The Speculative Threepwood or: Have you seen this Pirate?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Guybrush Threepwood. What does that name conjure up in your mind? If you're reading this then you're probably thinking about insult sword fighting, the Ghost pirate LeChuck and a little skull named Murray. If none of that made sense, follow this link and don't come back until you've caught up to the rest of us.

Anyone who's played a SCUMM game knows about Monkey Island, or at least ought to. The classic adventure series has been sorely missed by all of us here at SG and we'd like nothing more than to tell you there's a new Monkey Island game in the works, but we can't.

The truth is we really don't know. At E3 2006 Lucasarts said they might return to the classic franchises in 2015, but who knows how solid a date that is. Honestly it seems strange that any company would plan that far ahead. Lord knows we pester every Lucasarts employee we see about an new Monkey Island game whenever we get the chance so I can imagine a few people throwing out a bullshit answer to get us off his/her back.

At PAX this year Hiro and I abused our semi-press positions to ask another poor soul about future Monkey Island projects. His answer "I can't comment on that." It's not a yes, so don't read too much into it. It isn't a no either and it was enough to keep Hiro and I talking. Could there be a secret Monkey Island team hard at work in the bowls of Lucasarts? Will we actually ever learn the real secret of Monkey Island?

The more important thing to discuss here is why not make another Monkey Island game? The recent success of games like Professor Layton (not a true SCUMM game but similar in some aspects) should show that the market still exists for adventure games. The PC crowd are still the biggest home for such games, but I believe the handheld market is perfect for a Monkey Island game. The game doesn't need any great graphical glory, it's easy to pick up and play and doesn't require intense concentration to beat.

A DS Monkey Island game would certainly get me blood pumping. It wouldn't even have to be a new game, hell, release the originals for the DS and PSP and I'll be a happy camper. The timing is right, with the release of Mega Man 9 showing that gamers are more than willing to spend money on a nostalgic experience. It sound like easy money to me, but I don't make decisions for Lucasarts. If I did, the Full Throttle and Sam and Max sequels would never have been cancelled.

If the portable market doesn't fit quite right, why not go the route of episodic content. One old Lucasarts property has already been repurposed into such a series and has been met with great success. It's a growing market, one that most developers are still a little shy about, but the potential has already shown in Sam & Max and Penny Arcade Adventures.

In the end, Lucasarts, if you're going to do something with the property, great, do it. If you aren't, sell it to someone that will use it. You did it with Sam & Max, you can do it with Monkey Island. There is no reason to keep it on a shelf for some illusory future release. The fans have been faithful and patient. Star Wars is fun and all, but we remember you for so much more. It's time for you to expand your horizons. Please, bring back Threepwood.

Coming HOME Again

Saturday, September 27, 2008
About six months ago I got an email from Sony saying, in much more elaborate and marketable terms, that I was invited to come try the beta of their long-lauded service, Playstation HOME.

Long story short:

It was boring. There were a few people in the bowling alley. The Arcade games were sorta lame. The theater was cool but it took too long to load up the videos. The only way to have a dance party and make use of the dance emotes was to blast your stereo and let your headset pick up on. I didn't log on very much.

Then, a few weeks ago, I got another email. "Playstation HOME has been updated. Please delete your old Beta client and download the new one."

I didn't make it a priority, but finally tonight, I decided to see what it was all about. I'm glad I did.

Very quickly, I'll list the new HOME features I noticed without a marketing ploy telling me about it.

1. Revamped Character Customizer
2. Mall Space where you can get new properties (A Summer house), clothes, furniture, etc. There are also chess tables in the mall, and I had an excellent match with someone and made a friend.
3. Cafe Area
4. Items (Bubble Makers!)
5. Faster loads

Last, and most importantly, the ability to jump straight into a game with a new acquaintance. I tested this with Warhawk, handing players their asses. I was able to jump straight from HOME into the game another HOME player was in--and he wasn't even on my friend's list. It was as simple as:

Guy: "Want to play Warhawk?"
Me: "Sure."

He started playing. I clicked his avatar, clicked "Join Warhawk game", and was taken straight to the game he was in.

But the reason I'm writing about this here is not to plug new features or try to drop fresh bits of news--there are a flood of gaming blogs for that. I wanted to mention how HOME made me feel and react.

I had FUN.
I was EXCITED to meet new people.
I was IMPRESSED by the awesome scenery and deep but simple customization tools.
I was HAPPY that I downloaded HOME and I look forward to spending more time there.

As a gamer, there are so few communities where something like this is possible. To meet, chat, play casual games...and then jump straight into another, actual game and share an gaming experience. I added two people to my PSN Friends tonight--a guy with whom I played chess, and another with whom I played Warhawk. I was filled with nostalgia, but not the kind Malech talked about in his post about Mega Man 9. I was reminded of going to school and making a new friend in class or at lunch or at recess, going to the arcade after school and tearing it up at Street Fighter 2 or Virtua Cop or any one of a hundred other games.

It was a good feeling that I haven't felt in a long, long time.


Finding Meaning in our Games

Friday, September 26, 2008
For every gamer there is a game that defined their interest in games. A single title that above and beyond all others stays foremost in our minds. Whatever the game, there are a myriad of reasons why it holds such a lofty position. It could be the first game to resonate with you, it could have helped you through a difficult time, it could just be the most fun you've ever had. I'd like to open a dialogue with our readers with this post. What game or games hold that kind of meaning for you? I'll start things off.

First of all, I have to talk about X-Com. I know you've all heard it from me before but X-Com was my gateway into gaming. Not a day goes by that I don't think of it fondly. Something about the depth of the gameplay and the challenge the game presented suck me in like no other game ever had. I spent hours researching new technologies, building bases, etc. I even took copious notes on my results. Unlike other games, defeat didn't frustrate me, instead I felt as though I had learned something. I'd been beaten fair and square.

