Thursday, October 27, 2011

Pumpkins! Final Chapter

After racking my brain for several days trying to figure out what I would artfully carve into my two carefully selected pumpkins, I finally settled on two designs: one from Assassin’s Creed 2 (…in a move that surprised no one…) and one based on my original idea to honor Chrono Trigger in gourd form.

For Pumpkin One, a bit of background, including a story about corporate branding and tattoos:

When I made the decision to carve another Assassin’s Creed pumpkin, I actually had another motive in mind. You see, last spring a friend and I made a pact to get inked together. She had something she wanted to get covered up, and me, well, I just like getting tattoos. After doing my normal hunt and gather techniques for the right design, I finally settled on what I affectionately refer to as my “Frankenstein” tattoo. During the time of my search I also happened to be reading the Sandman graphic novel series, a collection I adore due to both its thought-provoking content and its glorious art style, much of which is created by one of my favorite artists, Dave McKean (the movie Mirrormask is his love letter to visual expression). Within the pages of the Dreaming, I found a beautifully rendered key. Because I have a mild passion for antique keys, I was instantly drawn to it and Xeroxed it the first chance I got, keeping it folded within the confines of my bag for a few months, anticipating the day when my friend and I would take the journey together to Ye Olde Tattoo Shoppe. As much as I loved the design, however, there was always something about it that struck me as a tad too gothic...but it didn’t bother me enough to alter my intention.

A year prior to this I had been speaking to my husband about possibly getting a tattoo for Assassin’s Creed somewhere, arguing that the game meant a lot to me and I would love to commemorate that feeling by adding it to the eight other symbols gracing my person in the most permanent of fashions. He tactfully informed me that to get the most recognizable symbol, the “A”, would be akin to branding myself with the Golden Arches of McDonald’s, as Assassin’s Creed itself is purely a cash cow for Ubisoft. He suggested I find something within the game itself that had a higher meaning beyond the brand, knowing that AC is full of historical and conspiratorial symbology. After searching through the huge bank of symbols, I found the perfect glyph, the Mandelbrot Set; it’s beautiful fractal pattern representing in mathematics a ‘complex structure arising from the application of simple rules’, and graphed out as one of the ‘best-known examples of mathematical visualization’. The hidden puzzle points in AC2 were one of my favorite new additions to the series, so the symbol fit my wants perfectly. The only questions left were where (on me!) and when I was going to commit.

At this point my friend entered with her idea. And now I had two designs. So…I combined them. The bit in the key that bothered me was gone (a rather sharp top piece) and my homage to AC was cleverly disguised. The tattoo now resides on my back at the midpoint, underneath three other carefully selected designs and will eventually be a spinal centerpiece when I am finished. I love it, as I love them all, and feel more complete, in a pagan sort of way, knowing it’s there. So even though that explanation is ridiculously long for such a simple pattern, I thought I would give some background as to why I wanted to carve it into a pumpkin as well. It seemed fitting, considering my new art and a new game on the horizon. An Ode to 2011, if you will.

For Pumpkin Two, I used an exacto knife and carved the half-clock from the Chrono Trigger logo. It was messy, but fun, and I am happy with the results. That is all. Oh, and I titled this blog after the game, hinting to the idea that my love and life of video games started with this particular title. Isn’t that reason enough?

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Screenshot Friday!

So. Very. Yes.

And from the trailer, it appears that he has his one-shot hidden pistol. Quite fancy for a fighting game! I do believe I am suddenly looking forward to the next SoulCalibur more than I could have ever anticipated.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Extra Life: Hours 0-13

Last weekend I participated in the Extra Life 24 hour game-a-thon, raising charitable funds for Seattle Children’s Hospital. A small group of donators assisted me with my monetary goal of $200, of which I raised 119%, so a heartfelt thank you goes out to my supporters. I thought it would be really difficult for me to pull an all-nighter, considering I haven’t done anything close to that since…well, nevermind, I stayed up all night playing the original Assassin’s Creed in November of 2007. But at 32, I must say that my waking familiarity with the hours between 2am and 5am have diminished over time, so I was happily surprised when, on Sunday morning at around 7am, I watched the sky lighten as the sun rose over not only my third story apartment, but also over the road to Damascus as I, and my heart, was back with Altair after four years of being apart.

