Friday, February 25, 2011

Two Strangers Play Minecraft

I awake in the middle of an island. I know neither my exact coordinates, nor how I came to be here, only that I now stand on some sort of finite landmass beset on all sides by water.

It is daybreak, and I am alone.

The beginning of Minecraft is by now a familiar story, and one which holds a strikingly infinite number of possibilities.

I observe my available moves. I am new to this game, so I stroll aimlessly across the island, testing boundaries. I find I am able to jump, to punch animals. Everything that I am doing is the unforgiving equivalent of using white’s first move to push a rook pawn; it yields little and prevents me from doing the crucial things I must do to set up the rest of the game. I have lost already.

The trees in this place are strangely pliable, so I claw away at them with my bare hands until I have harvested a fair amount of wood. I emerge from my errand raw and bloody, shocked to find that it is already high noon. It seems as though only minutes have passed.

I have overheard much about this game and seen screenshots that did not quite make sense to me. This is that game? Playing my first round, I am quite sure that I do not get its appeal—or what it is to begin with. I am disappointed that, despite the blocky and unappealing aesthetic of this game, my computer is positively sputtering, unable to process. I curse at the inevitable decay of technology. I futz with settings. I am eaten by a monster that I cannot see because it is so very dark outside.

Night will be here soon, and although I am not sure exactly how, I know that it will bring unspeakable dangers. I will need to find a light source. And then I will need to dig.

I have a pickaxe made of wood. I have several cubic units of dirt and several blocks of raw wood. I have a worktable whose sturdiness is rivaled only by its surprising portability. Glimpsing my target, I grasp my virgin pickax and bound with purpose up a steep rock face. The sun edges ever closer to the horizon.

Home Sweet Hobbit Hole
I start a second game. I have discovered a helpful guide to getting started. With hobbits dancing in my brain, I create a home for myself in the side of a nearby hill. Materials are scarce, but there is a soothing rhythm to the game. Dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, BLOCK. Dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, BLOCK. It is nighttime but it is the weekend and I feel like I can do this forever.

* * * * * * * *

My palace has windows. Torches lavishly decorate the walls, filling my fortress with the warm glow of safety and comfort. Exploding zombies are clawing at my door, but they won’t get me, not tonight.

Weeks have passed and I’ve all but hollowed out this place. I’ve smelted iron. I’ve built a patio that overlooks a cascading waterfall. I’ve landscaped a lake of fire. I mull over what the next day’s work will bring. Will I plant crops? Will I build a new fence? Will I finally see what’s over the ridge in the distance?

There is much to be done. But it’s late, and I could use some sleep.

Awesome lead image was created by Gamer Melodico’s own resident illustrator and Kirby sympathizer, David Tracy. For more of his artwork and non-game-related musings, check out him out at his personal blog, Doubtful Guest.

Friday, February 18, 2011

On Videogame Criticism

Why hello there! I thought I'd make a quick return to link to a particularly cool thing we just ran at Paste. It's a meaty letter series between two of my very favorite game critics, Tom Bissell and Simon Ferrari. In three letters apiece, they discuss their views on videogame criticism and in doing so raise more interesting points and questions than I could hope to coherently list.

If you are interested in games and game criticism, I suggest that you go and read it. We're working on making the comments section at Paste more welcoming; in the meantime, feel free to weigh in below if you have thoughts on the discussion. I'm really interested to know what you think.

Thanks again to Tom and Simon for their time, and for taking the conversation so seriously.

-Read "On Videogame Criticism" at Paste Magazine-

Monday, February 14, 2011

Remembering Guitar Hero

Guitar Hero is gone, and I have a confession to make.

When Activision announced the closure of the Guitar Hero brand last week, my very first thoughts were occupied by the great philosopher-poet George Costanza. In an episode of Seinfeld titled “The Invitations,” Costanza is informed that his bride-to-be has passed away, her untimely demise the result of being poisoned by toxic envelopes George had purchased for their wedding invitations. Without a trace of irony or grief, he utters the line, “Well, hmm, let’s get some coffee.” The line provoked a small controversy—George’s lack of concern for his would-be spouse’s welfare carried uneasy traces of domestic abuse and neglect—but it also gave its audience a glimpse of the uncomfortable feeling that had by then become Seinfeld’s calling card: a reminder that being human occasionally means experiencing feelings that we’re not proud of. (George, empathy-defunct uberman that he was, was of course immune to such reflection.)

