Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Art of the SOPA Blackout

I’m home sick from work today, and as is my home-sick routine, I spent some of this morning watching the Today Show in bed. I don’t know why I do it—it’s a terrible show, but it’s a tradition. And a dependable one: I always know it will be there, Matt Lauer turning the organ crank while his castmates grind out center-right headlines and neutered advertorial. It’s awful, but I can’t look away.

Today, the crew spoke with Marissa Mayer, Google’s VP of Product Development, about today’s “Google Doodle” (a black censorship bar across the usual Google logo) in protest of SOPA. Lauer & Co. gave her about five seconds to discuss Google’s opposition to the legislation before saying that the bill was supported by NBC’s parent company, Comcast, and moving on to talking about the Google Doodles in a more general, apolitical fashion.

Google is not alone in its protest—many large sites today have either altered their homepages or even suspended activities to illustrate their stances on the bill. As much as I personally detest SOPA (that’s the Stop Online Piracy Act, in case you haven't heard, and you can read some great pieces about it at Kotaku, Gamasutra, Wired, and Unwinnable), it just doesn't make much sense to take Gamer Melodico dark—it'd be too difficult to tell the difference!

Instead, let’s take a minute to reflect on the blacked-out pages themselves, and ponder how a closed Internet would change the way we communicate in the digital age.

Google:
Wired:
Firefox:
Boing Boing:
Wikipedia:
Reddit:
Gamasutra (whose homepage links to the article mentioned above):
Imgur:

Monday, January 16, 2012

Cracking Final Fantasy XIII's Immersion Problem

Last week, in anticipation of Square-Enix’s upcoming Final Fantasy sequel-within-a-sequel (INCEPTION!), Jason Schreier wrote a piece for Joystiq titled, “Why Final Fantasy XIII Just Didn’t Work.”

It’s a fine title; Final Fantasy XIII absolutely did contain serious problems that took an immersion-breaking toll on the experience. Last year, I wrote a thing about where I felt the game’s storytelling had gone awry, but Schreier’s piece hits at a deeper issue—a player-experience problem entirely prior to character or story or setting:

Other Final Fantasy games create the illusion of choice, using techniques like sidequests, towns, world maps, vehicles, and even optional bosses to make you feel like you can actually veer from the script . . . You can’t progress until you do what the game wants you to do next, but you can see more than what it wants you to see. It feels like you're visiting the world of Final Fantasy VII, not just watching it.

And he’s really onto something! I’d add to Schreier's thoughts that it’s more than just the freedom to explore that creates that feeling of immersion. While the earlier games do involve the “illusion of choice” that he identifies, it’s more than just a narrative sleight-of-hand—it is the pivot point for the in-game challenges that have kept players buying ether potions for all of these years.

By not placing you on rails toward your next destination, earlier Final Fantasy games gave us a series of simple problems to solve—in particular, “Where do I go next?” Although this sounds more like an Easter egg hunt than a fantastic puzzler, this ambiguity tugs at the player throughout. By necessity, our intrepid heroes (a long line of attractive yet emotionally reclusive swordfighters pushing back against emerging imperialist forces) engaged townsfolk, gathered clues, and followed the compass rose in uncertain directions. The games’ gradual reveal and sense of freedom allow us the chance to experience the world just like our characters (who, in most cases, are also experiencing parts of the world for the first time). Our decisions, challenges, and victories are united, creating a genuine feeling of shared experience.

Was this exploration occasionally frustrating? Of course it was. Striking out from the safety of the village to follow a rumor along a vague northeasterly diagonal carried no guarantees and could easily prove hazardous to your party. This particular strain of questing promoted grind and gold farming (the former of which, some have argued, remains a problem in FFXIII). Particularly when coupled with the exhaustible resources that marked the earlier games, this provided a difficulty curve that was severely handicapped in XIII. These challenges (and rewards!) created a trustworthy relationship with the player that helped in part to dull the sense of grind. The predecessors demanded our attention, because without it, the games could not progress.

Despite or because of these issues, the opportunity to rise to the games’ challenges has traditionally been one of the most rewarding things about the Final Fantasy series. While the earlier games’ story and characters may be the selling points for many fans, I’d opine that the ability to forge our own paths—even within the confines of a script—is the vehicle toward participating more fully within that story, and that Schreier’s article is right on when it points to illusion of choice as the core difference between FFXIII and its predecessors. Head over to Joystiq and check out what he has to say, it’s a great read!

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Lead image was heartlessly pilfered from Siliconera's interview with Square-Enix’s Motomu Toriyama.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Under My Thumb: Super Crate Box

Just the other day, I posted about how, despite the wonder and convenience and social acceptability of iPhone gaming, the nature of touchscreen controls left me wishing for buttons and/or invisible thumbs.

The very next day, a maddeningly addictive game called Super Crate Box came into my life. I've never wanted buttons so much in my life.

In case you haven’t played, here’s the basic rundown: You assume the role of one of a surprisingly diverse cast of Meat Boy-esque action heroes, and find yourself at the center of a Mario Bros-inspired set of platforms. There is a single crate to collect. Once you get it, another randomly generates somewhere on the screen. Each crate holds a weapon, and each new weapon automatically replaces whatever weapon you had just a moment ago. Add a boatload of enemy creatures who end your game with a single touch, and stir.

After an evening’s worth of crate collecting, I have a whopping high score of 13.

