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Op-Ed: Arkham Knight Has the Best Bad Camera

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Op-Ed: Arkham Knight Has the Best Bad Camera

For the most part, Batman Arkham Knight is a game that lacks confidence. It can't quite commit to a representation of Batman that feels unique, and its Gotham is drawn from so many sources that it feels more referential than essential in and of itself. But there is one place that Arkham Knight feels not only confident, but genuinely innovative and interesting. Arkham Knight has some of the most interesting camera work I've ever seen in a game, but at every step it leaves me cold....

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The Primer- Great Localizations

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The Primer- Great Localizations

When it comes to figuring out what goes into a great localization, there's a lot of time spent thinking about games that really nailed the transition from one region to another. And also games that totally dropped the ball. Sometimes games dunk that ball though. Other times someone gets hit in the face by an errant pass. Occasionally the ref calls a time out and has to analyze what just happened because the ball was floating in the air gloriously, before crashing back down to the court in a flaming wreck.

What this tortured metaphor is trying to get at is an introduction to just a few of the most impressive game localizations of all time.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

The thing about the Ace Attorney games is that all at once, they manage to be some of the best examples of how to do a Japanese-to-English localization, while also showing exactly what goes wrong when you play it fast and loose with localization. One one hand, they’re loaded to the brim with clever puns, mostly subtle references to american pop culture, and charming dialogue. On the other, it’s actually impossible to believe the series could possible take place in Los Angeles.

Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies is either the most amazing series of typos ever, or an incredibly detailed post-modern comedy bit.

Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies is either the most amazing series of typos ever, or an incredibly detailed post-modern comedy bit.

To be fair, the series isn't exactly batting a thousand. Between goofy nonsense that doesn’t register as a pun until you think about it and get disappointed (see: Glen Elg, the palindromic homicide victim), and the grammatical catastrophe that is Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies, there are a lot of missteps in what’s usually considered to be a shining exemplar of good localization. It says a lot that, for a time, the biggest meme to come out of Ace Attorney was making fun of the one major error in the second game. Well, that and people constantly yelling objection for no damn reason.

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It takes a lot to take a game, especially one as text heavy as Ace Attorney, from one culture to another. The first game in the series did an impressive job of balancing the whole “it takes place in america” thing with the rest of the factors in the plot. To be fair, not too much about that first game was very Japan-centric. The Steel Samurai read as a Power Rangers/Super Sentai-esque kids show in both regions. Sure, it was weird that the Fey clan ran a mystical spirit channelling village somewhere in the mountains of Orange County, but it didn’t ever take me out of the suspension of disbelief required to believe that the world’s most incompetent lawyer was an undefeated defense attorney. But, the part in Ace Attorney Dual Destinies where an entire Japanese village relocated to America and took their ancient chained-up demons with them so they could use them in wrestling TV shows pretty much snapped my disbelief over its knee. It was a smart choice to set the first game in LA. It made it feel closer to home for North American players, and really let the writers play with pop culture references that wouldn’t really fly if the game was set in Japan. Unfortunately, it made the rest of the games stick out like a traditional Japanese shrine in the middle of LA. It was one smart short term choice, that ate into the suspension of disbelief more and more with each game going forward. At this point, I’m half-expecting the upcoming Meiji-era Japan game to be set in the Wild West when it comes over stateside.

Actually, samurai in cowboy hats sounds rad. Sign me up for that.

Pokemon Red/Blue

Pocket Monsters: Lizard Dude Version

Pocket Monsters: Lizard Dude Version

The impressive thing about Pokemon’s localization isn’t really in its script. “I like shorts” isn’t exactly Dickens. No, the cool thing is all the work that went into it that most people miss. It’s the names. Pokemon names to be specific, Charmander to get really particular, actually. See, in Japan, Charmander is called Hitokage, which literally the word for salamander in Japanese. That itself is sort of a pun, because it means fire lizard, but a straight translation would still render that as either salamander or fire lizard. And then what do we make out of Lizardo and Lizardon, Charmeleon and Charizard’s Japanese equivalents? Fire Lizard Jr., Fire Lizard and Fire Lizard Sr.? Lil’ Fire Lizard to Big Fire Lizard? Nintendo’s trick was to flip the script and go with what localization always tries to do at its best, preserving the original intent without sticking to the literal script. Charmander works. It says fire and lizard and salamander all at once, perfectly preserving the Hitokage pun without just calling it “Salamander”.

Changes like that actually led to a few problems down the line. The longer english names often hit the character limit, leaving Gyarados without his former English title of Skullkraken, and forced the designers to change the status screen orientation for foreign versions of Gold and Silver. Longer names meant they wouldn’t fit in the Japanese version’s vertically oriented menus, forcing a horizontal flip. Some people say that the best localizations are the ones no one notices. A light touch. Pokemon, the first games at least, are probably the lightest touch I’ve seen in a game while still being an enormous amount of work. Charmander is clever, but 151 of those critters is crazy. By now, renaming Pokemon is a science, but in 1998? It was a new frontier. You try to come up with 150 cute puns that kids will get but not get bored of?

I’ll start: Skullkraken.

SKULLKRAKEN

SKULLKRAKEN

Mother 3

If you say so...

If you say so...

Mother 3 is another one of those “look how impressive this text-heavy game’s localization is” kind of games. It’s funny, clever, charming, the puns work, and it all manages to be poignant rather than tripping over the language barrier. Part of that has to do with the script’s pre-existing qualities. Shigesato Itoi, the creator of the Mother/Earthbound series, is a well-regarded and respected writer over in Japan. But, the rest of it comes from a superb english localization courtesy of some folks from the internet.

Mother 3 never came out in America, reportedly because it was a late-period GBA game that would have required a lot of effort, leaving it in the same Japan-only vault as the first Rhythm Heaven game from the same time. Realizing they wouldn’t be be able to play the game unless they did it themselves, Earthbound fans banded together and worked for years on their own translation of the game. Earthbound fans have a reputation for being a bit crazy in their love for the series. Considering Americans only ever got one game out of three in any official capacity, it’s not hard to see their love for the series as a little out there, but it led to possibly the best fan translation of all time, so I’d call it a win.

All of Mother's official art is done with clay figurines, appreciate it, because it'll never happen again.

All of Mother's official art is done with clay figurines, appreciate it, because it'll never happen again.

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One of the really neat things about the localization is that they also launched some merchandise to go along with it. The team released a hardcover guidebook with a full game walkthrough, which came with a keychain. That guide was also the first major release out of Fangamer.net, another product of the Earthbound fan community, which now produces stuff like Earthbound-themed vinyl figures. Also, in a rare look into the localization process, the lead on the project has a series of articles detailing his translation choices throughout the two years of localization work. It’s a worthwhile read, and it’s still amazing that a small group of people could turn out a translation at Nintendo Treehouse quality. I'll be the thousandth person to say that Nintendo should just use their translation in a digital release, but they really should. Unless a player already knew, they'd never guess it wasn't an official job.

Final Fantasy Tactics

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There’s a pig in FFT that has an attack called “nose bracelet”. The dancer class uses the skill “wiznaibus”. The boar enemy classification is listed as “wildbow”. The best part comes early on in the game, when a character is reading something out loud, so you can’t control how fast the text scrolls. In the second sentence, he says “little money”, which takes longer to scroll for each letter than the rest of the text does combined.

 

L

     i

          t

               t

                    l

                         e

                              m

                                   o

                                        n

                                             e

                                                  y

 

Really, it speaks for itself.

Really, it speaks for itself.

If the rest of these games on this primer were great examples of how good localization looks when it’s done right, then the original Playstation version of Final Fantasy Tactics is a crash course on what can go wrong. Back then, Sony was handling Squaresoft’s english translations internally, and they polished the game’s script to a dull brown mess. Nose bracelet is supposed to be oink, which is odd, because bracelet was supposed to be “breath” every other time it appeared in the game. Why else would a dragon have a fire bracelet? Dancers who fight dance “with knives” or “wizu naibusu”, not wiznaibu. The boar is a wild boar, not a particular misbehaved bow. The little money thing seems to be a programming error that cropped up during localization, because there’s nothing like it in the Japanese version.

Whatever you say, lady.

Whatever you say, lady.

The fairly complicated plot, full of political machinations, backstabbing and demonic usurpation of the church is had to follow in the much more coherent PSP remake, so it goes without saying that it makes no damn sense in a version of the game where they manage to misspell Malboro, one of the series’ classic enemies, as Morbol. It’s an impressively terrible translation, which is doubly as terrible because it’s such a great game. Comparing it to the PSP remake, War of the Lions, makes it look like the amateur job it probably was. Fortunately, we all have that version now, so there’s no need to have a death cold about it anymore.

No, I don’t know what that one was supposed to be either.

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Diaries From Drangleic- Dark Souls 2's Open World

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Diaries From Drangleic- Dark Souls 2's Open World

In Dark Souls 1, I never really felt safe in the Firelink Shrine.

What you can't see is the the skeleton army. Or the zombies on the bridge. Or the giant serpent that chills in the pool.

What you can't see is the the skeleton army. Or the zombies on the bridge. Or the giant serpent that chills in the pool.

From the moment I was dropped unceremoniously next to the bonfire by a massive crow, Firelink Shrine felt like a place I was in not because it was in the centre of the world, but because it was the only spot that was free of enemies within a 30 second walk in any direction. Firelink Shrine scared me. It was dark, there was weird snoring coming from the pool in its centre, and that weird cleric off to the side was always cackling evilly. But, it conveniently connected three totally different areas that required totally different skill levels to conquer. Of course, that meant me, a first-time player, had a ⅔ chance of walking into an army of giant skeletons, or falling into an abyss full of untouchable ghosts. Firelink wasn’t a base of operation, or a home, or even a hub world. It was the scary gate to an open world full of horrors that would chew your face off and have your hands for dessert.

The Capra Demon's diet consists of your hands, your feet, and your face. They are delicious.

The Capra Demon's diet consists of your hands, your feet, and your face. They are delicious.

Dark Souls 2, on the other hand, tries to make me feel as safe as possible at any given moment. Every bonfire is just a loading screen’s worth of fast travel away from beautiful, seaside Majula, a magical town without an enemy in sight. Majula is not only home to every NPC you “save” over the course of the game, but also a handy-dandy covenant manager, level-up mistress, and merchants and blacksmiths galore. It’s bright and gorgeous, with probably the nicest fictional sunset I’ve ever seen outside of an anime ending credits sequence. Plus, like Firelink before it, Majula also connects to at least two other locations right off the bat, and more as you explore. Of course, unlike Firelink, those two areas are actually both fairly manageable your first time through. Even though speedrunners and high-level DS1 players found more efficient paths, the Undead Burg was usually your first stop after Firelink. Majula on the other hand hooks you up with the Forest of Fallen Giants, a fairly simple beginners area, and Heide’s Tower of Flame, which is patrolled by seven-foot-tall Knights who wield greatswords twice their size and make you turn around screaming “nope” all the way back to the bonfire.

A view to die for! Repeatedly, and painfully.

A view to die for! Repeatedly, and painfully.

But Heide’s is manageable for a player who’s quick enough on their feet to dance around the lumbering knights. As a bonus, it's also home to some items that could make the early game much friendlier for a first-time player. Emphasizing that, both Heide’s and the easier forest loop around to the same end location after a while, merely approaching it from different ends.

But the way from Majula to Heide’s doesn’t feel terribly organic. The path is through a tunnel that goes through some sewers before spilling out to a beautiful ruin floating in the ocean. You can’t see Majula past the high cliffs, and you definitely can’t see the underground catacombs that Heide’s will lead you to by the end. It’s a distinct shift from DS1, which delighted in showing you what was coming, only to pull the rug out from underneath just before you got there. You see the foot of the Undead Burg’s drake long before you see the drake itself, and the first bell is visible from the moment you walk into the city. The world doesn’t only let you go anywhere, but it’s willing to show you everything, almost as if to say “you see that belltower? It’s not just scenery, you can climb it.”

