Gordon Freeman, Gnome Ranger Revisited.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008
I wanted to go back to the Gnome Chomsky saga for a moment. Mostly I just wanted to ruminate on what sort of implications of my behavior in the game world.

Try to picture yourself as a member of the Resistance. You've been fighting against the ruthless, orwellian Combine Empire for years. Most of your friends are dead, you hide in caves and abandoned industrial complexes crawling with hostile creatures like headcrabs and antlions. Recently your ever diminishing spirits have been lifted by the return of Gordon Freeman, the hero of Black Mesa, savior of the human race.

You know he's struck a serious blow to the Combine with the destruction of the Citadel. You can see the ruins of the tower in the distance. Looking out over the horizon, you feel real hope for the first time in years. You've received word that Dr. Freeman himself is on his way in the company of Alex Vance. Your excitement grows when you hear he's been spotted on the outskirts of the base.

Finally you see him in the distance driving towards you in the restored car from the southern industrial base. You can hardly believe he's so close. A legend, a bastion of hope and courage. The car stops suddenly and you can make out Dr. Freeman picking up something from off the ground. He places it in the car and continues towards you. Then, having travelled scarcely a hundred feet, he stops again, the strange object having tumbled from the car. Once more he picks it up and places it back in the car.

This is repeated several more times before he reaches your position. What vital object could he be carrying? Surely something vital to the Resistance. Why else would something be entrusted to his care. Your heart begins to race as Dr. Freeman stops the car in front of you. He and Alex get out and Dr. Freeman picks up the object from the back of the car. As he walks past you, you finally see the strange object he has been so carefully looking after. It's a gnome.

A gnome? Gordon Freeman has come all this way with a gnome? The stoic hero, the messianic warrior, the man who single handedly destroyed the Combine's grip on the human race is a gnome enthusiast? What else haven't they told you? How many other aspects of this man have been concealed from you? Is he really a genius? Did he knowingly stop the Combine's plans or did he just Forrest Gump his way through it all?

As he disappears through the doorway, you feel empty. All your hope, your dreams had been placed on the shoulders of a man willing to bare only gnomes. Heroes are rarely what they seem. Maybe the Combine was right...

It's worth a look.

Monday, August 11, 2008
Fifteen dollars may seem like a lot to some of you. It is a lot for me these days. Sadly, the time when I could buy at least a game a month are over. And, no it's not just because of spotty releases. Money is a hard thing to hold onto these days, I know. There are a few things that always take priority; food, rent, blah blah blah. If somewhere in there you have about fifteen dollars to spare, you should get Braid if at all possible.

The game looks like a standard Mario clone at first glance, down to goomba-like enemies, a distinctly Bowser-esque boss and even the classic line "the princess is in another castle." Don't be fooled by this veneer though, it's not a clone but an artistic homage to the game that defined our 2d sidescroller prerequisites. The puzzles in this game are beautifully maddening, with distortion of time playing a pivotal role in every world you enter. There is an entire world in which the progression of time depends on the direction you move.

The story is one of love spoiled for reasons still unknown to me. It's told through a series of books at the beginning of each world. While they expose small parts of the story, they mostly hint at the peculiarities of the world you're about to enter. The story seems well thought out, but I feel like I'm intruding on the developer's personal diary. It all reads like a game developers version of a break-up song. I feel like an jerk for reading these things about my characters faults when I've barely been introduced to him. All I really know is that his name is Tim, he has a ring that slows time, and that he hates himself.

Despite the almost depressing backstory, the art of the game is absolutely gorgeous. The backgrounds are stunningly bright, painted landscapes. This game is a living impressionist masterpiece. Every piece of art has the look of being hand drawn and painted by a man obsessed. It's breathtaking to look at while you play.

I don't think this is a game you will regret playing or buying. Once I'm sure that I have all my bills taken care of, I'm upgrading from my trial version. I suggest you do the same if you are able. And if this hasn't convinced you, at least try the demo, it's free after all.

Gordon Freeman, Gnome Ranger.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Valve has done a wonderful thing. Besides releasing the single greatest deal for current consoles, they've sprinkled in some of the most entertaining achievements on the 360. With everything from "go through this level using only the gravity gun" to "only fire one bullet in Episode 1" Half-Life 2 on the 360 more than makes up for it's lack of multiplayer support. The following is the tale of one quantum physicist and his gnome.

