Wednesday, December 31, 2008

"Live" Blogging the Endless Setlist 2

Here at Thwomp Factory we decided to ring in 2009 by playing the Endless Setlist 2 in Rock Band 2. Last Christmas many of the same people played through the original Endless Setlist, but this time it's 20 songs longer, and we're not allowed to pause (we went out to dinner in the middle of it last time). We're still optimistic that with ten of us, we can pull it off.

Since in the past we've randomly bumped start buttons every hour or so when playing, we've taped bottlecaps and dixie cup bottoms over the buttons on the guitars and drums. We don't have a wired controller for the singer's controller (the major flaw in our plan), but we made sure the battery was fulled charged.

We're six songs in now and everyone is still going strong; that means 78 songs to go. We estimate we'll finish at 1:16 AM.

10:37PM: Whoaaaa, we're halfway there! And actually halfway, not the definition found in Bon-Jovi Algebra.

12:48AM: Less than ten songs to go! We had a DVD reading glitch that made the game literally stop for about 15 seconds, but as far as we know that doesn't count as a pause.


Not much has changed, really. We're dreading the last couple songs, but this is definitely tractable.

1:19 AM: Hot. Malted. Chihuahua pants.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Make Your Game and Play it Too

Because we like candy, and because she's German and the cover of the out-of-place box on the shelf promised a Hexenhaus, my girlfriend and I picked up a gingerbread house construction kit at the grocery store today. On the walk home she mentioned the resemblance between the cover of the box and Little Big Planet's art style.

HexenhausThe appeal of LBP and a gingerbread house (and some other toys, like Lego or Meccano) are much the same. The end product is something you really like - a video game, fancy candy, or a pirate-themed dollhouse - but it's even more fun because you've got some creative investment in it yourself.

It's a tricky balance thought. If you make something like Garry's Mod you get something technically impressive but without a lot of mass appeal. Garry's Mod is a fun physics playground but there aren't that many people that can take a raw physics playground and have long-term fun in it, let alone make a fun result for others. If you offer people a box of eggs, sugar, and ginger and see what they can do you'll probably get some nice cookies, but the number of people that'll make a great house is small, and the ones that can do it probably bought their own ingredients already. Given a box of generic primary color Legos with no instructions some people will do amazing things, but most will have more fun and make more fun things given a pre-built parapet or spaceship shell.

It's also easy to fail in the other direction. In Dungeon Maker: Hunting Ground it was really fun to build out my dungeon, but then playing through it was some of the worst grindy dungeon crawling I've done in years. Fighter Maker videos are a perennial Internet favorite, but watching crotch-punches for a minute an a half is all the enjoyment you're going to get out of hours spent creating your fighters. It's like building a gingerbread house only to find it actually tastes like cardboard. And no one wants to get a Lego post office when you could play with whatever a wall rocket racer is, or launch dwarves at trolls.

Lego Catapult
Gingerbread houses, Lego, and Little Big Planet let you start with primitive pieces if you want, but also give you high-level tools and plenty of big pieces and examples to fall back on when your skill or imagination falter. They're also capable of producing things that are desirable independently of their personal creative origins. I think these are the two qualities that we're going to need to see in modding tools and level editors before they really catch on.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Don't Show, Don't Tell

When someone asks "Why is writing in video games so bad?" the standard response is failure to follow the writing maxim "show, don't tell." I'm not buying it anymore. From Donkey Kong's opening cutscene to Left 4 Dead's tutorial, there have always been a number of games that understand the importance of showing.

The point of the "show" directive is it's generally better at conveying emotions than telling. That justification is useful for figuring out when telling might be better than showing in a book or film. So approaching video games, we need to ask - do you actually get much more emotional impact from watching a prerecorded cinematic, even if it does "show" instead of "tell"? Final Fantasy IX had an unexpected level of maturity in the direction of its cinematic scenes, but to people who already didn't like Japanese menu-driven cutscene-heavy RPGs there wasn't much more appeal.

When it comes to games, we don't want to show or tell - we want to do.

Do, or do not.
"Show" is boring.


I play a lot of horror games, which is a genre that figured out "show, don't tell" long ago. But Baroque, a horror roguelike, managed to trigger more controller-gripping moments than any of the recent Resident Evil or Silent Hill installments because it does as much as it shows. The player is dropped in a grotesque confusing world and given choices you have no information about - but the character is in exactly the same situation. As the character's abilities and knowledge grow, so does the player's, a narrative feedback loop that complements the Japanese roguelike numerical growth loop. (Awesome graph from John Harris in @Play.) The character's emotions are easily translated to the player because the player is doing something similar to the character. This kind of opportunity is absent from a film, where there's no interaction (in Baroque's case, mostly exploration).

An example from a more mainstream game is James Clinton Howell's analysis of Metal Gear Solid 2. Dense enough I can hardly summarize it, it frames the game's timeline as the relationship between player objectives and avatar objectives. When Raiden is frustrated at his inability to kill Vamp so is the player; when Raiden is naked and powerless the player's choices at each encounter are reduced; when Raiden breaks free of his personal hangups the player's formal abilities change and grow.

How can this actually improve games that already do a good job of "showing"? The romance between Zidane and Garnet, the primary and secondary protagonists in FFIX, is one of the key plot elements. It's told with a surprising amount of subtlety and nuance for an otherwise by-the-numbers Japanese RPG. For most of the game the player identifies with Zidane, and so is meant to feel some degree of romantic longing/attachment for Garnet. But Garnet is a fixed object, and if spunky black-haired princesses aren't your type, that emotion is missing and Zidane remains "that guy I'm watching" rather than "that guy I'm acting as". If the player had some indirect control over Garnet's dialogue and appearance (through in-narrative cues rather than a "girlfriend creator" at the start), the attachment is more likely to stick.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Faith rennt

As usual, I am ages behind everyone else in commenting on this. (To start with, I almost forgot I had this blog!) But the Guardian article on Mirror's Edge and the Videogame Aesthetics article on (lack of) realism in art direction ended up in tab proximity in Firefox.


Suspend disbelief for a minute and consider Mirror's Edge to be the licensed game for Run Lola Run. Both works feature a desaturated but still bright palette, using red to highlight key objects to interact with. But the similarities extend beyond the art direction. Both use a conventional-unconventionally-attractive female protagonist; both have an environment, a city, as an antagonist as much as any individual person. Both have a thematic focus on repetition until perfection.


That last part interests me most, because that's the part where the game takes a theme of a movie and does something medium-specific with it. It doesn't borrow the plot and it doesn't borrow any characterization; it doesn't need to. What defines Run Lola Run as a film is the use of repetition for unique (relative to other films) visual and emotional impact. What defines Mirror's Edge is its use of repetition in its interaction, its focus on speed runs and time trials. When most games are advertising the depth of their dynamic worlds this is one that challenges the player - sometimes almost mocking - with the staticness of it. The mechanical essence of the film has been translated, making a game experience as fresh within its medium as the film did in its.

When Keith Stuart says
Because, if it were a movie, Mirror's Edge would be critically lauded by the specialist film press – it would be considered a forward-thinking masterpiece.
We don't need to consider it an "if" - Run Lola Run won over two dozen awards.



I guess this post wouldn't be complete without me chiming in about the game like everyone else did. Mirror's Edge is one of my favorite games of this year, but I think it copped out at the end. It's not the only game that started out combat-light and gave in during the climax, whether for lack of a better idea or as a concession to sexy trailers and mass appeal. Thief and Dead Rising come to mind as non-standard-combat games that stumbled at the end. Gun and Bioshock went from mostly freeform combat to a heavily scripted final boss battle that bore no relation to the rest of the game. I'd hold up Portal, Fallout 3, and Metal Gear Solid 4 as recent games that delivered a climax and ending up to the standards of the rest of the game while making them memorably different at the same time. A few false steps is no reason to discount Mirror's Edge - the game delivers what it promises, you just have to play through an hour or so of bullshit in the middle of it. Compared to the amount of bullshit you'll find in the middle of other games, that's nothing.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Topical!

I am really quite shocked and disgusted at some ideas for games. Seriously. At some point it came to my attention that there's a game that exists to make fun of women. Fat women, no less. It's a strategy-esque game of sorts where the sole point and joke is to force feed a cute, rotund woman as many sweets as you can in order to do better at the game.

