Friday, December 30, 2011

GOTY 2011: Bastion

I've contributed to a few year-end best-of lists this year, including two for Paste (one for traditional releases, one for mobile games), one for Kill Screen (it'll be up on the site in January), and even the community vote at Gamers With Jobs. Had Bastion been released in a mobile format, it would've topped all four.

No other game released in 2011 felt as coherent to me as Bastion did, as well-executed in all phases of its design. This game demonstrated a singularity of purpose I didn't encounter elsewhere, with the possible exceptions of Portal 2 and Dark Souls. But unlike those (terrific) titles, Bastion appealed to both my head and heart. That's not surprising given the thoughtfulness and talent of the team at Supergiant Games, some of whom I was fortunate to meet at PAX East last year.

Below I discuss some of the reasons Bastion was my favorite game this year. But since they get into serious story spoiler territory, I've hidden them behind the break. If you haven't yet played the game, please do yourself a massive favor and hold off reading until you've finished it (preferably twice!). In Bastion, far more than in other narrative-heavy games, the element of discovery and reflection is incredibly important.

Ready, Kid? Let's go.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

40 Days of 40K Haiku

Let's get this shit over with.

At the risk of turning this into an all-Warhammer 40K, all-the-time blog, I'm going against my better judgment and posting the collection of 40K-themed haiku I tweeted over the course of, well, 40 days. I'll do everyone a favor and hide it behind a break.

For those who haven't been following this nonsense, the idea was a lark inspired by having to come up with a bio for the latest issue of Kill Screen (out now!). "Let's say I tweet Warhammer 40K haiku," I wrote to my editor, when he asked for a few lines and my Twitter handle. I immediately logged on and threw together a few lines with the hashtag #40daysof40Khaiku. And only after I'd committed, as always happens with my projects, did I realize what I'd gotten myself into. To my great surprise and delight, along with a hint of self-loathing, people seemed to enjoy the result. They even asked me to collect the results and publish them.

So, by popular demand, Space Marine Teddy Roosevelt presents: 40 Days of 40K Haiku.

Monday, October 24, 2011


Having received my review copy of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine several days before its release date, I expected to have a harder time connecting to full multiplayer matches. As it turns out, there were ample opponents online, mostly located, according to the in-game leaderboard, in France and Germany. At the time, I assumed Space Marine must have released early in Europe: nearly all of these players had reached double-digit levels in Space Marine's XP-unlock system. Not only did they zip through the maps to secure choke points with the speed and familiar ease of old pros, but they were also kitted out with powerful weapons and perks. It was clear they'd had time to practice. 

I got slaughtered, of course.

(Turns out the game's official European release date was later than the North American date; I'm told some European retailers regularly break release date to sell extra copies. Knew those guys couldn't all be reviewers.)

Despite the relatively limited modes—team deathmatch and king of the hill varieties—I'd been looking forward to jumping into Space Marine's multiplayer. That's a rarity for me; I generally dislike competitive multiplayer shooting on the console, since I lack the appropriate twitchiness to properly acquit myself. But, as anyone who follows my lunatic Twitter stream knows, my 40K fandom knows few bounds. Besides, except for a few desultory forays into Call of Duty: Black Ops and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 matches, I hadn't had much experience with the now-standard persistent unlock model. 

Of course, I was skeptical; intuitively, this kind of system, which awards players more powerful gear, stat increases, and/or customization bonuses the more XP is accrued, seemed unbalanced at best, obnoxious at worst. Still, I was curious to see if the RPG-lite hook of XP and weapon unlocks might engage me when applied to a fictional world I was already into.

 The verdict? Sadly, no.

I can see why the persistent unlock model is so attractive to both designers and players. From a business perspective, it encourages a "long tail"—by lengthening the time players are likely to spend in multiplayer modes, you're keeping the product off used game store shelves at least for a little while longer. In the process you build word-of-mouth, since the player's online friends can see what you're playing and will want to join in the fun. The model also allows designers to mete out a steady drip-feed of "progress" to the player, creating the illusion of achievement, if not an actual sense of accomplishment. Leveling up means the player doesn't have to start fresh every time he boots up the game, promoting a sense of connection between the player and the multiplayer character. The playing field is not level every match; star players have paid their dues, and earned their perks. That sense of superiority is, I'd imagine, pretty important for people who invest a lot of time into competitive multiplayer. And the allure of new gear—well, that's been borne out by many a game.

But the persistent unlock model also comes with its share of downsides. The most convincing argument against this type of system is that bolting on a leveling up mechanic obscures the notion of skill. In a recent blog post, 100 Rogues designer Keith Burgun lays out a compelling case:

So, I hope that it's clear how in a skill-based game, having leveling-up is really out of place, and thus it makes your game much harder to balance. Assuming your leveling-up system is at all non-linear (which it really should be), it becomes impossible to track where your player will be in terms of his core-stats, and therefore impossible to balance the game appropriately. Combine with this the fact that most digital games are probably too inherently complex to begin with and we have a recipe for the current status of digital games: perpetual imbalance. 

Our games should not be fighting against themselves like this. When designing a game, we must decide what it's about, and stick to it. Is it a game about timing, accuracy, and twitch skill? If so, how does a leveling up system compliment that? I am not saying, by the way, that an action game cannot introduce new mechanisms to the player as he goes, in the form of new enemies, new weapons, new environments. These are all great ways to increase the difficulty that force the player to increase his own skill. 

There are a few interesting points here. The first is embedded in the first sentence and reinforced in the second paragraph: what kind of game is this, really? I'd argue that multiplayer shooters are primarily about skill. Success in a deathmatch-style game is mostly dependent on, as Keith says, timing, accuracy, and twitch skill. Knowing the maps helps a great deal, as does familiarity with weapon styles and use of bonuses or items. But without those qualities, upgrades will only take you so far. You need to have skill to win consistently.

With an unlock system in place, though, the game becomes more about addressing imbalances (i.e., exploiting your own upgrades or overcoming others' upgrades with your own skill) than about demonstrating mastery. The playing field is uneven. The player's objective thus becomes gaming the system to balance it in his favor—not about whatever he's actually supposed to do in the match.

For unskilled players, an unlock system creates the illusion of parity. By simply investing enough time into multiplayer—most unlock systems will award you at least a little XP for each round you play—you can advance up the unlock ladder, making up for your lack of skill with powerful weapons and perks. In theory, this will help you be more competitive. 

In practice, it's more like our tax code: the rich get richer. In a graduated income tax system, people are taxed at a higher rate the more income they earn. This structure is intended to ensure that those who have benefited most from society contribute more back to it. As we're all aware, it doesn't work like that in reality. Decades of supply-side theory, and I'm sure more than a little bit of lobbying, have convinced decision-makers that 99% of us can rely on the largesse of the wealthy for our own financial security. Because they create jobs, see.

Multiplayer unlock systems don't operate on the same principle—there's no "trickling down" of skill—but they have a similar result. Skilled players will advance up the XP ladder at a much faster rate, compounding their advantage over others. Unbalanced matchmaking ensures you'll be placed in lobbies with players at wildly ranging levels, pitting your level 3 character against at least a few level 30s. (I've no idea how matchmaking works on the back end, but I assume grouping players of similar skill levels is a challenge.)

