Thursday, July 29, 2010

Jesse Schell's "Visions of the Gamepocalypse"

This past Tuesday evening I headed to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in downtown San Francisco to catch Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell's talk entitled "Visions of the Gamepocalypse."

Like most of the gaming-prone internet, I had watched his DICE presentation in February, rubbed my eyes, then watched it again. (Then took a break for lunch and watched it a third time.) Annie and I had a great time documenting our copious thoughts about it back in February, so I won't revisit any of that. But if you want more analysis and digression about the future of games than any human can hope to process (or indeed, care about), head into the wayback machine and give it a read. Also, it's worth 1000 Gamer Melodico points, which you will be able to cash in at an as-yet-unannounced date for what I'm sure will be a fabulous prize.

I was interested to see what new information Schell would include in his follow-up, since his DICE talk proposed a ton of possibilities but also left the door open for a good deal of of speculation. And so it was with great expectations that I sprinted from MUNI towards the YBCA, hoping that Schell's vision of the future still allowed academic talks to begin a few minutes behind schedule.

Full House

After navigating the multitude of locked doors and false entrances strewn about the maddeningly impenetrable Yerba Buena Center building ("Maybe this is a game," remarked a similarly stymied fellow nerd. "Maybe there's a camera recording us"), I made my way inside, tracked down a seat in the balcony, and whipped out my notebook.

The aisles of the nearly-full theater below were lined with a few hundred well-put-together men and women, most of them dressed in some variation of Silicon Valley evening-wear. Fashionable glasses, nice blazers, clean lines of slate, black, some light grey. Brushed hair, neat shoes; scarves.

After a brief introduction involving some cute gaming jokes from the YBCA chairman, they cued up the short-film Pixels to the huge delight of the crowd, most of whom had apparently never seen it.  After the world dissolved once again into a cube (Lord, but isn't that film chilling), the lights came up a bit and Schell, dressed in khakis and a bright blue shirt, bounded to the stage.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

WordString: Best Word Game Ever?

This post isn't about a videogame; it's about a word game. I love word games. Particularly on long road trips, they make for a great way to pass the time without having to resort to pedantic activities like, well, actually talking to one another. But as fun as "M/F/K" and "The Alphabet Game" are, this past weekend I rediscovered my favorite of them all: WordString.

At least, that's its working title - "WordChain" was taken. While I doubt that a game as simple and fun as WordString could have been definitively invented, I do believe that  I was present at one of its moments of inception. It was during my freshman year in music school, in spring of 2000. Our crew of jazz dudes was wandering around the frond-laden UMiami campus, probably after/while drinking, when apropos nothing my friends Russ and Kenji started to combine words.

It started when Kenji said: "HarMonica Lewinsky."

Russ added on to it: "HarMonica LewinSki mobile."

Kenji: "HarMonica LewinSki MoBill Stewart."

Russ: "HarMonica LewinSkiMoBill StewArt Taylor."

From there, they were off to the races. Over the next half hour or so, the two of them mixed pop culture references, slang, jazz tunes and inside jokes to create a Tower of Babel too ridiculous and twisted to recreate here. It grew until it had reached such an epically convoluted length that we had all stopped what we were doing and started trying to master it, chanting it together, cracking up and eventually writing out the finished product. It was kind of a singular moment.

Truly singular, in fact; for the remainder of our time in school together, none of us ever really played the game again. It seemed destined to be remembered as a funny thing Russ and Kenji did this one time.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Proper Villains

"In the old days villains had moustaches and kicked the dog. Audiences are smarter today. They don't want their villain to be thrown at them with green limelight on his face. They want an ordinary human being with failings."
-Alfred Hitchcock

When video games first came around, we were content to do battle with invaders from space, irate barrel-tossing monkeys, mysterious missiles falling from the sky, and spiky-shelled turtle creatures. They were our villains, and they were enough. In many cases, they were even memorable characters, though they were literally and figuratively two-dimensional.

As games have evolved we've seen the development of "narrative games", games that try to marry traditional a traditional narrative with the interactive capabilities of this new medium. These games have tried a number of approaches to help immerse the player in the game world, to create that suspension of disbelief so common in film, television and novels, and to create suitably awesome villains. As is to be expected, some of these approaches have been more effective than others.

