Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Happy New Year: Gaming Forecast!

Phew.  Been away from the blog longer than I meant...  Not only was Your Critic traveling for the holidays, but she came back with a bug and spent a couple of days incoherent in bed with a fever.

Let's not do that again in 2011.

Instead, let's play new games in 2011!  Here's a handful of titles I'm really looking forward to next year, in no particular order.

This was a triumph: Is there anyone out there who's not excited about Portal 2?  The first one was a brilliant little package, matching skillful writing with solid design, and reached so many players that over 3 years after its release, the cake memes and Jonathan Coulton song are still staples of the fast-moving gamer culture.

I'm also excited that it comes specifically with co-op multiplayer.  That's something harder to come by than it should be.





Nathan Drake: Okay, so thanks to GameFly this year I've discovered that I love the Uncharted games.  Sure, the first one had so much racefail that even Yahtzee commented on it, and I'm not going to say that they are highbrow, serious things, but... damn, Nathan Drake is fun.  It's just fun.  You're playing a modern version of Indiana Jones, what's not to love?  And at least the female characters hold up better than I expected.  (Admittedly, I went into the first two games with extremely low expectations.)

The action setpieces in Uncharted 2 are exhilarating in the way of the best action movies, and keep pushing you along actively even when you do what the movies can't: die and respawn.  So I'm eagerly looking forward to Uncharted 3 hitting our home late next year.  Graphics are far down the line in importance for me (writing, gameplay, and design all come first) but it sure doesn't hurt that this is going to be a gorgeous, gorgeous game.




Murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle: The film student in me is drooling over everything that's come out about LA Noire.  The art and trailers remind me as much of Heavy Rain as of anything else, but this is Rockstar, the studio of GTA fame, putting out a modern heir to the tradition of the mystery adventure game, set in gorgeous art-deco Los Angeles.  I'm fascinated by the art, by the tech, by the advances in the medium of gaming -- and by the game itself, for its story, 'cause I love me some noir films.

My only complaint here so far is that it doesn't look like it's getting a PC port, and that's really how I'd rather play it.




And now for something completely different: Everything else here is a sequel to something I've played.  I never played the first two Deus Ex games, but after the trailer for Deus Ex: Human Revolution hit, I went and bought them on Steam, and I'm catching up! 

It's worth noting here that I don't usually play Square Enix titles and I haven't played an Eidos game in a long time, and that the first-person shooter isn't my preferred genre-of-choice.  But the entire aesthetic of this Blade Runner-meets-Snow Crash world is just too good for me to pass up. Plus, I can play this one on PC. ;)




Oldies and goodies: I love the genre of adventure games.  My all-time favorite is still The Secret of Monkey Island and most of the games I've enjoyed best in the last decade still have some connection to mostly-dead (slightly-alive) tradition of point-and-click adventure games.

So imagine my surprise when "a game with no shooting, just clicking and problem-solving" is a surprising new thing.  The game is Prominence, and I'm looking forward to it for standing out by being old-fashioned (and looking new).




And of course, there are loads of others.  I already pre-ordered Mass Effect 3 for my husband as part of his Christmas present this year.  And I'm guessing I'll get some New Vegas DLC, because that's how these things go.  But the thing about being sick on the couch is that mainly right now?  I'm playing old games on my DS, haha.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Success in the Real World


I don't know what I think of this article.  But I do have a story I can tell!

In January of 2008, I was living very, very far uptown in New York City, near the Dyckman St. 1 train stop.  It was a vicious, bitterly cold month and you could feel the wind off the Hudson up there.

I came home from work, changed into shorts and a T-shirt, and hopped onto my roommate's elliptical.  She wasn't home, and didn't mind me using it.  I did my 30 minutes of self-torture and then, in my workout clothes and sock feet (smelly sneakers blissedly off), I started to work on some chores.  I grabbed the bathroom trash and leaned out into the hall to drop it down the chute.

The door closed fatefully behind me.  As it turned out, my roommate had flipped the switch on the side of the door that made it lock automatically.  Never before in the 8 months that I lived there had she done this.  She had done this on the way to the airport, and would not be returning for six days.  And so there I stood, in the hall, in January, in socks, a t-shirt, and a pair of shorts.  My keys, phone, and wallet were all inside the apartment.

Now what?

I knocked on some doors and found that no-one who lived on my floor spoke any of the same languages I did.  (It's a heavily Latino neighborhood, and although I can get by well in French and at least ask for help in Mandarin, Spanish isn't my thing.)

Over the course of the following 90 minutes, I sprinted up and down 6 flights of stairs (I lived on 5, and the Super's apartment was in the basement) more times than I could count.  I hit up the lobby, I hit up neighbors, I did everything I could think of.  Eventually two women my age came into the lobby, I begged one to let me use her cell phone, and she said, "Actually, the battery is dead, but come with us" and brought me to their place and gave me hot tea and dug up the emergency landlord number and let me use their land line, and eventually we found the Super (who hadn't been in his apartment, and whose unpleasant wife spoke only Russian or possibly Ukranian) and I got back into my apartment.

It was quite an Ordeal, but after I got back in to my own bedroom I realized something: I had approached this challenge exactly the way I approach an adventure game.  I assumed there was a solution and that I just had to work harder to find it; I reviewed my entire wardrobe and my entire inventory; I thought about how to use objects together in the world; I started talking to every person I could find until I'd exhausted my speech options; I repeatedly checked every available location to see if anything had changed.

When my mom told me to get off the damn computer already in 1994, I made a (I thought) persuasive case for why playing Myst and The Secret of Monkey Island was improving my problem-solving skills.  14 years later, I was shocked to learn that I had been right!

There are lots of skills that we pick up from gaming.  I realize these days I think of the GPS, mirror, and dash lights in my car as a kind of HUD containing vital stats.  I always look up when I'm in a room and want to ascertain if I'm the only one there.  And apparently, I learned how to keep a cool head when it's six degrees out and I'm in my gym shorts.  Who knew?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Where's this train going, again?

In this space, I've once before questioned how serious, genuinely educational gaming could be tackled.

So far, the answer seems to be: not online, not with jazzy graphics, and not with a digital piece at all, but with serious, thoughtful hands-on games.  Art pieces, as it were.

The Daily Beast has a profile of Brenda Brathwaite and her Holocaust game:

Train ... is not a videogame. It unfolds atop a shattered window. Three model train tracks run diagonally across the broken glass. Game pieces include two stacks of cards, a black typewriter holding the rules, 60 yellow wooden pawns, and six gray model boxcars.
Each turn, players can roll a die and choose to advance their boxcar or load it with pawns; alternatively, they can use a card to speed or slow a boxcar’s progress. Brathwaite’s goal, she says, was to make a game about complicity, and so the rules drop the player not in the shoes of a Holocaust victim but a train conductor who helped make the Nazi system run.
 Brathwaite describes what brought her to create Train and the other five historical, moral pieces in the art series.  She needed a way to make history accessible to her daughter, and used simple tools -- dice, pawns, and an index card -- to make the Middle Passage come to life.  Her ultimate point is a great insight:

“I wanted to do a design exercise to see if you could use game mechanics to express difficult subjects,” Braithwaite says. “Every single atrocity, every single migration of people—there was a system behind it. If you can find that system, you can make a game about it. All games are, is systems.”