And this is the irony of the unlock model: it de-incentivizes its own incentives. Lower-level players are often killed within seconds of spawning. Even familiarizing themselves with the maps becomes difficult, since it's tough to explore with a bunch of elites hunting you. It becomes enormously tedious to advance up the ladder. After several rounds with a pathetic kill/death ratio, earning that level 10 Lascannon feels a lot less enticing. Space Marine combats this obstacle by allowing you to copy the loadout of the last opponent who killed you for one life; but even this creative fix is really just a Band-Aid. Being able to preview a high-level weapon or perk doesn't erase the tedium of grinding levels to earn it.

The last time I invested a genuine effort in multiplayer was probably in college, when my dorm floor played regular Quake II matches. The Quake games are notoriously fast-paced affairs, heavily reliant on twitch skill. But they also feature finely-tuned maps that allow for creative tactics. One thing I loved about Quake II was that I could practice with bots before taking on my friends. There was a way to refine my skill in a customizable environment, to familiarize myself with maps, items, and weapons without getting my head blown off every ten seconds. Everything was accessible from the start; the game felt like a shooter, not a JRPG. The playing field was even.

Here's the best part: Translating that experience with bots to matches against my friends was incredibly satisfying, even if I still got slaughtered. I had learned something by practicing and applied it in a live context. If I got destroyed, it was because my opponent was more skilled, not because he'd unlocked some perk or weapon. If "fun" in games is about learning, as Raph Koster says, we need more opportunities to learn, not to earn.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Tau Catalog

The Ten Worst Dates I’ve Gone On In This, The Grim Dark Future Of The 41st Millennium
SEP. 20, 40,000 By J.P. GRANT

10. He shows up in fashionably ‘retro’ Mark 6 Corvus Armour, strutting toward the bar as if that Beakie helmet isn’t so unironically M.31, as if that studded left pauldron isn’t, like, a total space-goth cliche. He’s barely gotten out a “Greetings, fair one, in the name of the Emperor” before I fake an emergency vox summons from my Administratum sub-commander.

9. He doesn’t look like a Squat in his profile picter. But he is.

8. Crying? Seriously? He’s halfway through his third amasec when he just loses it, great gobs of snot dripping from his nose like drops of water from a leaky faucet. Except these drops are full of plague. He’s blubbering about his ‘existential despair,’ his ‘profound hopelessness and fear,’ begging me to join with him in ‘dark eternal service’ to ‘Papa Nurgle.’ Uh, no. But you can buy me another 19-credit Tranq-tini.

7. After dinner he asks me up to his con-apt to see the ‘etchings’ he’s done of the ‘Most Blessed Primarch Roboute Guilliman.’ Yeah, like I haven’t heard that one before.

6. He’s beautiful, he’s charming, he’s a medicae so you know he’s got credits. But then he gets me up to his hab. Throne, that vox-drone collection. Really? You’re still listening to Machine God? The Flash Gitz? Way to be totally M.37, bro.

5. He doesn’t know I fethed his best friend. Who was secretly a chaos daemon. Awkward!

4. So okay, he quotes the Codex even though you know he hasn’t read it. And he hangs out in dive bars on Edge Worlds to be like, ironic or whatever. But feth it, he’s hot. We’re making out in the alley behind his hab-block when he asks me if I ‘wanna get kinky.’ ‘What did you have in mind?’ I say. He gets this sick grin on his face, then whips out his data-slate. Thousands of picters of post-Atrocity Ravenor—OUTSIDE THE CHAIR. ‘Sizzled flesh turn you on, baby?’ No. No. NO.

3. Fine. I’ve had too many amasecs and now I’m letting him feth me because, whatever, it’s been a while. It’s going okay at first until he starts with the moaning. “Throoooooone,” he yells. “Oh, Throoo--ooo--ooone!” He sounds like a fething Squig with a bowel infection. Total stim-kill.

2. I drunk-vox him for a late-night hookup and he BRINGS HIS ROOMMATE. Who is an Eldar. The feth is he thinking?  

1. Do I want to ‘polish’ his ‘nob.’ Um, not anymore!

You should follow Tau Catalog on Twitter here.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Excuses, Excuses

Pictured: a smoking dog that is somehow not a French poodle

Two months? Two MONTHS since I last posted here?

I know, okay? I know. No excuse. Even for me.

Still. Haven't been idle this whole time, I promise. In fact, the main reason I haven't kept up with the blog is because I've been busy writing for other folks.

Voila, the obligatory rundown!

At Kill Screen, I interviewed Greg Kasavin, creative director at Supergiant Games, makers of my favorite game of this year, Bastion. It's not surprising that Bastion turned out so well, given the talent, smarts, and heart of the Supergiant team, most of whom I was fortunate to meet at PAX East. I have a lot more to say about Bastion, but I'll reserve that for a future post—one that will be positively riddled with spoilers, no doubt.

This sobering meditation on death and suicide in games, "Life After Death," was first drafted back in late April but kicked around in multiple incarnations until it finally went up at KS in late July. The finished product features an amazing illustration by Daniel Purvis and some invisible, but crucial, editing by Ryan Kuo. Karoshi is a curious game on a number of levels. It scared me probably way more than it should have.

I also reviewed an iOS game with the preposterous title Zombie Gunship for the site. I wrote this piece shortly after KS announced it was no longer assigning scores to reviews. It might be for this reason, or because I was particularly invested in my angle, or because I knew my editors support pieces that take risks—but writing this one was, I dunno, liberating. I fear I undersold the game itself, which is good fun. But if you grew up watching Gulf War I (my God. Gulf War One.) unfold on network TV like I did, it's hard to shake the odd feeling of deja vu.

Speaking of risk-taking, how about this in-character review of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine I co-wrote with Battle-Brother Rob Zacny for Paste. I don't have to tell you, faithful fellow servant of the Emperor, how much fun this one was.

Last month Paste also published my review of Toy Soldiers: Cold War, an XBLA title that builds on the strengths of its predecessor. Be sure to click on the comments to see an amazing defense of Weird Al in response to my offhand reference. (For the record, I love Weird Al too and agree that he's an outstanding musician, commenter dude—but it's hard to argue he's not seen as a novelty act.)

Whew. On to Gamers With Jobs? Told you I've been busy.

Back in May (May! Sheesh.), I contributed this piece on the new Mortal Kombat's final boss, Shao Kahn. Are fighting game bosses always broken? Maybe. But it's still interesting that for all the refinements Netherrealm made to the MK formula—the reboot is probably the best game in the series—they still fell back on the old "cheap-ass final boss" trope. I wonder if people would be disappointed if they hadn't.

In June, Mrs. JPG and I had a lovely holiday in London, kicked off by a surreal jetlagged visit to a (since-defunct!) Piccadilly Circus arcade called Funland. I wrote up the experience here.

July saw another long-dormant article published. "Right Here, Right Now" argues that now may be the best time ever to be a gamer. It also features probably the best header image I've ever found. I mean, just look how much fun Marv is having! Where would you rather be, indeed.

