Thursday, December 16, 2010

Missile Command: Game Mechanics as Narrative

Extra Credits did a great piece on Missile Command using pure game mechanics to tell a story.

The comments are interesting, as some don't seem to see pixilized images as "cities". Apparently people these days need the kind of graphics to "properly" interpret it.

Monday, September 27, 2010

"...And so we're playing Portal at Wabush College."

From Brainy Gamer

"Could I have chosen a game to stand by itself, with no accompanying text assignment? Maybe. I thought about Bioshock. I thought about Planescape: Torment. In the end, I chose Portal because I thought it would make a good start. A good first impression. A lead-off hitter, if you will."

"Deploying a game for an entire cohort to play at the same time requires more problem-solving than you might expect. We ultimately decided that hardware, installation, and licensing issues were complex enough to dissuade us from teaching Portal in all sections of the course this year; so I and a group of eager colleagues will play the game in our sections to work out the kinks. I don't want our first college-wide experience with a game to be plagued with problems."

Monday, August 16, 2010

Bethesda Blog � Blog Archive � Behind the Scenes: The Many Voices of New Vegas

Bethesda Blog � Blog Archive � Behind the Scenes: The Many Voices of New Vegas

Fallout: New Vegas has an impressive voice cast, a lot won over by the immensity of Fallout 3, which has very little in the way of excellent voice acting (Liam Neesen notwithstanding).

Matthew Perry's story is one of the most fun.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Free and Worth Every Penny - Issue 53: Nostalgia Wave - Colony of Gamers

Take a look at the following great, old games out now as freeware.  I didn't post the original, that would be Ravenlock at Colony of Gamers:

Free and Worth Every Penny - Issue 53: Nostalgia Wave - Colony of Gamers
Let me get this out of the way up front: this is not a post about abandonware. This will not be a thread about abandonware, either. I know that there are umpteen sites where you can go and download DOS and Windows classic games for the low, low price of $0, under circumstances that some folks consider A-okay and others consider more dubious. This is not the place for that argument, or links to those sites. We all have Google and know how to use it, yes? Okay, cool.

That said, though, sometimes publishers give us the gift of a piece of our youth - repackaged, or just as it was - free of charge. Over the last few years we've seen several instances of this: Rockstar with their Classics Collection and Mektek's recent re-release of Mechwarrior 4 come most readily to mind. It was recommended by NotJeff (thank you!) that I do a writeup of the free Star Control 2 remake The Ur-quan Masters, and I decided I'd do one better and just do a round-up of all the totally legal, totally free old games I could think of. So brace yourselves, it's a...

#1. The Ur-Quan Masters

Let's start where NotJeff suggested, with the open-source remake of 1992 classic Star Control 2. Bringing the galactic adventure of Star Control 2 into a slightly more modern era, The Ur-Quan Masters is essentially an enhanced port blessed by the original developers that's been underway since 2002. Version 0.6.2 was released in 2007, and adds online multiplayer to the already considerable content of the original game.

If you aren't familiar, it's a little bit of a 4X game, a little bit adventure game, a little bit top-down combat, and a whole lot wacky. I didn't get to play a lot of Star Control 2 as a kid, but what I remember is the extremely strong characterization of the alien races - you will laugh at some, and tremble at others - the fun of hunting for minerals on planet surfaces, and the great music. All of that has been preserved here, including optional updates to the music if you prefer them.

If you fondly remember Star Control 2, it's all waiting for you just as you remember it. If you've never tried it, now's a great time to give it a whirl.

#2. Sierra Adventure Games

Next up, some games that I do have a much deeper personal connection with - Sierra adventure games. These were quite literally my introduction to gaming, playing King's Quest I through IV on a Tandy 1000 EX in the mid-80's with my parents. A fair bit of noise has been made (and rightly so) about the long-awaited successful release of The Silver Lining, but those guys aren't the only ones who are keeping Sierra's legacy alive.

For starters, AGD Interactive has been lovingly re-creating Sierra's adventures for years now - I first remember coming across their work on the original King's Quest sometime in college. They've now done three full games - the first two in the King's Quest series, and Quest for Glory II - and the scope of their work is difficult to overstate. Entirely new VGA graphics, music, voicework for both of the KQ games... truly, I think of these as the definitive versions of the games I loved as a kid. It's wonderful work, and if you have any love for adventure games, you need to check it out.

Quite apart from them, Infamous Adventures released a similarly complete graphic, music and speech overhaul of King's Quest III back in 2006, and while I confess to not having played it myself yet, it certainlylooks excellent. Between AGD and Infamous Adventures, revisiting memories of Sierra games is easier - and better - than anyone could reasonably expect.

