The great realization

Monday, December 29, 2008
I came to a fascinating realization today. I don't really know as much about games as I thought I did.

After all this time there are a few things one would reasonably be expected to know. Chief among these is a basic knowledge of likes and dislikes. Now, I know I like shooters, strategy games, rpgs and puzzle games. That covers most of my pc and console experience, which when taken as a whole is not insignificant.

That list does not, however, cover most board and tabletop games. I've realized that this world is largely alien to me. I've played my fair share of board games, don't get me wrong, I've just never branched out from the standard trivia and Clue that much. With the console in the "shop" my eyes have been opened to a whole world of possibilities.

my most recent discovery was Arkham Horror, an HP Lovecraft themed board game. The player's goal is the stop the ancient one from unleashing its evil on the world. Sounds like it plays like most board games, until you find out it's cooperative. Each player selects an investigator to play as, each with their own abilites and stats.

Suddenly Arkham horror sounds less like a board game and more like a tabletop Rpg ala d&d. There are expansions as well that include new monsters, ancient ones, scenarios and investigators.

The website for the game says that the average game can last up to five hours, take that monopoly. A quick search on youtube turns up a wealth of videos of people playing together and having a blast.

I never knew games like this existed. Sure, I play d&d every other week but nevr have I seen those values and core functions put into a board game format. There are many many others out there and I plan on branching out to those soon. And to think. If the console hadn't broken down, I might never have found this game. Funny how things work out that way.

Holy Shit, Nintendo

Friday, December 26, 2008
Dear Nintendo:

I finally figured out your little dance, and I have to say, Nintendo, I am very disappointed in you. I saw what you're doing, today. But now you've crossed the line. You got my mother, you son of a bitch.


So, yeah, I've seen what you're doing. My mother was so excited--bright-eyed, innocent mum--to open her brand-new Wii this morning. Let me explain something: She has no idea what the fuck a Wii is.

Things I've heard her say in the past few weeks:

"Do you have to dress up like what you're doing to play the Wii?" (i.e., do you have to dress up like a Tennis Player to play Wii Tennis?)

No, mom.

"It's like virtual reality! You move your hand and it does everything you do!" Not quite, mom.



"I want a Wii so I can finally get in shape! You know it helps you do that." Well, sort of, Mom. The ten miles a day you ride your bike probably does a bit more, though.



Me: What games did you get with your Wii, Mom?
Mom: I got five games!
Me: Five? really?
Mom: yep! See! (points to the Wii Play box, which showcases the five "games" packaged with it).


Me: .../facepalm





Don't get me wrong. I like the idea of the Wii. What I don't like is that their target demographic doesn't know what they're really getting because all they hear are these myths of how great that little white rhombus is. I'm not trying to jump to conclusions but everyone I know who owns a Wii plays it once every two or three weeks, max.



To me, this is like the rugby coach who learns his son wants to be an athlete. He's so proud and then his son goes and signs of for ballet. Fuck, man--he loves his son, of course, and supports him! But really? Ballet? Well, okay then. I'm just glad you're doing something.

I'm so happy to welcome my parents into the folds of gaming--why, just a few weeks ago, they were able to use their bonus AmEx points for a PS3. My stepdad is playing Oblivion and I couldn't be prouder. Now with the Wii in the house, what are they going to say when I say, "Hey, I brought Guitar Hero" or "hey, have you guys tried Bioshock yet?" (a game they purchased because they heard it was game of the year--I said "be still, my heart!") I can't wait to see them graduate to bigger and better things. But until then, it's going to be "Boxing or Tennis?" for quite some time.



So thanks, Nintendo. You succeeded in bringing everyone who doesn't play games into gaming--but at what cost? (I'd say about $249). People buy and love the Wii, and I admit, perhaps I'm not being entirely fair. But I'm no reporter, and objectivity is not obligatory. I just hate to see my hobby get thrown by the wayside because my mom wants to balance on a piece of plastic. Why should Ubisoft make Assassin's Creed 2 when they can make Unicornz 2 for a 1/10th of the price and make 10x the money? Hell, why should we get a new Rayman game when we can have a minigame compilation featuring insane rabbits? I can't blame the companies, per se--it's good business (and, actually, Raving Rabbids was a lot of fun)--but when minigames and shovelware are the norm, what happens the the Metal Gear Solids and the Bushido Blades? I love gaming and I welcome anyone into gaming--but I don't know if I'm willing to subvert gaming as I know it to do so.


~

All things Analog

Tuesday, December 23, 2008
As I said in my last post, my primary means of gaming is away for repair. This has left me to re-discover the games gathering dust in my house. Mostly board games, I've been drawn to the conclusion that 1) I own far too many trivia games and 2) I love Munchkin.

My wife and I just bought Munchkin Booty, the latest and most piratical (yay words!!!) version of Munchkin to date. I have to say, Munchkin Cthulhu remains my all time favorite, but who ever doubted that.

But where are my manners, some of you might not be so familiar with Munchkin. Munchkin is a card game of epic and hilarious proportions in which you do your very best to screw over your fellow players. It's an RPG at it's heart, the ultimate goal is to reach level ten (although Epic Munchkin raises the stakes to level 20).

The original munchkin is your standard high fantasy lovingly parodied. Each subsequent Munchkin set has had it's own theme. From the sci-fi Star Munchkin with it's Laser-raser-taser-maser-banana-fanna-fo-phaser, to Munchkin Cthulhu and it's Necronookiecon, every set of Munchkin decks can be mixed with another to form strange and wonderful combinations. Our most successful mixing so far has been Munchkin Bites (gothic themed) with Munchkin Cthulhu.

The best thing about Munchkin is that you can't help but have fun, no matter the mood you're in. The whole thing is so outlandish and absurd, taking it seriously or playing angry is nigh impossible.

Chances are you know some people that play Munchkin. If they're like my wife and I then they're always looking for more players. The more the merrier is the prime rule of Munchkin (I'll never forget our 7 person game at PAX this last year). You'll quickly learn the basics of the game, and the more devious little tricks will come with time.

Munchkin is fun, engaging and a great way to spend an evening with friends. Play it once and you'll never regret it. Play it more than that and you're liable to get hooked. Go on, indulge your inner miscreant.

The Death of a Friend

Saturday, December 20, 2008
Just last night I lost a very good friend. We'd been together on many adventures. We'd slain giant beasts, overthrown vile dictators and trekked through barren wastes in search of family. Through it all he'd remained a tough and stalwart friend, but when those red lights flashed on the front panel, I knew my Xbox was dead.

He's in a better place now, or so I'm told. The poor thing has been sent to the repair center in a small, plain box. For now I am without a console for the first time in nearly a decade. It's strange to sit down in my living room and not be able to play. It's even stranger to suddenly feel the distance of my friends around the country. With the console around they were only a load screen away, a comfort that's all but gone now.

Am I upset about the red ring? Not really. I've had the console a while now and I understood the risks when I bought it in the first place. Do I wish this sort of thing didn't happen? Sure, but at least there is a system in place to deal with the problem when it does. The red ring is a part of owning this console, and I'm not going to bitch and moan about it. It's happened to me before and in my experience, getting angry about it doesn't speed up the process at all.

Live support tells me I won't have the console back until after the first of the year. It could be worse I suppose. With the Xbox off to the repair center I'll be able to catch up on a lot of reading and I'll be in a better position to fully appreciate my tabletop excursions. Hell, you might even see a few posts about them here. Stay tuned, as I'll still be posting as regularly as I can.

The 2008 VGA's

Monday, December 15, 2008
I was enticed into watching the VGA's in the same way a fly is lured to a pitcher plant. Lured close by the promise of exclusive trailers and previews, I found the edges too thin with the sweet nectar. Knowing that it grew in fat droplets near the center, I wandered further in only to grow drunk and drown in the noxious pool at the heart of the VGAs.

Okay, so maybe my metaphor is a little intense, but the meaning is still the same. I was not pleased with the show in the least. Almost every aspect of my beloved hobby was reduced to a stereotype in front of the very people that make the games I love. I suppose I shouldn't expect anything too wonderful from the same network that brings us a half hour show dedicated to answering the questions of the drunken tools.

Jack Black was funny enough but he was hardly there at all. The awards themselves were sparse and disorganized, but most of all, the previews (the very reason I watched the show) were shorter than most teasers I've seen. Fifteen seconds of quick cuts is not a preview of God of War 3, and a cut scene, in-engine or not, is not gameplay footage of Uncharted 2. It's a lie perpetrated to seduce and digest me.

The musical guests were certainly less than spectacular. I don't care about 50 cent, nor does anyone in this modern world give a damn about LL Cool J. At least not since 1998. Once again, I sat through crap like the All American Rejects (whose lead singer can't seem to decide if he's Steven Tyler of Mick Jagger) so that I could see Weezer play at the end of the show, only to see their lead singer give the poorest performance of his career, jerking around the stage like a palsy victim.

I won't be watching the VGA's again. They've been paid their pound of flesh. Never again Spike TV, never again.

