaction. As silly as it sounds, I think I can move on now.

Monday, December 6, 2010

One Of Us One Of Us

To my vague horror, the past two weeks have been spent playing almost nothing but World of Warcraft. Sure, some Rock Band 3 has been consumed for IRL social-interaction, but for the most part, I've been questing my way through the world of Azeroth.

The thing that frustrates me is that I'm not really sure why I feel compelled to play. I do enjoy the exploration of each zone, uncovering and filling in the map. The art style is wonderful (though I do wish the game looked like the glittering cinematics produced for each expansion). An amazing mix of pathos and humor runs throughout the game's quests and characters. At the same time, the basic combat mechanics are incredibly boring at low levels while fighting random monsters running through the wilderness. The crafting and gathering professions are a grind with no intrinsic depth to them. The only times the game has truly shined for me have been the rare occasions I've tackled bosses with a few other players. It feels to me as if this is the true way to play so that you can see how the different classes, abilities, and even races interact with one another. Everyone has a role to play, there are specific actions to take at specific times, and the rush of collectively bringing down an elite monster is undeniable.

Unfortunately, most of the time I play it as a gigantic single player RPG that happens to have a few other players running through it. It's almost like playing Fable 2 with the online player orbs turned on, except you can see the actual characters. While the updates in the Cataclysm expansion made some zones of the game feel incredibly dynamic and even, occasionally, made me feel like I was actually participating in an epic adventure, many of the other zones are the same old pointless grind with nothing holding it together. Several story threads seem to drop off with the local guy in charge saying, "It'll be awhile before we'll be ready to tackle this big bad guy. We'll call you later." What this seems to mean is, "There will be a high level raid dungeon for you to enter in 40 levels." While the flow of quests and the paths you take seem smoother and less meandering than in the past, there are still dozens of "kill X number of Y monsters to collect Z organs" quests. With all the talk of lessons learned in the past six years of WoW's existence, it's astonishing that so many of these quests still exist. While one or two in the beginning of a zone can function as introductions to the types of enemies you'll be facing in the area and unlocking the first few areas of the zone, there has got to be a better way to consistently keep a player engaged.

The problem is that this is still something that seems to work. 12 million subscribers are playing the game, and I'm one of them. I'm supposed to be playing Persona 3 and Epic Mickey and working on my gargantuan backlog of games, yet I have a list of quests in Booty Bay a part of me feels compelled to work on. There are always more quests to do. Is that all it takes for me? Give me a never-ending to-do list and I'll happily march to your tune until the end of time? I haven't participated in any guilds. The two times I tried playing in random dungeons through matchmaking were somewhat horrible experiences. I've ignored the majority of the game's social aspects.

There are two games I've consciously made a choice to stop playing because they were too addicting. One was Civilization Revolutions, and the other Rome: Total War. Both feature the well known "one-more-turn" hook to keep you playing well into the night. WoW seems similar in that I find myself saying "one more quest" quite frequently. It seems pathetic that this is all that's keeping me playing, but I seem unable to figure out what else it could be. The loot grind isn't nearly as compelling as in Diablo. It seems I'm a slave to my to-do list. Maybe I need to do a better job of creating one for my real world problems, and thus solve my procrastination issues forever. Surely it can't be that simple?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Which Button Do I Push?

Harmonix is on a roll lately, recently releasing the excellent Rock Band 3 across multiple platforms and Dance Central for Kinect on Xbox 360. I'll just go ahead and shamelessly link back to this post about Rock Band's user interface, and I also wanted to link to this post on Ars Technica about how Harmonix designed the menus in Dance Central. As someone with an interest in human computer interaction and user interface design, I find this kind of stuff really interesting. I haven't picked up the Kinect, and don't plan to any time soon, but the changes Microsoft made to the Xbox 360's Dashboard software to accommodate navigating by voice and "touch" are interesting. I'd like to try Kinect out for a few days just to get a feel for the choices they made and the issues they attempted to overcome. For giggles, I read the Windows Phone 7 UI Design and Interaction guide, and while it felt like a bizarre religious document at times, it's interesting to see justifications for why the user interface on those new phones behaves the way it does.

Just some light reading for your Wednesday.
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