#3. ScummVM Adventure Games

Let's stay on the adventure kick for a moment and point out how great ScummVM is. If you've never used it, it's basically a modern player for all the classic SCUMM adventure games, of which there were a metric ton. Almost every classic LucasArts adventure (Monkey Island 1 and 2, Sam & Max, Loom, two Indiana Jonesgames, The Dig, Full Throttle) can be plugged into ScummVM, which runs on damn near anything, and they'll run like a dream. Many of the classic Sierra games will work as well. Of course, those games you need to legally own before playing them in ScummVM, so that's not the purview of this article, but there are three classic adventures you can download completely free that will work right out of the box.

Remarkably, this image with monkeys in pirate hats is not from a LucasArts game. I was shocked too.

Beneath a Steel Sky, Flight of the Amazon Queen and Lure of the Temptress are all now freeware, and areonly a click away. BaSS is a classic post-apocalyptic tale of a man on the run (and in addition to being a great game has the distinction of being animated by Dave Gibbons of Watchmen fame). Flight of the Amazon Queen, pictured above, is a much more light-hearted Indiana Jones-style jungle adventure. Lure of the Temptress I'm not familiar with, but is apparently fantasy-themed. But hey, it's free, so if you like adventure games, hop to!
#4. Rockstar Classics Collection

I feel like there isn't a whole lot to say here, because it's GTA, right? I mean, we all know what GTA is about. If you've never played the first two, it's hard to say that they hold up tremendously well in a world where GTA IV and its expansions can both be had for well under $20 in a sale, but they're still pretty good top-down fun and perfect for gaming on a laptop if you're on the go. They also had great multiplayer longbefore the 3D GTA games figured out how to do that.

Wild Metal, I confess, I have not played. It won't cost me anything but time, so maybe I should get on that? If you've played it, leave a comment and let us know if we should.
#5. Mechwarrior 4

This one probably isn't news to you, since it was a big deal a few months back, but MekTek has releasedMechwarrior 4 for free, one assumes at least partly to drum up interest for their new Mechwarrior game, which is coming... someday.

That's the good news - and don't get me wrong, it IS good news. Mech 4 is a pretty great game and not a whole lot of people played it at release (myself included). The bad news is, MekTek kind of stealth-bundled the whole thing with their own Impulse-esque delivery service, MTX, and that didn't go so well. A lot of people weren't able to download the game at all, and those who were able still sometimes had problems with MTX as a launcher.

MekTek promised quickly that they would release a downoad free of MTX, but as far as I can see they have not yet done so. The community has come up with workarounds, which you can feel free to try if you're so inclined, but it's unfortunate that this game comes with a side of either a lousy delivery client or required back-end tinkering.

#6. A Whole Lot More

We're only scratching the surface here, really; for all that we PC gamers complain (and rightly so) about restrictive DRM and fear of not being able to play our games down the road, there are still a lot of publishers happy to create goodwill by giving away older wares. The original Railroad Tycoon is free now, if you feel like building trains across the country. If you want to play through the predecessors to Halo, all three Marathongames are completely free. For strategy buffs, Command & Conquer Gold can be had gratis, and one of my favorite strategy games as a kid, Defender of the Crown, is free now too. M.U.L.E. has been completely overhauled and is available with online multiplayer, and the classic text adventure version of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is playable as a webgame provided by the BBC.

And there's probably a lot more I don't know about. If you do, leave a comment and share it with us. And here's hoping that more publishers in the future go through their back catalogs and choose to donate some of their older work to the public good. These games aren't just good for nostalgia, after all; they're part of our history, and helped build the industry we care so much about. It's great to see them kept alive.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Alice and Kev: Homeless Sims

An experiment in Sims 3 in which the player added the homeless neighbors, Alice and Kev

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Horrible Delight: The 7th Guest

Disclaimer: I spoil 7th Guest pretty hard in this article.

Trilobyte's The 7th Guest is a game that routinely makes top ten lists for 'Scariest Games of All Time'. I wonder, though, if they've played through the game recently or just place it on these lists out of a sense of respect and history. Certainly, it is a PC gaming's milestone. It's clear that Trilobyte made 7th Guest with the very goal of being a technology pioneer that would awe its players with a cutting edge multimedia event. That was exceeded beyond their wildest imaginations; it's just too bad that making a great game wasn't as important to them.

7th Guest's place in the annals of computer lore is well-deserved. The leap to integrate full motion video with rendered 3D graphics is an inspired one. Its CD only format pushed computing into the CD-ROM age and gave designers the freedom to make a game that was like a movie, with sweeping camera movements, actors, and a soundtrack. Graeme Devine, one of the founders of Trilobyte and one of 7th Guest’s visionaries, was the first to ever compress digital video and designed the tools to do so from scratch (if you ever find yourself streaming low quality video from Starz Play on Netflix, you know who to thank). Graeme, along with Trilobyte’s co-founder Rob Landeros, developed the story to go along with the dream of a next generation multimedia experience, though their ambitions to become a weaver of tales might have outmatched their talents.

