Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A true game artist.

My sister showed me this story about the guy who wrote Passage.

"In truth, ambitious game-makers want it to be true that games are polluting the minds of our youth, because that means games really are touching our brains in sophisticated ways, and therefore games have room to grow. Like Passage, they can be art."

This article pretty much sums up everything I've been pondering about games as a medium for art. Read it and see if you can't come to the same conclusion I have.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Consequence: Follow up.

While writing the last blog I came across some interesting reading related to my topic. However, for the sake of brevity and focus, I chose to save them for a follow up.

If you'll remember, I was ranting about gaming as an interactive medium. The interactivity is what makes video games unique from movies, TV, etc. Chris Bateman's article, A Game Has Never Made You Cry, discusses further the separation between telling a story through cinema and gameplay mechanics. For the sake of conversation, he takes the concept of separating the medium of games and cinema to an extreme. That games can only be "systems". Thus, emotionally touching stories in games have only happened on the cinema/movie side of things. Game play itself cannot make you cry.

Whether or not you agree with the thesis and the assumption that a game is only a "system", the article highlights the separation between game play and story I've seen in games. Especially in the JRPG genre, I think there is a reliance on cinema/movie techniques to tell a story that is detached from game play. It works but ultimately the story told through these means does not tap the full potential of this medium.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


SPOILERS: Warning this blog post contains minor spoilers about Valkyria Chronicles and a Fallout 3. No giant revelations, really, just a vaguely described plot point in VC and a description of a Fallout side quest.

Last Tuesday I, as I do every day, arrived at work and opened up Gmail to idle in a chatroom with a few of my friends. Taylor went into a series of inane comments about killing rabbits. Cutting through his attempt at inciting humor, I said this,

"Screw you. People have died under my watch in the wasteland. For that, I am saddened. No justice, no recourse for them. Just a festering cesspool of the worst of human immorality. It's all i can do to hope to be a small positive force."

I know, it sounds corny. But it was all I could do to deal with a heavy sense of guilt I was feeling since the night before.

Where did this emotional outburst come from, you ask? Well, I was playing Fallout 3. My character found Big Town. The guard is a nervous 20 something called Rusty. He tells me Big Town is besieged by slavers and super mutants. Inside Big town, the few, young, defenseless and beleaguered residents asked me to save some hostages the mutants had taken to the old police station. The town's doctor, Red was among the captured. Consequently, in Red's clinic lay a severely injured man. Inspecting him gave me the option of attempting to help him or putting him out of his misery. Unfortunately, my medical skill was not high enough and had to leave him.

Heading out of town I encounter two super mutants. One of them aims a mini-gun at me and I watch my health slide steadily down. Panicking, I run back to town, hoping to get help from Dusty. It works. Except the mini-gun mutant blows poor Dusty's head off. Great. I just got the town's only guard killed. I kinda owe them now.

So off I go to the police station. Kill a few mutants here, kill a few there and I'm happily escorting Red back to Big Town. After I arrive, Red mentions she heard that the super mutants were planning another attack on the town. I decide to stay and use my Small Arms skills to teach everyone how to defend themselves.

Before the attack I decide I want to place some mines just across the bridge that is the one entrance to the town. I'm not even half way across it before the mutants launch their attack, lobbing grenades in tandem before pulling out their over sized melee weapons. The first wave is killed off without any casualties and everyone is standing around. I don't realize a second wave is coming and before I know it, more grenades land around me. In a split second I look over and Red is getting a sledgehammer to the head.

When the dust(or gibs in Fallout's case) settles I see Red's body lying next to the mutants'. I talk to the gathered survivors. "I've haven't felt this safe in a long time." When I mention Red, another survivor says "you did all you could."

No I didn't. What if I had payed more attention and put mines down after the first wave? This town would still have its doctor. I head back to Red's clinic and find the injured man still there. I still can't help him. No one can.

I know what you're thinking. Norman's going crazy over a one dimensional, throwaway character the developers were using for one measly side quest in this game. Yet I couldn't get over it. I felt like it was MY fault she died.

