Saturday, April 30, 2011

Video Games in the Wild

Bin after bin of NES cartridges, but no Ghosts and Goblins to be found.

Friday, April 29, 2011

In the News...

My intuition is telling me that this will not be the epic French Revolution romance novel I was hoping for...

If Altair is involved, it could be similar to what ACB is to AC2, which I would hardly complain about if it's done in full console glory, but didn't we have a base form of that in Bloodlines? And I don't think they had nearly enough time to flesh that concept out in only a year.

I will hold further judgement until more information is delivered via Game Informer on May 13. I'm sure I will be chock full of opinions after the big reveal.

"Altair Ibn La Ahd"

Screenshot Friday!

During a panel at PAX East, Irrational's Ken Levine discussed how adding environmental details enhanced players sense of belief in the world they are navigating. I can't recall the exact phrasing, but it was along the lines of 'if you show them someone's living room, they are more likely to believe everything else going on around them, even if people are shooting fireballs from their hands'. In a game like Portal 2, where the test lab acts as a central character, most of the objects lying around may as well be a painted on facade due the lack of interactive capabilities with any of them. You can see papers on a desk, but nothing moves when pushed, while doors with handles stay frustratingly closed and are rendered flush with the wall. In a world where most in-game objects are manipulatable in other titles, this almost seems funny, but the choice is obviously deliberate. Why bother with those details when the character interaction with the lab is so utilitarian? When your goal is to solve intricate puzzles quickly and craftily, there is no need for in-depth environmental choices beyond the best way to move forward.

But if the lab, and the broken bits of areas outside of the lab, were just stark white, like in the first game, or cracked and in shambles, like the second, the narrative, which is about 10x more important in the sequel than in the original, would suffer. So, to give the player a sense of the humanity that once inhabited Aperture Science, Valve does something that I am fascinated by -- they leave telltale signs of the once flesh and blood scientists tucked within the areas outside of GLaDOS's direct control. In the first game we initially saw the mad scratchings once you broke out of the lab, informing you over and over again that the cake was a lie. In the sequel, however, these messages are scrawled on whiteboards and office walls, make no real sense other than 'we, the scientists that worked here, have got bat shit crazy and it's all because of her.' A backstory unfolds even without anyone being there to testify. And that is Portal's 'living room' moments, where your belief in the setting dives deep, because for a long time it's the only sense you get that Aperture Science was not always a devious place of infinite testing, but once an office building where white coated men and women cheerfully went about their day, not knowing that one day it would come to this.

I am about 80% done with the co-op and 15% in to the single player. I find with a brain squeezer like Portal, it's best to do it in small doses lest my ticker explode. Plus, it's just so delightfully juicy, I want to savor every moment. Oh, except with Wheatley. Yes, he's funny, but his little ball of comedy is adding nothing to my perception of and relationship with the lab. I like the silence being broken up by nothing but the calmly insane voice of GLaDOS and the soft pleads of the turrets. His weird British witticisms break my fourth wall in an unpleasant way. Maybe I will warm up to the critter later (or maybe he's dead forever), but for now I would be pleased to see robot pinchers squish him into oblivion over and over again.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Empress of the [Place That is Totally Not Rapture]

I'm pretty sure I've talked about my lack of enthusiasm for iOS games in the past...yep, here. I still feel that way, my iPhone being primarily a way for me to text friends, bury people in Instagram photos and be perpetually annoyed with facebook's mobile interface-so really, nothing's changed. Recently, however, an iPad has made it's way into our household and with it comes a veritable smörgåsbord of new games that Matt has been attempting to entice me with over the past month or so. I glance at my Xbox, it winks back, we understand each other and I usually decline. We're like this. Yesterday, however, while pursuing the news, I read a little blurb about an iPad game called Empress of the Deep. Described by the reviewer as a mix between Myst and Bioshock, I was intrigued enough to remember it later when Matt was playing Clash of Heroes, his iPad sitting innocently next to him as opposed to in his lap. He found the demo, plunked it in my hands and invited me to go to town. (Secretly, I think he wants me to fall in love with the sleek little device and get one of my own so we can be iPad iPals.)