The story revolves around a diabolical toy master named Henry Stauf. Though not spelled out, I gather from the Faust anagram that Stauf sold his soul for wealth and ended up with more than he bargained. Your character, who is nameless in the game but is supposedly called Ego, wakes up at the front door with amnesia (sigh) and the game begins! Throughout the game, you're treated to full motion video flashbacks of a dinner party thrown by Stauf (although he doesn't actually attend) where he asks the six guests to solve the grand puzzle of his mansion. The winner of Stauf's game is granted his or hers greatest desire. As the game progresses by solving puzzles and watching vignettes, you discover that Stauf is manipulating the guests in order to harvest the soul of a young boy who broke in the house on a dare, the 7th guest. You see, Stauf's toys actually steal the souls of children and he needs just one more childsoul to bring his evil mansion to life (or something, it's pretty vague). You spend the whole game discovering this basic back story with no real arcs for various guests or Ego. After you complete the last, best puzzle, there's a painfully obvious twist that you are the child, the 7th guest, that Stauf was hunting in all the cutscenes. Then Stauf explodes in a burst of holy light for absolutely no reason and the game is over.

The story was further developed from the initial concept by a professional writer, something I will credit them. Still, the full motion video segments are hurt by shoddy characters, low production value, and creative talent overmatched by challenges presented using the new technology. At the time, it was forgivable because there was nothing else to compare it to, but looked upon with a critical eye in a modern context, it’s a bit baffling. If you’re going to innovate with video, why not make it the best you possibly can instead of treating like a chore and an afterthought? When they set up Trilobyte in a quiet Oregon town, I’m sure it seemed like a great idea but it was ultimately a selfish one. I have no doubt it was a more pleasant to live in west Oregon than southern California but Oregon just isn’t going to have the resources that would benefit what amounts to an experimental film shoot. Inexperienced actors and silly costumes hamper a promising but hackeneyed story. Now, it’s not like I expect the 7th Guest to be written with the same level of complexity and depth as literature, but the emotional experience of the game leaves me little else to focus on.

Gameplay in 7th Guest, outside of the exploration of the house and story, boils down to puzzles. The puzzles are a mixed bag and, while plentiful and varied, left me wanting. Their lack of innovation is a major felony here, Halloween party versions of the most common brain teasers or word games. I enjoy a good chess challenge but they go overboard here and the knight-switching puzzle is one of the most awful and tedious puzzles that’s ever been forced upon me. A few of the puzzles make absolutely no sense unless you check out the clue book in the den (which will actually solve puzzles for you, I discovered way too late). There were puzzles I enjoyed, especially the insanely difficult game of Ataxx versus Stauf on a microscopic level (which took me longer to beat than the rest of the game combined), and I appreciated the level of polish to the puzzles. A lot about the puzzles can be forgiven with the limitations imposed by the game design. For a reason I don’t understand but accept, they could only have one button to interact with the world and I imagine that posed a challenge when creating unique puzzles. Still, what I can’t get past are the haphazard nature of the puzzles. Why are we solving them? To what end? Why does solving all of them make Henry Stauf explode into purity dust? They try to explain, at the start, that the puzzles are created by Henry Stauf for the six guests to solve as part of his dinner party game but they drop that after the first few rooms and don’t connect it to the story. Since there’s never anything to threaten your life and the puzzles are abstract filler, the only emotional draw is the full motion video segments, which, as I’ve already said, are less than compelling.

Part of me hates to harp on all of this, it is clear Trilobyte spent a ton of time and effort on the game and it’s one of the few PC games that transcend the world of your usual gamers. The house looks fantastic, seventeen years later, and even if the technology has moved on, the artistry has not. The music and sound design are, frankly, outstanding and shoulders most of the responsibility for creating an effective mood. Every guest has their own little theme that is woven into the overall music that adds more to their story than anything that appears on screen—it's clever and I'd put it on iPod if I could only figure out how. Even a cursory glance at the game shows they weren’t myopic programmers interested only in lines of code, there’s a real love there for the game and a real passion to tell its story. The problem lies in a deeper cognitive dissonance.

Graeme Devine stated that he wanted 7th Guest to be a family game, which is strange considering the content. There’s nothing outright offensive but it’s still a horror game with a brutal stabbing, Stauf’s weird demon tongue, lascivious sex moans, a strangling, and the stealing of children’s soul by their own toys--it’s not exactly a Pixar movie. It explains the silly Halloween party nature of most of the horror, though: the cake with cartoon skulls and gravestones, a painting that grows fangs, the relentless and degrading use of puns throughout the experience, it’s all haphazard and seems the product of an ADHD “Wouldn’t it be cool if...” style of game design. There doesn’t seem to be any real love for horror or at least an attempt to understand the genre. It’s like a Scooby Doo episode that lasts hours and hours, except Fred pulls off Stauf’s mask at the beginning to discover a hissing lizard demon and Shaggy spends the whole time hilariously weeping with terror as he tries to spell six different words with no vowels. The demonic presence that holds sway over Stauf isn't even addressed, really. Sure it can give Stauf a really long tongue to impotently lash at people but they don't try to have any perceptible rules to its power or any mystery to its existence—it's just a means to an end. There’s a powerful vision for a game but it’s just not very well thought out. In my opinion, Graeme Devine and Rob Landeros were men of vision. It’s just that the vision seemed to be more about the glory of making a great game than it was about making the great game.

