Wednesday, December 22, 2010

2010: The Year That Was

Except for a possible stray post or two, we're calling it a wrap on 2010 here at Gamer Melodico. I wanted to take a moment to highlight all of the posts that I thought were particularly cool, as well as to give our newer readers some stuff to read over the rest of the holiday break. 

So sit back, pour some nogg, and enjoy.


Though we started writing stuff in December, by any reasonable metric Gamer Melodico really took off when that "Mass Affect" Hipster RPG post I wrote in February went viral(ish). In that same month, Dan and I talked about how we thought Fable II was a disappointment, and I wrote about the lovely moment in an RPG when the world opens up and how much I didn't like it when a game rushed me to the endgame. Shortly afterwards, Annie and I wrote a reaction to Jesse Schell's first DICE talk that was as entertainingly wandering as it was fun to write. I encountered a feeling in Mass Effect 2 that surprised me: the love of an old friend, blooming into something more. Also, I made a video montage of Commander Shepard punching a defenseless reporter.

In March, Annie wrote about her own method of gamification, called "The Zelda Method," while I wrote about how awesomely ballsy I thought the first two God of War games were. I recorded some music from Phoenix Wright while Annie took on the GameCrush controversy.  David and I attended GDC, and David drew a really funny picture of the phony from the Power Gig: Rise of the SixString booth. I wrote a post about analyzing games using musical vocabluary (something I'm still very much into), and made what was probably my favorite of the "If Games Could Talk" posts, this one about Jesse Schell, starring everyone's favorite character, Toothbrush.

In April, Annie wrote this great piece (that I had almost forgotten about!) about Five Real-World Oddities That Should Be Games, which covers everything from Monkey-Picked Tea to Haken Continuum Fretboard Hero. I took it upon myself to transcribe every wretched enemy bark in Splinter Cell: Conviction that contained the word "Fisher" and put them all together into the epic Fisher-Fest 2010 post, to which folks have been adding via the comments to this day. (Side note: I think that if I had to pick a favorite post of mine of the year, it was that one, mostly because the game really made all the jokes for me. I still read it and crack up.) I also got pretty fed up with that game's odious, unskippable interactive torture sequences. Annie, who up to that point had been keeping track of a lot of 8-bit musical creations, write about why we so fell in love with classic game graphics and music this year. Also, April was when the whole "Games as Art" debate reared its head, and I still kinda wish Ebert would've read our Games-As-Art Flowchart. 

May was a big month, with Dan writing a hilarious post about how he doesn't want to hurt Peter Molyneux, he just wants to get in the ring with him for a few rounds. David also stepped up to bat, writing a humorously Charlie-Brown-esque post titled Homer Tracy's Road to The Show. I wrote a poem about playing Portal in an aisle seat on Southwest. May was also when Red Dead Redemption came out, and so I wrote two posts, one about the game's unbelievable sound design, and one a bit later on about its unfortunately flawed storytelling.

Annie shared some vintage game-inspired gift ideas (useful for the last days of Christmas shopping!) and I wrote a critical comparison between Chaos Rings and the occasionally overlooked DS insta-classic The World Ends With You. We started doing our "Question of the Week" posts a little while before this, but the one about our least favorite game protagonists is still kinda my favorite.

Sam joined our ranks in June, writing a retrospective on SimCity that really took me back to the days of splines and arcologies, and shortly afterward he wrote a great piece about voice acting and lip-syncing in games. Annie looked back and wrote an ode to Space Port, the arcade from her (and my) occasionally misspent youth in Bloomington, Indiana. I wrote a glowing recommendation of Tom Bissell's fantastic book "Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter" and we ran another of my very favorite group posts of the year in our "Big Dumb Awesome E3 Round-Up."

In July, my game-critique of Inception was probably our most visible piece of the year; it was certainly the one that attracted the most interesting dissension and the post about which I most enjoyed talking with folks. It's months later, and I still don't think we're done talking about Inception; which I suppose is the otherwise flawed film's greatest triumph. Sam wrote a really nice piece about "proper villains," recounting his favorite nemeses from over the year. I attended Jesse Schell's follow-up to his DICE talk titled "Visions of the Gamepocalypse" and had a great time writing it up. I also took a look at Dragon Age: Origins' horrifically flawed console UI and made the (not actually very) bold claim that "Dragon Age 2 Can Only Be An Improvement." We made the editorial decision to go with "videogames" over "video games" and haven't looked back.

