Monday, June 20, 2011

Video Games in the Wild

I have now officially experienced the Fremont Solstice Fair, an amazing Seattle event that I have missed every single one of the seven years I have lived here. For those of you still curiously scratching your heads, let me paint a visual for you. Hundreds of naked people use body paint, flowers, feathers, beads, etc. to decorate themselves in lovely patterns and/or character likenessness and ride bicycles down a parade route, cheering wildly and crying out "Happy Solstice!" to the gathered attendees.

I saw Mario and Luigi, one male and one female, wearing only logoed hats, fake mustaches and smiles.

I saw Bowser, dressed, with his spiked turtle shell sitting jauntily on his back, tossing a giant orange ball back and forth amongst the children (who were really hoping for candy, I'm sure).

And finally, I saw Chun-Li, also dressed, representing the Street Fighter presence here in Seattle.

Such an amazing time. It rained all day but no one cared.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Kids These Days

I am constantly surprised by children. Because I don't have any myself, when hanging out with my friend's kids I try to relate by remembering what it was like when I was a youngster-but these memories are so riddled with holes and potential exaggeration that I would feel guilty even utterly the words, 'I remember when I was a toddler...' Sure, there are plenty of photographs of me at that age, but in most of them I am running through fields of grass in a diaper, pulling out cattails and smiling near flowers. My first recollection of a video game entering into my life was via a neighbor's Atari, which I marveled at briefly before heading back into the woods to explore a rundown shack by the river, which may or may not have included a trek across a 'crick'. My childhood years before the age of ten all took place outdoors, scuffing my knees and catching snakes with my brother. It was small town Idaho life, and it was pretty darn cool.

I grew up in Sun Valley, Idaho, which for those who do not participate in winter sports, is a fairly well known ski resort. There was a wide spectrum of kids who attended my elementary school, some of them quite rich and the others not so much. One week during every school year the educational powers that be would let everyone take a 'ski week', busing those willing up to the hills to take part in the glory of being a kid on the slopes. For those who were not so sporty, they offered "Arts, Crafts and Computer Week" instead. And here is where tiny little Jessica was introduced to her first video game, Oregon Trail. Yes, yes, dysentery for all. I have very fond memories of this time I spent with a monster of a computer, clicking away while my fellow students cruised down mountainsides. For the first time ever, I was connecting with a game in a very serious and captivating way, truly caring about my little family of go-getters, eager to chart the west in search of a better life. From there my gaming life turned from keyboards to consoles when we acquired our NES and has pretty much stayed there since.

I recently read a book by Harold Goldberg titled All Your Base Are Belong to Us in which he claims to have researched how video games have affected pop culture over the last fifty years. The premise was a little misleading, since Goldberg mainly described the lives of the people who started some of the bigger video game companies, such as EA and Rockstar, based on the current trends of their day. I was fascinated to read about how each company was brought to life by people who were passionate about gaming from childhood. For most of them, this wasn't a business venture, it was the fruits of a great lifelong love for text-based computer games or Dungeons and Dragons. They charted new frontiers because what they wanted did not exist yet. And these folks did not even have the tools that the kids today have-they had to invent those as well. In a lot of ways, I am envious of both those imaginative souls who paved the way to allow me to revel in such wondrous gifts such as my beloved Assassin's Creed. My mind isn't creative enough to have even conceived of such things. But I feel as though the children of this generation are blessed with not only the tools to create, but also constantly encouraged to believe that they can do anything with them.

I was visiting a friend the other night and her two and a half year old daughter, Devon (pictured above), toddled over with the family's iPad in hand. She navigated swiftly through the front page of the device, sliding over to the second and loading up Angry Birds with an effortless touch of one finger. 'Angry Birds' she called out with glee, launching her little cardinal friend to the stack of blocks and cages...oh, and 'Pineapples!' Ka-boom went the blocks while another bird waited patiently to be shot. I confess, I have only played a couple of rounds of Angry Birds, giving up after a few tries because it didn't pique my interest. But if I were two years old, I could see this sleek contraption, full of animated, interactive puzzles and colors that can be manipulated with merely a touch of my tiny, still slightly uncoordinated fingers being a tiny miracle. No D-Pad and buttons to navigate, merely a fingertip. Achieving her objective, to break items on a pretty screen with a chubby little bird, delivers an immediate and visual reward, much to Devon's delight. The game itself encourages her to keep going, giving her another puffy aviator to try again.