Disgusting, my friends. Disgusting. Where to even start?

First of all, I am sick of the cliche "female" look. All this pointless frippery and doodads and cutesy clothing. HEY, CHARACTER DESIGNERS. REAL WOMEN WEAR JEANS AND T-SHIRTS. Why not a leather jacket instead of some "feminine" fiddle-faddle?

Secondly, I am sick of seeing yet another woman with a non heteronormative body type to be totally desexualized.

And what you do to her is just dehumanizing. Shoving sweet foods and things barely recognizable as food into her, level after level. And if you don't? You lose. This game is as good as saying its male players will "win" at life if they can find a wife they can keep complacent just by feeding.

And yeah, way to reinforce existing stupid stereotypes. No woman can resist eating a piece of cake in front of her, amiright ladies? That's all we're good for. Eating cakes and eating, well, more cake.

Ms. Pacman, we will tolerate your antics no more.

Welcome to the world of tomorrow!

Sure, I am excited about Fallout 3, Fallouts 1&2 are only my favorite games ever. And right behind them falls the first Diablo (though 2 didn't offer enough improvement to really impress me.) So of course I've got wood for Diablo III as well.

But I'm pretty sure the entire internet does, so until I get to play them (and probably even after) I can't say anything that hasn't been said in a million other places. So here's something else I'm excited about, that isn't plastered all over the entire internet.

It's The Path.

I've read the blog, I've watched the videos (several times), looked at all the screenshots, and listened to the fairy tale readings on the site. The only thing I haven't really done is read the forums, since forums scare me, but as I get more and more excited I'll probably start doing that too. And after all that I can't even imagine what playing this game will actually feel like.

I know it has fairy tales. I love fairy tales, intuitively and academically. I've loved Jarboe's music since I was a freshman in high school and thought it was cool to listen to things no one else did. But the important part is now that I'm out of that silly phase I love it even more. I love the horror genre above all others. So I know I will like this game.

But what is it?

These little taglines hint at important choices to make, and actions with consequences.

There is one rule in the game. And it needs to be broken.
There is one goal. And when you attain it, you die.

and

will you take the path of needles, or the path of pins?

The last game I remember making that promise its major selling point was Fable (also somewhat fairy tale based. hmm...) and oh man was that a letdown. Oh, so important consequences to your actions means your character looks different, or people yell different things when you come near them? And with just a little bit of work you can flip between good and evil, rich and poor, married and single, fat and thin. Those aren't consequences.

What are consequences in games, then? All sorts of games have laid claim to them, but have any really delivered? Wow...that's a heavy topic and I know if tried to really tackle it I would get way off topic (more than I am already) and that topic is the awesomeness of The Path. (Joe, you should write about consequences in games.)

And maybe I'm even wrong on all that. But there's another thing it definitely promises to deliver.

It also promises narrative. Real, traditional and honest-to-god. Given the sandbox nature of most games lately there hasn't been much room for narrative. As a lover of good, elegant, concise fiction this makes me sad. Other games have great stories, characters, dialog, et al., but it's hard to really feel like other games are some cohesive work happening in real time when I'm constantly running off to find out what happens where the map ends, or leveling up to max just for the hell of it, or hunting down bonus items and quests.

And maybe that's all the game will offer. A story so compelling it leaves you with the illusion of consequences.

The real point is, I can't wait. And hopefully you can't either.




Friday, July 25, 2008

Sketchy Ports

Generally I'm the kind of guy who comes out in defense of ports. I think it's great that you can still buy classics Final Fantasy VI, The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario 64, or R-Type for systems that are commonly available. I think the release of Final Fantasy XIII on the Xbox 360 is going to make a lot of North American gamers happy, and likewise Innocent Life: A Futuristic Harvest Moon's move from the PSP to the PS2 moved it from a system not exactly known for a large or broad demographic to one that nearly everyone has. Other times, games like Disgaea or Riviera: The Promised Land that had limited distribution can get a second wind from a port to a new system, often with added features.

What is not cool, however, is what Square Enix pulled when releasing Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon. The day it released in North America - within hours of everyone happily picked up their preorders that are becoming oh-so-integral to actually getting a copy of a game - they announced a port from the Wii to the DS. This port, which adds a few minor features, is being released less than a year after the initial release in Japan. It's clearly been under planning since before the release of the Japanese version, but the timing is obviously designed to make sure as many people as possible bought the Wii version first.

I am similarly torn about my purchase of Knights in the Nightmare, the latest installment of Sting's Dept. Heaven series. Yggdra Union, the previous game, got a port from the GBA to the PSP two years after release. This is not too surprising, as the GBA was fading when it first came out, and the rerelease features significant improvements. Between this and the Riviera remakes, however, they've set a precedent - buy the game early, and you're getting the worse version. This time around it's for the DS to start with, but I can't stop feeling a "wait and see" attitude towards the game. Of course, if I don't show interest, the game's chances of localization get reduced; and if it is localized and I don't buy it, the chances of a potential remake's localization also get reduced. Living in North America, it's a situation I can't win. (I plan to try to win it by buying the Japanese first edition and, if it ever comes out, the North American remake - sorry Atlus!) They should confirm or deny plans for an enhanced port up front, both with regards to development and localization.

Ports of old games make sense, and crossplatform releases make sense. These feel more like crossplatform releases where they didn't announce half the platforms, then delayed one, then strategically announced it to screw fans as much as possible.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Gender Icons

While I am as excited for Pop CUTIE! Street Fashion Simulation as the next person (okay, a lot more than the next person), am I the only one that sees the inappropriateness of using a person in a dress as the iconic representation for "can wear this thing that is not a dress"?


But really, for a game with a Lu Bu Costume, I'll forgive a lot.

Friday, June 13, 2008

There is nothing funnier than unhappiness

I hate the "end game." Completely. Thematically and mechanically. In MMOs, strategy games, board games, adventure games, rogue-likes, platformers, pen and paper RPGs. All the damn time. It is not fun. If it were fun to run around invincible with every damn power in the world then I would just turn on some invincible cheats from the very beginning. Not to mention what it does to narrative. Ugh. How am I supposed to identify with or care about someone who is so ridiculously tricked out they're either a freaking god or some 11 year old's most banal power fantasy. Or both. Usually both.

So holy crap, do I love me some Oblivion.

And every day or so for the next few days I'm going to say why.

So I dislike heroes. I think every character in modern media with a "destiny" is a cop out (of course this isn't true, but it's easier to generalize.) I am disgusted at the idea of having special parents, or no parents, special blood, ancestral curses, blah blah, yawn, snore. And The Elder Scrolls, a series about prophecies, doesn't always feel the need to make the player the fated hero spoken of since days of yore ramble ramble. In Daggerfall if you even tried to be that hero you got your ass handed to you BECAUSE YOU WEREN'T GOOD ENOUGH. Why do all other writers have such a fear of making your character anything less than the most important person in the world?

The same in Oblivion. You haul ass all over the country doing the most ridiculous things, but the epic, world-saving moment doesn't belong to you. Sacrifice used to be the duty of heroes, somewhere along the line it has become their inalienable right. Heavenly Sword, Dead Rising, Final Fantasy X, God of War. If we expect it, if we become surprised and disappointed not to die or kill our loved ones or give up a life of good times, then it isn't exciting anymore.

But to be an ordinary prisoner, rising not to meet your birthright, but to exceed it? To witness the world being saved, knowing it wouldn't happen without you, and then knowing there's nothing but potential ahead of you?

Well, I think that hasn't lost all it's charm yet.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Thwomp Factory Fryday: Cooking Mama 2


Thwomp Factory Fryday is a weekly feature in which Amelia takes recipes out of a game with a cooking system and follows it as closely as possible. It will be posted every Friday until she runs out of money or gets salmonella.









Wow. I am finally back in Minneapolis with my computer, and camera, and free time, and everything. This is crazy. So, among the crazy vacations I've been taking lately was a trip to California to meet up with my brother (Joe, who also writes in this blog) and then go with him to his company party in Las Vegas. Before heading out to drink away his yearly bonus we attempted a Fryday of epic proportions, which I can finally post.