Today I'm still looking for a little of X-Com in every strategy game I play. With Take 2 buying the rights to the series, I might not have to look much longer.

While X-Com got me into games, there is another that holds an equal although different kind of meaning to me. Shadow of the Colossus really cemented a lot of things for me. At the time of it's release, I was dealing with the loss of someone very close to me. The player character from that game shared the same heartbreak that I did. I felt so determined throughout the game to finish my task and bring the girl back to life. In the end, the game actually helped me let go.

Beyond that, Shadow of The Colossus cemented a deep passion for games. Because of the deep emotional attachment I had to the games protagonist I felt more attuned to games as a whole. I felt what a video game character felt. I endured the same trials as my on screen counterpart. Games weren't just entertainment anymore. They meant something to me, they were a lifestyle. A lifestyle that helped me to get to where I am now.

I owe a lot to the games I play. I can trace a lot of life lessons and skills back to games. Monkey Island taught me to laugh at games. Shogun Total War taught me the importance of strategy and got me reading the Art of War. Professor Layton taught me to think things through. Metroid showed me it didn't matter who was under the suit. Medal of Honor taught me the meaning of sacrifice. Syndicate taught me patience. Team Fortress taught me teamwork. The list goes on. I'm sure your list is equally long. So please, share a few of them here.

New bungie project revealed...sort of.

Thursday, September 25, 2008
Bungie has finished the countdown on their site. With it came few answers to our many questions. Instead we have a teaser trailer for something entirely new. Take a look at it and tell us what you think.

The presence of "Halo 3" at the end of the trailer makes me think it's more of an add on than a stand alone title. Who really knows at this point.

Long overdue

You were promised a second post about Mega Man 9 and it was not delivered. Until now.

It's now been released for two systems and has apparently done very well. Indeed the reviewers were quite kind to it. I didn't expect it to do poorly at all, after all, Mega Man has a solid following. Do I think the look and feel of the game helped drive the sales? Absolutely.

Take a look at previous entries in the Mega Man series. Almost every one has stuck to the same basic aesthetic and it's worked fairly well. Why then does Mega Man 9 garner so much attention? Simple; it brings together in one place, the two top conversation pieces among most gamers. The good old days and new games. Who doesn't love to recount the early days of his/her gaming life or telling unenlightened friends about the joys of a new game.

The vocal minority may say that MM9 isn't breaking any new ground. They're dead wrong. MM9's 8-bit graphics may have settled once and for all the graphics vs. gameplay debate. Most gamers already proclaim gameplay over graphics, but some developers seem unconvinced. Maybe MM9 will finally show some companies that graphics don't make a game successful anymore.

Some may argue that MM9's sales data is contaminated by those who are downloading the game, not for the gameplay but the shiny old coat of paint. They want to play a game that feels like the originals did. To some degree, the point is valid, but the game wouldn't survive past it's first couple days if it isn't fun to play. A game can look exactly like it's predecessors but if the gameplay isn't there, if there is no real depth of play to it, the gimmick wears thin pretty quickly. Take a look at the sales data by the end of the week and I think you'll see it stay strong.

Capcom has managed to make not a clone of early Mega Man games but an entirely new game with everything that made the originals great. It's difficult, nostalgic and above all, fun. The look may get a few people through the door, but the game is what makes them stay.

Bungie Update

Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Bungie's long pondered countdown has returned. Like before, it's a short one, although this time much shorter. Thursday morning at 7am, all will be revealed. Maybe. If you feel like watching numbers tic away, hit the site. Rest assured, Somnambulant Gamer will bring you all the news as soon as it's available.

Nostalgia is all the rage.

Monday, September 22, 2008
Most people not living in a hermitage have heard about Mega Man 9 by now. We can also assume that you've heard about the stylistic choices the developers made. Those unfamiliar with any content in the previous two sentences, clarification lies below.

Mega Man 9 will be released not as a tricked out 3d platformer but in all it's nostalgic, 8-bit glory. For most older gamers (like myself) this means fits of glee and a change of pants, but for some of the newer crowd, it's an alienating experience. Having never experienced the early console games and indeed the classic early Mega Man games, the younger crop can't all be expected to welcome MM9 with open arms.

For some though, it's a chance to connect with and older brother or sister, mother or father. This graying gamer suggests that you give it a look. If you own a Wii or PS3 expect to give your processors a break on September 25th. Those with a 360 can get their fix on October 1st. Included below are some screenshots from the new release. More on this tomorrow.

Keep it Clean... again.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Remember E3? You know, terrifying Nintendo execs, Little Big Planet financial reports, that E3. Remember the almost announcement from Bungie? That's right, the on that got pulled by Microsoft execs hours before the splash image countdown reached zero. Well, as of early this morning, it's back. Theories abound about when and where the announcement will be made, many revolving around the Tokyo Game Show.

Personally, I wouldn't expect the announcement to take that long. The Tokyo Game Show is more than two weeks away, and I don't think Bungie would risk a slavering mob of hungry fans by teasing them a second time with so long a wait. I'd expect the announcement to drop in the next week, possibly the next couple days.

Beyond that, all we know thus far is that it is definitely Halo related. Have a look if you think you can piece it all together.

The Force on a longer length of rope

Friday, September 19, 2008
The reviewers have already made their opinions known. The Force Unleashed is a middle of the road game as far as most people are concerned. Once again, I don't seem to be most people.

The game has it's issues to be sure. During my playthrough, I encountered one frozen and invincible opponent, one lockup, and one moment where specific sounds cut out. I did not encounter any eternal falls, but they do happen. These errors were a little frustrating, but there were ways around most of them that didn't require resetting the console. The sound came back within a couple minutes and the statuesque enemy didn't have to be killed to move on.

I agree these sort of things shouldn't happen that often in a major release like The Force Unleashed, but let me ask you this. Would you have tolerated them in any other game? Few games are without their glitches. Take the ever popular Saint's Row, riddled with bugs, yet they didn't seem to hurt the game much at all. Hell, they're making a sequel.