Maybe I am underestimating the learning capacity of a two year old, since I have been told they are wee little information sponges, but I was quite impressed when she called my iPhone 'like an iPad!' and insisted I let her play Tiny Wings for most of the night, another iOS game that she took to instantly. I don't have many memories of being two-beyond the dirt eating and cat fur pulling, so I can't even imagine how I would have reacted to an iPad in all its wonders. The children of this generation are extremely blessed to have such a well of limitless creativity to pull from, and need never fear that they are being held back by technology. They live in a world where almost everyone plays games in some capacity, not just fantasy nerds, computer nerds or rich nerds. And although there is also some pride that comes from being an old school gamer, recalling such ancient tomes as King's Quest and Excitebike, the kids today are winning when it comes the inexhaustible choices about which games they pick to play and how they choose to interact with them.

And I have to admit, the visual of my future daughter and myself, chilling on a couch with an iPad in her hand and a controller in mine...well, it kind of makes my heart grow three sizes right now.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Screenshot Arrrr-day!

I loves me some LEGO games. Well, wait. Let me say this properly. I loves me some LEGO games that are based on movie franchises I can watch over and over again. With the exception of Harry Potter, I can't think of a series I would rather play in teeny LEGO form than Pirates of the Caribbean. (Possibly Hellraiser-more seriously, Back to the Future.) I didn't know that the fourth movie was featured in the game, so luckily I was able to catch it at the theater before the game was dropped in the mail. Beyond the films, however, I have been marveling at the Disneyland attraction since I was a little girl. My grandparents lived in Southern California and summer visits during school breaks often included a trip to the park, where I insisted we spend most of the day nestled within New Orleans Square, popping between the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and the Haunted Mansion with its holographic, grim grinning ghosts lurking at every turn. I have been back twice since the release of the films, and although its fun to play 'spot the Johnny Depp/Jack Sparrow robots', I still like the old mechanical players with their chins perpetually dripping from overindulging on bottles of rum and their cheeks forever flush with plump, old school Disney charm.

Truth? I went to Disneyland with my mom last year and insisted we visit the attraction three times in one day. There is no feeling in the world quite like the one you get during the first few minutes of the ride, floating slowly through a Louisiana swampland at twilight, fireflies dancing off the water while notes from a banjo twang nearby. And then...whoosh, the first flume. Dead men tell no tales, indeed. My heart goes pitter patter just thinking about it.

There's a sort of calm that comes from the repetitiveness of breaking everything into tiny studs and gathering them up into bushels of rum-soaked love. I am only about 10% in, but definitely see visions of 100% completion swashbuckling in my head.

Also, tiny Captain Jack Sparrow. /swoon

Monday, June 6, 2011

E3 Pre-Highlight Reel

When I was a little girl, the one thing I looked forward to more than anything else in the months prior to Christmas was the Sears catalog. About the size of a phone book and fully loaded with colorful advertisements, it was the shopping Bible for my tiny girlish heart, giving me a ideal format for helping Santa Claus pick out all of the perfect gifts to put under the tree. The best part was taking up a crayon to make a list of the most desired toys, knowing full well that not all of them would be there on Christmas morning. But maybe, just maybe, the top two or three would be there, along with a few unlisted, unanticipated presents for added glee. Now, as an adult, when Christmas functions much differently and without too many surprises, it’s nice to have something like E3 to keep those anticipatory feelings alive. I’m still making lists and I’m still hoping that at least two or three of the titles on it will blossom into a fantastic experience, and that most of them will be playable at PAX Prime, my personal E3.

Assassin’s Creed Revelations: This one is a given, but I am hoping that Ubisoft will talk more about the future of the franchise than about ACR itself. I assume the focus of ACR is going to be primarily on Ezio, with only mere glances back into the life of Altair, but my ideal scenario would be a perfect split between both. I feel as though Altair never really got his due screen time, considering what a repetitive mess the series started as. Don’t get me wrong, I adored it for its originality and beautiful scenery, but the controls were extra wonky and the idea of gathering 300 different flags scattered throughout the countryside was OCD madness. I am excited to see what direction they take the story in the chapters beyond the Renaissance.

**Update** Beautiful Trailer. I'm totally basking in its goodness.

From Dust: Any game that is described as a ‘spiritual successor’ to Populus, a favorite from my childhood, is a winner in my book. The initial trailer for the game, released last year, showed a bird’s eye view of sweeping landscapes full of roiling oceans and erupting volcanoes. Absolutely gorgeous! Originally Ubisoft claimed we would see this game in the first half of 2011 on XBLA & PSN, but I bet it will be more like mid-summer. Either way, I can’t wait to see more.

Arkham City: After seeing the newest trailer for the game featuring Catwoman sashaying all over town, October can’t come fast enough. I adored Arkham Asylum, so I hope they don’t switch up the gameplay too much. The bat vision could probably go, or they could give you less incentive for keeping it on all of the time, but I am happy to see the Joker is still around. He’s such a delightful villain. I am less excited about the Penguin, but that is because Danny Devito ruined that character for me during Batman Returns – too much sniveling in thermal pajamas for my liking.