I had the same feeling while playing Valkyria Chronicles. The first time a member of my squad permanently died during a mission all I could do was stare at the screen. My mouth hanging open. Never mind the intentionally sad "dying moment" the developers created. The motherly Lancer who couldn't look after us anymore. The Sniper who wanted to avoid the front lines, cursing me for his death. As sad as those blurbs were, they only enhanced this heavy, almost burning feeling in my stomach. It was guilt. I put them where they were when they died. It was my brashness that killed them. Ultimately their deaths were more emotional for me than the death that occurs during a cutscene in the same game. Sure that death was sad, but it wasn't MY fault.

I've taken two things from this. First a bit of insight about myself. Part of mourning is dealing with the irreversible consequences of death.

Second what makes gaming a unique medium from music, movies, etc is its interactivity. When I feel guilt over the consequences of my actions, that is an emotion that cannot be be elicited in a linear medium such as movies. A scripted death is a scripted death. It was inevitable and the viewer played no role in it. However, when death is a consequence of a player's actions it incites more profound emotions. Ultimately, I believe as gaming matures, creators will rely less on the storytelling mechanics of linear mediums such as movies and books and we'll discover what's possible in these interactive experiences.

However, the argument could also be made that I'm just retelling what's part of my personal experience and not what the developer had in mind when they created the game. I'm sure Fallout 3's developers didn't intend to incite such ridiculous amounts of guilt while designing Big Town's quest chain. But that would be judging the experience from a narrative point of view. That Fallout's experience is a series of events plotted out and directed by the developers. There is certainly an amount of design that goes into the environment around this quest chain. However, the open world aspect of this game's "system" means the developer has limited control over what the player ultimately does. Open world games rely on the quality of their "systems" to generate a good player experience. The feature of Fallout's "system" that led to my reaction was consequence. That characters can die and that death have impact on the world.

Monday, December 1, 2008

How not to play Left4Dead


Shout outs to my fellow (non)survivors, Taylor and Jon. We tried the Dead Air campaign tonight and failed miserably many times during the finale. I wish there were a difficulty level that wasn't a cake walk like Normal and wasn't nigh impossible like Advanced.

God, between this and Valkyria Chronicles, how am I ever going to get anything done?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Desert Bus

So these guys are playing this totally rad game, Desert Bus, for charity. The more money they get, the longer they play. All proceeds go to Child's Play. For every $20 you give, you get an entry into their Rock Band 2 raffle.

I'm patched into their 2 live feeds. Riveting.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

TF2 Fun

One of the reasons PC gaming should never die: crazy user generated stuff.

Found at Rock Paper Shotgun.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Hello, old friend.

I'm going to post this before going back to Valkyria Chronicles for the rest of the night.

GWJ podcast and they jokingly mention a fictional miracle drink that will allow you play games while you sleep. Yes, with this drink, you can function normally and take care of responsibilities while also managing to play all the games you want to!

I could have used this while playing VC last night around 11:3o. I was driving my squad through the treacherously flat desert under heavy sniper fire. Curse my job. One more turn.

Hold on, why's Norman playing a JRPG? Doesn't he hate those things?

I've said how much separating story from gameplay is a misuse of the medium. But damnit, I'm having fun with this game. I guess it's my love of military tactical gameplay. I mean I really liked Company of Heroes. VC's also coming at the perfect time. Between flexing my level creativity in LittleBigPlanet and improving my skills in Rock Band 2, I've been itching for the one thing lacking in both those experiences. A solid single player experience.

VC is a good game and there are those who agree. But I don't totally buy into Tycho's infatuation with the game. It's fun, but it's not art. Again, I'm saving that for another post.

VC is war like only the Japanese could do it. We start the game and there are trucks getting blown up, civilians getting shot in the back and a town militia running to their aide. A literally shocking juxtaposition to the whimsical art style and dialogue that proceeded the violence. Then the protagonists involved in the fighting go home and have tea. Later in the story, they find a baby pig.

And inspite of all this I can't stop playing the game. I guess I should stop being such an art snob and just enjoy what's fun. Not let a few bad apples kill my expectations for a genre. Oh JRPG, how long has it been?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

LBP: Honeymoon's over.

Down times 3

There's a reason I haven't been playing much LBP for the past week. I just can't seem to muster much enthusiasm for the game anymore. It's because of all this moderation business.

I understand Sony and Media Molecule need to cover their asses. Marvel's lawsuit against NCSoft over the City of Heroes character creator proves that even user generated content can be a touchy legal subject.

