Tuesday, November 30, 2010

In Rotation, November 2010

Work, holiday travel, and brief bouts with illness may have prevented me from writing much the past few weeks - but not, thank goodness, from playing videogames. Here's what's been in rotation this month:

XBOX 360
  • Deadly Premonition. Finally finished this endearingly bizarre thriller a few nights ago, and holy crap was the ending a revelation. Actually, the whole game was a revelation, on so many levels. There's lots more to come from me on the subject, including some analysis of the many risks this game takes that the AAA blockbusters won't even touch. But for now, let me just say, without the "so bad it's good" irony common to many reviewers' takes, that Deadly Premonition is without a doubt the most ambitious, challenging (not difficult, though - more like subversive), and ultimately rewarding game I've played all year. It features easily the most memorable protagonist of any game in recent memory, and a story that oscillates between absurd and poignant with more frequency and dexterity than everyone's favorite Sean Connery-in-a-Speedo postapocalyptic film, Zardoz. Approached with an open mind, this game can be an amazingly resonant, if unrelentingly odd, experience. If you are even the slightest bit interested in Deadly Premonition - and are willing to endure some obvious and frustrating design and technical issues to get to the brilliance underneath - do yourself a favor and pick it up. And for God's sake, DO NOT indulge in spoilers. You're better than that.
  • Dead Rising 2. Completed the last quarter of the story early this month, and I don't mind saying how touching it was to see Chuck save Fortune City wearing only Borat's banana hammock. The close-ups featuring our hero's bare ass as he shared a tender moment with his seven-year-old daughter were especially emotional.
  • Red Dead Redemption. Well, I got to Mexico. And now I get it. For a game that's so high on so many GOTY lists, it drags like a sumbitch in the second act.
NINTENDO DS
  • Harvest Moon DS. Just as impenetrably directionless and cheerfully addicting as the SNES classic, this portable version makes me wonder how, and no offense to the 70 million of you doing so, anyone could play Farmville. Not because Farmville is a "blatantly cash-grubbing spamming app made by an evil company for the PopularStalkingPlatformBook" or "only moms play it" or "it's more interactive advertisement than game," although all these things are true, but because nobody can fuck with the cuteness of Harvest Moon. Yo, you seen that sheep? With that fresh-sheared look? Straight ADORABLE up in this bitch. "This bitch" being, of course, the barn.


PC

  • Dawn of War II and its expansion, Chaos Rising. It's been a mystifying but not entirely unwelcome journey into the Warhammer 40,000 universe this month, largely propelled by the very solidly-executed Dawn of War II. I'm not sure if this game qualifies as an "action RPG," "tactical RTS," or some other variety of "descriptor ACRONYM," but it's damn fun regardless. While I enjoy the resource-gathering and base-building of games like StarCraft and Age of Mythology, I'm generally lousy at adopting any other strategy than turtling. DoWII removes that temptation along with most of the intense micromanagement, freeing the player to aggressively pursue and destroy enemies the way any Space Marine worth his 41st millennium equivalent of stripes would. In many ways this game has more in common with Diablo or Torchlight than with StarCraft, but the distinction is academic: what I love most about these Warhammer games is the way their over-the-top weaponry and righteous pseudo-religious xenophobia give just enough context for me to jump in, guns blazing. Very much looking forward now to a game that would have never otherwise been on my radar, the upcoming 3rd-person shooter Space Marine.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Links, and a VGBC Update

November's been a rough month for blogging, as my scant output here attests. Not much to report on the games front; still plugging away at Dawn of War II, Deadly Premonition, and Red Dead Redemption. I picked up The World Ends With You from the library, but haven't had nearly enough time to play it; I want to give it a fair shake, but it's not grabbing me the way I thought it would so far. Combat feels haphazard, and the endless tapping to advance conversations, which veer precipitously into "..."-speech-bubble emo territory, gets old quickly. Still, I'll give it another go this weekend and see where I get with it.

Click the image to see Yahtzee Croshaw's very NSFW take on TWEWY.

Despite my busier-than-usual professional and social calendars lately, I do hope to continue to post regularly. The pieces I've got in mind, though, are a bit more long-form in nature and will probably be split up into multiple parts. Of course, I have to have time and energy to write them before I split them up. A notion that inspires only one reaction right now: ...

