Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Speaking Up for the Voiceless

When I first played Half-Life back in 2001 on the family PC, I was immediately taken aback by how much the Black Mesa staff welcomed me into their community. They made eye contact with me, spoke directly to me, and addressed me like the entry-level theoretical physicist I was. Following the infamous Resonance Cascade, the interaction with Black Mesa personnel shifted from condescending remarks towards a subordinate to pleas for help, requests for assistance and fearful, panicked inquiries. Every chapter of the game brought new challenges, along with new allies and friends to provide help, right up until the mysterious G-Man offered me a contract for my services, or a battle I could never hope to win.

Valve’s Half-Life shattered my adolescent brain even three years after its release when I first played it. The narrative was, and still is, as engaging as it is mysterious and thought-provoking. Half-Life succeeded in breaking the fourth wall without violating the suspension of disbelief, and all the credit is due to the mustachioed mute, Gordon Freeman.

Since the advent of the 6th generation of home consoles, ushered in by Sony’s PlayStation 2 in 2000, storytelling in videogames has become much more sophisticated. Along with gorgeous cutscenes and dramatic scripts, many characters have been given a voice for their every line of dialogue. Advances in technology, the industry’s escalating popularity, and greater budgets have paved the way for lavish production values which include voice-acting and lip-synching. New intellectual properties such as Mass Effect and recent installments of classic franchises alike have been embracing all the possibilities offered by technological advances.

A handful of developers, however, have been abiding by the storytelling techniques introduced before budgets and media storage permitted fully-voiced and narrated scripts. As indicated by the comments and feedback provided by irate and impatient gamers on media outlets and forums, much of the gaming community would like to see these methods of narration go the way of the cartridge. Vocal, outspoken protagonists and avatars have, by many consumers, been adopted as an industry standard.

The progression of technology has allowed new methods of storytelling, but these are simply an option for developers and producers to pursue. The silent protagonist is a narrative mechanic that is unique to the medium of videogames, which is why Link, Gordon Freeman, and others have remained mute while so much of the gaming landscape has begun speaking up. Silent protagonists allow players to evaluate situations and scenarios free from the influence of an outspoken protagonist, and this satisfies a unique storytelling niche.

Such a cryptic opening for Half-Life 2 is made possible by an uninterrupted monologue.

Gordon Freeman’s fateful interview with the enigmatic G-Man at the end of Half-Life would not carry the same weight if Gordon Freeman had been able to interrupt the monologue with questions. Anticipating closure and resolve, the player chugs along through the game’s narrative across earthly and alien landscapes, all the while catching occasional glimpses of their stalker. The player is left to wonder his motives and the purpose of his scheme when the credits begin rolling, even after they had been directly and personally addressed by the enigmatic agent. A finale as discrete as entering the portal on the tram after Gordon’s sinister encounter leaves much for players to question, and is conducive to producing the thought-provocation and speculation that builds strong gaming communities.

While playing through The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, players are free to feel naturally all the emotions elicited by the game. Players were able to witness the majesty of Lake Hylia, and feel the stress of scaling the erupting Death Mountain without a word of observation from Link. Players felt dread penetrate their consciousness following their emergence from the Temple of Time, as well as a violated sense of justice at Lon Lon Ranch. We felt relief at the sight of Princess Ruto after learning her entire race had been extinguished, and we were compelled to exact vengeance on Ganondorf at the top of his sinister castle. All these moments and more were made memorable by provision of context, a strong cast of Non-Playable Characters (NPCs), unique landscapes, and a driving sense of duty. From outwitting the Kokiri bully Milo to driving the Master Sword into the demon Ganon’s ugly face, players completed a grand and emotive journey without ever having a feeling suggested by their avatar.

In no way could a dialogue have made this climax more exciting.

An additional virtue of Link’s passive demeanor is that players are able to impart elements of their own personality into the game. Link is the everyday man summoned by fate and sent on an extraordinary journey. He connects with the player from the get-go, because at one time or another everyone has been “the kid without a fairy.” Whether playground alienations or the first day at university are fresh in a player’s memory, everyone can sympathize with “Mr. No-Fairy.” Additionally, everyone has had a fantasy or two of being in the world for a special and particular reason. Inspired by real-life heroes like doctors, generals, parents and entertainers, everyone has a childhood fantasy hiding within them, and Link’s Hylian blood ties him to a grand destiny. By remaining silent through the entire adventure, Link remains every player’s inner hero; our fantasies and inspirations he vicariously fulfills.

Dead Space provided a very different experience, but used similar mechanics. Players assumed the role of Isaac Clarke, an engineer tasked with repairing the USG Ishimura; a gigantic space-faring vessel used for mining and refining ores obtained from planets. However, once aboard the ship, inspections and repairs took a backseat to survival and escape, as it was overrun with a hive-minded alien colony. The dark, claustrophobic interior of the planet-cracking vessel took players on a tour of terrors as they scrambled to escape. Players experienced fear and panic under an onslaught of hordes of necromorphs; the flesh-hungry, reanimated corpses of those aboard the Ishimura who sought only the destruction of Isaac Clarke. The few remaining humans on the ship provided no solace as the brainwashed pawns of a greater conspiracy.

Now is not the time for quips and jokes...

From fighting off alien hordes with a dwindling supply of munitions to watching their fellow man’s gruesome sacrifice during a malicious ritual, players needed no suggestions to be frightened. While some action-adventure games employ occasional comic relief with their protagonist’s one-liners and witty quips, Dead Space allows the oppressive atmosphere to take full-effect over the player. Orders given to the player by desperate, dying and traitorous squadmates only perpetuated the feeling of hopelessness and dread. Through the whole game, players are not once suggested by their avatar to feel scared, because the ambiance and plot do the job so effectively.

These points are not to suggest that silent protagonists offer a better gaming experience by default. Intricate and memorable plots witnessed in franchises such as Mass Effect, Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy would only be possible with an active protagonist propelling the action along. However, the silent protagonist is a narrative mechanic that is unique to the medium of videogames. No movie, book or musical will ever be able to issue orders, inquiries and pleas directly to the player like Alyx Vance and Princess Zelda have. Avatars who actively engage the machines of fate have the potential to make a more cinematic experience out of a game, at the cost of ushering the player into an observer’s role, whereas silent ones invite the player directly into their form. I hope that Link, Gordon Freeman and new characters will continue to invite me into their world even as available technology would permit them to speak for themselves.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Reviewing Games with Consistency

As consumers are gravitating towards videogames as a primary source of entertainment, an understanding of the medium becomes more and more important. Dozens of games are released each month when console, mobile and internet platforms are all considered. In order to provide the public with an impression of the features and quality of the games on the market, periodicals and websites feature reviews with which readers can consult when considering a purchase. Although every different site employs a variety of editors to review new games, and each of those reviewers has their gaming preferences, every reviewer ought to agree on a few key elements that are requisite for a high-quality game. Personalities and favoritisms aside, a gaming enthusiast with experience can evaluate a game's worth based on a few criteria.


This is the most forgiving of the 3 elements of reviewing games. Every developer has a goal in mind when producing a game, and the concept of the game is the experience which producers intend to convey to the player. Whether that goal is something safe and familiar to the consumers, such as a military-themed FPS or a medieval-themed RPG, or if the game focuses on more abstract, unexplored themes, the object of the game sets its tone from the get-go. Even games that use simple concepts to hook players like Tetris or Lumines have set good goals, because they are so concise.

For example, a genre with which the public is familiar is the First-Person Shooter (FPS.) As long as the game doesn't deviate too much from the core formula of shooting enemies in between checkpoints, the players know what they're getting themselves into at the time of purchase and hopefully enjoy the game every step of the way. FPS games have proven to be an enjoyable experience for many consumers, and have become a staple of the gaming industry as a result.