Today's food comes to you from Cooking Mama 2: Dinner with friends. Now, in the interest of getting to the good parts we chose one recipe, and skipped most of the steps. We made chili dogs, and rather than bore you with all that slicing the bun and grinding the meat, we went right to catching the falling ingredients. Also it was just so much easier to buy a can of chili.

My impressions of food in the game: I sometimes wonder about Mama's baking (so much so that I intend to try that out step by step sometime) and a few of the mini games are ridiculous. Will blowing on a gallon of water really help cool it down? I don't think so, Mama. Otherwise it's a pretty solid cooking game (and it had better be.)

There's only one mysterious cooking mini-game, that may or may not work in real life, and needed to be tried out. After preparing all the chili dog ingredients, you need to catch them in a bun as they fall out of the sky. Why does Mama make her chili dogs like this? Does it improve the flavor, allowing the subtle spices of the chili to mature in the open air? Does it work up an appetite, with all that running around and panicking? Well read on, and find out!

They don't call the game "Cooking with Friends" for nothing! In the following videos I play the role of, well, the player, while Joe stands up on his balcony and drops the onions, condiments, hot dogs, and chili out of the sky. I like to think he's playing the role of Mama. Not seen but equally necessary is our brave camera man, James, who valiantly dodged flying onions and splattering ketchup to bring you this footage.



Damn, those onions are slippery! I'd say we caught maybe 40% of them. Hopefully the rest goes better.



Ahh, the hot dog itself. Terrific! That deserves a gold medal.



This is my favorite video for so many reasons. First of all, look at that gorey murder site of the ketchup landing. How come Mama hasn't released a companion game, Cleaning with Mama? She must need one. More importantly, LOOK AT THAT MUSTARD! 100% A++ EVEN BETTER THAN MAMA!!! TAKE THAT! erm...yeah.

Final Thoughts: Looks like you really can make a chili dog that way. Go Mama!


Give it your best effort!
-Amy

Next week (whatever that means): Kingdom of Loathing food and drinks

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Maxim Gorky, on video games

"You must write for children the same way you write for adults, only better."

Or maybe that was children's literature. Hmm...whatever. The two genres are similar enough.

I wish I could write less reactionary things, but it just isn't in me very often. And this here is mainly my reaction to things like this and this, mainly the second. I've swung back and forth on whether or not video games really ought to be treated as an "us vs. them" war. Upon reading the Richard Bartle article my gut said he was taking things a little too far and a little too serious, but in a world with women like the author of the second, I might have to agree with him.

Now, I'm not a parent and I'm not a psychologist. But I'm writing this as a person who has done a lot of volunteer work with children, and plans to have my own in 8-15 years from now. Also I'm the proud daughter of a damn good mother who has encouraged my love of games.

Brief summary of the second article: A woman bought a Nintendo DS and a fat stack of games for her four children. Her household then proceeded to descend into chaos and Nintendo-based obsession as her children ignored chores and other hobbies to play video games all day.

Well, if she thinks her anecdotal evidence is good enough to scare people off from gaming, I've got some of my own. The first games I remember my parents getting for me were educational. Oregon Trail, Number Munchers, I'm sure most people are familiar with that bunch. I never overplayed them, I still washed dishes, took out the garbage, practiced my cello, and did extra-curricular school activities. I liked them, and I probably even learned something from them. However, the games that really stuck out to me were the ones that didn't try to teach me lists of facts, they were the breathtakingly beautiful ones. Loom, Myst, King's Quest. The feelings I got from those games stick with me today and recur whenever I play a game I love. They make me want to draw, write, create, learn, and share all those feelings with my friends. The only difference now is sometimes they come from GTA, or Rock Band, or Mass Effect.

Surely this woman wouldn't claim an appreciation of art is useless for her children, would she? If she's taking her children to music lessons but only making them practice 10 minutes a day then clearly she's not trying to make virtuosos out of the little ones. So what, then? Probably she's trying to instill a love of music and an enriching hobby they can enjoy all their lives. But wait, you can get those from games, too!

There's another thing that's developmentally very important for children that games provide: fun! One of the biggest ruckuses in children's literature was in the 40s when the first four Pippi Longstocking books were published. Why was the now arguably best children's book ever written so controversial? Because it showed a child and especially *gasp* a girl, who thought playing was the most important thing for children. In a world mostly dominated by stories about children being proper and working and never questioning authority, Pippi was seen as "totally anti-social rubbish."

To quote the author of the article: What is constructive about playing football on a tiny screen, or washing a virtual dog, or watching a hideous pink pony trot around a pink palace decorated with shells?

Seriously. Go get a time machine and find yourself some pre-WWII literature critics. Because it's playing, and because in 2008 most people agree that it's okay for everyone (even children!) to play.

But, this woman didn't just bash video games with no rhyme or reason, she did actually state what they did to make her family life hell. Hmm...is there anything she could have done to avoid that?

Well, a single DS for 4 children is a stupid choice. Maybe she wanted to teach sharing, I don't know, but if she really wanted a "family Nintendo", passed around lovingly by everyone as we all played Brain Trainer together she should have gotten something that her whole family could have enjoyed at the same time. The first console I ever owned was a regular old NES. After washing the dishes and taking out the trash my mom and I often would sit down and play a few games of Dr. Mario together (she usually won.) Now, my mom loves to play cards and sometimes the occasional falling block game, but she isn't a "gamer." She bought me games, let me find time to play them, and listened to me talk on and on about them because they made me happy and thoughtful, not because it was any real interest to her. Another thing I loved to do, as a younger sibling, was to sit and watch my older brother play games, and annoyingly shout out things he should do. A tiny little DS doesn't even allow for this kind of sibling interaction, just excludes everyone who isn't holding it. Get a Wii, get a 360, get a freaking NES off ebay, get 2 DSes (using the money you can save by not buying crappy games, covered next), just don't get one "family" DS.

And now, I have come full circle to my beloved Gorky quote. The other thing you should do is get your children good games with child appropriate content but quality that transcends all age groups. I don't know any kids that love Brain Trainer...geez. What a boregasbord. I guess that's just my personal opinion, and seriously, if someone loves Brain Trainer or My Little Pony, fine, they're perfectly good frivolous toys, if you like that sort of thing. Get them some works of art too, though. Try Animal Crossing. Nothing in that game is inappropriate to children, but I'm 22 and of all my DS games I've gotten the most hours of real satisfaction out of that one. (ESRB notice: Experience May Change With Online Play. Especially if you come to my town with its The Boobs constellation.) Or what about Electroplankton? Also maybe just a frivolous toy, but a visually and aurally stunning one that can encourage a love of music and maybe even more practice time on instruments. Rock Band is in fact what motivated me after a long hiatus to play my cello simply for my own enjoyment. Instead of Brain Trainer, try out the puzzles of Professor Layton, and its accompanying mystery. It's a twofer! You get to learn logic and math as well as good narrative!

In a few days I'll be roadtripping to my parents' house for Mother's Day. I'm going to give my mom a big hug and thank her for not being like Ms. I Hate Fun. Then we'll probably play some Dr. Mario, and she'll still probably beat me.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Thwomp Factory Fryday: Contact

Thwomp Factory Fryday is a weekly feature in which Amelia takes recipes out of a game with a cooking system and follows it as closely as possible. It will be posted every Friday until she runs out of money or gets salmonella.

Oh my. Thwomp Factory Fryday is experiencing some technical difficulties of the fun and not fun varieties. The fun kind was when I spent last weekend in Las Vegas with my brother, Joe. The not fun part is that I believe I left my camera's USB cable in his apartment. So this week's Fryday will not have pictures, and next week's will be so chockablock with awesome that it will be a sort of apology.

Today's food comes to you from Contact. Contact is an RPG for the DS that does more than its part to bring back the dying art of whimsy. The player is a separate entity from the main character, Terry, and with the aid of a mysterious yet clumsy Professor (and sometimes his space dog who wants to be a space cat) the two of them set out to help the Professor and return Terry to his home. Anyway, I think it is a top-notch game.