The 7th Guest is a truly innovative and remarkable game that deserves its place in history but, at the end of the day, it’s not good. After 7th Guest was released, the company spent a long time spiraling down into financial oblivion and I think the cracks are already showing in their touchstone product. The truth of Trilobyte seems to be a story of aimless projects costing millions and infighting between a stressed Devine and a disgusted Landeros. It.sounds exactly like the problems in the 7th Guest: unfocused and at war with itself. I think the issue of implementing a game’s vision is one of the most primal struggles when making a game. What is it that makes a game fun? What is it that makes a game inspirational? It isn’t number of units sold or the groundbreaking technology used to make the game. The only game I think think of that tries to ape 7th Guest is Shivers (a game that is superior in every way) but mostly games took the technology and went their own way before full motion video died a quick death. Making a game is difficult and it takes a special talent to make a good one. It requires patience and a willingness to adapt to the problems at hand. There’s just no guarantee that the game will turn out, so the more thought you put into your game before you put the money into it, the better off you’ll be.

7th Guest is a victim of poor planning. Dazzled by the tech and what could be, Graeme and Rob didn’t consider the journey. They relocated to the idyllic Oregon coast where there were few actors, fewer programmers, and certainly no one familiar with new technology of digital video. Graeme and Rob’s vision went unquestioned, by all accounts they seemed men of large egos and the writer they hired to flesh out the story didn’t do a good job at challenging them. The tone and game design are muddled, relying on the wow factor that certainly delivered at the time. Shock and awe is cheap and immediate, though, and it’s a terrible foundation for game design. 7th Guest could have been the Nosferatu of video games, something future generations could look at and appreciate as an important work in the art and history of video games. Instead, it's more of a footnote, the game that opened the door for better games to walk through. A cohesive and compelling game experience is the key lesson of game design that separates a great game from a good game and a good game from a bad game. Themes aren't just for books and movies, kids, they’re for any story, regardless of format. Something like Castle Crashers, one of the most ridiculous games ever made, resonates so deeply because its wild and silly tone is demonstrated in every aspect of the game, most especially the gameplay. I'd argue that themes are harder to implement in a video game than in any other medium because they have to be felt in the gameplay as well in the story and art direction. Left 4 Dead isn't just about shooting zombies, it's about the balance of four people fighting the zombie horde—the co-operative gameplay reinforces and elevates the feelings of isolation and horror exquisitely. 7th Guest just didn't get it, in the end, and that's too bad. How much more could it have inspired if it had? How many more lifelong gamers would it have left behind?


I tried to play 7th Guest’s sequel, the 11th Hour, for a follow up article but the game keeps crashing and I’m tired of troubleshooting it just to play a more polished version of the 7th Guest. Apparently it’s not a new problem; the joke is that the greatest puzzle in 11th Hour is getting the game to run. It’s too bad, because the game looks even better and the video elements have a fun Twin Peaks vibe (by that I mean they’re basically ripping off Twin Peaks but it’s still a good thing for this series) that I wished was present in the original. The puzzles I did play were better designed and, from what I understand, had a lot of AI involved that was cutting edge at the time. The look and feel of the game is more coherent as a whole, spookier and less stupid. It’s just too bad they released an MS DOS game in a world that had switched over to Windows 95. Technical failures are always worse than conceptual ones and, coming from a game company that redefined computing, are unforgivable.

I recommend checking out this article about the history of Trilobyte. It’s a cautionary tale of game design that I hope every developer keeps in mind when they build a game experience. Most importantly, it is a fascinating story and a great read.

The Rise and Fall of Trilobyte

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Horrible Delight: Legacy, the Realm of Terror

Horror is a genre that shines on the format of video games. Nothing will immerse you in the awful goings-on of a story more than being in control of whether your character lives or dies. It works so well that you can find horror elements in many of the major franchises. Games like Halo, Bioshock, Left 4 Dead and Half-Life are a major force in the video game world and I'd argue that that's due, in part, to how well the designer evokes the feeling of fear. Fear is just easier to create within the interactive nature of games; it's fun, it's safe, and the fear is personal.