But it just seemingly goes against the spirit of LBP when I hear about all this corporate and legal stuff.

To make it all worse, quite possibly THE most inventive and unique user level so far, Azure Palace, was pulled. I just can't help but feel all that enthusiasm I had for creating things drain out of me.

A rep from Media Molecule has responded. But really. There's something broken here. MM and Sony need to figure this out before they lose their entire community. I know I'm not up to finishing my level anymore. Why should I when it could get pulled for no obvious reason?

Monday, November 10, 2008

War games

I was reading James Ransom-Wiley's reflections about Call of Duty: World at War's demonizing portrayal of Japanese troops. I haven't played the game, but what Ransom-Wiley describes of the first 5 minutes doesn't seem far off from portrayals of Nazi troops in some games. Is it really ok to demonize Nazi's? I mean yeah, they did the Holocaust, but does that mean that every single German soldier in WWII a heartless monster? I guess it makes sense in an action movie, Rambo kind of thing. Perhaps later in the game there will be a more human portrayal of Japanese soldiers. The heavy metal of WaW's launch trailer suggests otherwise.


Now I'm not going to assume that this is 100% what COD:WaW is about. I shouldn't judge a game before it's even out. But I guess Ransom-Wiley's thoughts just make me think how much I hate how action movies turn violence and war into things to be idolized and relished. I think some people believe that all games are nothing but bubble gum action movies. I guess that's one of the challenges facing the games medium in it's struggle for mainstream acceptance and the covetted label of "art".

It all reminds me of Medal of Honor performance in Video Games Live. When Mr Tallarico came on stage to introduce the piece, he first asked whether there were any veterans in the audience. Then he said to respect those veterans, "we aren't going to show any footage from the game." Instead we were treated to a series of photographs depicting the struggle of both soldiers and civilians during that time. Set to the orchestral piece, I couldn't help but be touched.

But when the lights came back up I also couldn't help but think about Tallarico's words earlier in the show. To much cheering from the crowd, he boasted that the Video Games Live concerts were here to prove that video games are art. And yet here you are, not showing gameplay from Medal of Honor because it's as shallow and unrealistic as Rambo. VGL only really proves that video games have good music written for them and that music by itself is "art". But we already knew that. The mainstream population generally accepts music as an artform. No amount of showing gameplay during the performance or screaming about Halo will prove that the amount of "artistry" presented in the music is also presented in the game.

Am I saying that video games aren't art? No. I wouldn't call myself a connoiseur of the medium if I believed that. So what makes video games art? For that matter, what makes art art? What is art? I should touch on that in another post before I rant on for too long here.

I guess what I'm waiting for is the Saving Private Ryan of war video games. A game that uses the medium's strength of emotional, interactive storytelling to convey the horrors of war. Not boil it down to testosterone fueled fun.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

LBP: When players die.

A few nights back my friend Mike and I were playing some user created LittleBigPlanet levels. We jumped into one of the Shadow of the Colossus tribute levels and we reach a part where we have to ride our sponge horse, Aggro, across a bridge. *Spoilers* The creator was obviously trying to emulate Aggro's pivotal fall down a chasm because as soon as we reached the end of the bridge it disappeared. Sponge Aggro falls into the spikes below, dragging me and Mike with him. Now in hindsight we were supposed to jump off at the last second. I could go on about how bad that was in level design terms, but that's an entirely different post.

What I'd like to focus on in this post concerns what happened after we respawned. Not only did the creator not put a checkpoint before the bridge scene but on our trekk back to the bridge to try again, we found that the bridge does not respawn. Not only that, but an entire portion of the level was missing. Obviously, the creator didn't expect anyone to die at this point in the level inspite of the entire lack of indication that the bridge was going to disappear.

It's a disturbing trend I've been seeing now and then in user levels. I've run into a similar problem while creating my own level. A section involves hanging from a sponge trapeze thing as shown in this blueprint I made at LittleBigWorkShop.com

If the player drags the trapeze sponge thing all the way to the other side and makes it, then all's well and we can move on. However if the player dies and spawns back on the left side of the fire pit...

Well, now we have some trouble, don't we? The player went back, but the trapeze sponge didn't follow them. At this point, you can expect the player to become frustrated, go back to their pod and never play your level again. Perhaps they will also leave your level a nasty rating.