I didn't anticipate when signing up for the event that I would ride a bit of an emotional roller coaster as I approached the twentieth hour. Somewhere between cycling through caffeine-induced alertness and sleepy delirium, I felt an almost indescribable fondness for being part of an amazing community doing something wonderful and, simultaneously, the sort of abject loneliness that comes from doing something solo that is better done with a group of people. And although I adore my friends, it's these moments that make me realize how lovely it would be to share my love of video games with a close friend, and not just in a casual, anecdotal way, but as a cooperative experience. Lucky for me, I have the best support in my husband, who stayed up as late as his body and brain would allow him to, bringing me trail mix and Lemonade Rock Stars, conjuring up the best energy-drink-consumption-to-time-played ratio in order to have the most impact. And bless him for sitting with me while I immersed myself utterly and completely back into Ezio’s Roman Chapter for thirteen straight hours in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood.

Hours 0-13: When I ‘finished’ Brotherhood last December, I knew there were a few random assassination and/or courtesan missions that I left incomplete, but I had no idea just how much more the game contained. And I am a tad ashamed for that. For example, I freaking adored the Cristina missions, which were added successively to the quest map at particular percentages of sync, but had only reached around 50% when I finished (due to some failures on my part to fully actualize every goal in the process). This means I experienced three of them, leaving two undone, and finished believing the only way I could acquire them would be to re-play many of the previous memory sequences. I was wrong. At this point I should probably finally admit to you, dear readers, that my relationship with Assassin’s Creed is a bit complicated and, well, sort of bat-shit crazy. I have this totally irrational fear that one day the whole experience will be over due to over-commercialization or poor development or whatever other reason game franchises go off the rails and die. Because of that, I find myself constantly leaving little bits and pieces undone like a squirrel preparing for a long winter. Best example: the DaVinci Disappearance DLC released in March, I downloaded it approximately four months ago and played it for the first time last Saturday. I feel more comfortable revisiting all of the unplayed quests and guild checklist items with Revelations on its way, but am sure that I will still compulsively leave small objectives undone here and there in order to better prepare for…well, hell, I don’t know. I suppose I just don’t want to imagine a world where I can’t play Assassin’s Creed. The embarrassing confessional portion of this post is over.

After thirteen additional hours in Rome with Ezio, I can now say that I believe I have left only piddling things incomplete. I finally acquired the last two Cristina missions and executed them with a romantic glisten in my eye, cooing softly at the television with my hands clutched against my overly romantic heart. I sent my Assassino babies on so many contract assignments that about halfway through the evening I noticed I was repeating ones I had already completed. The DLC was great, with a satisfying combination of puzzle, platform and assassination mechanics. While Ezio and DaVinci were temple diving, there was a frank acknowledgement of Leo’s, um, 'partner preference'. Ezio showed his support in a ‘duh, dude’ sort of way and our inventor friend left relieved he would no longer have to hide his ringlet-haired ‘apprentice’ behind closed doors. A mannish shoulder slug sealed the deal. I do believe that I am getting better at playing this game, mechanically. At first I couldn’t imagine scoring 100% on all of the memory sequences, but now I can envision it without too much trouble. The places where I failed to meet the requirements usually came with a few swear words after an accidental counter attack or unintentional weapon swap, not because of a lack of skill. I feel like Revelations is going to be a sort of professional-style culmination of four years of training. So. Excited.

And just when I thought Brotherhood couldn’t deliver any more surprises, I found what I consider to be the most beautiful bug in video game history. Right around the time my loving husband was about to request I take a small break to devour a plate of pesto pasta for dinner, I guided Ezio into a mini-fight along the road to the Colossuem, where a leap off a horse glitched and propelled our hero into the sky, as though his shoes had suddenly developed wings. Although I could no longer see him (unless I tipped the controller skyward, and then was greeted with an Ezio up-skirt), the view of Rome was enchanting as we soared higher and higher, the landscape features growing smaller as we climbed, turning from day to night after about 15 minutes. As I ate, I kept my thumb on the right analog stick a to keep the focus pointed on Rome, watching as the sunlight faded and the lanterns and fires were lit, glittering across the virtual city as though viewing it from the curved window of an airplane at dusk. At roughly the 5000 ft mark (thank goodness for the map marker) the visual aspects of the game finally tapered out, showing nothing but a blue graphical scape below and a starry, clouded sky above. The musical score continued on, with only a slight wind noise accompanying Ezio’s ascension. I know it was a bug, but it was truly magical, a perfect memory for Brotherhood.

