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, 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.


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 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. :)