But how do we resolve this? One way would be to make an emitter of the trapeze sponges, but then you've got to implement a complicated set of triggers going back and forth. Respawning a sponge when the player spawns and killing the sponges stuck on the other side.

A simpler solution is to attach elastic to the trapeze sponge's bar to pull it back when the player lets go of the sponge.

So we want the elastic to be really low strength. Strong enough to pull the sponge back but weak enough to not impede the player while they're pulling it across the hazard. LittleBigWorkshop's blueprint tool is interesting, but kinda rough. As you can see, it's hard to represent exact things like where to attach the elastic.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Social gaming in 2008

Internet and video games. Who woulda thought?

I'm playing Little Big Planet in ways I've never played games before. Ever.

No, I'm not talking about all that fancy creation mode stuff. I'm talking about turning on my PS3 and having at least 2 or 3 people I can play the game with. And this isn't some hardcore shooter where we all the planets have to align in order for us to have fun. I'm jumping into games with my friend and his "non-gamer" sister. My sister and her boyfriend(who happen to live in a different city than me). We're just casually moving through levels, having fun without even trying.

This experience is enabled by the online capabilities of these current gen consoles. The constant connection to the internet. Knowing what your friends are playing by glancing at the buddy list. Even before LittleBigPlanet launched, this connectedness of game consoles was setting my expectations. However inconsequential it might seem, seeing what your friends are playing and them seeing what you're playing has some sort of psychological hold on me.

Connectedness is even making me play PS2 games less. Loading up PS2 games on my PS3 causes the console to enter an emulation mode. Meaning no friend list capability. No one would know what I was doing. How horribly solitary.

Over the course of a few weeks last month, most of my PS3 owning friends had bought PixelJunk Monsters. Though the game had online leaderboards, there really wasn't a way to interact with everyone. LBP's release a few weeks later answered all of my prayers.

Comparing contemporary gaming to my middle school days of sinking hours into Final Fantasy or GTA 3 alone in the living room seems so primitive.

I know to anyone who owns an Xbox360 this must be news from 2 years ago. But my little clique of PlayStation fanboys over here is just now catching up.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Now Playing: Pixel Junk Eden (PS3)

I'm sitting here waiting for my second video to upload. You can catch my first here:

[EDIT: Damn, looks like there was some error uploading my first video and now it's lost forever. :( Honestly, the first video was waaay better than this second video. It's like the second I turned on the camera, my performance side kicked in and I hit combos everywhere. I don't really like how the uploading interface forces you to choose between youtube and your PS3 harddrive. Why not both?]

So if you couldn't figure out what was happening in the video, I'm playing that little white dot at the center of the screen. I'm collecting pollen (the little white bits), which fills seeds, the big blue things I'm jumping into that sprout into plants which help me reach my goal (glowing swirly thing).

I gotta say I'm hooked on Eden already. It's when I get into The Zone© the game just flows as my little Grimp jumps smoothly from pollen to seed chaining everything. This with the mellow electronic synth music is definitly a new and unique gaming experience.

The game supports up to 3 players in offline co-op. I tried it with a friend last weekend in the demo. It was sloppy at best considering how much skill this game requires. Both players need to be in sync. We'll see what happens when we're both well practiced. Well worth the $10 if you have a PS3.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Archive: Being Evil's Hard

To appease my readership of 5 people while I deal with a new job, I present a blog post from my dark days of Xanga and High School, enjoy!

**Being evil's tough - (The story of the ugliest looking good guy in Fable)**

default da mane. The name of my new avatar to be unleashed into the Xbox action RPG, Fable. I sat behind a coffee table in my family friend's game room. My family friends were strewn about in the room in varying stages of boredom.

The six of us were waiting around until 7:00pm because their parents were taking us to a dinner party. I asked the two brothers who owned the Xbox whether they were good or evil earlier and both said they were good. Thus I decided to play evil on my brief stint with the game. Gotta have a little Yin with your Yang, eh?(or is it vice versa... whichever)

I started off as a mischievous little boy. Punching guards in the back, vandalizing, bullying bullies and victims alike. Chalking up "evil" points seemed simple enough. The game had given me a mission: collect money to buy a gift for my sister's birthday. Hey, I thought to myself a chance to be really evil. Maybe I can buy her an old sock instead...

Then a bit of doubt hit me. Wow, that's pretty depraved for someone to dismiss even family members. However, I couldn't test my doubts. The game gave me one option: buy and give her to gift. So I walked over to the garden where little default's sister was playing. Out of that cutely modeled face came very a convincingly acted girl. I tried hitting her to maybe advance in an evil way.

"Hey," she says. "Quit that or I'll tell mum on you."

Jeeeez. Now what sibling hasn't heard that before. I'm supposed to be evil here, but I can't be mean to little girls...
Good thing they didn't give me a choice there. I'd have been hard pressed to do something nasty. I give her her gift and the story advances. Of course, there's good reason they don't let you be evil. When bandits raid default's village, they take the only two survivors: his mother and sister. This, of course leads to the main storyline in the game. I mean, if default couldn't even empathize with his own blood, there would be no point to the main storyline.

Anyway, little default finds himself in the great Hero's Guild after his village is sacked. After he grows in to a teenager he gets these claw scars across his face for being mischievous as a kid, I suppose. Quite bad ass, though.

After he graduates and becomes an official hero for hire.

So I send default running along a path and some villagers are being attacked by wasps. Natural video gaming instincts kick in and I attack the wasps and save the citizens. While I do so, the game gives me some "good" points. Wait a second. I’m supposed to be evil. Maybe I’m supposed to be killing these villagers instead... My thoughts are interrupted by cheering from the villagers.

“Easy when you know how, eh?” one of them says to default after he strikes down the last wasp.

Ok, so I won’t start my evilness with these guys.

Later, I talk to a barber and get a pony tail and one of those Chinese mustaches with the long, dangling ends. Gotta be intimidating to be evil. Now whenever I’d take missions, villagers who’d never seen default before were stuttering when he came around.

“H-Hello s-sir,” one lady greeted him as he walked by. Default’s new hair do, the claw scars and his skinniness made for one bad ass, if ugly bastard.

“Don’t look like no chicken chaser(what they call “farm boys” in the game) to me,” a guy said.

Hey, people. I saved your asses from evil, giant wasps and you’re scared of me? So I get default to stop and wave a greeting at them. The villagers become more friendly. That’s more like it, I think to myself. No wait… I’m supposed to be evil.

Default travels into a town. By now, my family friends in the game room are bored of my goodey-goodness and want to see how far the evil in this game can go.

“Punch that guard,” they tell me. “I thought you were going to be evil. Quit flirting and kill that woman. You’re the worst bad guy ever. Either kill that guy or flirt with him. Oh jeez, would you quit staring at yourself.”

Of course, I have to pause every five minutes to zoom into default’s ugly mug. It now has one of those friendly, toothey smiles that unintentionally emphasizes his skinnyness.

“That’s bad ass,” I think aloud.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


So I'm sitting in front of my computer one Thursday afternoon. I've got nothing to do and I've been meaning to buy Grand Theft Auto 4 for awhile now. Now is a good a time as any. It's not like the game will drop in price or anything.

Off I go, Best Buy gift card snuggly tucked into my wallet. I get in my car. Boy I keep forgetting to use that KTRU bumper sticker. I mean, how will passing strangers ever know that I listen to random indie music?

I turn on the radio. And tune into All Things Considered(ATC) on NPR. It's an interview with Yao Ming. It's the end of the interview and they talk about things like how he's supposed to represent his country. Huh, odd time for ATC, of all radio shows, to interview a player for a team that's not doing too well in the playoffs. Besides, that whole "coming to America" thing was played out a few years ago when Ming was actually coming to America.

I zone out for a bit. What's a person really supposed to do with money they get from graduation? It's easy to save actual money and use that responsibly. But when your family gives you a large gift card to Best Buy, it's really hard to spend that responsibly.

Wait, what are they talking about? Earthquake in China? Reports of 30,000 dead? Shit. When did this happen? Would I have even known about this if I hadn't decided to go buy GTA during ATC? Gah, I've turned into what my college sociology teacher has been warning me about. I've let myself become ignorant of what's happening around the world.

I park and walk into Best Buy. Do I pay an extra $30 for the special edition? A lock box and a bag? Not worth it. I make my purchase and go back to my car.

ATC's interviewing reporters in China. After an earthquake buildings are dangerously unstable. Everyone in the effected regions can't stay indoors. Aid has taken a few days to deploy in some regions. For the reporters, talking to people is a challenge. The people have issues with the way the government is responding to the disaster. But they don't want to make themselves or the national government look bad to foreigners. Despite this distrust, there is hospitality. A woman in an effected village managed to make tea for the reporters.

I get home and set down GTA. I go to my computer and read more about the earthquake. I at least owe it to the victims to know what's happening to them.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Niko Bellic the Skizophrenic

Grand Theft Auto IV
Sandbox,Action PS3
Rockstar, 2008

So my friends are over and we're playing this game. One of them asks, "why did he shoot that guy?" No less than 3 people in the room say in unison, "because that guy's a cop."

Yeah, you know which game I'm talking about. The infamous Grand Theft Auto IV. Yes, yes, yes. GTA this, GTA that. I apologize for adding my 2 cents to the unavoidable pile of internet coverage for this game. But what can I say? It's compelling.

From this series, aside from GTAIV, I've only played GTA3. Back then, things were simpler. 3's player character was a thug with no name and no personality. It was easy to imagine that guy walking down a street on his way to the next bank robbery. Then "click." He's off on a rampage shooting cops and running over civilians.

Thinking back, that's what GTA3 was for me. Two distinct games. On the one hand, you have the story-based single player campaign leading our nameless thug through the gangs of Liberty City. On the other you have the morbid, sandbox, party, rampage game, called "how many stars can you get?"

Not much has changed three games later in GTAIV. I'm sure you're all very familiar with it. I don't actually own IV yet. The play session I am about to transcribe was played on my friend's copy of the game. "I'll buy it when I get around to it," I tell him.

We load the game up on my PS3. It slaps us with a mandatory install. Some obscure electronic beat music comes on over the progress bar.

"I gotta show you this YouTube video," I say. And off we go to my laptop on the other side of the room. 10 minutes later the TV is shouting at us, "F**K YOU B****ES!" The game decided to start up without user input after the install was complete. My friend and I run over and plop ourselves onto the couch. Our "pleasant" aural greeting is now complimented with an even more "pleasant" sight. If you haven't played the game, I don't want to spoil it for you. But if you're a parent, naive enough to not know what kind of game you've just bought for your kid, now's the time to regret it.

So here we are, GTA IV. After the opening cinematic I get to drive a car to a wave point. Nothing different from 3. Well except Niko Bellic. He's got quite a background. Coming to America from some Eastern European country. He wants to make a new start. He speaks of violence in hushed tones. "We've all made mistakes," he confesses to his cousin, Roman.

After that rather insightful speech into Niko's past, I realize this is the first time I'm left alone in the game to do whatever I want. This is GTA after all so I do what comes naturally: I punch the nearest pedestrian. A wanted level and depleted life bar later, I pause and feel weird about my emotions.

Now let's get some facts down about how I play video games. I'm the guy who wants the full 100% of the experience that a game developer has so carefully orchestrated for me. That conversation in Half Life 2 between Alyx and Eli? I'm the guy who attentively follows the characters around the room, positioning the camera so that all the characters are on screen. Lest I miss any subtle character interaction or carefully animated facial expression. What kind of person jumps around these scripted scenes, throwing physics objects at the characters their first time through the game? Oh wait, all of my friends do that.

I often find myself carefully trying to "act" like Gordon Freeman "should" when I play Half Life 2. Trying so hard to avoid breaking the fragile bubble of immersion Valve creates for me.

Yet it was so ironic that I found myself admiring the depth of Niko Bellic's character only to shatter any immersion I had in the game by going on a mini rampage. Not long after, I arrive at perhaps GTA IV's most novel mission type. The date. So novel that I ignore cousin Roman's request that I fight off some loan sharks. I just bought a new pair of pants for this date, no way I'm getting blood on them.

GTA's traffic and driving being what they are, I manage to arrive for the date with blood on the hood of Niko's car. And the date doesn't notice. My friend and I have a good laugh about it. GTA has arrived at this uncanny valley of player actions. The more realistic and detailed they make Liberty City and the more stuff they allow us to do, the more we notice what they don't let us do.

The next mission challenges Niko to chase down and unavoidably kill a loan shark. Niko seems to regret it a bit. "There are no clean starts," he tells Roman on the way home, "we all pick up new baggage every day." Wow. But blah blah blah, who cares about all that character and emotion crap, another friend has arrived. This play session has officially turned into a party. And as a good party host, I need to entertain. Despite investment in the storyline and sense of immersion, I make Niko steal a car and run people over. And thus begins our round-robin game of "who can get the most stars."

"Oops, probably shouldn't stand in front of a car on a freeway." "Wow, you can fling yourself through windshields now." "Can you steal bikes? Awesome." "Kill that cop, get some stars, what are you waiting for?"

In the middle of all this, I notice that Niko's just lost a reputation point with Roman. Apparently I missed one of his calls while stealing a cop car. Oh well, Dr. Bellic's personal relations are going to have to wait. Mr. Niko is trying to have fun.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Dreamfall: The Longest Rollercoaster

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Adventure, PC
Funcom, 2006

A little background detailing my experience with this franchise is in order. I bought The Longest Journey a few years or so after it released. Dabbling in some of the shining gems of Lucasarts' golden years put me on an adventure game high. And suddenly, out comes this critically acclaimed adventure game completely bombing at retail. So perhaps the purchase was motivated by sympathy. Regardless, I brought the game home and used its half a dozen CD's to place its, then rather unwieldy, 1GB girth onto my, then considered small, 20GB hard drive.

I ended up falling in love with the storyline. Now don't get me wrong, the game had its flaws. For one, it had atrocious graphics. It also happened to follow the adventure game nomenclature of oftentimes ridiculous puzzle solutions. Not as bad as the worst in the genre, but enough to give me reason to stop playing the game for short periods. Despite how hard it was on my eyes and mind, I soldiered on and the game found it way into a special soft spot in my heart.

Playing Dreamfall has really convinced me game reviews need to move away from scores. I know that'll probably never happen, considering how much people like immediate satisfaction. People like those numerical symbols that categorize games as either perfect or trash. It really is easier to glance at a score than to read paragraph after paragraph of this... text-stuff.

Despite scoring a "dismal" 75 on Metacritic, I managed to enjoy Dreamfall. Shocking, I know. How can someone enjoy a FLAWED game? As a certain Escapist employed, Australian, comedy internet videogame reviewer put it, "I don't believe in complex opinion being represented numerically."

If I could quantify enjoyment(something I honestly am not going to do here) I'd probably rate this game more than a 75. Maybe an 90 or so(OK, I just did it, sorry). But wait a 90 doesn't reflect the game's flaws at all. I could say that it gets a 60 animation wise. It gets a 40 for its premature action and stealth sequences. But if you want to talk production values, the art direction probably gets an 90 - and so on and so on until we've compiled a big list of numbers. We can then average those numbers into one arbitrary, bigger number everyone can glance at while they ignore everything I'm typing here.

I'm sure I can overlook the fact that they forgot to hire a professional 3D animator if the gameplay is fun. I mean, that's what games are all about. Except the game plays like it's trying to single handedly appeal to both modern gamers with preferences for action games, and console gamers that need simplified controls. Feats that would easily revolutionize the adventure game genre. Unfortunately our friends over at Funcom just don't seem to have the talent.

I've spent a good part of this post bashing the game so let's not forget that I like Dreamfall. At this point I give my friends permission to bash me endlessly for my hypocrisy. I've don't like those JRPG, "SQUEE-NIX" things they worship so much. Stop playing your interactive movie/novels with tacked on turn based combat and convoluted storylines about spikey-haired emo kids saving the world!

I think it's all a misuse of the medium. JRPG's seem to maintain a minimal amount of interaction between the player and the narrative being spewed forth by endless, controller dropping, "let's go make a sandwhich" cinematics.

Yet here we are. You've all caught me red handed playing a game just for the storyline. I admit it. I'm closing my eyes and covering my ears and screaming "lalala" through every stunted action and stealth sequence so I can watch emo girls whine about having no purpose in life. Then save the world.

The storyline really isn't that bad. It's like Sci-Fi and fantasy at the same time. It'll gel with anyone who's ever done some soul searching. The characters are lovable. I just really hope Funcom isn't so occupied with Age of Conan that they forget Dreamfall: Chapters.