Wednesday, June 23, 2010

In Rotation, June 2010

Crunch time at the ol' day job means there will probably be a distinct lack of new and/or interesting content here at Infinite Lag for the next week or two, so let me take this opportunity to introduce a new feature, In Rotation. Toward the end of each month, I'll do a series of quick capsule impressions of the games I've been playing. This will serve the dual purpose of allowing me to feel productive while also allowing me to be lazy.

Here's what's been in rotation this month:

XBOX 360
  • Red Faction: Guerrilla. I wrote about this one already. Still digging it, although it's severely taxing my compulsion for completionism. Planning to use this game as an example in a future piece about achievements, collectibles, and psychology.
  • Alan Wake. Wrote about this one already too. (Twice, even.) Finished the game on Normal last week, and while I enjoyed the story for what it was, I doubt I'll attempt a second playthrough. Keep an eye out for this one (again!) in an upcoming post on risk-taking in games.
  • Modern Warfare 2. Okay, sensing a trend yet? Managed to complete the single-player campaign, fight through about half of Spec Ops mode, and get dominated a few times in multiplayer before having to return this game to the library. Yes, my public library has games. I know, right?
  • Lego Indiana Jones 2: The Adventure Continues. Mrs. JPG's favorite series of games takes a sharp turn for the worse in the first Lego game I actually have to work myself up to play. Ditching free play mode for the hub worlds was a neat idea in theory, but poorly executed. And who were the designers who said, "You know what we need more of in Lego games? Crappy vehicle levels!" Really hoping they had more time to work on Lego Harry Potter, which releases next week. The more we play it, the more it becomes obvious Lego Indy 2 is a half-baked, blatant cash grab. Still...my wife is begging me to play video games with her. Not really a losing proposition.
NINTENDO DS
  • Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen. I love me some old-school Dragon Quest, and this remake of the NES classic delivers. At some point in the probably distant future, I'll do a Tale of the Tape pitting the DS versions of DQIV and Final Fantasy IV against each other.
  • Civilization: Revolution. It took me a while to get into this one, since I didn't (and still don't) have a full understanding of all the mechanics of the game. The in-game tutorial info isn't great, and I'm still not entirely clear on how resource-gathering and management works. Still, there's something relaxing about building armies and moving them around a map.
PC
  • Torchlight. Hallelujah for Steam on Mac! Really glad I don't have to dual-boot anymore to play this excellent, cartoony dungeon-crawler. About 7 hours in, my Vanquisher is almost at level 15, and my wrist muscles are nicely traumatized. Once I've finished Torchlight--if this is a game that even can be finished--I'll do another Tale of the Tape pitting it against another favorite of the clickfest genre, Titan Quest.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Friday Links

This week's mostly-unrelated-to-E3 catches:

  • From Bill Harris, the man from whom I have blatantly stolen the Friday Links idea, three interesting posts about 3D and motion control on consoles.
  • This cyber-news item at The Escapist is truly cyber-terrifying: Joe Lieberman wants the President to have a "kill switch" for the Internet. As if we needed more convincing that our elected representatives are completely out of touch.
  • Sean "Elysium" Sands, one of the esteemed Grand Poobahs of Gamers With Jobs, goes off about silly headlines in videogame articles.
  • Couldn't resist linking just this one E3 report - Jeff Gerstmann's preview of the upcoming Mortal Kombat reboot.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Modern Warfare as Modern Art

Several years ago I happened to visit the Boston Museum of Fine Arts when their featured exhibition was a collection by controversial British artist Damien Hirst. The most striking piece, to me, was a large canvas covered with thousands upon thousands of dead flies - one of a series entitled "Who is Afraid of the Dark?"

The thing was revolting. Several feet high, the canvas induced a feeling of disorientation, almost vertigo, when I stared into it. From a few steps away, it was like looking into a black hole, something that sucked all the ambient light into itself. The stench - whether it was the fly carcasses or the gallons of glue slathered on to fix them in place - was palpable. I remember a distinct feeling of nausea and existential dread.

I have no idea what it meant.

Generally, I'm not an art guy. I leave it to the people versed in the intricacies of visual representation to explain why a square painted orange is worthy of being hung in a gallery. I don't go to museums expecting to understand much. The most I can muster is a vague, but genuine, appreciation for the talent it must have taken to create a work of art.