The game that turned me onto the horror potential of games, before Gabriel Knight, 7th Guest or Resident Evil, was Microprose's 1993 diamond in the rough: Legacy, the Realm of Terror. The action/rpg game's initial premise is a classic haunted house set-up. Your character mysteriously inherits a Lovecraftian mansion from an unknown relative and after a brief but important character creation menu, you find yourself in the foreboding lobby of the 17th century Prentiss house with nothing but a few rumors and a book of magic spells (if you rolled a magician). The door is locked behind you and, with little prompting from the game, all you can do is explore and see what's going on with your house.

Legacy's non-linear nature is the game itself; you can go almost anywhere in the house from the start and most problems have several different solutions, usually tailored to your character's build. A locked door can be picked, forced open with brawny might, mystically overcome with certain spells, or you can go around and hunt for the key, like a coward. The game's world is presented mostly through notes and journals discovered as you fight (or more likely, flee) through the house. Legacy freaked me out on such a primal level, when I was young, that I find myself drifting back to the game every few years like a favorite novel; the twists and turns are now routine but it's still pleasant nostalgia to see them all played out.

Before I run away with what I love about the game, it's only fair to discuss the game's flaws. The thing that struck me most in my most recent play through is how little sense the mansion makes as an actual house. There are hundreds of rooms but no kitchen, the only bathrooms are on the east side of the second floor (maybe an issue with the 17th century plumbing, I will grant), and a fair portion of the rooms have literally nothing inside them. The game has some pretty laughable puzzles, which is the most unforgivable element for me. You encounter a room where you're so filled with dread, you can't walk another step forward. What do you do? Walk backwards! The game is filled to the brim with shit like this. When they're not silly or easy, they're often oblique offenders of trial and error. The inventory system is atrocious, as well. You receive so many clues, weapons, and puzzle-busting items that the only real solution is to find convenient safe rooms throughout the house to put your stuff (the screenshot below is my weapons pile, next door to my food and health pile). It's actually kind of fun to play hoarder at first, but it quickly becomes tedious as you travel from item cache to item cache, searching for the one weapon or doodad you need. Just don't put your rifle down to pick up the astrolabe, horned skull, or whatever. Sure, you promise you'll come back for it later but, trust me, you'll never see that rifle again.

The flaws are enough that I can't give the game a glowing recommendation. Along with aforementioned problems, the game is punishingly difficult in a way only an old school PC game knows how to be. There is only a finite amount of health, ammo, and magical energy to be found and it's common to find that you saved your game in a horrible situation with dubious chance for escape. The graphics, while decent enough for its time, don't hold up to even the most forgiving modern standards. While the theme changes from floor to floor to keep things interesting, each individual floor can feel barren of detail; for every room with interesting art, there are forty rooms that features that same bookcase model with that same bookcase description you've already seen a thousand times. It's a limitation of the floppy diskette generation of games, but it really hurts the playability of Legacy today.

Still, for its time, even its flaws kind of work for the game in their own weird way—they hamper playability but not tone. The bizarre layout heightens the tension as you wander around, hoping to find a clue (or even better, a M16) to help you deal with the poisonous monsters in the basement. The item management makes every choice you make important—sure the baseball bat isn't as strong as the pistol but a baseball bat takes up less slots than all that ammo and won't jam up midway through the zombie battle. The puzzles? Well, I guess the Dark Lord that Hungers is too busy devouring adorable bunnies to think up clever brain-teasers.

Despite it's flaws, the game is quite well made. The RPG system is well balanced and every stat is worthy of use, though I haven't had the balls to try out my bare knuckles against the Demonic 1st Battalion. Every build has a shot at survival, though I'd say the game rewards a rounded character with a few strengths and enough magic to shore up your weaknesses. The background draws much of it's inspiration from Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos and the works of Edgar Allan Poe, though they work hard to bring their own version of things with unique touches and twists on common horror elements. My favorite bit in the game is the fight against the shotgun wielding zombie. I just love the idea that this one zombie, tired of seeing his brothers and sisters blown away time and time again, decided to pick up a shotgun, put on some shades, and beat the living at their own game.

Most importantly, this game is scary. The soundtrack is an oppressive series of alien beeps and boops, tailored to the particular floor you're on. The monsters in the game definitely look imposing and often require some thinking to tackle without grievous harm, in fact, much of the game is better spent in flight—only using that precious health and ammo when you're cornered or if the monsters guard a key area. Legacy is well-paced, too, the moment you've got a grasp on one floor, the game will raise the stakes and demand more from you as you climb up or down those stairs to the next area. To the game's credit, there are very few instant death moments such as you'd find in older PC games of its ilk (and those are at the very end and shouldn't be a surprise if you've been exploring), so even if you're on the brink of death, there's still a chance you can crawl your way to a health kit, a magical healing spell, or some ammo. That kind of hope is important in a game as unforgiving as this one. It's the kind of game you could beat in a few hours but took me months on my first time through (before the days of easy internet hints) and it kept me fully engrossed the whole time.