My Impressions of food in the game: I would feel erroneous to call cooking in Contact a mini-game. Actual preparation of food is more like a checklist (and I love me some grindy checklists) but the Cooking skill is integrated very nicely into the rest of the game. Even though a fancy prepared food item does little more than a potion, it levels up your Cooking skill which gives you special attacks with chef knives, bonus damage to some monsters, and other abilities. The other thing that I love about cooking in Contact? That you need to be wearing your Cooking Outfit in order to cook.

The Contact Menu:
Fruit Juice
Chicken Bites
Cheeseburger
Croquettes

Fruit Juice is made of Tropical Fruit and Water. After looking at all the fruit in the grocery store I finally decided on Kiwi, Starfruit, and Papaya. They seemed the most tropical and easy to carry home in my backpack while on my bike (but some day I'm going to make something out of a whole coconut.) As I proved in my Magical Melody cuisine, I don't have a blender so this time I tried mixing them all up in my coffee grinder, with just a spoonful of water. It was slow going but effective. The finished fruit juice was green, a little bit sour, but pretty good.

Chicken Bites are made of Chicken and Flour. So I just cubed some a chicken thigh, covered it in flour, and fried. Delicious!

Cheeseburger is made out of Hamburger Steak and Bread. Hamburger Steak is made out of Wild Game and Meat. This recipe confused but intrigued me. What's Wild Game? Why isn't it Meat? It sure sounds like Meat. The only item in the store that said "game" on it was a Cornish game hen. I bought one. After cooking that and a piece of steak I had in my freezer, I put pieces of both between two slices of bread. Cheese did not magically appear. Dammit. I had hoped it would. It was a pretty good meaty sandwich, though.

Croquettes are Potato plus Ham. So first I boiled a potato, then mashed it up, then added some ham. Then I deepfried them. I thought it wouldn't work very well, given the lack of anything sticky, like eggs, but they kept their shape and were actually very tasty.


My impressions of the real food: This was all pretty tasty, everything other than the Fruit Juice was pretty much just ordinary cooked meat. However, this was a LOT of food. I'll be eating what's left of this Contact menu for the next week. Also, why isn't everyone in the world of Contact not obese? Sure, there are one or two salad items in the game, but almost every dish is either potatoes, rice, or meat. Or a different kind of meat. Or "Wild Game". Upon thinking about it further, why don't they all have scurvy? Yarr!

Final thoughts: It must be all that running around they do, that keeps them from getting fat. And I guess they just drink a lot of Fruit Juice.

-Amelia

P.S. Next week will be awesome! Joe and I team up and make chili dogs Cooking Mama style! Mainly the "drop stuff down and catch it in a bun" minigame! And there will be videos!

Monday, April 21, 2008

[Review] Wuthering Heights

If I were to say that I was surprised upon receiving the latest offering from Bronte Games, it would be a criminally lax understatement. After such flops as Villette II and Jane Eyre X-Treme Go-Kart Challenge, my doubt in the once great publisher of mid-90’s licensed games was understandably shaken. I’d read the preliminary reports from Japan, and they were guarded, but positive. Daily Dengenki Famitsu went even further, calling it, "a revolutionary new take on the visual novel, not simply a character game." While I may not agree with my kabuki quantum counterparts on all of the finer points, there is some truth to their words.

When a noble, yet politically unstable aristocrat flees the unfriendly streets of London for the rustic moors, he finds himself embroiled in a web of dark passions, mysteries dredged from the past, and wild, fruit-chomping action. A top-down, shooter-RPG that would not be out of place at a wedding joining the Xenosaga series with Zombies Ate My Neighbors in blessed matrimony, Wuthering Heights represents a bold step in blending survival horror elements with traditional CRPG gameplay. Eliminating the inventory management that is often the focus of such games, the player is instead confronted with a parade of delicate social situations that quickly ramp up in misery and violence until there is no recourse but to stare at the wallpaper in resignation at the leaden pressure suffusing the atmosphere.

The wallpaper won’t help; it is peeling and rotten, much like the second half of the game.

To say that the graphics are dreary would be insulting to the richness of the English language. You won’t see much color while traversing the game’s ever-present moors, but the textures on the crumbling garden walls and moldering leather more than make up for the limited palette. Unfortunately, the player is rarely privy to these visual flourishes on account of their hefty memory requirements. Unless the camera’s focus is directly on an object, the majority of the screen is obscured by low-resolution fog reminiscent of a second-generation PSX title. While the story team has taken great pains to work this murkiness into the game’s plot, it can become smothering at times.

Speaking of the story, it’s nothing that we haven’t seen before. Although presented in a novel fashion, the player rarely gets to take part. Instead, the core protagonist is strung along from cutscene to convoluted cutscene. This would have been bearable, if stretching the definition of a game within our post-postmodern society, if the characters were able to support the weight of the topics addressed. Instead we are faced with refugees from every modern RPG that has failed to be published in the last ten years.

Ever since Squaresoft made the switch from identifiable, heroic protagonists of its 16-bit days to the more mature, angst-ridden emopunks of its later hits, the market has been flooded in copycats with embarrassing social flaws and bad haircuts. The primary villain of Wuthering Heights offers nothing new to the discriminating gamer, although no doubt much will be made of his uncanny resemblance to superstar, Ralph Fiennes. I will be frank; he’s no Sephiroth, ladies. On the other hand, if you still haven’t had enough of the near-silent protagonist, the meek love interest, or the racially stereotyped groundskeeper, Wuthering Heights will make you feel right at home. The late Working Designs could have executed this translation to great effect, or current-era Atlus. As it is, however, characterization is warped and wholly obscured by despair.

Despite its flaws, I can’t help but respect Bronte Games for their decision to port Wuthering Heights to this side of the pond. While it won’t win any awards for furthering the video-games-as-literature argument, it’s a fine way to spend the occasional night where the moon is obscured by reaching, claw-like branches and the loneliness of your interior terrain is matched by the outside world. Moreover, it is clear that the localization team spared no expense in making sure that audiences stateside would be able to understand the complex Relationship Grid system. In addition to a faux leather relationship flowchart, the game comes with a dense manual that weighs in at over 300 pages. It’s attention to detail like this that makes Wuthering Heights worth your time if you’re able to push today’s flashy games out of your mind for long enough to appreciate the lengthy reward scheme that was the nourishing milk of yesteryear’s gaming elite.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Thwomp Factory Fryday: Harvest Moon: Magical Melody

Thwomp Factory Fryday is a weekly feature in which Amelia takes recipes out of a game with a cooking system and follows it as closely as possible. It will be posted every Friday until she runs out of money or gets salmonella.

Welcome to the very first Thwomp Factory Fryday! I had been struggling to come up with a way to combine my love of cooking with my love of talking about video games, and I think I finally stumbled on something delicious. Sure, I could just review different cooking games and mini-games, but that won't tell you anything you don't already know from playing the game. Besides, the real test of any recipe is the actual finished product, and the real test of any cooking game ought to be the quality of food that all those little sprites gobble up.

At first it seemed only fitting to start with the mother of all cooking games, Cooking Mama, but that also seemed like a cop out. If I want to prove my dedication to culinary perfection I ought to start somewhere a little more challenging. Not only that, but I'd like to kick things off with a bang and a multi-course meal (with minimal effort). So, this Fryday's menu comes from Harvest Moon: Magical Melody.

Antipasto: Veggie Salad
Entree: Cream Salmon
Beverage: Strawberry Milk
Dessert: Caffeine

Veggie Salad:



Ingredients: Cabbage, onion, corn, tomato, boiled egg, mayonnaise
Utensil: Knife Set

I think I came pretty damn close to recreating what must be going on in the game, the one exception was that corn on the cob is not available where I live in April, so I had to use a can of corn, which I imagine Mr./Mrs. Harvest Moon does not do.

Cream Salmon:



Ingredients: Onion, Carrot, Salmon, Butter, Flour, Milk
Utensil: Pot


Wow. That little guy must be quite a chef, to be able to make Cream Salmon using just a pot. I had to cheat in a couple ways on this one. First of all I cut up the onion and one of the carrots, though I also left one whole to see how it would fare. Also I used a spoon to mix things up a bit while cooking. I imagine in the game they just toss everything into a pot and turn it on, so that's also what I did.