Episode 2, the second expansion for Half-Life 2 included in the Orange Box has an achievement titled "Little Rocket Man." From the description, one can glean that somewhere in the game is a gnome and somewhere else is a device that will put him in orbit. I found this concept intriguing. No one has ever attempted Gnomed space flight. I could be the pioneering spirit of a whole new era of space travel. I knew then, it would be my destiny to put the first gnome into space.

My search began close to the end of the game. I thought that somewhere close to the rocket, already up to it's red hat in the space program, I would find my astrognome. Though I searched high and low, I found no suitable candidates. I did find an open rocket however, and one very intrepid headcrab. But alas, it seemed I would have to broaden my gnomish horizons to areas outside of White Forest. And so the first step in my epic journey was made.

I began my search at the beginning of the episode. Waking in the ruined train car I looked furtively about for any possible gnome activity. Perhaps the gnome was a fellow passenger on the train, or even the conductor. No, he'd need a really tall box to see outside, and I saw no boxes in the train. Outside, a portal tore open the sky, glimpses into the hellish netherspace flickering within it. Miles wide, it held an ominous post over the now ruined city 17. I would find no gnomes there.

To the east there sat a small shack beneath a radio tower. Alex began her repairs to the equipment once inside. While Eli and Dr. Kleiner spouted something at me about closing portals and destroying the combines stranglehold on humanity I examined my surroundings. A plain design scheme, rustic, or at least rusted, few aesthetic encumbrances, natural feel, and a low bed. I was in the very lair of the gnome I sought. I opened doors, turned over boxes and finally found my true goal and reason for being under the bed, no doubt waiting patiently for the intruders to leave.

Despite my rude intrusion, he seemed pleased to have been found. No doubt, being the sole caretaker of a secluded radio transmitter is a lonely position. I explained to him the situation, the possibilities, the fame and the scientific immortality that awaited him in the icy black void beyond. Being no fainthearted gnome he agreed to accompany me on my trek towards the future.

Being of small stature and completely immobile, I was forced to carry my lilliputian companion from the cabin and beyond. His expression never changed from that of unrepressed joy. Being outside and so far from home must have been terribly exciting. Held firmly in the nurturing arms of the gravity gun, he would be safe from the peril that beset us on our way.

Through ruined farms and forests I carried him as a father a child. While carrying him, I was defenseless and so relied on my companions to protect both he and I. While the gravity gun if capable of hurtling objects at incredible speeds, my gnomish friend proved useless as a projectile weapon. Indeed, these early tests were better designed to test his heartiness during launch. Through it all,he maintained his altogether delighted disposition.

Eventually I was tasked with retrieving a certain substance from the heart of the ant lion's nest in order to revive a fallen comrade. I knew the path ahead would be too much for the poor gnome, as the ant lions would surely find him a delicious treat. Instead I left him to tend the wounds of our poor compatriot. Upon my return from the nest we would continue our trek.

After nearly an hour of ant lions and zombies I resurfaced with the necessary substance. With a few words, our friend was resurrected and we were on our way. Yet, before we could move much farther the ant lions, no doubt searching for smaller and more jolly foods assaulted us. We were forced into a small enclosure with limited supplies of ammunition. I was forced to fight off the onslaught with nothing but the gravity gun as my previous encounter had left me with precious few bullets. Through patience and careful hurtling of explosive barrels, we defeated the ant lion menace once and for all.

Our destination was an old factory. Once home to labor and industry, it now housed only zombies and the car that would carry us to White Forest, home of the fateful rocket. Again, I was forced to carry on alone, making my way across the putrescent factory floor, fighting off zombies as I went. Eventually coming to the bridge, I found it's decayed state similar to a giant see saw. Positioning cars at one end allowed me to traverse its length in the newly procured getaway vehicle.

Once on the other side, I flipped a switch allowing my friends access to the vehicle. While making my way over to the door I'd just opened in order to retrieve my soon-to-be space explorer, I found it had shut again. "No," I thought "there's still someone on that side!" I returned to the booth with the switch. Through the window I could see his red hat just on the other side of the door. I flipped the switch and ran as fast as my HEV assisted legs could carry me. But I was not fast enough. The door slammed shut as I approached, denying me access once again. This mad dash continued for another fifteen minutes. Exhausted from my herculean task with the door, I looked for something I could use to hold open the door. I eventually (through much trial and error with other objects) found a chair. I placed it at the door, hoping that when it opened, the chair would fall into position and hold open the door long enough for me to retrieve my one reason for living. It worked, but only just. The chair strained it's metal frame in the door and no sooner had I retrieved the gnome and turned back to the car the chair collapsed and the door smashed shut with a loud bang behind me. No matter, the gnome and I were safe.

