Archive for November, 2007

Playstation Network and the Rise of the $5 Game

Posted in Consoles, Indie Games on November 29, 2007 by Kit

Well, PS3s are finally selling, and there are finally some games out that really make the purchase look justified for the long term. With more users able to buy more content the new Playstation Network is finally beginning to look slightly interesting.

For the uninitiated – the Playstation Network is the “online” portion of the PS3 experience. Most consoles nowadays have something like it, and the PSN is kinda the new kid on the block. With an internet connection, it does all the things you’d expect: you can browse the web, buy games, download additional content, etc. You can even play online multiplayer for free – which is a significant selling point for people who balk at the infamous PS3 price tag. Or, it would be if online multiplayer experience didn’t suck so badly for the average (read: non-troglodytic) gamer. More on that later.

When I first bought my PS3 and plugged it in, I wandered into the Playstation Store section out of sheer curiousity, took one look at the (lame) movie previews, (crippled) game demos, and tiny smattering of (mostly bad) real games for sale… and wandered right back out again.

I didn’t return until just last week. In the post-thanksgiving week, PSN was offering some mini-games that I hadn’t played yet for about $5 a pop. It seemed like a reasonable time to take a risk on a few.

They were mostly pretty good. I’ll be playing LocoRoco for some time. Everyday Shooter was pretty cool, too. Think of it as a high-def mating of Defender and Asteroids with more guitar. Calling All Cars is good fun, but I need to play it with some friends because it really looks like it’s meant to be a party game.

Most of them were cute arcade games — which the gaming community has decided to call “casual” now, whatever that means. Aren’t all games casual? None of them sucked so much that I wanted to throw my controller at the TV — more than I can say for some $60-a-pop super-mega-action-blockbusters of late (ahem, Spiderman 3). It’s amazing what a $55 price differential will do to your attitude about a game.

When I read the game news sites, I’m hearing more and more about downloadable games, mini-games, arcade-style games, and casual games. They can be produced on-the-cheap (I hear Everyday Shooter was written by one guy). They require no expensive physical distribution channel. So they can be sold cheaply. Users don’t feel as cheated when a $5 game isn’t entirely their cup of tea.

Me, I plan on buying some more $5 games, and maybe even some $10 games on the Playstation Network. A successful ecosystem of cheap-to-make downloadable console games might be just what big game developers need to shake off their creative slump.

Zeroth Person

Posted in Game Narrative on November 28, 2007 by Kit

I had a chat with a friend over lunch today about this whole thing with video games and narrative, and why it’s so difficult to get real emotional impact out of a video game story. I think we came to the conclusion that point of view has a lot to do with the problem.

Empathy, by definition, requires at least two people – an actor and an observer. When we watch a movie or read a story, we empathize with the characters because we are able to imagine how we might feel if such a thing were happening to us. In a story, no matter what point of view the author chooses, we are always an outsider looking in at the characters and then projecting their experiences back onto our own inner self.

We don’t empathize with ourselves. We may pity ourselves, or be angry at ourselves, or be very proud of ourselves. But we experience our own emotions directly. Empathy requires us to observe someone else, and feel along with them.

Incidentally, the existence of empathy is probably the best argument for any shred of inherent decency among humans.

Games remove both the narrator’s voice and the main character from the equation in one stroke. The “story” of a game is actually just the story of the player’s progress through the game. This has wide ranging consequences for anyone trying to make a game into a coherent narrative.

Many games are referred to as “first” or “third” person games. But this is a misunderstanding of what those terms mean. In a story written in first person, the narrator isn’t the reader. The reader experiences the words of the narrator as an interested third-party. This is even more obvious in the case of a third person narrator.

In a game, the player is actually inhabiting the main character and directing their movement within the game world. Video games are closest to the rarely seen “second person” viewpoint, where the narrator refers to the main character as “You” and the narration is often in present tense. But even in an edgy novella written in second person, you are obviously reading about the words and actions of someone else who isn’t really you. The narrative voice is still present. You still have the distance required to create empathy.

It’s telling that most of the very few moments in video games that generate any real emotion (besides frustration) happen in the context of cut-scenes… “out of game” moments where the game pretends that it’s actually just a movie for a few minutes. The camera swings away, and we see the main character from a third person perspective as they overcome some important bad guy or whatever.

