My name is Zachary and I'm a new media artist from Philadelphia.

I create engaging content... websites, videos, games, apps, that sort of thing. I work at a University of Pennsylvania think-tank and I'm responsible for projects such as the political literacy site FlackCheck.org and the teaching tool Civics Renewal Network. My work has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, PBS, MTV, USA Today, and tons of other places. I use this website as a process blog. Click here to view my portfolio.

Where is the Leonard Part 6 of gaming?

I’m of the opinion that an emerging medium can prove it’s validity only when held up to the standards of similar works in more established mediums. A youth spent playing video games has convinced me that everything should be balanced, that things can be broken down clearly, that everything has a counterpart. Just as Bulbasaur is the grass-type Mudkip1, there is a clear, systematic link between works across any medium.  After all, why else would the SATs place such a huge emphasis on analogies? You are to me as we are to everything.

Because of this, I keep a massive spreadsheet tracking such connections, with colums for things like “movies,” “games” and “moku hanga“. I’m sure most of you do the same. There’s been a lot of noise lately over what should go in the “Lester Bangs” and “Citizen Kane” slots under the video game column. I figured I’d give you readers a little peek at my spreadsheet so we can finally lay the argument to rest.

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Got it? Good. Since Lester Bangs is the Citizen Kane of people, it makes sense that Doom II, being the Citizen Kane of gaming, would also qualify as the gaming of Lester Bangs. I’m glad I could clear that up for everyone.

Funny thing: while pulling up the spreadsheet to take this screenshot, I realized that there was one glaring omission.  A gaping white hole, laughing at me, saying “Gamers will never experience a work comparable to me!  You may have your alpha, but there will be no omega!”  It’s true.  I stared at that spreadsheet for hours, racking my brain.  I even Google searched the Wikipedia articles on the Twitter feeds…. double dot commed.  I’m at a loss.  So my question for you, dear readers: where is the Leonard Part 6 of gaming?

If you’ve never seen Leonard Part 6, allow me to summarize: Bill Cosby plays former super spy Leonard Parker. He comes out of retirement to battle a demented vegetarian that has somehow trained harmless animals to kill in an effort to wipe humanity off the face of the earth. He eventually invades the secret world vegetarian headquarters and fends everyone off with a piece of steak. Then he flies away on an ostrich as everything explodes. Even though I haven’t experienced the movie since my parents brought a VHS copy home from the video store twenty years ago, I can recall all these scenes vividly. Sort of like the nightmares I have about Tienanmen Square2.

Leonard Part 6 set a new standard for for film. It was a disgusting, convoluted mess of an idea squeezed into a two hour Coca-Cola Commercial that people paid money to see. Produced by, story by and starring Bill Cosby, who was (up until the day Leonard Part 6 was released) considered a comedic legend3.

Leonard Part 6 taught me cynicism.

Right now, I approach games with a cheery disposition. “Wonderful until proven otherwise,” if you will. I see screenshots for a new title and salivate. But when I see a film, the minute I step foot into that theater I start looking at my watch. I roll my eyes at the coming attractions, sigh at every line of clunky dialog, flip off the end credits and trash talk the film during the entire ride home. Because I have seen Leonard Part 6. I have stared into the darkness and seen the eyes of the devil, and he has taught me to hate.  I’ve played Superman 64, widely regarded as the worst game ever made. I thought “Wow, I wish the developers had more time to polish this, because the core concept isn’t that bad.” There are good points to Superman 64.  There is nothing good about Leonard Part 6.

Cynicism amplifies the joy of discovery. We need to lower the bar.  Games will never be considered art until they’ve had a spectacular failure like this that completely degrades the industry as a whole, allowing beautiful works to truly stand out4.

The fact remains: without gaming’s Leonard Part 6, we will never have our Ghost Dad.

Also, Super Mario Galaxy is racist, there aren’t enough save points in You Have To Burn The Rope, Atari has abandoned the hardcore crowd and narrative gameplay biddily boop.

  1. Someone who has actually played Pokemon is going to rip me apart for that one.  Let if be known:  I have no idea what I’m talking about.  I just used that as an example because it’s a bit easier to relate to than ridiculous Final Fantasy spell names.  And its a much more pleasant mental image. []
  2. They involve Bomberman holding up his little pink paw to the tank, then getting crushed to death.  I’m not even joking. []
  3. Not to mention a damn fine dramatic actor. Check out I Spy on DVD and tell me it’s not awesome. []
  4. I’ve considered ET for the Atari 2600, but ruled it out due to it being an adaptation of an existing work.  We need something along the lines of Kojima teaming up with Clint Hocking to make Poop Till You Scoot: The Game. []

The Dream Fight

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Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out was one of those staple games of my youth, along with Tetris and Metroid and Worms and Bomberman and other things I can barely remember.  The sort of game that was ever-present… my friends and I would gather around the little TV after school and trade turns trying to get to the final showdown with Tyson.  When it would actually happen (which was not often), it was a collective victory.  We all cheered and congratulated each other even though only one person scored the actual winning blow.