Call of Duty is a modern FPS at its purest.

Contrasting both the bleeding edge of innovation and the security of industry staples, a game whose object is completely inane and suffers for it is the 2007 promotional game, Sneak King. If reviewed alongside contemporary retail games, Sneak King is a flop. The goal of the game is to provide Burger King products to hungry people without getting caught.

Sneak King has a very low ceiling setting above its head, because the goal of the game is short on inspiration. Even if Sneak King featured a revolutionary interactive narrative mechanic and cutting edge graphics and sound, its intentional campiness prevents it from reaching any level of impact or influence.

Whoppers aren’t the only thing with cheese…

Let the fact that I had to resort to considering a fast food promotional deal to find a game with a bad videogame concept with which to compare a good concept. The contemporary gaming market is far more often than not inhabited by games with good concepts, and bad concepts are the minority. Even videogames aimed at children can have sound concepts, as long as they are age-appropriate.

Additionally, the goal of the game must be acknowledged when rating its performance under certain criteria. A design choice must be recognized as context appropriate, rather than a flaw. The black-and-white visuals presented by 2010’s LIMBO are bad by conventional standards, but are unique when considering the minimalistic nature of the game. Another sound example is within the Ratchet and Clank franchise, all of which feature simple, jovial storylines and humor. Elaborate storylines a la Metal Gear Solid or weapons and wounds as they appear in the Halo franchise would simply feel out of place in such a feel-good game.

There are no extra points for headshots on Tyrranhoids.

The concept of the game is the best way to evaluate it at face value. Whether a game carries the ambitious goals of a triple-A holiday release or those of a simple, monothematic XBLA or PSN release, what the producers have chosen to convey to the player is the first and primary set of criteria from which all other evaluations stem.

Direct Competition

Sadly, the main limiting factor for many games is the saturation of their niche. Games that are products of fads or derivatives of successful titles within the videogame industry itself are the main perpetrators in this case. All too often, a game that is commercially successful and revolves around an unusual concept sees a slew of copycats in its wake.

Gamers saw this effect in play during the early 2000s, as the success of Grand Theft Auto III inspired a myriad of antihero/sandbox-style games that flooded the market for a good five years. Alongside the sandbox fad was the World War II themed FPS, all following the tracks left by Medal of Honor. During the early 1990s, while Mario and Sonic were neck-and-neck in the race for console platformer supremacy, they were followed to the finish line by untold numbers of copycats; everything from movie-licensed cash-ins to start-up franchises saw 2D, side-scrolling entries and interpretations. Most recently, shooting games with an emphasis on online play and leveling systems have been the games to produce; just about every FPS released since 2007's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare hit the market has been emulating its formula, grabbing for the low-hanging fruit left over from Activision's harvest.

Not surprisingly, the best games inspired by GTA were… other GTA games.

The answer to a market saturated with games that feature a few genres or a select style is uniqueness and daring. With sequels and franchising proving more profitable than innovation and creativity, one-of-a-kind titles are getting harder to come by. Even if a game is critically praised and supported by an extensive ad campaign, delving too far into unfamiliar territories may prevent it from achieving levels of fame any higher than "cult classic." The commercial disappointments of games like Psychonauts and Beyond Good and Evil remind publishers and developers of the dangers associated with straying too far from established stylistic norms.

Stylistic choices are not to be confused with standards put forth by advances in technology and maturing tastes. Elements of convenience within the interface of a game are expected by players, and the industry is better as a whole because of these advances. While some players may prefer the old-school style of turn-based RPGs as found in Dragon Quest to modern real-time RPGs such as Dragon Age: Origins, no one will say that they prefer stuttering frame rates to a smooth 30 frames per second. Some players will claim that games from past generations are better for their unforgiving difficulty, but far fewer will prefer password-input to track their progress instead of conventional save-systems.

A critical analysis takes into account the gaming market contemporary with a release. If a game includes mechanics that have recently seen popularity, while they may be well-implemented and serve their purpose well, no points will be awarded for creativity. The aforementioned leveling systems which have permeated every crevice of the FPS community are a prime example of features that work well in a variety of settings, but are far too common to be considered creative or refreshing. Lastly, industry norms of interface must be regarded as expectations rather than design choices, and rated appropriately.


This is an evaluation of a game from a more technical standpoint. How well does the game load?? Do the sounds occur with appropriate timing and volume?? Can players walk through walls?? Is the system of receiving and completing missions easy to use, or too simple?? Is inventory management a pain?? How is the difficulty pacing??

All of these are questions which critics ask when evaluating a game's execution. A game may employ fresh mechanics to grab the player’s attention, an inspiring narrative for personal connection, and feature a never-before-seen graphics style, but if the player never really feels like they’re in control, a player will be unable to connect with the game. In the experience of playing a game, its technical execution is the binding agent that holds all the different components together. Graphical and audio fidelity must complement what is happening on-screen; the quality of visuals and sound with which the gamer is accustomed must be present, if not exceeded, to prevent them from being a distraction. Rough edges, awkward placements of blur, choppy framerates and low polygon counts scream for attention in the current market and have the potential to violate the suspension of disbelief; instead of paying attention to a key cutscene or a thrilling boss battle, a player may be wondering why their avatar’s cheeks look like a violated prism.

"Has everyone been able to keep their feet above ground today?"

In addition to visual and auditory aesthetics, a player must feel in control of the game at all times. As Cliff Blezinski said during an interview with during the Gears of War 3 beta, a player must be blaming themselves for their failures so that they are encouraged to try again and perform better. Input commands must be mapped sensibly to a controller if played on a console, and regardless of the platform the on-screen action must be responsive to a player’s input. The more latency between a player’s keystroke and their avatar’s movement, the less connected the player feels to the game.

Additionally, menu navigation must be as streamlined as possible without compromising depth. Many games, specifically RPGs, require the use of in-game menus so that the player may employ spells and abilities of their choice from a wide array of options. The best menus offer simple designs with enough information present that the player has a clear and intuitive understanding of their functions, and the full arsenal of a player’s in-game abilities are at their disposal with minimal keystrokes. A good menu system is like that of Dragon Age: Origins; a wheel-based spell and talent bank minimizes the time between the desire to cast a plague upon one’s enemies and watching the carnage unfold on-screen.

On Grading

Many publications that feature videogame reviews employ a ratings scale. Most of these take the form of a 20-point numerical scale, with ratings ranging from 1-10 at 0.5 intervals, examples being IGN and Game Informer. Some sources used to have a 100-point scale, with ratings ranging from 0-10 with 0.1 intervals, and 10-point star ratings, similar to those of movie ratings. Personally, I prefer using straight lettergrades, resulting in a 5-point scale with each lettergrade having distinct qualifications.

Lettergrades with the following specifications allow for the most consistent ratings from game to game. The aforementioned criteria for game reviews can be best implemented inside of a lettergrade system because of its clear distinctions between grades, whereas 10-point, 20-point and 100-point scales lack definition between intervals. The criteria for meeting certain lettergrades are as follows:

A: These are the games that really define the medium. A-games have the potential to move both their genre and the industry forward by raising the bar. Sometimes, an A-game is a genre-bending, indefinable experience that doesn’t quite fit any prescribed quantifications, though games that exemplify the state of the art by combining the best of contemporary ideas into an unforgettable experience may receive an A-grade. In addition to these staggering expectations, all the great ideas must be implemented with near-perfect execution, effectively exceeding expectations. Anyone who enjoys playing videogames will greatly benefit from playing games of this caliber.

