Tuesday, August 31, 2010

In Rotation, August 2010

Sneaking in just before the end of the month is the August edition of In Rotation:

XBOX 360
  • Dragon Age: Origins. Oh BioWare, I wish I knew how to quit you. I'd put Alistair, Morrigan & Co. away for a good couple months while I played a few games that were less, um, inventory managementy. I mean, once I encountered the bug that prevented my elf mage and Leliana from consummating their budding Sapphic relationship, the magic (oh God pun not intended I promise) was gone. So DA languished on the shelf until the old backlog guilt surfaced again. When I picked it back up -- and finally got Leliana to give it up, durr hurr -- I remembered why I dug this game despite its cumbersome interface. (Yeah, yeah, I know I should have bought it for PC instead, but it was on sale!) Dragon Age harkens back to my NES days, I think, in its focus on party balancing, loot acquisition, leveling up, and micromanagement that is somehow mostly fun. The game world is all pretty standard fantasy fare, but as the story enters its final act, I find I'm becoming more invested in the characters and world. This is kind of an odd trajectory for me; with a few notable exceptions, game stories generally seem to lose interest for me as they near their resolution. I suppose there's a bit of guilty pleasure in my experience, which is weird considering the near-universal praise this game has gotten. I suspect its designers might not have intended it to be taken quite as seriously as everyone seems to think.
  • Just Cause 2. A library rental of the worst kind: a slow burn. Didn't get this one when I first jumped in; the grappling hook-to-parachute thing didn't click, and the abysmal voice acting, preposterous story, and um, "ethically problematic" portrayal of the fictional islanders of Panau put me off. But once I got a sense of how freakin' huge the game world was, and how gorgeously rendered the environments were, I started to open up. I spent hours just flying the damn jet around, discovering all the locations, occasionally parachuting out to help some rebel gangs liberate a nuclear plant from the imperialist pigs or whatever. In a GameLoop panel on Saturday, Irrational Games' Senior Designer Alexx Kay commented that Just Cause 2 has "one mechanic, and it never breaks it." That was a great way of putting it: there might not be much emotional or mechanical depth to Just Cause 2, but damn if it isn't fun. And of course, just as I 'm really getting into it, my week is up. Fortunately, I had another game waiting for me in:
  • Super Street Fighter IV. So, so incomprehensible. Looks like it could be awesome if you had a fight stick and knew what in the ever-loving crap you were doing. Since I don't, and I don't, this one went back to the library without much use. On the plus side, Mrs. JPG did walk around the apartment for a few days proclaiming, "FISTS WILL FLY IN THIS LOCATION!"
NINTENDO DS
  • Assassin's Creed: Altair's Chronicles. I would write more about this spur-of-the-moment library rental if the half-hour I played of it hadn't bored me into a coma. I'm not saying the production value wasn't high, but I am saying the interesting and/or fun things to do value wasn't high.
PC
  • Star-mother-effing-Craft. Again. Still living vicariously through this dozen-year-old classic to fend off StarCraft II jealousy. I'm almost through the Terran campaign, and man, is this thing inexplicably addictive, emphasis on the inexplicable. I get the same perverse Pavlovian sense of satisfaction out of completing a mission in StarCraft that I do out of fixing formulas in an Excel spreadsheet. The focus is so microscopic it borders on a parody of RTSes (he says in perfect hindsight). Pretty sure I've caused some permanent ligament damage in both wrists from constant clicking and hotkeying. And yet, Jimmy Raynor, I wish I knew how to quit you.
Aaaaaaand now that we've come full circle, I'll close this entry with a brief note on future posts. I've got a mess of notes from Boston GameLoop 2010 to share, along with some ideas on a few topics I've been kicking around for a while. My schedule's pretty packed the next few weeks, but I'll do my best to not neglect the blog. And, since "not neglecting" has apparently become a synonym for "doing a good job," I can finally say with some confidence: I've arrived.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Not Dead Yet!