My god, it's full of shortcuts.

My god, it's full of shortcuts.

That’s part of what made DS1’s open world so enticing. Everything was not only interconnected, but also visible from anywhere else. Everything fit together and became accessible in logical ways. The Valley of Drakes opens up to the Darkroot Garden, which leads to a backdoor into the Undead Parish, giving a smart player a quick shortcut up to the first bell. Learning the world and its labyrinthine connections was as much of a strategy as learning how to fight.

But I still haven’t gotten that feeling from DS2 yet. Sure, it took a few months and constant speedrunning to find out how to best use DS1’s dense, tightly wound world to avoid challenges and run through the world without a care, but the evidence was there from the beginning. Everything up until Anor Londo was deeply and intricately connected in a way that made sense- in a way that made Lordran feel like a real world. DS2’s Drangleic feels more like Peach’s Castle from Mario 64 than anything else.

Basically Dark Souls.

Basically Dark Souls.

It’s classic hub and spokes design. Majula branches into three or four areas as the game goes on, each in turn then branches out again. Some of these branches intersect, but nothing ever winds back into Majula. Peach’s Castle opened up into dozens of areas, including new floors of the castle when it came time to open up a few more levels. Of course, Drangleic is a little bit more open and intricate than that, but it’s the same basic design philosophy. Lordran was tightly wound to the point where some levels suffered from having to fit back together into a greater whole, but it led to a dense, cohesive world. Each of Drangleic’s areas are vast in scope and feel like fantastically designed individual challenges, but never quite come together as a single unit. I know that Majula and Heide’s are both by the sea, but I honestly couldn’t place them on a map for you.

No, that tower ISN'T Heide's, nice guess though.

No, that tower ISN'T Heide's, nice guess though.

The problem is only exacerbated by fast travel, which DS2 gives you from the word go. You’ll need it, because areas are much bigger and getting between them would be a pain without it, but I get the sense that the chicken came before the egg here. DS1 gave you fast travel as a reward for finishing half the main game and making it to Anor Londo, the bottleneck-y, hyper-linear, vipers nest of an endgame. Fast travel was meant to be freeing and empowering, giving you control over this world that you’d been struggling to navigate for the last thirty hours. The designers may have reacted so positively to it, they gave it to you at the beginning this time, which made them able to make much more compartmentalized levels. It all smacks a little bit of Demon’s Souls, the predecessor to the Dark Souls series, but since I haven’t played a lot of Demon’s I can’t really speak to that.

Majula is beautiful, ruined, and toothless.

Majula is beautiful, ruined, and toothless.

I’m not sure if that really matters in terms of designing an open world though. It’s nice that DS1 is a tightly wound coil of a world, endlessly circling back into itself again and again, but DS2 features such incredibly different areas, all with fantastic, individual designs. At the end of the Heide’s/Forest loop, you’ll find an area called the Lost Bastille, which can be approached from whichever entrance you happen to find first. It’s a beautifully designed level that is challenging both forwards and back, and has a sort of high road/low road balance that makes it super fascinating to explore over and over. But, you get there through what basically amounts to warping. The Lost Bastille doesn’t really feel like it’s part of the same world as Heide’s and Majula, but if it had to open to those, I can’t imagine it would have the same scope or style. It looks nothing like the rest of Dragnleic, which is great and refreshing, but stops it from feeling like it’s as real a world as Lordran.

Then again, DS1 started extremely open before completely bottlenecking you towards the middle chunk of the game, and DS2 shows no signs of slowing down the rate it gives me new areas to explore. A big part of what made DS1 so open was also the master key, which opened almost every door in the game, and was available on the character creation screen. There’s no item like that anywhere in DS2, as if to say off the bat that you aren’t going to get to dictate your movements through the world as easily this time around. It leads to DS2 being a much more directed game, with more set pieces and planned ambushes. It’s a great game, but I’m not sure if it really uses the open world concept quite as effectively.

Press X to Enter the Mis-wait wrong game.

Press X to Enter the Mis-wait wrong game.

It’s interesting, however, to see DS2 take a much more classic stance on open world design, drawing directly from Super Mario 64, the granddaddy of 3D sandbox games. The world is huge, but it is it really a world? Or just a collection of levels hidden behind paintings?

Actually, DS1 had a world hidden in a painting as well, so it tried that too. Nevermind, Dark Souls 2 sucks, everyone go home and play Mario.


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Walking the Straight and Narrow- Linearity isn't a Bad Word

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Walking the Straight and Narrow- Linearity isn't a Bad Word

Linearity is a bad word.

When it comes to games, linearity is one of those dreaded concepts no one dares say aloud, for fear of angering the internet. It's not the worst concept though. That terrible title probably belongs to "free-to-play", or maybe "full reactive eyes entertainment”. In fact, if you just go back a few years, linearity wasn't the hot buzzword everyone loved to hate, it wasn't even talked about. Certain games were set aside as being open world games, because linearity was the standard. Now, the script's been flipped. The last major AAA release I can think of that didn't feature an open world was Call of Duty: Ghosts, and its single-player campaign is by no means the "point" of that game.

Assassin's Creed IV would be improved by a real-time Scurvy system, don't you think?

Assassin's Creed IV would be improved by a real-time Scurvy system, don't you think?

Meanwhile, every multi-million dollar series worth its salt features an open world, each one claiming to be bigger, open-er, and world-ier than the last. Assassin's Creed IV, Batman: Arkham Knight, and of course Grand Theft Auto V lead the charge, coming from a relatively long line of open world predecessors, but even brand new IPs, like Watch Dogs and Sunset Overdrive are launching as big, open world games. Not that we're seeing much in the way of new IPs these days. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is taking the Metal Gear series into an open world for the first time, and the recent Tomb Raider reboot combined its spectacular Uncharted impression with its best shot at placing Lara in an open world that didn't really matter.

Still crossing my fingers for the ability to hack vending machines and get all the nestea I can handle.

Still crossing my fingers for the ability to hack vending machines and get all the nestea I can handle.

Open worlds are basically the MSG of game mechanics. You just add a little, and it makes everything seem to taste better. Or, the way publishers see it, adding an open world is a guarantee that your game will sell better than if it didn't. Because open worlds sell, you see.

And why wouldn't they? Video games are, at their core, about interacting with a world and having agency over it. A big open world that doesn't lead your anywhere by the nose is pretty close to the ultimate expression of that concept. Some people see video games' endpoint as the holodeck from Star Trek, a fully immersive, totally realistic simulation of whatever you want to experience. They aren't terribly far off, at least if the progression of open world games is anything to work off of. Add a health bar and a wanted meter, and Picard is basically playing Grand Theft Auto: XXVII.

Excuse the terrible Photoshop job, we're still in Alpha.

Excuse the terrible Photoshop job, we're still in Alpha.

Straight up? That isn't a dragon. Try harder, ATARI.

Straight up? That isn't a dragon. Try harder, ATARI.

But there's another school of thought here, the idea that games are a focused exploration of a specific set of concepts and mechanics, that they shouldn't try to be everything, because you'll never perfect that. Games didn't start as trying to replicate the holodeck experience. At first they were trying to replicate ping-pong, to be fair, but then we got into focused looks at more fantastical mechanics. Mario let you jump twice your own height, and asked you to figure out how to best control that. Mega Man put you through a gauntlet of mazes and traps, then asked you to learn from the environment and figure out how to best use the tools you'd acquired from bosses. Even Adventure wasn't trying to simulate something so much as it was trying to help you learn that dragons could look like ducks too.

BARF

BARF

But, in order to properly explore those mechanics, those games had to be linear. Directed. Focused. It wasn't a technical limitation either, considering that River City Ransom came out in 1989. To be fair, RCR was a pretty small, simple take on the open world concept, but it does show that the idea not only existed, but was possible, even in the early days of game design. But, RCR was big and spread thin. There wasn't a ton of complexity to it, most of the fun was had in seeing how the open world and mechanics could be abused. It introduced the world, or at least the few people who had played it at the time, to emergent gameplay, which would go on to become one of open world design's strongest selling points.

The point is, games were linear for a long time for a reason, and it wasn't technology. A linear, heavily directed experience is the best way to show players how to best take advantage of deeper mechanics, the easiest way to adjust the difficulty curve, and the easiest way to tell a story. Look at Ocarina of Time's Shadow Link battle. Link enters an empty room with an island in the middle. You walk over to the island, nothing's there, but you see a door on the other side of the room. You check out the door and it's locked, so you turn back the way you came and suddenly Shadow Link is waiting on the island. It's a simple experience, but distinctly affecting, and one of the most memorable parts of that game. Obviously it's just a tiny moment in one room, but it works as a microcosm of Ocarina of Time's design philosophy as a whole:

Make the player think they have agency.

Nothing to see here...

Nothing to see here...

The best linear design is all about illusion- tricking the player into assuming they have choices over how events transpire. In the locked room, Link can go anywhere, but reaching the other door will trigger the encounter. So the developers put the island in the middle of the room, giving the player an extra stop on their journey, a point of interest that delays the inevitable. You have a choice of stopping at the island, but you have to go to the locked door, no choices there. Of course, you don't really choose to go to the island either, since it was put there specifically so you'd notice it and go there first. It's a magic trick of game design, perfect direction that wouldn't be possible in a nonlinear experience. Ocarina of Time does it the whole way through. Hyrule Field opens up to four or five areas, but you can only get so far into each before having to turn around due to missing equipment. You can choose to hit up the Zora river before Death Mountain, you just won't get very far. In the end, Death Mountain has to come first.

It's a great way to tell a story, and a great way to prey on player expectations and surprise them. Of course, open world mechanics do worm themselves in everywhere, because more choice is actually a pretty good selling point. If games really are power fantasies, then choice is what makes us feel powerful. The more choices, the more power, and the more those choices affect the world  the better they become.

Say you're sorry, Kenny. [Get Punched.]

Say you're sorry, Kenny. [Get Punched.]

Of course, when you get to a situation like Telltale's The Walking Dead games, which feature choices with real consequences to them, most of the power is stripped away. Power doesn't react well to real consequences, it just wants immediate gratification. If I choose to ramp this car over a bridge, I want to see a sweet jump and maybe an explosion at the end, not get a ticket and file paperwork for the damages I caused.

Krogan breath smells like turtle soup and vomit.

Krogan breath smells like turtle soup and vomit.

Which is why everything is open world now. Power fantasies are not only in right now, they've defined games for a very long time. It may suck for some, but it is true. All those big, AAA open world titles I mentioned up top are all power fantasies. The bigger a world is, the more thinly spread it is as well. Choices don't really have consequences in an open world because they can't. The whole world can't shift so easily, that would require a massive amount of assets that most developers just don't have. It's why Mass Effect's and Infamous's moral choice choice systems are all smoke, mirrors and fluff, and why Telltale's the Walking Dead is such a small, linear experience. An open world is better suited to power fantasy, because it inspires choice without consequence, while a linear experience is better used when trying to tell a cohesive story.

Skyrim! Or: A Finnish child's backyard.

Skyrim! Or: A Finnish child's backyard.

It's why linear shouldn't be a bad word either. Linearity lets you focus on mechanics and refine them to perfection, lets you get players caught up in a focused narrative, lets you construct a difficulty curve that makes sense. Opening up the world and letting the player mess around as they choose throws those things out of balance. Which isn't to say open worlds are bad. They aren't just mindless power fantasies, they can only be huge worlds to explore, or have rich histories to discover, like Skyrim, Shadow of the Colossus, or Wind Waker.

So, no, linearity isn't a bad word. Neither is open world. Instead of thinking of them as positive and negative concepts, maybe we should start thinking of the two like we do writing perspectives. A novel can be written in first person or third person, with an omniscient narrator, or an unreliable one. They're different tools, with different uses, and each one is best suited to a different kind of job.