We've got this problem with "serious games" because, in part, of the words we've got to work with in English.  "Game," by default, means to us something unserious -- "What is this, some kind of game to you?"  We've created a whole image, a whole term, and a number of industries around the concept that game = entertainment.  Football, Call of Duty, Monopoly -- we don't expect a level of seriousness and depth in anything we call a game, and to do so seems only to diminish the gravity of the topic.

But Brathwaite is right: history's worst days, and mankind's darkest hours, have all been surrounded by systems, either ones put in place deliberately or cultural ones that grew over time.  The better we can understand a game as a system of rules, that participants then use to manipulate slices of reality, and the less we consider game as "pointless pastime," the better a tool gaming will be.

Monday, December 13, 2010

All gaming for all gamers

Brought to you by Jeff Green (of PopCap), this rant about the VGAs is amazing in every way.  My favorite bits:

The videogame community--those who make them, those who play them--encompasses a much larger, broader base than the Spike TV dudebro douchebag contingent. Really, saying the "videogame community" at this point is all but archaic, anyway. Because it seems that, with FaceBook and Angry Birds and Kinect and every other industry-broadening milestone, everyone is playing games now. There are people who love games, who care about games from all walks of life, both male and female. So when you aim your show at the station's primary demographic, rather than those who love gaming in general, you are alienating and insulting all the rest of us who would like to participate in and enjoy the event too.

Fortunately, the gaming industry has other awards shows, like the Game Developers Choice Awards and http://www.bafta.org/awards/video-games/, that actually know how to salute the industry without relying entirely on Olivia Munn's boobs and marketing-department-produced TV commercials to do so. But it would be great if, in the coming year, the folks behind the Spike VGAs could look into their hearts, look around at the vast, multigenerational, multicultural, gaming landscape and come up with a show that truly celebrates all of gaming for all gamers, that treats videogames not as things to be laughed at or apologized for, but as the incredibly complex and sophisticated pieces of entertainment they are. Way more sophisticated, at the very least, than the sophomoric, tacky spectacle that you put on to "honor" us.

I just want to stand up and applaud, really.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Second Skin

In the "it's a small world" vein...

There's a documentary out there on MMO gaming called Second Skin

As it so happens, one of the producers, the Peter Brauer being interviewed here, is a guy I went to high school with.  Facebook brought us back in touch and revealed this common interest.

One of the things Peter said in the interview actually really resonated with me:

As for personal reactions, we have encountered just about every response.  Gamers have approached us to thank us for portraying them so honestly.  Other gamers have railed against us for showing too much addictive play.  Parents of gamers have thanked me profusely for helping them understand their children.  The diversity of responses to our film is one of the things I am proudest of.

This is kind of what happens any time any serious discussion about gaming shows up: some people shout "just a hobby," others shout, "waste of time," then you start hearing "addiction" and "violence" and "art" and it gets really messy.

But it's consistently amazing to me how deep and how visceral the opinions go.  How does this one choice of hobby end up creating a whole world of people and "other?"  Parents have been complaining about their kids' taste in music and fashion since the invention of recording and of clothes, respectively, but this "I don't live in their world" thing is such a disconnect...

Just more various musing about the nature of "the gamer."

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

All together, now...

There are two major trends happening in connectivity, it seems.  One is for reducing the actual "multiplayer" part of the MMO.  There are a lot of very single-player online worlds out there right now; the amount of solo linearity in a number of MMOs chased up with systems that actually reduce the number of humans needed to play (as in Star Trek Online's ability to populate your away team with AI individuals) is starting to add up into a confusing trend.

Confusing, but not necessarily of concern.  Unlike EA essentially saying that all games should and will be online multiplayer games.

Obviously, I'm big on single-player gaming.  The tags over there on the right alone show that I've put more time into Bioshock and the Fallout games this year than is probably healthy, in addition to the pile of DS and adventure games I've gone through (and obsessed over).  I do not particularly think that the introduction of other people into my favorite titles would improve the experience.  Actually, a commenter at Kotaku summed it up beautifully:

This just in: Random House are changing their focus to books you can only read while some idiot reads over your shoulder, whilst swearing, pointing out obvious plot developments and occasionally teabagging the user.

Their spokesperson was quoted as saying "Communal interaction is where the innovation, and action, is at."

Rumours abound the firm are also researching the development of a proprietary e-reader device that will only function whilst connected to a headset, through which a thirteen year-old American will continually, aggressively question your sexuality.

Realistically, I don't think single-player narrative gaming is ever completely going away.  But the introduction of massive online, networked gaming has created a definite casualty.  I've started to write before about the home co-op multiplayer experience recently.  I have noticed that I am hardly the only gamer lamenting the lack of decent single-sofa co-op titles these days.  There are many that are appropriate for younger children, and many that are appropriate for groups or parties, but very few that suit a pair of people who don't want to compete with each other directly (as in the case of married gamer couples, for starters).  And I've also mentioned my personal views on competitive games.

But after we finished the Uncharted games, the wave of Christmas sales and deals came upon us, and we ended up with a copy of the LittleBigPlanet Game of the Year edition for about $16.  Now this is true co-op gaming!

I don't think either of us have the patience and dedication right now to go about creating levels, but between the ones in the game and the sheer number available from the community, it's got plenty to entertain us.  It's accessible and non-competitive.  And it's cute.

In fact, all of the co-op multiplayer offline games I've played in many years have been "cute."  There's the Lego franchise -- Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, take your pick -- and there's LittleBigPlanet, and there's... well, I don't know.  In time (Valve Time) there will be an element of Portal 2, but that's online and involves multiple Steam accounts.

So I guess my non-competitive self will keep handing off the controller with my husband and other gaming partners for quite some time to come, every time I get tired of cute and kid-friendly titles.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

When the Going Gets Tough...

...the tough get confused and go do something else for a while.

I've officially put about 68 hours into Fallout: New Vegas, by my Steam account, but about 55 hours into the game according to my saves, because I've done a bit of backtracking and reloading.  Some of that's been due to bugs -- a quest not proceeding as it should (I still can't make the one at the Camp McCarran tower work properly) -- but a lot of it's been down to me being indecisive.

From what I can tell, there are a total of four different quest arcs you can choose from, to reach the end of the game and complete the story.  I know I have no interest in helping the Legion, ultimately, but otherwise I'm still undecided about what the best or worst outcome for New Vegas may be.

And on the one hand I like that the game isn't as clear-cut as Fallout 3 was (Brotherhood good; Enclave bad), and I enjoy that there are a number of different major and minor factions at play.  But on the other hand, I have this burning need to follow all possible roads as far as I can.  I think, for the three or four end-game series that have stages 1 - 7, I can get up to about #3 or #4 on all of them before I have to pick one path and stick with it.  So that's what I'm going to do.  But I can tell it's going to get very tricky...

(In the meantime, folks who like me include the NCR, the Brotherhood, the Strip, the Followers, and a number of towns around the Mojave Wasteland; folks who really can't stand me are mainly just the Legion but I have a safe passage token for them.  The other baddies are not pleased with me but only one of them is kill-on-sight (and not the ones who Vilify me, oddly) so I've been free to explore the map.  Only 8 locations left uncovered!)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Tricksy Memories...

My husband and I were on the road traveling through the South to see his side of the family over Thanksgiving.  We left early Thursday morning and drove back late the following Tuesday.