What's Happening to Me?

I've become a solid fan of multiplayer. Online battles over Xbox live have never really thrilled me, mostly because of the issues I have with the average gamer's grasp of language. I was enough to keep me away for years, and frustrating enough to make me throw my controller down in anger after several matches. Such was the face of Xbox Live.

Now, with the Party system in place, I don't have to listen to them anymore. They can't hear me, I can't hear them and it is bliss. Playing Halo now reminds me of playing with Bots in the original Unreal Tournament, except that these bots have a peculiar propensity to crouch repeatedly near my head after I die. Weird programming.

The point is, I've rediscovered my single greatest talent in most multiplayer shooters. I've always been a great driver. One recent team slayer match would seem to confirm it, seeing as I was never killed, nor did my warthog ever get destroyed. It was a hell of a match, enough to get me looking at clan membership.

Joining or starting a Clan is a big step towards playing online. Usually it means late nights in front of the TV perfecting your technique. Certain clans will assign you specific roles based on your skill and require you to keep them honed. Of course I've been looking at clans that focus on vehicle usage but more importantly, I'm looking at clans that don't take themselves too seriously. It's a crucial part of the multiplayer game for me to be able to laugh at what I'm playing.

I'm no professional player, but I have enough interest in the matchmaking scene to invest some time in a clan. Whether it develops into anything more is something I'm not prepared to answer. All I want is to have some fun with some people that share my love of the game.

Games as Therapy

Tuesday, December 9, 2008
No, it's not a hair brained scheme, it's a possibility. I'm sure most of you know the feeling of unwinding after a hard day at work with a nice frag session. It feels good to let out your aggression, and it's more than just an escape as so many under appreciative psychologists have stated. Games are more than that, we all know it. They help us through difficult times, breakups, deaths, loneliness, etc. We've used them for years to help us better understand the world we are a part of, so isn't it time that the professional world start taking notice? I think so.

The issue has been burning at the back of my brain for months, but it wasn't until recently that circumstance really brought it to the forefront. A close friend, a therapist (not mine), approached me for advice on a treatment plan for a client. My friend (who for the sake of confidentiality will remain nameless) was considering adding a certain amount of game time to the treatment plan.

As my friend says"Studies have shown that people with disorders such as ADD are helped to focus by the use of video games. Games are also helpful in developing cognitive reasoning and problem solving skills as well as helping people who may, in the real world, have trouble relating to each other, connect in the context of the game."

Play therapy has been used in children and adolescents and is an accepted therapeutic technique. "It makes sense to explore the possibilities of some video games' therapeutic capacities," says my friend. My friend isn't sure of many specific games that could be used but I have recommended Rock Band and Shadow of the Colossus to grieving or depressed friends before, to resounding success.

So what makes games so helpful? "As a distraction from negative thinking patterns, games are a wonderful tool." Just as someone with an addiction might try to find a replacement activity when they feel a craving or urge, one could easily use games to the same effect. Distracting the brain from negative thinking patterns is a staple of cognitive therapy, as they engender feelings which influence behavior. Surely we've all had similar patterns in our own lives, some of us may have already used games to similar ends. I know I have.

It certainly isn't that far fetched an idea when you look at the success of play therapy and replacement strategies. Games are perfect candidates for use in therapy, they're just a new and less understood method of treatment. Hopefully my friend will meet with success in her treatment plans and others may take notice of said success. Who wouldn't want to see a treatment plan demanding three hours of Rock Band twice a week?

Parental Guidance

Friday, December 5, 2008
This holiday season the Timothy Plan, in investment company providing advice on what they call the moral integrity of companies and products has released a four page chart of video games rated by their content. The list includes 140 video games from Age of Conan to Wii Play. It's meant to give parents an objective view of the content in the games their children play, breaking down content into categories like sex, violence, language, etc and giving each game a score of 1, 2 or 3 based on the intensity of the content.

The intent is not to malign video games (at least not overtly) or to call for a ban on them. I believe the Timothy Plan really wants to help parents better understand the games their children play. The problem wit their approach is that the score card is largely ineffective at really detailing the content present in most games. On top of that, much of a game's content is meaningless when not observe in the context of the game world. Most of all, the people that created this list don't play games.

The best way to understand something has never been from the outside looking in, but rather to understand it form the perspective of the people involved in it. The best place for parents to go when deciding what games to get their children are other gamers. It's not like gamers are hard to find these days, with over 60% of households in the US owning a major console. Concerned parents need look no further than their own neighbors for real advice.

The kind of information people really need involves more than a score card. People need to understand what the game is about, what the real goal of the game is. Talk with some local gamers and really dig deep into the game.

Experience has taught me that many people don't understand the depth of meaning in many modern games. Describing the plots of games like Bioshock or Half-Life to non-gamers, the most common response I've ever heard was "I had no idea it was that deep." When confronted with a context for the content, many games cease to seem so menacing. Grand Theft Auto IV isn't about shooting hookers and cops, instead is more about the fable of the American dream and the expectations it brings.

All you gamers reading this, make yourselves available to answer the questions of the puzzled parents out shopping this season. All you non-gamers, take the time to really listen to your gaming friends about the games your children, friend or significant other want to play. I know for a fact you'll learn a lot more about the content of the games from one of us than you ever will from a half-researched, incomplete, moral score card. The lessons these games teach your kids might be more valuable than you've been lead to believe.

Odd Pairings

Tuesday, December 2, 2008
There is an adage that states, "Don't judge a book by its cover", but because the message it conveys is so universal, it could really just be reduced to "Don't judge x by y".

For the purposes of this article, we'll call x a "a game" and we'll call y "the fact that they've combined DC comic book characters with Mortal Kombat, one of if not the most disparate and random combinations of intellectual properties in the history of video games".

You know. For the sake of example.

And I'm not judging! I've learned my lesson when it comes to this sort of thing. I remember the first time I heard that Squaresoft and--get this--Disney--were making a video game together. Yeah! Final Fantasy characters and Disney characters, together at last! I remember shaking my head in disbelief. I remember crying silently in the cold moonlight.

Well, not that last part.

I also remember the first time I saw the trailer for "Kingdom Hearts". (You can still see that trailer HERE. Click on the icon for the first KH game) and thinking

HOLY SHIT JESUS CHRIST FUCK ASS JUNIPER!

Or something equally enthused. I was sold.


I've yet to play Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, but reviewers so far have found the title lacking in some areas. While Kingdom Hearts has been wildly successful (we're about to see the release of the fourth and fifth games), this is due in large part to the mastermind writers and programmers at Square(Enix) and the huge amount of obsessive fans of both Final Fantasy and Disney. Mortal Kombat and DC comics have the same, but substantially less so.

What I want to know is:

How in the hell did they come up with putting these two things together? Did they put random IP's into a big black top hat and draw? Did they write it on the wall and throw darts?

I mean, obviously the Squaresoft and Disney guys all got drunk together and said "Hey, you know how we could make a fuckload--and I mean a fuckload of money?" I'm thinking the drinking thing must have happened with the Midway and DC guys but...the dialogue was probably more along the lines of "Hey, you know what would confuse the fuck out of people?"

I think we need to see more of this kind of thing.

Disney vs. DC!
Squaresoft vs. Mortal Kombat!
Marvel vs. Cap--oh wait.

Just sayin'. Where do they come up with this stuff?

Contentious Affairs

Monday, December 1, 2008
Downloadable content. This generation of consoles is well acquainted with the concept. Additional maps, weapons, vehicles, missions, songs, stories, costumes, what have you. The games that survive the test of time in this generation are the ones with regular downloadable content be it in the form of microtransactions, episodic gaming or just regular updates and fixes from the developers.

When you look at the past couple years, you should notice this easily enough. Halo 3 was released more than a year ago, and with the regular updates and maps Bungie has provided the fans, they've managed to keep their game fresh. Harmonix releases new songs for Rock Band every Tuesday. Even Ace Combat 6, though the multiplayer is now inhabited only by the most terrifying of pilots, releases fairly regular updates and even new missions for download.

Gamers get bored easily, it's no secret. Our attention spans are so short that most games don't last more than six months in our homes before they're passed on for the next title. Sure, some old stalwart classics remain, but how often does the average gamer play them? I think we've already been over that. With downloadable content, developers can trick us (just a little) into thinking we're playing something entirely different, just by adding, tweaking or upgrading.

It's a simple tactic, one used for years in the PC market with expansion packs. You'd drag your parents to the mall and explain that yes you already have that game but this box has new things to add on to that game. Now, with high speed Internet a symbiotic partner of gaming, it's easier than ever for the average player to get new content. A couple clicks here and there and you've got yourself a shiny new gun, mission, blah blah blah.

What's next in this trend though? Already players are getting bored of new maps and guns. We've been complaining on forums and blogs for years now about how much better stuff we could make. In that incessant whining lies our future. More and more, developers are handing the reigns to the players, allowing us to make the things we've always wanted. We the public have been turned into unwitting developers.