Last month, Rob and I attended our second GameLoop Boston. I wrote up some notes last year, but Rob and I decided to divide and conquer at this year's event, which was again a great time. Our roundup lives here.

Every Friday, GWJ features a column called Fringe Busters that highlights small independent games in 250-word blurbs. It's a terrific way to highlight games that tend to fly under the radar. Most are excellent conversation-starters. I've profiled two: the satirical "god game" Let There Be Smite!, made by my Kill Screen colleague Pippin Barr; and Symon, a beautiful, melancholy point-and-click game from my pals at GAMBIT.

Finally, I was a guest on last week's GWJ Conference Call, where I made some stupid Warhammer jokes and had a lot of laughs while Julian, Sean and Rob unleashed their fury on the abomination that is the JRPG.

And that's the list! I do have a few things in the works for this here humble blog, I swear. Stay tuned?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Taylor's Tower

American industry's relentless focus on efficiency can largely be traced to Frederick W. Taylor, inventor of the theory of scientific management. In the late 19th century, Taylor, a mechanical engineer and former factory worker, conducted "time studies" of industrial workers, seeking to identify and codify what we might call "best practices" in today's business jargon—the most efficient processes for producing maximum output. Taylor timed workers' movements to the second, using his amassed data to construct an ideal system of motions for maximum productivity and minimum wastefulness. In a Taylorist system, in other words, all men are machines.

But Taylor wasn't simply interested in workers' physical movements. His theory, which could be said to represent the best and worst of the Progressive Era, also set out to bridge that pesky divide between labor and management. He claimed that his methods would not only increase output, but also improve worker satisfaction, reduce working hours, and minimize conflict. Of course, he also assumed laborers, like dogs, were either too genial or too stupid to mind being treated like objects.

It's no wonder Lenin was a fan. Despite its pretensions at fostering equality, Taylorism was a thoroughly autocratic system. "It is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured," Taylor wrote in Principles of Scientific Management. "And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with management alone" [italics in original]. So, lots of enforcing going on. And lots of room for interpretation about what "best" means. Charlie Chaplin's celebrated satire Modern Times brilliantly captures the dystopian work environment fostered by Taylorism. Nothing quite like the boss's furious face appearing on a giant viewscreen while you're taking a leak to scare you back to the assembly line.

No game has made me feel like a Taylorist factory foreman as much as Tiny Tower, the iOS tapfest currently inspiring love-hate reactions across the web. If you're not familiar with the game, it's an economic/real estate simulator in which, as the Tiny Trump in charge of your Tiny Tower, you build apartments and businesses, collect money, and exercise autocratic control of your pixelated "Bitizens." You choose not only if and where they work, but if they deserve to stay in your Tower at all, based on their work aptitude ratings. The mechanics themselves, like industrial labor, are repetitive to a mind-numbing degree: Build a floor, restock stores, wait (in real time!) for coins to accrue and restocking to complete, ferry Bitizens in elevators, restock stores, build another floor. Rinse and repeat.

Brendan Keogh's review in Paste explains the game's mechanics in more detail. But it also tries to articulate the game's bizarre allure, which many players are still trying to pin down. On the surface, there is nothing about Tiny Tower that should be fun. And yet we keep playing. Michael Abbott's recent Brainy Gamer post is an elegant piece of satire on that front.

The thing about Tiny Tower that interests me most, though, is not that it's a superficial game that is inexplicably addictive; I've played lots of games like that, Game Dev Story being only the most recent example. I do find it fascinating that the free-to-play (and apparently very profitableTiny Tower is so brazen about its micro-transaction opportunities—not by plastering you with pop-up ads and "social" hooks, but by slowing gameplay to an existential crawl, unless you want to pay to skip ahead—yet largely seems to have avoided the disdain inspired by FarmVille. I'm at something of a loss to explain that, other than to speculate that Moms haven't yet caught on. Mechanically, I'm not sure there's much difference. Presumably iDevices' enduring hipness shields Tiny Tower from some of the ire reserved for Facebook games.

What strikes me most about Tiny Tower is how transparently and, well, efficiently it compels the player to adopt a Taylorist philosophy. Taylor believed there was One Best Way to perform any kind of job, a sort of miracle cure for what ailed the worker, the manager, and industry as a whole. In Tiny Tower, it becomes clear after a few hours—once you are invested enough to start caring about your burgeoning building—that maximizing efficiency, not employing creative strategies, is the objective here. Just as in manufacturing, the work never ends in Tiny Tower; there is no defined end point at which the goal is achieved. There is only more building, more production. There is little incentive to do anything else than figure out the most cost-effective and time-saving way to keep doing what you're doing. Even the "strategy guides" for this game read like Taylorist propaganda. This one explicitly bills itself not as a guide, but as "tips and tricks for maximizing efficiency."

Of course, maximizing efficiency is sometimes just the way to win. In games like StarCraft or even chess, there are proven strategies that work to the player's advantage a very high percentage of the time. It's stupid to not employ them. Listening to StarCraft veterans debate build orders, it's easy to suspect they're just trying to find that One Best Way. But StarCraft and chess players understand that different situations require different strategies, and that strategies have to evolve on the fly as each match unfolds. The joy of these games is the artfulness with which skilled players adapt to changing conditions. Taylor, on the other hand, wasn't much for evolution or adaptation. Scientific management made no room for art. Enforced standardization was quite literally the order of the day.

Tiny Tower operates in much the same way, but on two levels. As Tiny Trump,* you exercise totalitarian control over your Bitizens, from where they live and where they work to what they wear. And these choices aren't merely cosmetic; dressing up Bitizens of similar aptitudes in similar "uniforms" can make them easier to find and reassign as needed. Should another Bitizen come along who happens to have a better aptitude rating, it's sayonara to the dead weight—if you're a Trump worth your hairpiece, anyway. (That element in particular, the shedding of inefficient workers, is eerily reminiscent of workers' loss of jobs to automation in the mid-20th century, a natural outgrowth of a manufacturing culture rooted in scientific management.) Inasmuch as it is possible to suck at Tiny Tower, you will suck if you don't learn to adopt a Taylorist approach. Or, more likely, you'll just put it away.

But then there's also the way the game itself becomes the Taylorist management to the player's laborer. Half of the "gameplay" is ferrying Bitizens on the elevator (which can be upgraded for speed, of course), perhaps the most menial task a videogame has asked of players in recent memory. If you allow Tiny Tower to send push notifications, it'll pop up dialogue boxes on your device every time a store is ready for restocking or a new floor has been built. It slaves the player to the (real time!) clock in a way that few other games do. Eventually you get the feeling you should punch a timeclock every time you boot up the damn thing.

But for all that, my Tiny Tower is no dystopia. For one thing, it's cute as hell. My Bitizens seem, on the whole, a happy and well-adjusted lot, with the possible exception of that blue-haired chick with the bunny ears who works in the Soda Brewery. There are enough bemusing Easter eggs in Tiny Tower's Facebook parody, "Bitbook," to convince me there's a fair amount of tongue-in-cheek intent here. I'm genuinely glad for developer NimbleBit—twin brothers Ian and David Marsh—that they've hit on what appears to be an enormously successful formula.