Since before I started this blog, people have been telling me, "You really need to play The Longest Journey."  And since I started this blog, people have been telling me, "You write about female characters, and gender issues in gaming?  You really need to play The Longest Journey."

It's possibly my husband's all-time favorite game (well, maybe second to the Journeyman Project titles) so it was an obvious set-up for something we could play together: him introducing me to a cherished favorite.  I knew I had played the very, very beginning introductory sequence before (with the egg) but I thought that was it -- I didn't remember playing anything farther.

So while we were on the road with the laptop, we finally had the chance to sit down with the game and start playing.  And right at the beginning of Chapter One, when April wakes up in her room, I suddenly started remembering things.

I remembered playing a game -- something about a time-card, and a cafĂ©, and a cheerful British lesbian to talk to, and a park with some metal bridges.  And I most definitely remembered taking a rattling, littered subway.  And the words, "Hey, did you ever play a game that had something about a time-card, and a subway?" were on my lips when Husband had April pick up a book, and take her time-card out of it.

"OH HOLY CRAP, I PLAYED THIS GAME!"

The good news is, I still didn't get very far the first time, before the copy I had got stolen.  (And it was my ex-boyfriend's copy, that he was lending me, and I'm still very sorry it got stolen but at least thanks to GOG.com it's not out of print and irreplaceable anymore!)  And we've gotten farther now, and I think I'm better-placed now to appreciate the game than I was five years ago.

It's wordy and dialogue-heavy (which tends to be more his thing than mine, despite me being the avid-reader half of this couple) but unlike many games, the dialogue is great, and plausible.  And I look forward to meeting more of these characters.  For now, we've left April wandering around the market and the docks by the temple, talking to people.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

December Open Thread

Y'all want to talk, and you want to talk games and systems and related things.  I get it.  Chatter away. :)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Unpopular Opinions

I know I have a contrarian streak, but I never go in to a game thinking on purpose, "I plan to hate this because everyone else likes it."  Indeed, I like a number of obscenely popular games (Bioshock, Portal, and the Fallout titles among them).

But then a day comes when everyone is writing about World of Warcraft.

Yeah, people.  You go and enjoy that, I guess.  I'll be over here with games that didn't piss me off in every possible dimension.  Seriously: I disliked the art, the camera motion, the controls, the UI, and the community.  That right there is a pretty big set of turn-offs.  I'll never be sitting around saying that just because I don't like something, it must suck -- but it sure sucked for me.

In fact, other than a smattering of Diablo II back in the day, I don't think I've ever particularly enjoyed a Blizzard title.  Blasphemy, right?  It gets worse.

I've written before about me and party-based games.  So also in the Annals of Unpopular Opinions, I didn't enjoy Dragon Age, and really I'm not that big on playing sci-fi environments either, so the Mass Effect titles didn't do it for me.  And while I'm going all Andy Rooney and crapping on everyone's parade, I'll mention that exactly two -- 2 -- Japanese RPGs in all of gaming history have really appealed to me, and both were titles I was able to play on the DS: The World Ends With You and the re-release of Chrono Trigger.  I have yet to be able to make it through more than an hour or two of any other JRPG, including each and every Final Fantasy game.  I was unable to avoid observing FF13 being played in our home (only one living room, after all, and it doubles as my office / PC gaming location), and I was also unable to avoid mocking it.  Constantly.  That thing is beyond ridiculous.

While I'm ranting, I may as well point out that due to time / money / parental restrictions back in the day, I never played a Metroid or Mega Man title.  And that I suck at racing games and loathe PvP titles.

*phew*

This has been Your Critic's adventure as a Cantankerous Old Coot.  On deck after the holidays: thoughts about the Uncharted series, thoughts on the Syberia series, and an episode in which I realize partway through The Longest Journey that *this* is the game I remember playing but was unable to identify.  Happy Thanksgiving y'all. :)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What I Can't Let Go...

So we all have our faults, right?  Sure.  Right.

If there is a set of something in a game, I must complete it.  I'm kind of weird about symmetry and completion.  So if there's a seven-piece armor set and I stumble across two pieces, I must go find the other five.  Even if this armor set is not one I'm going to wear because it's not as good as my other one.

I'm not a player who must get every single trophy in the game, or every achievement, and I'm certainly not a min/max "best of anything" type of player.  But if there's a numbered, completed set to be had -- or worse, a map to be uncovered! -- then I'll be out there getting every part until it's complete.

The worst system out there for encouraging this problematic trait?  The Nintendo DS.

First there was Animal Crossing.  I didn't really see the point and I wouldn't have bought it for myself, but I was working for GameStop at the time and loads of customers came in for it.  And I was dating a guy who liked to buy two of every game, especially games with a multiplayer component, so that we could both do it.  So I ended up with a copy of the game.

And I made my little town, and I wandered my little red-haired bobblehead around it, and I caught some fish and bugs and dug up some shells.  And I discovered the museum.  A building in the middle of my town that was designed to hold exactly one of everything the town had to offer.

And that's how I was found in bed at my parents' house on Christmas Eve, with my DS on under the covers, at 2:45 a.m., gleefully becoming the owner of a coelacanth.  While in my mid-20s.

Eventually, I let Animal Crossing go.  I think there are still two or three bugs missing from my collection and perhaps a fish or two, but my house is full of pests and my town long since full of weeds growing as if in ruins.  But I still commute to work, and for a shocking percentage of 2008, I commuted with The World Ends With You.

How shocking a percentage?  212 hours and counting.

But, see, there are 304 pins to be had in the game.  And first I realized I'd blundered into 100 of them.  And then I realized I'd blundered into almost 150 of them.  And, well, right now I have 296...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Still Wandering the Wasteland

There is a brief list of reasons why I should probably not have been allowed to buy Fallout: New Vegas.
  1. I am a completeist.  I can leave no quest undone!
  2. See #1.  Even if two quests are diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive (if A is "Go kill B" and B is "Go kill A"), I will probably try my hardest to complete both before I give up and pick one.
  3. I am an explorer.  I can leave no corner of the map uncovered!
  4. I am an adult with a full-time job and a partner.
I am between 45 and 50 hours into the game, somewhere around level 24.  I have recruited all 8 possible companions, completed 20 achievements and a pile of Challenges, and am still only maybe 50% through with what I want to achieve in this game.  I am still playing my first character through and other people have already rolled their evil toon and completed *that* game.  
At this rate it'll be 2012 before I get to play anything else and by then I'll be in Bioshock Infinite.  Which at least will probably go straight start to finish like the first two and leave me off my own just-one-more-location, just-one-more-quest hook.

I'm impressed with a lot of elements of New Vegas, though.  The whole cycle of drugs, prostitution, and gambling in New Vegas is handled with more personality and nuance than I've come to expect from gaming.  RedJenny once asked me what was different playing a female Wanderer in Fallout 3, and of course I had no idea because I've never played a male one.  The same is true so far of New Vegas but given all of the options, and the Perks and such, I suspect it's actually the exact same game for both a male and a female Courier -- including who's available for seduction and so on.

If I ever finish the game I'll write more about it.  And until I do finish it, I'm not going to get to play much else.  Except Uncharted 2, which we started yesterday and I enjoy yelling at. ;)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Marketing Fail

Oh, XBox.  These days I'm kind of glad I don't have one of you: Get your girlfriend into games!

Directly from the source on XBox Live Marketplace:

Get Your Girlfriend Into Games! is a set of minigames designed specifically to engage any woman in video games entertainment. Best played in couples in versus mode. Suitable for children too!