Obviously there is more to tell, considering I mentioned Altair earlier, but I'll divide it up in order to avoid any tl;dr moments.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Pumpkins! Chapter One

When my now husband and I first started dating several years ago, one of the ties that bound us so tightly was our shared love of video games. So it made sense that after almost a year together we would spend our first Halloween season carving pumpkins along the same theme. I was head over heels in love with Assassin’s Creed in fall of 2008 (...and 2009...and 2010...and ongoing...), and decided to devote two of my artsy carvings to Ubisoft and the most recognizable symbol of the Creed. Forget spooky faces, it was much more fun to design something we could associate with our everyday lives. The following year we decided to keep this new tradition going, with Matt cutting a silhouette of a splicer mask from Bioshock into his, and me, well, I just really loved the testing lab in 2009, even though I didn’t make my eventual escape until the summer of 2010...which turned into a bountiful year for great games in my book. Being two of the spookiest games of last year, I honored the season by devoting my pumpkins to Alan Wake and Costume Quest, the former being spine-tingling horror, while the latter warmed your heart with pure trick-or-treat nostalgia.

For this year's creation, however, my idea bank has remained empty. I haven’t really loved any games so far in 2011 (note: might change post 10/18, re: Arkham City). But after mulling it over for awhile, I have decided to devote my pumpkins to the namesake for this blog and finally give the multitude of folks who have arrived here by using the keywords “chrono trigger pumpkin” a real picture of what they are searching for, and not just a mashup of two concepts both featured independently over time. So in a couple of weeks, I will attempt to pull off something probably more difficult than I can currently imagine, considering the hundreds of 16-bit pixelated sprites and scenes that are conjured up during a Google image search. So…wish me luck; I’ll post my results should they honor my beloved favorite, but can’t promise a big reveal if they turn out…unrecognizable…and thereby icky.

Here are our fantastic pumpkins from years past:

2008: The Year I Loved Everything Ubisoft, and Matt recreated the Red Ring of Death.

2009: The Year I Loved Portal and Matt Went to a Rapture Masquerade, circa 1959.

2010: The Year I Loved Bright Falls and Fall Valley

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

November, Wherefore Art Thou?

In the real world, being an insanely obsessed lover of all things Halloween, I am currently soaking in the sights of jack o' lanterns popping up on porches all over the neighborhood and the gloomy fall weather, complete with red and orange hued trees. But when it comes to video games, I find myself perpetually coaxing the calendar to crank forward in anticipation of Revelations. New stories from media sneak peeks have been popping up in the online world, gaining steam and revealing content exponentially since roughly around E3. I have ignored most of the multiplayer aspects, because blah, but have tried to keep up with the single player news. From the demo showcased at PAX, it appears that the new crafting element has the developers in a tizzy, but I am less interested in the bombs as weapons than I am in the continually improving stealth elements. In my mind, assassins don’t throw exploding objects in the faces of his victims-that is bully behavior, definitely not the way suave Ezio would conduct business. But the creative director, Alex Amancio, reassured the audience during the Prime demo that their goal is to simply give the player more tools, not command their actions. If you want to hug the shadows and rooftops to avoid detection, by all means go ahead. And this is my kind of play. I heart being a master of mystery. If bodies are exploding around me I can’t keep my romantic vision of the series intact.

Kotaku ran a story this morning about their experience playing a few hours of Revelations, where Kirk Hamilton ‘accidentally’ got to see a bit of Demond’s new realm inside the Animus, which sounds ridiculously interesting: “…when I paused the game, the menu had an option for 'Return to Animus Island.' Naturally I selected it and was greeted with Desmond, standing alone on a misty, mysterious grassy hill. I began to run forward and… an Ubisoft employee came up and physically removed the controller from my hand.” Obviously they are keeping Desmond’s role an enigma at this point, focusing primarily on revealing bits of the interaction between Ezio and Altair in recent and distant past alterations, but the idea of Desmond having some sort of free reign inside the Animus sounds fantastic. So many secrets to uncover.

Between now and November I will continue lapping up the information being released by Ubisoft and remember to fill out that time off request at work for 11/15, my only real decision to make between now and then being which version to pre-order. The basic disc-only version? The Ultimate Bundle that comes with a fancy new Ezio doll and a Leo flying machine? The Signature Edition that comes with extra downloadable goodies? The Animus Edition that arrives complete with the new encyclopedia (currently doesn’t appear to be available in the US market, but a girl can dream)? So many choices…

It doesn't help that this photograph of the Istanbul skyline showed up in my employer's blog this morning, as our cruise line embarks and disembarks in this gorgeous city several times a year. So many reminders...