I rarely played it myself. I was never good at games that relied on strong reflexes. I mostly watched.  But I could appreciate the intense strategy that went into this title.  It was not a boxing game… it was more like extremely fast paced chess.  You could be aggressive or defensive, but either way you couldn’t win the match without understanding your opponent.  There is a counter for every move, and a way to circumvent the approach of every character.  It’s rhythmic, poetic, beautiful.

The characters themselves were indeed questionable. No one denies this.  Especially once we discovered emulation and experienced the original arcade titles. The towering Russian, Soda Popinski, was originally named Vodka Drunkenski. Great Tiger, the mystical Indian, wore a jeweled turban and appeared to have a gutted tiger in his corner of the ring. There was even an Italian character named Pizza Pasta. That’s not even clever! Just… awkward.

Those characters, however, did not matter. In retrospect, its refreshing to think that such ethnicities were represented at all. How often do you see a Polynesian anything in a game?1 The characters were just there so you had a frame of reference when talking shop with your friends.”Bald Bull tried two rolling jabs right off the bat, but I countered the second one and got a star.”  When you hear Bald Bull, you think “the boxer that does the Bull Charge,” not “that ridiculous Turkish caricature.”  Or maybe not.  Those were simpler times, before privilege was even in my vocabulary.  Sometimes it’s okay to go back to that for a little while.

My friends and I spent a lot of time with this game.   I’m talking years.  We had expectations of one another, and a common pool of knowledge to pull strategy from. If you made it to round two and Glass Joe was still standing, you were doing something wrong.  We had stories of legendary matches that became comically exaggerated as time went on.  “I was almost out, and I see Mr. Sandman gearing up for the Dreamland Express, and as he’s coming at me with the first uppercut… wham!  I right hook him and he’s instantly KO’d and I get a million points and my name was in Nintendo Power!  Remember that, guys?  It was awesome.”  We became the veteran boxer stereotypes that the game drew inspiration from.

This new Punch-Out… it is something special. All the same characters, but with a few tweaks.  I’m not capable of objectively evaluating an iteration of this franchise, so let me sidestep with an anecdote: I vividly recall a conversation with my friend Ryan as he was going into the second round against Super Macho Man, sometime in the summer of 1997. “Dude, what if… instead of pressing buttons to throw punches, you could, like… just punch at the screen?” Crazy talk!

We all dreamed of things like this. Don’t deny it.  And I don’t think we give the Wii enough credit for enabling such fantasies. It’s not gimmicky… it what gamers like myself have wanted for a long time.

The main point to take away from this is that games can foster relationships in an extremely unique way, and revisiting old IP isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  So much so that, as soon as I finish writing this entry, I am hopping on a train to go see those same friends, the ones I played Punch-Out with as a kid. I’ve got my Wii and a copy of the new game in my bag. We have all grown old, gotten fat. My hair is predominately gray now and I seem to look tired all the time. But tonight we will tell ourselves that we’re teenagers again.

So here’s your box quote, Nintendo:  “Punch-Out is familiar enough to make you miss your youth, but new enough to help you find it again.”

  1. Master Higgins does not count []

Bit Tripping And The Art Of SD Card Maintenance

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For the past three weeks I have been fully consumed by a WiiWare title known as bit.trip Beat.  It’s very, very wonderful.  I’ve been trapped in the loop of thinking I should write something about bit.trip Beat, then deciding I should play bit.trip Beat a bit more before I write anything about it, and then waking up the next morning cursing myself for staying up until 3AM playing bit.trip Beat.

Basically, the game is single player Pong.  You have  a little paddle, and you move it around to repel tiny squares.  Except the little squares are smart, and repelling them produces harmonious tones. And each “level” is a section of a larger musical composition, of the chiptune variety.  And instead of using the directional pad, you twist the Wii remote.   And I feel at peace with the world when I’m playing.

The behavioral patterns of these little squares, the “beats” (as the manual refers to them), are incredibly varied.  Some fly at you in triplicate, some skip along the bottom of the screen, and others move in such an erratic manner that you cannot predict them… you just need to react.  Unlike the falling gem rhythm games where you just need to monitor an area of the screen and respond accordingly, bit.trip Beat feels like playing actual music.  You are in the zone and you just know what will happen next, even when you don’t.

Contemporary psychology has a word for this:  the flow state. Popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi1, the flow state is a sort of involuntary mindfulness (think Zen Buddhism without the botanical knowledge). Key components include the loss of self-consciousness, focus of awareness, and an altered perception of time.  This is where your mind goes when you’re playing a sweet bass solo or, in my case, trying to hit little squares with a paddle.