Strawberry Milk:


Ingredients: Strawberry, Milk
Utensil: Mixer

I used whole milk, because I imagine that's closest to what actually comes out of harvest moon cows, and an electric hand mixer. They probably did mean a blender, however I don't have a blender, so this seemed both the best choice out of tools I do have on hand as well as matching up perfectly well with the name.

Caffeine:


Ingredients: Milk, Cocoa, Cayenne
Utensil: Mixing bowl

Well, yeah. Three ingredients stirred around in a mixing bowl, not much room for creativity or improvising here...sadly. Whew. I think this picture says everything. But nothing is too burning in the name of science! ...and video game cuisine.


The Final Product


Photobucket

My Impressions of food in the game: All Harvest Moon games are pretty similar, but something about the food in Magical Melody actually seemed less appealing to me than cooking in earlier games. I think it's because when, say, in Save the Homeland, you can do something as simple as put 3 berries in a pot and come out with jam you know there's some kind of magic going on to create the end product, and probably as soon as you turn your back on the pot the harvest sprites come by and hop in the pot with their jar of magic pectin and cast some spells and give you jam. As the cooking systems get more complicated, it seems less like you're making magic and just making sub-par food.

My impressions of the real food: Wowza, that was pretty good. Mayonnaise generally gives me the jibblies, but I would call "Veggie Salad" tolerable at worst. I didn't think the "throw everything in a pot until the salmon is done" method of cooking would work, but it resulted in some very tasty, buttery "Cream Salmon" and the broth tastes like a super creamy French onion soup (I think I will use it to actually make a pot of soup tomorrow.) The strawberry milk was delicious, pretty much just like a strawberry milkshake with some big chunks in it. The only thing I couldn't finish was the "Caffeine". When I was dumping in a little cayenne powder I accidentally dumped in way more than any recipe would call for, and the results were one the bitterest, spiciest things I've ever drank.

Final thoughts: I guess I have to take back those sub-par food comments. The good folks of Flower Bud Village, as with all things, have just discovered the most simple and delightful way of cooking without unnecessary baggage.

Remember to always do your best!
-Amelia

Sunday, April 13, 2008

An Ode to and Defense of Traditional Adventure Games

Looking at all the poopgasbord about cheating and making cheat-proof modern video games has got me itching to play some good ol' traditional adventure games. Or some good new traditional adventure games. Also because I was discusses blog names with one of the authors of Ms. Game and Watch and decided that the name Thwomp Factory if it has any connotations or relation to content at all shouts "We like fun" and if all I do is complain then Thwomp Factory isn't living up to its name.

So yes, I see the merits of designing games so no one can write a walkthrough that allows players to circumvent the whole challenge of the game, but to take a rigid stance on that issue would mean throwing out one of my favorite genres of game, the traditional adventure game. So, here is why I find adventure games delightful and brilliant, despite their many flaws.

It's like taking reading a book or watching a TV show to the next level. All the best (Loom, which I think is the single best adventure game and one of the best games ever, King's Quest, Touch Detective, Pheonix Wright) feature superb narratives but then use the video game aspect to reach a level of immersion impossible for stories in other mediums.

Here's a dirty little secret of mine. I've had a bad case of larprosy. Not only that, but I LARPed in a V:tM game. I may of just ruined my chances of anyone, even my own brother, ever reading this but I'll continue just in case someone did. What do all those foam weapons and fake guns those crazy larpers do, anyway? Well, one thing they do is make you feel less like yourself and more like the character you've designed, therefore able to act with more grace and confidence, and able to feel more exotic and create a better story. Adventure games do the same thing. Take a "puzzle" in Trace Memory. The player needs to stamp something, and does so by closing the DS screen, "stamping" the two screens (halves of a stamp) together. It's barely a puzzle, but being involved in little ways like that make the player really feel the story instead of being a distant observer. This isn't an adventure game, but take wandering from Colossus to Colossus in, of course, Shadow of the Colossus, since I think it's an excellent example of this phenomenon. It isn't one of the "puzzles" of the game the way beating the Colossi, more of a way to rile up the player before and calm them down after huge, intense struggles (for both the player and the character). Sure, in Loom, it could just as easily have had a list of words that say "unraveling" or "straw to gold" and when you click on them Bobbin would play his draft, and it wouldn't take any more thinking on the part of the player. In fact, it would eliminate the annoyance of hitting a wrong note at the last minute and having to do it over again. But oh, the beauty of actually hitting a combination of notes and hearing them as you do it! And you think "I have what it takes to be a magical weaver!" and you feel like you're doing more than watching a cut scene or story unfold before you, you're actually making it happen.

So think about it. You could watch CSI, or you could investigate crimes in Touch Detective. You could watch some lawyer show (I really don't know much about TV...um, how about Single Female Lawyer?) or you could BE that lawyer in Pheonix Wright. You could watch Die Hard or you could BE Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson while playing Professor Layton and the Curious Village! Adventure games throw you into storytelling in a way that no other medium can, and for that they should be applauded and preserved. I'm extremely happy they're seeing a revival on the DS as well as smart, awesome people's amateur projects for free online.

But seriously, when is there going to be a Loom 2?

First some thoughts on Designing Virtual Worlds, then some thoughts of sexism I've personally encountered

There's a lot of stuff I want to write about. DLC versus buying physical copies of games, educational games, more about cheating, and I ask myself: am I really qualified to write about those things? No, but I'm still going to. But first I'm going to write about something I am very qualified to write about. Sexism in MMOs. I'm a woman, I play MMOs.



So, here are some of my initial thoughts after reading Richard Bartle's take on gender in MMOs.


Dear Richard Bartle,


I recently finished your book, Designing Virtual Worlds. It is very apparent that you are a man. Not because most people with your name shorten it to Dick, not because you constantly feel the need to mention it, and not because...er...well...most people who read your book know that already. No, it's obvious because of how much you enjoy speculating on how gender issues affect MMO gameplay, and whether or not MMOs are at all inherently sexist. For me, as a woman, there's really no debate about whether or not a female player could be alienated by a given game design. Because if I do feel like I don't belong because of my anatomy, well, that means it's possible.


Now, there was a lot of crazy talk about gender in your book, and actually I appreciate that. Even though I personally found a lot of the extreme feminist stuff you cited and discussed to be pretty bizarre, I like the completeness of all points of view. However, there was one opinion of your very own that is just plain wrong.


You suggest that maybe more men play MMOs than women because men are kept more rigidly in place by societal gender roles and taboos, and finally have a free and safe space where they can spend hours designing their face, spend lots of fake money on clothing, say and do and act how they want, etc. Well, shame on you, sir. You of all people should know that the real reason is pretty much the exact opposite of that. Earlier in the book you describe and even bemoan the start of MMOs, and the “no girls allowed” boys' treehouse mentality. Well, little boys' clubs become old boys' clubs, and MUD1 has become World of Warcraft, and as you can see things stay basically the same. I don't really care which gender is pigeonholed more overall in real life, all discrimination sucks, but that has nothing to do with the gender disparity in MMOs. No, they started stereotyped as something men did that women don't do, so women are going to look at them and think “part of me feels like those weren't designed for me.”


Thank you,

Amy




Now, here's are some slightly less knee-jerk things I've been thinking about since then, about what I think is the worst kind of sexism in the world of MMOs.


Even in online gaming communities where women may know they have a strong presence, plenty of men (I'm looking at you, Dick Bartle) still feel “this isn't something women do.” Now, there are a lot of different sentiments that come after that sentence, but pretty often it's “But it would be awesome if they did!”


For example, 6 months after I got legally married, my husband and I finally had the money, time, and organization to follow it up with one hell of a reception. We decided the browser based MMORPG Kingdom of Loathing provided a perfect theme, since a huge part of the game is making tasty food and alcoholic drinks. Not to mention most of our friends (and his mother) also play or have played. We posted pictures of our shindig to the official forums afterwards and got lots of comments from male players saying things along the lines of “Wow, you're so lucky to find a woman who will tolerate that kind of idea.” It was female players (either smart enough to look at my husband and my player ID numbers and realize I had been playing a lot longer than him, or just pretty savvy to this sort of thing in general) who replied with comments like “She is a player in her own right” or “notice who has been playing the game way longer.”