Half-Life, 1998.

B: B-games are great games that, more often than not, meet a player’s expectations. While not necessarily an experience that will stick with someone for a lifetime, be it with special memories or infinite replayability, B-games are still great games with solid foundations and adequately satisfy the lofty goal of a producer. Fans of specific genres, franchises, contexts and/or themes ought to play this game, and players who are not usually familiar with the style of the game will likely find it enjoyable.

Lost Planet, 2007

C: C-games are where consumer-awareness starts to take form as a negative experience. “C” as a lettergrade in primary and high school represents satisfactory performances, which is exactly what represents here. These are games that are average; not much to speak of with respect to new ideas, some technical/aesthetic flaws hinder the game as an experience, and a producer’s goals are sometimes met by the game, and sometimes it falls short of adequacy. As a product, satisfactory is a good brand to have, but when considering the investments of time and money that the game will demand, buyer beware. Here is where franchise loyalty will really come into play, as well as genre enthusiasm.

True Crime: Streets of L.A., 2004

D: D-games don’t bring very much to the table. Faulty from a technical perspective is usually what separates a C-game from a D-game, and these border on unplayable. Recommending a D-game to anyone is difficult. Fortunately, D-games are hard to come by.

Sneak King, 2006

F: F-games are faulty and uninspired with respect to all criteria, and are sure to send any buyer into a frenzy of anger and disappointment and having invested their hard-earned money into a stinker. An F-rating is essentially a warning to avoid a game.

I'm sure they are out there, but I'm not sure I've ever played a game that deserves an F-rating.

Concept, contemporaries and execution are the best criteria by which to review games across genres and platforms with consistency. Breaking games down by other criteria may exclude certain design choices. Lastly, lettergrades are the best way to rate games with consistency, and therefore ought to be implemented as a primary grading system instead of numerical scores.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Gaming Literature - Staying Classy

Videogames, despite their escalating popularity, are still something of an enigma to the consumer. Is gaming, as a hobby, justified? Do videogames enrich the player on any level, or are they simply indulgences? Are they harmful to children? Do they send implied messages about murder, violence and drugs? Have they any artistic merit?
According to's Poll of the Day, visitors to the site invest quite a bit of time into playing games.

All of these are valid questions, and in an age saturated with media entertainment, very important ones. Videogames, despite bad press and the public’s lack of their understanding of their complexity and influence, as a medium have not only displayed their ability to provide unique and engaging experiences, but also have become exceedingly relevant in modern culture.

Bridging the Gap

Definitions of Activity

All forms of media can settle into one or two forms of activity: engagement, entertainment, and art. The classification of various media into these categories depends upon criteria that set them apart based on aesthetic appeal and long-term messages, and classification can even fluctuate inside of a specified medium.

Things We Do For Fun

Entertainment is defined as any sort of pleasurable diversion. At its purest, entertainment is comprised of simple activities, both passive and active, that require minimal input and thought provocation for success. Entertainment shortens the tie between work and reward, and it includes the completion of simple puzzles, such as crosswords, viewing a simple movie or television episode, and listening to music. The more instantly satisfying an activity is, the more it favors entertainment instead of engagement or art. A case may be made that classical music is less entertaining than pop radio because it requires patience and interpretation, or that Despicable Me (2010)8 is more entertaining than The Godfather (1972)8 because it requires less contextual understanding prior to viewing.

When The Going Get Tough...

Engagement is defined as any task requiring effort, causing mental or physical taxation. These include activities like playing sports, working at a job, and partaking in complex puzzles like Sudoku or jigsaw. Engagement challenges a consumer to exercise the mind or body, and requires willpower to stay through until completion. Some forms of entertainment contain elements of engagement, depending on their complexity and their provocation. Mystery-based, episodic programs such as Lost, (2004)(1) or educational programming from The History Channel or Discovery can be engaging because they inspire discussion and deliberation, as opposed to simpler, sensationalist programming that provokes no thought from the viewer that remains closer to being purely entertaining.

An Ever-Present Debate

The last class of media is art, which is defined as any form of expression on behalf of the creator. Art elicits, or attempts to elicit emotion, and remains a purely passive experience at its purest. Painting and other visual art is basically the only pure example. While entertainment and engagement are sort of opposites, as most examples subject to classification will likely satisfy one more than the other, artistic merit stands separate. The magnitude of the artistry is contingent upon its capacity to elicit the intended emotions from the viewer. A case could be made that much classical music, with its deliberate crescendo, climax and release formula that can take up to an hour to complete, is more artistic than pop music because it elicits emotions more effectively. Also, thought-provoking, reflective, or classical literature with their varieties of themes and encompassing character casts may be considered more artistic than some pop reading and periodicals, which often capitalize on readers with indulgence and rapid tension and release.

Activity in Videogames

Videogames are unique as a medium because they have the potential to fully satisfy all three forms of activity simultaneously, without sacrificing elements to compromise one another.

Engagement Study: Legend of Zelda

A consistent gaming franchise that has been on the market for almost 25 years is The Legend of Zelda, and it exemplifies engagement inside of a videogame. Engagement being defined as requiring effort and taxation, the Legend of Zelda titles, which span many different gaming platforms, uses elegant puzzle design and maze-like dungeons to challenge a player. An ever-expanding inventory of tools and weapons becomes available to a player throughout the game, and a player needs to match the right tool for the right task. As a Legend of Zelda game progresses, the puzzles become more complex as every dungeon requires more tools to complete its puzzles.

Just imagine... every tool serves a handful of purposes.

Gameplay in this franchise is comprised of exploration of the overworld, which serves as a hub, interspersed by completion of dungeons. The past few installments all have, thanks to technological advances, dungeons laid out like a three-dimensional maze. A player is required to pay careful attention to key landmarks inside of a dungeon to progress, and complex puzzles award completion with forward progress and exploration. The combat in a Legend of Zelda game is also complex, often serving as a puzzle in itself, except the penalty for failure is death of the protagonist and having to start at the beginning of the dungeon. Combat in these games requires players to think on their feet to attack while remaining coordinated enough to stay out of danger as often as possible.

Entertainment Study: Call of Duty

A franchise that best pure entertainment in gaming is Call of Duty, specifically the online multiplayer component. Simple core gameplay mechanics comprised of pointing and shooting keep the path from work to reward very short. While the potential exists in multiplayer games for coordination and strategy with teammates, these elements are optional and initiated by the player, and even critical failure is still rewarded with some forward progress through the multiplayer’s leveling component.

Call of Duty is pretty simple: point, shoot, repeat. Entertainment at its purest.

In addition to simple point-and-shoot mechanics, a player is given incentive to play constantly, with an amalgamation of awards and upgrades constantly at the player’s fingertips. By participating in games, killing enemies, and completing objectives, players are rewarded with experience points that are used to upgrade their online persona with more gear, decoration and weaponry. While the format for upgrading changes slightly with each installment, at its core it remains unchanged. Radar jammers, tactical grenades, bombs, laser sights, grenade launchers, new camouflage designs, and abilities to run, reload and climb faster are all at a player’s disposal with a bit of input. Such gear and abilities serve as long-term incentive to continue playing for extended sessions over months or years, and diehard players are rewarded with special commendations and decorations.

