Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday Links

Quick hits for this week:
And your token non-game-related link, courtesy of the Daily Show:
  • On a segment called Best Leak Ever, Jon Stewart discusses the increasingly-surreal Afghanistan campaign and the WikiLeaks controversy. And by "discusses," I mean "loses his shit like any sane person looking at this mess should."

Thursday, July 29, 2010

In Rotation, July 2010

Remember when I said last month that crunch time at the day job would mean less content here for a week or two? Yeah, so turns out I meant three or four.

Still, I'll soldier on with this month's edition of In Rotation:

XBOX 360
  • Dead Space. I know it's been said before, but what a gem this game is! While the concept is nowhere near original, the execution (pun intended) is fantastic. Among the impressive elements: player and enemy animations; the surprising variety of environments, including the creative zero-gravity segments; great use of limited resources to increase tension; and the almost completely diegetic and real-time UI, which was easily my favorite part of this game. The design work is really elegant here. The color-coded health indicator on the back of Isaac's suit, his pop-up holographic display for messages/map/inventory/objectives, and the laser path indicator all contribute to the immersion factor - which is doubly important in a horror game. Punishing at times, but ultimately a great experience.
  • LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4. This is really Mrs. JPG's baby, but I've been dropping in intermittently to smash some bricks and collect some studs with her. I haven't paid any attention to the Harry Potter universe since the third book, and I've only seen snippets of the movies, so playing the game is a nice opportunity for Mrs. JPG to fill me in on the fiction. It's a bit of a departure from previous LEGO games in that there's very little combat; you're mostly manipulating the environment to solve puzzles, none of which present any challenge. I know the LEGO games are geared toward kids, but LHP seems particularly tuned to the elementary school crowd. Still, although I confess I'm getting a bit LEGO-ed out, it's cute and fun, and developer Traveller's Tales has iterated nicely on their formula, taking the split-screen camera and aiming mechanic from LEGO Indiana Jones 2 and ditching most of the stuff that made that game lousy.
  • Rock Band 2. I bought the package with the game, guitar, drums and mic last year because it was the cheapest way to get instruments for the game I really wanted to play, The Beatles: Rock Band. Except at parties - where Journey, Ratt, and Survivor are surprisingly popular - I've almost entirely neglected RB2. Although it'll always be primarily a party game for me, a few play sessions this month have reminded me it's still a blast to play along with some of my favorite tracks from the Beastie Boys, Beck, and Pearl Jam. And, um, Journey.
  • Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes. Yeah, so I'm a little embarrassed at the 30+ hours (!) I've put into this deceptively simple puzzler. Last night I think I inadvertently elbowed the guy next to me on the subway in the gut when I finally beat the three mini-bosses at the end. (I would say sorry, dude, but you were also kinda crushing me against the door.) Clash of Heroes - which has, as far as I can tell, very little if anything to do with the Might & Magic IP - is part JRPG, part Puzzle Quest, and surprisingly tactical. Definitely a must-buy for anyone who dug PQ.
  • Civilization IV. Thank you, Steam sale, for enabling my purchase of this overwhelmingly deep title that I was totally an idiot for not having played before. Since I would prefer my marriage and employment remain intact, I'm consciously limiting my time with this game. Still, just a few more turns and until I can hear Nimoy's smooth baritone again...
  • Alien Swarm. Only played a few rounds of this free co-op mashup of Left 4 Dead and Shadowgrounds, but it was fun and challenging in the same way those games are. Will be excited to see what modders come up with since the source was released with the game.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Literature Review: Philosophy Through Video Games

I don't know what it says about me that one of my favorite books of the past year is a textbook. Maybe living in Cambridge is finally making me smart by osmosis?

Still, Jon Cogburn & Mark Silcox's Philosophy Through Video Games is right up there with Extra Lives in my top few best reads. (Sadly, the Mass Effect novels didn't make the cut.)

Make no mistake: PTVG is a philosophy text. Although the authors explore a number of relevant issues in the video game world with much more thoughtfulness, detail, and historical context than your average industry blog, its primary function is to teach philosophical concepts - not to critique games. And the book delivers what it promises, but in a far more engaging style than one might suspect.

I should pause here to note that the marketing blurb on the back flap is maybe a little misleading. Contrary to the quoted testimonial, I'm not sure "the book is accessible to everyone with minimum philosophical background." Depends how minimal we're getting here. I happened to geek out on the few philosophy courses I took in college, and my (limited) familiarity with Kant, Descartes, Hume, et al. went a long way toward my enjoyment of PTVG. If you haven't taken Intro to Logic, you may want to hit up that prereq before jumping into this book.

Once you do jump in, you can look forward to thorough discussions of some of the richest topics in the industry - grounded in relevant philosophical contexts, of course. And that grounding is pretty intricate at times. Cogburn and Silcox manage to link NPC behavior in Oblivion with Noam Chomsky's generative linguistics; Wii Sports with enactive theory of perception; the role of a settler in the Civilization series with predestination; and the identification of the player with his World of Warcraft avatar with Descartes' understanding of the self. These massive leaps are handled with impressive adroitness, especially since they're using games about smashing orcs in the face with your Noxious Mace of Destiny +2 to introduce you to thousands of years of Western philosophical tradition.

And like any good philosophy text, PTVG asks us to consider big questions in new and interesting ways. A few heady examples:
  • Is it possible to establish some kind of "objective" criteria for determining a game's quality?
  • Can violent games serve as a form of Aristotelian catharsis, or should we beware Plato's warning that people will emulate what they see represented in art?
  • What does it mean to say "I" when referring to the player-character? What does how we see "ourselves" in games teach us about the nature of the self?
The most surprising takeaway I had from the book, though, was also probably the most rewarding: a strange, unexpected, but thoroughly welcome sense of pride in being a gamer.