Confession? Before yesterday I had no idea what kind of games Big Fish designed. The reason this is so shameful is because their corporate HQ was located right across the street from my old work, the employees strolling past on their way to eat lunch or get coffee every day. If I stood up in my cubie, I could see their fishy logo dead center on the building. In my head I thought, 'probably some sort of browser bs' and dismissed them. God, I am such a snob. Turns out I was only half right. Anyway, Empress of the Deep is indeed a puzzle game like Myst, only much more straightforward as in 'the plot actually exists'. The mystery begins in an underwater, dome-enclosed city that for some reason is fully lit with sunlight and contains lighting storms -- but let's not get caught up in details, shall we? Because overall, the game itself was actually fun. You play a woman named Anna who has been awoken from what appears to be some sort of stasis sarcophagus by a man named Jacob, who speaks to you from a book that also serves as your menu/inventory/quest log. A masked woman named Pandora is attempting to control the realm and it is your job to figure out her wicked plan. After exploring the first room, the game gives away most of its mechanical secrets, which include hidden object seeking, clue gathering and puzzle solving. Rinse and repeat throughout, add progressive difficulty levels and wa-la, Empress of the Deep: The Darkest Secret.

What made the game interesting wasn't the fairly cliché, twist happy story, but the gorgeously rendered setting, complete with a creepy-yet-compelling soundtrack. Now, I don't want to make a lot of comparisons to Rapture, because when you are actually navigating along the cobblestone pathways and through the few high arched Roman buildings there is zero sense that you are visiting Davy Jones' Locker, but there are a couple of corridors and a pull switch on a little underwater travel pod that made me seriously nostalgic for splicers and crazy, bloody political messages streaked along the walls. Other than these few moments, though, most of the game is spent traversing an area that looks like Nebuchadnezzar's idea of the most perfect garden ever, searching for three family relics in order to find the truth. The book you carry contains an section specifically for pressed flowers and vine-draped statuaries guard the pathways. A soft underwater gurgle can be heard throughout the journey, with the disturbing laughter of a child piercing through occasionally to heighten the creepy factor.

It is truly beautiful. Even I, the queen of details, managed to suspend disbelief during my playthrough, ignoring the nitpicky questions flashing through my head. Like, if this place has been abandoned for so long, why are the pathways completely clear of debris? Why does this place look like a garden exhibit in the British Museum? And seriously, where is all that sunshine coming from? I took it for what it was-a simple puzzle game with a great setting and a shiver-inducing soundtrack-and was content. It costs five bucks, takes about a hour to play, and is quite satisfying for those who like point and click mysteries. Now that I have been woken up to what Big Fish is up to, I might just see what else they have along the same vein.

Back to Portal 2. Where I have been known to describe the co-op mode as 'For Lovers'. More later.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Snapshot Friday!

I found this while dusting today, a present from my younger brother during our Tricky days. I can't be sure, but I think the board spins around his neck while he balances on the bit of blue plastic that looks like a wave.




Friday, April 15, 2011

Snapshot Friday - Video Games in the Wild Edition

If you live in Seattle, you may have this strange sense of déjà vu on your commute to work every morning. Don't worry, fellow residents. It's not a fleeting feeling that you are experiencing something that has happened before, but an extremely aggressive billboard marketing campaign for Portal 2.

I have two of these within a three block radius of my office building near the waterfront.

There are two in the immediate vicinity of my apartment.

I pass two on my drive between them.

Two + Two + Two = Six. I live 5.4 miles from work and it takes me approximately 16 minutes to travel the distance between destinations (according to Google Maps).

Um Valve? ...that's a lot of billboards. Just sayin'.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

While I Was Sleeping

According to Jane "Reality is Broken so ZOMG, Let's Gamify Eating Dinner" McGonigal, one of the highlights of being a gamer is that we have a higher chance of experiencing lucid dreaming. Unfortunately, I am not one of those individuals. During those rare moments when I can recall anything other than swatches of visual cacophony, I am usually a participant in some abstract situation looking out of my own eyes but without any real control over the environment. Nothing is ever terribly clear and the conditions I find myself in are normally quite bonkers. For example, I once had a dream about rescuing my younger brother from a cage surrounded by Nazis in a canyon by luring the guards away with a pink-frosted birthday cake. What the hell could that mean, dream weavers?

A couple of weeks ago I had a dream about Dragon Age. I would love to say that in my dream I took on the role of Hawke, haughtily swinging my staff in the direction of a hoard of darkspawn, but sadly it wasn’t a dream within the Dragon Age setting but about the game itself. Remember when I mentioned a three week training class I was teaching? Instead of showing my students the intricacies of using an airline system to book flights for cruise passengers, I was guiding them on the best way to play Act One in DA2. Could my sleeping mind get any more boring? I’m actually pretty disgruntled about this. Although it led to a great status update on Facebook:

I suppose it didn’t help that I was going from work, which was fairly strenuous and life consumptive, to home, which was quite Kirkwallian, every night for 15 working days straight. My brain just didn’t know what else to do, so it created an environment for me that was the perfect blend of my dual activities. I recall lecturing everyone on the best way to invest in the Deep Roads Expedition, warning them about the future consequences of accepting Dougal as a financier instead of raising the money on their own, but ultimately leaving the choice in their hands. Eight serious pairs of eyes peered at me over television sets while diligently taking notes. I then directed them to pick up their controllers for a hands on demonstration. I may have been wearing a cardigan and a pencil skirt. Best. Job. Ever.

I am of two minds on the idea of dream gaming. On one hand, dreaming about video games has the potential to be awesome, as we play some of our favorite titles merely because of the intense immersion factor within a desirable environment. I adore Rapture and would love to place myself within the setting and narrative of either Bioshock game, especially knowing that I couldn't get hurt or had the tools to protect myself from harm. And if I can’t spend my waking hours truly experiencing Ezio’s Renaissance flavored Italy, it sounds amazing to dive in using my subconscious self as an avatar, walking stealthily alongside the assassins and running along the rooftops to our next imperative mission. If I could learn the art of lucid dreaming, I would be free to choose this every time and would absolutely gamify my dreams, burying goals and cheevos into my own personal fantasy settings.

But on the other hand, I don’t think my brain could separate being part of a video game environment with the act of playing the game. For example, last night I dreamt I was in a café with a few friends from high school. We were chatting about how isolated one of our friends had become. I reached into my pocket to retrieve my phone and instead pulled out a Playstation controller. On a wall over the counter was a television screen and I instantly started playing Chime Super Deluxe while calling and talking to my friend. It was as though my sleeping mind was dealing both with the dream images and settling a round of Chime that I was engaged in earlier that evening. This went on for the entire dream – simultaneously experiencing the situation with my friends and their issues, but also playing rounds of the Tetris-like puzzle game on blank walls and television screens scattered throughout the environment. Although I enjoyed the musical soundtrack of this particular instance, I woke up rather exhausted. Have you ever heard people say ‘I woke up this morning so tired. I guess I was running around in my dreams all night’? Playing video games in a dream feels pretty similar. Instead of random images chasing each other around in some sort of semblance of order, I was actively focusing on putting tiny geometric pieces on a board in a logical pattern. And, ugh, I definitely woke up with a creak of an eyelid instead of a bounce in my step.

I’ve heard it said that whatever you are doing (or eating) before you go to bed can affect your dream state, but unfortunately I can’t recall any other game related ones in my past, even though the last thing I do almost every night is turn off the Xbox. But until I can figure out how to interact with a game environment within a dream instead of visualizing the game as a physical thing or merely repeating a playthrough step by step, I think I would rather wake up with a fading memory of boring conversations or of trapping guards with delicious birthday cake.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Hot Coffee

Early last week a ripple went through the internet as Irrational's Ken Levine declared sex scenes in video games ridiculous, equating them to puppet sex a la Team America and saying that although he doesn’t think that sex should be removed from games as there is a time and place for it, it is not yet graphically possible to render them as something other than snicker-worthy. And whereas I agree, I have to admit that even the graphically stupid clinking together of lovable characters within my favorite video games still resonates high on my girl level as a cunning reward. But while I say this, I am thinking about my passionate embraces with Fenris, the elf with a wicked chip on his shoulder and an intense hatred for mages in Dragon Age 2, in particular because it’s the most current example I have in mind. Choosing a mate in the BioWare series often involves a lot of investment-giving them gifts, carefully choosing the correct way to interact with them and investing a lot of time into the relationship to achieve this climax of snuggles. But when I sat back to think about what other sex scenes I have experienced while traversing the video game world, I have to admit that some of them do border on ridiculous-beyond just visually-and I started to wonder whether they are totally unnecessary or whether the addition of more adult themes adds more to particular games due to the gravity of their theme or narrative.

My first exposure to the idea of sex in video games was while playing GTA. This is a pretty sure way to perceive the whole topic as largely negative. I remember watching as a friend pick up a ‘lady of the night’ in a stolen car, the car then rocking back and forth while moaning noises floated out, and then him physically booting her from the car. I think he even tried to run her over. So...yeah...silly, obviously, but not the best portrayal of ‘adult sexual themes’ in the video game world. Then the whole San Andreas debacle went down, turning the phrase ‘Hot Coffee’ into a visual of poorly depicted oral sex every time I walk into Starbucks even to this day. Overall, though, these representations, while being fairly negative, were also depicted in a fantasy world where you spent most of your time stealing cars and outrunning the law - a sort of exaggerated big crime novella. No one took this too seriously, right? No one except parents, the media, everyone who played video games, retailers, etc...