I'm also glad Tiny Tower has provoked me to consider how I "maximize efficiency" in other games. I may not have been able to articulate it properly before playing Tiny Tower, but it makes sense in retrospect: The point at which I give up and put a game away is often the point at which it begins to feel like work, when I become obsessed with finding the One Best Way to play it. If it turns out there is indeed a One Best Way to play, that's usually an indication that the game is not worth the effort I'm putting into it. Or maybe that it's ceased to become a "game" for me at all.

So why am I still playing Tiny Tower? For me, and I suspect for many others, there's a calming allure to the game's very mundanity and repetitiveness. It's satisfying and relieving in the same way, say, filling in a spreadsheet can be. There's a degree of comfort in the fact that little critical thought is required. The job hasn't been stimulating or challenging, but you have produced something. Something exists where it didn't before. And that's rewarding.

At least until it's time to build the next floor.

*No actual references to The Donald exist in this game. But they really should.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Death Fetish

In honor of AMURRICA, I marathoned my way through the single-player campaign of my latest library rental, Call of Duty: Black Ops, yesterday. My reaction was much the same as my response to Modern Warfare 2:

Hour 1: Wow, this looks and plays great.
Hour 6: My soul is crushed.

There's a reason I'll never buy a Call of Duty title, but it's not what you might think. It's not because I'm terrible at multiplayer-heavy shooters, although I am. It's not because their stories are barely-comprehensible Michael Bay power fantasies, although they are. It's not because Activision is creeping ever closer to Zynga levels of transparently formulaic cash-grabbing, although it is. And it's not even because I prefer not to have racist, sexist, homophobic horseshit screamed in my ear by mouth-breathing dudebro imbeciles, although that's a factor too.

No, I'll never buy a Call of Duty title for the same reason I'll never buy a Saw movie on DVD: it's death-porn.

It's not that I won't play a Call of Duty game, of course. I like to play a military shooter every once in a while, just like I like to check out a grisly horror flick every once in a while. It's fun to see where the genre is going. I just don't want to own those titles. I can't shake the feeling that would implicate me somehow.

The graphic violence, per se, doesn't bother me. I love Mortal Kombat, after all, and that franchise stakes its reputation on its glorification of human butchery. But unlike Mortal Kombat or any number of other ultraviolent titles—Borderlands, Grand Theft Auto, Left 4 Dead—the Call of Duty games seem to take themselves way too seriously. Even the Battlefield: Bad Company games lighten their tone with humor. (For the record, I don't count Black Ops' intentionally absurd Zombie mode, where JFK teams up with Nixon, Kissinger & Castro to fend off the undead; I'm talking about the campaign alone.)

Instead, I think it's the peculiar fetishizing of gruesome acts of violence that gets under my skin. Take the picture above. After battling across a rooftop level to save this guy, you watch him get shot through the head—in slow motion, naturally, with copious sprays of brain matter erupting from the wound in minute detail—just as you're about to save him from falling. You let the body (this is a body now, not a person like it was seconds ago, but the game makes no attempt to explore that terrifying concept) drop. It caroms off a neon sign, a lump of flesh and bone, literal dead weight. One cannot help but imagine ~90% of Black Ops players responding to this moment with a heartfelt "oh, sick, bro!"

In context, it makes sense that a hardened military operative like your avatar wouldn't pause in the middle of a firefight to ponder the existential meaning of life's precariousness. But Black Ops shows this event, and other similarly bloody acts, in such precise detail, in such high-definition scripted precision, that it's clear the game wants you to pay very close attention. The problem I have is that it doesn't ask you to do anything beyond that.

Consider the "rat tunnel" sequence in one of the Vietnam levels. Progressing through Viet Cong tunnels on your way to your next objective, you are limited to a flashlight and a .44 "hand cannon" revolver. Naturally, there are VC down here to kill. Except when you shoot them, they don't enact the typical death animations. Instead you get gratuitous displays of dismemberment like this:

Dismembered VC, unlike other enemies you shoot, moan and writhe for a few seconds after being shot, drawing attention to their suffering. As far as I could tell, every kill shot takes off a limb, regardless of where you're aiming. And yet, there's no narrative reason for the carnage (like in Dead Space or The Darkness). Not that I'd expect this, but there's no attempt to make you consider the ethical or psychological ramifications of your actions; at least that might have given a hint of depth to the grim proceedings. In my playthrough, I never encountered the limb-severing .44 pistol again, making it seems as if the weapon was specifically designed for this sequence. It's like a sex toy, meant for one purpose. The weapon, the amputation, the screaming: Altogether, it's as if the player is supposed to get off on the suffering and gruesomeness of this scene.

Movies like Saw and Hostel provoke the same reaction; the gore is fuel for the revenge fantasy. Perhaps in the Vietnam sequence the developers are trading on deep-seated American resentment about our dubious engagement in that country, allowing players to enact some measure of payback for our real-life perception of failure. By, you know, dismembering some virtual VC. If so, that's pretty fucking cynical and disrespectful (and aimed at the wrong generation). But I suspect that's reading a little too far into it.

It's the particular focus of these types of sequences that makes me think of them as fetishistic. There are several, and they all take place in close-up and/or slow motion. At one point, you have to swim underwater until you reach a VC patrol boat, yank a guard over the side, and stab him in the neck, keeping him from crying out by holding him under the surface. The careful attention that was clearly paid to ensuring the resultant cloud of blood disperses realistically underwater is far more unsettling than the blood itself. There's an intensity to the display that lacks any meaning other than titillation. This scene in particular has more in common with The Human Centipede than with Full Metal Jacket. Which is a shame, since the latter film used gruesome violence and bodily injury to say some very powerful and complex things. And the former was, well, The Human Centipede.

Verisimilitude, where videogame violence is concerned, is not necessarily a desirable goal. Create a photorealistic world and photorealistic animations, and your mandate then becomes to establish a degree of emotional verisimilitude as well; otherwise the experience is at risk of treading into Michael Bay or Eli Roth territory. The reality is that even for the most hardened veterans, witnessing and causing death are enormously traumatic events whose effects linger for decades, despite the protections of comprehensive training and psychological conditioning. Along with the troops who endure such horrific scenes themselves, I have deep respect for those who provide counseling services to soldiers. That shit will fuck you up. And if it doesn't, something ain't right.

To everyone but a psychopath the act of intentionally causing another person's death is, or should be, troubling at the bare minimum. Yet games like Black Ops continually ask us to behave like psychopaths without any consideration of how doing so implicates us in self-destructive, reductionist attitudes toward actual war. Their visual fidelity is precisely why they should be used not as arcade shooting galleries, which they are at bottom, but as simulators that allow players to experience the incredibly complex and disturbing aspects of combat.

In Black Ops' very last scene, SPOILERS, you finally catch up with the Big Bad Russian Guy after enduring a Fight Club twist you saw coming hours ago. You subdue him, pinning him to a catwalk submerged in water. The game then tells you to push in the analog sticks repeatedly to choke him to death. Here is the revenge fantasy come to fruition: Instead of concluding with a non-interactive cutscene in which you put a bullet in his head once and for all, you need to commit the deed yourself. You are given control of this oddly intimate act of violence. There are no blades, no guns, just your hands around his throat, pure human force. It's the most personal moment in the game, and it's as anticlimactic and emotionally empty as you'd expect. But I doubt that's because Treyarch is making a statement about the emptiness of revenge. Instead, I think it's emotionally empty in the way porn is emotionally empty: It's supposed to be.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Gimme the Loot

Lock thine windows, close thine doors.