Except for the free to play tool, that tool broke years ago, no way we're going to fix it now.

Nothing but open sea for miles! Nothing. Nothing...at all....

Nothing but open sea for miles! Nothing. Nothing...at all....


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Op-Ed: Bigger isn't Better

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Op-Ed: Bigger isn't Better

I am the night, I am looking for a good parking space.

I am the night, I am looking for a good parking space.

The other day, Warner Brothers announced that the next Batman game, Arkham Knight, was not going to be handled internally, like the tepidly received Arkham Origins, but instead returned the reins to the developers that made the series famous, Rocksteady.

Rocksteady, now the prodigal son of the Batman: Arkham Noun games, worked on Batman: Arkham Asylum, which was hailed as the best licensed game ever, and the the inventor of the coolest new genre: Batman Simulator. Their follow up, Batman: Arkham City was similarly well-received, though some fans found the new open world mechanics to miss the point of the fantastically well-directed, almost metroidvania style approach that Asylum took.

Origins, of course, upped the ante with a bigger world, but it was also a buggy mess, and now that there's a proper heir to the throne, people are beginning to toss out the now-evident pretender. So, what do Rocksteady and WB choose to highlight with their announcement? What does the prodigal son's return bring to the fans?

Asylum featured groundbreaking for the time advanced locker technology.

Asylum featured groundbreaking for the time advanced locker technology.

Well, a pretty slickly produced CG-trailer, which had to cost at least a million dollars, two and a half million, tops. They aren't messing around with this, Batman is their money maker. Which means they also have their pre-order DLC lined up in a row. "Buy early and you can play as Harley Quinn," they yell, like some sort of demented carny barker trying to fleece you out of your hard-earned dimes. "You've gotta pay extra if you buy the game used!"

Other than the fact that the game's budget is likely pretty high, when you factor in that trailer as indicative of their marketing budget, and the cost of the Batman license (if WB has to pay it at all). The game is expensive, is what I'm saying, to the point where they have to sell you a feature-missing version of the game if you buy it used. The only other thing we know about the game is that it will feature the "entirety of Gotham City."

Batman's looking for a good room for a good price.

Batman's looking for a good room for a good price.

Expanding the world is a logical choice, all things considered. Arkham Asylum featured a small island to explore, which was ramped up to a slice of walled-off Gotham in Arkham City, and now, finally, we get the full Batman experience, swinging across the rooftops of Gotham and driving down the streets in the Batmobile. The problem is that Arkham City was already sort of empty and boring at times, what happens if we make it even bigger?

You could almost think of "bigger is better" as the adage that drives AAA gaming these days. Assassin's Creed started with separate levels, then moved to an open world, each one having to be exponentially larger than the last in order to justify its existence. At a preview event, I played Assassin's Creed IV on a ludicrously sized television, and the map was still so huge it boggled my mind. Of course, it was mostly water, but that's still size. When you have an open world, the easiest way to tell consumers that your sequel is going to be better is to tell them the world is going to be bigger, and that's exactly what WB and Rocksteady are doing.

Arkham Originsfeatures some of Batman's most famous rogues! Like Black Mask, and uh...Copperhead! And....this guy in a hood.

Arkham Originsfeatures some of Batman's most famous rogues! Like Black Mask, and uh...Copperhead! And....this guy in a hood.

Far be it from me to throw them any shade on this though. I loved both of Rocksteady's Batman games, and even though I preferred Asylum, City's open world was a pretty cool idea to toss in. And, of course, "bigger" is what moves copies. I will throw shade on ALREADY having pre-order DLC, but that's an entirely different article. But, the bigger-is-better mentality behind Arkham Knight is not only worrying, but indicative of a larger problem in modern, AAA game making.

Every game features an open world these days, mostly because Grand Theft Auto sells well. Assassin's Creed went open world, Tomb Raider went open world, Saint's Row's entire existence is proof that "crime focused open world game" is a genre distinction now that GTA is the most popular thing going. In fact, it's almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Grand Theft Auto sells well, thus more games feature open worlds, thus more open world games sell well, which makes publishers think that open world means good sales, thus more sequels with open worlds are developed and so on and so forth until the heat death of the universe.

A huge world of water. And more water. Didn't people hate this in Wind Waker like a decade ago? 

A huge world of water. And more water. Didn't people hate this in Wind Waker like a decade ago? 

Of course, that's not only true of open worlds, but when you make a game in the other most popular game genre going right now, first person shooters, you can't really rely on having "more guns" as your big sequel sales hook. A bigger world is a tangible thing people always want, without necessarily worrying about the consequences. If open worlds are your jam, then of course you want a bigger one. More places to explore, more ways to get around, more NPCs to brutalize in new, unexpected ways, it's pretty much everything you want from an open world sequel.

Look, if you just read that paragraph over there, this would make a lot more sense.

Look, if you just read that paragraph over there, this would make a lot more sense.

The problem is that most of the time, they just end up diluting the formula. If the core gameplay, the moment-to-moment things you're doing in a game is like chocolate syrup, you want a glass of chocolate milk. There needs to be some milk in there, so you aren't just pouring syrup into your mouth. Think of the milk as the world, the details that embellish a game. The game does need to be a little deeper than just a core idea, after all. But when you start adding too much milk, you start to lose the flavour. You can barely taste the chocolate syrup anymore, and all you really have is vaguely brown milk. Then you add even more milk and the cup overflows and you've just made a whole mess of the kitchen. Clean this up, right now.

I may have lost the thread at the end there, but the idea is, the bigger your world gets, the less likely it is to properly highlight the core gameplay of the world, and the more likely it is to feel bland and empty. When there’s so much negative space between missions and side quests, you find yourself just running between things, doing a whole lot of nothing for minutes at a time. The Batman games have a pretty neat grappling and gliding mechanic, but even that gets old. Saint’s Row IV let me leap over buildings, run faster than any car, and BASE jump to my targets from the top of the world, and I still got bored of getting from point A to point B. I suppose that it makes me appreciate it more when I’m actually playing the game, but that’s like saying it would be harder if you chopped off my thumbs, it’s illogical. The best excuse for an open world, in my mind, is atmosphere. I love Shadow of the Colossus’ big empty world because it’s so eerie and beautifully designed, not because I have to spend 10 minutes running from the central temple to the Colossus each time I’m itching for a fight. But, the bigger your world is, the less time and money you have for details. Saint’s Row IVs city is huge, but it’s also sterile. The same billboards show up again and again, building interiors, for the ones that even have such a thing, are bland and boring. Most of the skyscrapers and houses are the same stock model with slight alterations. You don’t notice it, because you don’t really slow down to look at the world at all, but take a look. It’s not because the developers are lazy, it’s just a symptom of having such a huge world to develop. They can’t make a million unique houses, they don’t have that kind of time or money. No one does.

It's a big city...

It's a big city...

...and a bigger world.

...and a bigger world.

Well, Rockstar does, considering GTA V took five years to make and cost more than $150 million after you deduct advertising costs from the budget. But they’re the glorious exception. They can have huge detailed worlds because they have both the time and the money that no one else could even dream of. Look at Shenmue. That game cost $47 million in 1999, making it the most expensive game ever developed at the time, and ninth on Wikipedia’s list of the most expensive games ever developed. Shenmue’s open world was tiny, but incredibly detailed, with little things like drawers you could open, and other tiny, almost unnoticeable background features. Of course, GTA III came out just a short while later and blew it out of the water with it’s comparatively massive world. It was cheaper, bigger, wasn’t delayed nearly as many times as Shenmue, and far more successful. Bigger is better. Detail is the enemy of budgets and release schedules.

But bigger isn’t better, is it? The world is big but empty and lifeless. The world takes hours to trek across, but those are hours you aren’t actually playing the game. The world is bigger than ever before, but every building looks the same, and the NPCs mull about pointlessly like they always have. A bigger world isn’t a bad idea per se, but if it’s your priority over actually making the gameplay more interesting, or the existing world more detailed and interesting to explore, you’re just feeding the problem. There’s no innovation in getting bigger, you’re just diluting the chocolate milk. And eventually, it’ll get to be so bland that no one’s going to want to drink it.


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OP-ED: Loathe to Love

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OP-ED: Loathe to Love

I think I hate games.

Not because I don’t like them, I’ve been playing games my whole life, and video games for longer than I remember at this point. I have a few moral objections to things in the gaming industry, but nothing that really makes me want to stop playing them forever. No, I think I hate games because I’m almost always destroying them.

HULK SMASH PUNY EMOTIONAL OPINIONS

HULK SMASH PUNY EMOTIONAL OPINIONS

Recently, I played last year’s Tomb Raider reboot. In it, Lara massacres the population of an entire island, almost single handedly. She kills an animal or two as the plot demands it, but most of her time is spent slaughtering the hundreds of beardy goons who get in her way. This is a far cry from the original Tomb Raider, where Lara was more interested in climbing and jumping around ancient ruins than fighting the four human enemies she comes across. Of course, the shift can be explained by realizing that modern Tomb Raider is inspired by Uncharted, which is in turn inspired by classic Tomb Raider, but I digress.

Take THAT, you beardy goon. 

Take THAT, you beardy goon. 

Tomb Raider has always featured that sort of destructive relationship with the world. The title even admits that Lara is a thief, a Tomb Raider, and, like Indiana Jones, she’s a scrupulous hero at best. You might ask why a name matters, but when you look at the titles of our most popular games today, you start to get a picture of the problem. Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed, all of them pretty squarely place your relationship with the world as an antagonistic one. You are a soldier, at war, a career criminal, an assassin. These are the fantasies we want to play out. We want to destroy.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. People need release, power fantasies sell, and with good reason. It caters to our instinct to lash out, to get even with the world and work through our frustrations in a safe environment. It’s fun to crash a car into a pedestrian in Grand Theft Auto because you’ve been annoyed at pedestrians before. It’s fun to kill a cop because you get to thumb your nose at the authorities. You’re the underdog, using the game as a way to fight back .

But there is a severe imbalance.

Three beardy goons, one arrow, and a pocket full of napalm. What's a girl to do?

Three beardy goons, one arrow, and a pocket full of napalm. What's a girl to do?

Throughout my tenure as a person who plays video games, I’ve depopulated kingdoms, rendered entire races of mystical creatures extinct, and beaten the ever-loving crap about of Ken Masters like a thousand times.

TAKE THAT, MASTERS. EAT MY DUMB PLASMA FIST.

TAKE THAT, MASTERS. EAT MY DUMB PLASMA FIST.

But I can count on one hand the games where I feel like my love for existing in the world was proportional to my having a positive relationship with it. Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon come to mind, sure, but even generally family-friendly Nintendo games like Mario and Zelda are about nothing but destroying the world and its inhabitants. The plot of the first two Metroids is literally Samus committing genocide.

Seriously, Metroid II keeps track of how many Metroids you have left to kill until you've eradicated the species.

Seriously, Metroid II keeps track of how many Metroids you have left to kill until you've eradicated the species.

It’s not hard to see where this destructive impetus comes from. Games tend to have a winner and a loser, and the distinction usually involves the winner triumphing in some way over the loser. Winning makes us feel good, especially when it means we beat someone else. In this case, that someone else is the computer, or in a more immediate sense, the game world.

I’m not calling for an end to video game violence or something like that. Games have violence like movies have violence. The recent crusades against violent games are the same crusade waged against rap, cartoons, movies and rock and roll. And personally, I sort of like violent games. Not always, and not senselessly violent games, but I’m not above playing Saint’s Row and kicking someone so hard in the balls they fly across the street. I’m not above feeling satisfied that I got a really clean headshot in Uncharted. I’m not above feeling that adrenaline rush that comes when you’ve accomplished something challenging, even if it involves killing a few dozen fictional dudes. Because they’re just that: fictional.

Catharsis, in .gif form.

Catharsis, in .gif form.