Yes, XBox.  The best way for a male player to coerce his female partner into using the XBox is (1) to cajole with (2) products at a child's level of comprehension and (3) be competitive with it.  Bonus: terrible product, terrible graphics, and offensive cover art.


Look.  There are a lot of women out there who don't game.  There are a lot of reasons for that.  Some women just aren't interested -- they have other hobbies (just like some men!).  Some women were raised to understand that this was NOT a thing for girls.  And some women are turned off by so much of the designing and marketing being aimed specifically at a very certain type of half-imaginary white 18-24 male.

The best thing I can say about this story is that the commenters on Kotaku think it's pandering, ridiculous, and stupid.  And they're right.  I'm deeply sick of every single "Get your girlfriend to play games!" or "get your wife to let you play games!" article and item out there, because all of them ignore one really big, huge, relevant, salient fact: that girlfriend or wife?  Is a thinking human being.  And deserves to be treated like one.

Also?  No-one is going get more into gaming by being exposed to a terrible product.  If you would rather go dig a hole in an asphalt road using only the rear half a lobster than play that game?  Your girlfriend's not going to like it either.  Good games make gamers.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Black Ops Marketing

An interesting item appeared at Jezebel yesterday: Call of Duty Acknowledges Existence of Female Gamers.  The piece basically boils down to its closing sentence:
Even if women are still second-class citizens in the world of video games, hopefully this commercial is a sign that marketers are starting to realize female gamers make up a large and diverse group. And sometimes we enjoy a good explosion, even if it isn't pink.
Personally, I'm mixed on the ad itself -- I'm really not a fan of that genre of game and on a personal level I'm inclined to side with the whines and rants about the level of violence and plausibility in that commercial.  But just because I really don't care to play a Call of Duty game doesn't mean I can't be impressed by the first ever non-Nintendo game-related ad I've seen to feature that much diversity in race, age, gender, and body type.

I hear actual CoD players are more or less fans of the ad.  I wonder if that translates into them not being total jackasses to female players on headsets in online multiplayer?  Someone with an XBox, report! ;)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Threaded Comments!

I've just installed Disqus comments on a trial basis.  I know the format has its problems, but I desperately needed a threaded commenting system (where replies can actually be to a comment rather than to just the original post) and I know that about 85% of this site's visitors and readers already have a Disqus account.  So let's see how this goes...

(Huh.  It appears that installing the widget has rendered all previous comments invisible.  Ah, well.  They were still awesome and so are you.)

(Aha!  I made previous comments visible again.  Woohoo!  Threaded conversations for all!)

(My next trick will be to get the [X] Comments / Comment link visible on the blog front page but in the meantime, click the title of any blog post to get to the page where you can comment.)

Girls don't suck at consoles; *I* suck at consoles.

So, my husband and I play games together.  It's a good way to be a gamer.  At any given time, we'll each have a "me" game (or two, sometimes a handheld as well as a PC / console title) and a running "us" game that we play together.

Our most recent "us" game was Syberia, which I'd played before but never to the end, and we've started on Syberia II.  (And I'll be writing about the character arc of Kate Walker soon, after I see where it finishes.)  But in-between, the gods of GameFly sent us Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, and as I am unable to resist an Indiana-Jones-style adventure, it went from "his" game to "our" game right quick.  And by "our" game, I mean, "he played it, and I made fun of everything and also occasionally spotted snipers for him."

See, here's the thing.  Most modern offline games (particularly in the genres we enjoy) are not multiplayer in any sense (and if they do have a multiplayer mode, it's online and large).  So a dedicated gaming team finds creative ways to share the play.  With the God of War titles, our co-op strategy has me roaming through corridors killin' stuff and pullin' levers to see what happens, and has him doing boss fights and timed events.  Why do we land on this particular division of labor?

(This is not why we land on this division of labor.)

My major failing as a console gamer is that I was not, in fact, a console-using gamer until late 2008.  I'm a PC gamer.  My parents couldn't and then wouldn't buy me an NES when I was a kid, so I didn't even beat Super Mario Brothers until I was 13 and bought a used one from a friend for $25 worth of my babysitting money.  But we had a computer in the house since 1985, and from mazes to math games to Tetris, I was hooked.  I methodically played through the adventure games of the 1990s and loved them, then started downloading text adventures through AOL and seeing what that had all been about.

So, the good news is that after the first year of us having a PS3 in the house, I managed to get the hang of both walking AND running using analog sticks.  Later came jumping, when the two of us methodically played our way through the entire Metal Gear Solid series, with him on the controller and me providing the Mystery Science Theater 3000-style commentary.  In MGS2, he repeatedly kept (unintentionally) throwing Raiden into a chasm, and smartass me took the controller and cleared the jump on my first try.  Sure, we were robbed of the joy of throwing Raiden into a chasm, but I had just had my first successful PlayStation controller experience.

And then somehow, later, we ended up playing God of War (all of them).  So how did my husband end up responsible for all the QuickTime events?

Well.  Here's our living room TV:


Nice TV.  Husband was going through the special features of Uncharted at the time.  But wait -- what's that right above the TV?


This is the open-book monument to my shame.  Because in my head, the square is on top, and the circle is god-knows-where, and by the time I've figured it out, the event is over, the boss has eaten me, and I have to start all over again with that damn sea serpent.

So.  We each play to our strengths!  I can solve puzzles, I can mash buttons, he can tolerate endless dialogue, and he... knows which button x is.

I swear, I'll get there someday.

Maybe.

Or maybe I'll just be using WASD to get through my next game.  Yeah, that sounds like a better plan.

------------------------------------------------
And finally: between the time I started this post and finally remembered to take the SD card out of my camera and finish it, a pair of Gamasutra articles have come to my attention.  Playing games with your significant other and its part two are an interesting look at partners' gaming.  And I also enjoyed this post at Spectacle Rock, from earlier this year, lamenting the lack of good couples' co-op titles.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Stories We Tell

One of the most fascinating things about gaming, to me, is that all gaming is narrative.  Even Tetris, or Pong.  Why? 

Because players are always, always creating stories around their actions.  We are creatures of pattern, creatures seeking for reason, and for us even the most non-narrative game has a beginning, a middle, and an end we can tell.

Even in games with explicit stories, the stories we tell aren't necessarily the ones that are written for us, which is the really fun part.  In Fallout: New Vegas, for example, there's a clear story arc.  It's a game with a potent, well-defined setting and very clearly-written quests.  But I've been finding that the most potent moments are the ones I generate, not the ones the game does.

My favorite F:NV story so far?  There I was, level 3, on the road trying to get to the next nearest town.  I had a 9mm and a weathered 10mm and not much ammo for either.  And every time I tried to go anywhere, I'd be surrounded by a mob of big, fatal, deadly radscorpions.  Finally, in desperation, I clambered up a sloped rock.  And very suddenly, realized a few things:
  1. I can climb this rock
  2. They can't climb up this rock
  3. They are all gathered together in one clump now, and
  4. I have dynamite.
That was a great moment for me, because I, the player and I, the character had come up with a solution to a problem that wasn't explicitly carved out by the game.  It's a better Fallout story than, "oh, yeah, I did exactly the same quest that everyone else did in Goodsprings."

The other really strong moment for me, so far (about 12 hours into the game, level 8-ish; I tend to explore the whole map and do every side quest before wrapping up the main arc) was in a town where a man, a sniper, is seeking vengeance on the person responsible for his wife's death, and asks you to help.  You help by bringing someone in front of his sniper nest, and he does the rest.

Where that quest really got me was in the power given to the player character: as soon as you've accepted the quest, "Come with me to [sniper nest]" is a dialogue option for every single person in town.  The game doesn't force you to make a right or wrong choice, or indeed any choice at all.  The game leaves it completely up to the player to decide what kind of person her character is.

(For me, I was shocked at the thought of doing such a thing, and in fact even had trouble bringing the right person in... at least, until I found all the evidence. *shudder*)

So, yeah.  Playing Fallout: New Vegas in that way that addicts with a shiny new toy do.  And I don't at all mind that it's more of a Fallout 3: 2 than a Fallout 4, 'cause I really liked Fallout 3 and the real sequel will come soon enough!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Quick Admin Note...

Posting will be light in October; the day job, business travel, and personal travel will be taking up an astonishing amount of Your Critic's time until the last week of the month.  So if you see me being slow, I haven't abandoned the joint.  And I'll be starting Fallout: New Vegas as soon as I get back from all these trips. ;)

Thursday, September 30, 2010

No Women in Gaming (Pt... etc.)

A few folks shared this one on Twitter, and it really does sum up something that a very large percentage of female gamers have seen happen at least once.  (Click image to embiggen; original source.)


Sometimes, it's a no-win situation.  Please note, I'm not saying always.  It's very different in competitive gaming (anything with a PvP element) than in broader gaming discussions.  But oh lordy, does this ever happen.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Not-so-weekly Playlist

Quick post-mortems on the games I've been playing lately:

1.) Puzzle Quest 2 (DS): Either they made this game way too easy, or I am the best Puzzle Quest player ever to be born.  And I don't flatter myself to think it's the latter.  I set the game to "hard" and on my first storyline playthrough, didn't lose a single fight.  Not a one.  Admittedly, this may be because I picked Barbarian, and because I knew how best to combo some spells from a long-in-remission addiction to the first game, but...

I did create a second character, Assassin class, and she's lost two fights in the under-10 game, so there's something to it.  Maybe it's just horribly unbalanced?  Other than that, though, I've enjoyed it.  I miss some of the features of the first (sacking cities, money from cities, consistent foes after completing the story) but overall it's not a bad game.

2.) Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within (PC): When the acting makes you long to have Tim Curry's southern accent back, or when every. single. sentence out of any character's mouth is instant MST3K fodder... well.  I love me some old-school adventure games and this is a definite great example of the FMV era of the mid and late 1990s, but it's a profoundly silly game and it wants to be serious.  As I said, accurately, on Twitter... #gaygermanoperawerewolfvoodooking

 3.) Divinity II: Ego Draconis (PC): I wrote before about how much this game hooked me.  And it did.  Except the end-game stage is flat-out awful.  Just like in the first game, an 80% awesome title falls flat when you cross the Line Of No Return.  Also, it's the buggiest thing I've bought in 15 years.  Twice I had to go back to an hours-old save to recoup after game-halting bugs, and once I had to send my save file to Larian for them to fix it for me.  Not.  Cool.  Even worse?  I hear they have a patch ready to go for most of these bugs but have been withholding it in North America until their DLC launches in October.  Their excuse is that they're not allowed to release too many patches for a 360 product (and this was a dual-platform release).  I'm actually quite pissed off at Larian over this one.  Translation errors and small bugs I can handle.  But game-stopping errors?  Multiple times in multiple locations across the game?  Lrn 2 QA, dammit.


Saturday, September 25, 2010

How an MMO lost its fan

I never got into WoW.  Never liked it: hated the art, hated the controls (felt like I was steering a cow through water), hated the camera, really hated the UI, and didn't particularly enjoy the community.  Such is life.

But for me, there was EQ2.

A guy I dated for a couple of years (still a good friend) sat me down at his PC one day very late in 2004, when I was visiting (long-distance relationship) and he had to go to work.  "This is EQ2," he said. "Roll a character.  I think you'll like it."

When he came home from work nearly 9 hours later, I was still at the PC.  I'd gotten up once to use the bathroom but had forgotten to eat or get dressed.  But what I did have was Freeport citizenship.

For my birthday, two months later, he bought me a high-end video card and I bought myself the game.  Thus my main and I came to share a birth date.  I jumped in, feet first, and level by painful level eventually ended up at 50 -- then the cap -- with a guild and a horse and some low-level skill at raiding.

He played on Test and so I, too, played on Test.  I loved the small community, the low server population, the deep sense of all being in it together, and especially the direct interaction with the QA and Dev teams.  We could make suggestions directly to the people who changed the game, and see our thoughts appear in later patches.  We were the ones trying out the new zones and the new quests, the ones who had to figure out everything for ourselves because the walkthroughs hadn't been written yet.

18 months later, he and I split up.  EQ2 and I did not.  By then I was the leader of my small guild, after it had been through some serious drama.  (The guild's founder got hired by SOE as a GM, and so couldn't play with us any more, though we did sometimes still chat.)  I played in several apartments, in several cities, and into my next serious relationship.  I leveled to 60, to 70, to 80, lost friends, made new friends, found my old friends again.  I took a few months off, came back, felt like I had never left.  Patches always changed mechanics, of course, and sometimes very significantly (tradeskilling March 2005 vs. tradeskilling March 2009? no comparison!).  Some changes were for the better, some for the worse, but I was willing to ride them out.  Something, after a few weeks or a month or two, always made me want to go back to Norrath, back to my 5 -- now 6 -- room house in Freeport, back to wearing Assassin blacks and stealthing around and hoping Cheap Shot would take.  (Even after discovering with my Fury and Shadowknight that Assassin was EQ2 on Hard Mode, I always went back to my main.)

Until recently.

Each expansion has been more linear than the last.  The most recent, Sentinel's Fate, is 100% linear.  There's a specific A-B-C solo progression, an A-B-C group progression, and an A-B-C raid progression.  I leveled my Fury on totally different content than my Assassin from 1-80, but from 81-90, that wasn't going to be an option.  Then, on adding free-to-play, they changed the look and function of the interface rather significantly, and suddenly five years' worth of muscle memory was out the window.

I know, now, why I miss EQ2 the same way I miss college.  Because they each were significant for years of my life, and they each don't want me any more.  College is great when you're in it: you start as a freshman and the school tells you it's all about you and they love you.  Then you're a senior, and you're graduating, and it's all about you and they love you, until you realize on your way off of campus for the last time, that they're already cleaning up after you and hanging the banners to welcome next year's freshmen.  You loved the experience, but going back five years later won't be the same.

So I don't know.  I hate leaving everything I have there -- the people, the history, the character -- and walking away.  I've let my subscription lapse a number of times in the last 6 years but I always knew I'd re-up eventually.  But I took the $4.99 3-day re-up option last weekend, logged in for under an hour, and fruitlessly logged back out.  The game changed, and I think it may have lost me for real this time.  Maybe I'll go back a month or two after the 8th expansion comes out, as if for Homecoming weekend.  But SOE has decided that a different population -- a newer, fresher population -- is their target demo.  And that's cool.  Really.  I'm not one of those gamers who thinks a publisher should be in any business other than the one of making money.  I'm just sad that it regressed while I grew.