Art Study: Silent Hill 2 and Shadow of the Colossus

Art, being defined as the capacity to elicit emotions and express creativity and originality, is exemplified in two unique games. While games that elicit emotions other than excitement or frustration are much less common, they are not altogether rare, though often are not nearly as popular as exciting games. The first example is Shadow of the Colossus, (2005)(1) a game which pits the player against sixteen giant beasts, which are all encountered individually, in a vast, but deserted landscape. While toppling giants is not an uncommon element in popular videogames, the presentation in Shadow of the Colossus sets it apart from the crowd. Any sort of player interaction is all but absent until the game’s heartwrenching climax, leaving the player in hours of gameplay with complete solitude outside of the sixteen beasts.

"Some mountains are scaled. Others are slain."

Cutscenes explaining character growth and motivation are all but absent, leaving the lore to a player’s interpretation, and a complete lack of closure by the game’s ending keeps the game as enigmatic as before it was played. Shadow of the Colossus inspires wonder and loneliness as a player explores the vast landscape in complete solitude but for the accompanying horse and the giants, as well as a unique blend of excitement and dread thanks to the impressive size of the colossi.

A second game to elicit emotions effectively is Silent Hill 2, (2001)(1) a story-driven horror game about an everyday man receiving a letter in the mail from his dead wife, inviting him to the titular town. Silent Hill 2 is the story of that man and the torment he experiences in the haunted town, and it is a unique game in the breed of fear it inspires. Actual, intentional scares are few and far between, replaced instead with a permeating, relentless stress and constant dread. Truly, this game is quite the experience to behold, especially at night while receiving the sound through headphones. While the context of the game provides a perpetual chill, the evolution of the protagonist and cast of characters inspire pity, wonder, and disgust depending on the character.

Angela, a restless soul, struggles with her past of neglect and abuse.

In addition to its aforementioned virtues, Silent Hill 2 deals with subject matter that to this day is rarely so tastefully and subtly confronted in videogames, music, movies and other media. Each character in the game personifies a different aspect of guilt, and though the reasons for this are left for the player’s interpretation, they are very urgent matters. Eddie, a young man, is a victim of brutal bullying, and his evolution through the game is disturbing. Angela is a victim of extreme parental abuse and neglect, though it is never addressed forthright and only implied through visceral context. The protagonist, the everyman named James, leads a player to utter disgust by the end of the game as he confronts his manifested fears.

Final Fantasy X "Bridges the Gap"

Released in 2001(1), Final Fantasy X is a great example of a videogame breaking the mold and exceeding expectations in art, entertainment and engagement. While many games could satisfy this game study, Final Fantasy X was chosen for its uniqueness to its genre, emotive themes, timeless gameplay, varied soundtrack, and stand-alone visual style. Critical praise, commercial success, and ongoing popularity ensure that Final Fantasy X is a game of high production standards and exceeds the criteria for being art, engaging, and entertaining simultaneously.

With respect to artistic merit, the game is visually compelling at every turn. The character designs are each unique, with every protagonist delivering a unique appearance. Non-playable characters carry styles and behavioral mannerisms unique to their region and generation, and the villains and beasts of the land are all very distinct from one another. The fact that the land of Spira in which the narrative takes place is entirely fictitious adds to the magnitude of its endearment. Landscapes vary with the progression of the plot, as the protagonists travel around the world of Spira. From the tranquility of Besaid Island to the treacherous Thunder Plains, the vast Calm Lands to the intimidating Mount Gagazet, the landscapes take the visual style of a moving portrait.

Final Fantasy X is a story about love, friendship, trust and sacrifice presented with awe-inspiring visuals, and it keeps a player hooked with solid, consistent gameplay mechanics.

The soundtrack is also especially memorable. Matching each setting and battle aesthetically, the music encompasses many genres and magnitudes. Nobuo Uematsu, then -Squaresoft’s (now Square-Enix) composer and musical director is able to express wonder, dread, love, anger, intensity and the whole range of human emotions adequately to match the scene and setting of the game. Final Fantasy X boasts a soundtrack that is celebrated even ten years after the game’s release, with many of the game’s tracks being featured on and boasting tens of thousands of views.

The plot of Final Fantasy X, while justifying the title "fantasy," stays relevant with believable characters in dire circumstances. Themes of friendship, love and guardianship envelop a player in the tale. Expressed in many hours’ worth of dialogue, description, and visually striking cutscenes, the game that mandates a 50-hour commitment to reach its finale rewards players with a rich, detailed and consistent story brought to life by an empathetic cast of characters.

With respect to engagement, the play of the game is focused on turn-based battles, strategic management of upgrades, and puzzles based on maze-like dungeons and tiles. The turn-based format is traditional to role-playing games (RPGs) and began many decades ago with tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons. Many videogames have been witness to the evolution of turn-based battles.

Final Fantasy X utilizes largely traditional turn-based strategy, with a party composed of the player’s characters taking turns with various villains and enemies as they exchange blows, cast spells, and heal. As is tradition, turn order and frequency is dictated by an individual character’s speed rating. As is custom among turn-based RPGs, a player must wisely prioritize attacking enemies, enhancing allies, and healing to successfully complete the tasks at hand.

In terms of pure entertainment, Final Fantasy X is a delightful distraction. The narrative moves along at a brisk pace, and all cutscenes feature high production values utilizing the aforementioned colorful, detailed characters and inspired landscapes. The game constantly provides incentive to players so that they keep playing. The “Sphere Grid” upgrade system is constantly rewarding players with upgrades, and leveling occurs at many times the frequency that other games allow it. The high frequency of leveling allows players to stay entertained for many consecutive battles, while constantly allowing the player to upgrade.

As they gain experience through battles, players upgrade the party by navigating around the sphere grid

A great many games satisfy the criteria to be classified as high quality art, pleasant entertainment, and endearingly engaging, Final Fantasy X not being the least among them. Many players reflect upon the time they spent playing this game, which is often 60 to 80 hours, with fondness. Final Fantasy X is a great example of how videogames are able to be a great activity with a brag-worthy payoff, and in doing so shows that the medium of videogames have great potential to exceed expectations and established norms.

Videogames Functioning As Contemporary Literature

Much of literature and cinema captures and personifies a time and place. Well-respected and timeless works of literature vividly express the conflicts of ideals of a region during a specific era, as well as personifying these conflicts with believable characters. Timeless themes permeate favorite books and movies as they are passed along generations.

Literature As We Accept It

Great Expectations (1861) captures a busy England during its Industrial Revolution. Charles Dickens, the author, draws from his experiences during his lonely childhood to color his world in this novel(5). Pip, the protagonist, deals with internal conflict as his dreams of wealth, security, and love compromise his affection for his adoptive family, particularly his brother-in-law, Joe Gargery. Dickens builds a believable cast of characters, and inspires readers to ponder to what extent we might pursue our own dreams, and what contexts might inspire such a pursuit. The novel is sort of a told fantasy of every person, as the orphan child stumbles upon great wealth provisioned from a mysterious benefactor. Great Expectations captures and personifies an infantile Industrial England, rife with poverty and exploitation.

It’s A Wonderful Life, (1946)(1) produced and directed by Frank Capra, personifies the World War II generation through everyman George Bailey, played by James Stewart. Depictions of the hardships of the Great Depression are present, as is life at home during World War II. The context of this movie was contemporary with its filming, allowing everybody to relate to its cast of characters, but it has served as a timeless story of the WWII generation as time goes on.

James Steward brings to life the lovable, hard-working family man George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life.

In 1866, Fyodor Dostoevsky issued Crime and Punishment to a literary magazine in a 12-part series, and in doing so captured pre-revolution Russia and the swarm of political and social goings-on in the chaos of the mid and late 19th century, including ideology, westernization and theology(6). The moral dilemmas, evolution and interactions of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov through the novel personify the varied culture of Russia, as well as the multitude of ideals that were emerging at that time. The personal vendettas and tribulations with which the protagonist dealt are detailed expressions of an entire array of human emotion.