Bioshock Infinite: I am sticking to my guns about not delving too much into the pre-release material regarding Columbia in all of her finery. With the game still slated for 2012, my vow to be mostly surprised by its content is in full effect, and I am grateful for it. I don’t think I will be able to hide from it once PAX comes around if Irrational has any demos available by then, but I’ve done well so far. That being said, one of my favorite moments of PAX East was during the Irrational Panel, where they described the motivations for creating the game more than the game itself, which I appreciated. All I want from the press conference is the slated release date for the game. Then I can plan accordingly.

Alan Wake-Night Springs: Finally, the time spent sitting in front of a television watching a show on a television is paying off! I've only known about this game for a couple of weeks now, so I am eager to find out more.

Surprisingly, these are really the only titles I have any real interest in, but then again this list is mostly off the top of my head and not via extensive brainstorming and research. There have been some rumors of a new Fable game surfacing on the horizon, but with Kinect capabilities, which I am generally uninterested in considering that my teensy tiny living room has never and will never be able to support the motion sensor. Microsoft, if you are going to make the big titles Kinectible, please keep them ‘enabled’ and not ‘exclusive’, okay? It’s not that I am actively trying to boycott the little Wall-E looking device, I just can’t buy a new house in order to use it. Child of Eden is probably the only game I really want to play using the Kinect, but I imagine it will be just as fun with a controller.

Overall, I like hearing the news coming out of E3, especially the stories about things previously unmentioned, but am thankful I am not an attendee. Mostly because of this:

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Review: LA Noire

If there is one word everyone is associating with LA Noire over and over again, it’s real. The graphics are so realistic, the city is based on what Los Angeles really looked like in 1947 and the facial and body movements look so darn real. This is the attracting element that Rockstar and Team Bondi had been stoking everyone’s marketing fire with for months now. But when a game introduces itself as being so close to reality, it sets up a sort of precedence what you are experiencing should be taken as such. And not much about LA Noire is real. In fact, much of it feels like you are constantly being led on by the writers. One of the more successful mechanics in the game is the interrogation process. The game truly makes you believe that your senses rule the environment and using your gut instincts is paramount to triumphing over the bad guys. But this could only work effectively if multiple outcomes resulted from personal choices, and that was never the case. The narrative remains on a rail, accommodating around your decisions but never overly influenced by them. I was manipulated into thinking that my choices mattered, when they never did. I was led to believe that Cole Phelps was the only decent man in the LAPD, but he was merely trying to rise above a sordid past. I was told that I was in a sandbox of California delight, but just like all of the stereotypes about the superficiality of Los Angeles, those promises were empty of anything other than structural beauty and showy pride.

At its best, LA Noire is merely a stylized representation of historical fiction, all surfaces with little substance...more like a stage play with a graceful, painted flat set and one-dimensional, goal-driven performers. And because of this the performances are exaggerated, characters turn into caricatures and all of the elements of real life disappear behind the grandiose narrative drive. No one eats, no one sleeps, no one visits the loo. There are a few casual mentions of domestic, post-work life beyond the nonstop investigatory process, but no one goes home at the end of the evening after punching out and hanging up the gun for the day. Children are almost non-existent and never out on the streets where all NPC’s seem to have one goal: to end up beneath my tires. Women all have the same severe hairstyle and red lipstick, serving as secretaries and lounge singers but not respected leads. You can stand in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, but an entrance is elusive as it does not pertain to any interactive environments within the case files. The guise of an expansive city, locked away behind cardboard facades.

Although I wasn’t terribly convinced by the twists and turns in the central plot, I have to admit that the subject matter had some depth. The narrative was twofold, set in the present and through a series of flashbacks from WWII Japan, parallel and perpendicular lines tying everyone together in 1947 Los Angeles. The rise and fall of Cole Phelps was imaginative and engaging, while the rise of Jack Kelso even better. With the sharp pin stripe suits and jaunty hats, Team Bondi could have devolved the story into something akin to the early American idealistic heroes encapsulated within the noir novels, rescuing long-stemmed dames and haunting speakeasies, but they never did. The dialogue, while peppered with dialect, never sounds comical or farcical.