To truly create a memorable experience, games use narrative choices and techniques to serve an the ultimate purpose of creating appropriate and motivated villains that make sense in the game world and behave appropriately. While the environment can be a character in and of itself (like Rapture is in BioShock), without villains, that kind of game world is just a set without actors.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Limbo, Limbo

My review of Limbo is up over at Paste. As reviews go, it's... different. I hadn't planned on writing something like that when I set out, but after finishing the game, it seemed like the only thing to do. As much as I wanted to talk about the game's art style (beautiful), audio (bloody brilliant), physics engine (impeccable), puzzle design (damn-near flawless) or length (around five perfectly polished hours), it felt like Limbo demanded something more in line with the darkly opaque experience it offers.

Ever since I started writing game reviews, I've thought a lot about what, exactly, they're supposed to be communicating. And while it varies from game to game, the best answer I've come up with is that each review should attempt to communicate and then reflect upon my experience playing the game.

But it's not often that a game comes along that both demands and allows a review to be a pure expression of experience and nothing more. Limbo is a game that must be played to be understood, so all I could do was try to offer an evocation of that experience.

But blah, blah reviewcakes. There is so much to say about the game, and I'm just dying for everyone to finish it so we can talk about it! I had a neat chat about it yesterday on IM with Denis Farr, and his interpretation was both different from my own and really interesting. He's been following the game for a little while, and I highly recommend reading his review over at GayGamer.

I also liked Edge's as-usual uncredited review, which points out just how darkly funny the game is. I'm not sure what this says about me, but I find that Limbo makes me laugh almost as much as DeathSpank does.

I have my own theories about what the game is trying to say (which I suppose are hinted at in my review), and I look forward to fleshing them out a bit further, either here or in various comment threads. I will say that even the scant information that Microsoft included with the game's XBLA packaging goes too far in its description. Just ask the game what it's about; it has no trouble speaking for itself.

The gentlemen from PlayDead were kind enough to send me some really cool concept art, which I thought I'd share after the break. Even though none of these specific shots are in the game itself, I feel they capture the essence of Limbo far more eloquently than I could.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Inception's Usability Problem

After seeing Christopher Nolan's new film Inception, I found myself thinking about videogame tutorials.

In-game tutorials are both hugely important and difficult to pull off, and today's game-designers have gotten pretty clever about putting them together. Usually placed at the game's start, a tutorial must not only communicate the game's unique control scheme ("Hold the left trigger to take cover, press the right thumbstick to aim your weapon"), it must also impart the rules that govern the game's particular universe ("If the guards spot you, they will be on alert for thirty seconds unless you can knock them out or hack the alarm. Also, they get sleepy after the sun goes down"). On top of all that functional stuff, most tutorials also integrate themselves into the fiction of the gameworld ("Okay, soldier, let's get that new suit of yours optimized. First, walk forward. Okay, now look at the four corners of your screen. Would you like your camera control to be inverted?").

In theory, a good tutorial gets out of the way as quickly as possible, but the more elaborate a game's systems, the longer its tutorials can drag on. Games that take place within massive, fully-realized worlds like those of Assassin's Creed II, Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption will often wind up imparting new information many hours into the "proper" game.

It can be distracting, but it's a shortcoming for which I cut game designers a lot of slack, mostly because it's accepted as a handicap of the form. After all, a player must understand a game's mechanics in order to properly experience it, and no two games play exactly alike. What if, I often ask, the first track of each of my albums was required to musically explain its instrumentation, key signatures and tempos before listeners could properly hear the music? What if every film had to begin with its characters demonstrating how to sit and watch it before viewers could appreciate the story it's trying to tell?

Actually, now that I've seen Inception, I have a pretty good idea of how much of a drag that would be. For me, Nolan's dreamjacking caper was the film-going equivalent of sitting through a videogame that is all tutorial and no play.

Friday, July 16, 2010

I Know You Are But What Am I

Videogames don't have to be funny. They don't even have to be fun. They can be difficult, they can be stressful; they can be epic, they can be cathartic. They can be terrifying. They can be intellectually engaging or compulsively playable; they can make us look forward to and dread playing them in equal measure. But they can also be funny, and they can also be fun.

DeathSpank is really, really funny. It's also fun. In fact, I'll go so far as to say it's the most purely enjoyable gaming experience I've had in recent memory.