I think it's high time we retire the term "loot whore." The concept is innocent enough, I suppose: A player who can't get enough of the in-game acquisition of progressively more powerful and valuable equipment. The kind of player for whom every new dungeon-crawler becomes a compulsory purchase, for whom the thrill of leveling up is secondary only to the thrill of acquiring more and better gear. The kind of player, um, hooked by click-fests like Titan Quest, Torchlight, and their forerunner Diablo. The label "loot whore" is worn by some as a badge of pride, by some as a badge of shame, by some as both, but the meaning is clear: This is a player who loves killing monsters and grabbing the shit they drop.

Of course, any time you add the word "whore" to a phrase, you open up a host of weird implications. Does a being a loot whore involve "selling yourself" in some way? Does it imply having resigned yourself to habitual abuse, addiction, or degradation? Does the game become your pimp, your provider and abuser, your drip-feed of pleasure and punishment? Or is it, like most terms invented by and for gamers, just kinda stupid?

As it happens, Titan Quest was a favorite. I loved the setting and the art, the fast pace of combat, the relentless focus on finding new and improved gear. There was something almost shamefully compelling about progressing from one area to the next, holding out hope for a matching set of rare armor. It's the same feeling that more recent titles like Borderlands and Torchlight (and, presumably, the upcoming Diablo III) try to capture. If you could just find that Archmage's Mantle, you'd gain all the bonuses of the full set. You'd be unstoppable. You could stop searching for new stuff and focus on kicking ass.

Of course, there is no stopping the search in games like Titan Quest. The search is the game. Inevitably there is a more powerful weapon, a stronger shield, a more potent rune to discover. Inventory space is limited—slotting all your crap into the allotted space even becomes a sort of puzzle mini-game in Titan Quest—so you're forced to sell or discard items as you progress; there's little room for sentimentality. That's not much of an issue, though, since whatever loose plot or quest structure exists in the game is secondary to the allure of grabbing new stuff. Only those players with inhuman levels of patience and thoroughness, the obsessive collectors and explorers, will ever feel remotely close to satisfied. If they do their job well, designers will keep you right in that sweet spot between satisfaction with your current gear and lust for shiny new gear.

Titan Quest's inventory screen, a game in itself.

I've been thinking about acquisition lately, about the idea of collecting stuff. Maybe it's just because I'm getting older more experienced or have less time, but my patience for loot-grabs has worn thin. While I like Torchlight—it's cute, it's easy to learn, it hits all the right genre notes—I just can't bring myself to finish it. I'm not invested in boosting my stats with specialized gear or delving into sidequest dungeons in search of new trinkets. None of it seems to matter.

And that's in a game that's explicitly focused on collection, where new gear actually has a tangible, if often modest, impact on gameplay. The fact that collectibles are increasingly being shoehorned into games like Alan Wake and L.A. Noire, where they clearly make no narrative or environmental sense and offer no reward aside from the Pavlovian bloop of the Achievement, has soured me on the entire endeavor of acquisition. Funny that it took collectibles as transparently silly as coffee thermoses to illuminate just how wasteful the practice of obsessing over loot can be. Is the never-ending quest for better armor in Titan Quest substantially different from the Herculean challenge of smashing every EDF crate in Red Faction: Guerrilla? Do slightly improved stats justify the hours spent? What does it say about me as a player if I think they do—or if I just enjoy mindlessly collecting stuff?

The problem with an acquisition-obsessed culture like our own is that it obscures notions of value. The ability to amass a collection of stuff is in itself perceived as a virtue, without much thought as to the meaning(s) being conveyed—either by the stuff being collected or by the act of collection itself.

Increasingly, I'm finding that what I find valuable in games is not the massive amount of stuff to collect or tasks to complete or square mileage to explore, but the ability of the experience to make me think. Vague notions of "choice," "openness," and "variety" are often touted as indicators of value; in this sense many games become digital theme parks, playgrounds crammed full of Things To Do/See/Get. That can be fun, sure. But it's probably not a sustainable design ethic in the long run.

Torchlight's inventory screen. Now with more pets!

The ultimate irony here is that even as I tire of collecting things in games, I'm not tiring of collecting games themselves. I find myself tracking price drops and weekend sales on at least three different sites. I ask friends on forums for recommendations. I sign up for email alerts from publishers and retailers. I trawl the AppStore on my iPad for the latest free time-wasters, games I'm certain I will only play once, if at all. The hunt for cheap or free new games to add to my increasingly untenable collection is often more engaging than the games themselves. I'm running out of room on my shelves, both physical and digital, yet I still feel compelled to seek out new prey. The search is the game. And I'm not sure how comfortable I am with that.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Theater Kids

Yeah, that pretty much covers it.

There's a certain detached resentment that years of playing in pit orchestras breeds. No one's bringing you roses, and the only applause you can expect is the courtesy round when the cast deigns to wave at the conductor after taking their third or fourth bows. Without the backbone of your music, your rhythm, the people prancing about on stage would look pretty ridiculous indeed. But that doesn't matter. The Theater Kids, the ones who live for the show, the ones on stage, the ones who are on stage even when they're not on stage, this is their moment. You consign yourself to being an afterthought. But still you wait breathlessly for the invite to the cast party. If anyone remembers your name.

By the time I got to college I was done playing in orchestras, but because of the interdisciplinary humanities program I was enrolled in, I still had occasion to interact with plenty of Theater Kids. They were a different species than those I encountered in high school. Very few were proto-divas in the way they were back home, where the peculiar ennui of the small-city suburbs fertilized delusions of grandeur. They were not the obnoxiously ebullient children I'd encountered for years. No, these were a different lot. They wore scarves in the summer and hung out at the coffee shops across town, not the usual haunts closer to campus where the plebeians went. They smoked cloves. They had studied art history, knew about rhetoric and post-modernism, could rattle off the names of texts by German philosophers. They had been to Europe. They loved to talk. They touched your arm when making a point. And they were free, my God, they were so free, unencumbered by the strictures of conventional morality, canon, sexuality, social interaction. They were forever new, forever wild. They were bewitching.

Of course, they were illusions.

The more I interacted with the Theater Kids the more I grew to dread being compelled to spend time with them: in the dorms, at friends' parties, at humanities events, and especially in classes. Nearly every encounter was a one-sided trip into Too Much Information territory. The number of ways in which they were able to relate, say, Edmund Spencer's poetry or Native American creation myths to their own sexual or spiritual awakenings was astounding. Especially since these revelations were always conducted in cosmically inappropriate public forums, like 8:15 AM Intro to Renaissance Lit sessions. In their every behavioral tic there was an element of performance, a calculated attempt to concentrate attention on the performer. Everything was hyperbolically "meaningful." Conversations were full of words like "aesthetics" and "deconstruct"—words strategically deployed to encourage the appearance of intelligence—while utterly devoid of questions for the other participant. Unless, of course, that other participant was an authority figure who could somehow benefit them or a fellow Theater Kid, who would make a complementary show of genuine connection and understanding. In retrospect, I shouldn't be surprised I grew apprehensive about hanging out with 19-year-olds in berets who never shut up about their "craft."