So I understand first hand that being seen as a novelty, or a tourist, or anything but an ordinary player is alienating and discourages in-game socializing, and that is the most common type of sexism in MMORPGs these days.


I disagree with lots of feminist criticisms of games. I mean, it'd maybe be nicer to see some smaller breasts or some lady characters over the apparent age of 18, but really, who the hell cares? It takes a lot of crap to make me actually believe designers had any kind of big grudge against women or actively wanted to demean them and make a whole generation of dudes look at women as nothing but sex objects (though Guitar Hero 3 did convince me), and I have yet to play an MMO that I felt that way about. The problem is with the players. And it isn't the kinds of problems people (again, including Bartle in most of his writings on sexism) like to bitch about, male players actually harassing female players. Seriously, I haven't had a dude use creepy internet pick up lines since I played Diablo on battlenet when I was in high school, and haven't had dudes shower me with in game gifts just because I had a female avatar since I played Meridian 59 (haha, they were hitting on, like, a 12 year old. Freaks!) But I still regularly get other players, even real life friends of mine, refusing to take me seriously as a player of various games.


Anything else I could shrug off as the reactions of a bunch of immature losers who have never been with a woman, but really, what I talked about above is the breed of video game sexism that actually gets under my skin and makes me feel like an outsider

Question time!

So thinking about rogue-likes made me wonder about this.

So Joe has said when a player checks a walkthrough to breeze through a challenge they didn't want to do it's probably a result of bad game design.

And as far as I can see in order to be a really competitive high quality nethack player (and other games as well, lots of rogue-likes, Kingdom of Loathing, other looser defined examples I'll mention at the end of this statement) you have to draw on the collected experiences and discoveries of lots of other nethack players. And if you are that high-quality of player, they'll of course be drawing on yours as well. There's a similar phenomenon I believe in games like Zack and Wiki, or Professor Layton, where you ought not NEED the help of other players, but you're probably in the same room as friends while playing, and it just makes the game a lot more fun (which games should be, thank you John Kovalic, you can stop repeating that) and uses different skills (socializing and sharing ideas with other people versus hacking your way though alone), and using different skills is a good thing for games.

So what makes those things good and running off to gamefaqs wrong (no matter whether it's because the designer made a mistake or the player is making one)? Sure, there's much more of a reciprocal thing going on the "good" examples, except even walkthroughs get expanded as readers volunteer their own information that they've spaded out.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Year of the Roguelike

It's no secret that I am a huge fan of roguelike games. For those who don't know, and who are too lazy to read Wikipedia, these are games that feature procedural, randomized content; statistical-based character advancement; deeply complex item systems, often requiring the player to try to identify items before using them; player-like AI; complex, often unexpected world interactions; death systems that severely punish; and a brutal attitude towards unskilled play. Diablo is probably the best known roguelike in the West, although it's also one of the shallowest. If you have never played one, NetHack is the canonical place to start (although I don't like it much anymore), and Ancient Domains of Mystery is one my favorite free ones.

What may be a secret, and what certainly caught me off-guard, is the extent to which the genre has revived within the past year. If you had asked me at the start of 2007 what my favorite roguelikes were, I would've mentioned NetHack and ADOM, Rogue itself, and Shiren the Wanderer for the Super Famicom. These are also the only ones I invested more than a few hours in anyway; if you were to ask other people you might hear Omega and Angband, and a dozen variants on all of these, but nothing particularly new.

But in the past year we've seen Pokemon Mystery Dungeon (millions sold in the North America! A roguelike with sales in the millions!), Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja, Rogue Hearts Dungeon, much-enhanced remakes of Shiren and Baroque, Chocobo's Mystery Dungeon for Wii with a North American localization, Shiren 3 in Japan, and sequels to Pokemon Mystery Dungeon and Izuna. We've also seen games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (player-like AI and procedural weather), Hellgate: London (random levels and items), Spore (animation and creatures), and Dwarf Fortress (huge procedural worlds) that are not, strictly speaking, roguelikes, but borrow design lessons and elements from them.

Seriously, what happened? Roguelikes have never been totally dead, but they've always been a very niche genre. Outside of Chunsoft, there aren't many commercial ones, and those don't usually meet with much success. So why the sudden explosion?

First, to be blunt, Pokemon. Getting the Pokemon license introduced roguelikes to a whole new generation, just like the Dragon Quest license did over a decade ago. While PMD isn't a great roguelike it's a good one, made by developers that love the genre and are exploring it trying to find a way to make it more accessible to younger and less involved gamers. In general though, bad games don't kind the kind of critical reception PMD did, and so there's something else going on too.

As games get more expensive to make, procedural and emergent content look much more attractive. It's easier to design (though maybe harder to balance) 100 interacting items - giving, at first blush, 2100 different combations - than to design 10,000 items, which is nowhere near close to the depth provided by the 100. Maybe most of those combinations are boring, but then so are most of the 10,000.

As graphics technology gets better, procedural content also looks much more attractive. NetHack won't wow anyone with its display, but Baroque and Shiren 3 look impressive despite the fact they're fundamentally laid out on a grid and assembled automatically. Pouring a modern graphics budget into a roguelike could result in something that looks spectacular.

Dwarf Fortress does very interesting things with modern physics-based gameplay, something that many roguelikes have ignored. Physics is deterministic, but in sufficiently complex systems becomes chaotic - which is exactly what roguelikes thrive on.

Roguelikes also provide a solution to the perceived problem of cheating by information sharing, regardless of whether it's a single, multiplayer, or massively multiplayer game. Raph Koster of course totally misses the point when he discusses static information - even if you have all roguelike data (like a friend at work who has a giant table of Fei's Final Problem item costs for ID purposes), the game still provides an insane amount of unique and interesting situations, that require real strategy, each run. In this way you extend the life of the game, not by passing around stupid information tokens, but by making so many potential data that the player has to play the system and not the walkthrough.

There's huge unexplored swaths of design space here. Where are the roguelike Castleroids or puzzle/exploration-based games (Dungeon Hack had procedural key/door puzzles, which I don't think I've seen since)? Where is capture-the-flag on a procedural map? Where are the RPGs with shifting economies and genetically-bred enemies?

Well, they're coming. Not this year, but soon; and when they do, three decades of research in procedural content and exploration-based mechanics that have been all-but-ignored by mainstream games is going to explode.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Art In Games

About five minutes walk outside of Tokione - somewhat risky, but in my opinion worth it - there's an impressive art installation. A small room lifted about three stories up contains an enormous portrait-framed window. Looking out the portrait gives you a beautiful view of the forest, one that you probably ignored not 30 seconds ago while on the ground, even though it's more impressive from down there. It's a thought-provoking rebuttal to Edward Tufte's "depedestalization" - why shouldn't we use thousands of years of artistic experience to make beautiful things stand out, whether they be natural or artificial?

Of course, the other interesting thing about this piece is that it exists only on the fictional planet of Landroll, in the game Opoona.

Art is universal to human culture - not necessarily the same forms or themes, but the same drive to abstract, represent, and express creatively. But the worlds of video games are bereft of non-functional elements - like toilets, one rarely finds art in video games. Final Fantasy X has a country united in culture, by religion and by common enemy, and yet has no recognizable architectural, musical, or visual artistic movements. Mass Effect, another otherwise well-crafted world, expects us to believe that the only sculpture in the universe is one used to appease a wronged race after a war. How many games have entire palaces without any portraiture or sculpture? By contrast, the world-builders of Star Trek saw fit to create distinct styles of music, painting, literature, food, and even entertainment for each alien race, and writers like Mike Resnick or China Miéville flesh out their alien worlds with an abundance of equally alien art.

"Fictional art" is a great way to enhance a game world believably and creatively. Its forms can range from the above, to TV shows in No More Heroes and Harvest Moon, books (fiction and non-fiction) in Elder Scrolls games, and the theater in Final Fantasy IX. Wipeout features a huge number of fake corporate logotypes, and Contact even has fictional video games being sold in a fictional Akihabara! The converse is also true; missing or perverted art can add flavor to a dystopian culture. The state of Fort Frolic and Sander Cohen in Bioshock is particularly shocking because we know how art "normally" works, and how much it has been twisted in the game's world.