Of course, I can’t bring this up without mentioning the game titled flOw (which will run you five dollars and is well worth your time). Jenova Chen’s thesis was a direct attempt to translate Csikszentmihalyi’s theory into an interactive experience.  Aside from the ridiculous capitalization schemes, flOw and bit.trip have little in common.  flOw used the prime ideas behind the flow state to dictate the game’s difficulty dynamically in response to player ability, while bit.trip hopes to invoke the flow state through extremely brutal difficulty.

When I say it’s difficult, I mean it’s difficult with a capital “WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?”  It’s got the challenge level of a shoot-em-up2, where you go from thinking life is great to crying in the corner over the course of thirty seconds.  It’s like a video game version of my first sexual experience that I get to play over and over again.

The difficulty is the beautiful part of the whole thing:  you will always fail at bit.trip Beat.

There’s no way to win.  Or, at the very least, I can’t win.  But not winning is where things get interesting.  Miss too many beats and you get sent into a “nether.”  The overly saturated colors disappear, you see only your avatar and the beats, and the sound cuts out minus a single rhythmic bleep from the Wii remote. Repel enough beats and you go back up to the main play area.  Miss them and you’re back at the title screen.

If I were to rank my favorite gaming moments, my first time entering the nether in bit.trip Beat would easily be number one.  Going from being fully immersed in a driving beat coming from my speakers to this extreme absence was like a slap in the face.  It is so jarring and so very beautiful.  I don’t think I’ve ever been more aware of the act of playing a game.   All I could see was a wireframe of an idea on my screen, and the game controller alerting me to the fact that I was still playing. This says something. I was so disoriented that I didn’t even understand what was going on at first.  It was like waking from a dream and hearing the buzz of an alarm clock, realizing that what you just experienced, no matter how real it may have seemed, was nothing more than a product of your mind.  I am now convinced that adding a speaker to the Wii remote was a stroke of genius.

It may have helped that I was playing on a projector in complete darkness with the volume at max.

The motivation to play again is not just to top your high score, but also to progress further and hear more of the song. I believe that the song never actually ends; maybe some  programming trickery allows it to mutate at a cellular level as you progress.  That may not be the case, as there are two inactive options in the main menu.  I assume there are prerequisites that must be met for those options to become active… maybe requirements such as winning, or at least not losing.

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I haven’t even begun to touch on the narrative elements of the game (yes, there is a narrative!).  “Everything comes from something,” the operations manual informs me.  “We will return to something once we become nothing.”  Heavy.  The little paddle you control?  That’s your avatar, and he has a name. All of the bit.trip games (there will be more, I assume) revolve around a character known as Commander Video.   His mantra speaks of moral fallibilism and self-acceptance3:  “I am only a man.”  And, indeed, you’ll find no extra lives in bit.trip Beat.  You may be able to skate around that near-death nether, but once you’re done, that’s it.  You’re evaluated whether you win or lose.

Someday, when you’re older, remind me to tell you the story of the four player co-op.  Did I mention this game is only six dollars?4

Update: I just read the IGN review for bit.trip Beat, and apparently the song does end, and the greyed out options in the menu are additional songs.  I must be terrible at this game.  Forgive me.  I am only a gamer.

  1. Hottest psychologist ever, am I right?! []
  2. I refuse to use the word schmup, unless it itself is incorporated into an equally ridiculous portmanteau.  Like “aweshmup” or “schmupsicle.” []
  3. For additional information, please see the Wikipedia entry for Human. []
  4. I totally stole this footnotes idea from The Quixotic Engineer.  I think it works well.  Though the hypertextual nature of the internet may render traditional MLA style citations pointless, there’s a lot of stuff that just doesn’t fit into a document.  Like whatever the hell I’m saying in this footnote. []

My evening with Retro Game Challenge

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Me: tall and thin, dark hair, dark eyes, wearing multi-colored Chuck Taylors and a goofy Cosby sweater.
You: gutted box on Gamestop shelf, upside down, partly hiding behind Rune Factory.

I almost didn’t see you. I was just killing some time at the mall before a movie with my buddies. You seemed timid, unsure if you actually belonged there. I know the feeling. Your fashion sense was what caught my eye. You had a classic look… your simple black outfit made me think of Audrey Hepburn, or maybe Clu Clu Land. The bold yellow accents told me that you didn’t take yourself too seriously. And that typeface… cute, unique and charming. The kind of typeface I could stare at every day and not get tired of.

My friends had told me about you. They said you’d be perfect for me. Smart, liberal and with a great sense of humor. That you present an initial air of simplicity, but there’s a level of depth that most guys can’t appreciate. I was unsure. I had just finally gotten over Space Invaders Extreme a few weeks earlier… was I ready for another game so soon?

I had to get going to catch the movie. Almost out the door, I decided to man up and let you know how I felt. I ran back in, grabbed you, and settled up at the register. The cashier smirked at us. “Nice choice,” he told me. He was jealous, and rightfully so.