Games come from a tradition of winning and losing, but their key strength over board, card or playground games is showing you your moment to moment progress. A video game can always make you feel like you’re getting better. The easiest way to do that is have you complete multiple tasks, or in the now-common gaming parlance, “beat them”.

You beat a game, you rarely finish it, and you never end it. You beat it.

You assert dominance over it by completing every task it asks you to accomplish. The simplest task for someone to understand is defeating someone else with similar tools. Think about football. The core actions you do in a game of football are easy to understand because they’re just basic actions. Throwing, catching, kicking. You’ve known how to do those things since you were a baby. Video games on the other hand require you to press certain buttons and move sticks around to manipulate a 2D or 3D plane. It’s hard enough wrapping your brain around the actions necessary to make your on-screen avatar do anything at all, let alone trying to explain some asinine set of rules you’ve layered over those actions. Imagine if football never existed as a sport, and only as a video game. A newcomer would have to not only figure out how to control the game and manipulate it as a player, but also figure out its many, many rules on top of that. It’s hard, and would make people stop playing pretty quickly- the last thing any developer wants.

So, our games give us tools, explain how to use them, and then ask us to beat someone up. That person is hurting you, use your tools to hurt them more. Use your tools in conjunction, develop strategies, but make sure you kill them before they kill you. It’s easy to understand, caters to our natural instincts, and best of all, it’s fun.

I am the cowlord, bow before your moo-ster.

I am the cowlord, bow before your moo-ster.

I love Harvest Moon, but it is an incredibly complicated game for being “just” about farming. Chulip, a game about love, suffers because its goals are poorly communicated and abstract. Visual novels and dating sims are derided because all you do is read. You can’t win. In order to make a complex goal, you need to simplify the game, which doesn’t sell. In order to have a complex enough game, you need to simplify the goal, which makes it easier to lean on destruction, because that does sell.

Love is complicated, love is hard, we’ve always known that. Which is why hate sells so well. We want to feel powerful, and it’s easy to feel powerful when you’re constantly proving yourself superior to everything else in the world. Eventually you become the most powerful thing in the world. Destructive power fantasy is easy. And though it’s hard for me to say it, I like it sometimes too. It’s fun to feel powerful.

To be fair, I can see how this might actually be a little destructive. But it's for the good of mankind!

To be fair, I can see how this might actually be a little destructive. But it's for the good of mankind!

But, It’s also fun to feel like I’m making a positive contribution to the world. It’s fun to feel like I’ve made people’s lives better in the Ace Attorney games, or changed the world a little bit in Harvest Moon, all without hurting anyone or destroying anything. Even destructive games that aren’t about violence, like Katamari Damacy or Portal are rare creatures these days.

After finishing Tomb Raider last month, I decided that I wasn’t going to play another game this year where I was doing nothing but shooting people. It’s a small gesture. I’m still going to end up playing things where I have a negative impact on the world, or primarily interact with things though violence, but I want to put down the guns at least Just as a symbolic move. I want more Harvest Moons, more Ace Attorneys, more Catherines. I don’t want to want to have to hurt a single digital soul to get them.

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Why do Romantic Options Suck?

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Why do Romantic Options Suck?

Commander Citrine Shepard of the SSV Normandy didn’t have time for romance. To her, the characters who wanted to jump her bones were boring, flat, and occasionally psychotic. Thane was clearly on a suicidal rebound after the death of his wife, Jacob may as well have been a computer terminal that hung out in the weapons lab, and Garrus was just a friend. Not to mention Samara was the virgin mary and the commander would feel like a predator by responding to Yeoman Chambers’ repeated requests for a consequence-free night. Either way, this was a suicide mission goddamnit. No time for fun or games or trying to figure out how you would even get Garrus’s armor off in the first place.

I will take ANY excuse to use this image. Any excuse.

I will take ANY excuse to use this image. Any excuse.

I mean, isn’t that thing like fused to his body at this point? Have you ever seen him wear a t-shirt?

In real life though, Commander Shepard didn’t romance anyone because the player (me) wasn’t interested in the handful of options presented. Personally, Tali seemed like a fun character to interact with, and I like her rapport with my Shepard. It seemed a shame she couldn’t be romanced by a Shepard of either gender. So, I rolled a male Shepard on another run just to see what happened.

I was just as bored with her romance as I was with everyone else’s.

Quarian containment suits also function as convenient censors in case of unexpected intimate situations.

Quarian containment suits also function as convenient censors in case of unexpected intimate situations.

Bioware games are often hailed as some of the best written games of all time, with fantastic characters and, of course, romantic options. Unfortunately, those romantic options fall flat more often than not. Just be nice to a character, and eventually they’ll want to jump your bones. Then, you’re treated to a sexless sex scene and go on with your game, only ever thinking about it when the character mentions your night together in passing.

The problem is that there isn’t a lot of space in Mass Effect, or even any Bioware game, to develop a relationship past the surface level one presented to you. Tali might grow as a character after you complete her loyalty missions and see how she acts in dire situations, but your relationship with her never goes beyond a commander-subordinate or friend-friend, unless you flip the magic switch that makes her super physically attracted to you.

These kids belong together, mostly because they can never ever leave their crazy space armor,

These kids belong together, mostly because they can never ever leave their crazy space armor,

Dating sims excel at growing a believable relationship between you and another character because that’s all they do. You only get to have actual conversations with your partner characters in Mass Effect between missions, the meat of the game. Essentially, it’s a matter of where the gameplay focus is. If the gameplay focus is romance, you need to make it work. If it’s shooting aliens with fireballs, romance is probably a secondary concern.

That’s not to say what Bioware does isn’t admirable. Their characters are spectacular, and it’s easy to see why people want to fall in love with any of them. Garrus is charmingly awkward, Tali is sweet and kind, Jacob is...uh...well, you get the gist. There’s the secondary problem of the odd selection of characters you’re given to romance. There are always complaints that certain characters’ romances are exclusive to one gender, or that some characters aren’t romanceable at all.

In fact, Dragon Age lead writer David Gaider addressed this in a blog post recently. He mentioned that people are always disappointed, either in the romances themselves or the selection of available romances. He says he’s been accused of having an agenda by fans angry that their character didn’t get picked. And he answers the burning question that’s been scorching my tongue since the Tali romance annoyed me so much, why not drop them entirely?

To be fair, Dragon Age gets a little more risque than Mass Effect does, but that's probably because Alistair doesn't wear a 10-ton suit that's keeping him alive.

To be fair, Dragon Age gets a little more risque than Mass Effect does, but that's probably because Alistair doesn't wear a 10-ton suit that's keeping him alive.

Gaider says that Bioware’s strength is in their character writing. That romances are a Bioware signature, something unique that they do that almost every other major game developer can’t even get started on, let alone get right. Gaider asks what they could replace romances with? Whatever it is, he says, had better be “damned good.”

And I’m inclined to agree with Gaider, if only because other romantic “options” fall flat on their faces. Maybe Bioware doesn’t nail the romantic part of the equation, or even the choice part super well, but they do make characters you want to fall in love with. I’ve never seen another game with characters that even get close to approaching that.

"It's only natural that I fall in love...because you are the protagonist and you talked to me like 30 times."

"It's only natural that I fall in love...because you are the protagonist and you talked to me like 30 times."

The Persona games feature various romantic options as “social links”, relationships you can build to give you a boost in battle. The problem is, there’s really no choice to them. Sure, you can pick better options that’ll please your chosen paramour, but at the end of the day, as long as you talk to them enough, they’ll go out with you. Persona 4 doesn’t even penalize you for cheating on your girlfriends. You could be dating the entire town, and no one even bats an eye. And trust me, they all know, it’s a tiny town.

Hubba's a creepy old man, but at least he's open minded.

Hubba's a creepy old man, but at least he's open minded.

Fire Emblem: Awakening’s shipping mechanic, in which you pair off characters to increase their stats and create new units from their children is less about romance and more about playing matchmaker god. Pick who goes with who, and as long as they’re compatible, they’ll pop out a kid for your army. No choices, no mess, no fuss. It’s like chess, but you can pick the pieces up and make them kiss until a new piece magically appears.

Even games that feature romantic interests for their protagonists without the illusions of choice tend to be lame. Uncharted’s Elena exists mostly to shrug and look annoyed whenever protagonist Nathan Drake quips after slaughtering a village of mercenaries. Most of the time, we don’t even get to to know the love interests. Shadow of the Colossus starts with the death of Mono, Wander’s beloved, and we have to help rescue her. Dishonored begins with the murder of the empress, and then eventually gets around to telling the player that oh yeah, turns out she and Corvo were totally getting it on in the bedroom and you should probably take this whole thing more personally.

To be fair, Mono never said NOT to make a deal with the devil for her life. She never really said anything, actually...

To be fair, Mono never said NOT to make a deal with the devil for her life. She never really said anything, actually...

That’s mostly a quirk of writing though. Revenge is an easy motivation for the slaughter of thousands,  and games tend to have less than stellar writing, simply because they need to put their priorities into making something that plays well. Obviously, there are plenty of games that buck the trend, but when you combine stilted writing and the illusion of romantic choice, you’re just asking for disaster.

Go on! Bake her a cake!

Go on! Bake her a cake!

Very few games nail both sides of that equation Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story is a visual novel with dating sim elements, and has two spectacularly well-written paths for its romanceable characters. Of course, they’re the only two characters in the game, and since it’s a visual novel, it lives and dies by its writing. Unfortunately though, it’s not the standard. Most of the time we have games like Persona, with great writing, but sort of lackluster “romance” elements, or Fire Emblem, with an interesting romance system, but a lack of real options.

CHROM: LIVE AND UNCENSORED.

CHROM: LIVE AND UNCENSORED.

Seriously, the fact that Fire Emblem: Awakening doesn’t let you ship the male cast with each other is a crying shame, especially considering the way some of them act around each other.

But, romantic options are here to stay, simply because they’re popular, and for good reason. We like having choices, we like to customize our experience. Also, some consumers really like the idea that they’ll get a PG 13 sex scene at some point during the game. But, they might just keep feeling half-hearted, at least for a little bit.

Big-budget, AAA titles don’t prioritize fantastic writing, because it’s not something they think their core audience cares about. Similarly, they tend to avoid having same-sex relationships in games because they want to remain “uncontroversial”. Due to budget and time concerns, It’s harder for smaller indie games, which often have the space to prioritize good writing, to have significant romantic options if that isn’t the whole point of their game, like in Analogue. Like it or not Bioware really is the only studio with a big budget behind them who tries to have significant romantic options at all in a game that isn’t about romance. Maybe Intelligent Systems will try harder with their next Fire Emblem though. Hopefully they learn from their mistakes, because man, I ship Chrom and Frederick so hard.

They're adorable!

They're adorable!

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Adults Only- The History of Sex in Video Games

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Adults Only- The History of Sex in Video Games

Games can’t have sex in them. Sure, Mass Effect can insinuate sex and cut to black, and God of War can feature a topless lady or two, but when it comes to a realistic, mature depiction of sex, major publishers and the ESRB get skittish.

Look, we're gonna be playing loose with screenshots here. Things might get NSFW in here, but hopefully nothing that could get you in trouble beyond an awkward glance or two.

Look, we're gonna be playing loose with screenshots here. Things might get NSFW in here, but hopefully nothing that could get you in trouble beyond an awkward glance or two.

Full frontal, uncensored nudity will get you slapped with an AO rating. Adults only, 17 and up, the video game equivalent of movie’s NC17. It’s been described as the kiss of death for any game that gets it, since none of the console manufacturers let AO games on their machines, and many brick and mortar stores refuse to stock them as well. Games that get the dreaded AO are often resubmitted with edits and censors to bring them down to an R, just because they’d never sell otherwise. The only console games rated AO are Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which was re-rated after the hot coffee scandal, and re-re-rated after a patch, and Thrill Kill, which was never released. Everything else is sleazy PC games like Riana Rouge, and Wet: The Sexy Empire.

An extremely NSFW screenshot from Night Life. So filthy.