Map making has been around for a while, as have developer crafted Modding tools for games. Valve is famous for releasing comprehensive development software for their Half-Life engine, resulting in Counter Strike, Team Fortress and a slough of other titles. Bungie released map making tools for Myth and Myth II back in the day. The one problem with these tools was the steep learning curve for novices like me.

Today, even console games have powerful modding tools at their disposal. Surely most of you immediately think of Little Big Planet, and you are right to do so, but don't forget Halo 3's Forge tools, and most of all the extremely versatile map maker for Far Cry 2. With this tool, even a complete novice like me can make large, detailed maps. There is very little you can't accomplish with this editor and the community is growing by leaps and bounds every day.

Will we become the sole creators of additional content? No, but we are becoming a larger and more important part of our games' survival. Will we have to sift through miles of crap to find just a little really good content? No, most games with community created content have systems in place to let the cream rise to the top. Ratings and reviews allow other users to see what's working and what needs a few more hours of tweaking.

The future of downloadable content is in our hands whether we choose to accept it or not. When developers make it easier than ever to make your own content, why not play around with it. After all, we are all here to play, right?

I like multiplayer

Friday, November 28, 2008
Normally, our posts here at Somnambulant Gamer are a bit verbose, written with a greater truth in mind. We talk about games in the sense that each game can tell us something about both gaming and gamers. But for this post, I just wanted to say one thing.

I like multiplayer.

Let me say that again: I like multiplayer.

I'm saying it to convince myself as much as anyone else. See, I've always been a big single-player gamer. Even back in the day, a buddy playing Luigi wasn't always my cup of...whatever the hell it is that they drink in the Mushroom Kingdom.

In any case, it's a revelation that, while brewing for some time now, only really struck me today. Not only do I like multiplayer, but it is one of the main features I weigh when deciding on a purchase. No multiplayer? No way am I paying $60. That's it.

I did, would have and will make special exceptions--I am such a Metal Gear whore that I would have purchased MGS4 and MG: Online separately, (if not grudgingly). I will buy Final Fantasy XIII. I will buy White Knight story (if it's as good as it looks) and the next game from Team ICO. Now that I'm making a list, there are quite a few exceptions. The point is this: If your game can have multiplayer, it probably should. In fact, multiplayer should have been taken to the next level by now. Games that are simultaneously multiplayer-centric and story-driven that aren't RPG's--i.e., not WoW--should be taking the main stage...I can think of a perfect candidate:

Bushido Blade 3, anyone?

All right, I lied. I didn't just want to say one thing. But! Bushido Blade 3!!! Make it happen, SquareEnix.

From where I'm standing

The day after Thanksgiving is known as the busiest shopping day of the year. The nations houses empty into minivans and Walmarts hoping to score themselves some sweet deals. Well, that's fine for most folks, but it's a very different day in my house.

You see, two years ago (roughly) I met the woman who is now my wife. Rather than have to remember another actual date, we settled that the day after Thanksgiving was as good as any to celebrate our anniversary. After all, we started dating two years ago on the day after Thanksgiving, so it seemed only natural to celebrate it on that same schedule every year.

What does this have to do with gaming? Well, up to this point, very little, but bear with me. I didn't know from the outset that my future wife was a gamer. There were hints at it here and there, Pokemon references, a shared affinity for Penny Arcade, an interested posture when telling her about bitchin' raids. I should have known earlier, but it doesn't matter at this point.

The first game she and I really sat down and played together was Rainbow Six: Vegas. The Co-op was our playground as we moved (mostly) stealthily through casinos and warehouses. Terrorists could not stand up to our combined might. We never took the fight online, but then again, neither of us are big into online multiplayer.

From there we moved on to other games. I introduced her to Halo, playing through the co-op campaigns for the first two a couple weeks before the release of the third. We'd trade off on Guitar Hero, and eventually worked our way to Rock Band. We hosted Munchkin nights with our friends, trying ever so carefully to nudge them closer to trying D&D.

The novelty of a significant other that enjoyed games as much as I did wore off pretty quickly, but I still find myself smirking with delight over her uncanny ability to stick me from close range, or her ever so frightening ability to handle a Ghost. We've now shared a PAX, and trade off the DS when the other is busy with something else. We are still waiting for the second Professor Layton to come out in the states, and we still can't conquer Green Grass and High Tides on Expert, but we're getting there.

I've got a good life, there's no denying that. I'm not here to rub it in your face though humble reader. I'm just writing this to say thank you to the woman who's encouraged me to keep writing and is always there to play a couple rounds of Halo, or to pick up the vocals when I need a team mate. It tickles me to death to see her get giddy over Far Cry 2 and Red Alert 3. Thanks to the woman who as I write this is playing Crazy King on Guardian.

I couldn't have gotten this far without your support and help. Here's to two great years and many more to come. Hopefully the next few will have a bit more PS3 in them.

Remixing Nostalgia

Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Last night, after mentally convincing myself that I could afford this small luxury, I bought (deep breath) Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix. I've been excited for this game since its announcement and couldn't wait to download it. 

Like many of you, Street Fighter II was my first fighting game. I played it at a 7-11 across the street from my school whenever I could.  Back then, fighting games were only really worthwhile in the arcade. I remember a quiet rivalry between gamers when Mortal Kombat came on the scene, which splintered further when Killer Instinct brought its ultra combos to the table. No matter how many people were gathered around those gore-spewing, endless-combo-releasing, double flawless victory fatality machines, Street Fighter II waited quietly in the wings. 

I think it was plotting this all along. 

So, the question is, is the time right? Can Street Fighter retake the main stage with SSFIIHDR? (An acronym pronounced: essessefftwoehchdeearr--thanks guys from Halo: ODST!)

The answer? No. But that isn't what the game is made to do. This game isn't here to compete with Soul Calibur 4 or Virtua Fighter 5 or Tekken 6--it's here to take us back to the mean streets where all it took was a well-placed Shoryuken to turn the tide of battle. The classic street fighter back-and-forth is still there, in beautiful, breathtaking HD. It's a little more balanced, but, love it or hate it, one-button fighting can still best a seasoned player if he or she isn't careful. The new versions of classic SF songs present in the game are made of raw joy, sure to get your yoga fire burning. Many, if not all, of the characters from SFII and SFII: Turbo are present, with hidden characters such as Akuma as unlockables. The online component works flawlessly with, during my test fights, zero lag. (I still lost though...too bad). 

$15 is a steal for a game of this caliber--get it, you won't regret it. 


(Played 2 player vs., 2 player online and 1 player story mode on PS3 hardware). 

The trouble with opinions.

Monday, November 24, 2008
Eidos has a bit of a situation on their hands. Some of you might remember the incident with Kane & Lynch some time ago. Gamespot, a site in good standing, had advertised the game for some time prior to it's release. However, when the game was reviewed and Gamespot scored it poorly, or at least poorly by Eidos' standards, Jeff Gerstmann, writer of the article and long time editor for Gamespot, lost his job.

Of course, this as all unrelated to the review he wrote, or so we're all told. It's hard to swallow that story though, especially in light of recent events. Eidos is once again turning the knife by attempting to block reviews of Tomb Raider Underworld below 8/10. There hasn't really been much word on the part of Eidos about it except for a strange press release from Barrington Harvey. The entirety of it is an exercise in legal avoidance and exquisitely tiring.

What the press release really means isn't important to this post. What is important is that we understand our responsibility in all of this. As consumers, we often feel like the plankton of the commercial world. Everything else eats us and without us everything would wither and die. That is true in many ways, but it doesn't mean we don't have other options. We can ask friends about the game, we can read the reviews of sites that don't use scores in their reviews (honestly, those are the only ones worth reading in my opinion).

Eidos should understand this. I'd bet most of my substantially small income that many of their employees are gamers with fully functioning brains. Blocking or holding reviews below a certain score isn't going to keep the truth out if your game isn't very good. Honestly, 8/10 isn't a bad score, that's what I told my parents whenever I had a similar score on a test and they seemed to believe me. Review scores are largely subjective anyway, we've already discussed that at length.

I'm not sure what Eidos really expects to accomplish with this stunt. If they think they might drum up some sales with controversy, they're going about it the wrong way. I can see more than a few people writing intentionally bad reviews as a result of the holds, driving the metacritic score even lower. In the end, if you don't have the faith in your game to turn it loose to the savage reviewers, than you should be taking a long hard look at their development. You can't pretend to fix a stove and then insist that people ignore the uncooked food.

Online reviews aren't most gamers' primary source for recommendations. You know it, I know it, Eidos knows it. Word of mouth is the number one sales driving force in the gaming industry. We may take shots at each other from time to time, but we're a pretty close community for the most part. These are the people Eidos should talk to about their game. Then again, black bagging your customers is a little too obvious for most companies.

Time will tell if Tomb Raider Underworld is a good game or not. Eidos will just have to wait and see what the world makes of it. In an industry where only 20% of the products ever turn a profit, that's about a solid a business strategy as you can get.