In August, Annie's rock 'n roll look at the human condition ("The Zombie Apocalypse is the New American Dream")  remains one of my favorite things we've run, and August was also when it became clear that as far as I was concerned, 2010 was the year of the downloadable game. Though my review of Limbo didn't even discuss gameplay, I took the time to do a bit of analysis, breaking down "That One Puzzle In Limbo" that flummoxed many of my friends (and me). I also took a stab at game writing, sharing how I thought Grand Theft Auto IV should have ended, given the narrative improvements of Red Dead Redemption. The Kinect-centric AI Milo was detailed, and those details were nothing short of apocalyptic.

In September Dan, Annie and I attended PAX together, which was real real fon—Annie took some great pictures of the event, and I wrote a piece about it for Paste that I was really happy with. David took a look at Valkeria Chronicles, which I want to play but haven't had time for, and compared it to X-Com. October was light, but I made an unboxing post that got kinda weird and Sam wrote about the Civilization series and how its evolved over the years.

November seems a bit recent to include in a round-up, but Annie's piece about the Scott Pilgrim game was pretty great, and I had so much fun doing that three part interview with Costume Quest's project lead Tasha Harris that was really fun. She is awesome. I need to play Grubbins on Ice already. Dan wrote about his experience with Mass Effect 2, asking "Who Will Be My Shepard?" and also wrote a post about Final Fantasy XIII, with one of my favorite post-names of the year, "Much Ado About ..." I tried to tell everyone how awesome the late 90's Pegg/Wright TV show "Spaced" was.

December seriously just happened. No wait, it is currently happening! Do you guys really need me to round up our posts? Okay, I will. Dan wrote an awesome little thing about the Detroit Lions and Madden. Gamer Melodico turned one year old and chose our favorite games of the year. I looked back at The Year That Was at Gamer Melodico.

The Year That Was at Gamer Melodico

The Year That Was at Gamer Melodico

The Year That Was at Gamer Melodico

...woah shit, got stuck in a wormhole of self-referential bullcrap for a second there! Sorry about that.

At any rate. I've already taken the opportunity to thank all the bloggers, critics, readers and commenters who helped make this year kick ass (thanks again, though!). However, I'd like to take the opportunity to thank another group of very important people: my fellow Melodico writers, Dan, Annie, David and Sam.

No one's getting paid to do this, and Melodico isn't netting us any free games or swag or any of that crap. All of them volunteered, and after doing so they poured their hard-to-come-by free time and effort into the posts I just listed, as well as a whole bunch of others. Time and again they went above and beyond the call of duty, working with me to make their posts shine and cranking out work that will stand the test of time, posts that I still have a good time going back and reading.

It's been a blast, you guys. Thanks for a great year.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Onward, Pac-Man!

I really dig Pac-Man Championship Edition DX. It is so purely fun, so addictive, so colorful and so brimming with life that I simply can't stop playing. Every time I'm coming home and think I'll have a minute to play a game, it's my first choice. The menu screen comes up, the kick-ass music gets going, and I'm locked in.

I wrote a piece about the game for Kill Screen's new online site. It's called "Onward, Pac-Man!" and I'm really happy with it. Thanks to Ryan Kuo for working with me to make it as good as it could be; real editors are hard to come by these days, but the editorial process is what makes Kill Screen as rooted and strong as it is.

I'm currently going through Kill Screen print issue #2, titled "Back to School." The height at which Jamin, Chris and Ryan have set the bar feels borderline unreachable, and yet time and again their writers, artists, designers and photographers meet and exceed it. I haven't read everything, but so far I've particularly enjoyed the pieces by Brendan Keogh, Ben Abraham and Mitu Khandaker. Ben's piece "Rough Riders", a beautiful look at the stark outback of his native Australia, stands out in particular. I like Ben and dig his writing (his recent blog piece about analytical vs. rhetorical game criticism is at once impenetrable, delightful and right-on), but I've never seen him push himself to the level he achieves in his Kill Screen piece. That fact speaks to both his hard work and to Chris Dahlen's editorial chops, and it's why every issue of Kill Screen is a collection of writing that will stand the test of time.