The most heartbreaking thing about Theater Kids for me was that I really wanted to like them. I wanted to surround myself with people who could help me grow, who would help me understand new perspectives, who were different from the dopes I was used to back home. But too often, there just wasn't anything there besides compulsive self-promotion. Everything was indeed "meaningful," but only inasmuch as it related to them. They were, in short, the perfect target market for social media.

Nothing has taken me back to the feeling I used to get around Theater Kids as much as three games I've played recently: Braid, Limbo, and Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. I really wanted to like all three, but I can't help feeling they're really just Theater Kids—long on style, short on substance.

Braid is the game I liked least, and consequently the one I've spent the least time with. Picked it up for a few bucks on a recent Steam sale, and put it away after maybe an hour. I get what it's doing, believe me. It was all the gushing essays about it that made me feel like it was a must-play to begin with. I get the point about reversing time, trying to fix your mistakes, the futility of trying to erase regret. The time-reversal mechanic is an elegant way to convey that theme. I can dig that. But perhaps it's the fact that I played it three years after it first set the world on fire, but as a game, it's just not grabbing me. I could have gotten that theme just by reading about it; in this case, the play experience has added little to my understanding or appreciation of the theme. The essays on Braid, in my view, are infinitely more interesting than the game itself, which from what I experienced is largely jumping backwards on meatballs' heads and collecting jigsaw pieces and reading cryptic poetry. The art style is pretty, no doubt, but damned if this game doesn't ooze with "look at me!" sentiment, from the purple prose of the on-screen text to the assumption that I give a crap about Young Angus Young or what assembling his jigsaw puzzle might reveal. It's as if the game is screaming "I AM MEANINGFUL!" at you. It's interesting to contrast Braid with ilomilo, since both are gorgeously-stylized brain-twisters, but evoke very different reactions.

My feelings about Limbo are a little more complex. While I wouldn't ascribe the same flamboyant egotism to Limbo as I do to Braid, I agree with Mitch Krpata that it is conspicuous in drawing attention to itself. Mitch describes the game as "smoke and mirrors," dissecting the ways its changing rules are more "artifice" than "truth." I tend to agree; while Limbo's utter lack of instruction to the player is unique in this era of hand-holding, the whole affair smacks a bit of Dragon's Lair to me. That game, you may recall, was also famous for causing frequent death. Failure is the only instructional tool at the developer's command. That gets old quickly, especially given that for a game that requires precision, Limbo's controls are awfully sluggish. But more damning to me are the game's pretensions at meaning. It wants us to ask all these heavy questions—Who is this boy and what is this nightmare world? Why are these creatures and other kids out to get him? What about all the dead children's bodies? Are we in Purgatory, as the title suggests? But in reverting to buzzsaws and electrified walkways and rising-water puzzles, Limbo steps on its own foot. The questions become secondary to just figuring out how the game is screwing with you in this next puzzle. As Mitch said, it doesn't give us more than a hint of what's really interesting, electing instead to throw a whole lot more familiar junk at us and trust that we'll confuse hints of meaning for actual meaning. If that's not a prime Theater Kid trait, I don't know what is.

But the biggest disappointment of this group for me is clearly Sworcery, which I refuse to call by its absurd full title any longer. I had read so many fascinating things from pals I respect that this was the first app I bought when I recently acquired an iPad. My Kill Screen colleague Rob Dubbin's review was so brilliantly written that I was immediately sold.

To be sure, Sworcery is pretty. The music and sound, in particular, live up to the hype. The ascending whole-step riff that plays when you lift a Sprite up to the sky? Simple, subtle, and gorgeous. The ambient sound (e.g. the rustling of bushes) is wonderfully atmospheric. Despite the pixel-art style, which I think is starting to get kinda played out, you can't fault Sworcery on presentation. It doesn't hurt that it features one of the most natural-feeling implementations of touch controls I've yet seen.

By my goodness, is there a game there?

Its creators describe Sworcery as "an unusual genre-bending effort with an emphasis on sound, music & audiovisual style that has been positioned as 'a brave experiment in Input Output Cinema.'" That, right there, is the perfect encapsulation of what makes Sworcery a Theater Kid. That description sounds really fascinating and deep at first glance, but upon closer examination reveals itself to be only somewhat comprehensible. Look, I get that they're being somewhat satirical here. I get the laid-back attitude conceit. I love the idea of experimentation, of playing with genre and expectations. The surrounding trappings are just irritating as hell.

A few elements in particular turn me off in this regard. The first is the incessant prompts to Tweet things, which I suppose is a cool guerrilla marketing technique for an indie developer and which was obviously very successful. But it also reflects the constant need for attention—the figurative "shouting into a room"—that is endemic to both the medium of Twitter and to Theater Kids. Things are being said, but that they are being said by the person who's saying them is more important than what is being said.

The other element I can't get past is the slacker-speak of the narration. Again, I get that it's a stylistic choice and through its contrast with the conventions of the fantasy adventure genre, calls attention to the experimental nature of the game. But I find it grating for that very reason. The presentation can speak for itself. You don't need to bludgeon us with hipness. Twitter gives us enough of that crap already. I close out of my play sessions feeling like an uptight nerd who's just left a gathering of cool kids who barely acknowledged him.

Sworcery feels to me like it is working really hard—and is obviously fairly successful in doing so—to concentrate attention on itself as a performance, if that makes any sense. Chapters close with a cigar-smoking narrator talking at you from a stage, with a curtain backdrop and everything. The spinning record is a constant motif, an image of musical performance. To me, Sworcery wants to be more performance art than game. That's fine; the game even explicitly warns us of that in its description of itself. But it's the peculiarly calculating nature of its execution that gives it that uncomfortable Theater Kid feeling.

Look, I don't mean to sound overly negative here. There are terrific, worthwhile elements to all three of these games, just as I'm sure many of those Theater Kids grew into terrific, worthwhile human beings (or, you know, were all along). But I've always found the things that were most meaningful in my life never made a show of being meaningful. They didn't need the applause. They just quietly earned it.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Keep on Trekkin'

Okay, full disclosure: I'm writing this post mostly to have an excuse to share this image.

It doesn't take much to get me to extol the virtues of Star Trek, as certain people named after certain starship captains can attest. Buy me a couple Racer 5's and I'll happily expound upon the psychologically symbolic triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and Bones, or describe in minute detail my childhood epiphany at Sir Patrick Stewart's famous "There are four lights!"

I blame my father and syndication, in that order.

It's worth noting that the only branches of the franchise I followed were the original series, The Next Generation, and their associated movies. (I'm not sure if that makes me an elitist or a plebeian. Frankly, I don't want to even try to navigate the treacherous waters of Star Trek fandom's politics.)