But the emotional content is gone once we are back behind the controls. No matter what happens during that cut-scenes (or indeed, during any of the rest of the game) we are still the same person. Our in-game avatar may have a new jet pack, a larger missile launcher or an ice-tiger to ride into battle with, but we haven’t changed at all.

We, as players, are static characters that move through the world of the game basically untouched, like ghosts. Our avatar’s own mother could die and we, as the player, would be essentially unchanged. Our avatar may cry at the funeral, and we might find the cut-scene quite affecting. But the avatar at the graveside is not the same character as the one we control. When we are back in the driver’s seat, we still have all those Hidden Packages to collect.

I’m proposing a new point of view, just for video games. I call it zeroth person, because it recognizes that no matter what kind of cut-scene trickery the writer uses, the main character is essentially a cipher, a nobody, an empty vessel in a costume acting only as a puppet for the player to conduct. We can’t feel empathy for it: It’s us.

This doesn’t mean that a game can’t have emotional impact. But writers of games who want to craft emotional experiences for players need to start looking for ways to solve the problem of the zeroth person. If the action of the game is to have any emotional impact beyond the cheap sucker punch of a cut-scene, it’s going to have to find a better way to generate empathy.

A good start for writing more human games would be to stop giving us so many reasons not to empathize with anybody in the game by making the focus nothing but hacking and killing your way through legions of interchangeable bad guys.

Compelling supporting characters with interesting things to say would really help. The few times outside of a cut-scene that I’ve experienced a glimmer of real emotion during a game have all revolved around the supporting cast. I’m thinking of all the poor scientists cowering in isolated rooms in the wrecked underground complex during Half-Life (a violent “first-person” shooter game that eschewed the cut-scene altogether). The (admittedly slightly melodramatic) climax of the Gray Fox sub-plot in Oblivion was kinda touching. And going back a bit, the ancient Sierra graphic adventure The Black Cauldron almost made the pre-teen MCP cry (when Gurgi died).

What about you, dear readers? Have any other moments in video games moved you?

Why Game Narrative Still Sucks … or … Don’t Bank Too Hard on That New Ghostbusters Game Just Yet

Posted in Game Narrative with tags , , , on November 27, 2007 by Kit

I just got the latest issue of Game Informer… and plastered across the cover is a very familiar logo.

Inside is a gushing preview and some admittedly great looking screenshots. Even better is the news that most of the cast is reprising their roles (Even Peck will be back). Dan Akroyd and Harold Ramis are actually writing much of the dialog. Dan Akroyd is quoted as saying that he considers this the “third Ghostbusters movie.” There’s even talk of calling the game “Ghostbusters 3.”

So that’s cool.

Now the obligatory dose of perspective. Here are three reasons this game, despite all its initial promise, could still really suck.

  1. It’s a game based on a movie. See: every other game based on a movie.
  2. Remember how great the Ramis and Akroyd penned Ghostbusters 2 was? Oh yeah.
  3. No matter what they say, people don’t buy games for the stories.

Video games just aren’t very good at the whole narrative and plot thing. Even the best video game plots are mediocre when you look at them objectively. I say this with all the love for games that I have deep in my heart. They just don’t do story well. I think that’s why most cut-scenes have a skip button.

I studied theater in college. I read Chekhov and learned about narrative structure. I learned that most stories can be outlined as a series of increasingly bad setbacks that culminate in a final, climactic resolution.

Video games don’t work that way.

In most video games the protagonist gets steadily better and better throughout the game. There is the occasional minor setback: Lara Croft gets her weapons taken away and has to find them… but that’s really just a change of pace. It’s not as if she learned that she murdered her mother and married Jon Voight, or something. If every level involved the buxom explorer suffering a major setback … well it would quickly become a bore, wouldn’t it?

In Grand Theft Auto, the goal is to collect more and more money with which to buy increasingly powerful weapons. If every time you were caught by the police they took it all away and you had to work your way all the way back up from skid row, you’d probably give up. It wouldn’t be fun.

Good narratives require sharp hills and valleys – great successes and great failures. Good games require a constant, steady movement upward.

Is it possible to have truly great writing in a game? I think so. But I haven’t seen it yet. It’s going to take people who understand narrative very well, and know how to write a narrative that fits the flow of a game and not the flow of a traditional story. So far, the gaming industry has yet to produce those people.

Quickie

Posted in addiction, General on November 20, 2007 by Kit

I have a strict “no blogging on vacations” ethic – and mine starts tomorrow. So let’s get into the mix quick, for tomorrow I will be mixing pies.