Role playing every game

Friday, November 21, 2008
I have a challenge for you dear readers. To warn you, it involves actual cognitive reasoning on your part, so those of you who inexplicably join my Xbox Live party to describe in broken detail how high your avatar looks/is may want to find more suitable environs. Are they gone? Good. Now, to the good stuff. I want you to role play every character you play in a video game.

This is an old trick I used with games I wasn't that into. I've since come to use it with all games to really get into the world, really let the game suck me in. From the moment the game first spins up to the end credits, I put myself in the characters shoes. I know what you're saying, we already do that because we're controlling the character. That's fine for playing a game, but I want you to dig deeper.

You are representing the player character in this world. It's your responsibility to make the decisions that will effect the character and their future in the represented world. Behave as you would in the character's situation, trust your gut. Don't make a decision because you think it might break the game or just because you want to cause some havoc. Make the decision that you feel is most right for the character you're playing.

It may seem very analytical, but play this way from the beginning and it should come as second nature to you. The challenge at the outset is to find some part of the character you can identify with, latch onto a reaction, a feeling, a movement, even the way the character looks. If you can find that one little piece to get you started, you're on you way.

I'm not saying you should invent complex back stories for the characters you play, most games story structure is too rigid for that. All the plot points and character relationship have already been established and will be made known when the time is right. Spend some time getting to know your characters in this kind of game. If possible, read the back story, look at the game site, find whatever you can about the characters in the game and their own perspectives.

Other games allow you a little more freedom with the story line. Fable 2 for example, puts you in a world where no one knows who you are (at least at first) and every relationship you make is dependant upon your reactions and your alignment. My hero was as pure as could be until he returned from the Spire. Upon his return, the game glitched his wife out of existence, leaving his now grown daughter mute and socially inept. She only returned to take the daughter she abandoned and tell me she was leaving for good. At that point, a switch flipped in my hero's head and he was never the same.

He raised the rent on every property he had, stopped giving to the poor, even stopped healing in battle, hoping that his life of self-destruction will finally one day kill him. He cannot trust any other Hero, nor any civilian no matter their standing. His faith and unwavering support for mankind has been lost forever. Such is the price of losing a loved one.

Try this out. If I'm right, you'll enjoy a deeper, more immersive experience next time you play. If I'm wrong, you aren't out anything and you get to make fun of me for it. It really is a win win. In all seriousness though, I think this is an important skill to have when slogging through a 20-40 hour game. It helps the time pass easier and I've honestly enjoyed games like Fable, Fallout and Far Cry more as a result of making real character based decisions instead of player motivated decisions. Please, for my lonely sake, give it a whirl and report your findings to me.

What makes a game great?

Monday, November 17, 2008
It's that question we've all asked ourselves at some point. There are games that are universally considered great, but what do these games have in common that sets them apart from the rest? Is there any single quality that marks all great games and is absent in all others? Do games like Final Fantasy VII, X-Com, Fallout and Far Cry 2 all follow a deeply complex formula known only to a secretive, cowled group of developers? The answer is surprisingly simple.

Like film, many of the games we mark as great are games that broke new ground for the industry. They are the bold pioneers, the games hat risked everything to show us something new. More often than not, these new elements were quickly included into other games until the mechanics became synonymous with the genre. Final Fantasy VII's Materia based skill tree has now become a standard part (albeit in mutated forms) of many RPGs. X-Com was the Citizen Kane of squad based action games. Do you see where I'm going with this?

Again, like film, those great games often times don't seem like anything that special when played parallel to today's games. The industry is an ever changing entity, constantly assimilating successful mechanics, art styles, etc. What was incredible and new five years ago is now the standard by which we judge all games in the genre. Those of us that played those great games when they were new understand, perhaps better than others, the awe and wonder of what they did. Even still, they often pale in comparison to more modern entries in the genre or even series.

If you're having trouble swallowing this idea, experiment with it. If you can, plop in one of your old favorites for an hour. play it as you would any other game. After the hour has been spent, swap it out for a recent game of the same genre. Make note, either mental or physical, of similarities in the two games. Don't leave anything out. If a mechanic feels similar in any way, if a scene reminds you of the previous game, note it. Finally, gauge your experience. Put the first game back in and play it for a while with the new game fresh in your mind. Mine and many of my friend's experience shows us that we don't feel the same thrill we did when we first played that great game.

More often than not, the old favorites begin to feel dated. The graphics aren't what make them seem dated, don't be silly. Because those old mechanics are so commonplace these days, the games that invented them often don't feel so special. It's unfortunate that we often can't enjoy these games as much as we grow. They really are great and deserve to be hailed until we're all old and senile. Unfortunately, since the industry if such a fluid entity, any popular mechanic is bound to be snatched up by other developers.

Keep a place in your library for the greats. You might not always be able to play them, but when your faith in games is wearing thin, it's often those games that bring you back into the fold. The real staying power of those games is their ability to remind us of why we play. The games you play today may very well become some of those enshrined few so keep that in mind while you play them. Some day you might be babbling to your grand kids about the good old days. This is certainly a very interesting time to be a part of the medium.

We are at a point when the games we play are undergoing significant change. Genres seem to be slowly disappearing. Far Cry 2 mixed the sandbox and FPS genre, Call of Duty 4 sprinkled some MMO in their own FPS. Old standby series like Fallout and Prince of Persia are being completely redesigned, Little Big Planet redefined user generated content. Portal messed with our heads and Mirror's edge messed with our inner ears. This may be the start of a great Renaissance for games. I'm proud to be in the thick of it, and you should be too.

The Growing Gamer

Friday, November 14, 2008
I have a family. My wife and I are both gamers and have been for years. As I've said in earlier posts, our ability to kill each other without fear of actual injury or abuse charges is one of the reasons we get along so well. Gaming is a serious part of our lives, as much as professional sports might be to other households.

We have two daughters however that are too young to really start gaming. The oldest is three and has had little experience with the controller or the keyboard proper. The youngest is nigh on 2 months old and doesn't even understand her own appendages as of yet. I hope that they show an interest in gaming as my wife and I do, but I can't be certain they ever will. They may see it as Mom and Dad's weird geek thing or they may even actively campaign against games altogether.

Naturally, I've spent a good deal of time thinking about how to avoid such a future. I've almost obsessed over it for weeks with a Doc Brown like fanaticism. After some thought, I've built a framework that I hope will encourage our kids to make games a larger part of their lives. Maybe you can use it too.

Family games come first. By family games, I mean games that everyone can play. Rock Band, the LEGO games, and Munchkin are all great games that anyone can play. Everyone can enjoy the game simultaneously. Halo may sound like fun but if the whole family can't play together, it'll have to wait until the kids go to bed.

Second, encourage your kids to ask questions about the games they see you playing. I can't wait to hear the questions they'll ask after watching me play Shadow of the Colossus. "Daddy, why did you kill Snuffleupagus?" To save the princess, sweetie, to save the princess. Honestly though, it's important for your kids to understand the games they see, even if they are a little high concept for their age. I they ask about Kratos, tell them the truth. Your kids are smarter than you give them credit for, I can guarantee you that.

It's equally important that you understand what your kids are ready to play. The ESRB makes for good baseline ratings, but every child is different. You might have a seven year old mature enough for Grand Theft Auto, it just depends on their attitude and understanding. Really take a close look at what your children sees daily. It'll help you understand what your kids can handle.

Finally, listen to your kids. If they don't want to play, don't force them to. If they want the biggest new release, don't get them the cheap knockoff. If you can't afford it, don't buy it and leave it at that. Gaming is a hobby and an art. Art isn't bought with rent money. If you can afford it and they've earned it, get it. You'll deepen their appreciation for the medium and who knows, maybe you wanted it too.

You can't force your kids to like games. You can raise them in an environment that includes games and is accepting of them. The rest is really up to them. Let them make the decision. If they don't care for Call of Duty, as much as it might break your heart, let them choose whether or not they play. The best you can ever do is listen to your kids and respect their decisions. They may be your kids, but they're human beings too.

When first we met.

Monday, November 10, 2008
The first video game I remember playing was a tiny little space ship game on my brother's computer. Each player controlled their own ten pixel ship and did their best to destroy the other player. That's all there was to it. No upgrades, no multipliers, no fine targeting. Just two ships, in space shooting at each other. I don't remember this specific game because it was particularly great, but because I played it with my brother.

Since that day, my brother's tastes in games has narrowed a bit. While I can still get some great rounds of Worms out of him and the occasional Rock Band stint, he really doesn't go for the shooters I enjoy so much, nor the RPG's I play from time to time. He's not a big fan of the controllers on modern consoles, and sticks mostly to PC games. For all my strategic prowess he makes me look like an idiot when it comes to most strategy games. I love playing them with him nonetheless because well, he's my brother, but more than that, playing games with the person who introduced you to them seems to bring back that magic.