Oh, blerg. Enough of me carrying on about the awesomeness of a publication that just ran something I wrote. Give my essay a read; I hope you enjoy it.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Gamer Melodico's Favorites of 2010

Ah, the end of the year. That glorious time when all publications, regardless of focus, like to take a moment and look back on the year that was. To weigh every single experience against all of the other ones, taking into account the myriad aspects of 365 days worth of criticism, writing and art. And then say "screw it," put on a blindfold and just pick one. It's fun, it's annoying, but hey: it's tradition.

Game of the Year lists are no different. This year's GOTYs have already caused enough pearl-clutching to shame a master jewel thief. We've seen Slate's always-entertaining gaming club go from kinda boring to really boring to really, really not boring. We've seen at least one publication run a top-20 list that so decimates all other lists in terms of scope and right-onitude that it almost seems pointless to attempt to compete.

So hey. We're not really here to name the "best" game of the year. We're here to talk a little bit about our favorite games from the year, as well as a few notable disappointments and games we didn't have time for but are still looking forward to checking out.

So, after the break, Gamer Melodico's favorite games of 2010.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

An Anniversary, and a Thank-You

Wow, you guys, it's been a year. A year! Today marks Gamer Melodico's first birthday, or our one-year "Blogoversary," if you'd prefer. Looking back on it, our very first post was pretty funny.

Dear Past-Kirk: I am pleased to to inform you that yes, it will indeed be fun.

We'll probably do a roundup of all the junk you might've missed closer to the end of the year, but for now, I just wanted to say on behalf of all of us what a pleasure it has been to write for and chat with all of you lovely people. I don't think any of us quite anticipated how much fun this was going to be, or where it would wind up taking us!

Special thanks to everyone who has given love, links, and inspiration over the year—Ben, Eric, Ian and everyone else at Critical Distance, David Carlton, Mitch Krpata, Simon Ferrari, Chris Dahlen, Ian Bogost, Jason Killingsworth; Stephen, Brian and Lauren at Kotaku; Kieron Gillen, Tom Bissell, Leigh Alexander, Gus Mastrapa, Brian at Under Culture, Jorge and Scott at XP, Sparky Clarkson, Brad Gallaway; Alex, Twyst and all the tireless crusaders at The Border House; Denis Farr, Steve Gaynor, Matthew Wasteland, Ryan Kuo, Ashelia at Hellmode, Dan Bruno, Steven O'Dell, John Teti, Nels Anderson and of course, the Brainy Gamer himself, Michael Abbott.

On a personal note, I wanted to say thanks for reading. I was looking back at my creative output this year and realized that I haven't finished a lot of the projects I've been working on—dozens of songs are partially written, arrangements are sketched out, projects in mid-swing, and several schemes and plans remain in their early stages. And then I looked at Melodico, at the 101 (!!) posts I wrote this year and the dozens of great posts by my co-writers, and I realized: This has been my creative output for 2010.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to come by, read our stuff, and talk to us about videogames. You guys have made it one hell of a fun year.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Inception in Real Time

Last week, Inception came out on DVD. I may have had my issues with the film (as, I'm happy to learn, did a larger percentage of the internet than I may have first thought) but all the same, it was a fascinating piece of filmmaking and a feat of editing the likes of which I've rarely seen.

But regardless of how you felt about the movie, I mega-recommend checking out this video made by YouTube user Weikang, in which he edits together the four layers of the dream in real-time. In other words, the bit in the car plays out slow-ish, the part in the hotel plays out close to normal speed, the attack on the Hoth base plays out pretty fast, and the weirdness in limbo plays at warp-speed. I'm sure that nitpickers can find ways that it doesn't quite work, but all the same it's very cool to watch, and in just four and a half minutes it makes visual the concepts that the film itself had a hard time communicating without resorting to endless terminology and technobabble.