It’s not that the controls aren’t tight—they are. But with a game this challenging, in which every fraction of a second absolutely means life or death, there’s just no substitute for tactile controls. Beyond that, new crates often warp in directly under the dedicated thumb-spots, camouflaging beneath the controller icons even when you’ve moved your digits out of the way. Observe the following screenshot (with a cameo by my actual thumbs):
It’s pretty easy to take a clear limitation like this and say, “If only I could play this with an Xbox controller—I’d be SO MUCH BETTER AT IT1.” So that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

Am I nitpicking? Absolutely, I am. Priced at $0.99 for iOS, Super Crate Box is an absolute steal. Dig around for change in your couch and go buy it. Don’t think about it. Just do it.

I dare you to try and beat 13 crates.
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1 PC and Mac OS versions are actually free and available right here, so if I really wanted to test the truth of this, it would completely be within my power to do so. As it is, I’d prefer to ignore this and let my assertion stand.

Update: New high-score as of Jan 11 is 60 crates. Although, apparently, that's nothing.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

3DSuccess! A Tale of Two Handhelds

Today, Nintendo announced that the 3DS cleared 4 million units in the US in 2011. Last week, I bought Grand Theft Auto III for my iPhone.

These facts are completely unrelated. And yet, one has me thinking about the other.

My last dedicated handheld gaming system was Nintendo’s Game Boy, a constant companion for me throughout most of grade school and then again (in color!) during a brief hospital stay in the late ’90s. The controls were rudimentary by today’s standards: just two main buttons and a directional pad—essentially an NES controller fused onto a tiny screen, packaged in a unit that was as heavy as it was greedy for AA batteries. I kept it in a zippered pouch made for the device and big enough to hold 10 games. It was black around the sides with a neon green top and bottom. It had a shoulder strap. I was very uncool.

My iPhone 4S holds more than 10 games. I just counted them—including GTA3, I currently have 26 installed and ready to go. (I’m counting my beloved IF app Frotz as just one game.) The device is super lightweight, and its batteries recharge nightly. I don’t have to carry it around in a bright green purse, and I can play a discreet round of Drop7 on MUNI without feeling utterly self-conscious about my gaming habit. I am still uncool, but I fake it alright.

But despite the convenience and technological marvel of smartphone gaming, I still miss having a dedicated handheld. It’s good fun messing around with a nostalgia title like GTA3, but running around a game world like Liberty City with my own thumbs in my face just isn’t as satisfying an experience as when the controller and screen are separate entities. (Although it’s worth noting the fact that GTA3’s left "analog" control brilliantly centers wherever your thumb lands near the lower left corner of the touchscreen. It’s a nice improvement.) And while I do adore innovative touchscreen-specific titles like Cut the Rope, the amount of time I can spend pressing fingers into a stationary object before repetitive stress sets in is just not as long as I’d like it to be.

So congratulations, Nintendo. You’ve had some bumps along the road, but I’m glad that when the titles are there, there’s still a market for devices like the 3DS.

And as long as we’re on the topic, I’m standing by to receive my review unit. Call me!

Monday, January 2, 2012

A Handy Guide to the Literature of Skyrim

I have to admit to a bit of a healthy preoccupation with the literature of Skyrim. I actually enjoy taking a moment away from adventuring to cozy up with a good book. Being a Skyrim bookworm has provided a big bonus for my skill trees and a boon to my character’s hobbyist fascination with alchemy, and occasionally even leads to a genuinely enjoyable work of in-game fiction.

At the same time, this preoccupation has not exactly affected my playthrough time in a positive way. There just isn’t enough time in a Dovahkiin’s life to read every book under the sun—and there are a lot of clunkers out there besides.

To cope, I’ve had to develop a system for separating the wheat1 from the chaff, and there’s a definite method to my madness. Here's a handy flowchart:



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1 This reminds me: just in case there are any other hobbyist alchemists out there who aren't already aware, wheat and blue mountain flower can be combined for a very handy healing potion. I didn’t learn that from a book, but whatever. Sometimes you have to just go live your life.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

30 Minutes with Dark Souls

I didn’t really believe it, but I get it now.

I recently spent some time discussing cruelty in current-gen games, and a friend asked why I had left out Dark Souls. The truth is that I hadn’t played it (or spiritual predecessor Demon’s Souls). After a single half-hour session with the game, I’m beginning understand why my post got him thinking about it. I haven’t encountered any actual cruelty yet (i.e., situations that have rendered a playthrough entirely unwinnable), but I can safely say that Dark Souls ranks among the most hostile games I’ve ever played.

The game’s unwelcoming attitude toward the player runs so deep that even before the game began it was clear that I was on enemy turf. When the initial options menu and character creation screens forced me to use the XBox 360 controller’s D-pad instead of the left control stick, I actually found myself wondering if it was already passive-aggressively trying to show me who was boss.

30 minutes later, my bloodstain (along with all of my collected souls and whatever else I dropped) now sits in a room with the huge Asylum Demon, who took me out during our second encounter after a surprisingly close battle. It was the second time I had died, but my first time dying in a room with a thing that I didn’t particularly want to go back and have to fight again. As far as I know my things are all still in there, waiting for me to fight my way back and claim them. After respawning, I turned the game off (not out of frustration, but in an effort to bring my heart rate down out of the cardio zone).

One hears the word “evil” thrown around a lot with regard to this game, and as strong as it is, it’s a pretty appropriate descriptor. The lack of any tutorial beyond superbrief fighting instructions occasionally scribbled along the path (As an aside, I’m really supposed to just remember these button combinations? Is this a fighting game?) leaves the novice player feeling isolated and alone—I’m as utterly unsure of the rules of this universe as I am about what lies in wait.

All that, and I’ve been thinking about it all day long.

So bring it, Dark Souls. After years of namby-pamby checkpoints and un-droppable quest items it’s good to find a game that doesn’t take me for granted. It’s good to have an enemy.