Despite work's best efforts to sling me on the Dead Collector's cart, I'm not quite dead yet. Infinite Lag will arise from its weeks-long slumber soon, I promise!

For now, a quick update. Tomorrow I'll be attending Boston GameLoop with a bunch of awesome folks, including developers from local powerhouses Harmonix and Irrational, what looks like almost the entire staff of little-studio-that-could Demiurge, academics from the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Lab, and a slew of indie designers and industry professionals. Seems pretty neat: everyone gathers in the morning to brainstorm possible topics for talks, the organizers schedule sessions on a giant whiteboard, and the panels develop organically according to expertise and interest. Looking forward to seeing what this "unconference" has to offer and to sharing my experience here on the blog.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

VGBC #1: Mortal Kombat

Title: Mortal Kombat
Author: Jeff Rovin
Published: 1995

I don't want to say Jeff Rovin's Mortal Kombat is the worst book I'll ever read, mostly because I've just started a project in which I'm going to read a lot of really shitty books. But for this, the inaugural edition of the Video Game Book Club, I've picked a doozy. Allow me to summarize my experience with this novel with a quote from the text itself:

It was one of the most idiotic stories Kano had ever heard. Maybe that’s why the damn thing made no sense.

Yeah.

Mortal Kombat is an original story set in what I suppose is a possible MK universe. I've played most of the MK games over the years, and while the franchise has never had the most plausible or consistent canon, you ought to win some kind of absurdity Pulitzer if your book can make an arcade fighting game's story seem as layered and pithy as Hemingway.

Put another way, if you were to stuff a hydrocephalic four-year-old with vertigo swollen-head-first into an oil drum and roll him down Lombard Street, he could still pop up and deliver a more coherent narrative than this one.

Mortal Kombat tells the story of a mystical amulet that grants the user the godly power to dominate enemies in Kombat, or something like that, probably. Evil wizard Shang Tsung sends the mercenary Kano to Kung Lao's humble Chinese village to retrieve it in order to open a portal to Outworld for his master Shao Kahn, the demonic king of demons, to tear the barrier between the Realms asunder and wreak deadly ah screw it I already don't care. But first, there's a 75-page introduction featuring the elder Kung Lao, because apparently he is important, and his meeting with the Thunder God Rayden, which provides ample opportunity for entirely irrelevant exposition about an ancient Chinese(?) creation myth that evidently necessitates a yearly kung fu tournament where dudes rip out each other's spines barehanded.

But back to the main(?) story: A bunch of incomprehensible stuff happens, your favorite characters from the first two games appear and do their special moves while delivering oppresively stupid one-liners in a series of unconnected skirmishes, and evil is defeated. Actually, evil is just kinda postponed, or given a half-assed talking-to and sent off to take a nap. Seriously, at the end Shang Tsung gets the giant four-armed Goro and the acid-drooling lizard ninja Reptile to carry him off for a nap.

Since I've already lost at least 20 IQ points writing this summary, let's just get to the review criteria.

Fan Service Rating: FATALITY out of 5 Stars
Mortal Kombat the novel is a pretty remarkable achievement in that it is a Mortal Kombat story that has almost nothing to do with Mortal Kombat. For a book so concerned with explicit callouts to gameplay (see below), it takes a giant crap on whatever shreds of canon the MK franchise retained after the first two games and their other associated spinoff products. Liu Kang is apparently a Special Forces agent in Sonya's squad; Sub-Zero lives in a cave and can walk on water with his special inflatable ninja footbags; and Scorpion is a good guy, the spirit of a murdered father joined with the living body of his wussy artist son driven by an unending quest for revenge and whining. Oh, and Johnny Cage is never mentioned. At all.