What I'm really getting at is that The Force Unleashed isn't Saint's Row. The game is mostly stable, but because of the hype surrounding the title, it's held to higher standards. Is it fair? Probably not. Will the average gamer feel the same way as the reviewers? I doubt it. The story and acting is fantastic, the gameplay feels a lot like God of War and the art direction is incredible.

If you're as big a Star Wars fan as I you'll probably be as pleasantly surprised by the story as I was. A well acted Star Wars plot is such a rare thing these days that most fans, including myself, gave up hope of ever finding one again. The Force Unleashed delivered everything the prequels didn't and made it playable.

The customizable options are sizeable. With interchangable crystals that give your lightsaber different appearances and abilities, upgradable force powers, combos and stats, there's plenty to keep you playing. The upgrades don't change the outcome of the game, they're more of a way to tailor the game to your style of play.

Rent the Force Unleashed at least. The demo doesn't really do it justice, taking place in the least spectacular location in the game. You won't be out a lot of cash if you don't like it, plus it can feel a little liberating to ignore the reviewers for once.

Oh Snap

When I think about gaming as a progressive medium, the first thing on my wish list is the next game from Team ICO, creators of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.

The next thing on my list is this video game advertisement:

The formula is finally revealed. Before, it looked something like this:

1. Good game
2. Good advertising
3. ???????
4. Profit!

Now we know it actually looks like this:

1. Good game
2. Good advertising
3. George Takei
4. Profit!


Uwe Boll, Herald of Crap

Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Uwe Boll, pictured above doing what he does best, isn't satisfied just making horrible movies, he's decided to make a horrible game. Debuting today on Gametrailers, 1968 Tunnel Rats puts players in the roll of a Vietnam era soldier apparently with rheumatoid arthritis as he walks, yes walks, through tunnels after Vietcong soldiers (read: oblivious looking guys in t-shirts) and hopping gaily over logs in the dangerous jungles of southeast Asia.

The trailer shows a game with an abysmal frame rate and uninspired graphics. The writing shows that typical Boll flair. Pausing the trailer revealed lyrical gems like,"The Hueys are here Man! I knew this wasn't for long! I knew it couldn't be real!" Of course, the text in the trailer blackouts takes the cake.

If you can stand if, check out the trailer. It's bound to hurt a bit, so brace yourself. If I know Uwe Boll though, there's bound to be a commentary track in the game. Listening to Uwe drone on about how wonderful and ingenious he is is the only thing that makes his films bearable. In fact, they're hilarious. If you have nothing else to do, rent a couple of his movies and listen to the commentary tracks. Pure gold.

Feist: Liked the Trailer? Play the Beta!

Provided of course that you've got a mac. It's a very relaxing game, just remember that this is an early Beta, there are still some bugs here and there. Anyway, here's the beta via indiegames.

Feist is a game

Tuesday, September 16, 2008
As the title states, we're talking about a new game here, not the singer or the scifi author. The debut trailer for it just went up on Gametrailers. The site says it's a Mac game. There's little formal explanation in the trailer so the most we know now is that it's a 2d platformer and your character is a strange shadow creature. The art style reminds me of a Hayao Miyazaki film. Video's below with thanks to Gametrailers.

Youth revisited

Monday, September 15, 2008
Recently I made a trek to my parents home. While there I came across a stack of old PC games. Most of these games I'd loved at some point or another, but had since forgotten about them. In the interest of science, a portion of the stack came home with me and now sits in front of my computer while I write this.

I'm going to reinstall each of these games one by one to see if they still hold the same appeal now as when I was young. I'll write an independent post for each as I play them but for now, I'll introduce our competitors.

Black & White: The well known god simulator/ giant creature training game. You are tasked with converting all major villages and cultures to believe in you. The more your followers believe in you, the greater your influence and powers. You can choose to behave however you wish, be it fire and brimstone for breakfast or sunshine and gumdrops. Personally, I like to go back and forth, keep the villagers on their tiny, simulated toes.

Total Annihilation Kingdoms: From giant robots to dragons, I remember this game as the closest thing to playing Warcraft and Total Annihilation (the original) at the same time. Any game that gives me Golems as tanks and Rocs as troop transports, I'm there.

Myth III: Not quite the same as the first two in the series, but a passable entry. Squad based strategy with pyromaniac dwarves, exploding zombies and ancient evils. Not bad, but I'll probably spend most of my play time pining for the first two, vastly superior Myth games from good old Bungie. Sigh...

Rome Total War: Third in the Total War series after Shogun and Medieval Total War. I swear I'm actually going to beat this game some day. It's still on my parent's computer (has been since it's release) and I've put in a little time on it every time I drop by these days, but I'm still playing the first game I ever started. Good news though, after two years of war, I've finally beaten the Gauls.

Sudden Strike: What do you know, another strategy game. Space based? No. Ancient societies? No. Giant mechs? No. It's all WWII and all I can really remember about it is that it was impossibly hard. If you've got realistic unit damage, ie a bullet will kill a man, real time battles on giant maps might not be the way to go. If this is what WWII was really ike, I'm surprised anyone got out alive.

Empire Earth: A standard real-time strategy game (notice a pattern yet?) with one twist. You're able to refine your civilization from a tiny, stone age community into an enormous, laser wielding, nuke deploying nightmare legion. The best part is getting to that point while your opponents are still in the bronze age. Heh heh, silly archers, you can't hurt an attack heicopter.

Tachyon The Fringe: The gameplay of Privateer with the voice talent of Bruce Campbell. Nuff Said.

Commandos 3: Honestly, I don't remember too much about this game other than having a hell of a time getting it to run smoothly. Who knows if it'll even work. If it does, it's another squad based WWII game. Should be fun.