The primary reason I never got into Deep Space Nine, Voyager, or Enterprise, I think, is that the Star Trek mythology was never remotely as interesting as the characters. And the performances of that original cast and the Next Generation actors, in their earnestness, humor, and occasional subtlety, realized the sense of romance, adventure, and promise Gene Roddenberry's "Western in Space" premise afforded. Due respect to the spin-off series, but their lack of compelling characters and emphasis on mythology left me cold. Star Trek just wasn't Star Trek without Kirk and Spock or Picard and Riker.

It's unfortunate that Star Trek has had such similarly mixed success in videogames. I still think my favorite entry to date is the NES version of Star Trek: 25th Anniversary. An adventure game with light (and kind of odd) space combat, it featured a linear story with some neat illusions of choice. For away missions, you could choose two companions from your crew to accompany Captain Kirk. Spock and Bones were my defaults most of the time, but you would also need to take along specialists (a geologist to study rock formations, a redshirt for extra firepower) to solve certain puzzles. Familiar faces like Harry Mudd and settings like the 1920s Chicago planet even made appearances. The experience was very much like playing through an episode of the show, albeit with some fetch-and-assemble quests shoehorned in.

Revealed a WHAT, Spock? Spit it out, you green-blooded Vulcan!

The other Star Trek game I have fond memories of is the Next Generation title for the SNES, Future's Past. The setup was similar to 25th Anniversary, but with more variety and some pseudo-open-endedness. Rotating through the bridge stations would allow you to warp to any location in the galaxy (although, to my knowledge, the only gameplay content was found on the story-related planets), browse dozens of entries in the library computer, or call a briefing in the conference room. You had many options for away team personnel and equipment, and the top-down space combat, viewed on Worf's tactical screen, was oddly satisfying—even if it was essentially flying in circles while spraying & praying. In retrospect, it probably wasn't that great of a game, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

The majority of the entries in the Star Trek videogame roster are, from what I can discern, a distinctly mediocre lot. The best of the rest, in my experience, was Elite Force, a solid FPS with a good amount of variety in environments and some surprisingly interesting character development. Of the several Star Trek RTS games released in the last two decades, the only one I tried was New Worlds, which was decidedly clunky and largely incongruous with my experience of the franchise. Shattered Universe on Xbox was abysmal, and the demo of Legacy I downloaded or the 360 was nigh-unplayable. The incomprehensibly titled shoot-em-up Star Trek: D-A-C, a tie-in to the 2009 J.J. Abrams movie, was only tangentially related to the franchise and barely worth the half hour I sunk into its demo. Finally, although I don't play MMOs, I can say with some confidence that Star Trek Online has not exactly lit the galaxy on fire.

And that makes perfect sense to me. Again: the characters, not the universe, are the draw. A Star Wars MMO might stand a better chance of success, given the wide variety of powers and abilities for the player to draw upon. But the Star Trek fiction doesn't really allow for much of that. And even if it did, there seems much less flexibility in the franchise canon for players to create their own stories. Star Trek has always felt more stiff-collared than the wanton playground of the Star Wars universe.

Computers? Worf got MAD computers in this bitch, son.

It's a shame we haven't gotten stronger efforts lately in the Star Trek game, um, space. In fact, I think now is an opportune time to reinvigorate the franchise in the adventure genre, for a number of reasons:
  • Episodic game storytelling works. Telltale has proven again and again that it can be not only a viable business model, but also an engaging format. Star Trek was at its best when it was episodic, letting the mythology serve as a backdrop for character development, not the other way around. Building a sprawling game world around its arcane lore seems backward to me.
  • Optimism is welcome. One of my favorite things about Roddenberry's vision of the future is that we didn't fuck it up. Intelligence, innovation, and compassion won out, all but eliminating hunger, poverty, and intra-species war. How many games do you know that present the exact opposite outlook? Aren't we all a bit apocalypsed-out by now?
  • The uncanny valley is narrowing. Advances in technology and designer skill have rewarded players with more photorealism than ever before. This is particularly useful in character-focused game narratives, which convey increasing levels of subtlety and nuance in performance. Imagine L.A. Noire's technology applied to a Star Trek game. It'd really be something to see that paired with voice performances by the actors we know and love. (And not to be too morbid, but, uh, Shatner, Nimoy & Co. ain't getting any younger—so sooner would be better than later.)
  • The adventure game is making a comeback. The buzz around L.A. Noire is due in part, I think, to the experimentation of titles like Heavy Rain and Deadly Premonition, and perhaps even the retro appeal of indie gems like Gemini Rue. There's a demand for this kind of game experience, which seems perfectly suited to Star Trek's strengths.
  • Marketing opportunities abound. Naturally, Abrams will have a sequel in theatres soon enough, and an attractive young cast can't hurt any potential tie-in. But in the 45 (!!) years since it first debuted, Star Trek has continually demonstrated its lasting appeal. There's a built-in fan base that will automatically snap up anything Star Trek-related, sure. But I think the makers of Star Trek Online may have counted a little too heavily on that. Again: characters. Telltale's Back to the Future game would not have sold nearly as well had they not gotten Christopher Lloyd and a remarkably good Michael J. Fox impersonator to do the voice acting. Nobody gives a crap about Ghostbusters: Sanctum of Slime not just because it's a dumb twin-stick shooter, but because it doesn't star the original Ghostbusters. Of course, getting some names attached is only the first step: Several of the mediocre Star Trek games featured recognizable talent. But pairing that talent with the appropriate game format and some of the series' experienced writers could be a huge draw.
Obviously, it would take a massive amount of investment, coordination, and skill to pull off a satisfying Star Trek adventure game. But as Spock might say, it's only logical.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Downgrading the Forecast

Story of my life.
Apologies for the absence of new material here lately, friends. I'm afraid the outlook for the next few months is equally grim, as a number of professional and personal commitments will prevent me from writing here very much. We may want to downgrade the posting forecast from "intermittent" to somewhere between "very light" and "nonexistent" for a while.

In the meantime, I do hope you'll enjoy a few things I've been working on lately.

1. At Kill Screen, I participated in a group review of the new Mortal Kombat title. Well, kind of. We actually just reviewed some of the fatalities. But as the editor's note says, that's kind of the ideal way to get at the (violently extracted, still-beating) heart of a Mortal Kombat game: Just go straight to the main attraction. This assignment was a lot of fun, and I'm currently loving getting my various body parts lacerated/severed/crushed/excised in the game itself. Quick impressions: The B-movie schlock of the Story mode is a hoot, which makes the terrible sound mixing all the more tragic. I can't even hear the backing music well enough to determine if it is, in fact, Nelson.

2. The last of my PAX East coverage is finally up over at Gamer Melodico. Here's the full rundown:
Against my better judgment, I also have at least two one other article in the works for other outlets; I'll link here when I can. If I'm not too busy getting my face eaten.

UPDATE, 4/26: And the first is now live on Gamers With Jobs! Read "Paging Dr. Schadenfreude" here.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Ab Initio

(Post contains mild spoilers for Chapter 1 of Dead Space 2. Abandon hope all ye, etc.)

When I taught high school English in a former life, I used to tell my students that if a book didn't grab them in the first 15 pages, it was probably the book's fault, not theirs. Unless it was one of the books I assigned in class, in which case it was definitely their fault.