An extremely NSFW screenshot from Night Life. So filthy.

So PC is where sexy games thrive, not just in North America, but all over the world. While North Americans got Sierra’s Soft Porn Adventure in 1981, Japan was hot on our tail just a year later, with Koei’s Night Life, a PC-8801 game that birthed the eroge (EROtic + GamE) genre. Interestingly, Night Life wasn’t meant for single dudes; it was marketed towards couples, with a catalog of sex positions to try out and a schedule for tracking a woman’s period. It might seem weird that Koei was at the fore of the sex game industry, but other Japanese publishers jumped on that boat immediately. Square, Enix and Nihon Falcom all published early eroge in the 80s. In 1986, a company called Macadamia Soft released 177, a game named after the Japanese legal code for rape, wherein the layer character did some pretty horrible things. The controversy made it all the way to the Japanese diet, and cooled eroge publishing for a time, until developers banded together to put 18+ stickers on all their games, a practice that still exists in Japan to this day.

Not to be beat, American developer Mystique upped the ante, releasing the infamous Atari 2600 “porn games” Bachelor Party, Custer’s Revenge, and Beat ‘Em and ‘Eat Em in 1982. All three are renowned for being generally awful, amazingly offensive, and for being punchlines that come up whenever sex and games are mentioned in the same breath. Mystique vanished in 1983, another victim of the video game market crash, and was replaced by Playaround, who went on to release a handful of adult-themed games, though impressively, each of Playaround’s games had two modes, one intended for men, and the other for women. Of course, they were aimed towards straight men and women, but still, a fairly forward thinking move from a company who almost released a role-reversed version of Custer’s Revenge.

If your boss asks you what this is, look them dead in the eyes and say "HISTORY", Then, clean out your desk. 

If your boss asks you what this is, look them dead in the eyes and say "HISTORY", Then, clean out your desk. 

Gals Panic is SFW as long as you're bad at it.

Gals Panic is SFW as long as you're bad at it.

After that, Japan started delving deeper into new erotic genres. ASCII made Chaos Angels, an erotic RPG, in the 90s, Kaneko modified Qix, Taito’s tile-revealing puzzle game and put pictures of women in various states of undress under the tiles, making Gals Panic. Japanese developers were, and are, fantastic with names. Meanwhile, America was seeing tamer games like Leisure Suit Larry in 1987, which featured no nudity, but strong sexual themes. It was definitely made for adults, with lots of sexual references and dirty jokes, but it rarely gets any more mature than, say, Family Guy. Even so, retailers refused to stock Leisure Suit Larry, Sierra employees threatened to quit over the game, and Sierra received massive amounts of hate mail.

Dating sims and erotic visual novels dominate Japanese PC games in a way we don’t see here. Sex is just a fact of games there, while in North America, even Leisure Suit Larry’s tame, 14A approach to sexuality was cause for uproar. Of course, eroge have their own set of issues, like the growing number of underage, or loli, characters being featured, which has been cracked down on by the Japanese Diet, but that seems like a fairly reasonable thing for the media to get up in arms about. Either way, both in the East and West, sex and games mostly meet on PC.

Once CD-ROM games picked up, and the multimedia craze of the late 90s got into swing, full motion video became a natural fit for western erotic games. Black Dragon’s Riana Rouge, one of the few AO-rated games, featured a Playboy Playmate in the starring role, with stunning, 1996-quality video encoding to make sure you couldn’t see very much of the uncensored material anyway.

Yeah, you're gonna have to help me figure out what's going on here, then explain how it's erotic.

Yeah, you're gonna have to help me figure out what's going on here, then explain how it's erotic.

It really does look that guy in the back is growing out of his partner's butt. I don't think he is, but if that's what you want, Second Life can provide.

It really does look that guy in the back is growing out of his partner's butt. I don't think he is, but if that's what you want, Second Life can provide.

These days however, porn games in the west tend to fly under the radar They’re low budget productions that rarely find wide distribution or popularity. Bonetown, a 2008, download-only PC game from before being a download-only PC game was cool, is known almost exclusively as a punchline, just like Mystique’s games. But that’s pretty much where erotic games end in the West. Bioware continues to put romance options and sexless sex scenes in their games, and modders will never cease striping the clothes off of any character who happens to be in a PC game, and that’s about it. There’s also Second Life, which, pretty much caters to any kind of sexual desire or fetish you can think of. However, all of the sex and sexual associations we attribute to Second Life are exclusively fan contributions. People use Second Life as a way to live out certain sexual fantasies at times, and, as far as I can tell, it seems to be doing a much better job of it than any other game on the market, even if it wasn’t explicitly intended for that purpose.

Japan continues to have erotic games, mostly in the visual novel genre at this point though. Mirroring the trend of recent adult-themed interactive fiction games, those developers seem to have found that it’s easier to create the illusion of a sexual encounter with drawings rather than 3D models, and words rather than janky penis controls. Sex simulators are mostly the realm of games like the controversial RapeLay, which, for all of its truly disgusting aspects, also happens to be a pretty terrible game, and a worse sex simulation. But first and foremost, it is disgusting.

Did you really think you were gonna get a screen shot of that?

Did you really think you were gonna get a screen shot of that?

Otherwise, the highest profile sex game in recent memory was Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’s hot Coffee scene, a sex minigame left in the debug menu that was unlocked by a hacker fan. Of course, after being discovered, Rockstar ruched to correct the issue while being assaulted by a media frenzy about how games were corrupting the innocent children with weird, janky, polygonal sex. After that, it’s mostly indie developers, as well as authors who contribute to the growing pool of adult interactive fiction. As the industry matures, fewer people seem to want to throw their hats into the sexy ring.

People want sex, sure. Sex will always sell, but publishers don’t let it. When it comes to video games, it’s probably more accurate to say that the promise of sex sells, because real sex isn’t something the ESRB, Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo want to let you get involved in. Meanwhile, indie developers are working in smaller confines, often in less popular genres, where it would be more difficult to accurately simulate sex in any realistic way. Plus, plenty of people don’t want to be seen as making porn, which is pretty reasonable.

177's game over screen, otherwise known as what you see if you're a good person.

177's game over screen, otherwise known as what you see if you're a good person.

Of course, sexual themes still work their way into western games. As mentioned multiple times, Bioware insists that all their games have romantic options that culminate in sex scenes, indie developer Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story and Hate Plus games include a sex scene or two among the many logs you read, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a AAA game that didn’t make a dick joke somewhere in it. The promise of sex sells, and it will continue to, because if anyone ever promises more, Fox News will bear down on them like a sack of hammers, just like the did to Rockstar.

Is it a good thing? Well, even in Japan, where sex in games goes unchecked, we get games like RapeLay and 177. In the west, we get exploitative titles like Bonetown and Rianna Rouge. Sex is a great thing, but when it comes to industrializing it, it seems impossible to avoid the sleaze. So next time you see a sex scene in a game, appreciate all the risks it took to get it in there, and also pray that Oculus Rift VR sex games don’t take off anytime soon. You know, just to be safe.


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The Primer- Some Lovely Games

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The Primer- Some Lovely Games

This month’s primer is about love. Falling in love, romantic love, platonic love, sexy love, and everything in between. So, games about love, basically, in some way or another. Some fail at presenting their view on love, some succeed, but all of them make love a central focus of at least a part of the game. But hey, let’s stop talking and fall in love with some games, shall we?

Chulip:

Yeah, that tree has a mustache, what of it?

Yeah, that tree has a mustache, what of it?

Chulip is a video game about consent. It’s also a video game about kissing enough people in order to gain the strength to survive a lightning bolt to the face.

Chulip is weird.

You play as a boy, who, after being rejected by the girl of his dreams, decides he has to kiss everyone in town to “strengthen his heart.” You do this by watching the daily lives of the people in town, who operate on a real-time schedule, and helping them out with their day to day lives. Once you make them happy, you can give them a kiss. If they aren’t happy, your kiss will be creepy-weird, and cause them to hit you.

Unfortunately, Chulip suffers from frustrating trial-and-error gameplay and a lack of direction. Infamously, one mission ends with your character getting struck by lightning, instantly killing you if you don’t have enough health. But the quality of the game itself aside, Chulip is fascinating as one of the few games that’s about having a positive relationship with the game world, rather than a destructive one. Hurting anyone emotionally deters or even ends your progress. Being a creep by playing on the swings at night will get you shot by cops. Kissing people who don’t want it will quickly lead to a game over. In order to progress, you need to build a positive, even loving relationship between you and the world.

But you should probably kiss someone in real life instead of playing Chulip.

 

Mass Effect 2:

You just can't find loyalty like this anymore.

You just can't find loyalty like this anymore.

Mass Effect broaches the subject of love in a few ways. There’s the obvious relationship options the game presents you with, characters your Commander Shepard can romance and bed during the adventure, each with a more embarrassing sex scene than the last. But the romantic love options will be explored in a later game on this very list, because Mass Effect 2 explores platonic love about a thousand times more effectively.

Unfortunately, not a real romance option. We can dream though.

Unfortunately, not a real romance option. We can dream though.

Essentially, Mass Effect 2 is a 20-hour long trust exercise, where success is measured by the strength of your relationships with your party. The final mission opens up fairly early on in the game. It’s easy to skip recruiting about half of your party, and go straight to the final boss after five or six hours of playtime. But your party will be slaughtered. Not because you aren’t a high enough level, but because your teammates don’t trust you.

Shepard, seen here in her Galaxy-famous Rom: SpaceKnight cosplay.

Shepard, seen here in her Galaxy-famous Rom: SpaceKnight cosplay.

Every party member you recruit can offer you a “loyalty mission”, in which you help them through some personal problem that might be distracting them while on the job to save the universe. You’re encouraged to build stronger bonds with your favourite party members so they don’t die in the final mission. And those deaths are permanent. Anyone who didn’t trust you enough is dead forever, including in Mass Effect 3. Additionally, you have to assign jobs to certain characters, and through getting to know them better, you’ll be able to make a more informed decision about who should be doing what. One wrong decision leads to a dead teammate, and no one wants that. Mass Effect 2 rewards forming relationships with these fictional characters. You’re supposed to get to know them, talk to them between missions, and help them with their personal issues, and for making friends and finding love, the game rewards you with a better ending.

Platonic love keeps you alive in space. As for romantic love...


Saint’s Row IV:

This has nothing to do with romance, it's just the greatest video game screenshot of all time

This has nothing to do with romance, it's just the greatest video game screenshot of all time

Saint’s Row is famous for being Grand Theft Auto’s wacky cousin. You know the one. They’re successful at what they do, but the older, more serious members of the family don’t really want to pay attention to them, lest it encourage them to act even wilder.But, unlike Grand Theft Auto, Saint’s Row doesn’t particularly want to be the grim, gritty reflection of society at its worst, it wants to have fun, and that means taking things a little less seriously.

The boss takes many faces, like an Ogre..

The boss takes many faces, like an Ogre..

Saint’s Row IV features a pretty extensive Mass Effect parody, down to the silver and blue spaceship that you can run around between missions. Of course, the ship is filled with your party members, and every single one can be romanced, regardless of sex, gender, orientation or humanity. It’s a goofy take on Mass Effect’s often derided romance options, which Saint’s Row reduces to a single button you press to ask the other character for some good space loving.

Where Mass Effect nails platonic relationships with a cast of characters most players end up wanting to hang out with, Saint’s Row points out that many players were just going through the romantic relationships for the ending sex scenes. But it also shines a light on a few things in its irreverence. For example, Mass Effect does essentially boil down any relationship more complicated than friendship down to a binary button prompt, rather than something more elaborate. Dating sims can afford to have a long drawn out courtship phase, Mass Effect really can’t.

...or a cold, emotionless woman with a bad nosebleed.

...or a cold, emotionless woman with a bad nosebleed.