I'll certainly be renting and re-watching it over the holidays, and am curious to see if my impression of it has gotten any warmer or colder over time. At the very least, seeing it at home without the IMAX screen blasting quick-cuts and deafening train-blasts at me every five seconds should make for a more coherent experience.

(Thanks Selma Elmaleh for sharing)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Not Quite Epic

Right now I am breaking my own rules. I generally have little patience for games, especially games with questionable game mechanics, or those which are released with too many bugs. What's more, I have gotten to the point where I assume a console game will not be buggy. Sure, my PS3 will have to update games pretty often, but in general it isn’t anything too harsh or evil that has to be fixed.

So, if I keep on playing a buggy game, in a way, it's a testament to the game's design. Vampire: Bloodlines was such a game. Never had I played an RPG like this before. It was deep, beautiful, dirty and atmospheric, but oof it was rough around the edges. Apparently, show-stopping bugs did not stop or even slow the release of this game. But I kept playing and fortunately, after Troika went defunct, people took it upon themselves to create patches for the game simply because it was just that good.

Such is the case with Epic Mickey. That's right, I am comparing Vampire: Bloodlines to Epic Mickey. Hear me out.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Hey! Listen!

A couple days ago I was honored to make a return appearance on Michael Abbott's Brainy Gamer Podcast. This time around the topic was "Videogame Music," so as you can imagine, when Michael if I would be interested in appearing I said, "OMFG YES." Michael's just posted it to his site, so I hope you'll go check it out.

The other guest was Harmonix's Dan Bruno (who also analyzes game music on his great blog Cruise Elroy), which was cool for a couple of reasons. I love Dan's game-theory-geek posts and have been reading his blog since back when Melodico was just an idea that sounded pretty fun. What's more, he's also a really nice dude and is on my short list of "Gaming Twitter Friends For Whom I'd Like To Buy A Beer." (A "short" list that seems to be getting longer by the week!)

Before we started recording the proper podcast, each of us picked a handful of samples to play throughout the show, the plan being that we'd talk about them one by one. Choosing my samples was fun, agonizing work—there are of course about ten other clips that I didn't have a chance to record or just knew we wouldn't have time for, particularly since Michael would have to edit in all the clips in post-production (and God bless him).

The podcast itself was just so much fun; our conversation ranged from the synthesis of sound design and musical score to the reinterpretation of classic tunes with new instrumentation, to chiptune bands, the 8-bit fad, and the difficulty of writing a melodic score for a game that has spoken dialogue. I just hope I didn't overtalk or ramble; I tend to get excited about this topic and can turn into a bit of a motormouth.

We didn't even get to listen to
my all-time favorite!
One of my favorite things was how different each of our tune-lists were. Dan analyzes a lot of classic tunes at his blog, and he's got a really deep knowledge regarding the various themes of the 16-bit era. Michael brought in some great Wii stuff, as well as a few of the pieces he's talked about before (Kirby's Epic Yarn, as well as "Nate's Theme" from Uncharted 2). My contributions leaned towards more recent stuff, with a lot of examples of interactive or experimental soundtracking, but I did manage to throw a couple of my all-time faves in as, well as give some love to the amazing Anamanaguchi.

We appear to be living in a bit of a golden age of game music at the moment, huh? Folks may bemoan the loss of the classic chiptune themes of the 80's and 90's, or say that game music has lost its soul, but I don't buy it. We've got music of every shape, size and color out there right now (accompanying games of every shape, size and color); the composers of the chiptune era are still going strong, and some great film and television composers have begun to work in games as well. The indie, mobile and downloadable scenes are opening the door to a lot of fresh blood, and it seems like every week I'm hearing a creative, interesting, or even groundbreaking game soundtrack.

Seriously. Golden age of game music. Tell your friends.

Obviously I have more to say about this topic; there were plenty of ideas and examples for which we simply didn't have time. So, expect to see some more from me about game music in the coming weeks! But this weekend, I suggest you take a load off, fire up your media player of choice and give the podcast a listen. And afterwards, maybe head over to Michael's comments section and share your own favorite game music. If there's one thing I know for certain, it's that all tastes are different.