I remember that first game very well. I couldn't have been much older than five at the time and in order to see the screen I had to sit on my brother's lap. He let me control the ship attached to the arrow keys while he manned the more complicated WSAD configuration on the other ship. He let me play around with it for while and I giggled as I spun my ship drunkenly around the arena, careening from corner to corner. Eventually I found the fire ke and the game was underway. I can't remember if I trounced or was trounced, but it didn't matter. What mattered was that I had taken my first steps into gaming with my brother.

To this day, whenever I play a game I think back to that time. As life-defining moments go, it's a bit tame for some but it meant a lot to me. I play games now because of that experience I had with my brother. I owe him for that. I think every one of us has someone to thank for our interest in games. If at all posible, give that person a call, thank them for what they did for you. They deserve it.

This is my thanks to my brother for starting me down a path that's led me here. Because you showed me the joys of gaming, I've made some of the best friends I've ever had, conected better with my wife and mustered the resolve to keep this blog running. Thanks, bro.

Sound is scary

Friday, November 7, 2008
Playing Dead Space has taught me a few things. First, space is scary. It's big, it's cold and you can't breathe in it. Second, necromorphs find me tasty. Third, sound is scarier than anything in the world (except maybe Hitler with a chainsaw arm and cybernetic limbs. That's pretty scary.)

I didn't think I'd ever see a game in the Hitchcockian style. What I mean to say is that Dead Space knows that what we can't see is much scarier than what we can see. What's stomping around out in the dark? You don't know, it could be ANYTHING! It could be Hitler with a chainsaw arm and cybernetic limbs, who knows! Run you fool!

If I had to compare, I'd say the moments without sound are probably the most frightening. I'd be hearing clanks and clangs, I'd have killed a dozen or so necromorphs then I'd round a corner into a hallway that was completely silent. Not one undead peep. That's when I'd moisten my engineering rig.

It's rare for a game to focus so heavily on sound design. It's rarer still to find a game that puts all that hard work to good use. I don't know what twisted mind they put to work on the sounds for Dead Space, but they found the most nerve shattering ambient noises I've ever heard. Every little noise is put there to make you feel ill at ease.

While the look and the movement of the necromorphs are very creepy, it all comes down to the sounds they make. A shrill scream, the wet smack of bloodied limbs on metal, the scraping of claws on industrial flooring. Euch. I shudder a bit just thinking about it.

I wish more games took advantage of sound's ability to trigger emotional reactions. Take a cue from Dead Space and spend some of that development time putting together a detailed auditory experience . If our glorious past time is to evolve, developers have to start thinking of better, more visceral ways of making us experience the game.

Sound is a largely untapped field and one that with a little work can make all the difference in the end. We gamers may not know exactly what the Ripper would sound like, but we can think of a rough composite. Use more "real thing" sound recording instead of pre-recorded 40 year old foley sound. Play with environmental effects such as echoes and rings. We hear these things in our lives, now bring them to our games. Trust me, you'll thank me later.

The New Faces of Platforming

Thursday, November 6, 2008
Let me be honest: platformers are not my bag--never have been. Yes, I played and enjoyed the original Super Mario games, Mario 64, etc, but I rarely am compelled to beat platformers.

While there are exceptions, (Psychonauts, I'm looking at you), in general, platformers have weak stories, average gameplay and, often, shoddy controls--anyone remember Bubsy the Bobcat?

Yes, the platformer has undergone evolutions and mutations in the long years we've been playing them. But it was only recently that I came across two games that I feel have truly changed what it means be a platformer.


The first of these is Little Big Planet. A sidescroller, LBP is based on the one mechanism that has and probably always will define platforming: jumping.

Aside from this, however, the game has taken every other facet of the genre and jumped light years with them. It delivers the simple, classic fun of any treasured platformer--I myself was again and again reminded of the joys of first playing Super Mario Bros. 3--and it increases the depth (both literally and figuratively; LBP has three planes of depth rather than the traditional one), adds in a fantastic level creator that gives the players all the tools necessary to match or even surpass the developer created levels, and, of course, it brings back the simple fun of playing with friends. And by playing with friends, I mean one, two, or three friends who can be as close to you as the couch or across the nation or world. In order to complete levels, players must help each other get through, rather than hinder--nobody wins until everyone reaches the end. This creates a sense of camaraderie seen few times before in platform gaming, if ever.


LBP is beautiful, customizable, creative, silly, and and at the end of the day, fun. It's changed platforming forever because in a post-LBP world, the game has moved from the hands of the developers into the hands of the players, joining us all into a community of, in LBP terms, "Creator Curators", enabling us to create our own worlds and share them with one everyone, guide and help one another through them, and reap the rewards together. Little Big Planet has made gaming an even better place to be.


Next: A closer look in the Mirror

This is the wasteland

Monday, November 3, 2008
Fallout 3 and I are still getting to know each other. It's an awkward relationship right now. I knew his older brothers and thought they were pretty damn awesome. But this youngest member of the family is so different from his relations that I feel I have to dig to find some common ground. There are some similarities in behavior, but the look and feeling of this one is very different from what I've come to expect from the exalted family.

Moving the camera from a top-down to first person view has the effect of making combat more hectic than previous Fallout titles. You no longer know if someone is behind you, often until you are shot. Since a lot of the combat is skill based, you aren't ever guaranteed to hit your target. You can try to go through combat in real time but the Oblivion controls are still a little stiff and don't provide enough fine aim capability for accurate shots.

The turn based feature, or V.A.T.S. as it's called, allows you to take more careful aim at your target by specifically body parts, but at least in the first part of the game you have to get so close to your target for a decent chance to hit that a lot of the magic of slow-motion shots is destroyed by a quirky camera.

One of the key parts of the old Fallout games was the writing. Snarky lines, interesting side quests and often hilarious encounters all revolved around the central story, woven in and out carefully. Fallout 3 almost gets there but can't quite reach the heights of the originals. I think the Bethesda folks are still getting used to the verbiage. Hopefully with time they'll become more comfortable in their new environs and we'll finally get that same caliber of writing the Fallout series has delivered.

I'm being a little hard on Fallout 3, yes. Do I dislike it however? No. It's still a great game, it just doesn't feel like the natural Fallout sequel I had expected it to be. There's plenty of fan service sprinkled about the items and dialogue, but beyond that, most fans of the original series should know what they're getting into. Don't expect it to answer all your payers and the two of you should get along just fine.

Fallout 3 does do some things very well. The first couple hours of the game teach you the controls and create your character in a very innovative way. I don't want to spoil it so I won't say any more, you'll just have to play it for yourself.

Somehow, the slow motion camera doesn't really get old. There's something incredibly cathartic about blowing a super mutant's head apart and watching the body collapse slowly to the floor. It's an aesthetic touch that manages to bring back a bit of the old feelings. Just a bit though

The real heart of the game is still alive and mostly well. One noticeable difference is that you don't get to choose any starting perks. On top of that, I've yet to come across one perk with any negative effects, an interesting choice with seemingly little reason behind it. It's as if Bethesda removed it to make room for the robust weapon building and salvage mechanics.

Remember, I don't dislike Fallout 3. In fact, I highly reccomend it to any fan of tomorrow land aesthetis, a taste for dark humor and a fondness for RPG action. Fans of the original Fallout series should take it with a grain of salt but should still come out pleased with the overall game.

Spoiled for Choice

Friday, October 31, 2008
Every time I sit down at my console I'm faced with a choice. African dystopia, prismatic fantasy realm or post-apocalyptic wasteland. Not an easy choice by any means. Rarely have I been presented with such a vast wealth of awesome games to occupy what little free time I have left these days. As difficult a choice it may be, I'm certainly glad for it.

Obviously, there are a lot of really worthwhile games out there right now. Between Fable, Fallout and Far Cry I hardly have time for any other letters of the alphabet. With Mirrors Edge, End War and Left 4 Dead coming soon, I don't think I'll need another game until maybe this time next year.

We've certainly had quite the year so far. It's been said that 2007 was the greatest year for gaming but 2008 seems a more likely choice for the top of any arbitrary list. But are having so many good games so soon really that great?

Sure, on the surface, it's great. Then you realize that you bought the three largest games released in recent years. Each one capable of delivering at least 12 hours of gameplay, at least two of them capable of more than twenty. This is the conundrum I found myself in.

Having bought Fable 2 and been given Far Cry 2, I decided that because of my long history with the series and my unbridled passion for apocalyptic chaos, Fallout 3 would be the natural choice. Now I have three games here at the office that demand my attention for far longer periods than most other games I've played recently. I am doomed to spend long hours switching from game to game, never getting really comfortable in one world before I'm running around like an idiot in the next.

Do yourself a favor. If you plan on getting more than one game at a time, get at least one that has a finite play time. Don't do what I did and go straight for the open worlds. As great as they are, it'd be nice to know about how long it will take me to complete at least one of them. As it stands, I'm lost in all three of the games I have right now. There is so much for me to do, I feel overwhelmed. I guess you really can have too much of a good thing.