There's another side to this, and that's that video game worlds can provide a platform for art that might be otherwise inaccessible. Building an actual three-story-tall installation in a forest and keeping it up would probably cost more than Opoona did to make, be seen by fewer people (maybe not - the game barely sold 10,000 copies in Japan), and eventually come down. There's another installation in Innocent Life (probably not coincidentally also developed by ArtePiazza) which is a bunch of telephones installed in trees - where are you going to find an orchard to actually do that in?

There's a lot of unexplored possibilities. Where's the coffee houses filled with a new band every night (discs are definitely big enough now)? Or stand-up comedians? With the cliché cooking minigames, where are the great chefs in Breath of Fire? What music is playing on the Persona 3 protagonist's omnipresent headphones? Does Frank West look up to André Kertész? And when can Hyrule finally get some statues that weren't either built hundreds of years ago and/or turn into Armos?

Professor McClane and the Curious Villain

So I was originally thinking about titling this blog "Out of the Loop" since I like to think I am (refreshingly!) out of the loop on everything, and most of my posts would be about video games everyone else finished years ago. For example, I was many months late on the Guitar Hero sexism, and I'm even sad I missed out on the heyday of complaining.

But here's just how out of the loop I am. I just saw Die Hard with a Vengeance last night. It's Professor Layton the movie...or Professor Layton is Die Hard the video game. Amazing!

Who wants to write me some crossover fanfiction?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Video games are too long! Stuff costs more than it used to! Young people use curse words!

Next to me is a shelf of about 300 video games; I don't want to actually count because then I'd know how much money I've spent on them (during the course of editing this post I signed up for Backloggery). They've all been released since 2000 or so, the earliest it goes back is GBA and PS2. It's a large collection, but comparable in size and financial investment to the CD and record collections of audiophiles, DVD collections of movie buffs, or book collections of anyone who enjoys reading. What is different, however, is that those people have listened to their CDs, watched their movies, and read their books. Out of my games, I have beaten less than half. Part of this is attributable to the fact I like collecting things and overestimate my free time - I've got about a dozen books unread as well - but part of it is that video games are too damned long, and they revel in it.

The average video game length, for a single player storyline, is probably around 10 hours. Halo 3 was about 6; No More Heroes was about 15; Assassin's Creed was almost exactly 10. There are some amazing outlyers like the Final Fantasy series, which has clocked game times of over 100 hours for its past few releases. I've heard people lament that this is actually down from five years ago, when Playstation 2 games would average 20-30 hours.

I saw There Will Be Blood last month. It had higher production values, was more engrossing, and more memorable, than most video games I will play this year. It was "only" two and a half hours long.

At the same time gamers are complaining about the increase in game prices, and developers are complaining about the increase in production costs, video games are probably the most decompressed form of entertainment. They feature screen after screen of pretty pictures with minimal interaction, every blood splatter and stock crate carefully rendered and placed. The difference is, decompression arose in comics because it was cheap and effective. In a video game, it's neither.

Now, I understand the impetus for a long game. Games are expensive, and gamers want to get their money worth. But there are other solutions! First, games don't have to be expensive. Portal is the critical and commercial darling of last year, and clocked in around the length of a feature film. The content was polished the whole way through. Almost everyone who started it, finished it. It was only $20 (or part of a multi-game pack).

Dead Rising is six hours long (with an enforced time limit) but strongly encourages replays. Your first time through the game you will certainly miss elements, because of the sheer amount of things to see. The game can deliver its key narrative over the course of six hours, and so it moves quickly, but rewards players over tens of hours with a significantly different game each time.

These two games have something else important in common, as was pointed out to me by Ben Zeigler - in theater terms, they don't draw out their second act. In a traditional three act play - which most modern films and games are based on - the first act contains the exposition, the second the confrontation, and the third the resolution and denouement. These are split about 25%, 50%, and 25% respectively in film, but more often 5%, 94%, and 1% in games; the resolution is rarely more than a final boss battle, sometimes followed by a non-interactive video. Portal and Dead Rising both adhere closely to the filmic proportions, as do other games like The Darkness which has a lengthy playable exposition.

Another option is to take the approach older games did, which has less to do with balancing the narrative proportions or replayable content than making the game really hard. Contra 4 and Castlevania: Dracula X Chronicles brought this kind of play cycle back to store shelves recently, although certain genres like bullet-curtain shooters kept it alive in modern indie games since the 1980s. The games take very little time to play through, but require playing the levels over and over to memorize enemy positions and optimize plans and reflexes. The recent release of Triggerheart Exelica on Xbox Live Arcade to complaints of "I beat the game in less than an hour [after continuing 20 times], what a ripoff!" shows that there's not universal appeal here, but the sales figures on Contra and Castlevania indicate there's still a big market for people interested in high score tables. If people are having trouble they can always turn the game down to "easy" mode, at the expensive of some points and ridicule from friends.

There is a combination of both, the path taken by roguelike games. They are hard; not brutally hard on memorization and reflexes like Contra, but strategically challenging. Combined with the fact much of the content in roguelikes is procedural - randomly generated and different each game - an individual game may take a few hours (or less), but the player will play it over and over if your design is appropriately balanced. The fact you are already generating things procedurally means roguelikes are often amenable to straightforward mathematical balancing.

There is a final option I don't need to say much about, which is to ignore single player games. Few people talk about "finishing" an MMO or a game like Winning Eleven or Smash Bros. But the single player experience is far from dead. Bioshock and Mass Effect and anticipation for Metal Gear Solid 4 suggests this isn't the whole future.

All these options succeed in getting more people to finish games - which is to say, more people hooked all the way through your game, and at the same time giving a richer experience to players who want to put more time in.

What's a bad way to handle this? Look no further than Final Fantasy - any of them, although the latter ones are bigger offenders. These are the games where 95% of the time is in the second act, and even if you ignore sidequests it takes you dozens of hours. I won't rag on FF though, since that seems to be popular in the West these days. Instead, I'll beat on Mass Effect for the same reason. Optional sidequests are not the way to make a short main narrative but a longer game. First, the sidequests are content I am interested in, but do not differ significantly from the game mechanics of the main plot. The content could easy be worked into a generic corridor in the main plot instead of a generic corridor in a sidequest. Second, they do not change the experience, they just extend it. When I play Dead Rising through a second time, five of those six hours may be entirely new to me depending on where I go in the mall. When I play Mass Effect a second time, I have the same ten hours I already did, interspersed with another five new ones. Why can't I just play the new ones?

(There is actually a solution to this, which is to write a complex multilayered narrative like those which reward repeated reading of books or repeated watching of films. Amazingly, I think Final Fantasy X did this! But then the game is so ridiculously long it cancels that out. Most of the Metal Gear series succeeded too. No More Heroes is the best recent example; the second time through the game the dialogue and camera work is identical, but knowing what you do then it's a wholly new story. But I don't expect the game industry to suddenly figure out good writing overnight, nor am I sure I want it to.)

There is still room for the hundred hour epic game, just as there is still room for George R. R. Martin books or The Cremaster Cycle. Games like Disgaea or Harvest Moon are long because the goal of the design is to have the player become intimately familiar with the game, either mechanically or narratively. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. There is not a sufficiently large payoff in putting that much time into Mass Effect's or Eternal Sonata's systems, so I don't do it, or do it only grudgingly.

When you're planning the length of your second act, ask yourself if there's really forty hours of things to do, or if you just want the player to spend forty hours doing things. If it's the latter, they most likely won't anyway.

[Since I started writing this, Leigh Alexander published a similarly-themed article about "Completion Anxiety Disorder". She comes to some very different conclusions than I did, and looks at it from a player-centric rather than a developer-centric perspective.]

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Real Games That Should Win Fake Awards

MTV Multiplayer has been running a series on the best video game animals that is set to become an epic battle near the end, despite the complete ignorance of Dogmeat. The good news is, there are plenty of other awards to go around.

Fallout, for example, can win best use of a licensed RPG rule system that wasn't allowed to actually name the system.

Best use of robot bees goes to Insecticide.

Most phallic objects goes to Katamari Damacy with every id FPS receiving honorary mention.