That's just me, of course - I like funny things. I like wordplay, I like puns; I like when humor is so well-done that my laughter is half out of admiration for those who wrote it. Of my favorite games of all time, most are funny - Portal, Grim Fandango, Bully, The Secret of Monkey Island, No One Lives Forever 1 & 2.

But for some reason, these days I own almost no funny games. I can't speak as to why that is (though to his erudite, theatre-understandin' credit, Michael Abbott actually can) but there ya go. A quick inventory of the games on my shelf (most released within the last three years) leaves me feeling a bit sad about it, frankly. Some of the games have amusing bits, but most are simply not funny at all. Mirror's Edge, The Force Unleashed, Left 4 Dead 2, Oblivion, Red Dead Redemption, Far Cry 2, Final Fantasy XIII, Metal Gear Solid 4, God of War III, Alone in the Dark: Inferno... the only game I own that could truly be called a comedy is Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time. Perhaps that's why I've been playing DeathSpank with such gleeful gusto, why I've been enjoying it as much as I have been. I've been starved for laughs.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I've Got A ProTip For Ya

I like the term "ProTip." People use it all the time on Twitter, and it cracks me up. Sometimes the ProTips offered are actual gaming tips, but usually they're to do with food combinations or restaurant service or wedding etiquette or public transportation.

But alas, the bloom is a bit off the ProTip rose. There's already a backlash going on and as it turns out, I never even got to use the term before it became horribly dated.

Jeez, Twitter! You can take a joke from New to Popular to Meme to Played to Over in like six hours.

Anyway, all that preamble was just paving the way for my one and only ProTip. It relates to games, specifically action games. This is not an area in which I consider myself qualified to offer to many tips, pro or otherwise, so I am particularly excited to share it. Here goes:

ProTip: If a particularly difficult section of a game is kicking your ass, try it with the sound off.

It works for me, anyway. Especially lately, on some of the twitchier games I've been playing. I am... not good at these types of games. The thought of Ninja Gaiden Black makes me break out in a cold sweat. As a result, the above technique has served me quite well.

By the fifth time I'm facing down a particularly maddening boss, the pounding music, screaming enemies and stressful audio feedback loop is no longer exciting; it is a maddening distraction. For large chunks of God of War II as well as the giant scorpion fight in God of War III, several sections of Bayonetta, the egregiously poorly signposted indoor platforming sections in Mirror's Edge... I turn off the audio or take off my headphones and suddenly I am in a zen-like gaming state, finally able to think clearly. Inevitably and often immediately I master the section that had been whupping me.

The bummer is that it feels oddly like a defeat, anyway. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's that by turning off the audio, I am removing myself from the game, changing my perspective from frantically immersed combatant to coolly detached observer? When I defeat the challenging section, it is with some sheepishness that I bring the volume up on the subsequent cutscene. I cheated! I have not earned this dollop of storytelling!

(How weird is it that videogames have conditioned me to feel this way?)

Anyhow, there you have it - my first and probably only ProTip. I hope it is helpful.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Dragon Age 2 Can Only Be An Improvement

I loved Dragon Age: Origins. A lot. To this day, I regularly spend my free time in the company of my officious prick of an Arcane Warrior, fighting my way through the Deep Roads with Shale, Leliana and Morrigan in tow.

And so like every other DA:O fan in the world, I am dang excited about the just-announced sequel, Dragon Age 2. BioWare hasn't announced many details about the game (though maybe Game Informer subscribers can tell me differently); all we've got so far is a handful of screenshots and some vague details about the new protagonist, "Hawke."

(Which means we've got a lone "Shepard" and his noble and deadly bird "Hawke"... hopefully Jade Empire 2 will center around a protagonist named "Counting Sheep.")

Anyway, the upshot is that the entire populace (this proper usage of "populace" brought to you by Sparky Clarkson) of internet-town has taken these tiny info-granules and constructed a pretty convincing picture of what the final game will look like. We know that the protagonist will be human, be fully-voiced, and that dialogue will flow much more like Mass Effect. We know there's a simplified, more illustrated-looking art style and that the game will look and run much more smoothly on consoles. I think it's also a safe bet that there won't be 1:1 dialogue match-up anymore, but that's just me guessing. Sounds good, and about what I would've predicted.

But there is also quite a bit of discontent, mostly around the announcement that combat in the console versions of DA2 will be "tailored to the strengths of the PS3 and 360" rather than trying to recreate the experience of the PC version. Most folks have taken that to mean that we're going to get an overly simplified battle system that'll drop the first game's focus on strategy and depth. But I also get the sense that these guys and gals are voicing a desire to see Dragon Age's console UI and combat system remain mostly unchanged.