It was about this time I realized I cared more for the gnome than my own safety. I'd risked life and limb to keep him safe and he didn't even have a name. Searching my mind for an appropriate title I settled on Gnome Chomsky. From here until eternity, we were the closest of friends.

From our first moments in the car, I knew we were in for a long journey. There was no operable trunk in which I could store Gnome for the duration, nor was there a secure location in the back seat where he could rest. As it was, I would have to stop every hundred feet or so to retrieve the overly rolly polly Gnome from the ground. If only I had a car seat. This didn't seem to be too much trouble until we were forced to flee from an attack helicopter. Gnome Chomsky thought it better to tuck and roll from the car on several occasions rather than trust that my driving would see us to safety. When I would stop the car to retrieve him once again, the helicopter would shoot him from my hands, seemingly more interested in stopping him than me.

Finally, after a very long forty five minutes, we arrived at White Forest. My excitement grew as the lift drew nearer the rocket. I swelled with pride as I placed Gnome Chomsky the Brave in the rocket. I said my goodbyes and shut the hatch tight. Later, as the countdown ticked away his last seconds on Earth, a tear crept into the corner of my eye. We'd come so far, faced so much and now our time together was at an end.

The rocket soared into the sky on a gleaming trail of fire, while my mind sang a mish mashed chorus of "Space Oddity," "Rocket Man," and the theme to "From the Earth to the Moon." This travelogue is for you Gnome Chomsky. You, the bravest little man in a giant red hat. May your journey be long and enlightening. I hope you remember me fondly as you travel where no Gnome has gone before. God bless and God speed you and your headcrab co-pilot.

A rivalry put to rest.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008
Last week I beat Ninja Gaiden: Black. I downloaded the game from Xbox Live in a moment of weakness. I know, I vowed never to lay hands on the game again, but after all this time and all that hatred, I felt the game owed me something. It owed me a resolution to all the pain it put me through. Ninja Gaiden was the abusive parent of my gaming youth.

Morbid analogies aside, I really believed I had the stuff to conquer this game once and for all. I spent the 15 bucks or so, waited for the download to trickle onto my console and away I went. I set myself up in a comfortable position and prepared myself for torment.

The first thing I noticed was how familiar everything still felt. The button layout was identical to the original, all the moves were the same, the timing for each move was still exactly as I remembered it. Something told me I was in for more disappointment. I could feel the game laughing at me as it drew me in further, tantalizing me with new weapons.

Some ten odd hours later, the game was finished. I had finally beaten the game that had defined my early college experience. Achievement unlocked "dignity restored"-10GP clicked in my head. The ghost fish that had destroyed my being so long ago could not hinder my progress any longer. After all this time I could finally say I won.

Will I be buying Ninja Gaiden 2 now that I've erased the shame of the previous game? No. God, no. Even though I've put my old demon to rest I have no desire to explore any new entries in the series. Despite the ultimate victory, my progress through the game felt more like a chore than entertainment. This wasn't something I wanted to do, I had to do it. Like raking a yard seemingly devoid of leaves, I learned no greater lesson, I regained no faith in the genre. I am emotionally detached from the joy felt by so many fans of the series. I think with time, this apathy may turn to hate.

I didn't breeze through the game, I struggled the whole way. The problem was that I wasn't struggling in different ways, I was struggling with the same things I had trouble with the last time I played this thing. Those damned undead archers, slowly notching their arrows and nearly oblivious to the vicious attacks I threw at them. If you were lining up a shot and someone hit you in the face with an arrow, would you keep going like nothing happened, or would you stop, if only to say "ow"?

I don't know who thought they needed to put a new weapon in Ninja Gaiden Black. The Lunar, a staff you find discarded in an urn (probably containing the ashes of it's previous owner) was next to useless for me. The whole game I was using the Dragon Sword, the Flail or the Kitetsu, just like the original. the few times I tried to use it, I was killed so quickly that I could barely get out a "hey, cut it out." Some people have found it to be a great help, I'm sure, but I am not one of those people. The most agravating thing about the staff was that I was even excited to get it. The game tricked me into caring for a useless stick. No other game has done that to me, because no other game is as baseless, cruel and sadistic as Ninja Gaiden.