Without further ado, please allow me to purge my conscience. My initial reaction to the brand closure was one of unflinching and sincere apathy, with just a hint of Rock Band-fanboy schadenfreude. I am not proud, but there it is. The Guitar Hero brand and I did not have the best relationship for reasons that I’ll mostly keep to myself (as cryptic as that sounds)—but we did have a relationship. On a personal and professional level, I knew a number of people who worked on Guitar Hero games throughout the franchise’s peak phase. One in particular, a terrific Bay Area sound engineer who served as a note tracker, introduced me to some of his studio’s crew—good people and great musicians, all of whom seemed to feel as though they had found a terrific place to work and took pride in creating a fun and interesting product. Their studio was downsized some time ago and many of those layoffs were presumably not included in the looming “500 lost jobs” figure attached to last week’s news. And as that news began to sink in, I started to think about old times.

As “Guitar Hero” as it gets.
During a snowed-in vacation in Boston several years ago, a friend dialed up Guitar Hero 2 on a borrowed PS2 and we took turns playing tunes on the one guitar in our possession. (On medium difficulty—how innocent we were!) The current console generation was just beginning and I had been away from videogames for several years, having mostly skipped the PS2/GameCube generation. GH2 was the first game I’d played in a long time, and I found the experience revelatory. Here was a game I had almost missed that was breaking new ground—allowing players to simulate the act of making music with songs they know and love (along with a selection of nĂ¼-metal dreck, but let’s ignore that). GH2 was my gateway drug—or at least, a catalyst for my triumphant return to console gaming.

The love affair would not last. I purchased an Xbox 360, and with a spirit of adventure, both Rock Band and Guitar Hero 3. Placing the two games side-by-side shed a lot of light on my music-gaming preferences (including the revelation that there existed such a thing as “music-gaming preferences”). GH3’s interface felt cluttered and clunky—a crowded pastiche of rock stereotypes and product placement (not that RB was blameless in either regard) that looked as though it had been splattered onto its canvas with no editorial eye whatsoever. The game’s rhythmic requirements were looser than Rock Band’s—I remember being happy about this when it came time to play “Number of the Beast,” but ultimately felt that Rock Band’s less-forgiving rhythmic expectations delivered a more musical product. Most of all, the song selection felt claustrophobic and much more genre-specific than its competition; whereas Rock Band’s party-friendly catalogue seemed to say, “Look what we managed to include!” Guitar Hero was positioned as if to proclaim, “We didn’t include any of the crap you didn’t want.”

I’m sure that last part was objective truth for a particular audience, but for me, playing the game in my living room and trying to convince my live-in girlfriend that our new gaming console was a postive addition to our lives, it was quickly clear that Guitar Hero did not pass muster. The choice had been made, and as store shelves became flooded with new iterations, I parted ways with the franchise.

On a personal level, I felt I had to take a moment to say “Goodbye, Guitar Hero,” the way one might attend a funeral for an old friend with whom there has been a falling out. You were not a perfect game, but you were an important game. You made a lot of people happy, gave birth to some world records, employed many talented and passionate individuals, inspired one particularly amazing episode of South Park, and helped expose a new generation of listeners to some great guitar music. Approaching the end, you were exploited beyond recognition and forced onto a market for whom the novelty had worn off—and ultimately taken before your time. Thank you for the good memories. We’ll miss seeing what you could have been.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

20,000 Leagues Inside the "G"

It’s Tuesday, February 8th, in the year two-thousand and eleven! What a wonderous time in history this is.