Apologies are in order, meantime, to all three of you who've been eagerly awaiting the next installment of the Video Game Book Club. I've actually got two reviews to catch up on - one for a StarCraft novel and the other for the latest Mass Effect book. Been dreading writing them, to be honest. The StarCraft book was so comically inept that making fun of it feels redundant and more than a little petty, which gives me pause about this whole endeavor. But fear not: I refuse to let this imposing tome, which rivals The Room in the audacity of its incompetence, dull my snark.

Also, re: the phrase "the audacity of incompetence" - PATENT PENDING, BITCH.

So. Friday links. Without further ado, here's what I rustled up from the great wide ether this week and last:
  • A very funny and insightful post by Margaret Robinson of UK studio Hide & Seek about the difference between - sigh - "gamification" and "pointsification."
  • At Edge, Randy Smith spends five hours with Alan Wake.
  • Wouldn't it be interesting if developers of big AAA games could study this weird proof of concept "game" about the subconscious of a man stood up for a dinner date, and insert that kind of intimate interaction into their grand narratives? What a fascinating way to inhabit a character.
  • Hate to keep plugging the GWJ Conference Call every week (well, actually, I don't), but this episode's time capsule to 1998 was a trip. Had no idea it was such a banner year for gaming.
  • On his blog Flash of Steel, Troy Goodfellow has begun an ambitious, and so far excellent, series of articles examining how the "character" of prominent nations/cultures have been portrayed in strategy games.
  • David Carlton's post about "practice" in games stems from his experience with Rock Band 3, where the idea of pure training modes is a natural fit - but then goes on to make some interesting suggestions about extending that valuable opportunity to refine skills to other game genres.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Primary Sources

When I was a kid I was given some D&D sourcebooks as a gift one Christmas. I don't think I ever played a single game, but I remember obsessively trawling through the books, finding the world implied by the ruleset fascinating. It wasn't so much the setting, which seemed like generic fantasy fare, but more that there were rules governing how the fantastical stuff worked. I was especially riveted by the descriptions of spells and their effects, which seemed peculiarly plausible in the matter-of-fact tone in which they were written. It was like reading an instruction manual for a Honda, except the Honda was your character. Also, the Honda could shoot lightning bolts.

Around the same time (age 11 or 12, I think) I read through Lord of the Rings for the first time. I suppose I enjoyed the adventure story, though I'm sure I didn't fully grasp it. But what sticks out the most in memory is poring over those huge appendices detailing the history of this imaginary world. The fact that Tolkien had gone to such lengths to invent extensive cultural, political, and linguistic backdrops for his novels blew my mind. There was a real lived-in feeling to this fantasy world, although much of it was (and is) so esoteric I could never commit to it on the level others could.

When I read Dune for the first time a few years later, I had a similar experience. There was, again, an extensive appendix, featuring a glossary of the pseudo-Arabic future space language, a timeline of significant historical events, assorted fragments of religious documents, even a satirical poem. Whatever the reasons - probably my growing maturity and reading comprehension skills combined with the availability of a feature film, a protagonist about my age with godlike powers, and Frank Herbert's slightly less opaque writing style - I latched onto the Dune universe much more strongly than I had any other fictional setting.

By the time I'd gotten to college and delved into the Wild West of campus network file-sharing - this was the pre-Napster early days, mind you - I had probably re-read the book and seen the David Lynch movie five times apiece. So when that untamed landscape of free software opened before me, I immediately jumped on the old DOS adventure game simply titled Dune and its not-really-sequel, the famous pioneer RTS game Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty.

But the real treasure was a massive PDF of The Dune Encyclopedia some kind soul had painstakingly scanned.

This giant tome, first published in 1984 with the bemused, if not entirely wholehearted, approval of Frank Herbert himself, is the finest example of "fan fiction" ever published. Come to think of it, the fact that it was published, period, speaks to its quality.

The volume's editor, Dr. Willis E. McNelly, and dozens of collaborators penned hundreds of entries on the ephemera of the Dune universe, everything from arcane descriptions of future weaponry to centuries-long histories of the novels' various factions and races. Although not canon, it was a brilliant compendium of background material, lovingly assembled in a brilliant way: in the form of an in-universe encyclopedia, referencing fictional texts throughout its extensive study of the Atreides Imperium. Dr. McNelly's collection was so thorough and so compelling that Westwood Studios, developer of Dune II and later Dune games, stole from it. The idea that there could be "primary sources" in a fictional universe was especially notable to me, buried as I was in my literature and writing studies; it lent the universe an air of legitimacy, however slight.