So, that's the pile I brought home. Who knows if these games can still hold my attention as well as they once did. If nothing else, they should provide me with something amusing to write about. Here goes nothing.

Dreams Really do Come True.

Friday, September 12, 2008
The first game to really make an impression on me was X-COM: UFO Defense. It came into my hands around the time I was given Syndicate, it quickly became the sole game occupying my computer's CD tray. It stayed there for almost a year. I owned and played that game without fail every week until late 2001 (almost ten years) when I loaned it to a friend who destroyed the disc.

Since then I've searched high and low every week for a copy on the cheap, with little to no success. Luckily for all of us, the ENTIRE SERIES has been released on Steam for fifteen dollars. If you play games at all and you own a PC made in the last 11 years, go there now and buy it. Just go. Don't ask any questions, just let it happen. You won't regret it, I never did.

If, for some reason, you don't want to play the original, check out the UFO trilogy from Altar Games. It costs about twice as much as the bundle on Steam, but it's a decent update of the classic game. The gameplay and premise are just about the same, the specs are just upped a bit. It's not bad, but can't compare to the original. Nothing can as far as I'm concerned.

Immersing the Player: Looking forward

Earlier in the week we spoke about immersion as it existed in it's earliest forms. More often the casino ploy of shiny shiny things than anything else, the earliest games were mere entertainment. Yet, as we've already seen, the advent of RPG's and their more in-depth story-telling techniques bled into almost every other genre and series. Today, story is one of the essential elements of any immersive game.

Story had reached a pinnacle. Because the technology available could not improve elements of story, other elements were had to take it's place. Graphics took the forefront, pushing forward the 3D environment from early vector graphics to the N64 and Playstation. This generation of consoles broke new ground and provided the basis for many of today's titles. Older franchises were again reinvigorated on the newer systems.

The N64 brought us Goldeneye, the precursor to all modern shooters. The story was nothing too special, simply elaborating on the movie of the same name. What really made the game memorable were the multiplayer modes, packed with options. This would become the driving force of immersion. Options, be it in various routes to your destination, weapon loadouts or just the look of your character, options had been lacking in most genres until Goldeneye. Most of today's successful shooters -Halo, Call of Duty, Rainbow Six- depend on a plethora of customizable options to move more copies.

The Playstation brought us many classic titles, titles that still, more than ten years later, influence the way we play games. Chief among those are Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid. FFVII gave us a sweeping story the likes of which are still being imitated. There were few dry eyes when Aeris was killed, and we were reminded that no matter the medium, a powerful story is an emotional investment.

Metal Gear solid was one of the first games, through a combination of graphics, story and sound to make the player feel like a part of the game. Metal Gear Solid wrapped the player up in the story better tan most with it's decidedly cinematic approach to storytelling. The score is as memorable as any classic film, and the graphics at the time were state of the art. But Metal Gear did something else that set it apart from the crowd. The game broke the fourth wall. It broke down the barrier between player and game.

The fight with Psycho Mantis is the best example. Being a psychic, Mantis read your memory card, talking directly to the player about the games on the card. He also took over your controller, and the only way to counteract it was to unplug your controller and plug it into another port. Like a character in a play addressing the audience, those actions helped make players of Metal Gear Solid more involved in the game.

Jump forward to today: The silent Hill series, Shadow of the Colussus, Ico and the Metal Gear Solid series all involve their players in their games not through breaking the fourth wall, but by using everything at their disposal to make the player feel like part of the game. By creating an environment that is coherent, detailed and complete, atmosphere comes to the forefront of immersion in today's market. Observe the images below.
Shadow of the Colossus


Silent Hill:Homecoming

These games give you a sense of the environment by playing off of our natural human instincts. Shadow of the Colossus makes us feel overpowered by confronting the player with enormous adversaries. Ico gives us a feeling of intimacy with nothing more than holding hands. Silent Hill evokes fear by twisting our own perceptions and limiting our view of the surroundings. So, is this what immersion has become? Is there anything else to it? Can we o anywhere from here? The answer lies, in my opinion, with one company.

Ubisoft has been committed to raising the bar on immersion. Assassin's Creed was the prototype of their new mission. In the ultimate exercise of atmosphere, Assassin's Creed never -excluding the start screen- takes you out of the game. Every aspect, from the menus to the loading screens, are worked into the plot of the game. On top of that, the game allows you to choose, to an extent, how you go about achieving your goals.

Some of the tweaks made seem simple at first. The option to turn off the HUD is a small thing in theory, but it fundamentally changes the way you approach the game world. You no longer have a map to your locations, a health meter, ammo counter. All of your information comes from observation of the world around you. The feeling is alien when compared to most other games. You can't fully understand the depth of the experience until you try it yourself.

Ubisoft's latest opus, Far Cry 2, is a first person shooter set in Africa. Again, Far Cry 2 doesn't take you out of the game at any point. That means a little more for a first person shooter than a third person title as it forces the player to see the game through the characters eyes throughout the story. On top of that, the game is yours to approach however you want. Take down entire factions, go directly after your primary target, it doesn't matter. The game reacts dynamically to your behavior, however subtle you are in your approach. There's no wrong way to play Far Cry 2, it's all about your choice as a player. Every aspect of the game is under your control. To complete the illusion, the world around your character has been painstakingly detailed, from dynamic weather, destructible environments, even self propagating fire.

Gameplay continues to evolve. Immersion is playing a greater role in shaping the games we play. Let's face it, gamers are just more sedentary adrenaline junkies. We demand an ever more visceral and compelling experience. Expect more titles like Far Cry 2. Like story before it, graphics are reaching a plateau. Something else has to take it's place, and truly immersive gameplay seems the likely heir.

Next-Gen part 1: Boobs? Or diabolical boobs?

Gamer, you may be curious as to the reason the title of this blog post has the word boobs in it twice. Indeed, you may be furious, if you aren't a gamer at all and ended up here by accident thanks to google.

The reason will become apparent shortly.