Far Cry 2

Monday, October 27, 2008
On Wednesday, October 22 we received a package from Gamestop. Contained within was a copy of Far Cry 2, complete with the pre-order bonus missions and spiffy bubble wrap. Jigs were danced bubbles were popped and the sounds of an African dystopia were heard long into the night. Far Cry 2 is a game I will play for a long time, but for reasons I didn't expect.

When I first heard about Far Cry 2 I was, shall we say, a little underwhelmed by the idea of a Far Cry game set in Africa. The first game had been a solid enough shooter but left few lasting impressions. In the name of fairness, I did look into the game a little more as more material was made available. It was this trailer that first caught my eye. I wasn't sold on it yet, but I was interested.

When Ubidays hit a few months later, I watched the tech demo on Gametrailers more times than I know. I showed my wife, I showed my friends, I was hooked. Propogating fire, day and night cycles, an open world approach to missions, large array of weapons, and more than twenty hours of gameplay was more than enough to sell me on it.

Now the game is here and I have yet to feel shortchanged by any of the features. Everything I was promised, I have been given. So far, I've tried to play it quietly, sneaking into camps and past guard stations. I completed one assassination mission without alerting a single guard to my presence (not even the three I killed on the way). It wasn't easy, but it was worth it.

You'll remember I said I'll be playing Far Cry for a while for unexpected reasons. What I mean by that is that besides being enormous and nigh unrepeatable, the game makes me think about what I'm doing. It's dark stuff, and I'm finding more and more that there really is no moral high ground to speak of. I can't come out of this feeling like a hero, I can only hope to come out alive. If Joseph Conrad had made a video game, this would be it. Forget Brando and Apocalypse Now, the Jackal is a modern day Kurtz.

The game does borrow heavily from the themes and plot of Heart of Darkness, there's even a reference to it in one of the achievements. That said, the tone can be pretty weighty at times, so much so that you may -like me- stop to think things through before you complete a mission. I was tasked with killing a man said to be largely responsible for the condition of the country. Before I could bring myself to complete the mission, I researched what little I could about the man. I had to be certain I wasn't making things worse by eliminating him.

Succesion is something to worry about in Far Cry 2. Every faction has a chain of command. Kill the leader and the guy behind him steps in as the new warlord and so on down the totem pole. It's just one more thing to think about before you go shooting everything in sight.

I didn't expect to feel so lost and worried about the game's environment. That I do feel as such is a testament to how realistic and immersive the game really is. I feel the weight of each step, flinch at each hit and panic when a buddy goes down. I wish I was speaking metaphorically. I am truly grateful to in game characters that save my life from a slow painful death. I owe these people something. I begin to identify with them and even like some of them. (So you know, Josip is a very good friend to have)

If you're able to, give Far Cry 2 a shot. If you let it, the game will suck you into its volatile world and you too may feel as I do. The choices you make will stay with you, the faces of those you betray will haunt you. The scars are permanent. Trust me on this one, it's a game you won't soon forget. There's more to be said about this game, but it will have to wait.

So much to say, so little time.

Friday, October 24, 2008
Fable 2 had a lot of expectations to live up to for me and I can't say it met them all. Don't get me wrong, it's still a wonderful game but it falls short in a few crucial areas. Namely, when you join another person's game. The camera become locked in this brawler game thing that makes it nigh impossible to navigate some parts of the world. The animation is lacking here and there, and some of the basic play directions are barely there before they disappear for good.

While most of the music is very good, there are a few spots where the music is straight out of the original game, no re-recording, no remixing, just the exact same tune. Any game supposing to take place 500 years after it's predecessor loses a lot of that feel when I can remember buying plate armor to the same score.

What Fable has always had going for it was stunning art design and Fable 2 doesn't disappoint. The towns and countryside are lovingly crafted. The world may not look all that realistic, but Fable has never been about ultra realism. It's about choice and consequences.

Fable has always put a lot of thought into how your actions effect the world, unfortunately it seems being evil is the only way to really see any significant change in the world around you. If you're good, everything just becomes more idyllic than it already is. Be evil however and watch the world crumble and darken.

Fable 2 makes it much harder to be evil than I think it intended. The ever present dog is always faithful, but knowing that someone always sees the terrible things you do makes them much less fun to do. I don't know if I'll even be able to finish a game as an evil character, the guilt is so heavy.

I'm absolutely amazed with how well the game sucks you in, even with as limited a story as it has. Top notch voice acting and the before mentioned art design hold the game together very well. It's rare to see a gaslight era game, and the mix of old world tech and new is refreshing next to the glut of energy weapons and real world guns seen in most games these days.

I'm not here to write a review however, I want to talk briefly about something Fable does better than most games I know. Fable 2 is a game I can watch other people play. Most games don't allow me that kind of leeway. If I'm not playing, I'm keeping myself from telling the poor player what to do or ridiculing the poor design. Fable allows me to simply not care. What's best for that person's character is up to them and unless my advice is actively sought after, I need not interfere with their story.

What's more, watching someone play through Fable 2 can tell you a lot about someone. For instance, I learned that my wife is a far more patient person than I am when she went straight to five stars in blacksmithing before she even completed the first main quest.

If you get a chance to watch your friends, significant others, whatever play Fable 2, take it. Think of it as a social experiment. Hell, take notes and go over them after the game. I plan on quizzing my wife about her decisions when I get the chance.

What is Next-Gen? Part 2: Narrative

Tuesday, October 21, 2008
There is, I believe, a very specific element of gaming today that differentiates "next-gen" from, well...not. That element is narrative.

Now, that's sort of a beefy thing to say--narrative is an awfully big element and to talk about it without narrowing it down would be a huge waste of time. Thus, I'm going to touch on the two distinct types of narrative (although there are more) that I think have the greatest impact on whether of not a game is "Next-Gen" or not.


Just to recap: I think the term Next-Gen is a loaded marketing statement. However, there is a marked difference between this generation's games and the last, as has been true of every leap in technology since the inception of gaming. Up until now, the "next gen" has always been looked at comparatively in terms of graphics, for the most part.

That's no longer the case. Now, proliferation of advanced engines makes good graphics relatively easy to accomplish, compared to past generation. Thus, setting a game apart form its contemporaries requires all aspects of it to go above and beyond the call of graphical prowess. The most important of these is in-game narrative.

1. In-Game Narrative

Contrary to what you may initially think, this doesn't translate directly into "story", (although obviously it includes it--games like Metal Gear Solid 4 come immediately to mind). What I mean by in-game narrative is how well the game works as a self-contained world. Because of this, even otherwise tired ideas found in fighting games, shooters, or even sports--such as defending (insert planet, race or object) from an alien invasion, a la Space Invaders, Halo 3 or Resistance: Fall of Man--can have a compelling, self-contained narrative that drives the game and sets it above other, similar games.

This is accomplished by creating a tight mythology, using a unique visual STYLE (as well as narrative style, (meaning any in-game narration/dialogue 'fits' within the universe of the game. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, although canned, accomplishes this and sets it above many other adventure games) and connecting with the player on *some* level beyond the cause and effect of using the controller--whether through epic music, story, compelling character, or extremely satisfying gameplay, (e.g., remember the first time you did a fatality in Mortal Kombat? Crap story, okay mechanics, but HOLY FUCK DUDE I JUST PULLED YOUR SPINE OUT!!)

Thus, creating a compelling game narrative is what sets apart similar games with what has, today, become common graphical power. This is why similar games such as GTAIV, Virtua Fighter 5, and Halo (franchise) succeed where other, similar games such as Saint's Row, Dead or Alive or Haze fall short(er).



2. Player Narrative

The second narrative is even more important than the first, and it is one that gamers once knew, then lost, and are now finding again in the age of online play. That is, of course, player narrative. This means the anecdotes we tell and the memories we share from actually playing the games. For example, Malech and I spent a couple days last week exploring the Little Big Planet beta. While the game is fantastic, what I'll remember for even longer is the *time* we spent connecting through it, along with other players via the PSN. Player narrative encompasses the social aspect of gaming, the memory of playing a game--that is, making a game fun enough to play, talk about, remember, and share with others. Little Big Planet is a perfect game for this, but things like Far Cry 2's epic map creator, Warhawk's intense online battles in which rivals are eternally made and friendships forged, Halo 3's fantastic video capture / share system, and even single-player games best shared with a friend, like Silent Hill 5, fall into the realm of creating excellent player narrative.

Thus, player narrative is created when a game is forced to stand out by becoming memorable not for its visuals--if this were true, we'd all gush over Lair--but for the *experience* we had playing it. While this has always been true of gaming, it's never been as important as it is today when graphics are, largely, inconsequential in terms of overall game quality.


It is these two narratives that, today, set a "next gen" game apart from something of days past. While we experienced these narratives in fantastic classic games like Final Fantasy VII (can you believe it's been eleven years?), StarFox, and Super Mario Bros. 3, graphics were all much more important as memory anchors--that is, something that creates a lasting impression--than today. Today, gamers demand solid gold for their time, and the gold isn't found in the gloss on the screen, but in the reactions and memories of the players themselves.