A strong opening chapter is just as essential for a game with any pretense of narrative. Crafting a successful opening isn't an easy feat in any medium, but games have the added complication of needing to teach the player how to play in the first several minutes. I've learned to appreciate it when designers can insert tutorial elements into their opening moments with dexterity and thematic relevance, as opposed to the wanton extra-diegetic shoehorning most games make us endure.

Similarly, bogging us down in long cutscenes or copious text in the opening is an equally solid way to guarantee we won't give a crap about your game's story. We want to play right away. We want to inhabit the game world, not simply view it or read about it. This is especially important in horror games like the Dead Space franchise, where so much of the tension is dependent on the player's reaction to in-game sights and sounds. The backstory is relevant only inasmuch as it informs the conflict of the moment. (That's why I think the franchise masters have made the right call in shunting most of the series' lore to other media like novels and comics instead of burdening the games with it.)

So I was pleasantly surprised by the in medias res opening sequence of Dead Space 2. After a cutscene that establishes multiple conflicts in relatively short order—Isaac is still hallucinating his dead girlfriend, he's being interrogated in some kind of quasi-fascist insane asylum—we're thrust right into the action as an attempt to rescue Isaac is thwarted by a Necromorph outbreak. So we have an unreliable, possibly insane narrator, an implied shady government/corporate conspiracy, and an alien invasion. And who are these people trying to break Isaac out, and why? What's happened to land him in this facility? We're not yet five minutes in and already several conflicts have been established. So far, so good. But then things get interesting.

Once Isaac is released from the gurney he's been strapped to, he's forced to flee the ward as Necromorphs jump out from around corners and burst through ducts. Cue the frantic escape sequence. But here's the fun part: he's still tied up in a straight jacket. A prompt instructs us to hold down the left shoulder button to run. The straight jacket conceit makes this particular piece of scaffolding feel natural while also playing on that horror movie trope, the powerless protagonist.

I actually intentionally failed this sequence a few times so I could indulge my curiosity about the environmental storytelling in the surrounding area. Wheelchairs and debris litter the hallway. Other inmates in adjoining cells convulse in their straight jackets while the Necromorphs attack. (Mrs. JPG posited two good questions: "Can you save any of them?" and "Wait, why are they in straight jackets if they're already locked in cells?" The answers are, spoilers, "No," and "Beats the hell out of me.") Some inmates have scrawled cryptic messages on the walls (sigh); but instead of using blood, they've apparently used their own excrement (...yay?). Which, from what I understand from Lockup, is fairly realistic.

More remarkable than the fact that I could fail this opening sequence—I suspect few games in this genre allow you to die almost immediately after first taking control of your avatar—was that it was accomplishing so many objectives at once: Teaching the player a key ability; building a horror movie sense of powerlessness; setting up multiple conflicts; establishing setting; introducing enemies; and hinting at backstory. For a short sequence, it's quite elegant.

The rest of the first chapter contains additional flourishes, including some outstanding sound design and lighting effects, a couple predictable but effective "thing goes bump in the dark" scares, and a few nifty claustrophobic tunnel-crawling sequences. There's also some fun environmental storytelling to come across, like the interrogation video of another prisoner or the Marker made out of toothpicks in the arts & crafts room. The jury's still out for me on the newly-speech-capable Isaac—mostly because the things he's said so far are pretty generically action-movie dopey—but I am intrigued to see what happens with the "dementia" mechanic, if managing Isaac's growing insanity will become an Amnesia-like challenge.

What I'd really like to see, and what I'm sure Dead Space 2 won't give me because it's a big budget AAA title that needs to move lots of units, is a high-flying freak flag. I want the game to disorient me more, to be more Stanley Kubrick than Ridley Scott. The power of the in medias res device is that it forces the audience to play catch-up, to use their imagination to fill in gaps, make logical leaps, and interrogate details. With a well-designed world, that can make for a much more enjoyable experience. The horror genre allows for a lot of creativity in that sense. Here's hoping Dead Space 2 can deliver.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Turrets' Syndrome

It wasn't the fact that I was firing a mounted machine gun from the back of a driverless wagon in the rural Italy of 1503 that swore me off turret sequences. But it didn't help.

I like Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. Ubisoft can keep cranking out Ezio chapters indefinitely, for all I care. I'd never say no to another beautifully-rendered Renaissance stab-fest. But I'm maybe halfway through this game, and it boggles the mind that I've already had to endure not one, but two turret sequences.

I understand the desire to spice up gameplay that can become formulaic—travel here, trail this guy, stab him in the back, jump into a hay pile—with something a little different. You know the old saying about variety and spice. But throwing a turret sequence into an Assassin's Creed game is like spiking your martini with mayonnaise.

To some extent it's an no-win proposition for developers: Make sure your game is chock-full of variety, but don't stray from your core mechanics. Don't bore us with the same thing over and over, but don't do anything too far afield from what we're used to. It's one of many Kobayashi Marus in the design world. You're inevitably going to piss off someone.

I'm all for developers taking risks and throwing curveballs at the player by way of jarring, even unexplained changes in the core mechanic. It's a mark of respect, in a way: It's telling the player you think she can handle a new challenge, a different mode of interaction. If a game is really smart, it'll use that shift to advance or reinforce a theme. (Ahem.)

But I think it's safe to say turret sequences haven't done that for a long-ass time, if ever. I'm talking about scripted sequences, of course, not games like Halo or Left 4 Dead where you can choose to man a turret at certain points if you want to. (L4D in particular has some pretty brilliant turret placement—particularly in the second level of the No Mercy campaign, where there's a hole in the floor behind the turret and you have to have a teammate watch your back while you fire.) No, I'm talking on-rails, shoot X number of cowboys/spaceships/Borgia guards to complete the mission, then back to your regularly-scheduled military shooter/open-world sandbox/survival horror game sequences.

Look, I like shooting galleries. In an arcade, at a giant cabinet? Sure. In a console game? Kinda played out.

Weird thing is, I actually used to dig turret sequences. There was something interesting about the tension between the enormous power of a minigun at your fingertips and the danger of having to stay immobile while you were being shot at. But after suffering through interminable gatling gun sequence after interminable gatling gun sequence in Red Dead Redemption, and very nearly rage-quitting Dead Space during that goddamn meteor-shooting minigame, I'm just done with them. The turret sequence has become a trope to be endured rather than an exciting change of pace. So you can imagine the intensity of the eye-rolling that occurred when Ezio jumped on the back of the Leo-Mobile.

Maybe because it's become such an expectation, it's become a lot more difficult to pull off an enjoyable turret sequence. This is probably blasphemy, but I found the helicopter turret sequence in 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand way more enjoyable than the few in Battlefield: Bad Company 2. In the latter game, wonky checkpointing and unclear damage indication hampered the experience. The former game makes it clear it wants you to treat it like an arcade game, which maybe accounts for the better implementation.

It's gotten to the point where turret sequences, no matter how well done, will leave a bad taste in my mouth. Mowing down dozens or hundreds of faceless enemies doesn't make me feel powerful anymore. It just makes me feel like a mass murderer. Even in games like Assassin's Creed, which are very pointedly about being a murderer.

So I wonder: is that the irony of the videogame trope? Or is it the irony of the weapon itself?