And that's exactly how I felt when I finished Modern Warfare 2 this week. Confused, somewhat disturbed, but a little awed too.

Don't worry, I'm not about to jump into the art debate, especially not with a game whose plot makes Tom Clancy-branded paperbacks look like Shakespeare. But like that Hirst piece, it's obvious that it took incredible technical skill, coordination, and patience to make MW2 happen.

Believe me, I say this at least partially begrudgingly. I borrowed the game from the library, just to see what the fuss was about. I fully expected to not get this one. My FPS skills are not even close to competitive, so I had no illusions of surviving more than a few seconds in multiplayer. And sure, I'll cop to a hint of a superiority complex. Naturally, I had assumed the majority of the Modern Warfare brand's constituents were frat boys, stoners, 12-year-olds, and/or some combination of the three. My expectations for MW2 were at roughly the same level as my expectations for Snakes on a Plane.

In both cases, I was pleasantly surprised.

Modern Warfare 2 is quite possibly the most technically impressive videogame I've ever played. The visuals are gorgeous, with smooth animation, detailed textures, and a consistent framerate even in the midst of intense firefights. Controls are responsive and intuitive, and missions provide a welcome variety of objectives and environments. The sound design is incredibly thorough, with everything from bullets pinging off metal barriers to squadmates' shouted orders sounding natural and lifelike. The AI for both enemies and friendlies is very well-implemented. And the guns - the true focus of any good shooter - man, do they feel right. Even the few vehicle sequences control well.


Aside from the tiniest bit of screen tearing, I encountered no performance issues or bugs whatsoever. (Granted, I didn't play much multiplayer, so I didn't run into any of the well-publicized glitches.) The rest of the game was so impressive that I hardly noticed the controversial "No Russian" level - which was, by the way, easily the poorest in the game. So poor, in fact, that there may be some credence to the idea that it was tacked on intentionally to generate controversy. Plotwise, the thread advanced in this level could easily have been encapsulated in a cutscene or voice-over.

Speaking of plot: I suppose there's an attempt at a story in MW2, but it's mostly just a collection of awesome, if incoherent, action set pieces. As if to drive home this point, the developers roll the ending credits over a series of animated "dioramas" of the various levels. And the setting of this sequence? A museum gallery.

Still, like the canvas of dead flies, there's something inscrutable and unnerving about MW2. As a general rule, I avoid military shooters, especially the Call of Duty series; call me prudish, but I believe there's something inherently disrespectful and voyeuristic about making real conflicts like World War II, in which both my grandathers fought, into videogames. That doesn't really apply in MW2, which is about as plausible as the film it blatantly cribs its plot from, Red Dawn. Yet it does manage to give the player a sometimes terrifyingly realistic feeling of being in actual combat. That's especially disturbing in the Brazil missions, where you have to murder dozens of heavily-armed militia for largely obscure reasons. Like 80s action flicks, the game relies on an undercurrent of xenophobia for its emotional center.

I'm not sure what the message was in the fly painting. Bizarrely, I'm even less sure what the message is in MW2, if there is one. That the game sold so many copies - and continues to sell ridiculously overpriced map packs - well, there's almost certainly a message there.

What that is? I don't exactly know. But somehow, it's a little unsettling.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Why Kinect is Not About Games

In true Infinite Lag spirit, I'm going to try my best to not comment much on all the current goings-on at this year's E3. But yesterday's Microsoft press conference, which mostly focused on their upcoming Kinect 3D camera/motion controller/Minority Report-style-interface-device, really drove home what this contraption is all about.

Let me start with what it's not about:
  • The Wii
  • The PlayStation Move
  • Games
Look. Microsoft knows they can't catch up to the Wii in hardware sales, although it would be nice if they could yank away some of that market share. The PlayStation Move is probably irrelevant to them, since it's just a Wiimote for a system with a much smaller install base. And although there is some promise there, we have a long way to go before software for Kinect goes beyond gimmicky mini-games.

Bottom line, as a gaming peripheral, Kinect is not a system-seller. And I think MSFT knows this.