Here's some sweet Street Fighter 2 HD Remix screens

Thanks to our new friends a Capcom, We've got some new screenshots of Street Fighter 2 ultra long name HD re-re-re-remix. Here we go.





What's so bad about Being a Gamer?

Monday, October 20, 2008
Come on, we've got better things to talk about than this right? Who wants to listen to some pathetic philosophic talk about the deeper meaning of "gamer" or to hear again that we aren't alone out there, we run shit, blah blah blah. Well little child ,the day of reckoning has come, this isn't about any of that. This is a philosophic talk of the more militant variety. Metaphorically speaking of course.

Let's be honest. Most of us still feel a little ashamed by our hobby. We were told or are told that video games are a waste of time. Frivolous things that, lest we anger the Gods, we ought to cast away. We still feel a little twinge of shame and or guilt when relaying tales of our gaming exploits, even to other gamers. Well, sons and daughters of the polygon, it's time we stopped feeling so damn ashamed of how we spend our time.

I play D&D every other weekend and when I come home my wife often wants to hear about the game. I know what you're thinking, and you're wrong. My wife is a gamer just like me. No hilarity has ever ensued due to a lack of understanding in our house. Anyway, I realized that I felt a little hesitant to tell her about the game even if it had gone well. I was in some kind of geek denial.

It struck me as very odd that I would feel this way. I know I feel a little strange relating stories of virtual high adventure to people that don't play games but to have this pit of guilt well up when I'm talking to my Halo playing, die rolling, DS slinging wife is the height of absurdity. I should feel no more guilty about that than getting my ass kicked by her. On a side note, if you see my wife in a ghost, run like hell, she's a nightmare.

So why did I feel ashamed? Despite what the numbers say, many people still look down on us gamers for what they perceive to be a waste of time, or even a dangerous addiction. In some cases they're absolutely right. There are plenty of people that play far too often, to the point that they bury themselves in debt, completely isolate themselves and so on. The thing is, those people don't represent gamers on a whole.

There are good and bad uses of time. It doesn't matter what the substance or medium of entertainment, someone will always take it to far. It's not a problem with the games, it's a fact of the human condition. We all take things a little too far sometimes. For some it's drug use, others it's sports, others it's video games. The reason video games get so much of the spotlight is that they're still relatively new on the scene and people are still trying to figure out how they fit into their daily lives.

Every new media is met with fear and anxiety. Rock music in the 50s, film in the early 1900s, video games today. It's a symptom of a society getting used to the idea of a new medium of entertainment. A crucial facet of the human race has always been that new ideas are met with fear, even outright rage. This is how we test the waters, how we begin to understand the issues surrounding us. The world will always fear change, but change will always come.

Those people that still believe video games ruin lives need to be shown that they cause no more harm than film, music or TV. One way to do that is to show them how passionate we are about games. Talk to them about games, especially those close to you. Find out their concerns, address them, maybe even get them to sit down and play a few. My mother-in-law is a perfect example.

Before I exposed her to games first hand, she didn't see them as works of art or beautifully constructed stories. They were, say it with me now, a waste of time. All I did was talk to her about what games meant to me, what they had done for me and what they can do for other people. Now, she sees things much differently, actively asks me about games I play, or things she's heard about the industry. It's a wonderful thing to see. In case she's reading this right now, Hi!

The biggest thing we can do as a community is probably the easiest thing to do. Stop feeling ashamed by your level 70 warrior, your kiltacular, your five star rating, your pen & paper wizard. It's time we showed the rest of the world that we have nothing to be ashamed of, that this isn't a waste of time. We are all gamers here, the only difference is what we play.

Somnambulant Gamer will have Far Cry 2!

Special thanks to Gamestop for supplying our copy. No, we didn't get it early, but it should be arriving in the mail Tuesday or Wednesday. I guess someone actually reads those e-mails after all. I never expected to be indebted to Gamestop after all the trouble I've had with them in the past. Does this make us even?

EndWar Makes me feel Silly/Awesome.

Friday, October 17, 2008
As I said earlier, I got a chance to play EndWar recently. The resulting experience was interesting to say the least. It was, unfortunately, just a demo but I think I can make a fair assessment of the game based on the small amount of time I was able to play it.

The obvious thing to talk about is the voice command tech in the game. I was y impressed with its ability to recognize words and phrases even when my stupid mouth couldn't speak them clearly. Background noise does seem to confuse it a bit though and a few times I'd end up with a couple units marching off to some forgotten corner of the battlefield or almost into an enemy tank patrol. Apparently, my voice saying "unit 1 move to alpha" plus baby cry equals "go and die, cold and alone." Strange equations indeed.

In my army's defense, I don't think R&D figured in running sinks and crying babies in the war room. After all, with the daycare available to the modern military career general, who needs to take their kids to the front lines these days? That and, to be honest, what general has time to wash dishes while commanding the forces on the ground?

The detail is sharp and clean, there seems to be a good amount of depth in the game even though the demo gives you limited options for skirmish and only one campaign mission. I was hoping to play as the Russians, an old favorite since the old Red Alert days but alas, I must await the arrival of the retail version. Hopefully Gamefly will stock more than ten copies and I'll actually get the damn thing close to it's release. But I digress.

I played one online game against a guy who didn't seem to understand which button you hold to issue a command and which is voice chat. The poor bastard was really curious about how I always knew what he had and where it was going. If you're reading this right now, random human, I am sorry. Think of it as a wiretap placed cunningly by one of my many spies. It'll make you feel a little better about your humiliating loss.

The game works like a strategy focused version of battlefield, with control points being the currency of the day. Control points net you currency to buy reinforcements and support. The three types of support available in the demo were: force recon, a special ops team capable of destroying most units or scouting far off command points, Airstrike which rains victory-scented death from the sky and Electronic Warfare which seems to drop a kind of EMP blast on enemies.

In the retail version, each one of these will be able to be upgraded to provide multiple strike options, my favorite of which is the kinetic strike, what seems to be an orbital blast of white-hot awesome. Units that survive your pathetic attempts to order them around the battlefield will earn experience and gain new abilities. The game promises deep customization of your armies on the field and cameo appearances from other Tom Clancy mainstays (Rainbow Six, anyone?).

Yes, I do feel a bit silly chattering away at polygons all day, but commanding my units personally has a really cool feel to it. I get a little more into it than I usually do. I caught myself ordering a crucial airstrike with actual tension in my voice. Neat, a strategy game that makes me feel like more than a geek with a copy of the Art of War at his side. Plus, the concept of people (artificial though they may be) actually listening to my strategy for a change makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.

I'm intrigued by EndWar. The ability to issue commands without really having to use the controller alleviates a lot of the pain of playing an RTS on a console. Hopefully, the voice recognition will improve upon the demo a bit and the camera will shake free some of it's shackles before release day comes.

Ubisoft to merge Tom Clancy franchises into one.

Thursday, October 16, 2008
According to Gameplayer, Ubisoft is looking to merge all the Tom Clancy franchises into one "mega-game." The plan goes something like this. In the future, the Endwar series will act as the overreaching Tom Clancy universe, with missions from new GRAW, Rainbow Six, Splinter Cell and HAWX games taking place as parts of the grander storyline. As Ubisofts Vinh-Dieu Lam puts it:

There are minor tie-ins with this game [EndWar], but after this there will be a lot more tie-ins. Some of our airstrikes come from the HAWX list of fighter jets, some of the Ghost Recon units are in the game, like Scott Mitchell is the commanding officer of the American army, so there are a few tie-ins. It all acts as a basis for future tie-ins... in the next versions you’ll find, say, missions generated in the next Ghost Recon (presumably GRAW 3) affecting the world map in the next EndWar (presumably EndWar 2). So maybe in the next EndWar you will need to attack Paris but before you can it may generate some sort of Splinter Cell recon mission or a Ghost Recon mission or things like that. But that is the direction we are looking at.

There you have it. Ubisoft continues to impress me with their bold approach to their properties. Remember you heard it here first, Ubisoft is the developer to watch as the years roll on.

On a side note, I played EndWar earlier today and was very very impressed with it's implementation of the voice commands. I was able to oversee the battle without ever using any other button than the right trigger. Very impressive stuff. More on that later.

Music part. 2

Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Last week I left you with a bevy of memorable game music to ruminate on. This post might be better appreciated with some of those pieces playing in the background. Go ahead, pull up something from Shadow of the Colossus, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid, whatever. It'll help if you've played the game whose music you're listening to but it's not necessary.

Listen closely to that piece. What images does it conjure up? What memories does it stir? How, for lack of a better phrase, does it make you feel? Right now I'm listening to the God of War theme. When it plays, I can remember carving a swath through Gorgons, Cyclops' and harpies. I see Kratos battling Zeus. I feel powerful and dangerous.

Good game music deepens our connection to the characters, the game world and the mechanics of the game. Through the raw evocative power of music we can allow ourselves into the environment created by the game, to linger in the moments most crucial to the character we play.