Oblivion Related Repetitive Stress Injury. I have an ache all the way up my right arm and my neck, and I’m officially blaming Oblivion for it. I’ve actually completed the story, only to find that the story is only a fraction of a percent of the fun to be had in this game. Old-timers: Remember when you inserted the 1st of the four floppy discs that came with Ultima IV? This game gives you the same feeling of having a living, breathing world to explore. Only moreso. The fact that locations aren’t spoon fed to you – you have to go out and walk around to find them – is brilliant. The fact that it comes with a map is genius. I only wish it came with cloth map a la Ultima. Back in the day, I once exterminated all the citizens of Skara Brae after a particularly bad time at school, and felt a profoundly unreasonable sense remorse. In a panic, I scrambled for my “restore” floppies to bring those pixels back from the dead.

Assassin’s Creed. Oh dear me, I think I’ve found my next source of Repetitive Stress Injuries. I’m a well known fan of sneaking, hiding, stabbing from the shadows sorts of games – and this looks like the soon to be Queen Mother.

Xbox 360’s Parental Control. In a recent firmware update, Microsoft has given parents the ability to set time limits on their kids’ game playing. Let’s ignore for a minute the fact that most kids are going to figure out how to disable this pretty quickly… if their parents can even figure out how to use it, that is. All that aside, I still have a problem with it. If you need software to control your kids’ behavior, you need to rethink some things about parenting.

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When I was a tyke and my mamma thought we was getting too much of that newfangled cathode-radium-televisor-screen, she used to lock us outside . In the winter! In our underpants!

PG Nation

Posted in General, Violence on November 13, 2007 by Kit

The thing that bothers me about the Jack Thompson crowd is, perhaps ironically, their negativity. You would think that there was no entertainment available that didn’t involve disembowelment and full-frontal nudity. Or if we allowed one video game to have disembowelment and full-frontal nudity… than all games video would necessarily turn into ultra violent gore orgies.

But that’s not true. The continued success of companies like Nintendo is evidence that there is a big audience for games that don’t hinge on graphic violence. Last week, I ran down a handful of great games that are so thoroughly non-violent that not even an extremist like Jack Thompson could honestly quibble with them.

But there is a much wider spectrum. The choice is not between Mario and James Earl Cash, or between Sesame Street and snuff films. There’s a great gulf of entertainment that falls in the middle. With this post, I’d like to call out some of those great games. Maybe they have you kill some bad guys, maybe that Valkyrie’s metal breastplate is a bit low cut, but no reasonable observer could call them murder simulators or pornography.

In these games, the bad guys are clearly bad, and the protagonist is clearly good. Lovers of the anti-hero will have to wait for a future post.

Zelda. Ok, there’s a lot of killing in these games. But it’s hard to feel pity for an octorok. I’ve played several of these, but the experience for me really peaked with the third game: A Link to the Past. One of the hallmarks of the Zelda series is that the enemy creatures are abstract and cartoonish. The emphasis is on exploration and solving minor puzzles of the “find a key” sort.

Okami. I’ve sung its praises before, but I can’t resist a repeat performance. Okami is an incredible game, set in a mythological version of Japan (or if you prefer, Nippon). The main character is the Shinto sun-goddess Amaterasu in the form of a white wolf. The entire game is rendered in a style reminiscent of Japanese watercolor, and hinges on a clever system of magical “gestures” that require the player to draw sumi-e-esque symbols on the screen. There is some fighting of demons, but the tone of the narrative is light-hearted and whimsical. Okami’s game play is descended from Zelda on several levels, in a good way. As previously reported, it’s being re-released on the Wii pretty soon, causing The MCP’s eyes to glaze over with envy.

Ratchet and Clank. I’m including these assholes because the kids like them, and I’d like an opportunity to rip on a crowd favorite. Ratchet and Clank are the video game answer to Doritos eXtreme: lots of flavor, mildly addictive, but not a lot of substance. Game play is repetitive and mindless. It’s impossible to loose as long as you have enough patience to keep moving forward, fighting aliens and robots, collecting powerups, etc. I challenge anyone without multiple-sclerosis not to complete these games. Addictiveness is the series’ only selling point (that and the five minutes you spend as the Giant Robot version of Clank). To my eternal shame I’ve played through two installments. Fans of the series point to it’s alleged humorosity as a selling point, but most of the dialogue consists of stale jokes warmed up with a side of obnoxious eXtreme ‘tude. During every cutscene, there’s an overwhelming sense that someone is poking you in the ribs with their elbow, murmering “Get it? Get it? That was a joke!” I’m done, Ratchet and Clank. I don’t care how good your graphics look, you will get no more of my life.