Most 100 level dungeons goes to Super Paper Mario, which has three of them, one of which you have to do twice, and another one you think you're going to have to do but they trick you. There are games with more, but this isn't even really an RPG!

Bizarrest in-game advertising goes to Dewy's Adventure, advertising Nestlé Aquapod, a product I have never seen or heard of before or since.

Best character name goes to GrimGrimoire for "Margarita Surprise", and also provides the runner-up with "Advocat".

You'd think most annoying fairy would go to Ocarina of Time, but that's because you've never played the real winner(?), Mad Maestro.

Most ridiculously long name is tough, with contenders like Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, Harvest Moon: Another Wonderful Life: Special Edition, and Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates. Eigo o Taberu Fushigi na Ikimono Marsh, or Marsh, the Mysterious Creature That Eats English, makes a strong showing. But the winner by a mile is Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army.

Incidentally, that game also wins most awesome Rasputin.

Finally, most hilariously over-the-top title that a game somehow manages to live up to goes to Space Invaders Extreme.

Friday, March 14, 2008

First Post!

Recently, Amy wrote about her patterns of active response to games. I, too, used to engage in this practice much more than I do now; I would assign personalities and motivations to the most inconsequential characters, preventing them from being unreachable, silent stars. Text-heavy games modified this impulse, but never did away with it. Is admitting to "self-talk" a trait that will still get me barred from future employment? My RPG heroes totally had all sorts of conversations. Setzer vs. Umaro on the nature of free will? Two tickets, please!

A tangent so soon? Perhaps editors have their purposes after all. Still, I play games differently these days. I'm concerned with what's canon, the extra plot elements that can only be revealed by Japanese people or Wikipedia, and interview comments made by the game's designer. The culprit, as with all of my problems, is the Internet.

As a tow-headed youth, I mostly played games by myself. They weren't something to be beaten before moving on to the next one, but an experience to be savored and explored for all they were worth before the rental period had expired. Guides were incomplete and difficult to obtain, so secrets were always popping up. Without knowing the limits of what was possible, there was always a black-and-white flecked frontier to brag to my friends about delving. They'd do the same thing, often taking me in with their slick lies about unlockable characters and pre-nude code shenanigans.

I'm drifitng, so here it is again: information overload has changed how I play. Gaming is a much more social activity these days. It's an undeniable fact that I talk about upcoming games, moan about the state of the industry, and post on video game-themed message boards more than I actually play games. Many games are just an excuse to banter with like-minded individuals. To reach this stage of meaningful reaction requires that there only be one version of a game. Interpretations need not apply, lest they get shelved under the column of "fan-wank." For any colaborative fan-work to get off the ground, everyone needs a common starting point, backed up with conclusive evidence. Not only is the game stomped, slaughtered, and demeaned, but it is subsequently exhumed for all final bits of whimsy.

Yeah, that's right: my first post here is also caught within calcified nostalgia. Clearly, games were better in the past because their two-bit story teams made me fill in the blanks for myself. Can I break out of this nerd falacy? A recent conversation on the merits of Super Mario Brothers 3 got me thinking.

When I first encountered Kuribo's Shoe, I took it at face value. A goomba was stomping around in it because it protected him from the countless dangers of the Mushroom Kingdom. I also wished to be protected, so I stole it from him. Stomping around in a giant shoe sure was fun. Stomp! Stomp!

Who was this Kuribo fellow, and how did three measly goomba each manage to accquire a portion of his invincible footwear? Were there giants in the kingdom who weren't part of World 4, but an ancient civilization? Was Kuribo a goomba hero, attended to by tiny cobbler-elves? Did Bowser's war-machine extend deeper into the fabric of the world than even I suspected? Either way, it was the ultimate power-up.

Years later, I learned that kuribo is just the Japanese name for goombas. That means that the goombas were wearing goomba-shoes, which is fun to say, but lacking in the same mythic resonance. I could write fanfiction or start a viral campaign to slip a more exciting interpretation into fan-consciousness, but it wouldn't be the same. Knowledge has ruined me.

Can I still enjoy deep immersion in a game? Sure. The best examples are games that attract little interest from the majority of my circle. Take, for example, Suikoden Tactics. The characters are uninteresting, the voice-acting is bad, and the plot is nothing to write home about. Nevertheless, I've been devoting a substantial portion of my nights to playing it. Why? It's relaxing; there's no pressure. I'm able to concentrate on the game's good points (of which there are several) because I don't need to worry about rushing through to avoid spoilers, attain a high score, or stay on the cusp of conversation.

It appears that I've created a division between social gaming and "pure" gaming. However, when I put it that way, I find fault with my words. I'll have to think about it some more, unless someone is interested in responding for me. An upcoming article on how all games have the potential for sandbox play, if you expand the boundaries of the game to include spectators and loved ones, perhaps?
Wow. I think Guitar Hero III might be the most sexist game I've ever played. And as a fairly straightforward beat game, it's not like they have hours of story and dialog in which to be sexist, so they must have really, REALLY tried to cram it into what little story and cinematics they had available.

Other than my guitarist, and the occasional female vocalist, I have yet to see a single lady in that game doing anything other go go dancers and arm candy for swanky pimpin' (male) record executives. Oh, and there are lots of those. All the other band members, roadies, club owners, deal makers, etc are all dudes. Oh, and in the animated cut scenes, You the guitarist are even a dude as well.

Please, GH3, give me just one female drummer, roadie, record label employee, or club owner. Actually, wait, no, please give me more than that. Roughly 50% would be nice.

Seriously, from what I know of rock star sex fantasies (which is a reasonable amount, I like to think), having 3 aneroxic, pseudo-asian subs in bikinis that cling to you constantly and never speak isn't really in the number one spot anymore.

However, I know sex sells and I also appreciate some good looking ladies with sex appeal in my video games, so it's not like I want that whole visual style eliminated completely. So, I'll conclude with a few better rock star sex fantasies about ladies that I think GH3 could have subtly tapped into in one way or another.

-The tight assed, curvaceous female roadie in black denim with tattoos all over her body (and you're just itching to see more) who's travelled the world and seen and done anything.

-The sexy, gregarious, bisexual bartender with loads of hot female friends who makes the strongest whiskey sour you've had so far on the tour.

-The hotshot new female record executive in the Chanel suit with the $1000 haircut who sips a martini while telling you she'll help your band get to the top...if you can please her.

See, GH3? In 5 minutes I came up with better examples of good looking ladies you could put in the background or cutscenes that are way hotter than your two identical go go dancers in black miniskirts and tight t-shirts.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The politics of kissing

I'm about to look like I'm growing up, which embarrasses me horribly, but when I was younger (I mean at least 10 years younger and usually more) video games seemed much more magical. They may have been tiny, self contained worlds, but they really felt like entire worlds and even though LucasArts never programmed in what lay behind those bushes in Loom and Sierra never designed faces or wrote backstories for the entire ship's crew who must have died in King's Quest VI, you better believe I filled in all of that in my head. Not as some kind of creative exercise either, but it just naturally popped in there as the logical extension of what the designers must have intended.

Where am I going with this? After my first few years of the wonder that was video games, it became harder and harder to play games on that visceral level and as it became more of an intellectual activity (and that isn't bad, they've never stopped being fun.)

Chulip is the first game I've played in awhile that I haven't stopped to analyze even the slightest bit while playing it, because I'm too enchanted by it. This doesn't stop me from thinking critically about it later (y'know, since I'm doing so now) but from the moment I load my game I become too absorbed in their bizarre dialogues Stoo (my character) has with Yam (the love of his life), or the voyeuristic way he crawls into the giant pipe she calls home to watch her while she's sleeping (and the guilty feeling I have when I go inside and she's still awake), or spying on the Underground Residents, watching them talk about their menial jobs with their creepy Silent Hill-reminiscent bodies. The weird part is, mechanics-wise it's barely even a game.

Incidentally, the last time I felt that way about the game was right when Katamari came out. I remember myself and the room full of people I played it in were just too damn delighted to say anything about it except "Oh my god!" "That's so awesome!" and once and awhile "That's so weird!" between levels. And, it was awesome.

So, um, here's to games that are completely immersive while playing them, but still awesome to talk about afterwards!