So, for the first time in many years, I'm installing other MMOs on my PC.  (I did beta-test or 30-day-trial several in the last few years, but never ended up subbing to any long-term.)  There are other shores for me to explore, and my guild and two sister-guilds are all cross-game groups.  So perhaps I shall find my friends again.  Perhaps I'll start by looking in Middle-Earth.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Strong vs. Violent (Part 3...)

I was looking back over some Twitter stuff the other day, and I discovered one of the very first things I actually tweeted, during a panel at PAX East 2010:
Strong and violent are not synonyms. If we keep acting that way, we keep undervaluing womens roles
I'd forgotten, between now and then, that I completely nailed in under 140 characters the fundamental thought that seems to drive so much talk about women in gaming, both as characters and as players.

We say, "It features a strong female character," and we tend to mean, "A female of reasonable sexiness who doesn't ever show girly emotions, and who shoots things."  But I don't think "strength" and "violence" should be synonymous.

Admittedly, this points to a much larger problem in gaming: what would we consider a non-violent strong male lead?  The best I came up with offhand is the Metal Gear Solid series; you can be a reasonably non-violent Snake much of the time, and he is a character given to serious emotion and lots of it.  MGS3 and MGS4 each contain several hours' worth of emotionally driven cut-scenes.  (Aside: I wonder how many gamer guys would be convinced to sit through a 3 hour movie with that much convoluted emoting?  But put a controller in their hands...)  And still his primary objective is generally to blow stuff up and win boss fights.

It's hard enough to think of true 3rd-person games driven by female lead characters (narrative games with a defined arc -- as opposed to games where the player has a hand in creating or defining the character).  It's even harder when you start looking for female leads who wear sensible clothes and don't travel heavily armed.

I know perfectly well that the example I need here of a strong female character is The Longest Journey but I've never actually finished that game.  I promise it's on the playlist and that I'll revisit this topic by year's end.  Meanwhile, the fact that I have to resort to an 11-year-old European adventure game to make the point at all is telling.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Look at me! I'm awesome!

I've been playing Puzzle Quest 2 on my DS.  (And I never thought I'd say this about anything, but actually I wish it were harder and more difficult.)  And I rocked a completely awesome combination of spells, luck, and strategy, and in a single turn did over 100 damage to my opponent.

And the thought I had was, "Damn.  I kind of wish we had a 360, because I want everyone to know!"

I am not a competitive gamer, I'm really not.  I tend to prefer single-player games or, barring that, cooperative multiplayer.  If I absolutely must go head to head with someone, I prefer it to be anonymously or pseudonymously online.  Why?  Because I really, really hate losing to people I know -- and I also hate winning over my friends and spouse.

But even I understand the full appeal of achievements systems, and why XBox Live,Steam, the PlayStation Network, and Windows Live all have them: because if a totally badass event happens alone, at home, and no-one sees it... did it ever really happen?

There's a phenomenon I've touched on before, where all gaming to an extent becomes narrative gaming.  Tetris may not have a story, but we tell stories about our own experiences playing it.  "I totally hit level 9 and then, like BAM!  The blue piece I needed!"  And in this sense, we gamers are no different from people out there playing soccer, or watching football, or going fishing, or driving to work.  We assemble stories around us.  But instead of a photo of us holding up a 5' long fish, we have virtual achievements and scroll through pages of pixellated trophies.

Alas, I, on my DS at home, get no trophy.  But believe me, y'all: it was this big!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

If It's For Women, It Must Be Stupid. (Pt. 2 of many)

In reality, 40% of gamers are women.  And yet we keep fighting this constant uphill battle against the perception that gaming is a man's industry: dominated by men, designed for men and boys, with marketers and designers and male players all sitting around completely unaware that there's this big female audience they could tap into.  Gaming is something that boys and men who haven't outgrown being boys do, right?  There will continue to be "no" women in gaming for as long as gamers go around defining games as "those things which exclude women."

There's a lot behind this.  History plays a part, to be sure; girls and women are much more a part of the scene now than, say, 25 years ago.  But why hasn't perception been able to get closer to reality? 

Well, in part, it's because if women like it, it must be stupid.  This is a phenomenon that applies to most media -- books, movies, television -- but seems to apply doubly so in gaming.  The concept is so deeply ingrained in the gaming community that some of the worst perpetrators of it, in my experience, are other girls and women.  I have most assuredly been guilty of it myself.  So let's unpack this cycle a little.

The gamer community, like any community, defines itself both in terms of what it is and in terms of what it isn't.  And as the expansion of gaming technology has brought more tools (portables, PCs, Macs, consoles, phones) to the table, the community has buckled down.  No longer restricted to the guy who had the time, money, and lack of other social demands required in order to achieve a difficult goal, gaming's been blown wide open.  68% of American households contain video game consumers.  In the Americas, sales of the Wii -- in 2010, years after its release -- continue to blow away sales of other consoles:


But the Wii is a source of derision for "real" gamers.  It's too "casual."  It's not "hardcore" enough.  Right?  We've all heard it.  We've all seen it, in comments on game news sites.  We might have written it.  Or we, the "dedicated" gamers, might have let our Wiis collect dust since 2008 while we played reflex-action blood-spattered HD games on our other consoles.

But Nintendo, with its marketing strategy, reminded us of an unassailable set of facts: There have always been girls and women in gaming.  Gamers have always come in different races and ages and income brackets.  Someone who plays Tetris for an hour at a time three times a week is a video game consumer, just as someone who raids in WoW for eight hours a night is.  Nintendo hasn't so much blown open the demographics -- though they have -- as they've blown open the debate and the recognition.

No-one has said, in eighty years, "all watchers of movies fit the same demographic." Television has a dozen competing networks per demographic.  And yet we maintain this overwrought, antiquated cultural insistence that all gamers are one type, one thing only.  And it comes as much from inside of the gamer community as from outside of it.  Why?

Because if it's designed for, marketed to, or primarily consumed by women, it doesn't count.

A 24-year-old male who spends 5 hours every weeknight online in Modern Warfare 2, is a "hardcore gamer."  He is the definition and perpetuation of the industry.  A 24-year-old female who spends 5 hours every weeknight devoting herself to the ins and outs of the lives of her Sims is... nothing.  A 35-year-old female who spends 5 hours every weeknight fluttering around the low-cost options on Yahoo Games is less than nothing.

In fact, in the Kotaku post I cited before, with the terrible music video, one commenter says it out loud:


this song is fucking terrible. Stan Lee and Seth Green are cool though and those girls are hot. Probably never touched anything outside Halo/wii/WoW though.

Because if you're female, even the exact same games the boys play (Halo, WoW) don't count.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Why Gender Issues Matter In Gaming (pt. 1 of many)

There's a video making the nerd rounds, based on Katy Perry's "California Gurls," which, incidentally, I hate so seethingly much and with such a burning passion that if the opening chord sounds on the radio in the car, my husband or I will smack the power button so fast that the antenna gets confused.

(I drive a mid-90s car with an oh-so-high-tech retractable antenna that doesn't work as well in 2010 as the mid-90s designers had hoped.)

Kotaku posted a link to this video today under the header Geek and Gamer Girls Will Likely Be Irritated By This Video.  (You can watch the video at that link as well.)  As always, what I went looking for were the comments.  A sample:
I'm not sure what's terrible about this -- they're cosplaying, I see geek girls doing that all the time at cons -- regarding the rolling around naked, it's a music video: you can't forget that.  --jayntampa

Female commenter here.

I didn't really take any offense to the video. If anything, I laughed quite a bit, because there was some clever bits that they snuck in there.

Does it make girl gamers seem anything more than sexed up woman who play video games in sexy outfits? Not so much.

As a gamer myself (yeah, I left out the girl prefix) I've always been slightly sensitive to the plight of female video gamers. We're like a lot of you guys, we like to chill around in comfy clothes and play long gaming sessions. And it isn't just RPGs or anime style games, considering I'm always up for a good round of headshotting.  --FinerFrenzy

fail on multiple levels. This only allows more "i'm a gamer too" girls to spawn.

THINGS THAT ARE FOR MEN ONLY: Cigars, Poker, Video Games. (not a complete list) -- buddhatooda
And one exchange that summarizes a lot of the discussion:


I don't understand why females can't just call themselves gamers. It doesn't make you any special to add the fact that you're female. I treat any and every person who plays games the same. -- NekuSakuruba
Being female stands as a modifier of what would be the "standard" mode of being human: male.  I'm just explaining what seems to be the reason why the term "gamer girl" exists.  -- Fernando Jorge

More importantly, not all female gamers are like that. Chance is, REAL female gamers hardly make a big deal about their gender when they're gaming. Girls who don't know jack about gaming are more likely to make a big fuss whenever they happen to play a game for a bit.

Not to mention, sometimes it's not the female player who wants to make herself special or anything; its the male players that don't threat her normally once they find out. :/ -- Ossidiana

A (members-locked) discussion from the "Inclusive Geeks" community summed up a lot of the double standard going on in this discussion, and one that is repeated every time issues of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, and so on come up in gaming.  It's the "It's Just A Game / You're Taking It Too Seriously" argument -- one that is summed up well in Games Aren't Art, After All, Say Angry Gamers.  LiveJournal user sparklyappolion summed up the argument thus:

It's like the article said (or touched upon, at least): gamers want the legitimacy that comes with an artistic medium. This might have its roots in the stereotype that games are just time-wasters not to be taken seriously, and that gamers are awkward shut-ins. The gamers stand up and say, "Hey, no, we're pretty competent people and these games have a lot of thought and beaut to them," and I can't blame them for that.

HOWEVER, I can blame them for demanding the recognition without doing the work, which I think this is an example of. As soon as someone says, "Well, something's gotta change if games are gonna be considered art," these gamers put up their hands and back away from the situation. They don't want to actually have to change the way they play, think about, or experience games; they just want people to take games seriously. They don't realize that you can't have one without the other.
 Right.  Silly wimminz!  It's just a game!

Next in the series: If It's For Women, It Must Be Stupid and the corollary, If You're Female, What You Play Doesn't Count.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"Holy crap, I'm a GIRL!"

In the very early stages of Portal, the orange and blue portals are set up so that you can see yourself passing through them.  Listening to the audio commentary, you learn that the developers created this room so that you, the player, would understand how the portals really worked; you needed to understand that orange and blue were two sides of the same coin, and that you were passing through the coin, no matter where its sides lay.

But I passed through the portal, saw myself, and understood something else entirely.  "HOLY @&*%, I'M A GIRL," I shouted happily, to the eternal annoyance and confusion of my roommate.  ("What, you didn't figure that out twenty-odd years ago?")

Overwhelmingly, fixed (as opposed to characters you can fully customize, as in an MMORPG or recent BioWare titles etc.) video game protagonists are straight, white, and male.  This is not news.  Sometimes there's a strong narrative reason for a character to be the way s/he is; other times, not so much.  Sometimes the player character and his fixed narrative have a strong place in the game (any iteration of Metal Gear Solid, for example) other times, the character is more transparent and the player is truly conceiving of him- or herself in the first person.

And admittedly in Portal, the fact that you are Chelle doesn't matter much.  Sometimes you catch a glimpse of yourself, but the game exists primarily in the first person and every player I've ever known felt that he or she was in a one-on-one battle of wits with GLaDOS.  The character has no back-story given, so you write your own.

But: Portal presents a game where nothing about the player character really matters, so they flipped the coin and it came up female.  And that's something we really don't see often, and definitely not enough.

I've been working on posts around this topic for a month, and keep coming up with thousands of words, rather than the few hundred which are suited to a blog post.  Luckily, a blog gets to keep going.  I'll write more about the whys, hows, and what-to-dos another time.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

"The Book would not be destroyed as I had planned..."

I played Myst as soon as I had a computer with a CD-ROM drive: late 1994 into early- and mid-1995.  Over the years, the world of Atrus and the D'ni grew, and I loved it.  Enormously.  In fact, I enjoyed the books and their world even more than the game series, probably because I could follow the books but Riven left me in the dust. 

And thus, we come to the importance of accessible game design.

I actually don't have any quibbles with how Myst was handled.  Sure, there are a few things you could do better now, but the game itself was pretty groundbreaking in both form and content, and the first of a kind is almost never the best example of its kind.  But the Miller brothers had come up with a really extraordinary world.  It was true, as an observer, that sufficiently advanced technology looked like magic, but it wasn't actually, and that mattered.  The world was one of ancient civilizations, politics, human emotion, arrogance, pride... it just worked.  And along came Uru, which promised at long last to show us all that ancient, great, terrible ruined civilization.

And Uru, as it turned out... was a hot mess.  Scuttled by poor design choices, by problematic funding sources, and by a fandom that was so devoted and zealous that it drove away valid criticism and potential new fans, Uru didn't really stand a chance.  The internet is full of post-mortems, impassioned condemnations, and even more impassioned defenses, but I think my favorite quick comment comes from a post on GOG.com (read the whole thing, it's short): 

Uru is ... a broken game; divorced both from the safety of conventional design and from the massively multiplayer online play that was to be its centerpiece, Uru exists today only as the ruins of a grand, unrealized vision. But what spectacular ruins! You don't so much "play" Uru as wander its massive halls, gaping at the fantastical colors and textures and shapes, and pondering what it must have looked like in its own time... what it might have looked like if history had been different. Uru is beauty tinged with sadness.  ...

To be sure, I don't believe Uru's online side was ever going to or will ever succeed in this form. It was given a fair chance and failed on its own terms. While it's loaded with authenticity and emotional power, it never managed a satisfying storyline, or even totally coherent gameplay. Uru gets something wrong for everything it gets right, and, while I hope it is reborn in the future, it will need to rethink its core design ideas to be reborn successfully. That said, perhaps the best thing about Uru is its design creativity. People often say they'd prefer a game that tries new things and fails than a game that plays it safe, and this is that game. Even when Uru falls flat on its face (a couple puzzles have even risen above the original's maze puzzle in adventure game infamy), it always manages to fail in totally unique and interesting ways - ways that spark conversations about how game design works and what it might be capable of in the future. 
That, right there, is what I would like to have written.  By the time Uru was getting a second wind, game design had advanced far and away beyond the 2004-tech it languished with.  By the time GameTap tried to run with Uru Live in 2007, people were thinking of "MMOG" as synonymous with "World of Warcraft" (or at least "City of Heroes" or "EverQuest (2)") and the clunky, awkward, problematic UI wasn't going to fly.  (An MMO where it's almost impossible to carry on a coherent personal or local conversation?  Not so much.)

Is it impossible to create a massively multiplayer co-operative adventure game?  I really don't know.  I know Uru wasn't it, and although I'm sorry that Cyan failed, ultimately Uru deserved to fail, for the reasons described above and a few more as well.  But yes, I would love to see someone try again.  Games and gamers desperately need failed projects, almost (though not quite) as badly as we need successful ones.  I've argued a hundred times that gaming is finally starting to come into its own thanks to the indie, experimental, and avant-garde scene, and this is still true.  

But will we see such an experimental MMOG again?  Not anytime soon, I suspect.  Servers and development staff are a huge cost and a business is going to need -- and properly so -- to see a return on their investment.

In the meantime, though, the fan community -- at once such a tremendous asset and yet sometimes such a liability to the game -- is doing what fan communities do best.  Myst Online is now an open source, free project accessible to any who want in.  It's amazing what a community can create when they have the time, energy, and resources, so I wish them godspeed and hope to see more D'ni history revealed in my life.

After all... the ending has not yet been written.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The RPG and Me

Despite my uneven record with RPGs, I've recently installed and started two 2009 releases on my shiny new PC: Dragon Age: Origins and Divinity II: Ego Draconis.  And my conclusion is this:

No, seriously, I really hate party-based gaming.

I'll admit that I had an irrational love for Divine Divinity.  It was, and remains, one of the worst names ever given to a game.  But oh, what fun!  I'd never have picked up this isometric Diablo II look-alike on my own, but in July 2003 I had a brand-new gaming-capable desktop for the first time in seven years (sound familiar?) and a friend brought DivDiv for me as a gift.  I installed it at something like 9:00 p.m. and became vaguely conscious, some time later, that I was both thirsty and needed to pee, and also that it was after dawn.

That summer I was unemployed and transitory, between college and grad school, so I had some time on my hands.  I must have poured at least a hundred hours into DivDiv and I still can't say why except, and this is important, that it was fun.  The story was fairly derivative, the translation errors (Larian is a European studio) were occasionally painful, and the mechanics were simple... but I loved it.  The game had hooked me and I was bound to see it through to the end, and to replay it on occasion as the years went on.

All the games I've loved through the years have hooked me in that fashion.  I've played and enjoyed games that didn't, but anything on my Top 10 or even Top 20 list has generally made me completely lose track of time at least once.  So it's an experience I welcome.

Dragon Age had piles of rave reviews behind it.  I managed to end up with a free (gifted) copy and looked forward to playing a for-really-MODERN game on my new machine.  So I sat down to play.  Went with a City Elf, Female.

I'll give them credit for writing; I liked her origin story.  And I'll give them credit for graphics; the world is gorgeous and a couple of the male characters around were indeed attractive and fun enough that I wanted to play until I got to a romance stage.  But something just didn't click.  Nothing hooked me.  And so I put in a few 30 - 90 minute sessions out of obligation, and haven't been back since.  I'm maybe five hours into the game but every time I see that icon I think, "I could, or..." and end up firing up EQ2 or Fallout 3 or Solitaire.

But then, last weekend, I managed finally to get my hands on Divinity II.  It's far less well-loved, and to many it suffered from the ill-timed comparison to Dragon Age, as both were RPGs released near each other.  But to me, Divinity II is massively more entertaining.  I wandered, slightly disoriented, for a few minutes but then old memory and gamer instinct (thank goodness for the standardization of WASD) took right over and I was in a game I'd loved seven years ago... only better.  I'm old enough now to tear myself away at bedtime rather than staying up until dawn (being married helps with this), but I got cranky doing it.  I want to keep playing!

The only way I've been able to describe why I love Fallout 3 but not Mass Effect, why I'll play Divinity II but not Dragon Age is this: I seriously hate party-based games.  I play a rogue, a thief, an assassin, or even a warrior -- but I play alone.  Summoned creatures and NPC allies are too much trouble.  They get themselves killed, they blunder in the way, and they need controlling.  I'd rather strategize on my own time.  Whether that strategy is to stealth-and-snipe (how I played Bioshock or Fallout 3) or to hack-and-slash (the easiest and occasionally most entertaining way to play, well, anything), I like doing it my way and not accounting for others.

The odd counter to this is that I enjoy time spent in an MMORPG.  Admittedly, I spend more time solo than grouped, but I like grouping and I used to enjoy raiding.  I think it's because players in an MMO (theoretically) do their own thinking, and I don't control any character but my own.  And I never play pet-summoning or charming classes.

So Mass Effect 3 will be a game for my spouse only, and that's cool.  I'll be Kratos, going solo, in God of War 3 and we'll both be happier for it.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Film and Games: Still Different, Still Art

The big news online for gamers today is that Roger Ebert will let us play on his lawn.  I respect the man, I and respect his willingness to say, "I shouldn't have said that."  He's right; a wise man (or blogger) knows when to shut his mouth and just listen, when the areas of one's expertise have been passed.  

There are a couple of key points in Ebert's own response, though, that show the flaws in his own argument.  He writes: "If you can go through 'every emotional journey available,' doesn't that devalue each and every one of them? Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices. If next time I have Romeo and Juliet go through the story naked and standing on their hands, would that be way cool, or what?"

That's a valid point, if it's the one you want to make.  (I would disagree, but that's irrelevant.)  But the game that touched off the whole firestorm was Flower.   

Flower is a narrative game.  There are no derivations.  You can choose whether to move clockwise or counterclockwise around a given area, and that's about it.  The game progresses through six distinct stages, with distinct and unchangeable goals in every stage.  There are no alternate endings; the game is entirely linear and tells a very specific emotional story.

The thing is, it's not the kind of story you could convey very well in a standard narrative film.  If it were to be film at all, it would have to be a 15-minute French art-film.  And even then, it wouldn't convey the emotions quite the same way.  The story of Flower is felt by the player, as you exuberantly ride the wind or duck wildly from a storm.  

The games that best fit the "art" mold are the games that use the meta-narrative of player control -- or lack thereof -- to add that extra dimension to the experience.  As a French art-film, Flower would bore the pants off the majority.  As a downloadable PSN game, it entranced players worldwide.

Similarly, there are talks of a Bioshock movie.  Leaving aside the entire seriously problematic genre of "video game adaptations," Bioshock is likely to suffer some of the same problems in a game-to-film transition that Flower would have.  To be sure, you have a human protagonist, which helps a great deal when making an effects blockbuster.

Verbinski is also on-target when saying the movie would have to be a "hard R."  Bioshock is a violent game, but not, generally, a gratuitously violent one.  (Though the player can choose, to a point, to be more or less so.)  But the pivotal scene of Bioshock must be shown in on-screen space.  The viewer absolutely cannot have the option to look away -- because what makes that scene work, in the game, is that the player has no option to look away.  The scene, which I have written about before, is made potent by a meta-narrative of control.  The game wrests control away from you and forces you to stand by, passively, and stare at a monstrosity of a cut-scene unfolding.  And there lies the emotional impact, the art and artistry, of the game.

In order for a film version of Bioshock to have any emotional impact, rather than being another zombie slug-fest, the creators of that film would have to work very hard to come up with something to fill the void left by taking any active control away from the viewer.  An entire film is, by its nature, passive and out of the spectator's control; that hole would likely be the failure point of such a movie.  For that failure point to exist, the interactivity itself must be a point of art.  And Roger Ebert would be a wiser man still if he would allow himself to see that.