Explicit Callouts to Gameplay Rating: FLAWLESS VICTORY out of 5 Stars
Pretty sure I can describe Jeff Rovin's writing process for fight scenes in two simple steps:
1. Play a couple rounds of Mortal Kombat
2. Pretend the characters are talking to each other while they do their special moves

The text speaks for itself here, so I'll let the characters elaborate:
  • “That was not sporting,” Shang Tsung remarked. “Had you used a special move from high ground in Mortal Kombat, you would have been disqualified.”
  • “Not retreating—” Rayden said. […] “Just using a Torpedo and Throw combination.”
  • “You may be able to teleport,” [Reptile] said in an eerie, aspirating voice, “but can you make yourself invisible?”

I mean, they literally say "special move." It doesn't get much more explicit than that.

Also, I need to give some bonus points here for unintenionally(?) homoerotic description:

  • The faces of both men turned red as they lay there, locked together.
  • [Goro’s] stiff limb blocked the kick while his other three arms reached for his quarry.
  • Shrieking pain shot through Kung Lao’s inner thighs.
Awesomeness of Front Cover Rating: LOW PUNCH out of 5 Stars
It's the MK dragon. They put it on there.

Guilty Pleasure Rating: JUMP KICK TO THE FACE out of 5 Stars
The ratio is pretty heavily slanted toward the former. Reading this book is like voluntarily seeing a Larry the Cable Guy movie: you can't help but feel you are personally accelerating our culture's downward spiral into mouth-breathing idiocy.

Ridiculousness Rating: DOUBLE FLAWLESS out of 5 Stars
Because there is no possible way to make a joke funnier than the relentlessly ludicrous text of the book itself, I'm just gonna throw some quotes at you without comment.
  • “I hear you, Rayden,” said Kung Lao, his voice heard yet unheard, like the sound of reading.
  • “You cannot die, Thunder God,” said the Outworlder, “but even immortals can be killed.”
  • “You know,” [Sub-Zero] said, “it’s refreshing to make an entrance like that, rather than sneak and skulk as I am wont to do.”
And perhaps the most baffling sentence I've ever read or will ever read:

“Didn’t I just say that, Shang-a-lang? That’s why I need you. We’ll be a team, like Nelson.”

Wait. Did Kano just make a reference to early-90s hair band Nelson? As in, these guys?


Even more perplexing than the fact that Nelson exists and is culturally relevant in the Mortal Kombat universe is the fact that Matthew and Gunnar here are apparently the de rigeur living illustration of the power of teamwork.

But even this absurdity was eclipsed by the groan-inducing last line of the novel:

Shao Kahn’s ferocious teeth were visible as his mouth pulled into a smile. “Ruthay,” he said, “I look forward to such a Mortal Kombat…too."

Aaaaaaaand there goes the last of my dignity. Thanks, book.

Official Infinite Lag Rating for Mortal Kombat: WOULD RATHER BE UPPERCUTTED INTO A POOL OF ACID out of 5 Stars

Jeff Rovin, if somehow you're reading this, please know I have mad respect for you. After all, according to Wikipedia, you've authored or co-authored 120 books, which is appoximately 120 books more than me. Your How to Win at Nintendo Games books kept me from stuffing Mighty Bomb Jack into the garbage disposal as a kid. Also, you were once EIC of the Weekly World News, so I probably have you to thank for the awesome Bat Boy poster I had on my dorm room wall all four years of college. But this book was painful, man. Like, Johnny Cage nut-punch painful. So let me close with just one final quote from Mortal Kombat:

But this story…this one took the Nutburger of the Year award.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Friday Links