(You spent the next three hours in the trunk of a car. I hope you’ll forgive me. I normally don’t do that to games, but I was afraid of losing you.)

Later that night, back at my apartment, I took the opportunity to learn more about you. Study your difficulty curves, devote myself to memorizing your form and patterns. Whenever I would think I had you all figured out, you’d change things up on me. You’re a challenge. Not the sort of thing a guy like me seeks to conquer, but something I strive to comprehend and piece together. Something I want to understand and appreciate. I want to learn about you, learn about everything that you are, and figure out what makes you tick.

Normally when I find a new game, my first play through is quick and messy. I pop the cartridge in, then start mashing the A button as much as possible until I find the fun stuff. Not with you. I had patience with you. I read all the dialog, learned the characters, and took my time getting to the action. And when I got a high score, what did I do? I didn’t roll over and go to sleep… I was ready for another go. There’s something special here, I can feel it.

Before I knew it, it was almost dawn. We were up all night fooling around. I can’t even remember the last time I’ve done that with a game. I felt like a teenager again! That was a golden time, those teenage years… when everything was unexplored, when there were discoveries waiting around every corner. Before I learned how incredibly boring most games are. Before I settled for playing a different Pop Cap title every night. Before the crushing disappointment of adulthood stole those transparent pleasures. When I’m with you, things are fun again.

Yes, you remind me of games from my past. Is that wrong? I have good memories of those games… autumn afternoons spent curled up on the couch together, wasting time just because we could. Even if it may have sometimes ended badly, I don’t want to give up those memories. I want a game that reminds me of simpler times. What I loved about those games, I see in you. You’re the complete package I’ve been searching for.

That’s not to say that things will be easy. You’re hard to figure out. I’m sure there will be conflicts, but I promise that I won’t get frustrated or angry. Even when things get difficult. If I’m not up to the challenge? I’ll learn. I’ll change. Just make it clear what you expect from me, and we’ll take it from there.

You’re the rare sort of game that makes me want to be a better player.

I can’t wait to see you again. Tonight, my place? I’ll cook dinner, you think of something fun we can do together. I don’t think you’ll have any trouble with that.

Zoo Review: Banjo-Kazooie Nuts & Bolts

Zoo Review is a monthly feature at Murderblog 3D in which our esteemed review panel pores over the hottest new game and breaks it down into a score that you can understand.

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Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts is the fifth game in the Banjo-Kazooie series (sixth if you count Diddy Kong Racing). The initial release in 1998 was heralded as an evolution of Super Mario 64, which is total bullshit if you’ve experienced both games. Whereas Mario 64 was about spectacular environmental design, Banjo-Kazooie focused more on throwing a bunch of meaningless crap in a level and making the player find it all. They both had similar control elements and progression methods, but that’s about it. The newest Banjo-Kazooie title is  a subpar platformer as expected with a bit of genius tacked on.

Nuts & Bolts is still a collect-a-thon like the previous Banjo-Kazooie releases, although there are a few additional layers. There are now various methods of transportation that can be fully tweaked and customized. There’s some sort of magic wrench that exists only to remove the player from the action by another step.  There is also a narrative that I was not quite clear on, mostly because the dialogue is written out with exaggerated accents (phonetic spellings of mispronounced words and hyphens everywhere).  If this bothers you, you can do what I did and imagine that every character is a stroke victim. It gives the cut-scenes a somewhat tragic vibe.

The structure of the game centers around various missions that reward the player with “jiggies.”  The progression goes something like this:  Finish an activity and get a jiggy. Walk back to the level entrance. In the overworld, locate the jiggy dispenser. Interact with the jiggy dispenser until the jiggy you were just awarded pops out. Carry that jiggy to the jiggy assimilator, then put it down to have your jiggy total updated.  I’m still not terribly certain as to what a jiggy actually is. This seems a bit convoluted, no?  Please consider the following embedded video.

See that number in the upper left hand corner?  Notice how it increases when stuff happens?  Very novel for 1979.  I imagine a version of Space Invaders developed by Rare would involve the player shooting a ship, taking the points that are awarded and  spending eight minutes carrying those points over to the score board.

This is not the worst of it, though.  The platforming becomes an unbearable experience due to the inclusion of additional game play components. Each level is massive and barren, with points of interest as far apart as possible. It takes a very long time to walk your avatar from point A to point B. This is because the developer wants to enforce a reliance on vehicles. The player is supposed to think “hey, I need to hop in my golf cart thing if I want to get to that destination before the Xbox overheats.” It makes me wonder why there is any platforming element at all; if ninety percent of the game involves vehicular tasks, why not ditch the ten percent that doesn’t and refine the focus?  There is nothing wrong with trimming out what doesn’t work and making a simple and polished experience.

It may seem like I’m being a bit hard on this game.  I am, mostly because it’s not very good.  There is however, one redeeming factor, and the reason why I’m bothering to write about it at all:  vehicular creation.

I am normally not a fan of games that hinge on the creative abilities of the player, but Nuts & Bolts has a nice balance to it. The game world is already set in stone and the expressive element comes from designing ways to traverse that world.  I greatly enjoyed piecing together vehicles in the workshop and seeing how the physics engine would react. Making a long vehicle with two springs on the back and trying to do somersaults was wonderful. This element made me wonder: why does the game need all that other stuff? Why can’t it just be an open world Pimp My Ride?

You don’t need jiggies or notes or any of that other stuff; the sole collectible element should be more vehicle components. Scatter them around levels and have them only be accessible by using certain vehicle configurations. Lose the avatar and put the player directly in control of an automobile that can be adjusted on the fly.  This could be Burnout Paradise with the option of modifying your transport when you want to explore.  This could be beautiful!

Let’s look at some supplemental materials.  This is a Venn diagram illustrating the relationship between various game play elements that are really awesome.

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Notice how there’s no circle for “BABY TALK” or “UNNECESSARY COLLECTIBLES” or even “ANTHROPOMORPHIC BEARS THAT YOU WANT TO PUNCH IN THE FACE?”  That’s because they’re not required to have a really awesome game.  You can do this, developers.  Make this game and I promise you will get sixty dollars from me.

Summing it up:  playing Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts has now sparked the fantasy of a Lego Burnout title, so I guess it can’t be all bad.

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Really: Summons of the Ideal

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There are a few things we need to be clear on, sincere reader, if we are to be friends.  One:  I like to read.  Books, plays, comics, essays… anything with words that say something.  Two:  I take a lot of surveys.  At some point I was nice to a telemarketer and now I get about a dozen survey invitations in my inbox every day.  Three:  I love looking at pictures of tiny dogs on the internet.  Only the first two are really relevant to this blog entry, but all three are good to know in case the police ever need your help piecing together a psychological profile.

I was just taking a survey that I found particularly interesting.  It was about video games, specifically the qualities of realism in which they contain.  Here are screenshots of some of the questions.  I’m sure posting these are totally against the terms of service provided by the survey company, but I’m a rebel.  Click on any of the images to see them full size.

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Well, obviously you have to exclude magic.  Magic should only be considered when you need to negate Superman’s powers and you just did a kryptonite issue.

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This is a very loaded question.  For relatively obvious reasons.

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Hmm, “high school” isn’t an option for some reason.

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Toronto has been severely neglected as a backdrop for first-person shooters.

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I’m not sure why “spouse takes the kids and gets the hell out of there” isn’t an option.

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A game tailored to my preferences wouldn’t feature weapons at all, but I’m probably in the minority with that one.

It’s quite clear that the characteristics of realism defined by this survey are a bit different than my own.  When I think of “realism,” I picture literary Realism… the type of realism with a capital R.  Unembellished portrayal of life and all that.  Odes to the unexceptional and the ordinary.  Literary Realism is more or less tied directly to the evolution of theatrical Realism, as is the tendency of these -isms.  And theater is where the money is.

Henrik Ibsen is sort of an important figure in theatrical Realism.  And by “sort of,” I mean dude totally.  He wrote the rules for this stuff before anyone else realized there needed to be rules, almost the same way Wagner invented video games a century before they came into being.  More than just defining realism through his early work, Ibsen helped with developing a criteria for distinguishing art from entertainment.   That is, he hypothesized that art speaks directly about social issues and will challenge them, while entertainment dresses up such issues as symbols or avoids them completely.   If the critical gaming world has the goal of establishing games as art, shouldn’t we be examining this guy a bit more closely?

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Clearly, there is work to be done.

One of the potential sources of trouble when taking a traditional Realist approach to games is that such narratives could be a bit boring.  Most titles feature fantastic plots and embellished characters because they are engaging over long periods of time.  Games with a narrative focus lean on conflict and a Joseph Campbell hero to hold the player’s attention… the sort of elements which stand in conflict to the goals of Realism.

Rockstar Vancouver’s Bully is a wonderful example of what is possible when combining games and Realism. I racked my brain trying to think of suitable examples available on home consoles, but this is the one I kept coming back to.

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Breaking it down, Bully is a high school simulator.  The player attends classes, explores the campus and engages in social activities with other students.  There is a structured narrative that is told through cut-scenes and assigned tasks.  The antagonist, Gary, is remarkably well written… he is paranoid, antisocial, and generally disturbed in the way that most teenagers are.  The central conflict of the game arises from his paranoia:  the player character, Jimmy, is new to school and is befriended by Gary.  After a while, Gary suspects Jimmy is conspiring against him due to Jimmy’s passive nature and begins to engineer his social ruin.  There’s actually a lot going on here, and it all feels quite real.

The fantastic elements emerge through the interactivity; that is, mini-games as a way of progression.  Obviously acing Chemistry is not normally accomplished by participating in a rhythm game, but as these segments exist as supplements to the main narrative, should they be required to conform to the same Realist guidelines?  Should there be a clear distinction between the “game” and the “story”, or should they be fundamentally unified?

I feel inclined to also mention the Graveyard by Tale of Tales.  This has been covered indepth elsewhere, so you should go read that if you want a full analysis.  I will add one point:  the only difference between the trial (free) version and the full (commercial) version of the Graveyard is that the full version adds the risk of death.  Some advocates of Realism feel that death moves a narrative away from the real and towards the superficial or extraordinary, potentially negating a work’s function as art and transforming it into entertainment.  It’s interesting to consider the monetized version of the software’s inclusion of such a device as a statement on the mixing of business and art, but most likely that statement was not intended by the developers.

Trying to take the principals behind a very old artistic movement and apply them to a relatively young medium is difficult.  There are many factors at play here, and I can rant on endlessly.  But, honestly, there are pictures of tiny dogs to be looked at.

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Look at that!  He is so tiny!  So… real!

Electronic Gaming Monthly: The Game of Life

I can most certainly remember the first issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly I had purchased. And, unfortunately, I can remember the last.

The first was in September of 1989.  I remember it well, because I bought it with some of the allowance money I had saved up over the summer so I could show it off to all the kids at school during our first week back.  When I was a kid, game magazines were status symbols.   The kid with the latest issue of Nintendo Power was everyone’s best friend.  That kid was the informant, the person you went to when you needed a cheat code or when your mom would only get you one new game for your birthday and you needed opinions.

In 1989, magazines were not given a quick once-over and tossed aside as they are today.  They were systematically consumed.  There were rituals involved.  Each word and image had meaning, each word and image had to be absorbed.  This was before the internet, so every turn of the page was something new.  “Oh my God!  Battletoads!  What the hell is a Battletoad?”  It was awesome.

My first EGM issue had Fabio on the cover.  Seriously.  It was some promo image for the Wizards & Warriors sequel.  In 1989, these things were okay to to put on the cover of a game magazine.  I didn’t really think about the cover when I bought it.  It’s a magazine about gaming!  I just wanted to be cool, and that magazine was my ticket to the top.

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Well, guess what:  kids may care about gaming magazines, but they care about their perceived sexuality even more.  “Dude, is that Fabio?  Gay!  I’m not reading that.  Get out of here, lard ass.”  Oh, I should mentioned that everyone called me “lard ass.”  Because I was fat.

Children can be so cruel!  How the hell did little kids even know who Fabio was?  I guess it’s just one of those things that everyone is aware of, like orange juice or death.  My copy of EGM and I were rejected by my peers.   That jerk Mark Schlosser down the street had a subscription to Nintendo Power, so they didn’t even need me.

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It didn’t matter.  Fabio’s frightening scowl kept me company.  I stayed up late studying previews for Double Dragon 2 and analyzing the review for Friday the 13th (which was even panned back then, if I recall correctly).  My little brother, Maxwell, wasn’t old enough to read yet, so I had to vocalize the reviews for him.  “This game is packed with hidden surprises, special options and much more!”  That sounds like something I would say.  He would normally reply with “well, I guess I should buy that game” as if he had the money to buy games.  He was, like, two years old.  Now he works at the deli section of a supermarket and spends all his money on drugs.

My last issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly was the January 2009 issue.  It had Hugh Jackman on the cover.  That’s worse than Fabio, right?  I don’t think it matters… today’s child gets his gaming fix from Kotaku, not EGM.  The coolest kid on the playground is the one that can show you how to get porn on your PSP.  Modern six year olds are too busy having babies and doing meth to worry about old media.  Times have changed!  Which is why I’m going to miss EGM.

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EGM has gone downhill a bit during it’s lifetime, but it was still something I enjoyed.  Not just because I love print media, but because of all the memories from my childhood.  Part of why I play video games is because I miss being a child.  Things were clear and simple; I didn’t have to worry about student loans or where I was going to live or what that lump is.  I just had to worry finishing Metroid quickly enough to see Samus without her helmet.  So when EGM shuts it’s doors a month shy of their 20th anniversay and everyone is laid off in the shittiest way possible, it hurts.  It’s like a segment of my childhood disappeared, replaced by the uncomfortable feeling that accompanies adulthood.  I hope all those people can find jobs.

The worst part of this is that Game Informer now has no competition in North America.  What a shitty publication.  Someone needs to ressurect the Gamer’s Quarter.

Top 5 for 2008: Sweat The Small Stuff

The dance is as follows: make a blog post about your top games, then wait for a legion of fanboys to try and peg your console bias or dismiss your worth as a human being because Game X isn’t on the list. This is a requirement for anyone who has a blog and plays video games. It’s a good way to increase your readership… in weird kind of way. Sort of like how shooting Ronald Regan is a good way to get a girlfriend.

There are, of course, excuses to be made as to why certain games are not on this list.  I had issues with Braid, found LittleBigPlanet boring, and have refrained from providing in depth commentary on Grand Theft Auto IV due to fear of ostracism. Other games such as Dead Space, Fable II, Fallout 3, Metal Gear Solid IV and Cabela’s Big Game Hunter I haven’t played at all due to lack of funds. The whole idea behind a definitive “best games” list is somewhat flawed because no individual can play every game from a given calendar year and manage evaluate them all. We rely on filtering services: the best games of what we have been told are the best games, or the best games that we were to access on chance. Same with any other medium. And now, with the world collapsing, being able to afford even a fraction of the big games is becoming quite difficult. “Best Video Games Of 2009″ may end up being replaced by “Best Games That Can Be Played At Your Walmart Parking Lot Campsite Using An Incomplete Deck Of Cards For 2009.”

Comparing my top games of 2008 with those of more reputable media outlets (and even the ultimate authority on such things), the truth becomes clear: I must hate video games. How could GTA IV not be the best game ever made? I’m not a real gamer. I might not even be a real person because of this! I’m probably part of an alternate reality game for some upcoming casual title.  Which would be awesome, because then I’d get a paycheck out of this.

So, I present to you the only list you will ever need (from this particular individual on this particular subject at this particular moment).

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5. PixelJunk Eden (PSN)

I ran my mouth on this one already (even awarding it the coveted Cute Baby Seal grade in my Zoo Review) and it’s still a wonderful game. The goals are clear, the mechanics are simple and the presentation is arresting. PixelJunk Eden is the perfect distraction when you need to kill twenty minutes, but becomes damn near enlightening when other players join in for a night of Spectra hunting. This is what I want my console gaming experiences to be like.

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4. The World Ends With You (DS)

Surprise, suckers! A roleplaying game came out of Japan featuring original ideas. Not only that, it was published by–brace yourself!–Square-Enix. The World Ends With You does so many things right that it’s easy to overlook some minor flaws. Yes, the protagonist is still annoying and could impale a moai with his hair. But there’s a difficulty slider! And dual-screen combat! And digestion mechanics! Someone at Square-Enix probably got fired for this one, because they somehow released a game that’s flexible and enjoyable. There’s a lot of great ideas here that RPG developers should take note of. If you’re somehow unfamiliar with The World Ends With You, just go to your favorite gaming blog and look at the entries for the month of May to find more information… I’m sure everyone on the planet has raved about this game by now.

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3. Boom Blox (Wii)

For about two months prior to the release of this game I walked around the house screaming “BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM BLOOOOOOOX!” to whomever would listen (confused dachshunds, mainly).The premise alone was enough to get me excited… use the Wii remote to throw virtual balls at virtual blocks. How could that be bad? Answer: it can’t. Simplicity wins again. The visceral thrill of such an act is enough to transform anyone into a wide-eyed child. If Wii Sports is a gateway drug to gaming, Boom Blox is meth-infused supercool dipped in formaldehyde. Except, uh, it probably wouldn’t kill you. Maybe if you smoked the physical disc… I’m sure some sort of deadly dioxin would be release from the plastic as it melted. So don’t do that. I need to make a conscious effort to stay away from analogies in the future.

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2. Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer (DS)

This would have been at the top of my list if it weren’t a port of an ancient SNES title. I love Shiren and I’ve written a bit about it in the past. This game is the perfection of a genre (the genre being graphical roguelike); I can’t recommend it enough. If you’re not familiar with roguelikes, Shiren the Wanderer is a wonderful introduction. It’s brutally difficult, as it should be, but contains enough progression to keep your attempts from feeling futile. However, a lot of critics weren’t willing to accept a game that didn’t conform to their expectations; i.e., wasn’t just another JRPG. That’s a shame, because Shiren completely tanked in the US. Japan just got a sequel, and now Sega has no plans to localize it due to poor sales. You can now find Shiren for about ten dollars used, so, please, I urge you: give it a try.

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1. Professor Layton and the Curious Village (DS)

I did not expect this. Professor Layton looked intriguing at best prior to its release. Then I actually tried it and lost ten days to a blur of whimsical mental exercise. There are puzzles in the game, and those puzzles are great. There’s a story in the game, and that story is interesting. So you have great puzzles and an interesting story. That’s good enough for most games, right? Professor Layton takes it to the next level by actually integrating the two, so that the core of the story revolves around why every douchebag in the village presents the player with a brain teaser. That’s the key here: integration. Every element of the title feels so considered, from the music to the setting to the joyful art style. It feels cohesive and complete. And it’s not above making the player feel a bit stupid. So plus one for having some balls.