Actually, that's not true. It’s Wednesday the 9th, and I’m a little slow on the draw—but I think the father of science fiction (arguably) would be inclined to forgive a little time travel. Yesterday, Google published a special doodle on their homepage in honor of Jules Verne's 183rd birthday featuring a 20,000 Leagues-inspired underwater image behind the Google logo. While perhaps not a game in the fullest sense of the word, the image was complete with a little joystick that allowed one to “pilot” the logo around the image (and in so doing, find some cool undersea goings-on like the one pictured above). If nothing else, it would seem to indicate that some people at Google really love what they do.

If you missed it, you can check out the full (and functional) image here.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Dustin' the Wynne

With one month to go before Dragon Age II emerges from the Fade and onto store shelves, I suspect some of you may be slogging your way through Dragon Age: Origins for a second or third time in preparation for this momentous occasion, and perhaps to rework certain dialogue choices you’d prefer to see carry over to the sequel. Fantastic idea, but a word of advice before adventuring too far into Ferelden: Ditch the witch. No, not Morrigan, although I’m sure you’ve thought about tossing her out on her sarcastic broom-seat a time or two. No, I’m talking about freeing yourself from the condescending verbal onslaught of that smug, holier-than-thou Spirit Healer, Wynne. In fact, I’d like to propose a preemptive strike of her recruitment altogether, and here’s why.

My first DA:O campaign saw my noble but naive Rogue join forces with the seemingly wise and experienced Senior Enchanter. Wynne set an example for my good-natured Grey Warden, and as a newcomer, he tried to follow her prudent advice on the path towards enlightenment. However, the farther they progressed in their mission, the more aggravated he became with her incessant bickering and generally negative attitude towards the party as a whole. It’s one thing to berate the leader for his morally ambiguous choices (we all have to make sacrifices for the greater good sometimes, right?), but her cattiness towards the other party members was just obnoxious.

Look, if I’d like to see where things go romantically with Morrigan or Zevran, or Morrigan and Zevran, then that’s my prerogative as an adult human/elf/dwarf and frankly, she should keep her dry, spiteful opinions on the matter to herself. I say, what happens in camp stays in camp and shouldn’t affect the mish one way or another. Well, aside from inspiring additional skills through dialogue, of course. Excuse me, but isn’t that a positive thing? Well, you’d never know it from the amount of grief wrought upon you by the sanctimonious old spellcaster. Seriously, she may as well have a special power for that, too. New skill earned: Guilty Conscience—drains the target’s stamina, Area of Effect = hearing range. GAWD.

“Read my pursed lips: I do not approve of your behavior.”
So why put up with her at all? I indulged this thought on my second play-through and have to say, it turned out rather well. To paint the picture, my new heroine, a badass Arcane BattleMage with a penchant for the dark arts, really had no use for a Spirit Healer in the first place. I groomed Morrigan for the position of party healer early on so when the time came to defend Wynne and the rest of the Circle of Magi from the demonic possessions taking over the tower, I simply decided not to. Actually, it was Morrigan who made the suggestion, but I didn’t hesitate in heeding her advice. Understandably disgusted by the words of my fellow apostate, Wynne threw a bit a hissy-fit. Instead of joining my party, she went into full-on attack mode right there in the Apprentice Quarters. Even with a school of orphaned, mana-wielding children in tow, this self-righteous hag has the runes to point her staff at me. ME! Can you believe it? Well let me tell you, as a former resident who resented every second she spent growing up in that godforsaken prison off Lake Calenhad, my heroine conjured the gnarliest fireball she could muster and hurled it into the thick of the crowd. The glorious inferno of terror that ensued after that seemed to cleanse the foyer of injustice with every experience point earned. When the smoke finally cleared, there lay Wynne among the rest of the charred remains. I’ll admit, as much as I wanted her out of the picture, it was still pretty shocking.

Look, I may seem flippant about the way things played out, but I’m not completely heartless. I take the Rite of Annulment seriously, dammit! The truth is, I really didn’t enjoy slaughtering all those innocent mages (much), but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t all worth it to be rid of that silver-haired know-it-all for good. I blissfully spent the remainder of the campaign doing all kinds of crazy, dark shit I would have never considered under the tutelage of Wynne. The decision to expel her really liberated my heroine and allowed her to blossom into the cold-hearted queen of mean she eventually became without having to compromise the integrity—or loyalty—of her party.