Ultimately, I think the success of Legacy's horror comes from how they present its role-playing elements. Often times, in a horrorish game such as Resident Evil 5, they try to stuff so much in there that it loses its luster. Sure, it's fun to demolish mutant dogs but it isn't as scary to over explain the atmosphere. In Legacy, the story is only in what you discover, what you do, and how you deal with obstacles in your way. The story is as personal as your fears and exists in your imagination, no small feat for a video game.

Unfortunately, the game is out of print, but copies can be tracked down by the intrepid game hunter, just make sure they include the instruction booklet (for the copy protection). If you do choose to engage in Legacy, make an effort to avoid internet walk throughs for as long as you can. The game is better without them. I will give you this tip, though, don't go into the basement until you've stocked up on munitions, there are bad things in the basement.

They really don't make them like this any more.

Truly, the greatest nightmare.

Cerebral Pop: Catching Up to the Industry Part 1

Cerebral Pop: Catching Up to the Industry Part 1

Cerebral Pop takes the time to look at what he's been missing, which fits right in line with this blog here.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Clive Barker's Jericho

As reviewed at Ascii Dreams.  The game has had its share of bad reviews, mainly due to its design and story being constantly at odds.  It is also the only game Roger Ebert feels he can watch as he finds the screenshots pretty.  Enjoy.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Critical Damage: Frayed Narratives, Closed Games: Understanding My Allergy To BioWare Games

Critical Damage: Frayed Narratives, Closed Games: Understanding My Allergy To BioWare Games

Critical Damage takes a close look at the closed game that gives the player the illusion of agency, something I will be covering in the upcoming review of Mass Effect.

The top 10 video games of the past decade -

The top 10 video games of the past decade - and 10 more games to add to my list.

Fallout’s Forgotten Revolution | Hellmode

Fallout’s Forgotten Revolution | Hellmode - A look at old school gaming, and relating Dragon Age and The Witcher's lauded innovation.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Batman: Arkham Asylum: The Chore of Enjoyment

Thanks to Steam, I have a handy barometer of my game enjoyment to reference - hours played. As of this writing, I've played it a total of 33.6 hours of Mass Effect and bought and downloaded the sequel, logging 30.7 hours to beat that. During the same sale in which I bought Mass Effect, I downloaded Batman: Arkham Asylum. I’ve logged a mere 4.2 hours so far. In addition, I've logged 2 hours here, 3 hours there in other, smaller games. Deus Ex, M.U.D. TV, World of Goo, Multiwinia. In fact, I'm only playing through Arkham Asylum right now so I could feel comfortable deleting it off my miniscule hard drive. After that, I plan another go at mass effect 1 and 2 and downloading another AAA title on my queue, like Bioshock.

I can't wait to play Bioshock.

The question I have is why? Why is this popular and critical darling an obstacle I must get through rather than an enjoyable experience?

On paper I should love this game. Largely considered one of the best licensed games, Arkham Asylum comes from a who’s who of Batman pedigree. Character designs by Jim lee, written by Batman comic and animation alumnus Paul Dini (perhaps my favorite), and most importantly voiced by the same actors of the animated series - Kevin Conroy, Arleen Sorkin, and Mark Hamill's delightfully energetic demented Joker. And it’s Batman!

Added up, all of the math means that this game was made for me.

So why is getting through this game such a chore?


I should admit that my system is not the most gaming geared - it’s a measly laptop that reaches the minimum requirements for my graphics work, and that’s about it. So, when I first entered the Asylum, I did so very slowly. I began to have similar issues with Mass Effect 1 and 2, and so I looked up some tutorials on how to tweak my system. Batman runs pretty smoothly now (thanks to my desire to make sure Mass Effect runs very smoothly). Still, I kept going back to ME 1, bugs and warts and all, and only occasionally visiting Batman: AA. This disparity still seems too wide to be ignored.

There’s an unfair comparison, isn’t it? Two games couldn’t be more different. Still, I was playing them simultaneously, and devoted more time to one than the other. I enjoyed Mass Effect so much I barely waited to download the sequel to continue Shepherd’s adventure.

While I’ll still wait to finish this game before writing a full review (as it would be unfair of me to not), I figure it is appropriate to look at the first 5 hours and ask myself why I’m not having fun.


My first thought was rather cynical: did I not want to like this game?

I was cynical about Mass Effect. I didn't believe it would take me where people said it would take me. I didn't believe that the game could be that good, and it was. Despite my best effort, Mass Effect sold me.

I desperately want to like Batman: Arkham Asylum. It seems that nearly everybody else does. Still, public opinion could easily be shaped by widely read opinions. Or, could it be that a good game is a good game, and therefore earns those reviews?