To these (possibly straw) people, I say: You are tripping.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Semantics, Shemantics

"I guess it comes as no surprise that with a medium as new and experimental as gaming, debates will break out over the language we use to discuss it..."

(reads that over, rolls eyes, tries again)

"Games are a brand-new artistic medium - we just bought this house and the paint is still fresh on the walls. As a result, we have yet to settle on some of the most basic terminology we will use to describe it..."

(peers through fingers, sighs)

"If an artistic medium is defined by those who criticize it..."

(Throws up in mouth)

Oh Christ already, enough. I just wanted to write something really quick about terminology. Specifically, the fact that there is still disagreement on whether to use the term "Video Game" or "Videogame" when discussing our favorite pastime/hobby/field of study/obsession/livelihood/nemesis. I have no wish to reanimate a micro-version of the great debate in our corner of the internet, I really just wanted to share a few thoughts I had about it over the weekend.

Friday, July 9, 2010

2010 Summer Burn-Off, Part 2

Man, you know it's summer when an entire week can pass and no one writes anything. We here at Melodico are traveling around, laying around, and generally screwing around, and we hope you are doing the same. I thought I'd take some time this morning to finish talking about my summer burn-off games. Ready, set, Boilerplate Intro!

During the summer, gamers have come to rely on having a few months of downtime to allow them to go through titles they may have missed during the busier months of the fall and winter. As a result, June, July and August are usually the realm of console exclusives that were previously out of reach, bargain-bin titles from past years that got skipped, or the shame-tinged reapings of a particularly devilish Steam sale.

This year, I almost didn't think it'd happen. After all, the first five months of 2010 have been jammed with massively ambitious AAA games - for a while, it seemed as though the trend would keep up straight through to the fall. Fortunately, just as our ears have stopped ringing from the clarion call of the Electronic Entertainment Expo, most game publishers have decided to give us a break for a few months.

My summer project is going to be Demon's Souls, a game that I still feel I've barely experienced and one that I dearly wish to see in its entirety. But as I've been wrapping the school year and getting set for summer, I've also been sampling a number of titles that I acquired through various inexpensive means. Many of them will be the subject of longer posts in the future, but for the time being, I thought I'd share some thoughts on what I've been playing. In Part 1, I talked about Alone in the Dark: Inferno, Killzone 2, The Saboteur and Max Payne 2.  In part 2, I'll be talking about...

Friday, July 2, 2010

Question of the Week: Sea of Regret

A light week here at GM, so we figured we'd go out strong with a brand-new Question! Of the Week!

Into the garden of gaming a serpent has slithered, hissing soft susurrations of surplus savings. He calls himself "Steam Sale," but we all know his real name. He is the walkin' dude, the man with no land, R.F. Flagg, dressed only in black. And if Twitter is any indication, he has essentially forced half the people on the internet to buy at least one massive game that they have no real intention of playing.

Almost the entire Melodico staff has succumbed and purchased Civilization IV, which seems particularly quixotic since the game's no-doubt mind-bogglingly dense sequel is just around the corner. Kirk just bought the entire Tales of Monkey Island pack, even though he hasn't played Monkey Island 2 (long story) and its re-release is next week. All around the globe, each day brings new tales of wallet woes, screenshots of incredible, frankly admirable Steam libraries and general revelry in the damnable bargains that digital distribution makes possible.

But even if we never used Steam at all, we all have purchasing regrets of one kind or another. Hence this week's question: "What is your most regretted video game-related purchase?"

Thursday, July 1, 2010

To Diablo II, With Love

Dear Diablo II,

Happy 10th birthday! I know you are probably feeling a bit depressed right now, because 10 years is actually like an entire century in video game years, and you might be fretting a little that you're not as spry as you once were. But I am here to tell you that you're still loved and respected by basement dwellers everywhere.

From the very first time that I killed one of Rakanishu's minions, I knew we had something special. For every piece of gold I liberated from monsters and demons alike, you made me feel like such a successful capitalist! I had always been so economically maladjusted before I stepped onto the Cold Plains just outside the Rogue Encampment, but you taught me that it was okay to slaughter the undead and hoard their spoils like a CEO on high-quality meth.