Happy Friday, friends! Some terrific stuff from around the web this week.
  • N'Gai Croal's column in Edge Magazine really resonated with me. Videogames can illustrate the pedagogical concept of scaffolding in really interesting ways, and here Croal discusses probably the best modern example, the brilliant Portal.
  • Speaking of education, this excerpt from Simon Ferrari's Master's thesis analyzes levels from Left 4 Dead to illustrate how the game's structural design is constructed to teach players effective strategies.
  • You may have already seen this terrific piece in which actual Japanese mobsters review Yakuza 3, but it's still worth linking.
  • I know this is a few years old, but I just discovered it this week: a study on the social habits of gamers garners some surprising results. Namely, that we're not all Jeff Albertson.
  • At GameSpy, football-phobe Chris Dahlen writes about learning the game through Madden NFL, and, in proper game critic fashion, makes us think about this American pastime as an improvement on your everyday turn-based RPG.
  • And finally, this post at new blog Hellmode discusses death in games and how "game over" doesn't mean what it used to.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Environmentally-Friendly

Today's reveal of Irrational Games' new project, BioShock Infinite, brought me back to a topic I've been thinking about for some time: what we mean by the term "environment" in games.

Like so many others, I've made no secret of my admiration for what Ken Levine & Co. have accomplished in constructing the BioShock universe. I'm certainly not the first to point out that Rapture, Andrew Ryan's underwater city, is the real star of that game - far more complex and compelling a character than the silent protagonist, and perhaps even Ryan himself.

Trust me, I don't want to jump too far down this particular rabbit hole, but if, to use an overwrought and dubious comparison, Metroid Prime is the Citizen Kane of gaming, BioShock is its Huckleberry Finn. Like the Mississippi River in that Twain classic, Rapture - with all its dystopian art deco, sci-fi, Ayn Rand trappings - dominates the fiction and captures the player's imagination. The setting is just as dynamic and alive as the people inhabiting it.

Videogames are uniquely positioned to exploit this tension between the reader (player) and the text (game). The player's avatar is literally inside that world, bringing an immediacy - and more importantly, a participatory quality - to the experience of exploration. Yes, I realize that reading is a participatory act as well, but videogames share authorship with their players (or at least create the credible illusion of shared authorship) in ways that traditionally "authored" media cannot.

In a recent column, Chris Dahlen argues that too little attention is paid to world-building in videogames, both from a design/industry/"author" perspective and from a critical/consumer/"reader" perspective. I tend to agree. For an industry with such remarkable creative talent, there are an awful lot of retreads and "safe" choices when it comes to game worlds. Nevermind that what's "safe" often constitutes some variation on the Roid-Raging Marine Frags a Billion Faceless Enemies or Noble Elf Guild Slays Marauding Orc Tribe themes.

But in his discussion of game worlds, Dahlen seems to be talking about what, to me, are two different elements: the game's fiction (story, universe, characters, etc.) and its environment (particulars of setting, including art style, sound design, lighting, etc.). These are two complementary concepts that maybe can't be easily separated, but I think the distinction is important.

Let's take my favorite game of the last year, Batman: Arkham Asylum. The Batman fiction has been pretty well-established to this point, right? Sure, it's had wildly different incarnations, from the corny comic book capers and campy Adam West TV show in the 60s, to the gritty Frank Miller revival in the late 80s and the slickly dark Christopher Nolan films of today. But certain elements remain fairly constant. Batman lives in Gotham City. His secret identity is billionaire Bruce Wayne. His parents were murdered in front of him when he was a child. He battles a colorful array of criminal masterminds. These elements appear and combine in myriad ways throughout the Batman universe, including in Arkham Asylum. Regardless of the specific differences or similarities between incarnations, and ignoring the relative merit of any particular portrayal of the core myth, the Batman story has certain hallmarks. Those identifying features certainly appear in Arkham Asylum, and to great effect. It's a Batman story, all right, and a pretty good one.

But the reason Arkham Asylum stands out, I think, is because while I agree that Rocksteady Studios nailed the fiction, their more impressive achievement was nailing the feeling of being Batman. And they nailed that feeling because they delivered an environment that was alive, that not only informed and complemented the fiction but also made it participatory.