Also, that Mass Effect severely limits the characters you Shepard can romance, and separates them by gender. In Mass Effect 3, A male Shepard can only romance certain female characters and one male, while a female Shepard can romance a handful of males and two female characters. In Mass Effect 2, there aren’t even any serious same-sex relationships at all. Shepard is meant to, at least partially, be an extension of yourself, and limiting your sexuality that way is pretty frustrating. Why can a female Shepard sleep with Liara but not Tali? Why can’t a male Shepard take his relationship with Garrus to the next level? Sure, certain characters may have predefined orientations, but does that mean aliens share our notions of sexuality? Can’t you at least make a move on them?

In a strange way, Saint’s Row IV is the single most progressive mainstream game when it comes to relationships. Your character can be male or female, sure, but also anything else you choose. They can be gay, straight, queer, into open relationships, pansexual, robosexual, whatever you choose. It’s a little bit sad that it took making fun of another game’s lack of progressiveness to get to the point where these this kind of inclusiveness is in a mainstream game, but at least we’re here at all.


Bioshock Infinite:

BioShock-Infinite-Elizabeth.jpg

Sort of like how Mass Effect tries to make an entire game about building multiple relationships, parts of Bioshock Infinite definitely want to make you fall in love with Elizabeth, your near-constant companion and combat partner.

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Not only is Elizabeth constantly around you, she’s the focus of the story, and moonlights as an on-again, off-again damsel in distress. She can interact with the world in ways you can’t, like looking through windows and sitting on benches, making her feel more real, and her animations are significantly more detailed than anything else in the game. She revives you when you die, throws out ammo when you’re running low, by all accounts, she should be a characters players grow to like by the end of the game.

The problem is that she, like most things about Bioshock Infinite, is window dressing. She’s a spawn point for ammo and health packs, and her “deeper levels of interaction” amount to sitting on benches every once in a while. It’s a cute touch, but never once does the layer actually do anything to change their relationship without the story demanding it. Where the original Bioshock is a game about player agency, Infinite tries to show what happens when you take it away. Unfortunately for it, a game centered around any relationship that removes agency sort of nullifies the whole point of a relationship.

It's up to you! Not that it really matters

It's up to you! Not that it really matters

Infinite eventually comes around to revealing the nature of your character’s relationship with Elizabeth, but at that point it doesn’t matter. Your personal history with her as a player is entirely passive, the only choice you ever make with her is what kind of brooch should go on her necklace, which amounts to a big load of nothing. Whether or not removing player agency was part of the point of Infinite is up for debate, but your relationship with Elizabeth is meant to be the core of the game, and it’s pretty hard to fall in love when you don’t have a choice.


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Law and Gaming- The Saga of Ralph Baer

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Law and Gaming- The Saga of Ralph Baer

Video games are like pornography, we know it when we see it.

It’s sort of a troublesome statement, but you can appreciate the idea behind it. Porn is hard to define, especially from a legal perspective. Erotic imagery isn’t necessarily erotic to everyone, and anything may be more erotic to some than others. A bare breast shown without the intent of titilating might not be porgnographic to say, some of the readers of the New York Times, but others were offended that children were seeing that kind of image.

But porn still has a working legal definition, and one that’s pretty easy to follow. Any image with the intent of titillation is pornographic. Law doesn’t often take things on a case by case basis unless it’s important. Blanket laws are laid down early to catch most instances of a problem, and if something makes it up to the supreme court, the case can be taken on its own merits.

So why not try to define video games from a legal perspective? After all, we definitely have a whole bunch of cases and decisions to draw from.

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Ralph Baer is a guy responsible for a lot of things. He claims to have been responsible for all video games ever. He is definitely responsible for the Magnavox Odyssey, the first ever reprogrammable game system. He’s also responsible for launching dozens of patent suits against video game companies and developers based on the fact that he believes he owns the patent for video games.

In 1966 Baer, an engineer who worked for Sanders Associates on defense contracts, got the idea to make a game that could be played on a television. Eventually, his ideas led to a patent on an “apparatus for generating symbols upon the screen of a television receiver to be manipulated by at least one participant.” Basically, Baer and his company patented video games, if you want to define them as “things you control on a raster monitor”.

There were sub-claims in the patent, specifically the idea that there needed to be a hitting symbol (the player) and a hit symbol (a ball) moving both vertically and horizontally. So while Baer did patent video games, he defined them all as ping pong. He also defined video games as anything you do on a screen that you control. No win state, no lose state; he wasn’t worried about the “game” so much as he was about the “video”, which is a surprisingly forward thinking move for an industry that would soon be made up entirely of Pong clones.

odyssey_1600x1200.jpg

Times were tough, and Sanders wasn’t in a position to turn the patent into a product, so they licensed it out to Magnavox, a TV company. Along with Baer, Magnavox created the Odyssey, a game system with different cartridges that could be swapped out to play simple games, including a now infamous tennis game.

Isn't that Pong?

Isn't that Pong?

In 1972, Nolan Bushnell played Tennis on the Odyssey at a demo event, and went back to his then-new company Atari, and told one of his employees, Al Alcorn, to make a better version of it. Eventually, that game became Pong, and catapulted Atari to the top of the burgeoning video game industry.

Three years later, after Baer prodded Magnavox to take action against Atari, they sued, claiming that Atari’s Pong was a direct ripoff of Odyssey Tennis. They won, of course, considering that Baer had a guest book from the event signed by Bushnell, who later admitted that he was, in fact, inspired by the Odyssey. Atari and Magnavox settled out of court, and let Atari retroactively sublicense the patent for “video games”.

Isn't that Odyssey Tennis?

Isn't that Odyssey Tennis?

But that wasn’t the end of Baer’s lawsuit career. He spent most of the ‘80s and ‘90s on the stand as a fact witness and consultant claiming that all video games technically belonged to him and Magnavox, as he was the “father of video games”.

In 1985, he (along with Sanders and Magnavox) sued Activision, as they didn’t obtain a license to produce Atari VCS games from Magnavox. Activision first brought forward nine pieces of prior art that disproved the validity of Baer’s patent. All of these pieces had already been brought forward in two lawsuits Baer had filed between the Atari and Activision cases, so Activision moved to claim that their games were different because they had more complicated circuitry that the patent didn’t cover. Even though Activisions games didn’t even resemble anything on the Odyssey, the judge ruled in favour of Magnavox, forcing Activision to pay out over a million dollars and obtain a royalty license from Magnavox.

Uh, let's zoom in on the screen there.

Uh, let's zoom in on the screen there.

Over the next few years Baer would end up in court with companies like Coleco, Mattel and Nintendo. All were either sued for not licensing, or attempted to prove that Baer’s claim was illegitimate. Nintendo’s lawyers dug up Tennis for Two, a game made in 1958 by William Higinbotham, a physicist who created the ignition system for the atomic bomb. Higinbotham worked for the Brookhaven National Library at the time, and put the game together for an exhibit funded by the U.S. Department of Energy to get visitors excited about atomic power. Tennis for Two was almost exactly like the Odyssey’s tennis game and Pong, but played on an oscilloscope, a device used for measuring voltages.

The courts didn’t side with Nintendo, who had to keep paying licensing royalties to Magnavox and Sanders. According to Baer recollection of his own testimony, there are a few reasons that Higinbotham’s game doesn’t count. In an interview with game historian David Winter, Baer says that “to qualify as a video game, you have to have to pass one major test: Can you play the game on a standard home TV set or a TV monitor ?”

Much better. You can even sort of make out the tennis!

Much better. You can even sort of make out the tennis!

Basically, Tennis for Two isn’t the first video game, or even a video game at all, because it was only available for a limited time, on specialized hardware, and never made commercially available to the public. Remember, Baer says that in order to be a video game, it must be played on a standard TV or monitor. Even though Tennis for Two, Tennis and Pong are virtually indistinguishable, because the oscilloscope demo was taken down after a while, and was not made available for play on a standard TV, it doesn’t count. Though, the only difference between Tennis for Two and say, Tennis is that one is played on a TV and one isn’t. Kind of a silly distinction huh?

There were other video games that existed before the Odyssey. Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann created the Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device in 1958, which played a simple missile simulator using analog controls and screen overlays. In 1951, the British company Ferranti built the Nimrod computer, which used a panel of light bulbs in order to play a strategy game called Nim. Spacewar, which is often cited as the first proper video game, was made in 1961, by students at MIT working on a PDP-1 mini-computer.

A screenshot of Spacewar, or: The Case for Capture Devices

A screenshot of Spacewar, or: The Case for Capture Devices

As far as the internet can tell, the patent has lapsed, and no one pays Magnavox, Sanders or Baer anymore for making video games. But if you want to be strictly legal about it, a video game is  anything happening on a screen that you control. If you want to be like Baer and get stingy about it, you have to make it commercially available and playable on someone’s actual screen, otherwise it’s not a video game, it’s just a nuisance that prevents someone from calling him the inventor of video games. And to be fair, Baer is incredibly important to the history of video games. He even invented the concept of home video games, making him the great-great-grandfather of the PS4 and Xbox One. But his definition of games that was legally enforced for years is a little problematic. The part about interactivity is forward thinking and all, but the part about raster monitors and commercial availability seems like it mostly served to keep Baer in royalty checks. The definition might not be valid anymore, and Baer might be important, but let’s try not to stick too close to his definition. After all, I’m pretty sure not every game is secretly tennis.  

 

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Win or Lose, it's Just a Game: An Exploration of Winning, Losing and Progressing

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Win or Lose, it's Just a Game: An Exploration of Winning, Losing and Progressing

Wining and losing is sort of important to us as a society.

As kids, we’re trained to want to win by pretty much everything we do. Sports and playground games come to mind, but even school teaches us that education can be “failed” and comparing marks to your peers quickly teaches you that you can be better than other people. Whether that’s warranted or not is irrelevant, what matters is that we’re trained to see winning and losing in everyday interactions.

That social gamification can be scary at times. Take a look at self-proclaimed pick-up artists, who see interactions with women as an elaborate game that they try to enter with the the upper hand. Their core gameplay mechanic is trickery, their tools are cruel psychological tricks like negging and hypnosis, and their win condition is sex. It’s gross, but it’s not a logical leap when you’re viewing social interactions like a game. If you think you can win or lose talking to another human being, then you’ll probably end up trying to get the upper hand in whatever way possible.

Ubiquitous. Annoying. Game mechanic?

Ubiquitous. Annoying. Game mechanic?

Essentially, the seduction community is applying the concept of gamification to meeting women. Gamification was a tech-industry buzzword a few years ago, it’s the idea of applying game-like trappings to something that isn’t really a game. Foursquare turned going to the store into a score-based game. You got points for going to work, so long as you made sure to check in every day. There are more sinister applications of gamification, even within the mostly innocuous Foursquare. In 2010 Starbucks gave unique badges and discounts to Foursquare users who checked in at more than one location or became the mayor of their local store. Essentially, they were  encouraging people to go to Starbucks more often (and likely buy things there) for the sake of getting more points.

Of course, gamification can be used for good too. The popular exercise app Fitocracy gives points and achievements for better workouts and reaching fitness milestones. The interesting thing is though, whether used for good or evil, gamification remains popular. More and more non-game apps on iOS and Android devices are incorporating scoring systems and achievements- things we’ve commonly associated with games. People enjoy being rewarded for what would otherwise be mundane tasks. People like having their progress tracked, they like competing against other people in those mundane tasks.

So why does this matter to video games?

Well, in a way, gamification couldn’t really exist without video games laying the groundwork. Points may come from sports, but the idea of racking up points on your own and checking a leaderboard to see if you’ve bested anyone is a distinctly arcade-like experience. It makes more sense for the average person too. They aren’t actively competing against a particular person, like in football or hockey, they’re passively competing against anyone using the same service as they are, like the high score screen in Pac-Man.

Fun fact: It's hard to find a hi-res version of the Pac-Man high-score screen. Enjoy King of the Monsters for the Neo Geo's instead.