As illustrated, these well-respected and famous works of literature and cinema capture cultures that are unique to their time and place. Videogames have accomplished the same feat, sometimes with more subtlety than other times, and still show great potential for evolving this concept.

Final Fantasy VII: A Commentary on 1990s Social Issues

Final Fantasy VII (1997)(1) is a role-playing game in a fictitious world with colorful, outrageous characters and villains. While it was a commercial and critical success for its impressive-for-the-time computer animated graphics, a unique battle system and upgrade capabilities, as well as an intriguing and varied narrative, many elements of its plot were inspired by real-world controversies and events.

Capturing the goings-on of the 1990s, Squaresoft’s Final Fantasy VII illustrates the gravity of resource depletion in the wake of the green movement, the chaos inspired by corporate and political corruption, and the unclear ethical boundaries of genetic manipulation. By weaving the narrative into the context of the story, each of these controversies are illustrated.

The setting of the game is an entirely fictional universe, on a planet whose natural resource pool is referred to as the “Lifestream.” The Lifestream is not only the natural resource pool, but also a “life pool” so to speak, with each life on the planet being a manifestation of the Lifestream(2). This in an exaggerated form of the process of metamorphosis which transforms organic matter into crude oil, which is then refined into marketable goods, and resonated with the environmentalism of the 1990s, a time when 76% of Americans identified as envrionmentalists(3). The narrative of the game includes the player in activism against the Shinra company, a fictitious corporate entity that mines and refines the Lifestream of the planet and deprives the protagonist’s home city of natural aesthetics in the process. The activist element of the narrative personifies the environmental concerns that were present in headlines in the 1990s.

Final Fantasy VII also carries with it some issues about genetic manipulation. In July of 1996, the first animal to be successfully cloned was born and was revealed to the world in February of 1997(4), nearly parallel to the American release of Final Fantasy VII. While the technology for genetic research was hitting stride and the mapping of the human genome neared its completion, genes and all their implications dominated headlines. Sephiroth, the main antagonist of Final Fantasy VII, personifies much of the controversy surrounding genetic research.

Sephiroth and his ambitions are inspired by social issues that emerged during the 1990s.

The question of human cloning has been hotly contested since it appeared to be technically feasible. Scientists and activists alike often deem producing a human clone “unethical.” Sephiroth is the product of splicing the genome of the game’s non-human, extraterrestrial race with the genes of mankind. For a significant portion of the narrative, Sephiroth is revered as a skilled soldier, positive role model and all-around team player. Being led from birth to believe that he is the last of his bloodline, the rich, historic Cetra, and that his mother died with his birth, he believes that his natural talent for battle and warfare is because of his heritage(5). When he unintentionally discovers his true identity, that he is the product of a corporately-funded experiment to produce gifted fighters, he loses his mind. Overcome with disappointment, anger, and depression, he develops a myriad of psychological ailments. In his effort to justify his existence, he attempts to exalt his power, leading to his becoming a villainous character.

While the plot of Final Fantasy VII involves Sephiroth taking a comic-book inspired turn of creed and code, the inspiring issue remains at hand even in 2011. How would a person who is the product of an experiment deal with identity issues? Can we, as human beings, justify such a laboratory without compromising our compassion?

Dragon Age: Origins: Reflecting on Modern Spiritual Diversity

BioWare’s 2009(1) large-scale role-playing game Dragon Age: Origins uses real-world elements of spiritual contest to color its narrative. BioWare utilizes the unique potential for interactivity to allow a player a high degree of flexibility in shaping their own narrative. Theology is a very pertinent component of the tale, and Dragon Age gives the player very true-to-life circumstances in which to make their plot-related choices.

The main religion in the fictional land of Ferelden is very much an intentional parallel to Christianity. “The Maker” sends a prophet to the land to die in a battle and permit all who die to rest with “The Maker” after their death, which is much akin to the canon of Christianity. Similarly to modern Christianity, the context for the lore of the religion is many centuries old, and skepticism and dissent arrive in many forms, from different religions and cults, to atheism and agnosticism.

What makes Dragon Age: Origins unique with its theological implications is that no one choice is given as being “good” or “bad” and a player can save the land from imminent threats without ever formally declaring their support to one religion or another. The protagonist is entirely customizable from the beginning to the end, and the player has choices over every aspect of their virtual identity. The cast of characters that surround the protagonist within the game are varied in their beliefs, convictions and creeds to keep theological themes minimally biased, and each character will freely express their approval or disapproval of the player’s choice of action.
Dragon Age: Origins immerses players in a world with conflicting philosophies and religions, and provides the player with in-game feedback for every choice that is made.

While many videogames feature spiritual implications and symbolism, Dragon Age: Origins features an element of ambiguity which mimics modern America. “The Maker” is never physically presented outright as an existent being, which is a popular modern argument against theism(8). In this way, not only is the narrative subject to a player’s manipulation, but it is also a commentary on the current state of dispute in the spiritual arena of our culture.

What Have We Learned??

Videogames are an emerging form of entertainment, and a growing industry. As gaming permeates every platform from social network sites to mobile phones, it is becoming increasingly relevant, and a greater understanding is needed. Just as any medium of expression, products exist which may enrich or diminish our enjoyment of life. In a culture saturated with media, it is important to make wise choices about how to spend one’s time when being exposed to media. Videogames provide a wide array of experiences, including epic narratives, commitment, frustration, and the thrill of victory. Just like one has the choice to watch enriching television programs like documentaries as opposed to game shows, a player can choose between indulgent games and challenging, sophisticated games.

Gaming is a medium which permits the developers to create experiences which are both engaging and entertaining, while lathering the whole experience in a luscious art style. Neither art nor entertainment nor engagement need be sacrificed in order to make a polished product, as videogames need not favor one of the three activities in order to create a high-quality product. Videogames have shown much growth since the debut of Asteroids in 1979(1), and retain the potential for maturation as it grows as a favored pastime around the world.

1. Internet Movie Database
2. Final Fantasy VII Retrieved 3/20/2011
3. Dr. Kovarik, William Environmental History Timeline Radford University
4. 1997: Dolly the Sheep is Cloned BBC News Last updated 2008
5. Sephiroth Retrieved 3/21/2011
6. Kim, Sonia. Pip’s Playing at Life Brown University, 2009
7. Morson, Gary Saul Russian Literature Encyclopedia Britannica
8. Drange, Theodore M. Atheism, Agnosticism, Noncognitivism The Secular Web 1998
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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Thoughts on Bulletstorm Demo

The campaign behind Bulletstorm has been emphasizing two things: it's fantastic, over-the-top, completely indulgent style and the fact that the idea of the game is to "Kill with Skill" by executing enemies under a variety of criteria for extra points. While I am still skeptical that the scoring mechanic will make for a great game, the game itself is plenty fun.

Bulletstorm takes me back to a time in my youth, when shooting games were fun simply because they were games about shooting. People Can Fly has produced a game that reinvigorates the simple idea of shooting bad guys with awesome weapons. Kicking, sliding, whipping and pulling all allow for great variety when it comes to mangling baddies. Enemies came charging at me in a great variety of spookies, with a few gunners, some crazed hatchet men, and some sort of triple-barrel-shotgun-wielding tribal chieftain, (complete with hideous mask) so hopefully the full version of the game keeps up with this pace of variety.