(Of course, this was all in the days before Frank's son Brian and his hack ghostwriter accomplice took a giant dump all over the series with their procession of abysmal cash-grab "canonical" prequels and sequels. And used the power of copyright and estate to muscle everyone else out of the Dune business in the process.)

Had The Dune Encyclopedia been compiled today, it would have undoubtedly been in wiki format, much like my recent insomnia cure. But in some ways, I think that might have missed the point.

To my mind, nothing can replace the feeling of a tangible artifact when it comes to building on a fictional world's reach. As a kid, I adored the "feelies" that came with some PC and NES games. Michael Abbott's great post about these in-box extras - paper maps, decoder puzzles, 3D glasses - links them to the in-game codex in Mass Effect 2, which functions as a digital encyclopedia of sorts to flesh out that fictional universe. His point that the codex contains "pertinent, not disposable lore" is well-taken. There is a lot of fascinating stuff in there for those players who choose to explore it. It makes for a much richer Mass Effect experience, helping set this particular game's story within a larger fictional space. I'm sure I'm not alone in appreciating the creativity and dedication it takes to construct an engaging universe for your game to take place in.

That said, I have to disagree with Michael's comment that this codex, or any in-game codex, really, is "well implemented." In ME2, as well as in that other high-profile BioWare opus, Dragon Age: Origins, navigating through the codex is a chore. In Dragon Age, the codex/quest menus (on 360) were especially difficult to manage; entries were not numbered and navigating to a new codex entry often meant inadvertently marking other unread entries as read - thus dropping them off my list of "new" material. It was even worse in Oblivion: while it was cool to be able to pick up and read books, it felt like a disruption to the flow of gameplay, even when the content of the supplementary material was interesting.


Thing is, I'm not sure there's anything developers can do. It's just a pain in the ass to read text on a large screen. It might be more palatable on a PC, but that's how I played Oblivion and it still felt like a distraction. The act of playing a game and the act of reading about that game's world feel like two distinct activities that, to me, are best enjoyed separately. It would be interesting to see if BioWare keeps stats on how thoroughly players explore the codex in, say, ME2. After all, it does serve a similar function to the appendices found in Lord of the Rings and Dune.

Yet while I understand the desire for an in-game codex to help players understand the fiction and immerse themselves in it, I can't help but think there are more effective, meaningful, and potentially profitable ways to extend your game's universe. And I'm not talking about Collector's Editions; most seem stuffed with demonstrably useless physical artifacts that are more marketing collateral than supplemental content. A figurine might be nice for a desk display, but it doesn't connect to the game experience in a meaningful way like the feelies of old did.

Honestly, I don't think that's just nostalgia for outdated copy-protection mechanisms: as Michael points out in his post, feelies were often essential components of the package, a (sigh) meta-game experience that brought the player out of the computer game, but not out of the game world. There's something psychologically interesting that happens there, I think. You are compelled to reflect upon the game and its fiction in a different way because of the switch in modality. The very act of reflection should be an important goal in itself.

Game developers often have to (and should) think like teachers: their students have different learning styles. Communicating content in different modes is crucial if you want to reach everyone. If you want to meaningfully extend a game world's fiction, I would argue, you've got to look outside the game itself.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Friday Link

That's right, there's only one selection this week. Because you really ought to take a listen to the latest Gamers With Jobs Conference Call.

In addition to regular hosts Shawn Andrich and Sean Sands, this week's podcast features Russ Pitts of The Escapist and Justin McElroy of Joystiq. The main topic stems from an open letter Russ recently wrote to game makers.

If there's one issue that should really dominate the conversation about videogames, it's the problem of half-baked "AAA" games being foisted on the oblivious consumer. When Fallout: New Vegas, which by all accounts is so buggy it's nigh-unplayable on any platform, costs the same $60 as more meticulously QA-tested games and somehow dominates them in sales, there's a bigger problem than what some film critic is saying. And yet, we bullshit about "art" and motion control and console wars and who wins trade shows.

So give the episode a listen, if for no other reason than to hear the phrase "We made who the king? The pattycake guy?"

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Warhammered


I'm rooting for this guy.

I have no idea how this happened.