Let's back up. In Arkham Asylum, the player has command of Batman's usual array of gadgets: Batarangs, a grappling gun, explosive gel, and so on. A sort of night-vision ("Detective Mode") allows you to see cracks in walls, gargoyles to swing to, and other potentially useful portions of the environment. The player thus can interact with Arkham Island in some pretty fun and interesting ways. You can blow up sections of walls, launch across gaps on your zipline, and glide between buildings with your cape. Obtaining new gadgets opens up previously inaccessible areas and missions, much as in the Metroid series. The tools and abilities the player acquires throughout the game also make new combat strategies possible, leading to a sense of progression and variety.

But these factors could be classified more as gameplay than environment. The environment itself - the decaying grandeur of the Arkham facility - is remarkable not only because it is beautifully and faithfully rendered, but also because it begs the player to interact with it in ways few other games do. And the reward for that interaction is making you feel like you are the nigh-invincible badass Batman is supposed to be. More on that in a moment.

First, let's look at the defining factors of the game's environment. The art style of Arkham Asylum features the somber, dark color palette we'd expect from the Batman fiction. The sound design contains perfectly executed little flourishes like the swish of Batman's cape as he dodges an attack and the crack of bone as he performs a brutal takedown. There's also masterful use of props; the halls of Arkham are littered with discarded medical equipment, tiling from the walls lays crumbled on the corridor floors, the fluorescent lights blink erratically, and even the collectibles - the psychiatrists' tape recordings of their conversations with their supercriminal patients - seem to have a purpose. If the game were a play, Arkham Asylum's set designer would be owed a Tony.

But with the exception of the audio logs, none of the elements above can be considered interactive. You can't pick up fallen tiles and hurl them at enemies. However powerfully they might paint a picture of the fictional world, they're essentially set dressing.

Where Arkham Asylum's environment shines is in its focus on making certain pieces of the environment serve the player. The game teaches you early on how to grapple up to gargoyles to hide from enemies. Later you're taught how to knock out enemies by exploding walls as they walk by, string up thugs by hanging upside-down from gargoyles, pull enemies off railings, and perform takedowns by crashing through glass. After being trained how to use Detective Mode to follow a trail of clues in the hallways, the player can then employ it toward identifying threats and planning combat and puzzle-solving strategies.

There are other examples, but the point is this: Arkham Asylum uses its environmental elements to empower the player, not simply challenge him. What would be obstacles in another game become opportunities in this one. A cracked wall becomes a weapon to be exploited, not a danger to avoid. This is why you feel like a badass playing this game, and why its world - its fiction, as supported by its environment - is so successful. There is never any doubt that Batman will take down his enemies and free Arkham from the Joker's control. The player's job is to, like Batman, find ways of making his surroundings work for him.

Game designers take note: please do this more. We want to experience your stories, your worlds. But we also want to be given the opportunity to make them work for us.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Friday Links

A few choice morsels as we head into weekend territory:
  • Leigh Alexander strikes again. Her article at Gamasutra alleges that Activision suits have consistently pulled the plug on projects featuring female protagonists for dubious business reasons. Cue crazy "political correctness" outrage.
  • A terrific blog post by Greg Kasavin on how Limbo confounds our narrative expectations.
  • I'm not sure I fully agree with Kirk Hamilton about Inception being 95% exposition, but his recent piece relating that film (and a few others) to game tutorials is thoughtful and well-written.
  • At the Experience Points blog, Scott Juster writes about how game systems create a sense of mastery and power in the player by setting up (and allowing us to break down) limits.
  • This short Starcraft video from Korea is bananas. CHICKS DIG THE TOSS, BRO.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

I'm Going to Regret This: Announcing the Video Game Book Club

I'm not allowing myself to buy Starcraft II yet. I've worked up a burgeoning backlog already, and I'd prefer not to spend what little time I have away from work lately in front of another PC. Not because I don't want to play PC games, mind you, but because I'm usually so beat by the time I get home, do a perfunctory workout if I'm feeling ambitious, and/or eat dinner that sitting upright for several more hours is an undesirable prospect.

Yes, I just complained about being to tired to play video games. Ouch.