LEGO Star Wars. Hot damn I like me some LEGO Star Wars. You have to try really hard to be offended by a game that, however much fighting it involves, only results in bad guys being blasted into their component LEGO parts. I don’t even care that it was blatant Gen-X cross-marketing, the games are fun! LEGO Batman is on the way, apparently.

Splinter Cell. Metal Gear. These games involve violence, but I think they belong in the PG-ish area. The bad guys are depicted as obviously evil (terrorists or some such), and you are actually rewarded for finding ways to complete each level without killing anybody. Sneak up behind them and knock them out, then hide them in a closet. The point isn’t “kill every bad guy.” It’s usually something like “rescue the hostage” or “steal the secret documents.” I take a perverse pride in observing the movements of guards and timing my actions so that nobody notices me flitting from shadow to shadow. When you do get out your gun or knife, the killing is quick and silent… no Manhunt-style disemboweling.

Tomb Raider. Saying you like Tomb Raider for the gameplay is a bit like saying you read Playboy for the articles. But it’s true! I swear it’s true! I’m as annoyed by the game industry’s reductionist take on sexy female protagonists as anybody. But these really are great games even without the t’n’a. Angel of Darkness aside, they are well-crafted platformers at heart, with a bit of minor puzzle-solving thrown in. They are intensely playable, the controls give you an effortless feeling as you put Lara through all sorts of acrobatics.

Grand Theft Auto. Whaaaaaaa? I kid, I kid. But it’s time we got over our GTA issues. There is nothing, nothing in this game that you can’t see on popular television dramas any night of the week. Car theft? Check. Violence against cops? Check. Prostitution? Check. Drugs? Check. Random homicide? Check. Mass murder? Check. Deadly (awesome) explosions? Check. Is it more offensive to play a video game where you are encouraged to commit violent crimes? Or is it more offensive to sit on a couch and get your rocks off watching other people commit violent crimes?

GTA has yet to depict an actual rape, something network TV doesn’t shy away from. GTA has never depicted acts of violence against kids or animals. In fact, they appear to have been purposefully left out of the game.

We have been eating a steady diet of violence for as long as we’ve had media and any changes that have occurred due to technology are evolutionary, not revolutionary. As a culture we simply enjoy a certain amount of stylized violence in our entertainment. It’s time for us to face that fact honestly.

Is it troubling? I think it is. Should we think about how the interactivity of games might change things? Certainly. But some cold water needs to be thrown on the issue. You can admit that you are troubled by something without calling for a ban.

To me, the more interesting proposition is not how media changes our character, but what it reveals about our nature.

Gore-Free Fun

Posted in Violence with tags , , , , on November 8, 2007 by Kit

“All games contain the idea of death.” – The only good thing Jim Morrison ever said outside of a pop song.

There’s a lot of frothing-at-the-mouth going on about violence in video games. On both sides.

Most of the games that are out right now are quite dark. As to whether or not that’s something really worth a lot of attention: my feelings are mixed. I am a confirmed fan of many extremely violent games. (GTA, Resistance, Half-Life, Quake, to name a few.)

But I really don’t like the way the opposing parties frame the debate. The way it typically plays out: you either have to enjoy stabbing virtual babies or you have to burn your copy of Manhunt 2 and join a Bible College. The whole mess is probably worthy of a longer, much rantier post than I’m feeling up to right now.

My big complaint with video game violence is just with the way it’s currently pushing everything else to the fringe. Like a teenager with a notepad full of bad poetry, complex, psychological, and gory games just won’t stop soaking up the limelight.

In lieu of a big rant, how about a list of some great games that aren’t particularly blood splattered? You will note a distinct lack of stabby-ness in this list.

The many faces of Mario. I’m not a Mario fanatic, but I’ve enjoyed plenty of his games. They are cute, fun, and promote recreational drug use as an additional bonus.

Katamari. A critic’s darling, and for good reason. I suppose you could make an argument that rolling up everything in the world (pets, toys, furniture, people, weather systems) into giant balls to be turned into stars represents a kind of violence. But nobody seems too distressed to be rolled up into a star-ball, just sort of alarmed and surprised. Pick up any of the different versions, they are all basically the same and they are all great. Doesn’t actually promote drug use, but is clearly the product of some member of the tryptamine family.