It becomes extremely difficult to suspend disbelief in the story during a midpoint in the game, however. Our lead, Cole Phelps, is a model police officer that climbs the ranks from Traffic to Vice quickly and seemingly without effort. His partners are so ridiculously idiotic, constantly refusing to see evidence and patterns in the crimes in which they are investigating, that it is obvious they are merely supporting cast members sent in to make the spotlight on Phelps even brighter. He is the golden boy, a star detective, headlining every newspaper, a look of pride mixed with a touch of humility on his face while praise is heaped on him by his superiors. Suddenly, the scene turns bleak and Phelps is reduced to merely a man once again. His fall from grace should have been epic, considering how morally devout his performance has been to this point, but instead he is merely mocked by his coworkers and given a new caseload on the arson desk. Nothing about this transformation feels like anything more than a twist in a crafty story arch - the foreshadowing should have been evident from disc one, but instead a steadily moving plot turns on its face, then swivels around again as Phelps gets back to work. Instead of being captivated, I was disappointed.

In stage plays they call something similar to this deus ex machina or “The God in the Machine”. Usually it refers to a neat little tie up at the end when it becomes obvious that the characters themselves are overwhelmed by loose ends and need a little supernatural assistance, but I feel like an insensate plot device used primarily to add more drama to a narrative is just as lazy. Instead of the previous feeling that I was commanding the ship through careful investigatory tactics, the sense that I had any control over the mechanism was instantly gone. I had been asked to use my instincts and gut feelings to determine outcomes throughout the entire game, even when the game itself wouldn’t let me, so not having any real premonitions about the darker nature of Phelps felt like a betrayal.

Although visually constructed like a sandbox game, LA Noire doesn’t exactly follow the paths of its Rockstar predecessors. The investigative trail is a fairly linear one, interrupted only by brief street jobs to put away petty thieves and bank robbers. With the exception of location hopping, the only real exploration you are nudged to do is find thirty different Los Angeles landmarks, but even those are merely drive-by experiences. It’s only confusing to those hoping this would be GTA: Sam Spade, I suppose, but it’s appearance is fairly deceiving when you open the menu and pull out a giant map of Los Angeles that looks just like the ones in Vice or Liberty City. The game is almost action-free, which is probably the biggest reason I enjoyed playing it, focusing more on human and social conflict than urban conflict. Corruption is nestled deep into the core of Los Angeles, and as a player, you need to root it out using your sense of intuition and evaluation more than forcing the desired answer with gunfire. Clue gathering is a central element to the core gameplay, and probably my favorite mechanic overall. A true detective leaves no stone, hairbrush, or watermelon unturned.

If you can’t describe the narrative as anything other than linear, then why place it inside a sandbox environment? Well, I believe it’s because Rockstar just loves developing expansive, well designed environments for players-and apparently, Team Bondi agreed. And transporting from location to location sure isn’t as fun as driving around in it. I found (re: commandeered) 71 out of the 95 different cars throughout the map, but don’t ask me to tell them apart. I do know that driving some was akin to maneuvering a tank, while others jetted along with ease and speed. A beautifully rendered little model of Los Angeles is encapsulated in LA Noire, and smoothly driving through it is ridiculously fun. I unlocked the achievement for going 194.7 miles pretty late in the game, which was surprising considering just how much pavement skidded neatly beneath my tires.

As a game, I believe that LA Noire is successful. It is innovative if you never played Condemned, CSI or Sherlock Holmes because of the poor design and low budget qualities. Or if you liked Heavy Rain but didn’t like the constant cloud cover and finger extractions-and longed for more car chases. I am a big fan of the crime genre in gaming, loving the mechanics associated with sussing out information and peering at objects to determine whether they hold the key to solving the investigation. There is something quietly rewarding about matching objects to interrogations, making your heart race even while the room is silent and still beyond the scratch of a pencil or a nervous hand gesture seen through the corner of an eye.

When I first heard about LA Noire, I imagined a dark alleyway, lit only by the cherry from the cigarette of a notorious bad guy, and grim characters with shadowed jaws and sullen eyes, tarnished by corruption and greed. After seeing some of the screenshots and the motion capture mechanisms, my vision of what it would be like didn’t change, only got grittier. And I did expect something akin to GTA, with a foul-mouthed protagonist and a open world. Instead, LA Noire is much more lighthearted than I anticipated, with fresh faced police officers walking the bright, sunny streets and the big criminals being more of the white collar type than the Gotham City creepers. This view, along with my preconceived notions that the game was going to be some sort of paradigm for ‘reality’, were quickly dismissed a few cases into the narrative. When you start seeing it like a great interactive play, the game gets more engaging and the missing details no longer matter. Taken at face value, LA Noire is innovative and Team Bondi should be applauded for their effort in bringing Los Angeles, circa 1947, to life…even if the paint is peeling on one side of the backdrop, an actor forgets his line in act two and trips over a prop in act three. All is forgiven.

Internet Love

I bought this on Etsy last week, had to share. Lots of fun video game charms via the link.

Now I can threaten all those who anger me with instant zombification.

It reminds me of the Resident Evil: Apocalypse trailer, which I got a huge kick out of during its run: