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.

You Can Learn How To Play The Game, It’s Easy

I’ve resisted purchasing my own copy Rock Band for a few reasons. One, it’s almost two hundred bucks. Two, it’s best experienced with friends; I assume that if I ever make some, they’ll probably own the game. Three, I feel it’s lacking some essential artists: Pink Floyd, Ween, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, etcetera (I’ve come to terms with the fact that My Bloody Valentine and Throbbing Gristle would not contribute to an enjoyable rhythm game experience). Jamming on “Suffragette City” is cool and all, but the type of music I associate with the term rock band has been entirely absent.

So: this morning, rejoicing. At least one of those issues has been rectified.

I’m what most people refer to as a pseudo-Beatles fan. I own all their albums, have all the lyrics memorized, and even know various dates and names integral to their history as a band. So, basically, I’m not much of a fan compared to most people. After all, I value Yoko Ono’s artistic contributions to society, which is grounds for a lynching in certain parts of the world. But I still enjoy the cumulative output of The Beatles and the idea of playing fake instruments to all their songs has me salivating.

Then I thought about it for a bit. What will this game actually consist of? Are there going to be stylized 3D models with massive mop-tops? How, exactly, is the catalog of such a historic group going to be presented? This could be bad, pal.

Is there any sort of narrative tied to existing band simulation titles? I’ve only experienced Rock Band with a group of friends, choosing songs as we go. I’m aware of some vague “career mode” but I can’t imagine it being very deep. Maybe you throw the disc in on occasion to find “Your avatar is climbing mountains in Tibet trying to find himself; please check back in a few months.” I have no idea. My question for you, dear reader: Is Rock Band as a platform capable of presenting anything other than a well engineered rhythm game? There is a very interesting opportunity that this license presents.

Imagine, If You Will: August 28th, 1964. You’re in a band with three of your buddies. Al Aronowitz (the original gonzo journalist) takes you up to the penthouse suite at Hotel Delmonico in New York. Inside is Bob Dylan and some marijuana. You’ve never tried it before, so you instruct your drummer to give it a test run. Soon everyone is rolling on the floor in fits of giggles and Brian Epstein is questioning the laws of gravity. Next thing you know, you’re in a car about to be sick, spouting dialog like this:

Now compare such an event to what I just found searching for “rock band cutscene” on GameTrailers.

The Beatles are not only a band that many people worship, they also have defining moments in their history that present actual drama and interest. There’s a story to tell that, if done correctly, can elevate music simulators past the category of simple point seeking and leaderboard dominance. Forgive me for dropping a ‘C’ bomb here, but: it could be cinematic.

There’s so much that can be explored… starting as The Quarrymen playing skiffle standards all over Garston, then moving on to simple pop and signing with Parlophone (hopped up on Preludine the whole time). The first big tour kicks off with a residency in Hamburg. Paul McCartney starts a fire in the hotel, gets arrested and ends up deported. Stuart Stutcliffe stays behind and dies of a brain hemorrhage. And they haven’t even recoded their first album yet.

There is real drama to The Beatles that most games struggle to invent. Drugs, politics, religion, cultural revolution… all the staples of top tier stories are there. I can picture segments in my head: ending with the rooftop concert, a credit scroll covering certain incidents from 1980, then an epilogue in 1994 for a performance of Free As A Bird. That would be some heavy shit.

I think that the whole experience can be presented in an educational and engaging manner, and I realize we could also end up with what equates to just a version of Rock Band that contains only Beatles tracks. Or, even worse, events could be incorporated in a completely inappropriate fashion (a arm wrestling Imelda Marcos mini-game? boss battle against Jesus?). But the way this project is being billed as a complete Beatles experience as opposed to a Beatles rhythm game gives me hope. Being able to physically experience the career of a musical group along with a narrative that can provide historical context is such an interesting prospect. Listening to a CD copy of Rubber Soul does not tell you why Rubber Soul was important. It can’t offer you an interactive exploration behind the motivations of it’s creators; it can’t show you photographs from Vietnam or give you a history lesson on Americanization. A video game can. Wrap your head around that one: a video game!

I’m constantly amazed by games that function as teaching tools. Not just what’s marketed as edutainment, but the actual big blockbusters people line up for. The majority of gamers who purchased Brothers In Arms: Hell’s Highway had probably never heard of Operation Market Garden before popping the disc into their console. That’s kind of spectacular, right? The historical grounding, not the part about the failings of modern educational systems. I know that I had no idea who Hammurabi was before playing Sid Meier’s Civilization. I think Call of Duty: Modern Warfare may have changed how I view international conflict forever just due to it’s incredibly accurate depiction of, uh… modern warfare. We are capable of absorbing any history lesson when it’s presented in a manner that’s easy to digest (i.e., engaging on an interactive level), and, indeed, most games that teach something are restricted to history lessons. So how about a game that takes that a step further, a game that covers artistic response to social and cultural conditions? That’s exactly what Rock Band: The Beatles can be if it’s creators choose to go down such a path.

If this actually works, I’ll wait with baited breath for editions featuring The Traveling Wilburys or The Plastic Ono Band. Hell, why stop there? Let’s have a Patti Smith game featuring spoken word performances accompanied by footage of Israeli air strikes, or a Jazz Band title that covers not only the history of prohibition but also some oft-ignored issues from that time period. A developer could release Prepared Piano Hero: John Cage Edition and wait for America’s youth to reach a higher level of consciousness while trying to figure out why they keep failing on 4’33″. The expert level note chart for that track would be insane.

Let me reiterate here: I am hopeful. This could be the start of a very good thing. Also, two guitars, a mic, and a drum kit aren’t enough for a Beatles rhythm game. It better come with a tiny plastic Mellotron MK-II controller. That would be so unbelievably bad ass.

Baggage Claim

I just flew from Phoenix to Philadelphia and boy, are my arms tired! That’s from gripping the seat in pure terror for almost five hours due to my overwhelming fear of aeroplanes. I can’t say that watching Baby Mama during the flight with nothing but white noise in the left audio channel made things any easier. However, I am still alive, which I guess lends credit to the whole idea. And trying to figure out the lift-to-drag ratio of the sixty ton object that was carrying me at 37,000 feet was quite humbling. Or something.

I now find myself living in a new state (where it’s goddamn cold) looking for work. My personal belongings are traveling separately, arriving sometime in early November, if at all. That leaves me with a whole lot of free time and nothing much to do. Thankfully I’ve brought along a nice stack of distractions, which I will now outline for the benefit of absolutely no one.

Final Fantasy III (DS) – I can honestly say that I do not enjoy this franchise, but I remember enjoying it at some point. I buy every iteration hoping it will be the entry that finally justifies my nostalgia. After all, I sunk many years of my youth into these sorts of games, and I even remember thinking that the stories being told had some form of merit. Oh, to be young again! This specific game isn’t all bad, as it eschews any sort of character development and focuses on relentless level grinding. So, really, if you’re looking for some monotonous task to keep your hands busy while watching daytime TV, you could do worse. Or you could learn to crochet. It’s practically the same thing, except when crocheting you end up with something that can keep you warm in the winter. New motto: “Power Leveled Characters Won’t Keep Grandma From Freezing To Death.”

Ace Attourney: Phoenix Wright (DS) – Despite owning every North American release in this series, I have yet to play a single one. I read somewhere that they were adventure games and I bought them all without reservation. I tend to excel when placed in scenarios where adventuring is a requirement. After all, not every man can save the earth from being overtaken by a phone company.

Planet Puzzle League (DS) – I absolutely adore this series. You may have previously experienced it as Tetris Attack, Panel de Pon, or Pokemon Puzzle League. There is something magical about all these games, even though they do little to improve on the basic match-three formula. There are blocks, you match them, then they go away. It’s kind of high concept.

Final Fantasy Tactics A2 (DS) – I can’t explain why I’m still playing this. I think I’m stuck in a ‘bad game loop’ — play for a bit, turn it off in frustration, then pick it up again the next day as if nothing had happened. I can’t escape it’s grasp. It’s also worth nothing that this is the same way I completed XIII (although having the ‘open’ button on my GameCube break may have helped that one).

Dialhex (GBA), Soundvoyager (GBA) – I have honestly considered getting BIT GENERATIONS 4 LIFE tattooed across my chest in gothic lettering. I am not joking: the idea has crossed my mind more than once, and I even made a mock-up in MS Paint. I will never share that image with anyone.

Drill Dozer (GBA) – I haven’t tried this one yet, but check out the cartridge…

That’s weird, right? I believe it has some sort of embedded rumble functionality. I suppose Nintendo wanted to sexualize the title even more. Having the avatar be a cute anime girl with a giant red phallus and a game title that could possibly be interpretted as “have sex with people who are asleep” just wasn’t enough. That shit has to vibrate, too.

All Dogs Go To Heaven (DVD) – Let’s, uh… move on.

Densetsu no Stafy 2 (GBA) – I have no idea what’s going on here. I think Kirby turned into a starfish and learned to swim. Even though I can’t understand a lick of Japanese, the platforming is reasonably well done and the few puzzles I’ve encountered so far are quite engaging.

Eternal Darkness (GC) -This one has been in the backlog for a while, and I’m hoping temporary unemployment can help me make a dent in it. I think it’s like a playable Robert Altman movie or something? I have no idea, I just know it comes highly recommended by the Gamestop employee who wanted my money.

Killer7 (GC) – Killer7 is a very important game that very few people talk about. I’ve been thinking about it recently and there’s a lot I want to address, but I need to refresh my memory on some smaller points. I firmly believe that everyone with a strong interest in gaming should try this title at some point… even if you hate it, your life will be richer. It’s heavy stuff.

Hopefully these items will keep me occupied until I either find a job or starve to death. And maybe they’ll end up being valuable barter goods in the event of a complete economic collapse. Or maybe I should just give up gaming and learn to crochet.

Obvious Exits

Nintari... man?

For the past week or so I’ve had my personal computer hooked up to my roommate’s 40″ HDTV in the living room. Mainly for the purpose of watching a few streaming movies comfortably from the couch together, but mostly because such an act is goddamn awesome. When you’re a massive geek the first order of business for something like this is re-experiencing all the stuff you encounter in your everyday life. For example, Facebook is no different on a big TV than on a tiny monitor (other than being barely legible), but for some reason it’s a thousand times cooler to view it that way. Same with YouTube or any thing else. And, of course, eventually I gave the shout of “I need to play some computer games on this thing!”

Then I realized that I don’t have any computer games.

PC gaming and I have a bit of a history. Alongside the NES, it was my first real platform. Sierra and Lucasarts adventure games were a staple of my childhood, something that I can probably blame my bizarre problem solving skills on (and I’m sure Leisure Suit Larry caused complications for some other developmental skills that I won’t mention). These games were interesting, unique worlds that I couldn’t experience anywhere else. They also ran off of floppy disks, so you just had to pop it in and type ‘a: run.exe’ and you’d be set.

Then things started changing. CD-ROMs slowly replaced disks and brought with them the dreaded mandatory install. As my family couldn’t afford to upgrade our poor old Tandy 1000, I began to get my gaming fix almost exclusively from consoles (which, when compared to computer components, were dirt cheap). At some point I studied in Doom II, the Seventh Guest and Myst, but the details of those encounters are blurred by memories of Mario and Sonic. I learned that there was a lot of interesting stuff I could do on a computer that wasn’t related to gaming, and it became easier to segregate the electronic devicesin my life. Besides, when available hard disk space is measured in megabytes deleting funny GIFs and fake bomb recipes to make room for a new game install just doesn’t seem worth it.

So then now: I can count my recent computer gaming experiences on one hand.

HalfLife 2, which I was pumped for, was the first PC game I had purchased in years. I was disappointed to learn that it required some ridiculous (and now commonplace) remote authorization. In order to play the single player game, I needed an internet connection… something that, in my college days, was an extravagant luxury. Some of my friends hauled their gaming rigs to the house of that one kid who had DSL… I just waited a few weeks and downloaded a crack from the school’s computer lab. I was a strange feeling to be using illegal means to enable the use of something I owned. I imagine many PC gamers feel this way in the present.

A couple years later, I was at Target buying towels or something when a certain title called to me from an endcap. ‘Star Wars: Empire At War.’ Oh, how sweet it sounds. The back of the box informed me that it was a real time strategy game, but it was also Star Wars. It had land battles and space battles. Controlling fleets of AT-ATs, arranging X-wings in various attack formations, even using the Death Star to wipe out entire planets… I had to have it. I bought it, went home, blew off all my plans for the night and locked myself in my bedroom, all the while concocting elaborate schemes to rule the galaxy with a doctrine of fear. After a lengthy install, I eagerly click the launcher on the desktop and… my computer powers down. I restart, and at the Windows loading screen it shuts off again. I repeat this activity many times. I can boot into safe mode, but that’s it. I uninstall Empire at War and it still won’t start. So I go out and get drunk, deathly afraid that all my schoolwork has been corrupted by an unnatural pursuit of leisure.

The next weekday I call LucasArts (er, Lucasfilm Games) tech support line to figure out what’s going on. They walk me through a bunch of different stuff and deduce that there’s a conflict between my sound-card drivers and the copy protection software that’s secretly running in the background at any given moment. Their solution? Uninstall my sound-card if I want to play the game. The sound-card I use to record audio and mix my music, the sound-card that otherwise enables me to create things. I think I just hung up the phone, amazed that this was considered a solution. That was the last time I purchased a boxed PC game.

Since then, I’ve had torrid love affairs with freeware titles such as Knytt Stories and in browser games like Peggle. I play a fair amount of interactive fiction, if only because each piece is an extension loaded by a single client of your choice (an interpreter). These are unintrusive entities that can coexist with the important functions of the computer. I can have an indie game minimized with the sound off, then play a few rounds while I’m waiting for an audio mixdown or a video render. Doing such a thing with a traditional PC game would likely result in a massive CPU fire.

People make a big stink about casual games, but I don’t think that label is appropriate. It’s more like transparent games. Games that don’t interfere. The reason games like Rocket Mania and Bejeweled took off isn’t because of some gameplay mechanic that reach a previously untapped market; they became successful because the games became accessible with minimal effort. That audience has always wanted to play games, they just didn’t have the means. They weren’t going to go out and buy a console and they didn’t want to dedicate hard drive space and system resources to the big boxed titles. These are the same people who played the shit out of Minesweeper in Windows 3.1 while on a conference call at work. Technology has advanced to a point where any developer can manufacture a good game in a short amount of time and find an audience. My father told me about Peggle long before the ‘hardcore’ crowd discovered it. As soon as one Minesweeper player found out that there were these web portals out there featuring games that don’t completely blow (and I firmly believe Minesweeper is a terrible, terrible game) it probably spread through the whole office like lightning. From there, the world!

Mainly, I think it’s interesting to see what computer gaming has become. I find myself more attracted to games such as 9:05 than any big-budget blockbuster. I’m sure I’m missing out on a few key experiences, but a large portion of those titles can be found on a home console, and the rest (in my opinion) aren’t worth the effort.

Wait, what was this entry supposed to be about again? Sorry, I get thrown off topic easily. Anyway… internet porn looks crazy on a 40″ TV.

Your Hat Is Stupid (Tactically Speaking)

Look at that stupid hat!

When I got a PSP a couple of months ago, one of the first titles I picked up was Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions. It’s a remake of the original Final Fantasy Tactics game for the Playstation, except with some rather pleasant motion graphics thrown in. I have really nice memories of playing that original game. At least I think I do. I seem to look back on everything I experienced in high school with an undue fondness, which is most likely a result of having since been crushed by the realities of adulthood. Considering my biggest concern back then was being able to touch boobs, it’s probably quite understandable.

Let me make this clear: Final Fantasy Tactics is not a game. It’s a couple of characters, some dialog, and a million goddamn nested menus. After replaying it for the first time in over ten years, I’ve realized that any notion of a ‘game’ is so deeply buried that it can’t possibly be enjoyable. I have no idea why I remember this as a good game. Maybe I was really into menus when I was a teenager. I did wait tables throughout high school.

If you’re not familiar with tactical role playing games, allow me to break them down a bit. The player controls an army of individual characters, each with their own abilities and statistics. Battles take place on a grid, where you maneuver a couple of your characters against some other characters/monsters/undying gods. Each character gets it’s own individual turn where it can move, attack, or use really helpful support abilities such as decreasing the charisma statistic of any applicable sub genus of a certain creature type by 0.012%. So you take turns, going back and forth for hours, until the victory conditions are met. And there are a lot of contextual menus.

If that doesn’t sound like much fun, perhaps I’m not explaining it right. Okay: maybe it’s more like a gridded board-game, such as checkers. Imagine a game of checkers. Got it? Good. Now imagine a game of checkers in which you can jump and claim an opposing piece only after situating all your pieces next to it for several hours. And there are a hundred different numbers associated with each checker piece that don’t really mean anything, and once you’re finally in a position to claim a piece you have to confirm what you want to do a dozen times, and then when you try to claim it someone comes in and punches you in the neck, upending the checker board and making you start the entire match over again. That’s a tactical role playing game.

So, yeah, I have some issues with the core elements that make up the genre. But I was trying to re-familiarize myself with it using a ten year old game. Things have advanced so much in the past ten years! Ten years ago we were rocking out to Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing,” watching VHS copies of Patch Adams and thinking that punch card voting would be the way of the future. Surely tactical RPGs have advanced in the same way, right? I threw out my copy of Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions and tried Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift. At least ridiculous naming schemes have seen some major breakthroughs in the past decade.

FFTA2:GOTR (or ‘Goater,’ as it shall be known) started out by having me just move dudes around a grid and kill some monsters. That’s promising! And, even though it took several dozen nested menu commands to kill a cockatrice with 50 hit points, the level up screen after the battle reminded me why I want to like these games so badly. It’s just like the terrible Japanese RPGs I loved as a kid, except focused on teams instead of individuals. I can beef up a group of black mages and have them all tag teaming some monster who’s weak against ice while having a couple archers taking care of any melee opponents. That’s a wonderful prospect that is, unfortunately, buried under the tedium of dated game mechanics.

Although Final Fantasy Tactics A2 starts off strong, it falls into the same trappings. Laws, auction houses, territory control, looting, privileges, a bazaar… what the fuck? Advance Wars never made me put up with this shit to get to the fun stuff. These new elements don’t provide depth, they’re just more layers that the player has to wade through in order to get to the ultimate goal of killing stuff and leveling up. And, really, when your title spends twenty minutes explaining a gambling mini-game that barely relates to the core gameplay but yet neglects to tell the player how to restore magic points, you probably have some fundamental design issues.

An Aside: seriously, how do I restore MP in this game? My characters don’t seem to recover it after battle like HP, and the only item I have with such a function is Ether (which I can’t seem to buy in shops). Is there some sort of super secret code I have to input in order to unlock a series of menus that may, at some point, allow the possibility of unlocking more menus that will let me restore some frickin’ magic points?

If you can’t tell, I’m a bit angry about this whole thing. Partially because I really want to like these games and because the core idea is interesting to me… and partially because Square-Enix is, once again, profiting off of my misery. If you weren’t aware, Final Fantasy Tactics A2 (as well as most games published by Square-Enix) costs five dollars more than the average DS title. Why? I have no idea. Because nostalgic losers will pay it, I guess.

There is an idea of a Chibi-Robo, some kind of abstraction…

Oh, Chibi!

This past week I completed Chibi-Robo: Park Patrol. I’m not sure how you can really finish a game that’s centers around the endless fight against pollution, but I managed to do it.

Funny thing: this was actually a good game. The core mechanics were great. You play as a robot dude who runs around this barren park. You use your squirt gun to water buds, which turn into flowers, which give off more buds. When a bud turns into a flower, you get “happy points,” which are turned into watts. You can use watts to either recharge Chibi-Robo or take small actions to improve the park, like tilling the soil… which would allow you to plant more flowers. It’s an endless cycle. And all the while these smog monsters are killing your flowers and trying to get up in your face. It may not sound like much, but if you’re the type of person who loves that sort of reward system (where the next goal is always so close) it might as well be a socially acceptable form of crack (I can use it on the bus!).

I blew through Chibi-Robo: Park Patrol in, like, two weeks. For me, that’s crazy. Who knew that gardening simulations could be so addictive? Oh no… do you think this is what Viva Piñata is like? I’ve resisted it’s call for so long… maybe the time has come. But I have so much I still want to do in life! I have goals, dreams. Am I ready to trade that all for a future that consists of nothing but tweaking foliage to attract anthropomorphic Mexican oddities?

Side Note: I actually really like the Viva Piñata cartoon that’s on Saturday mornings. This could be because I am a goddamn child. Seriously, the fact that I even have an opinion about a Saturday morning cartoon should tell you a lot about my personality. I watch cartoons, play video games, drink beer, look at boobs on the internet and… um, write lots of papers analyzing the role of Gesamtkunstwerk in contemporary media. Basically, everything my eight-year-old self fantasized about doing when he grew up.

There are some failings to Chibi-Robo, though. Mainly because it’s a bit too wishy-washy for the subject matter. There should have been some sort of clarification as to where energy comes from for the sake of our younglings. Like, how it’s actually comes from large power plants that are often causing the pollution Chibi-Robo does battle against. I imagine that may have come up in the planning stages and the developers opted to go for something a little less hopeless. And call it “happy points.” It also may have been important to illustrate that pollution isn’t a cute creature that frolics in your vegetable garden, let alone a tangible thing you can conquer with a squirt gun. Our children are sheltered enough without this sort of candy veneer being thrown over something they should be worried about. But, then again, when I was a kid I thought that the manhole in front of my house was a gateway to a magical world of talking turtles with extraordinary martial arts abilities, so who am I to judge?

Just once I’d like to see a game that taught children about failure, or at least the Sisyphean struggle associated with certain ideals. It would have been great if Chibi-Robo had woken up every morning, gone out to his park to find it a mess, then spent the day cleaning it up only to have to do it all over again the next day. Then again, I’m not sure if that would have been a good game. Something like September 12th, which is sublime in the way it handles it’s subject matter, lacks that aspect of fun that most people expect from a game.

Now that I’m thinking about it: have you ever heard of Wall Street Kid? It was surprisingly good (for a NES-era life simulator). You play as a certain Mr. Benedict, the biggest WASP to ever be portrayed in an 8-bit game. The premise is that Mr. Benedict’s uncle has died and left him with a nice chunk of inheritance, but under one condition: the player has a short period of time to take some minor seed money and become a success playing the stock market. You spend most of your time staring at a screen like this:

YBM!

Yapple Computers for $74 a share? Dude, buy that shit! Trust me, just hold on to it until Steve Yobs comes back on as CEO. Also, grab up some Yoogle as soon as the IPO hits… it’s never going to come down!

The entire game is spent trading stocks, trying to build your assets, then blowing them on unnecessary objects in the trappings of typical American excess… which is, sadly, the gameplay mechanic that hooks me on these titles. All the while you have to balance this greed with courting ladies, going to the gym, and trying to score reservations at Dorsia.

The nice part about Wall Street Kid is that, unlike Chibi-Robo’s battle against pollution, this situation is practically impossible to win. Not because the gameplay itself is difficult, but because it’s accurately modeled after the ridiculous standards of success the modern world has come to accept.

  • Acquire a house worth at least a million dollars.
  • Purchase a massive yacht.
  • Get married.
  • Keep your wife happy with meaningless but expensive gifts.
  • Buy a ridiculously pricey ancient castle that was owned by your Aryan ancestors.

Just like real life! And, just like real life, it’s completely impossible (at least without abusing the password system). Seriously, I remember sinking a fair number of hours into this title and never even coming close to winning. My friends were mostly confused by the whole concept and never wanted to try it, so maybe I just suck at stock market simulators. I did have to take economics twice in high school, and even then I only passed because I was stuck with the remedial group due to a scheduling error. Those kids thought I was the coolest.

Too bad for you, baldy!

When you fail at one of the game’s ridiculous goals (like coming up with a million dollars for your house payment by March 1st), that’s it. Your character loses everything and you’re forced to restart (or reenter your last password). There are no continues and no extra lives. It’s refreshing to see a game not sugarcoat things and just tell them like they are in real life. It’s not like some fairy tale where the government grabs seven-hundred-billion dollars from the average taxpayer because Mr. Bigwig on Wall Street has to make payments on his frickin’ castle. It doesn’t work that way in the real world, and I applaud Wall Street Kid for not having any such ludicrous deus ex machina.

GET IT!?

You’ve got to think about what it’s teaching the children, after all.

A Friend’s A Friend Who Knows What Being A Tank Is

I have to be honest with you: I don’t have a lot of friends. Specifically, friends who play video games. Mainly because my interest in games stands in great contrast to that of the average gent. Most people want to chat about that sweet headshot they scored in Halo 2 last weekend; I want to discuss optimal starting positions for Super Bomberman 3 (I firmly believe the upper-right quadrant is superior due to some weak spots in the block placement algorithm). While I can argue for hours about whether video games should be one word or two (it’s two and you can shove that style manual up your ass), most gamers just want to, I don’t know… shoot stuff. In which case I suppose I should commend them for filling that void with gaming instead of heroin, but I still crave some sort of more rewarding interaction. Luckily for me, others out there feel the same way. Others with computer science degrees, lots of free time and the desire to cash in on the MySpace craze several years too late.

Hey... are those... boob?

My Game Mug appears to serve no other purpose than hooking up lonely, unsatisfied gamers such as myself with one another for late night multiplayer matches (and potentially sex in the long run, although I think that’s implied by most social networking sites). Could there be someone out there that shares my love of pretentious rantings on the nature of games as a medium? I couldn’t resist. My future pals were just forty questions and a mandatory registration away!

Question number one: Do You Love Video Games: only as a friend? Well, they kept it as two words, so this is off to a good start. I guess I really never thought about this question before. I mean, I enjoy playing games… but the current state of the industry leaves a lot to be desired. I feel that video games as a whole right now are full of wasted potential. I may love Super Mario World, but I don’t love Madden 2009 or any of the other shovelware that’s dumped out by major publishers on a weekly basis. So I’m going to have to answer no to this question. Except, um, “no” isn’t an option; they had to be cheeky with the whole thing. Maybe that’s what 18-25 year old males are looking for in a social gaming site.

Question number two: What game are you playing right now or your favorite game? I really think that should be two separate questions, or at the very least proper english. I mean, I’m playing Chibi Robo Park Patrol right now, but there’s no way it’s my favorite game. Similarly, some of my favorite games I don’t want to play anymore just because the memories are so strong. Do film buffs who loved Schindler’s List pop the VHS screener in every few months? I guess I should just list off a couple games I adore and some I’ve been playing lately: Super Metroid, Worms, Persona 3 and the tutorial for the Facebreaker demo.

The next two questions are pretty straightforward, about my penis and which consoles I own. As always, I’m saddened by the fact that the Game Boy Advance is no longer considered a major platform. Maybe there’s a question about that later on.

Question Number Five: Do you regularly trash talk when you play? Of course. Who doesn’t? Unless I’m playing strangers online, in which case I keep anything potentially hurtful out of the game because I’m not exactly familiar with their mental history. I always thought that was common sense before I started using Xbox Live. So, no, I guess I don’t trash talk in what the adopted sense is.

Question Number Six: Do you care if others trash talk? This might as well be “Do you like playing with racist homophobes?” No thanks.

Question Number Seven: Doctors recommend short breaks between gaming sessions. Do you follow this rule of thumb? Yes. But I call them cigarette breaks and booze runs.

Question Number Eight: Would you or have you ever gone to a video game convention or competition? I think this question wants to know if you’re afraid of other people finding out that you like video games. PAX is supposed to be fun, and I’m planning on going to Philadelphia’s VG Expo in Novmber. So, yeah, I don’t care if the outside world sees me dressed up in a homemade Ganondorf costume (the beard used to be a Raggedy Ann!).

Question Number Nine: Your “significant other” calls you during a VERY important gaming session. Do you pick up the phone, or ignore it? I’m not really sure why “significant other” has to be in quotes. I’m also not sure how important any gaming session can be unless there’s some sort of tele-surgical equipment out there that keeps track of your high score. Really, do you want to be the douchebag who missed the call about your wife needing an immediate blood transfusion because you were totally just five minutes from a save point? Because there are people out there like that. They always cosplay as Sephiroth.

Question Number Ten: Do games always get your adrenaline pumping hard??? It should be noted that the “yes” option has three exclamation points to match the enthusiasm of the original question. I can’t say that any game outside of Wii Fit has gotten my adrenaline pumping at all, let alone hard. That’s normally reserved for, you know… doing stuff. Like going outside. Or having sex. Oh God, do you think there’s going to be a question about that?

Question Number Eleven: Do you watch anime or read manga? Um, I don’t know, I guess so. I don’t actively avoid anime or manga. I also tend to think of them more as “television/films” or “books” without getting hung up on stylistic choices. I suppose this question is trying to figure out if I’m an obsessive wannabe otaku whose biggest dream in life is to visit a maid cafe in Akihabara. In which case… maybe.

Question Number Twelve: Which is sexier: highly addictive gameplay or very realistic graphics? Well, I don’t really desire any of my vices to be labeled as highly addictive, but I’ll gladly take it over a pair of weightless boobs trapped in the uncanny valley. Not to mention that — wait, sexier? Seriously? Wow.

Question Number Thirteen: Have you recently engaged in a debate or argument about video games? Yes, but the argument was “what happens to all the Virtual Console games when we break up?” Maybe they’re trying to see if I’m the type of person who will threaten rape and dismemberment if another speaks ill of my favorite console. I tend to get in spirited debates about game design decisions and the validity of many titles, but I can’t say I’ve ever gotten angry while discussing a video game. Oh wait, I forgot about the red ring of death. Fuck Microsoft and any pansy ass who supports them.

Question Number Fourteen: Can the average of any two consecutive prime numbers ever be prime? Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. Although there is an option for “who cares?”, I don’t think I want to play video games with anyone who does not know the answer to this. In fact, I’m going to ask any gaming friends I meet through this service why just so I know they didn’t Google it while taking the initial survey.

Question Number Fifteen: Would you date someone that you’ve only met in an online game? Call me old fashioned, but… what? I’m pretty sure that’s an awkward misunderstanding, not dating.

Question Number Sixteen: At the end of the day, do cheaters ever win? I suppose I should start thinking of these questions purely as they relate to video games instead of treating them as grand philosophical debates. So, no, cheaters don’t win, they either get banned or their exploit gets patched.

Question Number Seventeen: If you suck at an online game and an opportunity to cheat presents itself. Would you take it? Only if the cheat had really hilarious results, like all the weapons turn into giant salamis and the in-game music is replaced with Yakkity Sax.

Question Number Eighteen: You have an impulse to try to find every secret and accomplish every goal in every game. This is where the site stops being nice and starts being real. This isn’t a true or false question, it flat out just told me that I’m a completionist. It is calculating my gamer personality, so I suppose it should just trust it… which kind of sucks because I don’t have to free time to shoot two hundred pigeons right now.

Question Number Nineteen: Your mission presents a large critical objective to accomplish. Do you set a plan or jump right in? I guess a lot of games have missions now, enough so that there’s no need to explain what the hell this question is about. I set a plan? Only after jumping right in and seeing what’s going on. Maybe I don’t play the type of games this is addressing. My mission normally consists of nothing more than “beat the bad guy” or “move right until you win.”

All women dress like that, FYI.

At this point, I’m presented with a hard truth: the site is, in fact, not meant to get gamers laid. Disappointing or comforting, I’m not sure. The graphic is kind of frightening, though.

Question Number Twenty: Tell the truth. In your opinion, in most video games you play online, your skill is above average, average, or below average? How the hell am I supposed to know? If I had friends to play online with I wouldn’t need to use this stupid site! I’ll say “below average,” because my Bejeweled score doesn’t even come close to making the top ten.

Question Number Twenty-One: How long have you been playing video games? The fact that the choices top out at “more than 13 years” makes me feel very, very old. I choose “less than 5 years” because I don’t want to be lumped in with the people who are searching for a partner for their retirement community’s upcoming Wii Sports tourney.

Question Number Twenty-Two: When forming a team from a pool of players, do you choose the best players or players that play well together? As we all learned from the MLB All Star Team, just sticking the best players together on a team leads to absolute apathy. I’ll choose whatever is on PBS instead.

Question Number Twenty-Three: Drama occurs between you and another player. Who’s to blame? The failings of mankind.

Question Number Twenty-Four: Which profession is more appealing: soldier or medic? Is this, like… in a video game? I’d probably choose the medic because you can learn valuable life skills that’ll be useful in finding a career once you’re discharged. Also, why would I want to kill when I could heal? Especially in a never-ending war like the one in Iraq, or the one presented in your average multiplayer FPS. Seriously, I’d love for a company to shut down their servers one day and give all players a message saying “ARMISTICE HAS BEEN REACHED!”

Question Number Twenty-Five: All your gaming friends start playing a game you despise. Do you join them, play something else or find new friends? I assume this refers to some sort of online gathering, as the latter two options would be pretty harsh in real life. But if they’re playing a game I despise online, how would I join them? I would need a copy of the game in question, and if I despised it so much why would I own it? Clearly the only correct answer here is “stop taking this survery.”

Um, half of these things aren\'t even... things.

Question Number Twenty-Six: How often do you play video games? (read carefully) Too much, just enough, or not enough? Oh snap, they almost pulled a trick question on me! Only not really, but I’m guessing that’s what the “read carefully” alert is supposed to indicate. “Just enough,” because I’m an adult who knows how to regulate my leisure activities, thanks.

Question Number Twenty-Seven: When you buy a game, an average realistic time frame in finishing it would be closest to: 1 day, 1 week, 1 month, 1 year or never? If there are really people out there who buy a current generation game and manage to complete it in a day, I doubt they’d be actively trying to find friends using a networking site. I’d put myself at closer to “never,” because this survey is starting to make me hate video games.

Question Number Twenty-Eight: When do you usually play games: morning, afternoon, night, late night, weekdays and/or weekends? I’ve always thought I was strange for mostly gaming on weekday nights while leaving weekends for doing real life stuff, but now I’ll be able to find the person who has the other half of this gaming schedule pendant!

Question Number Twenty-Nine: Do you care about the age of those you play with? Hmm… tricky. On one hand I don’t like to discriminate, on the other I wouldn’t want to go to jail. I’ll play it safe and answer “yes.”

Question Number Thirty: Do you play video games more for the challenge (ie. to win) or for the experience (ie. entertainment)? I wish “the potential for artistic expression” was an option. I’ll have to go with “the experience.” If I was just playing for the satisfaction of winning I’d probably pick something with absolutely no challenge like Barbie’s Horse Adventures or any Square-Enix RPG.

Asinine Humor:  Do Want

Oh, Question Number Thirty-One changes things up a bit! And, really, I’m having a hard time believing this site’s purpose is anything other than finding love for lonely geeks. I mean… highly skilled, commanding and a nerd? That’s the woman and/or man of my dreams.

Question Number Thirty-Two: Can a video game character’s sexual attraction convince you to buy that game? I was wondering when they were going to cover this. It’s important in explaining why Death by Degrees made it past the planning stages and somehow into my game collection.

Question Number Thirty-Three: You are God for one day. Your goal: wreck havoc upon the world or provide salvation to all? Wow. Um, I know what my answer would be, but I’m actually kind of curious as to how the majority of people would answer this. If more than ten percent chose the first I’d probably just stop playing games all together and go join the Peace Corps or something.

Question Number Thirty-Four: Your fellow gamers needs your participation NOW. You have a report due tomorrow morning. Do you do the report or help your leader, then stay up all night to do the report? A report on what? Time traveling back to the fifth grade when reports were assigned to me on a regular basis?

Question Number Thirty-Five: When you discover a bug in a game: report it or exploit it? I actually caught all those golden bugs in Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. True story. And I had a pretty good collection going on in Animal Crossing for a while. I’ll just skip this question.

Question Number Thirty-Six: Next to your toilet: kama sutra or player’s guide/cheats? Who the hell would practice the Kama Sutra in the bathroom? I’ll go with a player’s guide, because it won’t make me slip and crack my head open on the tub.

Question Number Thirty-Seven: What do you think of professional gaming: devoted fan, fun to watch or don’t care? Really? There are fans of professional gaming? I thought the entire world was in agreement that it’s probably the worst thing that could happen to gaming. This survey is making me feel sad.

Question Number Thirty-Eight: A popular game is launched and there are limited copies being sold for the first week: camp overnight or pick it up later when available? I don’t know. I camped out for the Wii, but that was more about the idea of communally camping out for something exciting, not the console itself (although I do enjoy it quite a bit). I got up an hour early to buy Super Smash Bros Brawl on release day, so I guess that bumps me into the hopelessly nerdy group no matter what.

Question Number Thirty-Nine: Assume you are a video game master. Finish the sentence: I am… 1337 pwnage, or very skilled with video games. Okay, first off, there’s no such thing as a video game master. That’s some shit Todd Holland made up to sell copies of Super Mario Bros 3. And while I can occasionally overlook leet speak, there’s absolutely no excuse for the travesty presented by this question. 1337 pwnage? That doesn’t even make sense. If that’s how a video game master talks, I never want to touch a video game again.

Question Number Forty: Um, I guess there are actually only thirty-nine questions. I’m a bit unsure as to how my answer for the prime number question will be ranked, considering the site can’t even count to forty without getting confused.

And now, the moment of truth. My gaming personality is…

That hand is kind of creepy.  I normally situate my controller in my lap.

Wait, my gaming personality? I thought I was answering these questions to find someone to play games with. Instead the whole thing was a LiveJournal “What Bread Are You?” type of quiz. Apparently I’m the type that can give disembodied handjobs through a controller.  I dug around for a bit and managed to find the “personality matches” section on the MyGameMug website. But every profile I click on looks like this:

Synthesizer Patel is cooler anyway.

Awesome. I wasted, like, twelve minutes filling out this damn quiz. And then I wasted another three hours writing a stupid blog post about it. This is what happens when you’re hopeful! I’m guess I’m going to stick to meeting gamers the old fashion way: getting them drunk at college parties, then talking them into playing NBA Jam back at my place.

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, One Year Later

The Following Article Contains Spoilers for Metroid Prime 3: Corruption

OMG, so badass

This may not be the most objective play summary, as I am a die hard Super Metroid fan. It is, without a doubt, the game that has had the biggest impact on me and I consider it one of my favorite titles. Most of why I adore Super Metroid is the amount of time I spent with the original Metroid title. I played it so much as a child that every element is permanently embedded within me; at a moments notice I can provide you with any password or weapon location you desire. And I mean that in an absolute literal sense. That shit is in my brain for good and it’s not coming out.

Super Metroid is not a remake of the original game, it’s a new title that happens to take place in the same environment. This, to me, is absolutely thrilling. Bounty hunter Samus Aran revisits a planet she’s conquered in the past, armed with new abilities, ready to fully re-explore . After spending so long memorizing passages and drawing my own maps in the first title, Super Metroid comes along and says “there are secrets here you could never imagine!” I mean… there was a missile expansion right under Mother Brain’s tank that whole time? That’s mind blowing! That’s like finding a frickin’ hidden block in World 1-1 of Super Mario Bros twenty years after you’ve mastered it. It was there but you never knew to look.

I am speaking, of course, in the sense of the game’s world. The hidden secrets of Super Metroid do not actually exist in the original Metroid. That’s because they’re the secrets of Super Metroid alone, imagined for the purpose of making a well explored environment fresh again. For you fancy college boys, this is probably the best example of ostranenie, or defamiliarization, that you’ll see in a self-contained game world. Approaching this game as a veteran Metroid player will only heighten the feelings of alienation, as everything familiar in the environment has been repurposed with different intentions.

The actual story for the Metoid series — as in the thing printed at the beginning of the manual, the motivation that’s supposed to propel you through the game — is the chink in Samus’ armor. There’s a Galactic Federation, some Space Pirates, a giant brain in a jar and everyone takes their moon vitamins using a cosmic calendar. It’s uninspired science fiction at best. Can’t win them all, I suppose.

The Louise Michel of Gaming

I didn’t pick up Metroid Prime 3: Corruption during it’s initial release because I wanted to finish the prior two titles first. I gave up that goal rather quickly due to numerous occurences of endgame bullshit (seriously… twelve artifacts?). I grabbed Corruption a few months after launch for twenty five dollars at Gamestop. I was originally going to hang onto it for a bit, but after a weekend spent replaying Metroid Fusion I suddenly got the fever and had to try it.

I’ll say this: Corruption, like all previous Metroid games, totally nails the atmosphere. The introductory audio and motion graphics conjure a sense of alienation and dread. Very nice presentation. The game begins with some sort of… incident? I’m not sure, something about a shadow version of Samus breaking out of a space egg. Like I said, I never finished the other Metroid Prime titles. After that, the player is docking a space ship on a much bigger space ship, then doing the various warmup exercises that are expected from the first hour of a single-player adventure.

It could be possible that I enjoyed this game more than previous entries just because it’s a Wii title. I’m not a fan of first person shooters due to their reliance on twitch reflexes, but I felt very comfortable using a Wiimote to aim and strafing with the nunchuka. Maybe it’s just a carryover from my PC gaming past, but it felt wonderful to explore this world without being confined to two analog sticks… to the point where I wondered “why doesn’t every console have IR pointing built in?”

I kept on, taking extended breaks. Sometimes I’d play for six hours on a Saturday, then not touch it for six weeks. It’s remarkably easy to get back into due to the objective briefings that pop up every time the player loads a saved game. More games really need to have such a feature (I’m lookin’ at you, RPGs). Nothing is more infuriating than having to spend hours trying to figure what’s going on in a game after a lengthy hiatus.

The game only began to get frustrating when I neared completion. There were a few energy tanks or ship missile expansions (do those even do anything?) that I wasn’t sure where to find. Trying to track them down was getting tedious, something the game was fully prepared for. While exploring the sky world I inadvertently launched a bunch of surveillance satellites, which returned… the locations of the missing pickups I was seeking! Smart move, game. Open world experiences such as Grand Theft Auto or Crackdown would really benefit from a similar system; maybe when the player has collected 90% of the hidden packages or glowing orbs the game could offer a bump in the right direction. Nothing pisses me off more than having to follow a map I got off of GameFAQs that was drawn by some eight year old just to find one last piece of loot. Maybe I should blame my completionist nature more than the game developers.

<B>Sidenote</B>: is the term <I>completionist</I> exclusive to gaming? Because I hear it used constantly even though the word itself seems to defy the rules of the english language. Maybe it’s some sort of psychological label? There was a period of time in the 80s when psychotherapy buzzwords outnumbered the citizens of Earth, despite the fact that most of them were nonsensical Luntzspeak. Seriously, “co-dependant self-actualization?” That’s, like, twelve different things in four words. As an aside, please consult this guide to being a gamer completionist from the always hilarious eHow if you seek further information.

hay guys

That defamiliarization effect I mentioned above for Super Metroid… that partially carries over to Metroid Prime 3. Except whereas Super Metroid utilized the environment of Metroid, Metroid Prime 3 borrows the central conflict. I have to admit that I was more than a few hours into the game when I realized that the “organic processing unit” the characters were constantly referring to was indeed the primary antagonist from my beloved Super Metroid. It’s refreshing that the writers made an effort to fit in all the uninspired story elements from the earlier games. Mother Brain, a giant brain in a jar, is explained away as something called an Aurora Unit, basically a giant networked CPU for each planet in the Galactic Federation. Rather than just existing as a mandatory narration, all this stuff is told through ‘lore‘ that the player can access if they throughly explore the various areas.

It was approximately five months ago that our systems detected a meteor-like
object collide with a planet in a nearby galaxy. The impact was followed by
a spreading corruption, identical to the one we saw devour our creators’
planet. More so than ever, we were determined to aid the Aurora and discover
the source of these objects. Months passed before we could uncover its
origin–it had come through a wormhole from an incredibly distant planet. We
studied this link between the tear in space and the location it was connected
to. As we delved deeper it became clear to us that this was the mysterious
planet the Chozo Searcher had been seeking. The living planet was
aggressively attacking other worlds, hurtling parts of itself across the
cosmos like missiles. We had finally discovered the source of these corrupted
meteors.

It was about one month ago that we made our revelation, but all attempts at
transmitting the critical data to the Federation were unsuccessful. It
appeared that the Aurora Unit had become disabled. We tried desperately to
restore the Aurora, but it had been corrupted by an unknown virus. Our only
means of communication with the Federation were severed.

That, to me, is interesting. Maybe only because it takes the elements of Metroid I adored as a geeky child and turns it into something that’s modestly engaging to a geeky adult.

It took me almost six months, but I did finish the game. To sum things up: the mechanics work well, the story is effective and everything about it is consistently engaging. Even with my Metroid fanboyism removed, I enjoyed it and still reflect on it as a positive experience a full year later.

The Failings of Braid

Coming from a fine arts background, I feel like the one thing I’m actually capable of discussing thoroughly (or at least intelligently) is the visual arts. And the fine ones at that. See, back in college I was routinely brutalized by my colleagues through these things we called critiques. You may be familiar with the idea. Basically, someone presents their work, everyone tears it apart, and then it’s reworked in time for the next critique. This process is repeated until the presentation is considered flawless or the idea is exhausted (usually the latter). The whole thing is somewhat similar to a typical review process, with the obvious difference being that reviews are considered a final judgment. The point of a critique is to properly inform the artist where their work needs improvement… because, let’s be honest, no one is perfect.

I often think about how the critique process for, say, a painter or a filmmaker differs from that of a game designer. The concept of iterative design is not really comparable because it most often relies on input from those who have been working on the title since it’s conception. Games can be play-tested thoroughly or have open betas, but that’s to dig out technical issues. There doesn’t seem to be any external critique process for games aside from focus groups, and those are there to ensure the game will profit, not to test a title’s emotional resonance or thematic effectiveness. Do the ‘hands-on previews’ that we find on blogs and in magazines really play a part is shaping the overall game? Doubtful. Most of that stuff is just to drum up publicity and anticipation; I’d be very surprised if developers ever read those things. Besides, the majority of previews equate to little more than “this looks awesome.”

I’d like to critique games myself, but I’m not even sure if I know how. By the time I play a game, it’s done. It’ll never be reworked aside from a stray patch or shortsighted Special Edition (oh, and expansions, if you’re into that sort of gaming). Is there room for such a dialog when dealing with works that have been declared finished by their creators?

All that being said, I’d like to present some impressions from the video game Braid. Not neccesarily a critque, just some impressions.

Middle America, Rejoice

The marketing focus with this title seems to be its atmosphere and unified art direction (which is, indeed, the only bit of information I knew about it for quite some time). This visual design is, as my girlfriend remarked, like being trapped in a Thomas Kinkade painting. Everything is so garishly super-saturated that it becomes impossible to focus on specific elements. The adjective ‘painterly’ is interpreted here as a mess of brush-strokes, unable to convey any proper composition and instead trying to leave an mark of classical technique if for no other reason than to affect an uneducated player. The background and character designs seem inspired by the staples of Impressionism but seem to ignore the techniques that defined the movement; light sources are undefined, edges are hard, and there is an abundance of black in place of the expected complementary contrast.

Maybe this art style is what draws people in. Thomas Kinkade, after all, makes millions hocking his paintings to the every-man. I bought the game because it received mountains of praise from just about every review outlet there is. But what does it actually consist of, aside from a rather distracting painted motif? Let’s take to the streets and find out!

What is Braid? One may as well ask what life is. It is art, it is love, it is
pain, it is a journey. It is itself. I don’t mean to sound pretentious. It’s
just impossible to define this game as one thing. This is mainly because I may
get something different out of it than you will.

Actually, Braid is a platforming puzzle game for the Xbox 360. Was that so hard? And what I got out of it was an overwhelming sense of frustration. Both due to the mechanics and because the game is such a missed opportunity.

The main problem is that Braid falls into the same curse had by many of the adventure games from my youth. You’re given a puzzle and, instead of solving it logically, you solve it by using an FAQ. Who honestly thinks “I should try combining the clothesline, the clamp, and the rubber duck with a hole in it” when trying to grab a key from a subway track? Ugh. Braid contains many of these moments, where you’re trying to figure out what the hell the developer had in mind when he designed the level. It’s not a simple matter of considering your skillset and figuring out how to approach the problem at hand as with most games. For example

First, grab the key and jump over the pit. Climb the next ladder you come to,
and continue to a lever. Pull the lever, and drop down to a square block. A
time-immune enemy is moving around down here. Kill him, and watch for his
replacement to come flying out of the cannon up above. What you need to do is
get him to land on the platform, then run left so that the platform moves back
to its original position with the enemy on it. Once he is up there, keep
running left, to the ladder. Climb it quickly, and if you’re moving fast
enough, you will be to the left of the enemy as he walks towards you.

At some point along the line, he will have picked up the key. Don’t worry, we
wanted that to happen. One he has moved to the left of ladder that leads to
the door and the puzzle piece, bounce on him and grab the key. Be careful to
bounce on him with enough momentum to grab the key and move right so that it
remains in your grasp. If it teleports down to the ground, you’ll have to try
again.

Now that you have the key, climb the ladder, open the door, and grab the piece.

Does that even count as a puzzle? When I finally figure out some of these situations, I don’t feel like I’m solving anything. It’s as if I’m merely stumbling across the solution.

This is even worse than the average adventure game because everything is solved through platforming. Instructing a character to “use CARDKEY with RUBBER CHIKEN” is a lot different than split-second precision pouncing off of enemies in order to springboard to the puzzle piece you need. That sort of platforming only works when the game controls well. And Braid is, most definitely, a puzzle game with platforming mechanics tacked on. The player character is sluggish, collision detection is poor, and response time is inconsistent. I do not enjoy the primary input methods, the ones that enable me to interact with the environment.

And the story, the thing that normally drives you to complete the game? That’s hidden behind the puzzles. You can run from left to right, ignoring the collectible items, completing the game in about an hour. All narrative is told through optional text at the beginning of every ‘world,’ and that text is sparse. I’ve heard (and I haven’t come close to getting all the loot, so I can’t verify) that more story is revealed once all the collectibles are found. But what is the point of going back and finding all these puzzle pieces if the nuts-and-bolts of the game are not enjoyable and the story is almost non-existent at this point?

The thing that really bothers me is the developer’s stance on all this. There’s a walkthrough posted on the Braid website that’s nothing more than a rant against walkthroughs.

All the puzzles in Braid are reasonable. They don’t require you to do anything random; they don’t require guessing. They don’t require trial and error. The solutions tend to be simple and natural.

When I solve some of the puzzles, I don’t feel rewarded. I feel like I wasted a lot of time trying to figure out what mindset the developer wanted me to be in. There is a lot of trial and error, and things aren’t always simple and natural. To have the developer go out of his way to tell me that I’m wrong for feeling this way… that just reminds me of the arrogant art school freshman who refused to listen to critiques of his work lest they label it as anything other than perfect.

Is this okay? Am I allowed to have this opinion? Talking about video games is much different than talking about art. Part of me thinks I should hide it away and not tell anyone until the hype eventually dies down. But I don’t criticize it because I hate the game, I criticize it because I want it to be better.

Zoo Review: PixelJunk Eden

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.

I have no idea what\'s going on here.

PixelJunk Eden has made one thing quite obvious: I love to jump.

When my little brother and I first got a PS1 (almost thirteen years ago now) we only had one game and some demo disc that I think came with the system. The game, Battle Arena Toshinden, was terrible… but we played the shit out of that demo disc, if only for one reason: Jumping Flash. Damn, that title was solid. Or at least the demo was, we never bothered with the full game (something like a milk-for-free scenario). The player controlled some sort of rabbit thing that leaps around a 3D environment. The entire game is from a first person perspective, with the camera pivoting downward in mid-air to allow for precise landings. Various ledges and platforms were littered throughout the environment and provided the incentive to explore, while trying to use double- and triple-jumps to collect power-ups and chain jumps off of enemies provided the difficulty. The entire thing had this draw–how high can I get?–which, I’ll admit, may have had a lot to do with the time limit on the demo. The game has recently surfaced on the Playstation Network as a downloadable title, but I don’t think it’d be worth trading my fond memories for an objective viewpoint.

I guess it’s not that I love to jump as much as I love to climb. It’s a combination of my passion for unguided exploration, something like Metroid, and the tight platforming of a game like Super Mario Bros. Combine the two and you get… er, Super Metroid or Super Mario World. But also things like Crackdown and PixelJunk Eden.

Pixeljunk Eden is somewhere between Jumping Flash and Bionic Commando (another game I spent quite a bit of time with in my youth). I’m not sure how to describe it in a narrative sense. Something about ‘Spectras’ lost in gardens that this spider-fairy called a ‘Grimp’ has to locate. It’s got the typical bullshit filler story that I’ve come to expect from timeless games. Basically… there are things to find, they are somewhere in these environments, and the player has to jump and swing around until they’re uncovered.

You can see his pixeljunk!

Add in three player local co-op and I’m in love.

If my description doesn’t make you want to run out (er, run in) and buy it, that’s because it isn’t the type of experience that caters to summary. The only thing I knew about it before downloading the demo was that it was pretty. It utilizes the graphical organic flourishes which have become so passé recently (check your local Target’s t-shirt designs for more info) but they still impress when in motion. I imagine a game being pretty may often be someone’s only criteria for purchasing it (how else can you justify all those Final Fantasy games?), but most people need a little more than that. So: it’s addictive, it’s fun, it controls wonderfully, and it’s an all around enlightening experience. It’s also quite pretty. Beyond that… I don’t know. It’s a complete package.

That’s not to say that it’s a perfect title. It’s not for everyone. If you hate games that require skill, concentration and determination then you should not download this. The co-op play can get very difficult if you absolutely suck at the game. If the first few challenges prove too difficult for you, you will not enjoy the full game. The complete package is not easy, but that’s kind of what I like about it.

Mostly, this seems to be what happens when you get an artist together with a competent dev team.

The mechanics are rock solid and the aesthetic is binding and cohesive without getting in the way of the game itself.. It feels very similar to those Bit Generation titles I love so, so much.

Final Score

Alone in the Dark and Recapitulatory Moments

Let me tell you something, scornful readers: I am excited by the prospect of a new Alone in the Dark game. But to explain why, we have to go back to the beginning… way, way back to twenty minutes ago when I read this article on the game.

Jigga watts?

You see, the last game I finished was Resident Evil 4, about six months ago. I mean “finished” in the sense that the story was brought to a conclusion. The thing is that the game came out in 2005. The only reason I actually completed it was because the gameplay was so fucking fantastic (and the controls on the Wii edition so easy to readjust to) that it was quite easy to jump back in to after a long hiatus. The fact that the story was practically non-existent also helped; the only plot point I really needed to remember when playing the game was “shoot zombies.” Most games I’ll play for a while, get distracted by real life, and then struggle with finding an entry point.

Final Fantasy XII was disastrous in this regard. I loved the pseudo-real time battle system and the interesting license board, but the time commitment was something I just could not deal with. After putting the game down for a few weeks, I’d return to it and be completely lost. Most of the time I’d be in the middle of a side quest or puzzle and just have no idea what I was supposed to do. Following an FAQ/walkthrough wouldn’t help, mainly because those types of things written by people who do nothing other than immerse themselves in the world of a single title and commit every detail to memory.

Blah Blah Fap Fap

How am I supposed to make sense of that when I haven’t touched the game in a month? Even if I skipped the side quests and just tried to further the story I’d still be lost, thanks to Final Fantasy’s trademark convoluted narratives. This one’s even worse because it’s about politics. I guess the average fanboy is all grown up now and wants to argue on the internet about what really matters… military conflicts in the fictional land of Ivalice. And, uh, crystals and magical swords. Or something.

I think that Lost: Via Domus handles this problem quite well. Whenever you load a save game it presents a “Previously on Lost” montage of everything that happened up to that point. That’d be great if there was any reason to actually play the game. As it stands now the only engaging elements are the bizarre character animations and the lovely voice acting supplied by what must be Alberta’s best community theater.

WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALT!

I could go on, but I’ll save that for another day. I’m sure I can wring several posts out of how terrible it is.

The new Alone in the Dark title includes a similar catch-up feature but takes it several steps further. The game is divided into episodes, and each episode into chapters. When you initially start the game, all of this will be available for you to shuffle through. Want to fight the last boss immediately, then play through the rest of the game? Go for it! This is pure genius. If I’m stuck on some sort of, uh, wooden chair physics puzzle or whatever, I can just skip that chapter and go on to the next one. Maybe being presented with a story summary when I fire up the game for the first time in months may not be enough. But I can rewind to the last clearly presented goal or fast-forward to the next event that catches my eye. Why can’t more games do this? I’m going to buy it just because the developers have the balls to try something different.

More importantly, I’ll buy it because there’s a strong chance that I’ll actually finish the game. I miss the sense of closure I get from watching one-dimensional characters rescue anatomically improbable females after conquering an ambiguous, underdeveloped evil. Why is it that I can read Nabakov in a day but this shit takes months to come to a climax? And you wonder why people think video games are inherently inferior to other mediums! But back on topic: I wouldn’t be inclined to buy Alone in the Dark 2: Alonercaust if I hadn’t finished the first game. By being able to skip through and just see the story sections in Alone in the Dark, you can pretty much guarantee that I’m going to buy the sequel. If the gameplay isn’t terribly flawed and frustrating, that is.

Which, surprisingly, it doesn’t look to be.

What we’ve got here is a classic sense of immersive mechanics. I marveled at the way Goldeneye on the N64 presented the pause menu as James Bonds’ crazy ass watch, but in order for the watch GUI to fill the screen (given that it’s a first person perspective) James Bond would have to be mashing it against his eyeball. In a simple FPS this is excusable, but for a survival horror game nothing takes you out of the zone like spending twenty minutes fiddling around the inventory screen while that thing that’s about to dismember you remains frozen in time. So here’s Alone in the Dark’s inventory screen…

What are ya sellin\'?

It’s like Orcs and Elves, only you don’t have to play Orcs and Elves to get it. If it doesn’t fit in your coat, you’re not going to hang on to it. And, more importantly, if you spend too long admiring the player character’s abs you can bet that you’ll end up gored. This stands in stark contrast to the rather polite monsters in Resident Evil 4, which wait patiently as Leon recovers the best weapon for the task at hand from his attache case. Which brings me to another great feature: first aid spray.

It doesn\'t actually sting because it\'s a video game.

When you select the first aid spray, you’ll be shown specific injuries that need to be treated. It’s no longer an instant cure-all. That’s pretty badass. The idea of modern games presenting these hyper-realistic physics and AI but having your character be healed by walking over a medpack or an apple has always seemed somewhat odd. Whether or not having inventory and injury systems like this will make Alone in the Dark more fun or just tedious in it’s realism remains to be seen, but I’m excited to try it nonetheless.

I thought I loved you, Leon Kennedy. But this new boy… what’s his name again? Barnaby McCarnby? He’s saying all the right things to me. He may not have the cool gloves and jacket, but I like his swagger. When he’s close to death he doesn’t just walk a little slower. This kid bleeds, Leon. Remember blood? You bled in a cut scene once. And there was a comical fountain when that chainsaw dude decapitated you after that poorly timed reload. But it wasn’t enough for me. If you’re going to strive for realism, I need you to go all the way. I need–

*Completely* hairless?

Okay, forget it; this is just weird. Alone in the Dark still looks awesome, though.

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