Looking at this list, it’s quite apparent that I’m some sort of crazed radical that can’t play by the rules. My rampant disregard for overproduced disc-based games is probably going to get me killed (when I’m just two days away from gaming retirement, no less). MTV Multiplayer’s Stephen Totilo posed the question “Can a small game be game of the year?” I don’t know why any game should be excluded from such a category… if it’s good, it’s good. I think 2008 was a wonderful year for gaming because of the small games. While gamers may have been disappointed by the franchises and cash cows that normally receive all the critical accolades, more concentrated efforts have captured my heart. True joy can be experienced while on a coffee break. Game of the year should not mean “best M-rated single player game”… it should mean “game of the year.”

Annotated Honorable Mentions: Burnout Paradise (too unexplored),  Korg DS-10 (too useful), Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon (too Final Fantasy), Blast Works: Build, Trade & Destroy (too expressive), Wii Fit (too big for the controller basket), Baroque (too creepy), Culdcept Saga (too broken), Art Styles: Orbient (too remade), Lost Winds (too short), Mystery Case Files: MillionHeir (too already-on-my-PC), LOL (too underrated), Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness (too much of a mouthful), Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe (too Mortal Kombat), Persona 4 (too new) and Wipeout HD (too seizurey).

The Spike VGAs Make Me Hate Gaming

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Because, you know, I can be quite imprudent when it comes to these things.

I didn’t really have anything to do last night, so I figured I would watch the fourth annual Spike TV Video Game Awards. Unlike the Oscars, which are voted on by members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the VGA winners are chosen by an undisclosed panel which may or may not be the Gamestop board of directors. I found the show to be incredibly eye opening, so I figured I’d share some highlights with everyone.

1. The Atrocious Opening Musical Number. I wish there was a video I could link to for this. Jack Black and some other obese gentlemen defend themselves against reading, exercise and healthy relationships. Everyone is clad in underwear and stained white t-shirts, the devil is repelled by an ejaculation of sparks and flames, and the narrative of GTA IV is suggested to be comparable to actual literature. I’m so glad all of this was crammed into the first few minutes of the show: the curious television viewer could confirm their theories of gamer culture and switch back to CSI Miami reruns without missing anything.

2. Two Hours Worth Of Objectification. The opening set the tone for the rest of the evening: Wii Fit is what you buy your girlfriend so she can have “a sweet ass,” and females only exist to prevent men from doing the things they enjoy. Categories were announced with camera fly-throughs between the legs of a woman wearing a shiny one-piece body suit (more like a half-piece, really). Awards were presented by what could be considered literal feminine objects lowered by wire onto the stage; they were completely silent, covered in silver body paint and decorated as trophies themselves. It’s amazing to think that this is somehow a step up from the proceedings of the previous year. Spike TV seems to be unaware that video games are played by people other than adolescent males on the verge of transitioning into a career in serial murder. Guess what: not only do women play games, but so do men who are capable of respecting women. Crazy concept. I half expected a montage highlighting the working girls of Liberty City.

3. Jack Black Having Intercourse With Game Consoles.
I suppose there were elements of this segment that were reasonably amusing, but the premise didn’t seem to make much sense. While fornicating with an Xbox 360 and a PS3, a Wii caught him in the act. The Wii was indicated to represent his wife and an onlooking DS Lite his son. I suppose the consoles were symbolic of their primary audience? Using logic like that, he would have been having sex with a foul-mouthed 14 year old boy and someone’s introverted technophile uncle.

4. Confirmation On The Watchmen Game Regarding Quality. Yeah, that world premiere trailer was something, alright. Gamestop is probably quite sad that they couldn’t add a “PREORDER NOW!” blurb at the end of the trailer due to it being digitally distributed. Now our economy will never recover.

5. Sorrow Is Fueled By Dew. I’m not sure how “Independent Game” and “Sponsored By Mountain Dew” ended up in the same sentence.

6. Mike Tyson.
The parental advisory warning at the beginning of the show did not mention his appearance.

7. The Big Name In The Game.
There’s an award that goes to the biggest celebrity who did voice work in a video game this year. This is unrelated to “Best Vocal Performance.” Ridiculous in and of itself, but how does Jenny McCarthy win over Dame Judi Dench? Next year I hope to see a category called “Biggest Residual Paycheck.”

8. Realizing That These Awards Are All Bullshit. The majority of awards were presented in a thirty second montage before a commercial break. So we get an extended musical number by LL Cool J to introduce a world premiere trailer featuring no actual gameplay, but the awards themselves get relegated to a speedy voice over announcement? Here’s the deal, Spike: I’ll start taking this stuff seriously when you do. The fact that awards were given out based on hype rather than merit didn’t help, either.

9. Having To Watch This To See Tim Schafer. I suppose there is one thing Spike TV understands about gamers: we are foolish fanboys who will put up with anything just to see even a sliver of information on a new title. I’m still not clear on if Brutal Legend will be any good, but I got to see a brief trailer introduced by Tim Schafer himself. I should probably go out and buy some Mountain Dew to support the game.

10. Being Bothered Enough To Write A Blog Entry. I am only contributing to the problem. I need to get a hobby to distract me from my hobby.

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