Now, let's ask ourselves a question: what in the high hell does "next gen" mean? Think back. If you're old enough, think back to when the SNES came out. Did we hear this catchphrase like we do today? With the launch of the Playstation, Dreamcast, Saturn, Playstation 2, or Xbox? No. Why? Two reasons: When those systems launched, gaming journalism wasn't 1/100th as prolific as it is today. But more than that, next gen was implied in every screen shot in GamePro magazine, on the back of that Genesis case...we knew when something was new. We could tell just by looking at it. I personally remember shitting a brick when I saw the bomb-ass 3D graphics in Starfox. Somewhere, deep in my subconscious, I'm sure I was saying "now that's fucking next-gen!"

Today, things are not so clear. Graphics? Graphics are easy. The tools are there...have we hit a plateau graphically? No, but we're coming up on it. Today, a game has to be more than pretty to garner any sort of attention from the hardcore gamer. In fact, good graphics can hurt a game's credibility if it's apparent graphics were the focus of development--See Lair.

So what, today, is next-gen? We use this word loosely, but what does it really mean? I think we've all got a feeling what it really means, and in this two-part series, I'm going to discuss two game franchises that are truly taking us into the future. With that, please take a good, hard look at the picture below.

Image Hosted by

Fellow gamer, let's have an experiment, shall we? Yes? Excellent. Let's set our ground rules first...our 'control' if you will. For the purpose of this exam, let's assume you are a male gamer between the ages of 16 and 28. If you aren't, pretend you are--it isn't very difficult. Next, let's disregard the bit of German at the bottom of that picture.

Now, let the experiment begin: I want you to look at the picture above. I'll wait.

Okay, good. Now, look again. Ask yourself, "What do I see in this picture?" I'll wait while you make a few notations, as I'm sure you are.

All right, good, good. This is going nicely. Now, if you please, take another, final look at the picture. As yourself, "what do I like about this picture? What do I dislike? "

See what we're getting at, here? I want you to be looking at two things--well, three things, specifically--the nurse's breasts, and the nurse's face.

The Silent Hill games have understood next gen since the original Playstation game. The wonderful(ly insane) people who make the games realized something with the very first iteration--something Resident Evil and all the other survival horror games of the time missed--that looking pretty doesn't mean shit if the gamer isn't frightened, and that the gamer will quickly become desensitized to dog-through-the-window scare tactics. Silent Hill put the horror back in survival horror, and they did it by doing only what other developers are just starting to realize now, eleven years later: Next gen isn't the game--it's the person playing the game.

Take the screenshot above. Silent Hill has never been a sex-marketed game. However, one of the primary themes of the Silent Hill franchise has been perversion--of innocence, of beauty, of love. And that's exactly what the above shot is about. It's perverted, but not in the obvious sense of the word: look at yourself, 16-28 male gamer, and tell me that isn't a beautiful set on that nurse...and then tell me her face...or what's left of it...isn't grotesque.

Silent Hill: Homecoming looks to be doing the same thing each previous SH has done--take the emotions and reactions normally reserved for the player character and transmit them straight to the player themselves. The above screenshot sets off instinctual feelings of arousal and revulsion--the game is perverting the player's sense of beauty. It may very well be that the player feels genuine (if not minor) guilt for feeling attraction toward this thing.

Next-Gen, my friends, is us. And fortunately for us, the game industry is beginning to catch on.

Coming in part two of Next-Gen: !

Treating music with respect

Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Many of the gaming sites out there will tell you that Guitar Hero: World Tour is the sure bet this year over Rock Band 2. I'm not most gaming sites. I didn't enjoy Guitar Hero III, but not because I couldn't play drums to Dragonforce. The abysmal art direction of the game made me want to gag. It's untextured floors, simply rendered audiences of clones and a lead singer out of space (there's a reason you can't find many screenshots of him) furthered my distaste for the title.

What Rock Band and the people at Harmonix do that makes me want to buy their games is their treatment of music. They really love making music and games about music. It shows, and I don't think there's a human being out there who would contest that. That little extra bit makes Rock Band a great game. The community support, the forums, and the company's dedication to listening to the fans sets it apart from Guitar Hero.

Neversoft, now developers of Guitar Hero, do what they've always done. All the way back to Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, the subjects of their games have been treated like gimmicks. This is the company that put Darth Maul and Wolverine in a skateboarding game. When I was in eigth grade, that was great, but I'm an adult now, and I don't care about those kinds of things anymore.

The ad campaign and execution of the Guitar Hero entry for DS is a perfect example of the mistreatment of this once venerated series. Neversoft doesn't seem to care too much for the game they make beyond it's final dollar value. That's why Guitar Hero III and Guitar Hero: On Tour are such middle of the road games. The developers cared less about doing the game justice and more about pushing it onto shelves.

There's been a lot of talk about Guitar Hero: World Tour's new song creation tools. I know a few people are betting that it'll be the thing that pushes it ahead of Rock Band 2 come release. Well, if my experience with most die hard fans of Guitar Hero III says anything, you aren't bound to hear much ground-breaking or even reasonably good original music come out of the service. It'll all be about making the most difficult song possible, or a cover of some [insert random numetal band name here] song not available in the game already. It doesn't come off as a gift, but as an excuse for poor community service.

The folks from Harmonix have been releasing new content for Rock Band every Tuesday since release. They've even added the in-game store so you can hear the songs before you buy them. That kind of service only comes from people who care about the product they put out. They do this because they love it, not because of the money.

Luckily, I think people have taken notice. Beyond the game site hype, I'm starting to see more and more people saying they'll buy Rock Band 2 over Guitar Hero World Tour. The lines for the two games at PAX were a clear sign of peoples leanings. Rock Band 2 had a huge crowd and about a fifteen to thirty minute wait for the stage. Over at the Guitar Hero booth however, there was almost no wait at all, with a significantly smaller crowd. Seeing that brought a bit of hope to my dark heart. I might not be alone after all.