I am looking forward to the game, but I'm not sure if I'm going to sink $60 on it... the gameplay itself seems to be quite fun, but I am skeptical of the consistency of the scoring system.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Reflections: Bayonetta

Have you ever desired to play a game that changed your controller into a vessel for an all-you-can-kill death buffet?? How about a game that combined silky smooth handling with relentless, ruthless battles, in which your success depended upon not only your reflexes, but also your skill?? Have you ever wanted to see a woman whose ridiculous, overt sexual appeal made Barbie look like a 10th century midwife?? How do you feel about seeing that same woman engage in breakdance while blasting baddies with ankle-mounted shotguns, only to pose for a snapshot before she finishes them off with a guillotine?? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, Bayonetta may be for you; if you affirmed all of them, go play it now!!

Bayonetta is, without a doubt, one of the best action-brawler games on the market. Strictly speaking about gameplay, little of this game goes astray. Any fan of games like Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden will feel right at home with Bayonetta. This witch delivers fast, frantic gameplay that is very challenging, especially because of its introduction of, and emphasis upon a few unique mechanics. Even though Bayonetta will hold a very steep learning curve for newcomers to the action-brawler genre, most everyone will find a solid challenge. However, with all that can be said about it for its vigor and creativity, not everyone will fall in love with this witch; from its off-the-wall narrative to the absolutely crazy battle presentation, it will sadly fall to a niche market.

This game absolutely reeks of style; Baynetta’s strut, attacks, shadow, enemies, friends, cutscenes, upgrades, and power attacks all drip with a cutting creativity. I feel as though all the folks at PlatinumGames sat down and brainstormed all the things that would be cool to do in an action videogame, and then chose to incorporate all of these things. The magic is that Bayonetta’s amplified-fantasy context allows all of these indulgences to feel natural, rather than forced. The brilliant medium that allows all this imagination to flow uninhibited is her hair. Yes, that’s right – Bayonetta’s hair is a conduit for her magic, allowing her own body to assume the form of a malicious parrot-demon, a huge high-heeled foot that stomps down with great force, or a medieval guillotine. Whatever Bayonetta needs, she provides for herself with often humorous results; I don’t think I’ve ever laughed out loud or shouted cheers so often while witnessing the demise of an enemy.

Cockteasing... now a new subgenre.

Platinum introduced us to Witch Time; the heir-apparent to bullet-time, except that the protagonist stays in full-speed motion while all the surrounding enemies slow down. While slow-mo game mechanics can feel unnatural or cliché if implemented poorly, one can only activate Witch Time after an exploit of skill. Rather than restricting slow-mo to a rechargeable or regenerative meter, it is activated in short intervals upon the player successfully dodging danger. The dodge button rests comfortably under the right index finger, and it is the only way to engage Witch Time. For example, a player laying into a baddie with one of Bayonetta’s often-long combos, if the enemy raises his axe to slash the player, he can press the dodge button right before the moment of impact and trigger a few seconds of Witch Time whoop-ass. It takes careful timing and is very dangerous, but is much more rewarding than what some similar games encourage, such as staying out of danger until the “special mode” meter fills back up. Being encouraged to jump right into the danger really keeps the battle pace exciting.

Bayonetta has her own version of special attacks as well. Dubbed “Torture Attacks,” these brief, but ridiculous, scripted sequences are contingent upon the player filling up the creatively-named “Magic Gauge” to one full sequence. The Magic Gauge is divided into eight circles, and said circles are filled by distributing pain. Appropriately, connecting more powerful attacks fill the gauge faster. Once all eight circles are gleaming bright, a simple button combination engages one of the many out-of-control Torture Attacks available, depending on which type of enemy is chosen as a victim. The stipulation about Torture Attacks that prevent them from being a cheap tactic is that once the player is struck, much of the Magic Gauge depletes. As the game progresses, the option exists to upgrade the number of circles in the Magic Gauge, which provides some leniency as the battles escalate in intensity, because Torture Attacks always require eight circles to activate.

The game plays a very effective game of risk vs. reward with the player. Filling up the Magic Gauge is a great way to distribute serious damage, especially to more dangerous and elusive foes. Witch Time is the most efficient and safest way to quickly fill the Magic Gauge, and is an effective means of laying down some hurt in its own right. Even with all these destructive tools at the players’ disposal, the only real way to power them up is to jump into the action and bring the fight, which makes for a fast-paced, multi-faceted game that rewards planning as well as skill and reflex.

Another new card brought to the table by Bayonetta is to have one weapon equipped to the hands, and another equipped to the feet - yes, the feet. While most weapons can be equipped to the hands, most of the downstairs potential rests with mounting ranged weapons. Two sets of weapons can be arranged via the start menu, and the left trigger button issues a weapon-set swap. This allows for four different weapons to be instantly available to the player with a simple button-tap, which allows for some surprising versatility, and projectile weapons are activated by simply holding in the punch or kick buttons for just a split second. With one weapon set, I am able to charge into an enemy with a pair of giant claws, and once they are knocked back I unleash a barrage from the ankle-mounted pistols. With one touch of a button, I’ve swiftly switched to the alternative weapon set, and am unleashing quadruple shotgun devastation, with one set on the hands and another set on the feet. Even if the situation calls for a weapon outside of the four that are immediately available, the start menu loads quickly and is simple to navigate.

The loading screen allows players to experiment with different weapon combinations.

A good variety of weapons are available, and mixing-and-matching is encouraged to best suit both a player’s preferred style of play as well as situation-specific encounters with foes. While the weapons aren’t upgradeable, a good selection is available from the game’s store. Most of the weapons vary in speed and range, which gives them all a very unique feel and prevents the game from feeling homogenized. Some models of foe drop their own weapons, and while they all break very quickly, they all offer some generous damage-dealing capabilities and help keep the gameplay varied.

The game store offers a good variety of upgrades, as well as new weapons. Run-of-the-mill items like those that restore health and magic are included, but the other items range from mundane to killer, and can really change the player’s approach to a particularly challenging portion of the game.

If you haven’t yet deduced, Bayonetta hardly takes itself seriously. The game benefits all the more from this creatively directive choice, as some of the most imaginative sequences in the game don’t feel forced or strained; the canon will permit just about anything to happen. However, what is present of a narrative certainly does not benefit from the jovial tone of the game. The cutscenes carry a surprisingly serious tone, which makes for an unwelcome change of pace after I just finished killing hordes of angels with a shot-gun themed breakdance and an iron maiden.

The story that is present is decent, if bizarre, and is well-presented by both cutscenes and a creative sort of film-drawn comic book, but is really restrained by the tone that the game sets outside of the cutscenes. The lore is fleshed-out and elaborated upon by a variety of in-game documents that can be discovered while exploring the levels, but isn’t required reading by any means, and further understanding of the Umbra Witches and Lumen Sages hardly benefits the experience from beginning to end.

Puzzles and platforming range from obvious to infuriating. Implementation of Witch Time into the puzzles only mandates the use of reflexes in activation. Beyond manipulating time to traverse certain obstacles, standard item placement and activation of switches constitute the puzzles. Nothing profound, but as an action game the puzzles only exist as a slight change of pace. No puzzle is particularly complex.

Platforming is a mixed bag. Certain elements such as changing gravitational orientation, and transforming into a beast to run with great speed work very well and are welcome distractions from battling. Much to my dismay, however, the latter half of the game often includes jumping and running around on light-platforms which don’t display the player’s shadow. Such an exclusion really messes with depth perception, and often results in trials of tedium rather than of timing and coordination.

The boss battles of Bayonetta are simply pristine. High-quality boss battles occur every few levels. All of them are grand in scope, and feature unique mediums ranging from the middle of the ocean to an ancient coliseum. A great blend of all-out hacking to dodging and running are present, much like a Zelda-style boss battle at double speed. The demise of every boss is outrageous and hilarious.

The best boss battles of 2010, no contest.

To wrap up, Bayonetta is an excellent action game, and sets a new bar for excitement. Honestly, it’s hard to go back to playing older action games after experiencing 20 hours of this smooth action, despite some minor platforming-related annoyances. The tone of the game is fun, and is a welcome change of pace from the all-too-common “serious” games on the market. Sadly, only a very open-minded gamer is going to get past the outrageous protagonist and insane style to be able to dive into the juicy gameplay. An oversexualized female protagonist aimed at male audiences is just too much of an aesthetic boundary for many to clear.

Bayonetta gets a B lettergrade.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Revitalizing Ninja Gaiden

There's some buzz about in the vid game community these days about Ninja Gaiden 3 taking a new direction for the franchise. While many franchises seem to be undergoing some degree of a facelift (Halo: Reach, Zelda: Wind Waker, Resident Evil 4, Ratchet: Deadlocked, GTA4, etc.) in the past few years, this is hardly a surprise. (Personally, I'd rather see big stylistic changes introduced as an entirely new franchise, but hey! apparently there's less money in that) As a big fan of the franchise, I have mixed emotions about the news.

Dramatic changes in gameplay and/or style may accompany a solid game, but often lose some of the aesthetic with which the original drew us in. The best example of a franchise being reinvented to critical and commercial success is Resident Evil 4; so much of this game was pristine and polished, and it played like a gamer's fantasy come true. For all that can be said of its greatness, it was hardly reminiscent of the original titles. Granted, the radius-based control scheme with fixed camera angles was getting outdated, but it took a giant leap from slow, suspenseful horror all the way to heart-pounding, adrenaline-inducing third-person shooter. From the game's release six years ago to this day I stand my ground in my opinion that Resident Evil 4 and, subsequently, Resident Evil 5, ought to have been released under a new franchise license. The only bit carrying over from the original titles are characters (and I gotta say, Wesker's presence in Resident Evil 5 felt forced).

Don't get me wrong, Resident Evil 4 was a great game, and having played it recently I can testify that it even ages quite well. Resident Evil 5 is great fun as well, but I must say that it carries the franchise's name like a heavy burden. I am concerned that the same fate will befall Ninja Gaiden 3, and certain mainstays and franchise identity may hinder what could otherwise be engaging gameplay. Both Ninja Gaiden games were fast and fluid, which is certainly appropriate, seeing as how the premise of the game is assuming control of a suave, highly-trained ninja.

Team Ninja has said cited a handful of changes that will separate NG3 from its predecessors, and the one that most intrigues me is that it is Ryu's origin story. This is a logical premise to tone down Ryu's hyper-homicidal fighting style in favor of a style that feels more deliberate and cautionary, as well as requiring a bit more care and calculation.

Elaborating on the new fighting style which will let me "experience what it's like to cut through bones," I question the choice to remain under the "Ninja Gaiden" franchise if the gameplay is to be altered such a degree as what I am imagining. I'm picturing in my mind a third-person action game in which every kill feels like a victory, rather than a step toward the larger victory at hand. Every encounter with the opposition is a critically important scenario. Even a single enemy on equal footing can induce great harm and death to the player if they are not careful, and in that way the game feels more like the survival mode from Dead or Alive 4 rather than Dynasty Warriors.

Don't get me wrong, the thought of fighting for my life in a series one-on-one encounters and panic-inducing skirmishes with small groups of rival ninjas tickles me quite pink; but it's not Ninja Gaiden. Ryu Hayabusa doesn't get hung up on which way to attack a group of enemies - as gamers, Ryu Hayabusa empowers us to wall-jump into a group of baddies while severing five different sets of legs, right before effortlessly sending the lot of them to an early grave looking like a high-school student's anatomy kit. Ryu, rather than being frightened by another man with a sword, will cut off an arm, blast him into the air, and then super-piledrive him into the pavement - head first. If I'm playing a game that makes common enemies stand before me as legitimate threats, I don't want to be playing as Ryu Hayabusa, for he is the Chuck Norris of video games.

The original XBox's Ninja Gaiden was best embodiment of all things ninja that the industry has ever seen (although PS2's Shinobi was pretty bad-ass). Ryu is a sleek, smooth killer and doesn't falter even at the most dangerous of foes. Killing clans of horrible beasts and hordes of otherworldly demons as Ryu Hayabusa is simply a matter of reflexes and timing. The sequel, while overdelivering on the thrills and consequently made Ryu feel more like a superhero than a skilled fighter, still handed the player immense satisfaction after laying out hundreds of dismembered bodies. While I fully advocate the production and development of a game that puts the player in the shoes of an inexperienced assassin, that game is better invented as an entirely new franchise. As a different franchise, none of the wild acrobatics of Ninja Gaiden will be required to make it stay true to name, nor will any of the insane kill counts; Team Ninja will be free to give the main character as many imperfections and deficiencies that are needed to depict him as a novice in his art, with respect to both character and gameplay. Additionally, a mature, coherent story is better suited to a different franchise. If a meaningful narrative is to be written, it can only be justified under a new name.

After all, Ryu Haybusa IS THE GUY who, no matter how nervous he was when he began, will still be the guy who killed an underwater ghost dragon and three gigantic, flaming armadillos.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Life After Achievements

Last week, I knew that I finally overcame my addiction to Xbox Achievements. Achievements, which have often been the object of my scorn, have still managed to invade hours and hours of my gaming time – until now. I have often complained about their frivolous nature, citing both that they often diminish enjoyment of a game when sought, and also that they offer no tangible reward. However, no matter how much I had to say about how they offer nothing substantial to the gaming community, I still always found myself browsing my gamer profile on Xbox Live, and setting aside blocks of time to complete many of their challenges.
I am proud to say that I’m finally over Achievements, and they hold no bearing over my gaming-related pursuits. Last week, I was playing Halo: Reach online with some friends, and I unlocked an achievement. Having raided the “big tower” on the Ascension remake in a game of team Slayer, and put two of my opponents out of their misery, the addictive “bloop” cued and the notification popped up on the bottom of my screen, but something was amiss this time: the Achievement was unfamiliar, and I had no idea what it pertained to. Being in the heat of battle, I waited until the end of the game to check out the description.

“Both Barrels: Noble 1: Earned a Double Kill with the shotgun in multiplayer Matchmaking”

The anomaly of the situation immediately stood out to me, as I have been a scavenger for achievements for about three years, but over the next few days it really sunk in that I no longer care for achievements or Gamerscore. “Both Barrels” may have been the first achievement I’ve ever unlocked that, when the notification popped up, I had no clue as to the description of it. The unlock date is January 5th, 2011, and the Noble Map Pack, and the accompanying new achievements, have been available since mid-November. This implies that I played Xbox for a solid month and a half and didn’t browse my achievement catalog, nor did I check out the new achievements when I played Reach between the time of the map pack’s release and the fifth of January.
It may sound odd, as most addictions require conscious and significant efforts, but kicking Achievements came upon me unwittingly. I have done some reflecting on the feelings that have accompanied this period that has been free of Achievement-related urges.
Playing Nintendo DS has been awesome. Pokémon, The World Ends With You, Kirby’s Canvas Curse, Super Mario Brothers, Metroid Zero Mission... my handheld gaming passion is back in full-swing. Sad as it may seem, one of the reasons that I completely ceased playing DS is because I was always thinking, “This isn’t doing anything for my gamerscore,” and then I would quit playing the game because the challenges I was completing were not being catalogued in my record of video-game related conquests, the Gamerscore. I remember playing Link to the Past on Game Boy Advance and trudging through it as though it were an obligation rather than a privilege, simply because my Gamerscore would remain the same throughout the adventure.
As fun as DS games were, and as often as I would see DS reviews and previews online and think, “I’d sure love to try that game out,” I would often pass the DS shelves in stores without making any considerations as to when I would purchase and/or play them. Those days are over, and I’m 45 hours deep in Pokémon Pearl and totally enamored with The World Ends With You. I take my DS onto campus every day, and often play in between classes.
Playing games on my friends’ consoles is also less like pulling teeth, and more like it was before this generation of consoles. I am very much more likely to agree to play on a friend’s system without insisting on playing on my system, under my own profile. Playing Super Smash Brothers with my friends is fun and competitive like it always has been, and always should be.
Also, at the end of Christmas break, upon my return to school I purchased a Wii, along with Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and MadWorld; both of which are games I have long wanted to play. I just finished the second full dungeon, and never passed a thought of my neglected Xbox Gamerscore.
I have blogged about Achievements, Trophies, and their influence on gaming choices, how they affect play time, the industry and gaming culture at large. Achievements are stand-ins for cool content that could be unlocked for skilled and dedicated players, and they are also the nicotine in the veins of a gamer that keeps us coming back again and again to boost the arbitrary number representing our Gamerscore.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Why So Zombie All of a Sudden??

I feel like zombies have been escalating in popularity in recent years, with our undead infatuation reaching an all-time high during 2010. Video games have seen a recent explosion in zombie population, with bundles of additional brain-munching content released for everything from the western-themed action game Red Dead Redemption to arcade beat-em-up Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Television and film have recently seen an undead uprising of sorts, and most of it has been well-received by the general public; popular mini-series Walking Dead basically came out of nowhere and lured millions of Americans to their TV sets every week, and Romero’s “of the Dead” series has seen a new release as well as several imitators. As a long-time gamer and fan of science fiction, I have noticed this sudden escalation in the marketability of reanimated corpses and I’m prompted to wonder: why is now the time for zombies to invade our media and literature? What constituents of human psyche incline us to fall in love with hating the undead? Why are those who are typically avert to horror and science fiction suddenly buying in like the nerd kingdom has been for decades? Let's explore a few possibilities...

The theme of good vs. evil is common themes in literature, films, and gaming alike, and there is a reason for this: everybody loves it. Popular book series like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, countless successful films, and just about all video games feature (or attempt to feature) protagonists with whom we can relate conquering a clearly-defined and unambiguous evil force. The nature of a zombie is an animal and vile character, one who isn’t responsible for his own conduct. A zombie is a model of the behavior that follows the lifestyle whose only urges and inclinations spawn from primal instinct. A zombie is human only in physiology; in psychology it is an animal. An animal whose sole drive is to prey upon our kind, our race, our friends and families must be evil, as their existence directly relates to our demise. With such a clear-cut conflict of interests at hand, no ambiguity is present to smear the boundaries of morality. Reality rarely hands us a situation in which the decision-making process is so simple, so we love zombies because so little deliberation is involved in choosing one’s alliance. Americans are faced with an unpopular war in Afghanistan and Iraq every time we read the paper or watch the news, every voting year politicians appeal to us on very confounding issues like abortion, gay marriage, and death penalty. The ability to participate in fighting off a ravenous zombie horde in a video game is a welcome and mentally relaxing break from confronting issues that plague our news outlets with moral dilemmas and a lack of resolve.

Another popular theme in storytelling is the conquering of great obstacles. Popular films and video games often feature a lone hero or a small group of protagonists fighting a losing battle against a foe whose alliance and resources far outnumber those of our hero. We connect with these themes as a race because everybody is fighting an uphill battle in their life; no matter the age or the circumstance. From paying bills and feeding children to making tryouts and passing exams, everybody struggles. Zombies, when they invade, may start out small in number but eventually grow to greatly outnumber those whose minds are still their own. Whether the cause is a ravenous contagion or a necromancer’s influence, zombies are always present in high quantities. An infinite horde of zombies in a work of fiction is a superb stand-in for the infinite pressure of reality, and the capacity to witness or participate in the defeat, or at least management, such an intimidating threat delivers some satisfaction and hope that relates to our own lives.

Fighting and killing is an innate part of human nature. The rampant success of violence in all forms of media exemplifies, if not proves, this point. Violence is a rarity in the day-to-day activities of the working class just about anywhere one could inquire to look. The lack of violence in our lives means that our innermost urges for bloodlust go unsatisfied, as our meat is purchased at a store and not hunted down, national defense institutions replace the need for self-defense, and rivalries are settled with competitions of wit and skill, rather than strength and sleight of hand. An important remark is that the fantastical killing of humans carries much different implications than the fantastical killing of animals, aliens, and other non-humanoid creations. For two instances, the Call of Duty video game franchise is very appealing to the consumer at large because the antagonists are human figures, not aliens or mutants, and additionally, the vast majority of action movies pit a human antagonist against a human protagonist. When a zombie is an antagonist in a plot, it carries the dissociation of an animal that allows us to witness its destruction with little or no conscientious objection, while retaining the humanoid familiarity that permits a satisfaction of primal inclinations. Mowing down rows upon rows of zombies in Valve’s Left for Dead games, or watching mountains of limbs and gore pile up in a round of Call of Duty’s zombie-themed game mode quenches our thirst for blood. Guilt takes a day off from the human heart while we deter waves of zombies because zombies do not suffer as we do; zombies have no feelings, no shame, no regret, and no sense of loss or abandonment. This is to say that, although zombies share a great many resemblances to us, we have no capacity to feel compassion and pity for them as we witness their dismemberment.

Science fiction’s appeal is in its first word: science. Works of science fiction are commonly based on real speculations and theories. From what I've seen and read in modern sci-fi,a common vector to incur zombification is a virus; a big wad of DNA and protein that replicates using host mechanisms, and then spreads from the host to other victims and repeats the process. Viruses have been known to cause alternative and inexplicable behaviors in some hosts, though these symptoms are more the exception than the norm. However, from this anomaly stems the speculation: what if?? What if a virus could alter human behavior? Can a person really be behaviorally altered to the point that they would mindlessly and unobjectionably harm those around them, even their loved ones? Capcom’s long-standing Resident Evil franchise and blockbuster movie I Am Legend are just two of the examples of fiction whose plots stem from medical experiments gone awry. The catalyst for the zombification of Resident Evil's Raccoon City is the fictitious T-Virus, while I Am Legend implores the use of the measles virus to cure cancer, and these realistic roots carry dreadful implications that prey upon our fears.

The last of the reasons for the zombie invasion of 2010, but certainly not the least, is buzz. A cult classic like Dawn of the Dead will, as cult classics often do, inspire a handful of imitators. If the formula proves successful and marketable, more producers and directors will follow suit in the hope of making a buck or two. It may have been a slow roll since Night of the Living Dead frightened moviegoers in the 1960’s, but the snowball effect is in full tilt, and shows no signs of losing momentum. Additionally, America’s fascination with other myth creatures opened our minds to unusual mediums of storytelling, specifically the more romantic, but just as fictitious, vampires. Many may hate to face it, but the rampant success of the Twilight series of books and movies, along with their often fanatical preteen demographic, set the stage for this year’s full-scale zombie invasion.

Is America’s reanimated romance a by-product of a pressured populace, feeling the effects of a slow economy? Are our bloodthirsty battlements just a flesh-eating façade for fulfilling fantasies? Is film’s corpse-fueled coup of film and television an indication for injurious infatuation? Perhaps this fermented phenomenon is a combination of all or some parts? Let me know in the comments, or add me as a friend on Facebook!!