Fun fact: It's hard to find a hi-res version of the Pac-Man high-score screen. Enjoy King of the Monsters for the Neo Geo's instead.

Video games provided the first opportunity for a single player to feel like they’d defeated someone else without that person being there, or even existing. Arcade games had high score boards, and home games had you beating the computer. Even when there wasn’t a player two for you to beat, the computer would always make a worthy opponent, even if it was playing a very different game. Outside of fighting, racing and sports games, where you and your opponent are on the same general playing field, the computer’s job isn’t to compete against you, it’s to get in your way. Your job as the player was to best it. Because we always want to win, even when there’s no real person to beat.

So people like to win. More specifically, they prefer not to win just because they didn’t lose. They want to win because someone else lost. People are competitive by nature in that way, and gamified apps and services prey on that desire to beat someone else. Not that that’s necessarily the worst thing in the world. It’s unlikely that anyone’s feelings are being hurt when they lose their position as Mayor of Dairy Queen in Foursquare, and certainly no one is being physically harmed. And in the case of apps like Fitocracy, there’s nothing wrong at all with urging people to be more healthy, and if it takes handing out points and level ups, then so be it.

I'm a level 20 bench-presser. At level 21, I'll learn fire-3 and gain the ability to lift Chimeras.

I'm a level 20 bench-presser. At level 21, I'll learn fire-3 and gain the ability to lift Chimeras.

But most people don’t win. Ever. They do keep playing though, simply to see the numbers go up and the rewards flow in. The promise of winning is important as a far off goal, but even though social multiplayer is baked in to most gamified apps, people are mostly content with seeing their progress tracked and advanced. Fitocracy isn’t about being healthier than anyone else, it’s about gaining points towards level ups, and going on quests, terms that come from role playing games. It’s a vicious cycle, sure. You do the activity and gain points, then you do it more to gain more points, because getting points feels good. Getting rewarded feels good. You haven’t necessarily won, but you’ve definitely progressed in some way.

If you bring that urge to feel rewarded back into video games, you can shed some light on why winning and losing is usually tied to the defining them. Winning and losing is our most basic way of tracking progress. It’s hard to quantify if you’ve gotten better at something without a goal post, especially abstract things like intelligence, fitness or problem solving. More often than not, that goal post is another human being, maybe because they’re trying to prove the same thing you are, maybe because you get to kill two birds with one stone. You get to feel like you’ve progressed, you get to feel like you’ve defeated someone, two things that have always felt good.  

But video games, and by extension gamified apps, let you track your progress without another person involved. Once again, the computer acts as the person you beat. Except, it isn’t actively competing against you, it’s merely reflecting the old you tracking your progress over that. Foursquare tracks how often you’ve visited somewhere and rewards you when you do it more than before. Fitocracy tracks how much you’ve exercised and how much better you’ve gotten since you started using it. Neither of these have end goals, merely rewards for progression.

So what if we took away the concept of winning? Just keep setting new goals every time the last one was reached, always rewarding the player and promising another reward down the road. There isn’t too much difference between that and what gamified apps do. Do we even need winning or losing anymore? Is the skinner box rewarding you for small steps without and end in sight enough?

Foursquare's badges are rewards, but not victory. Earnings, but not wins. Pretty, but ultimately pointless.

Foursquare's badges are rewards, but not victory. Earnings, but not wins. Pretty, but ultimately pointless.

GTA V's open world is full of ways to progress, but ultimately, you never really have to "win". In fact, most people never bother winning.

GTA V's open world is full of ways to progress, but ultimately, you never really have to "win". In fact, most people never bother winning.

Games are often defined as needing win or loss states. Of course, what victory or defeat means varies from game to game, but the idea that there’s a player initiated “end” is a key aspect of games, from board games to sports. But more and more, we see games without a traditional ending. Open world and massively multiplayer online games tend not to have an end goal so much as they have various goals you’re always working towards, and more often than not, those goal posts get stretched further back after a while. Winning is promised, but it’s an afterthought. But the games never stop tracking your progress. Your levels, what collectibles you’ve found, how much of the map you've explored, what you’ve crafted, how long you’ve played, dozens and dozens of numbers going up that the computer tells you make you better than you were before.

Whether you consider that a win or not is up to you as a player. You can decide if hitting the level cap and doing every raid in World of Warcraft is winning. The game tracks the progress, you set the goal. Small, personal victories seem to matter more than one grand triumph over an opponent. Judging by how gamification is slowly taking over day-to-day life, people like being tracked and rewarded, that’s game enough for them. Winning might just be the delicious cherry on top.

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Xbox One Launch Line Up Preview- Quick Hits

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Xbox One Launch Line Up Preview- Quick Hits

Microsoft has opened up an Xbox One pop-up shop in Toronto ahead of the system’s launch. On Tuesday, Microsoft allowed members of the press to run around the shop and check out demos of upcoming Xbox One games. Here are some short previews on a few of the games available to demo at the pop-up shop, which opens to the public on Thursday, November 7. It'll stay open until December 27, with all the games previewed here, along with a few more.

Crimson Dragon:

Like Panzer Dragoon, but with even  more  dragons.

Like Panzer Dragoon, but with even more dragons.

The formerly Kinect exclusive, Xbox 360 successor to Panzer Dragoon has been freed of its motion control shackles. Or maybe it’s been shackled to a controller? Either way, the game plays pretty much like Panzer Dragoon, or, if you weren’t one of the five people who owned a Sega Saturn, like Star Fox.

It’s an on-rails shooter, where you ride on the back of a dragon, shooting lasers, fireballs and windblasts at other dragons and alien fauna. The game has a weird sci-fi fantasy thing going for it, with the dragons as the aliens that rule planet Draco, which humans want to colonize. They’re being infected by a disease that makes them go crazy, everybody wears standard space-marine armor, but occasionally there will be another soldier with an anime haircut instead of a helmet. It’s an odd balance, but it works, making for a cool visual style that hides the fact that the game started its life on 360, and it sometimes shows.

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Some bosses take you into a free-flight mode, which functions pretty much like all-range mode in Star Fox. You fly around a giant boss, looking for weak points to shoot at as your wingmen help out. Wingmen can also be the AI profiles of people on your friends list you’ve summoned to help out, so no more blaming Slippy for messing up your run.

Crimson Dragon is a digital-only launch title for Xbox One, from Microsoft Studios.

It will forever drive me mad that the "Multiplizer" is not called the "Multiprizer" IT MAKES MORE SENSE.

It will forever drive me mad that the "Multiplizer" is not called the "Multiprizer" IT MAKES MORE SENSE.

Peggle 2:

Peggle is Peggle and will always be Peggle. You fire a ball at some pegs, watch it bounce around, get points, and become hopelessly addicted. Peggle 2 delivers on all those counts, and actually manages to add some freshness to the mix. The wider screen allows for more space for your Peggle Master (a helper character that gives you magic powers) to hang out in the corner, and get some extra animations. The new Yeti master, Berg, shakes his butt when you do really well, complete with pixelated censoring.

Another new addition are bumpers which line some boards, bouncing your ball around. It’s small, but it adds a little dynamism to the few stages I saw them in. The additions, which also include 5 new masters, sound small, mostly because they actually are. But Peggle was already great, and I can’t wait to become addicted all over again.

Forza 5:

Forza or Fortza? The eternal question...

Forza or Fortza? The eternal question...

I have to be honest, I’m not a car game guy. My primary racing game experience is with Sonic and All Stars Racing Transformed and various Mario Karts. The last “real” racing game I played was Gran Turismo 2 on PlayStation. Nevertheless, I braved Forza 5 and found that...it’s a racing game.

It’s a really pretty racing game, absolutely gorgeous in fact, but as usual, I didn’t quite feel the appeal. The demo featured a rewind function that pulled me back to an earlier point in the race, which helped the one time I crashed, spun out, and went from second place to eighth, but I imagine that it isn’t a commonly used ability in regular gameplay.

What I took away from Forza 5 was its use of the Xbox One’s impulse triggers. When I pressed the brakes while driving, the triggers would rumble more and more the harder I pressed and there was always some slight rumble to the triggers as I held down the gas. It felt visceral, in a non-violent way, though I can’t imagine any other context in which rumbling triggers would make any sense.

Killer Instinct:

Werewolves can be stopped by two things: A silver bullet, and a swift kick to the jaw.

Werewolves can be stopped by two things: A silver bullet, and a swift kick to the jaw.

Fighting games are notoriously hard to demo. A fighting game is usually judged on how tough it is to figer out, how complicated it is to master, what the balance is like, and how deep the bonus modes go, and a short, 5 minute session isn’t really going to tell you any of that.

Killer Instinct was no different, but my 5 minutes were at the very least better than I expected. KI is an update of Rare’s SNES “classic”, which is mostly considered to be just another poor Mortal Kombat clone these days. The new Killer Instinct takes some pages out of the new Mortal Kombat’s book as well, with long juggle combos and a very “X-Treme” attitude. Specifically, an announcer who never shuts up and always sounds like he just smoked a pack of cigarettes in hell.

The game itself is hard to judge for now. Combos seemed fairly easy to do, but so did the combo breakers, which essentially just rewarded random button mashing during the match. But of course, that can really only be proven with more extensive play. The fact that the base version of the game is free, with all the characters running $20, and a deluxe version for $40 is a great business model, and one I hope more fighting games adopt, I just wish it wasn’t in a game I have so many apprehensions about.

Kinect Sports Rivals:

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Kinect Sports Rivals is easily the Xbox One’s prettiest launch game.

The Kinect sensor works a bit better, and you can play while sitting so you don’t look like a madman, twisting your arms and stomping your feet in front of the TV, but I still found that it didn’t quite work without making more exaggerated movements than I thought I’d need to make. That didn’t really matter though, because I was wowed, genuinely wowed, by how much prettier the game was than pretty much any next-gen title I’ve seen.

The difference from the rest of the next-gen line up is colour. Next-gen lighting effects (the real graphical jump that the Xbox One and PS4 will provide) take some of the edge off of the oversaturated primaries the game was using and leaves everything with a semi-realistic palette that still looks distinctly cartoony. The water was a vibrant blue, with amazing transparency, and I realize I sound like the world’s most cliched graphics evangelist, ranting about water effects, but they really are something great.

How much better the Kinect sensor remains to be seen, but if you’re picking up an Xbox One at launch, download the demo for this one, just so you can see that next-gen looks better when it isn’t brown and grey.

Dead Rising 3:

Nick, and his co-op partner Dick. No seriously, that's his name, and he just hangs around silently in cutscenes. It's great.

Nick, and his co-op partner Dick. No seriously, that's his name, and he just hangs around silently in cutscenes. It's great.

Going in, I was worried that Dead Rising 3 would lack the humour and general upbeat spirit that endeared me to the series in the first place. Going out, I was more worried about the game’s world than anything else. The demo had me, as zombie-outbreak-survivor Nick, hunting for some Zombrex (the famed zombie antidote) after an inopportune bite. So off I went into town, gleefully rampaging through zombies with a steamroller-motorcycle hybrid I built on the spot. Not having to search for crafting benches both makes and breaks the series’ trademark crafting. On one hand, crafting any two items I find on the ground is fantastic. On the other, it sort of inspired me to try and combine everything, which mostly had me standing around with a cinder block in one hand, longingly staring at a shotgun wishing I could combine the two.

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The other worrying thing I noted was that the game’s open world made traversing by foot a bit of a chore, which left me using mostly vehicles to get around, and missing out on the various melee weapon combinations. It isn’t helped by the fact that the absolutely massive zombie hordes are a nightmare to plow through without a car.

On the bright side, one of the melee combinations I used was a fire spitting dragon head with umbrella wings and katana gloves, and the guy next to me was fighting off the zombie hordes in a full suit of knight’s armor while using an axe tied to a car engine. So you know, the comedy is still there.

Ryse: Son of Rome:

Why does the guy on the right get a helmet and the other one doesn't? Seems unfair.