Immersing the Player; A Retrospective

Monday, September 8, 2008
For many developers, one of the more challenging aspects of game design is immersion. Immersion is and has been many things to many different people but it always boils down to engrossing the player in the game. Maybe it's by creating ever more stunning visuals, maybe it's an open world, maybe it's in the sound. Whatever the focus, today it's less about hooking the player and more about fooling our brains.

The earliest games didn't have to do much to get us interested. The simple idea that we could play a game on a screen was enough at first. But sure as any trend, people soon grew tired of milky greyscale. In answer to the desperate plebeian cries came Pac-Man, Joust, and eventually Mario. This early period focused more on bright colors and playful sounds to lure in the potential player. This cacophony of light and sound is that of the "golden age" of arcades. Each cabinet competing with the others for your attention.

When consoles first made their way into our homes, the games were copies of their arcade brothers. With 8-Bits of graphical power, many burgeoning companies stuck to the lights and sounds as their main hook. Others started toying more with story, trying to entice players closer with the promise of more than colors and lights but an interesting scenario as well. Before long, stories of space-based mercenaries, Dracula's castle and the Master sword filled the air at local arcades, at dinner tables and on the way to school.

As a testament to their staying power, Metroid, Castlevania and the Legend of Zelda are still with us, each game fundamentally the same in it's structure as it's predecessors, but each story different in it's own way. The Metroid series has followed a linear plot, only deviating from it on one occasion (a pinball game). Castlevania too has an overarching plot-line albeit a more disjointed one. The story of the Zelda series is essentially the same from game to game with small tweaks and additional gameplay elements added from title to title.

The systems on which we played became more and more complex as years wore on. By the '90s, 16-bit games were prevalent on the PC, Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis systems. The advent of CD-Rom games allowed PC users to install and play more in-depth games than the old floppy disks would allow. The PC market could now viably keep up with current consoles. This meant the advent of new types of games, new styles of gameplay and the birth of newer franchises such as Warcraft.

As the Genesis and the Super Nintendo vied for control of the console market, people chose sides citing, among other things, the superior graphics of their machine. The old franchises were reinvigorated with new entries as newer, faster characters made their way into the spotlight. Stereo sound gave gamers ears a new reason to perk up. The more realistic sound of video games mirrored their improved graphics. Many PC games favored more realistic color palettes as opposed to the flashy colors of earlier titles.

As games were drawn inexorably from the realm of 2D to 3D, graphics, story and sound would continue to play major roles in the immersion of players in the games they played. As players grew used to old tactics, new methods for keeping players interested would be explored. New heads of the industry would surface, people who grew up playing games, people who hungered for more.

This Friday, we will conclude our retrospective on immersion. We'll delve into the proliferation of shooters, sandboxes, and discuss the techniques today's developers use to keep you playing their games.

PAX 08 in Review: Resistance: Retribution

Friday, September 5, 2008
Retribution is the PSP title and first expansion of the Resistance series beyond it's mother console. Taking place in Europe rather than the US, the game focuses on what's been going on in the wake of the Chimera takeover. Details beyond that are still hazy, but so far, the story seems interesting enough.

The controls for most console shooters these days require the use of two thumbsticks. The PSP only has one, so a little ingenuity is required. The four buttons on the right of the handheld take over the job of aiming. At first, this system feels unnatural and strange. Before long however, it feels like second nature. The developers say they're all big fans of Goldeneye (who isn't) and to some degree the controls feel similar.

Targeting is accomplished by aiming your reticule near the brackets around each enemy. Get your reticule close enough and there's a small amount of auto aim that keeps you aiming at fast moving enemies. There's a fine line this mechanic walks between making the game too easy, and not giving enough help. Luckily, the mechanic is well tuned enough that it, like Johnny Cash, walks the line.

The most surprising bit of information the developers were willing to share was that the game is still pre-alpha. Sure the game looked a little rough around the edges in a few places, but to have a game this polished and functional pre-alpha is unheard of. There are plenty of final releases that don't have anything near the polish and poise of Retribution. If this is a sign of things to come, the future is bright indeed.

PAX 08 in Review: Resistance 2 (Multiplayer)

Most shooter fans are a fickle bunch. It's never enough to have a solid multiplayer experience, there has to be some catch, something to set it apart from the crowd. Call of Duty 4 may have given us the most drastic change in the old form with it's leveling system complete with new abilities and weapons unlocked as the player gains levels. It was such a success that almost every shooter under the sun has re-worked that system to some degree.

The trouble with this run of shooters is many end up looking the same. What made the system work so well for Call of Duty 4 was the organic feel the leveling system had. Nothing felt over-wrought or wedged in. There were no square pegs in round holes.

So as you've guessed by now, Resistance 2's multiplayer uses a similar system. When you start a match and whenever you go to the menu in a game, you are given the option to change your weapon loadout and pick your "berserk" ability. This ability is charged by accumulating kills and even just hitting an opponent. As you fire at an enemy, you'll see a steadily climbing counter appear on your screen. This translates into a bar that, when full, allows you to use abilities like invisibility, damage buffs and shields.

Luckily, the system has been re-worked enough that it fits with the overall aesthetic and lore of the Resistance universe. The abilities don't take long to charge, and dying doesn't take away your accumulated energy. That's a good thing, because it's not hard to get killed.

Resistance 2's multiplayer experience is fun. It isn't mind blowing by any means, but the Resistance series was never a ground breaking venture. It's a decent shooter all around and offers an experience in line with most people's expectations.

PAX 08 in Review: Prince of Persia

Thursday, September 4, 2008
Back with another new twist on classic gameplay, Ubisoft strikes a blow for the artistic with the new, cel-shaded Prince of Persia. The old Sands of Time prince is no more with this new character filling the role as a snarky, gauntlet wielding piratical type. Add in a new co-star with magical abilities a semi-open world and a drastically reworked battle system, and it's easy to see the series is headed into new territory.