My worst bout with humiliation came at the end of the game. I was tasked with escaping from a collapsing pit. Okay, fine. The ledges I had to move between were impossibly small and I fell off them into burning lava more times than I care to remember. The thing with lava in this world is that it will not kill you immediately if you walk through it. So, after I've fallen from the highest reaches of the cavern, I'm given the choice to run back to the start with my health slowly ticking away, or stand there and let myself die. I watched my character slowly burn to death over a delicious sandwich.

I cannot, after all that I have been through and accomplished, forgive Ninja Gaiden. I cannot feel anything but spite for the series I once loved. It's too bad really. I could have made a great ninja.

Why are you surprised?

Monday, August 4, 2008
For those people who are oh so excited about the new Xbox live Mii- err avatars life was beautiful. Until rumors popped up about accessories for said avatars costing money. All of a sudden the Live boards are awash with angry gamers decrying the shady baby candy stealing ways of Microsoft. "How dare they charge us to dress our avatars in things!" many are heard to say. I for one am not surprised.

To be completely honest, I never expected extra accessories to be free. We already pay for premium gamerpics, and since those will be essentially replaced by the avatars, I expect there to be similar charges for new avatar duds. No one, from Microsoft or elsewhere, said they would be free to begin with. From the language used by the spokemen at E3, it sounds like creating an avatar will be free, and they will have a bank of clothes and such right off the bat. Down the road Microsoft will expand the library of options, and that's when I think we'll see the pay sets pop up.

I imagine the payed accessories will be themed, much as the gamerpics are now. You'll pay for a Gears of War 2 set of clothes, maybe some cartoony COG armor, or shirts with the logo on it. You'll buy a Penny Arcade themed set and make your avatar loke like Gabe, Tycho or maybe even FF. Essentially the same system we use for gamerpics, but with a broader range of customization.

I'll be trying to pry some information from the Microsoft booth folk at PAX, until then I can only call this a theory. Whatever the finished product looks like, I'm sure most of the folks donning their warpaint will settle down and quietly return to their console to dress their avatars in ever more lustrous regalia.

Is this a sign of a greater problem?

Sunday, August 3, 2008
I may have a problem. Browsing Kotaku the other day, I came across a link for a free browser based game called Pandemic II. This game has you in the role of a disease either a virus, bacteria or parasite with one simple goal; kill every last human being on the planet. The game has various options for evolving your disease with different symptoms, ways of transmitting yourself from victim to victim and resistances. It's a simple game with a lot of options executed well. That's not the reason I love it however. I love this game because I am charged with wiping out humanity.

I wouldn't be concerned about this if it were the only game of it's type that I enjoy. I frequently play Defcon, a game that gives you control of a specific region of the world wherein you set up silos, radar stations and air force bases. The game gives you a predetermined amount of time to mount your defenses and pick your targets. Eventually everyone launches their various nuclear weapons and the planet is wiped clean. If you end up with the fewest percentage of dead, you win. The interface is customizable, from position of menus to colors and transparency.

What is it that makes me love these games? Do I have a deep seated desire to hold he fate of the world in my hand? Do I have a villain complex? It's a troubling thought but it's even more troubling that I didn't realize it until my own wife pointed it out. I love to decide the future of the planet. In most RTS games I play I am a ruthless and devious ruler. I will shake your hand in friendship and send you home on the same plane as your assassins.

I beat Shogun: Total War by gaining the trust of various factions and having them killed one by one. As I was the most trusted ally they had, most of their land went to me. Any provinces left in turmoil were quickly snapped up by my armies. I have employed this strategy numerous times and it has never failed.

As further proof of my nature, I offer you this video of Far Cry 2. The trailer shows various methods for deceiving your enemies in the game. As a long time FPS sniper, I was delighted that I could now wound enemies to draw out their comrades. I've wanted to be able to employ this tactic for years and now I'll finally be able to. Joyous laughter filled the air the day I saw that trailer.

I'm not really concerned about my darker video game exploits. I don't think any of these behaviors point to a larger problem. I'm just a naturally devious opponent. I like games that let me hold all the cards. If you're ever playing a strategy game with me, don't trust a word I say. I will pour sweet honey in your ears, promise you riches and secure relations, all with a knife at your back. If it will work to my advantage in a game, I will speak nothing but lies. You've been warned.