Thanks once more to Michael for having me, and to Dan for being such a great co-guest. These days it can feel almost impossible to spare an hour to talk about games with anyone, let alone two of the smartest writers on the internet. It was a privilege, guys.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Just Doing What the Lions Do Best

Black Friday, Best Buy. Just the day before, I watched the Detroit Lions play football. It was probably the first non-Super Bowl football game I’ve watched with any degree of focus since last year’s Thanksgiving—unless I missed the Lions last year (I can’t remember) in which case it would have been the year before that. To call myself a sports fan in any degree would be a gross injustice against the people who have put the requisite amount of blood and sweat and tears toward earning that title. But I will go ahead and say that I love the friggin’ Lions.

I’m originally from Detroit, a town not lacking for champion-class professional sports teams. I grew up with the ’84 Tigers, the ’89–90 back-to-back Pistons (to say absolutely nothing of stellar seasons from 2002–08 and another win in ’04), and a Red Wings team who have made the NHL playoffs 25 out of the last 30 years and claimed four Stanley Cups within the same period.

But then there’s the Lions, the only team in NFL history to lose all 16 regular games within a single season. The Lions, who have won all of four games since 2008. The Lions, who could have picked up a game last Thursday, if only football games were exactly half as long. This particular game was of standard length, and so the Pats came from behind to feed the Lions their shorts. What’s not to love, really? The Lions are the quintessential underdog, a team with a record so poor that there’s no need to pay attention—in an uncertain world, the Detroit Lions are always right where you left them.

So there I am, standing in Best Buy on the day after Thanksgiving with Madden 2011 in my hand. On sale. I hadn’t owned a sports title since the 8-bit generation (Blades of Steel, if you’re curious), but I’d swallowed the bug. I walked out with a new one.

Shortly thereafter, I fired up the game and selected to play as the Lions in my premier exhibition outing. As it turns out, they were an appropriate pick, because a big part of picking up a sports game is learning how to lose. My typical gaming preferences lay somewhere between GTA and Fallout: involved, immersive gaming experiences that count hours by the dozens, and where “losing” equals “failing.” You lose in these games by dying and returning to your last save or checkpoint. In most cases, all progress achieved since reaching those points has been lost—often a nuisance and occasionally a crushing waste of time.

In Madden, my calculated button-mashing strategy quickly backfired. Apparently when you have a single defender in the backfield during a passing play, random buttons have a way of instructing him to make an inexplicable dive away from the ball; the receiver free to help an old lady cross the street as he waltzes into the end zone. Circling the drain after giving up two touchdowns and a first-quarter safety to the Colts, I hit the start button and hesitated over the option to restart. Was it better to say, “fuck this,” and return to the beginning, or to press forward into almost-certain defeat?

In the end, I went for it. By the fourth quarter, I had even learned enough to stop falling for my own play-action passes. The game escalated into a gratifyingly bloody battle, but my comeback tear came too late and the Colts served it up to the tune of 30–14. By most measures, the game was a spectacular loss, but nothing even approaching failure. What better way to honor the Lions, my hometown team who never fail to sweat it out season after losing season, than by following suit?

Restarting the game and avoiding the loss would have been the only way to “fail” in a manner similar to being fragged by Russian mobsters or devoured by a rampaging deathclaw. The frustration of expiring in Liberty City or the capital wastes comes from a loss of investment: you invest time in pursuit of narrative progress, and forfeit that stake when you fail to perform. A loss in football is not without consequence; it manifests as a black mark on a team’s record or just the pain of defeat—but either way, it’s still progress. The loss moves with the team, lending context to matches that follow and enhancing the depth of future victories. Avoiding it to the point of “reset” actually means missing a vital part of the experience.

Because what good is a bowl game if nobody loses? Defeat is the opportunity to learn from one’s mistakes, an obstacle to overcome, a taste for revenge. With a narrative structure like that, the closest things you’ll find to checkpoints in a title like Madden are the beginning of the game and—win or lose—the end.