Harry Potter and the Disappointing Game, Part Two

Even though most games based on films are total crap, I have always been a supporter of the Harry Potter tie-ins. I played only one of the earlier PC titles, as I never really had a computer worth its gaming salt, but have devoured all of the console versions, with the exception of the Deathly Hallows, Part One. The fifth and sixth chapters, Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince, were surprisingly delightful to play. Each of them followed the order of events in the movies faithfully, but also gave the player a ton of optional activities, such as mini-game style homework and hide-and-seek for collectible items. Also amazingly, the controls didn’t completely stink. This is one of the banes of the licensed titles-quick toss releases without too much testing, which usually creates a bug-filled, erratic environment that rides the line between a beloved franchise and an unplayable mess. But both OOP and HBP managed to be quite satisfying. I believe I spent roughly a week trying to max out the achievement list in Half-Blood Prince, simply because I found the game so enjoyable.

When Deathly Hallows Part One was released in theatres, I manipulated my Gamefly Q to increase the chances it would be sent to me soon after. When it arrived, I popped the disc in my 360 and snuggled in for another grand adventure with our little band of wizards-in-training. Except something terrible had occurred. The gameplay was wretched. And no amount of thumb/finger training could get me through the first two hours of the game. I failed mission after mission for being ‘too slow’ during a side quest skill challenge, which I couldn’t avoid, and never made it back to the totally icky main storyline. It was a total disaster. I have no idea how the targeted market of teens and preteens were able to get through it. I certainly didn't try too hard-probably because I have played enough games at this point to comprehend when I am doing poorly in a well-crafted game (Catherine) and when the game is totally screwing me by being a hastily released pile of basilisk goo (HP&DHP1). Oh, and when you read the Wiki for this particular title, it contains this little gem: “The gameplay for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 is different from the previous games after developers decided the game required a new direction to suit its growing adult audience.” I am the adult audience, and I respectfully disagree with your choice. And by looking the overall 4-5 review scores, I can assume most people felt the same.

Because of this experience, I was hesitant to play the second part in the series. After doing some review checks and finding mostly 7-8 scores, I wished on a falling star and added it to my queue. The disc landed in my mailbox last Friday and I snuggled in for the last grand adventure I would virtually have with our little band of world-saving-wizards. And I was pleasantly surprised-the controls were back to being fairly slick and easy to maneuver. And the game itself looked great, with the movie scenes recreated well and the characters moving on the sticks like they should, the spell casting relegated to the triggers and switched around using single or double taps on the buttons. Hooray! Maybe I would get the last hurrah I was looking for!

After about an hour in it becomes clear that this is the absolute laziest of the Harry Potter games. It’s as though the developers themselves were so tired of the franchise that they couldn’t even bring themselves to add any creative elements to the game, simply following the movie timeline without a single deviation, and only managing to come up with one mechanic besides running: tactical combat. By using bits of broken Hogwarts, Harry/Hermoine/Ron/Ginny/[insert character here] takes cover and shoots at the bazillions of Death Eaters aiding Voldemort in his megalomaniacal plan to dominate Hogwarts. As you can see from my Raptr blip above, I played and finished the game in four hours, and I am positive that number has been rounded up. I've played $10 downloadable content that took longer to complete than this full retail disc-based title. The entire game takes as long to play as it does to watch the movie, with some bathroom and snack breaks thrown in for good measure. There are some collectibles and a few challenge rounds, but by the time I finished the game its plodding blandness had almost erased all of the good/sad/real feelings I had while watching the film and reading the book, and I just couldn’t bring myself to damage it any further. Shame on you, EA Bright Light, for ending this particular series on such a deflated note.

The one bright side? After the credit roll, a montage sequence of all the video games starting with the first cartoony little PC version are highlighted and a brief ‘thanks for the memories’ tag flashes across the screen. And for sure, there were some great ones, especially for a game series that has managed to keep up with its film counterparts, but to end such a life in such a way just seemed sad.

Okay, there is a second bright side, as LEGO Harry Potter Years 5-7 should soon erase this brief memory from my mind. I have high hopes. /crosses fingers

Friday, October 7, 2011

Actors + Video Games = Weirdness

Usually when there is less than a week until the release of a Dragon Age related DLC, I start making little hearts on my calendar and refrain from spending my MS points on trashy rom-coms and fun avatar accessories in preparation for the inevitable downloadin’. But I don’t know, guys. The Mark of the Assassin kind of weirds me out. I can’t help but think, huh, Felicia Day-that is her right there. That is not a character in a game series with elf ears and a sassy name. That is the actress Felicia Day. I hear her voice, I see her slightly distorted animated features and it totally creeps me out. And please let me emphasize-I have only the utmost respect for Ms. Day herself. I have enjoyed all of the features and web videos she has written, and even admired her singing voice in Dr. Horrible. But the idea of placing a really real person that I have an association with as a flesh and blood entity into my beloved fantasy game creates a sort of disjointed perspective in my mind. Frankly, I think it’s so bizarre that for the first time ever I am considering skipping the DLC completely.