It's a rare thing these days to see a company so comfortable with repurposing established franchises. In an industry plagued with sameness, moves like this bring a breath of fresh air. This is the sort of move that can broaden the horizons of players trapped in a comfortable genre cycle. It's arguable that the only way some people will ever accept new types of games is to have them forced on them. It helps that the new Prince actually looks like a good game.

The visual style is the first thing you're bound to notice. Gone are the super detailed realistic looking graphics of previous titles. Instead we're given the same detail with an artistic flair similar to European animated films. The color palette is full, leaving behind the grainy, Gears of War, washed out look so common in today's games. The Princes clothes shine in bright blue and red, and Elika's magics glow like a deep sea creature.

The battle system has taken out the multiple cheap-shotting opponents in favor of a one on one dueling system. The fights look amazing with strong visual cues denoting a change in offensive and defensive stances. The animations for the various moves are intricate and varied, helping to keep each fight from looking exactly he same. With only one enemy to fight at a time, each battle looks different, with moves and combos specific to the enemy you're fighting. The development team took cues for the fights from Advent Children and the Soul Calibur series in order to create battles that are as interesting to look at as they are to play.

The biggest difference in the gameplay is the open world feel. There are several environments in the game and it's up to you to decide where you start and where you go from there. No matter how you tackle the environments, you're going to be met with increasingly difficult challenges as you progress. Your enemies unleash strange, almost organic forces into the world that, once freed, will populate the remaining game world to make continuing on harder as you reach the conclusion.

The changes don't make this feel like an entirely new game so much as the next step in it's evolution. Much of what we expect from the series is still intact, and it all meshes together well enough that even the staunchest supporter of the old ways should be hard pressed not to enjoy this latest entry.

PAX 08 in Review: Far Cry 2

When you were a child, did you ever play war? You'd get your friends together, grab some sticks for guns, set up a fort, then stalk around the woods, field, empty lot or whatever was nearby. The game grew more complex as you and your friends grew older. You started simply, with hands and a bang bang noise, now you have paintball guns and painful welts. Well, if shooters follow the same rules, Far Cry 2 is the equivalent of active military service.

Ubisoft's latest shooter is the first to offer a truly open world environment. Your character, picked from eight pre-made characters with unique looks and back stories is sent to Africa kill an arms dealer called the Jackal. The missions are non-linear, the factions are dynamic (complete with a chain of command) and strict attention has been payed to make the game as immersive as possible.

Weapons will degrade and jam, cars will break down, bullet trajectory is effected by the weather, you'll even have to preform first aid to keep yourself alive. Throughout it all, you'll almost never leave the first person perspective. There are no teleporting cameras when getting into vehicles, switching seats or completing missions. The immersive nature is taken even further with a minimal HUD. The obligatory ammo and health meters take up very little space on the screen without being difficult to read.

The other characters in the game fill roles as "buddies." They'll provide you with weapons, safehouses, missions, even pull you out of danger when you're about to die. They aren't invincible though, and if they die, you're not going to see them again. It's all been taken into account though, and getting your buddies killed isn't going to break the story.

The ways to play Far Cry 2 are about as endless as you could imagine. Go in as a sniper, blow everything up, sneak around with silenced weapons or break out the man sized machine guns. It's all bout playing the game you want to play. Ubisoft has been taking great pains to ensure their latest releases have a longer shelf life. Open world gameplay is becoming a big part of the gaming world and Ubisoft has managed to get their foot in the door early.

As for the map editor, well, the best way for me to explain it is to just show it to you. Words are useless.

PAX 08 in Review: Fallout 3

Wednesday, September 3, 2008
I set Fallout 3 as the only post today because I've got a lot to say about it. I've had quite the history with the fallout series. I've played every game to bear the series name and still play Fallout 2 whenever I get a chance. I've beaten each main series game as an idiot, a thief, a sniper, a smooth-talker and a brawler (just to generalize a few character types). I have searched the endless wastes for water chips and G.E.C.K.'s, slaughtered gangsters deathclaws and super mutants. On my list of all time favorite games the fallout series lies squarely at the top -though just below X-Com: UFO Defense, that game makes joy so real I could leash it and walk it around the block. *ahem*, anyway.

The last time I played a fallout title with a console controller it was the minimally exciting Brotherhood of Steel for the original Xbox. Some part of that disappointment must have remained in my subconscious because as soon as I was in front of that screen with controller in hand, I felt apprehensive. The last thing I wanted was for this ray of hope to diminish in person. I wanted this to feel like the old days.

The first thing I noticed about the latest entry in the series was the atmosphere. The ruined retro-futuristic aesthetic was perfectly preserved and ported over to the Gamebryo engine. From the color palette to the vaultboy illustrations, it's all there. Even the dialogue retains that snarky fallout flair. Speaking to the Sheriff of Megaton I was delighted that my dialogue options were far more in depth than the Oblivion method of topic selection. I was given the familiar full sentence, often hilarious answers and threats I'd loved so much. Things looked good.

Not everything plays as it used to. The combat system in real time handles like a mix of Oblivion and Bioshock, while turning on "V.A.T.S." brings back some of the appeal of the old fallout combat engine. The Item creation system is particularly interesting. Around the wastes you can find schematics which give you a list of items you can assemble into various weapons. Any idiot can build something with instructions, but only a character with the right skills can build one that lasts. Intriguing.

I could go on about how much I loved Fallout 3, and I will next week. For now let me just say, in the interest of keeping this brief, that any fan of the series has little to worry about from Bethesda. The team has treated our beloved post-apocalyptic RPG very very well. Those familiar with the series will have their prayers answered, and those new to Fallout will have a great starting point to explore the beginnings of this incredible game.

PAX 08 in Review: Left 4 Dead

Tuesday, September 2, 2008
Valve and I have a long standing history. I've yet to be truly disappointed by a game of theirs. From Half-Life to Portal, they've been good to us for a while. Left 4 Dead is no exception. A zombie survival game made for co-operative play, Left 4 Dead sports a strange new way of dealing with enemy AI. The game is lorded over by the "director AI" a series of rules that decides, on the fly, when to throw enemies at you and how to go about attacking you. It will even pick out the weakest of the group and single them out.

No playthrough of Left 4 Dead will ever be exactly the same, as the "director" chooses when to let you rest, how difficult to make the hordes of enemies and even the direction they come from. Our group started out well enough. We cleared out the building we had been sequestered in and ventured out into the street. Dark and desolate, there are places where without your flashlight, you won't be able to see a thing.

The enemies stormed towards us in the alley, numbers climbing near to thirty at once. Our group cleared them out well enough and moved on. High ground, no matter how high has always been a plus in shooters. Thinking this, I hopped up onto a car... just as a warning flash across the bottom of the screen warning us not to set off any alarms. Too late. We could hear them coming . Screams and pounding feet grew ever nearer and I fixed my sights on the alleys. Hearing gunfire and shouts from my teammates, I looked around for the horde they were attacking. Then I saw them pouring off the roofs from three, four, even five stories up. We were in trouble.

Before long I was incapacitated, laying on the ground with only my pistols to stop the hundreds of enemies that surrounded me and my compatriots. Then two of us were on the ground, then three. I fired as quickly as I could, protecting the only teammate I had left. He was almost to me when he too was taken down by a small group of zombies. We all lay there slowly bleeding out, wishing we hadn't messed with the cars.

I've always been strong supporter of co-operative gameplay, especially campaign play. Left 4 Dead combines this love with my love of zombie films. The build they have going now is sharp and clean. The action of fast paced and the director AI works well enough not to be obvious. I look forward to playing this game in it's entirety come November. Hopefully by then, I'll have learned my lesson and I'll stay the hell away from the cars.

PAX 08 in Review: Dead Space

Tucked away in the back of the exhibition hall was the Dead Space booth. The surprisingly short line led inside a dark room with two screens. Art Director Ian Milhelm stood proudly by as I took the controls.

The demo placed me in a dank section of the USS Ishimura. Apparently, some asteroids had punched a hole in the ship and we had to get them out. With a press of a thumbstick, the camera shifted and illuminated a blue line leading to the objective. This one button path finding made the dark halls a little easier to navigate. One frightening but empty hallway later, I emerged into a room with no gravity.

Corpses floated eerily across the room with blood trailing out in all directions. Rounding the corner, I spotted one of the car sized asteroids floating on the far side of the room. I checked my trajectory and prepared to jump across to the far wall when something jumped out in front of me. I jumped for the first time since Silent Hill on the playstation. Ian Milhelm beamed behind me. The creature had the arms of a man but no legs and a distorted head with large jagged teeth. I fired at its head which tore off it's body and spun into the center of the room. For a moment I was relieved, then I noticed it was still coming.

I remembered the combat system video I had seen weeks before. Strategic dismemberment is the name of the game. Don't shoot it in the head. Take out its arms and keep it from holding onto the hull. I fired a couple shots at it's clawed arms and watched as it spun off into the furnace.

I spent a few moments grabbing rocks with the telekinesis gun and throwing them towards the roiling furnace. Once done, I restored the gravity and moved towards the exit. Suddenly I was surrounded by gruesome creatures all intent on my destruction. Somehow I managed to kill them, throwing gas filled limbs from fallen adversaries to detonate near livelier ones. I survived, barely.

I was impressed with Dead Space. The effects, the enemies and the atmosphere were fantastically crafted to create a believable scenario for your character. The animations for Issak (your character in the game) were befitting someone in a heavy engineers suit with magnetic boots. He stalked around as if burdened by his own gear. The menus are handled in real time as holograpgic projections from his own suit and terminals around the ship. They behave realistically, flattening out as you rotate the camera around them.

Most impressive however, was that this game comes from EA, a company I had written off years ago. It's incredible to see this innovative and creative title bearing the EA logo. Milhelm and the countless other working on Dead Space are proud of their work and rightly so. Given their lineup this year, it's safe to say there are more good things to come from EA. Bravo guys, Bravo.

PAX Recap and other things

Monday, September 1, 2008
PAX 2008 is over. Another Omegathon has drawn to a close, the final Rick Roll has been dealt, and the exhibition hall has been rolled up. My contingent returned late last night, and it's taken this long for us to sift through the massive amounts of information we gleaned from this years expo. There is so much information in fact, you won't get it all today.

The way this site is run will be changing. You will see major posts on Mondays and Fridays with smaller posts written throughout the week as news breaks or as we are inspired. The weekends will be the same for now, though we want to do something different on those days. Something exhilarating. More on that later.

What I will give you here are a few tidbits on what I'll be discussing briefly throughout the week. There were so many games at PAX this year that to talk about them all at once would be better suited to a paperback book than a single post. This is what you can expect to see as the week wears on.

Tuesday: Dead Space, Left 4 Dead
Wednesday: Fallout 3
Thursday: Far Cry 2, Prince of Persia
Friday: Resistance 2, Resistance: Retribution

Now that's done with, I'd like to say a few words about what really amazes me. Beyond the comedic antics, the cosplay, the untold numbers of geeks and nerds in one place, the concerts, even the games on display, the camaraderie and kindness shown by everyone at PAX is just incredible. By the second day, everyone is tired, undernourished and given to sudden headaches. Most crowds would be irate, but PAX attendees remain ever courteous, careful and decent. If any of you are reading this right now, thanks.

PAX is a wonderful experience. I have vowed never to miss an Expo if at all possible. I wish I were better able to express my thanks to all of the developers and attendees that answered my questions and took the time to listen to my prattling. You've made a young blogger very very happy.