Rhythm Games. Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Dance Dance Revolution, PaRappa the Rapper. There are currently a zillion “Play/stomp/whack the toy instrument/dance pad/controller in rhythm to match the music” games out there. They are pretty fun, if all kind of the same.

Bust-a-Move. The lady and I are seriously into these games. So far we’ve managed to get our mitts on each major Playstation version. The games are all basically the same: shoot little gem-like bubbles into groups of other bubbles that are the same color to make them bust. There are various special bubbles that do things like explode. Each game has a different and seemingly totally random cast of characters, who all engage in various comically inexplicable activities during gameplay. Also a candidate for the promotion of drug use.

Classic 80s arcade games. Sure, there may be some implied violence here and there – but it’s hard to argue that the amorphous blobs of pixels that represent the bad guys really deserve our empathy. Nowadays clever people can have them all.

Tetris et al. Games with multiple configurations of dropping blocks, exploding gems, colored symbols, etc. Still usually fun. Still usually addictive.

Sports Games. Not a big fan of these, but there are so many, and everyone I know seems to like them.

Any others, dear readers?

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(I tried and tried to compose a bad pun to go along with this article’s title, but it just didn’t come together.)

Console snobbery

Posted in Consoles with tags , , , , , , , on November 7, 2007 by Kit

Recently a good friend asked me for advice on what console to buy. (There are several of them out there, you know.) After much hemming and hawing, my answer ended up being along the lines of: “buy the console that has some games that you want to play.”

We’re in a golden age for games. It’s a great time to have to make that decision, because each platform really does have an amazing experience to offer. If you go to the store and come back with a Wii, a 360, or a PS3, you are guaranteed to be able to have fun.

That’s a fact that gets lost in the reporting on the so-called Console Wars. Capitalism worked this time! Competition really did create a healthy market for videogames! Now it can get on top of ending poverty and providing a safe workplace for everyone.

I play a PS3, and I love it. My friend said that he mostly plays Grand Theft Auto and some sports games. I told him that he could probably get a 360 for less money and would still be able to play any game that he wants to play for the forseeable future.

I bet those people who bought the Wii are having an awesome time with their friends.

I still maintain one form of snobbery: I don’t play many games on my PC nowadays. I don’t have the patience to endlessly upgrade my graphics card or tweak my system in order to get great framerates out of the latest games. Nowadays, a top-of-the-line 3D graphics card costs as much as a gaming console.

Consoles are a stable platform that don’t typically require upgrades over their lifetime. A game that comes out at the end of a console’s lifetime plays just as well as a game that came out when the console was first released.

Besides, I’m don’t enjoy sitting at a computer screen while I play games. I like a bowl of popcorn in my lap. I like my big screen tv. I like my couch. I like my games to feel like something I do to relax.

Right now, I’m playing Oblivion for the first time. I can’t imagine hunching over a computer keyboard to play this game. The scope is massive, the landscape is huge and sprawling. Behind every hill is a new ruin to explore. I spent all of yesterday afternoon picking flowers, for chrissake. From my couch, it’s an immersive, engaging experience. From a computer chair, it might just feel like work.

“But MCP,” you say, “What of the better image quality on a PC monitor? What of the higher degree of interactivity? What of the ability to play with mods or download new content? What of the wider number of interesting input devices?”

To which I say, “Eh.”

Appropos of nothing, here’s a few new developments I’m excited about:

Okami on the Wii. If anything would get me to buy the Wii, it’s this game. I already solved the PS2 version, but the prospect of a Nintendo version is too tasty to resist.

A new game from Keita Takahashi. Katamari Damacy kept me up late for many nights rolling items up into ever larger balls of stuff. Nobi Nobi Boy looks like it’ll be just as cute and quirky. By the way, I hold to my belief that Takahashi is actually some breed of pixie and not actually human at all. Just look at him!

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He recently freaked every one out by implying that there was more to life than video games.

Little Big Planet. Yes, it’s still supposed to be out in 2008. Yes I still really want to play it.

Racing Games. Is there a fun multi-player racing game for the PS3 yet? I bought Motorstorm because I thought it would be just that, only to find that it didn’t have multi-player. You can play it over the internet, but that’s lame. I want to race my friends in my living room. I’m not interested in competing against racist, trash-talking pre-teens on the other side of the planet. It’s a fun game, but racing by yourself is boring and sad.