In the end, it was a total win-win situation. (Except for, um, Wynne.) So if you’re up for another go, especially if you’ve not played the darker side of Dragon Age, do yourself a favor and give the campaign a whirl sans-Wynne. You’ll be surprised how good it feels to be that evil.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Shock Therapy: Adventures in Jet Lag

I just got back from my honeymoon in France, and have been dealing with a nine-hour time change. I am not a functional being when it comes to jet lag. The world looks fuzzy around me, like in a sitcom when a character thinks back to a past event and the screen goes wavy and out of focus, accompanied by harp music. I need to stay awake. I need to decompress. So, what do I do to compensate and adjust to this great upset to my body and mind? I decide to play games.

The shelf of games is a blur, but I reach for Okami for the Wii. It was bargain-priced at my local Buy-n-Large Megastore and it seems like a nice game to chill and play in my current state. The game came out in 2006 for the PS2, but has since been Wii-ified(tm) to take advantage of motion controllers. This is pretty swell considering how a large part of game is painting with your controller, whether you’re making a brush stroke to attack a baddie or draw a bridge, or make it daylight by drawing in a sun. It sounds like a total trip and the perfect game to play for me, and wow, pretty colors.

My white wolf savior runs and makes the grass grow and I get ready to vanquish darkness—but the looming jet lag quickly tramples my enjoyment. For one thing, my motor skills are lacking more than usual and when I decide to slice a rock in half with my Wiimote, I fail to paint the necessary straight line. For the life of me, I can’t move the controller well enough to make a simple slash. As I fail repeatedly, I am reprimanded by an irritating pixie/elf thing that hovers around my character. Wow, what an irritating character. It’s a more irritating version of Navi, the guardian pixie thing in Ocarina of Time. I begin to wonder if Okami really is just a sub-par Zelda clone, masked in cel-shaded animation. I think it kinda is.

Frustrated, I eject the game. I don’t need a reprimanding pixie and I don’t need to be reminded that my real world dexterity is currently at –5. Back to the blurry shelf, I reach for my next game. I enjoyed the colors in Okami, but I don’t want stress. I want to chill. I reach for Kirby. How could Kirby’s Epic Yarn (one of my favorite games of 2010) possibly stress me out? I play for a while and the music comforts me.

Then it hits me. Kirby’s world is being taken over by the forces of evil. Kirby has been kidnapped and all of reality is being turned into fabric. This is serious business, so what does our hero do? Oh, he collects furniture and wallpaper in his new home. He attracts friendly yarn neighbors and plays games with them. He spends the jewels he has earned on even more furniture and he can relax and listen to music that he has unlocked. This doesn’t sound right at all considering the world-threatening circumstances. I can’t handle it. I know it is the lag that is causing this angst within me, but I can’t deny it. I can’t play Kirby now.

The game shelf is now blurrier than ever, but I need one more game to help me get through this. Okami was a huge fail and Kirby was a sad disappointment. (Although I shall defend it to the bitter end to the Kirby-haters out there. Kirby pride!) Then it hits me: I don’t need the candy offered to me by my trusty Nintendo, I need something that absolutely will not stress me out but just feels good to play.

Out comes the PS3, in goes inFamous and huzzah, there was much rejoicing. I am not here to absorb the plot or deal with my irritating sidekick. I don’t want to save the world. I just want to roam around and shoot electricity from my hands. I want to explode cars and make bad people fall from high places. I am not dealing with saving civilians, but I am not aiming for them either. I am on a Reaper hunt, and wow, it feels good. Maybe I’ll find a shard or two, and that’s fine, but really, I just want to ride along subway tracks at a fast speed and SHOOT ELECTRICITY FROM MY HANDS.

I will never enjoy jet lag. It sucks. The games that help you get over it will most likely be very different from mine, and honestly each time it will probably be a different game that helps me cope. inFamous was enough to help me settle into my regular surroundings and cope with the fact that the amazing honeymoon is over and I have to head back to work. Now I just need to figure a way to take another long vacation...