This isn’t the first time I have had this problem. I remember when animated feature films started using bonafide stars as voice actors. I’m more used to it now, but at the time I had a hard time separating the character from the picture in my head associated with the voice. The 1998 animated version of the Prince of Egypt had both Sandra Bullock and Jeff Goldblum voicing particular characters (and in Goldblum’s case, his distinct gestures and mannerisms were infused into the animation as well), and although I really loved the movie (still do!) I could never fully invest during particular scenes because I kept seeing the actor's faces superimposed onto their 2-D counterparts. Like I said, this is so common now that big actors get top billing for merely their voice work, but it’s still sometimes difficult for me to become 100% immersed in a fantasy world when I keep seeing the wrong face attached to an audio association. But at least in these cases the physical representation is different-in Dragon Age, I now have to believe in the actress as an actress inside an interactive experience. And it’s beyond strange.

I can’t help but think that if I felt the opposite of how I do, and didn’t admire Felicia Day as an actress, that this would potentially create a sense of apathy and disconnect me from the experience in a way that has nothing to do with the normal bad mechanics, poorly written storyline or any of the other usual reasons why people would shy away from a particular game. It would be simply because I didn’t care for the playable character, and wanted to avoid having an intimate experience that involves her, even if it meant turning my back on a chapter in one of my favorite series. I imagine if they modeled my favorite of the DA2 characters, Fenris, on one of the young actors gracing the covers of the magazines, I would have had a completely different experience. If so, I would never have had my DA2: Part Two playthrough, “What Would Fenris Do?”, where we argued passionately and kissed awkwardly, our love blooming and manifesting over time (obviously, I am still a teenager). I would have said meh a lot while shaking my head, knowing that Mr. Disney-They-All-Look-the-Same-Youth was just nailed by the tabloids for having a late night kiss with Ms. Starlot-Who-Gives-a-Crap and wouldn’t have invested as heavily. These characters work because I can semi-mold them into my own vision of who they should be, especially in a BioWare world, where the player often leads the story, even if the multitude of choices are predetermined.

Oddly enough, I had the opposite situation happen recently, where I encountered an actor as a video game persona before I experienced him as a film star. After playing LA Noire with all of its hyper-realistic characters, many of them sketched, modeled and voiced by B- or C-List actors that you recognize vaguely but can’t quite pinpoint from what or where, I got pretty close to a man named Cole Phelps. We drove together, we interrogated perps as a team; I saw him through his proudest moments and emotional dark times. Heck, I even helped him climb into a fountain to retrieve Elizabeth Smart’s social security card and held him while he cried (added for dramatic emphasis-that never actually happened). Between Cole and I, we had some serious times, man. And then I started watching Mad Men a few months later. Seeing the actor, Aaron Staton, chilling on the couch in an outfit resembling the ones I repeatedly chose for him in LA Noire, my brain did a back flip. To this day, I have seen an entire season of Mad Men and I could not tell you the name of Aaron’s character in the show. To me, he is and will always be Cole Phelps, the cocky police officer who wormed his way up the proverbial ladder in Los Angeles circa 1947. LA Noire is now my primary source for this man, no matter what he does in the future. We spent 40+ hours together solving murders and nailing investigation tracks. This experience will always supersede any one hour show where he is a supporting character or even a two hour film where he is a lead. To me, Aaron Stanton is Cole Phelps.

So because my knowledge of Felicia Day is primarily as herself or someone resembling herself in shows like The Guild, or even through the many book reviews she writes on, I know that I am going to have an extremely difficult time suspending disbelief if I jump in to the Mark of the Assassin. Maybe if she was merely the voice actor and not completely recreated as her own personal elf vision, I could at least try to focus on the movements and choices of who she is depicting, but seeing and hearing her within the game is unnerving. I’m sure in the end I will play it, as I am total goo when it comes to Dragon Age, but I am seriously doubting that I will be able to feel the normal immersive qualities when such a recognizable person is continually pulling me back into reality.

Totally got through this philosophizing without using the phrase 'uncanny valley' once. Pretty proud right now.