Music plays a different role in every game we play. A great deal of that role is surprisingly defined by the emphasis in the game. In games like Mass Effect with enormous amounts of dialogue and story to occupy the forefront, music takes a more ambient role, bringing a cohesive atmosphere to the environments and situations.

Compare that to games like Metal Gear Solid where the music takes a far more active role in motivating the player to action. Think of your favorite action game. It has a theme, I'm sure. Can you remember it? Are you humming it right now or searching through your library to find it? I thought so. That's what a good action games soundtrack should sound like. It should leave a lasting, almost iconic stamp in your mind, remind you of your time playing, make you feel like the hero again.

There is a soundtrack to almost every game we play. Whether they blast us with huge, bombastic scores, or unnerve us with haunting background music, the real test of a good game score is in its tone. A score can be as professional and well recorded as possible, but if it doesn't fit with the scene, it might as well be static. The best example of this the radio in Grand Theft Auto. Sure, there are some hilarious moments when people seem to bounce off your hood in time to the music, but more often than not, the music on the radio doesn't fit the tone of the game, or at least with the current scene. You find yourself endlessly switching stations until you find one that you can sort of get behind for those two songs. Honestly, I turn the thing off most times.

I've also had a lot of difficulty with the score for most online games. Yes, they are appropriately epic, but when I'm slaughtering bunnies for furs or XP I don't need to sound like Richard the Lionheart marching off to war. It's silly and it takes me out of the game. Again, I usually substitute my own music for whatever is actually playing through the game. Maybe that's one of the reasons I can't really get behind most MMO's.

I'm sure you've already figured out most of this on your own. You know your game music well enough to know what you like. I do have one challenge for you. Look at your game library for a bit. Find a game whose soundtrack you don't really remember. Play it with the music turned up and the rest of the sound off if possible. Get acquainted with the game's score, someone worked very hard on that. If it works like it should, you ought to be able to understand the game world just as well as with the sound on. I recommend Assassin's Creed.

Activision Hires Former Macy's Exec as Chief Creative Officer.

Friday, October 10, 2008
Earlier today, Activision Blizzard released a document detailing the appointment of Brad Jakeman as Chief Creative Officer. What does that position really handle? According to the press brief, "Mr. Jakeman will be responsible for leading global advertising, media, marketing and consumer research for all of Activision Publishing's franchises."

Jakeman was previously head of corporate marketing for Macy's. Certainly not a gaming company, but I think this illustrates a point often lost on the greater gaming public. The Video Games industry is not it's own entity, nor is it separate from the greater entertainment industry.

In it's infancy the video games industry struggled to be accepted into the entertainment industry. It was dismissed as a fad, a small blip in the growing role of home entertainment. After the slight decline of the industry in the eighties, the industry saw a great deal of change. The "for kids" image was slowly sloughed off and replaced with the more mature look of the industry today.

With this new image comes a more serious and mainstream approach to business and marketing. Games companies need marketing agents and advertising just as much as any other company. Video games may be an art form ,but they're also a product to be sold. Seeing companies hiring marketing execs from other companies is a sign of a growing acceptance of video games in the commercial world. At least, that's the way we see it.

New Castlevania teaser tells me nothing; Still excited

Thursday, October 9, 2008
Just put up on Gametrailers, a crappy cam shot of a new Castlevania game. When it's set, who the protagonist is, what the gameplay actually looks like are still a complete mystery. One thing I can tell you for sure is that the Wii won't have it, at least for now.

I'm honestly pretty surprised that the Wii won't be home to the next Castlevania game. Maybe some bridges have been burned. Whatever the case take a look at the trailer. If you can read Japanese, maybe you could kindly translate the text for us. We would be very grateful.

New Bungie Trailer released.

By now I'm sure most of you have heard the news, there's an official announcement trailer up for one of Bungie's latest projects. The official title is Halo 3: Recon and is a prequel set for release next fall. Rather than a stand alone title, Recon will drop as a campaign expansion, a first for the series. However, Recon is not being released as a downloadable pack, only a retail version. Curious.

I'm very excited about this development. I've said before that I really enjoy campaign play. Now to have an entirely new campaign experience coming next year, I have to strap myself down to type this.

Like Halo or not you have to admit that Bungie has committed a lot of time and effort to providing a lot of community support. I think a lot of developers could learn from them. You hear me Nintendo?

Far Cry 2 Developer Diaries are awesome.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008
The series is of the developers that went to Africa to observe the environment, record sounds, etc. It's great to see such dedication to authenticity but god damn these guys for having so much fun. Links are below.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Music

Monday, October 6, 2008
In my opinion, music is one of the most important parts of any game. A good soundtrack can turn a decent game into a fantastic one. Everyone recognizes the music from their favorite games, we even buy the games soundtrack these days. There are well loved bands who do nothing but play music from games, others who are inspired by certain games.

Here before you I will catalog a few of my favorites. Music that I think really illustrates the role a good soundtrack can play in a game. If all goes well, by the end of this you should have a primer for what good game music really is.

Advent Rising

First up, Advent Rising. The best way to illustrate the power of this games music is to see it in action. Unfortunately, the best video I could find was this trailer. It isn't the opening sequence I wanted to show you but the music is from the game. That is, it's one of the less spectacular pieces from the soundtrack and it still blows me away. The game itself had a few technical issues but the art direction, story and certainly the sweeping music held the game together throughout it's entirety. To this day, I have yet to hear a game soundtrack to match the power and feel of Advent Rising.

Silent Hill

I was terrified by Silent Hill. We all were. That eerie little town shrouded in perpetual fog. What was it that stuck with you after the nurses were gone, the lights were back on and the game was finished. Chances are it was this. The makers of Silent Hill are to blame for more of my sleepless nights than creepy hobos outside my apartment. For some people it's the imagery that really gets them, but I can't hear this music without feeling like something is right behind me. The music was what sold me on the horror and I bet it was the same for you.

Medal of Honor

Now when it comes to shooters, few have ever made me feel emotional about what I was doing. As strange as it may sound, Medal of Honor was the first game that made me cry. No, it wasn't because I realized my calling as a sniper, no it wasn't (entirely) because I got to dish out some vengeance on some evil Nazis. It was the theme. This music made me feel brave, made me feel like I was part of something bigger than myself.

Shadow of The Colossus

Shadow of the Colossus comes up a lot on this site. Trust us, it's for good reason. The story was amazing, the art direction superb, the gameplay astounding and the level of fine detail unrivaled. However great those aspects were, the music has always stuck with me. I hear it every time I see a sunrise, look out over the lake or see something truly amazing. All the beauty of the world around us is encapsulated in the haunting melodies of this soundtrack. If you don't believe me, look at the sky while you listen to this.

There's more to come from this post. Check back later in the week for the next installment of this piece on game music.

Nintendo comes out swinging

Friday, October 3, 2008
Yes the pun is awful. A fall press conference was ground zero for Nintendo's big announcements this last week. The promise of a slew of new games, new peripherals and a new DS has swayed quite a few people, but I for one am not so impressed.

First off, let's look at the DSi. What's really new about it? It has a camera and an SD memory card slot. Great on the surface but it's also lost the GBA card slot. The reasoning is that it allows the system a more aesthetic look and more space for other things. That's fine. They tout that you'll be able to download various applications priced from 2 to 10 dollars. I imagine some older GBA games will be made available through the service as well.

Trouble is, I have trouble really caring about it. I've never looked at my DS and thought, gee, I'd sure like to have a camera here. The removal of the GBA slot aggravates me a touch. The backwards compatibility was a big selling point for me. Frankly, it seems they've opted to pack on the features rather than fix the systems existing problems. I've yet to here anything about a streamlined interface.

This seems to be Nintendo's answer to everything these days. They make enough money off of their product that they've decided to ignore many long time supporters. Instead of giving the Wii a Hard drive, they give it more peripherals. It will soon have voice chat, but you'd better hope you can hear your friends over the game you're both playing since you won't have a headset.

Wait, you may be saying, they are giving us Punch-out Wii, isn't that something? Well, no it isn't. Punch-out was a great game back in the day, but ask yourself; After all the outcry, all the bad press, all your begging, this is all you get? A revamped version of an original Nintendo Console game? Don't even try to tell me they won't find a way to work the balance board into it. Their core gamers got them to this point, and now that they have all the money they'll ever need, they throw you scraps every once in a while. Punch-out is too little too late.

As for the remakes, I don't think anyone is fooled by that move. Again, with record profits and growing sway over the casual market, the best they can come up with are a bunch of wiimote enabled Gamecube titles. I'm not buying it.

Nintendo is in a unique position. Their console has gotten a lot of people into games that wouldn't have played them before. The console has a great deal of potential to widen the scope of gaming on a global scale. They have the revenue to put serious work behind their projects, make amazing games and show the world what games can do and mean for people. Instead they've taken the businessman's route and abandoned substance for profit. And here I thought we all wanted the same thing.