What Kinect is about:
  • Apple
Here's why. MSFT has made a huge push in the last few years to emulate Apple in selling themselves as a "lifestyle brand." They want to be the destination for media consumption, period. You've got iTunes? We've got Zune, Last.fm, and Netflix. New iPhone? Meet Windows 7 phone. Want to video chat with friends, connect to social media, stream content from your PC or play music from your Xbox? Done. Plus, we've got ESPN now! MSFT wants to be the one-stop destination for your entertainment and computing needs. Sounds vaguely familiar, eh?

Kinect - and the sexy new redesigned Xbox 360 console - are attempts to out-Apple Apple. Look at this sleek, stylish, innovative device that can do so many things! Look at how it "kinects" you to media and other people and to the device itself! Oh, and you can play games, too!

And what of those games? Mrs. JPG's comment, when I showed her Kinectimals yesterday, summed it up: "This looks like the kind of thing you buy if you have young kids. Kinda dumb otherwise."

I don't blame MSFT (and associated developers) for releasing blatant Wii Sports and Wii Fit knockoffs for Kinect; they pretty much had to. Those of us who obsess over videogames and assume attitudes of smug condescension about the "casual market" tend to forget that population, however nebulous, has millions more members and infinitely more buying power than we.

Still, so far, Kinect is not impressive as a gaming device. Although it could work well, and there could potentially be some interesting games down the line - both possibilities remain to be seen - it is more noteworthy as an interface device. Kids will be easily sold on the games; MSFT is obviously betting that parents will jump on board if they already own an Xbox. The voice/profile recognition, social media, video chat, etc. are incentives for the rest of us, who are already oversaturated with party games.

The Kinect is not about games, though. It's about brand loyalty. It's about branding, period.

The question is: will it work?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Friday Links

The latest batch of links, fresh & hot out the oven. Mangia!
  • A fascinating and touching story from a father about what his four-year-old decides to do when put in the driver's seat in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

  • This awesome video is apparently not a viral ad for a new Mortal Kombat game. According to Jeri Ryan, it's meant to pitch WB the director's vision for a reboot film. This, however, is the trailer for the new game. Which also looks awesome.

  • Speaking of awesome, here's the always-awesome Seanbaby's hilarious take on misogyny in Red Dead Redemption.

  • An outstanding academic article by Mitu Khandaker on "immersion," using one of my favorite films, eXistenZ, as a hook.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Back After These Messages

Last night a 15-second Verizon Wireless ad left me speechless.

Not because it was funny, or offensive, or noteworthy in any particular way. Because it was in my damn video game.

One of the things I love about Alan Wake is its structure. Like a mini-series, the game is broken up into discrete episodes, each comprising 1-2 hours of play time. The Stephen King/Twin Peaks-inspired atmosphere and story lend themselves perfectly to a TV show format. There are episodes of a Twilight Zone-like TV show in the game for the player to watch. All very meta and very cool.

So I guess it's only natural that there'd be an actual video advertisement in the game. I mean, this was Episode 4. I'd been collecting Energizer™ batteries for six hours already.

Still: an actual commercial? Picking up conveniently-branded batteries for my flashlight I could understand. But this was like interrupting a David Lynch film for a brief word from our sponsor.

Also, I'm pretty sure I got an achievement for watching the ad.

I could complain about the product placement breaking the immersion of the game, but come on. We've grown so inured to product placement in all our media that even at its most egregious, it's a mere annoyance. If aliens ever visited Earth, they'd have no way to understand our speech and behavior and thought patterns without first learning the language of advertising.

In-game advertising is certainly nothing new. In 2008, the future President Obama placed campaign ads on billboards in Burnout Paradise, perhaps the most high-profile in-game ad in recent years. Any given sports title will feature logos from sportswear companies and television networks. MMO players have long been familiar with in-game ads, and have seen the trend grow firsthand lately with the rise of free-to-play models. And it seems to work. According to Microsoft, it's working pretty darn well.

This is a market that's poised for growth, and with development costs continuing to rise and new game sales getting undercut by the secondary market and piracy, this is the future. Like it or not.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Knocking Down Blocks

I recently picked up Red Faction: Guerrilla, which, like USA's spy show Burn Notice, is way more fun than it has any right to be - if its premise is any indication.