It's become so cliché I hate to even acknowledge it, but yeah, the stigma thing still burns a lot of us. So what if the videogames biz is a $20 billion industry that generates more revenue than radio? You're still a nerd if you play games. Conversely, you're apparently "normal" if you voluntarily subject yourself to eight hours of the same fourteen to eighteen Auto-Tuned pop songs every workday.

I'll cut short the nerd rage here, but suffice it to say we're still, as a subculture, pretty sensitive about our hobby. Some of us evangelize while others keep it quiet; regardless, there's a lingering sense of self-doubt in what we're doing, as if some part of us knows this is all a foolish waste of time. Maybe we'll never quite grow out of this. I know some people who still say the same about movies and TV.

But very seldom do we consider the ways in which videogames draw on and can illuminate the kind of big questions the ancients pondered. When we do, we may discover there's a lot more to think about than we'd expect. This immersive, interactive medium is uniquely suited to raising those questions in a way that passive entertainment isn't. And I, for one, am glad to cast my lot with the nerds.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Literature Review: Extra Lives

That I managed to finish three insightful books of videogame criticism in the last few weeks is not as remarkable as the fact that I managed to find three insightful books of videogame criticism in the last few weeks.

Because the market for writing about videogames is so small, and because we've only had rich enough material to write about for a short few decades, it's hard to tell what good game writing should look like. In an industry that both relies on and contributes to rapidly shrinking attention spans, it's even harder to tell what a good book about videogames should look like.

That's why, as he notes in a recent interview with Michael Abbott on the Brainy Gamer podcast, Tom Bissell had excellent timing with his recent release Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. Despite its small size, the market for great games writing is hungry. Even on our favorite industry and consumer outlets, we're inundated with hourly "news" updates, often comprised of rumor, speculation, and/or trivialities unimportant to a thoughtful understanding of the medium.

Of course, this isn't unique to games journalism; analyze any newspaper article during a given election year, and guaranteed, 75-80% of its sentences will focus on the horse race, not the issues. Entire columns are devoted to how the color of a candidate's tie will play with a particular demographic. Because the 24-hour news cycle is always ravenous for content, no matter how inane, it's not surprising that idiotic, even fictional non-issues get magnified into platform-defining talking points.

But Extra Lives - which is more memoir or travelogue than criticism - is what game journalism should be. In a series of chapters that can (and, in fact, did, in various magazines) stand alone, Bissell dissects core elements of videogames such as narrative, AI, and tension in an engaging, if occasionally verbose, style. (Okay, maybe not as verbose as the previous sentence.) Recruiting industry heavy hitters like Cliff Bleszinski and Peter Molyneux to share their insights, Bissell presents a picture of the medium that's neither overly apologetic nor congratulatory, but is compellingly reflective. Throughout, his personal observations lead to a broader exploration of the reasons why videogames do matter: His account of a particularly intense session of Left 4 Dead, for example, has the descriptive richness of a great travel piece, yet eventually arrives at a sort of subtle argument for the validity of the form.

What's particularly interesting about this facet of Extra Lives is that, as Bissell revealed in a reading in Harvard Square a few weeks ago, his original subtitle was "Why Video Games Matter and Don't Matter." Bissell is pretty upfront on his misgivings about the effects videogames may have on us - their addictive qualities, how they can reflect or exacerbate our worst tendencies, their ability to suck us away from real life, etc. The last chapter, about how Bissell's simultaneous addictions to GTA IV and cocaine feed into each other, is particularly revelatory on this front.

What I like about the book, and why the original subtitle is somewhat more accurate (if not exactly marketing-friendly), is that it isn't stupidly political, like much of the game writing out there. It doesn't waste time on horse-race fluff, it doesn't take on overzealous anti-game legislators, it doesn't try to be some kind of gamer nerd screed out to vindicate our hobby once and for all. Its passion is of a more personal nature, about how this medium intersects with our habits and desires. It's more interested in raising questions than answering them - which I know sounds corny and pedantic, but really does make for much better reading. If you're interested enough in gaming to be reading a blog like this, you really ought to pick up a copy of Bissell's book - if only to be part of the conversation.

I want to give a brief mention to the other two books I've read recently: Ian Bogost's Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames and Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox's Philosophy Through Video Games. Both of these are more academic texts that raise a number of issues I'm eager to discuss in future posts.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Friday Links

Infinite Lag returns from the dead to bring you this exciting assortment of links!

Hi, friends. Sorry I've been away so long. We'll be back to your regularly scheduled posting soon, promise.

Meantime, enjoy this fresh batch of links:
  • Last night Mrs. JPG and I were guinea pigs at the MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, focus-testing some new games in development. There is some absolutely incredible stuff happening here. Whether you're a developer, educator, critic, or fan, this place is a treasure trove of material to explore. Look for a recap of our experience right here on the blog soon.
  • Bill Harris exposes some bizarre DLC antics from the folks behind the apparently underwhelming Crackdown 2.
  • At The Escapist, Steve Butts writes about how even great RPGs encourage players to overlook moral contradictions.
  • I have Rob Zacny to thank for putting Captain Blood on my radar.
  • Rob and I recently attended a reading of Tom Bissell's new book Extra Lives in Harvard Square. It's a terrific read. You should buy it.
  • Listening to My Brother, My Brother and Me in public places could be hazardous to your social standing, depending on your tolerance for being seen laughing like a fool. But it's totally worth it.