Okay, so is there an example where video games, silliness and sex exist together in a positive way? I would say that the sex scenes in Fable do just that. It’s as easy as crooking your finger to a random NPC, leading them to any available bed and choosing whether to ride the risk rocket or play it safe if you happen to have a certain item in your pack to prevent unwanted children or STDs. The screen fades to black, but we still hear the characters engaging in the horizontal mambo via naughty phrasing such as 'well, aren’t you a big lad?' Sadly, in a markedly discriminatory move, the more gruff, workman types, such as the blacksmith, also spread the most diseases, and the prostitutes that hang out along the dockyard are the only ones likely to engage in group sex, but you never actually feel like you are participating in anything other than pure silliness. When my character and her husband made the big love it felt more like cheering on a sports event than interrupting a private moment of intimacy. The loading screens show you how many marriage partners you have compared to your friends, as though it’s a contest. A promiscuous contest, to be sure, but all very funny and fanny-slapping as opposed to serious and a necessary bit if you wanted to produce offspring.

If I can think of the most absurd way to use a QTE, it is during a sex scene. Yet right now I can think of two games that I have played recently that have employed that particular mechanic to do the deed, Heavy Rain and God of War 3. Here you are, sitting on your couch with a heightened sense of anticipation as to what button will display, your finger itching to punch the correct one. Instead, you end up taking off Madison’s bra with a slow tilt of the controller while hitting L1 and it felt really stupid. Even in the context of the narrative, the whole ‘I’m hurting , you’re hurting’ desperation didn’t come though because of the stop and go button choices. And they meant this to be extremely poignant, as nothing else in the game was done for humor’s sake. But it just came off as farcical and clunky. Especially if you got one wrong and had to start over. I imagine this is what it feels like to be a teenage boy trying to unhook the clasp on his date’s undergarments while in the backseat of a moving car, only without the murder mystery looming in the immediate present. I liked Heavy Rain, but this whole scene between Ethan and Madison was just unnecessary.

Now, Kratos, on the other hand, had to please a goddess with his quick button pressing. Seen from the voyeuristic perspective of hand maidens who either coo in admiration or cringe in disappointment, the whole scene is obviously supposed to be taken lightly. Aphrodite leers and beckons, Kratos grins and grunts. It’s pretty much perfect in context, and takes you away from the gloomy setting of the underworld for a few minutes. Plus as the...event...heightens in intensity the hand maidens actually lean forward and practically lick their lips. Kratos is all man in that mannish way. Girls in gossamer costumes should be giggling behind their hands and fluttering their eyelashes suggestively. Totally unnecessary other than to drive in the point that your hero...yeah, he's not that kind of hero.

But for all of the ridiculous ways that sex has been used in the aforementioned games, there are a couple that employed this tactic with full-on visual representations that were indeed corny, but still made my heart swell with the aww factor. The first one is in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. Just returned home to Monteriggioni from the whole Roman affair, Ezio takes to his rooms to relax while soaking in a claw-footed tub. Without invitation, Caterina Sforza decides to join him (that brazen hussy). Within moments we are treated to a cut scene of them cavorting joyfully in a giant bed, with Caterina wearing just enough to cover the naughty bits and Ezio being covered solely by Caterina. While watching this scene, I wasn’t shocked or surprised-in his environment Ezio is a powerful assassin, for crying out loud, I’m sure if we were asked to guide him to a bed each night to ‘sleep’ a willing maiden would be waiting every time. I was more wondering what happened to Cristina in that moment. So, yes, even though Caterina riding Ezio like a horse for a few minutes was silly looking graphically, it tied well with the story and gave those who hadn’t touched any of the previous games a bit of insight into the kind of man Ezio was during his time in Italy. A rogue, a deviant, a murderer...and a sexy, desirable man.

My other favorite game to employ this tactic is obviously Dragon Age. Although the ‘laying it down by the fire’ scenes in Origins were sweet and goofy looking all at once, I have to admit that part of the fun in playing the game is getting to that specific scene. It took a lot of work (aka, talking and listening) to finally get a high enough respect or ‘friendship’ level with someone else in your party to achieve the cut scene. So it really is the culmination of a lot of time invested in just one character, making party decisions based solely on their opinions and principles in order to win their favor. I thought of the intimate scenes in the tent to be a sort of achievement (and it was, for 360 users), representing not only how my character felt about another, but that they felt that way about me, too. It’s the same way in Dragon Age 2. I recently finished my second playthrough, titled “What Would Fenris Do?” because his character captivated me enough to want to invest another thirty hours into the game just to see him smile at me (as opposed to hate me as he did when I was a mage). I chose a LOT of responses based on not only how I thought a templar-loving, mage-hating champion would, but also because I knew it would please my man. When our ‘sex scene’ turned more into a passionate make out session resulting in a ‘elf-who-hates-himself’ the morning after, I, as the player, was actually disappointed. It all turned out in the end, which meant more passionate make out sessions that looked exactly like what Levine was describing-two puppets clanking together-but I was incredibly satisfied because it was still emotionally resonant, even through the cartoony visualization.