Seduced by the Steam sale last week, and despite its ridiculous name, I bought Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, the 2009 Relic hybrid RTS/RPG that, it turns out, is pretty great. It's like StarCraft with cover-based shooting and no building, or an isometric Gears of War with loot and leveling up. Both the game design and the fictional universe, or at least what little I've grasped of it, are curious blends of genre and style. And somehow, it all works. The single-player is damn fun, a well-balanced tactical RTS that's almost entirely combat-focused. I haven't jumped into multiplayer yet, but I've heard good things. Although my weak gaming setup - BootCamping into XP on a Mac Mini - necessitates turning down all the graphics settings, I'm assured the game looks great in higher resolutions.

But the game being good wasn't the revelation. It's that I've been inexplicably, and pretty embarrassingly, drawn into its fiction.

I knew nothing about the Warhammer 40K universe going into this game. I dabbled in some D&D-lite tabletop games like HeroQuest and DragonStrike as a kid, but that's about it. I've never been anywhere near hardcore enough to paint miniatures. So it was doubly surprising that this videogame got me curious about its Lord of the Rings In Space backstory.


Yep. Seriously.

Here's the premise of Dawn of War II: you command a squad of Space Marines (yes, they are actually called Space Marines) on a campaign to cleanse the galaxy of, no shit, Space Orcs, Space Elves, and the Xenomorphs from Alien. There's some kind of Fundamentalist Space Church that rules all of humanity, I guess, and your Space Marines - massive armored behemoths who look like the love child of Duke Nukem and The Hulk - have a sacred duty to whoop alien ass up and down the galaxy while dual-wielding flamthrowers and chainsaw swords. The voice acting brings a cheesetastic meatheadedness to the pitch-perfect melodramatic sci-fi dialogue. Your soldiers constantly refer to each other as "Brother," reinforcing the comforting thought that 38,000 years from now, just as today, society is dominated by bloodthirsty frat jocks.

I'd like to blame this week's particularly severe bout of insomnia for this, but it's true: I've been reading the Warhammer 40K Wiki. And it is endlessly entertaining.

Consider the following excerpt:
The torture cults eroded the future of the Eldar as a viable galactic empire. While this debauchery would have been destructive within any society, it was even more damaging for the Eldar because of their powerful psychic abilities. Within the parallel dimensional realm of the Warp, the psychic emanations of these perverse activities began to gather, strengthened by the souls of departed Eldar hedonists and cultists. As the Eldar's vices grew, this dark mass of negative psychic energy did as well, producing the terrible Warp storms that defined humanity's Age of Strife and made all interstellar travel and communication impossible for the human colonies of this period. Eventually, this growing mass of negative psychic energy came into a life of its own and came to consciousness over ten thousand years ago at the end of the Age of Strife as the newborn Chaos God Slaanesh, the Devourer of Souls and the doom of the Eldar. The psychic scream of Slaanesh's birth tore the souls from all the Eldar within a thousand light years of it, sparing only those sheltered in the wraithbone hulls of the Craftworlds. The Prince of Pleasure's awakening was so forceful that it tore a hole between the physical realm and the Immaterium, plunging the Eldar homeworlds into a nightmare existence, trapped within the realm of Chaos. This region is now known as the Eye of Terror, and is the home of the forces of Chaos in the 41st millennium.

Again: Yep. Seriously.
Look, I don't mean to shoot fish in a barrel here, honestly. There is something genuinely endearing about fantasy worlds that are detailed with such thoroughness, no matter how absurd. When sleep eludes me I find myself clicking through Wiki entires on the Imperium of Man, the Horus Heresy, Tech-Priests and Terminator Armor, the gene-seeds of the Primarchs. None of it makes much sense to me, nor do I expect it to, but it's fun feeling like a tourist in this intricate and throughly baffling place. And in turn, I'm going back to Dawn of War II with a renewed, if bemused, investment in my Force Commander.

I've always loved the idea that the silly sci-fi stories and games I was into had a history, an evolutionary path you could trace. The world didn't have to make sense or even be particularly internally consistent; someone just had to care enough to draw up the imaginary playground.

I miss that part of being a kid. I miss leaping headfirst into stories about Space Marines fighting the Orc Hordes across the galaxy in the 41st millennium, without the detachment of irony or the vague guilt of the responsible adult. I miss living in other worlds and not needing to think about why I wanted to in the first place.

Still, it's not all bad. At least I'm not playing WoW.