In Burn Notice, yogurt-loving Michael Westen is a "burned" spy who, cut off from his former government contacts, acts as a sort of Robin Hood around Miami, if Robin Hood were James Bond. Along with his quippy pals Sam and Fiona, Michael uses his espionage skills to help people in need while also pursuing the shadowy figures who outed him. Along the way, lots of stuff is blown up, many car chases are conducted, and a metric ton of yogurt is consumed. The show strikes a terrific balance between comedy and action, with a generous helping of corniness for good measure. The setup is patently ridiculous - Michael has probably leveled half of South Beach without anyone getting his license plate - but you don't care. It's not exactly meant to be intellectual fare, and it more than makes up for implausibility with charm. Bottom line: it's fun.

Guerrilla is much the same way so far. I'm maybe ten hours in, and I'm pretty surprised at how much I'm digging this game. The premise is equally silly - disgruntled miner on Mars foments a workers' revolution by smashing a bunch of crap with a sledgehammer - but again, it doesn't matter. The destruction engine is clearly the star here, since almost everything in the environment is destructable. Many missions involve you demolishing key buildings, blowing up X number of vehicles, and/or causing a set amount of damage within a time limit. There's even a "Wrecking Crew" mode, in which players compete to see how much destruction they can wreak in one minute. This game world is a giant sandcastle that is just begging for you to kick it over, again and again.

The usual sandbox problems are certainly present in Guerrilla, of course. The missions are repetitive; the collectables are abundant but largely useless; there are long stretches of boring traversal between objectives; vehicle controls are wonky; and the story is, shall we say, "loose." As a gamer who's usually more interested in story and character than free-for-all combat or aimless exploration, I generally don't like sandbox games in the first place. There are a lot of reasons why I shouldn't like Guerrilla.

But yeah. Still fun.

I've been trying to puzzle out exactly why I like this game even though I shouldn't, and I keep coming back to one thought: it channels my inner 5-year-old. The part of me that doesn't want to be bothered with story, or character development, or inventory management. The part that just wants to find a stack of blocks and knock 'em all down.

Maybe it's just a contrast thing. After playing through heavy hitters like Mass Effect 2, BioShock 2, and Alan Wake, all story-driven games that take themselves pretty seriously, maybe I just needed something light and stupid. But I suspect I'd have enjoyed Guerrilla regardless.

Two other games in the same vein spring to mind. Crackdown, which I also got for ten bucks more than a year after it released, has a similarly dopey premise: Supercop leaps across skyscrapers assassinating gang members while collecting skill orbs. It took me a while to get into this game, I think, because I didn't quite get it at first. There was no story to speak of, the art style was cartoony, and the vast number of collectables was daunting. Dead Rising, in which photojournalist Frank West fends off the endless horde of zombies in a mall with any and all nearby objects, has a more coherent, if equally goofy, narrative. Although I love zombie fiction, the frustrating save system, the awkward timing mechanic for story missions, and the necessity of multiple playthroughs in order to experience all the rescue missions put me off.


But I love both Crackdown and Dead Rising. Why? Because eventually I realized they were not trying to hide the fact that they were games.

They are not trying to be "interactive narrative entertainment experiences." They are not heavy on backstory or mythology. They do not make any pretenses of "realism." They do not expect you to get very invested in their characters or make difficult moral decisions. They just give you a bunch of toys and a playground and say, "Here, kid. Go to town." Go roundhouse kick a van across a city block. Go plow through a crowd of zombies with an umbrella.

And sometimes, that's all you want from a video game: to be what it is.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Friday Links

Your choice morsels for this week. Please to enjoy.
  • Destructoid's Chad Concelmo gets a bunch of animals at the LA Zoo to make E3 predictions. I want this dude's job.
  • Fellow GWJer Switchbreak, inspired by this post, creates the world's first Second-Person Shooter.
  • Kieron Gillen at Rock, Paper, Shotgun writes about the controversial new "Hey Baby" game, in which the the player, as a female character being harrassed on the street, gets to enact her revenge on the catcallers with a machine gun. "That your passing desire means you get to derail a woman’s life whenever you feel like it," he says to the dense male audience he's explaining the game's social commentary to, "is the absolute definition of male privilege." Do yourself a favor and DON'T follow up by reading the moronic comments on the RPS forums.
  • Michael Thomsen's article "Revival Horror: New Ideas in Fear-Making" contains some great quotes from developers on how to create effective scares in a game.
  • May I suggest pairing the above article with a second course? The folks at Irrational Games discuss what scares them and how that factors into their games in their podcast.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Persona Non Grata

So Leigh Alexander wrote today about the recent M.I.A. NYT article controversy and made a really interesting connection to the games industry. If you're not up on the story, read Leigh's post and/or do some Googling. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Okay, ready for some ranting? Good.

Now. Gonna throw this out there & that's about all the energy I want to spare on this twit M.I.A., aka Maya:

If you are not an actual fucking musician, you have no right to expect respect as a "singer." Period.

Ella Fitzgerald was a singer. Chan Marshall is a singer. Christ, fucking Celine Dion is a singer. M.I.A. is a performance artist. And not a particularly good one at that.

M.I.A., for all her posturing with her new Hirschberg-diss track "I'm a Singer," cannot carry a tune. Like, not even close. I have no idea how the atonal mess that is "Paper Planes" passes for a pop song, or how it became inexplicably popular. And it's not even an interesting atonal mess. It's just off-key. Fashionably so, I guess.

Oh, and her lyrics sound like rhymes scribbled furiously during study hall by a precocious 9th-grader who's just read Animal Farm. They do no justice to the actual third-world struggles she purports to represent. They reek of hipness and unearned righteous indignation.

"Like Madonna," Lynn Hirschberg says in her NYT Magazine profile, "Maya is not a trained musician but a brilliant editor, able to pick and choose and bend the talents of others to fit her goals." Fine. There are plenty of talented musicians who were not formally trained, or whose main instrument is the studio. But unlike, say, Sir George Martin, M.I.A. is using music as a mere prop in her performance art.

It's not like this is a new phenomenon - ever heard of the Sex Pistols? - but it's really disturbing that she insists on piggybacking off of actual tragedy in her endless quest for self-promotion.

Whatever relevance M.I.A. has is entirely dependent on her image, pseudo-politics, fashion, cult of personality, etc. Actual musical talent is immaterial. Without the medium of video to show off her sexy costumes and dance moves and "third world democracy" schtick, M.I.A. would have no following. Her ostensible principal product - music - cannot speak for itself. It needs to be paired with her persona to be properly consumed.

She herself has deliberately created this expectation, so she has no credibility when she bitches about Hirschberg's piece making her look bad. When your "look" and "message" are everything, why are you surprised when people try to expose the contradictions in them? Even if Hirschberg really did purposely slant the story, is the point really that M.I.A. is a hypocrite for rapping about life in the slums and advocating revolution while living in a Brentwood mansion? Or is it more to show how deeply her creative output is dependent upon her persona?

Also? Homegirl is boring as hell. Seriously, if your "best story ever" can't hold the viewer's attention for two entire minutes, you probably shouldn't pin your career on your "message."

Whew. Sorry for that. What does this have to do with games, anyway?

Leigh's argument in her post is that she could never write a piece like Hirschberg's about a prominent, interesting game industry figure because the industry's "PR machine" prevents any meaningful contact between developers and journalists, and thus reinforces gaming's continued "cultural irrelevance."

Leigh certainly knows the machine much better than I, so no argument here. But to Leigh's point that there are not a lot of "nuanced enough 'personalities' worth covering" in video games - well, I have to ask, do we really want that?

The Will Wrights and Ken Levines of the world - who are, despite their godlike status in the industry, not exactly household names in mainstream culture - might not make for a good profile piece like Hirschberg's, but not because they're not talented people with interesting things to say. It's precisely because of their talent that most game developers wouldn't make good subjects for an expose. Their public personas are not essential components of their product. I can enjoy Spore or BioShock without ever knowing or caring who dreamed them up and made them real, whether it's one guy with an outsize personality or a hundred faceless programmers. The work speaks for its own damn self. You can enjoy shit for what it is. And if you learn about the creator and his/her personality helps inform your understanding of the work, great, but if that persona is essential to the work? Forget it.

So for Leigh and any other game journo looking to recreate the magic of the Hirschberg piece, let me humbly suggest the following steps:
1. Find the dudes who did, say, Superman 64 or Damnation
2. Listen to them ramble incoherently about how their shitty games are a comment on Western imperialist aggression while eating various foodstuffs
3. Attempt to stitch together some kind of relatively objective narrative despite subjects' incompetence/arrogance, fail
4. Say "fuck it," write something awesome & scathing
5. Take lots of calls from bros who got your phone number off Twitter