Truthfully, I am not looking forward to the day when graphics can design the perfect sex scene. I'm not sure if it has to do with my age, my femininity or my personal sensibilities, but I prefer the wink of the developers showing just enough to let the player picture the rest with pure imagination. This is the beauty of books, telling in words what your brain must imagine on its own. Hardcore scenes are totally unnecessary in video games because they will add zero to the narrative. But as an adult, playing an adult-rated game, I can see the benefits of the hints scattered here and there, even if they look like two cut-outs bonking up against one another in a less than romantic way because they add a depth to narrative in a mature tone. Well, maybe not GTA. That’s just trashy.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Video Games in the Wild

Lookin' mighty suave, Link. I'd like to think that this is his more danger seeking, lady killing alter-ego, a la Michael Cera's dual role in Youth in Revolt. Must be the mustache.

Artist unknown.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Spring Cleaning

I have come to the conclusion that teaching may be the worst career for an introvert to pursue. For the past three weeks I have been tethered to a classroom with eight students who look to me to teach them the ins and outs of a rather intricate computer program, and as a direct result of their eager attention focused solely on me I have found myself completely drained of energy when I get home every night. Sadly, this means that when I am at home I spend most of my time sitting on the couch either staring the wall or mindlessly playing Drop7 marathons on my iPhone. Serious zombie town. Many, many arcade titles have been released that I fully intend to play, but when I pick up a controller I immediately load up Dragon Age 2 without fail. It’s partially because I lack the mojo (and money) to download Chime Super Deluxe, Swarm or Torchlight (or the new ACB DLC, for that matter) and partly because I just can’t seem to extract myself from Kirkwall.

I am being incredibly careful with my choices during my second playthrough with Hawke, which is adding a lot of depth to the game that I didn’t catch in my initial campaign. The first time around I tried to be the good guy, helpful all around and only choosing one side over another due of the inevitability factor and my chosen class, but this time I am more grounded in my character and hardly ever extend the olive branch to anyone unless I see that it would be the absolute best option. Taking a ‘firmer hand’ approach with my companions and the characters sprinkled around the area adds more to my personal idea of a 'champion' archetype, even if I end up missing a lot of the missions I played through in the first run through. For example, I won’t help Anders with any mage escape missions and missed one of the Enigma of Kirkwall codex chapters, but considered it a rightful sacrifice because my rogue would never assist a mage unless in meant shipping them off to the Circle. It’s possible that this is how I should have been playing it all along, but sometimes I get caught up in the sheer momentum of a quest-driven game and forget to peek into the dingy alleyways to experience everything the game has to offer. I just picked up The Exiled Prince DLC yesterday (well, I was just able to access it yesterday in Act 3 due to a bug in Act 2 that doesn't allow Hawke to interact with the Chantry Board) and am loving Sebastian. Either way, I am sure I will write more about DA2 in the future (lucky you!), but for now I am happy being totally immersed in it (clocking in at around 55 hours total so far...) and nothing else.

And in other real life news...

After a lengthy internal debate concerning my life goals, my personal philosophies and my peace of mind, I have decided to resign from my job, which, unsurprisingly, has added another tiny layer of stress on top of the one already lingering there due to the above reasons. I am relieved, terrified, and totally optimistic that one day I will be able to say the words “I quit my job without having another and truly, it was the best thing that ever happened to me”. But for every worry I have in my real life, my writing tends to suffer, so I hope to get back on track and writing more regularly after I finish off my last two weeks and head out into the big, bad world of [temporary] unemployment. I am lucky to have an amazing support system in my family and friends, so I am hoping the extraction of this portion of my life will also be personally uplifting and my creative juices will flow smoothly once again. It sounds like I am going to have a wee bit of time on my hands to catch up on a huge backlog of games in between the job hunt. Hopefully, it’s not a lot of time, but maybe just enough to finish Psychonauts, Beyond Good & Evil, RDR Zombies, Dead Space, ACB DLC…okay, now I’m tired again. See you soon.