So to fill the Starcraft-shaped void in my heart, I did the next best thing: borrowed a Starcraft novel from the library. (Side note: the new self-checkout system allowed me to do so stealthily, with pride relatively intact.)

I'd noticed, while browsing the sci-fi section I found the book in, that there were a bunch more videogame-branded paperbacks on the shelves: the Halo, Resident Evil, and even Mortal Kombat franchises were all represented. Some quick Googling after I got home confirmed that holy crap, there appears to be a market for these things, and no, there doesn't appear to have been a concerted effort to comprehensively review them. (Imagine that.) There were plenty of collections of books about videogames and reading lists of books gamers might like, but very little save a scarce Wikipedia entry covering this particular niche. Curious after my experience with a couple Mass Effect novels, I felt the seeds of a very bad idea growing in my mind.

And so I submitted a proposal to Mrs. JPG for her approval: what if I were to read as many of these things as I could stand over, say, a year, and review them on the blog? Would this inevitably masochistic exercise - a Video Game Book Club - be the last nerd transgression that would finally invalidate our marriage?

"Can I help?" she said.

And it was then I began to suspect the secret to a successful marriage is suffering for your partner's entertainment and amusement.

The next step was to establish some ground rules:
1. No straight game or movie novelizations. Original stories only.
2. No graphic novels. Love comic books, but for the purposes of comparing apples to apples, gotta stick to text only.
3. Have to be available free, or cheap as free. Not about to pay for this stuff.
4. Have to be from franchises I've played or am fairly familiar with.
5. No franchises that existed in other media first (e.g., D&D, Warhammer 40K, Magic: The Gathering).
6. Fiction based on game worlds only - no criticism, "making of" books, guidebooks, etc.
7. For every videogame novel I read, I will concurrently read a work of actual literary merit, to help preserve the last remaining shreds of taste and culture I still possess.

For each book I review, I'd want to have some criteria by which to judge its (relative) quality:
1. Ridiculousness rating, including choice quotes
2. Fan service rating - truthfulness to franchise/characters, inclusion of ephemera, etc.
3. "Explicit callouts to gameplay" rating
4. Awesomeness of front cover rating
5. Guilty pleasure rating

To inject the project with just the slightest sliver of merit, I would probably want to consider some overarching questions throughout:
1.. Does reading the book enhance the gaming experience, or make me think about the franchise/game differently?
2. Why do these get written, in 2010? Is the age of the blatant tie-in product over, or can branded novels actually be a worthwhile way of extending the life and scope of an IP?
3. Is there anything to the idea of a "transmedia narrative," or is that a goofy academic concept slapped on an old cash-grab business tactic?
4. I'm obviously entering into this project assuming these books will be garbage. Clearly, none of these selections are meant to compete with Faulkner or Joyce, but is my bias unfounded? Or maybe a better question is: Should you feel bad about buying one of these for your ninth-grader? Just because reading gets kids away from the TV doesn't mean what they're reading is irrelevant.

Mrs. JPG, with a little too much relish, helped me put together a list of candidates using the library's website. Here's the preliminary lineup of franchise books I'll attempt:
  • Tomb Raider
  • Krondor
  • King's Quest
  • Halo
  • Baldur's Gate
  • Diablo
  • Mortal Kombat
  • Perfect Dark
  • Gears of War
  • The Elder Scrolls
  • Resident Evil
  • God of War
  • Starcraft
  • Splinter Cell
  • Warcraft
  • Dragon Age
  • Myst
  • Mass Effect
  • Doom
I'll try to do one review per month. My first entry will not, in fact, be on the Starcraft book I found, but on the much more, um, resonant Mortal Kombat. Look for that soon.

And you, dear friends, are welcome to join me in this endeavor, provided you have all or some of the following:
  • High tolerance for crappy literature
  • Willingness to kill brain cells with something other than illicit substances
  • Deep self-loathing
See you at Book Club!