Perhaps that's the issue - I wanted more from the game than I got. I wanted to be blown away in the first hour, and it didn't fulfill its promise.


But that's not true - the opening credits sequence, with its limited movement, and Batman following a talkative Joker really got me. Hell, the bats flying though the menu system got me. However, those very first moments of gameplay, in the tutorial levels, didn't.

But that's not fair, is it? Tutorials are a notoriously bad bit of business one must get through to teach you how to play the game, after all. "Use W, A, S, D to move" is not a great plot point.

True, but Mass Effect's tutorial bit (walking through the ship to a cutscene than landing on a planet) didn't feel like training. I have a fond memory of that bit where my Shepherds look ahead, out at the world that I've just come into. Portal's entire game is a teaching / tutorial level for the eventual "boss fight" with GlaDOS. The bike riding sequence in Grand Theft Auto 3: San Andreas was the most laughable, literally starting you off by riding a bike. Fallout 3 uses the tutorial level to start you off as a baby, an infant, that slowly teaches you how to walk while establishing your character's relationship with his father, the very driving plot point of the game. Most games I have played, including those with complex key-bindings and difficulty didn't feel nearly as bad as that first hour of grinding through Arkham's prisoner reception hall - which seemed to be designed by some sort of mad labyrinthine architect.


So, writing then? Bioware is specifically known for its writing, and it was one of the primary reasons I had to come back into their world over and over again.

Zero Punctuation specifically isolates the writing as clumsy, and I sort of agree. It pains me to say it as Paul Dini is one of the best comic book and visual media writers out there, especially where Batman is concerned. That being said, something went wrong here. Some of the dialog is a bit too much, but then again, I'd venture to guess they didn't give Paul Dini much to do.

Whereas Bioware's writing philosophy is to keep them on staff and hire them from the get-go, Eidos, Rocksteady, and WB games come from a different world entirely. They hire the writers to create set up the levels and setpieces that they have already created. So much technology and resources have already been expended into creating the game, the writer is left to merely create the framework surrounding it. So, Paul Dini probably had to write several thousand lines of mostly use dialog in order to set up the game and give it the drama he feels it should have.

Alot of the story logic makes little sense to. Why am I being distracted by a collection quest set up by the Riddler if Gotham is a panic? Optional fan-service, of course. It's not enough to play as Batman, we needed some rickety addition just so we can keep people playing - but that just confuses the design. Batman should be grinding through to SAVE GOTHAM, not messing about with stupid gimmicks left by a third rate criminal (who doesn't even bother to show up in the game). Why does Waynetech build the security gates and Batman NOT have a back door to the place? Is he worried that he's one day going to go crazy and break into Arkham and deal with all of the villains himself (hint; he's already nuts)? Oh yeah, Lucius built them, not Bruce. But Bruce did bother to put his own freaking batcave into Arkham. Did Amadeus Arkham get a good deal at a statuary, because there are SO MANY FREAKING GARGOYLES INSIDE BUILDINGS.

One of the early lines I cringed at was when Harley Quinn specifically points out her costume as her "new, sexier look". I can only imagine what it meant to do that as Dini was Quinn's original creator on the animated series. Wildstorm, lead by Jim Lee, reworked most of the characters for the game. Changing Harley from a fun sociopath to a crazy sexpot when rendered in 3D. Dini couldn't help but point that out, it seems, and the writing became clunkier for it.


Wildstorm's vision of Batman isn't too far off from the comics. In fact, Lee penciled the Batman classic, "Hush", and was lauded for his character designs. They weren't much different from historical design, but every character looked better in some way.

The looks in Arkham Asylum, though, are muddy, dirty facsimiles of the originals. This doesn't quite work when one brings in voice acting and writing from the animated series.

Wildstorm's Batman is a badass. He slowly becomes more scarred and tattered as the game goes on, wearing him down. He's a pacifistic Rambo, a Dirty Harry who won't kill the bad guy, but chiselled nonetheless. He's a pair of underwear and a cape you wear when you're 5 and pretending to be the Bat.

When I think about the Animated Series, however, I think of a moment where they flashback to Crime Alley (something that happens in this game) and Batman watches helplessly as his parents get killed in front of his eyes. His white pupils turn up, scared, frightened, a vulnerable little 8 year old boy as he falls into oblivion.

That Batman is not a badass. He's conflicted, angry, and human. This Batman isn't vulnerable. He can't be. His face has a constant look of determination, sheer force of will. There is no way that he can lose.

And there it is, my main problem.

There are no stakes. I have no reason to come back and play because Gotham will continue to be safe.

Shepherd had to save the Universe, and it was not easy to do. The humans are the newcomers, and have to prove themselves, but Batman doesn't have this issue. Ultimately, I wanted to play Mass Effect more to root for the underdog, whereas Batman, well, he's just the jerkoff who likes to beat up nameless Blackgate fugitives.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

In Preparation for the coming reviews...

Vidgama compares Mass Effect and Star Control 2. This was going to be an angle I took, but it appears this has been done already.

Upcoming Reviews

In true Late to the Game fashion, I'm downloading games that have been out awhile, and reviewing them only after finishing.

What to expect in the near future:

Mass Effect

I recently downloaded and finished this game. At the moment, I'm replaying the game in two different classes and paths, so I can provide a well-rounded review of it.

Star Control 2

There were plenty of similarities between Mass Effect and Star Control 2, and so I felt compelled to write this review. I'll be taking a critical look at where it stands then and how it stands up today. Full disclosure, though - this is my all-time favorite game.

Still to come:

Batman: Arkham Asylum

I've barely managed to finish the first hour or so of this game. While I was initially unimpressed, most people told me to get to scarecrow first. Well, I got to him. I will beat this game before posting a review. Don't expect the usual fanfare.

Mass Effect 2

After finishing the first, I had to continue the journey. So far, I'm impressed. It remains buggy on my system, and yet I'm enjoying it.

Knights of the Old Republic

This is the game that inspired me to give Mass Effect a serious look, and a classic. I'll talk about its advantages and its limitations. How does it hold up?

Fallout 1, 2, and 3

Having played and beat all three (not including DLC), this is a long time coming. How does the reboot (3) compare to the first 2?

Deus Ex

The ultimate multi-path game, Deus Ex is remembered fondly as a classic First Person Shooter/Action-RPG (the FPRPS, as I've heard it called), which is now an emerging genre.

Back to the Future:
Bioshock 1 & 2

These games are well regarded, but never initially appealed to me. It's now of interest.

System Shock 1 & 2

And speaking of, the series of games that 2K developed before Bioshock, the spiritual beginnings.

I still need to find and download these games. Any leads would be helpful.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Mass Effect 1: Death of a Marine (SPOILER)

I hope to get a more formal post, soon, but this would be a good sample of what it is this blog is taking aim at. I'm playing Mass Effect 1 at the moment, yes, late to the game, and I hit the "Sophie's Choice" scenario. What I find interesting is that a) I made my decision, rather quickly, based solely on gameplay mechanics, and b) I had an emotional reaction to the outcome.


At a certain point in the game, you're asked to make a choice. Save one character or another, and you do not have the power to save both. One is setting a bomb for a suicide mission, the other is being overwhelmed by geth. It really doesn't matter where you assign them in the beginning because the choice will still come up in the end.

I chose Ashley because I'd spent considerable time developing Ashley as a romantic interest. There was also a somewhat strategic decision, as I needed a character with weapon expertise to keep around over biotics and tech ability. Someone superior to Garrus and Wrex, in effect. Story wise this also made sense, though I admit I surprisingly didn't spend much time thinking about that.

Kaidan Alenko is, unfortunately, Kaidan. While he was the senior member of the crew, my character, Max, and I has only known him for the length of the game itself. I also figured that I could finally get his migraines to stop. You see, unlike Ash, there wasn't too much to Kaidan outside of some sort of angst that existed soley as a backstory. I took him along on biotic themed missions, and still, no commentary, no connection was made to this brother in arms. To me, at the time, he was just a gameplay mechanic.

The choice was made, I went back to Ashley and a boss fight with Saren himself. One that felt pretty epic. The consequences were interesting. I angered Ashley when I picked her over Kaiden, and she calmed down quickly when I let her know that it wasn't a fair choice no matter what I did.

Then, after the conference, I ran out the conference room, turned around and went downstairs to do my usual round of character discussion.

And there was no Kaidan. None. He was gone. No longer in that spot doing, well, whatever it is he does when he's on the ship.

And I felt it.

There's something to that. I, as Max Shepherd, made a decision, and the consequence of that decision was right there beside me. No longer do I talk to the man. I can't ask for his advice and assessment of the situation. I can't talk to him about his much belabored backstory.

Goodbye Kaidan, you will be missed.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Vulnerability to Violent Video Games: A Review and Integration of Personality Research - Powered by Google Docs

"It appears that Violent Video Games only adversely affect some individual and those who are affected have a preexisting disposition (i.e., high neuroticism, low agreeableness, and low conscientiousness) which make them susceptible to such violent media."

Vulnerability to Violent Video Games: A Review and Integration of Personality Research - Powered by Google Docs

Friday, June 4, 2010

BioWare on RPG Success, Old Republic, Natal and More - IndustryGamers

BioWare on RPG Success, Old Republic, Natal and More - IndustryGamers

Introduction to LTTG

Hello World, again.

I have a PC, and it sucks. It turns out this limits me to games made within certain periods, which I'm fine with since they tend to be cheaper. So, here, will be reviews and discussions of a bygone era (read 2 years ago).

Stay tuned for more.