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.