Why does the guy on the right get a helmet and the other one doesn't? Seems unfair.

Look, neither of us want to do this. Launch lineups are pretty much always subpar, and, just a guess here, the PS4 and Xbox One don’t seem to be exceptions. But Ryse...well, Ryse is special. First announced as a first-person action game for the Kinect, Ryse was meant to show people that the peripheral could be used for hardcore games. But Kinect was repositioned as the Wii 2.0, and the game never came out.

Until now.

Ryse has been repositioned as a hack-and-slash, God of War style action game set in ancient Rome. Of course, just like God of War, the game tends to skew towards the old ultra-violence. At one point in the demo, after slashing at my enemy maybe five or six times, then bashing his head in with my shield, he ran at me again and I was given an execution prompt. When enemies are low enough on health, you can hit RT to exectue a canned animation and, well, execute them.

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My soldier chopped his left arm off when the game told me to hit X, then it asked me to press Y. I decided I was done murdering this man. But without any orders from me, my soldier spun behind him, knocked him to the floor, sliced off his right leg and then curb stomped him back to the ground. I was pretty much done with the demo at that point, but pressed on. Eventually I found myself in a turret section, with confusing auto-lock-on that someone made it both terribly confusing and insultingly easy, and later a boss fight, which was solved by pressing X with the occasional hit of Y to stun the boss.

The game looks pretty good, better than most of the other launch titles, which are ports of current-gen games, and some scenes in the cutscenes could have passed for photos. I just wish the game could pass for more than a gratuitously violent slash-fest that plays itself. 

 

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Gaming History 101: A Trip through the Historical Software Collection

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Gaming History 101: A Trip through the Historical Software Collection

A few days ago, the Internet Archive put up a section called the Historical Software Collection, a portion of their archive dedicated to preserving old software that they’ve deemed important to the history of videogames. The games are presented accurately, running of a Javascript version of MESS (the Multi Emulator Super System), so the’re totally free and legally availble to play in your browser.

We at Built to Play wanted to give you a little sampler of five games in the collection that we feel are some of the more historically interesting ones available.

Pac- Man 2600:

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In 1981, Atari employee Todd Frye was asked to develop a version of Namco’s arcade hit, Pac-Man, for the Atari 2600. Atari figured that even though their hardware was released in 1977, and wasn’t designed to display more than three moving objects at a time, Pac-Man was simple and gameplay-focused enough that they could get away with what they assumed would be an ugly, but functional port.

They were wrong.

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Programmer Todd Frye was given about five months to make the game, which he quickly realized was almost impossible. For one thing, Pac-Man was running on arcade-level hardware that was 16 times more powerful than the 2600, and because of executives trying to get as much money out of the game as possible, Frye was told to design the game on a 4 kilobyte cartridge, rather than the larger, but more expensive, 8 KB counterpart. Frye ended up changing the game’s trademark power pellets to yellowish wafers, and drawing them, along with Pac-Man, every frame. To get around the three moving objects rule, Frye had the four ghosts flicker on a four frame rotation, with only one being visible every frame. On an old CRT monitor, the afterimage could trick someone into thinking they weren’t flickering that often, but on a modern computer monitor, the effect is headache-inducing.

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It all resulted in a game that is recognizable as Pac-Man, but not nearly as good, and certainly a disappointment to Pac-Man fans who were eagerly anticipating a home version. Atari, expecting the game to be their biggest seller ever, printed 12 million copies, about two million more games than there were sold Atari 2600’s at the time. The game sold seven million units over the course of the system’s life, a little over half of the initial estimate. Unsatisfied buyers returned the game in droves, leaving Atari with not only the 5 million left over, but hundreds of thousands more copies sitting unsold. Pac-Man is often cited as one of the games (along with E.T. the Extra Terrestrial) that led to the videogame crash of 1983, because it drove consumer confidence in Atari straight into the ground.

And no, apparently the yellowish squares aren’t Twinkies. What a gyp.

Pitfall:

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Luckily, the Collection not only features the 2600’s best selling title, but also its second best, David Crane and Activisions’s Pitfall!.

Unlike Pac-Man, it’s Pitfall’s gameplay that makes it so important. It’s often considered one of the earlier examples of the sidescrolling platformer.

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Pitfall lacks the uneven terrain of other, later platformers, but has the same multiple levels of play, sidescrolling format, and focus on avoiding hazards that would eventually become the genre’s trademarks. It’s unlikely that the true origin point for platformers, Super Mario Bros. was inspired by Pitfall, but its early use of those concepts on system that could barely handle them is interesting enough on its own.

Crane managed to get multiple moving sprites on screen at once, without any flickering, and still fit the game on a 4 KB cartridge, a feat that made Pac-Man look even worse by comparison. He also made sure the game felt completely distinct from Atari’s glut of poor arcade conversions by giving players a 20 minute time limit. Arcade games usually lasted only a few minutes, to get players to pump more quarters into the machine. By giving players 20 minutes, Crane gave the game a reason to be on a home system, and started the trend of longer game experiences for the home market.

Akalabeth:

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Akalabeth is brutal, confusing, difficult to get into and almost unplayable to people who grew up with the luxuries of modern RPGs. It’s also probably the reason that those RPGs even exist in the first place.

Richard Garriot programmed Akalabeth: World of Doom in 1979, while he was in high school. Eventually, the game found its way out of his hometown and into the hands of the California Pacific Computer Company, who offered to publish Garriot’s game, and give him 5$ for every copy sold. Three years later, Garriot would release his next game, Ultima, a spiritual sequel to Akalabeth.

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Ultima is essentially the inspiration for almost every western RPGs, and plenty of eastern ones as well. Ultima and Wizardry, another RPG released that same year, are often cited as the two games that inspired Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, which in turn inspired every other JRPG. And all these games can trace their origins back to Akalabeth.

The game is mostly a curio now, since Ultima went on to do what Akalabeth tried to do but in a more playable state, but there is some charm left on those digital bones. Nothing says dedication like turning your restart option into a prayer for revival.

Mystery House:

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In the late ‘70s, Ken Williams wanted to start up a company for Apple II software development. After poking around a catalogue, he and his wife, Roberta, found a game called Colossal Cave, which they loved. It was a text-adventure game, and when they started looking for more, they couldn’t find anything that was quite what they wanted, so they did what any reasonable person would do: they made their own.

Roberta felt like the game would work better with pictures, so Ken developed Mystery House, using 70 simple drawings she’d made for their story, which was based on Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None. They sold the game in sandwich bags at local software shops, and it managed to break 10,000 copies sold, which was an unbelievable success at the time.

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A few years later, they turned their little operation into a proper company, called Sierra On-Line, and worked on cranking out more and more adventure games. Text-adventure games were already pretty popular among hobbyists, but adding pictures and graphics made the genre more accessible, opened it up to new fans, and eventually, turned adventure games into some of the most popular PC games out there.

Sierra’s later titles like King’s Quest and Space Quest, Lucasart’s classics like Maniac Mansion and the Indiana Jones games, even Myst, all owe something of their existence to Ken and Roberta Williams, and Mystery House.

As an added bonus, not only is the game historically important, it’s also one of the few games in the collection that is still kind of playable! It’s a little obtuse, but seasoned adventure gamers might be able to enjoy the spookiness regardless.

Smurf: Adventure in Gargamel’s Castle: 

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Unlike every other game on this list (and most other games in the collection), Smurf is interesting specifically because it inspired nothing.

Released in 1982, the game has you control an adjectiveless smurf on his way to rescue Smurfette. You do this by jumping, double jumping, or ducking. That’s about it. You can’t defeat enemies (of which there are only two) and your most common hazards are some weeds that will kill you if you touch them. One can only assume smurfs (smurves?) are just that into garden maintenance.

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The game can be beaten in about two or three minutes on any difficulty, it’s a bit of a joke. The interesting thing about it though, is that it was the first platformer with alternating terrain. Unlike in Pitfall, you weren’t just jumping over pits and hazards, but up and down onto ledges on different levels. It’s not any sort of major innovation, in fact, Donkey Kong did it a year earlier, but it wouldn’t be adopted back into sidescrolling platformers until the next year’s Maniac Miner, which probably didn’t draw anything from Smurf.

Smurf, like other games in the collection is mostly a curio these days, but it’s a distinctly weird curio. It’s a pretty bad game with early signs of innovation that just sort of evolved into a dead end. Uneven terrain in platformers became a “thing” with Super Mario Bros., which was in turn inspired by Donkey Kong. But Smurf did it first, for whatever it’s worth.

Also, that topless Smurfette glitch makes her gaming’s first sex symbol, in a weird way. Take THAT, Lara Croft.

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Whatever Happened to Our Least Favourite Videogame Mascots?

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Whatever Happened to Our Least Favourite Videogame Mascots?

Cartoon mascot platformers were the genre of the mid ‘90s to early 2000s, but one day, they all suddenly disappeared, with onl a few stragglers carrying the torch into the HD era. Of course, with the death of the mascot platformer, many fan favourites were out of a job. Sonic and Mario are hanging in there, but characters like Gex, Banjo, and Kameo are still out there, looking for new work. Here are five forgotten mascots, who they were, and what they’re up to now.

Bubsy:

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Last Seen in: Bubsy 3D: Furbitten Planet- Atari Jaguar (1996)

Bubsy the Bobcat is best known for two things: his affinity for brain shatteringly awful puns, and Bubsy 3D, the shining symbol of why no one wants to go back to the early days of 3D platforming.

You're gonna need to help me out here. What am I looking at?

You're gonna need to help me out here. What am I looking at?

The first couple of Bubsy games are unremarkable, if strangely difficult. Bubsy is probably lesser known as the world’s only haemophiliac bobcat. In the first game, Bubsy only takes a single hit to kill, which is ridiculous for a platform game. Later games gave him some extra health, but by the time he wasn’t defeated by a sideways glance, he was in Bubsy 3D, and manoeuvred like a tank.

Bubsy 3D pretty much overshadows every other Bubsy game (and the terrible cartoon), but I don’t think anyone has ever complained about that before this very sentence. Bubsy’s SNES, Genesis and Jaguar aren’t absolute nightmares, though Hardcore Gaming 101 once referred to the leap from Bubsy 1 to Bubsy 2 as going from “’pile of junk’ to ‘’terribly mediocre.’”

Bubsy’s original creator, Mike Berlyn, didn’t work on the sequel, but made a triumphant return for Bubsy in: Fracture Furry tales. In a 2006 interview, he referred to the experience as “being like a re-animator. Bubsy was dead and buried. ”

 "What could PAWSIBLY go wrong?"

 "What could PAWSIBLY go wrong?"

For context, both games came out the same year, so it was a pretty short death. Of course, Berlyn’s reanimation was so bad anyway that Atari, the publisher of Furry Tales, suggested that Jaguar owners buy Rayman instead.

Ouch.

Where is he now?

Accolade, Bubsy’s owner, was bought by Infogrames in 1999, and is now technically part of Atari. Though they’d never admit it, Atari’s executives still have a plan for Bubsy. Deep in the basement of their secret development labs, a new Atari system is waiting to launch. The Atari Jaguar will be avenged by the Bobcat, the world’s first pun-powered electronics device.

Aero the Acro-Bat/Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel:

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Last seen in: Aero the Acro-Bat 2- SNES/Genesis (1994)

Iguana Entertainment and Sunsoft’s greatest sin was not creating Aero the Acro-Bat, but being greedy.

This game was brown and drab  before  it was marketable.

This game was brown and drab before it was marketable.

Aero the Acro-Bat was a middling, if forgettable 1993 platformer for the Genesis and SNES. Aero was a bat with awful hair who worked as a circus acrobat. He did battle with an evil former clown, who wants to shut down Aero’s circus. Now, I’m of the opinion that all clowns are evil, and you don’t need to be an “ex-clown” to be villainous, but I’ll accept Iguana Entertainment’s optimistic world view. It was the 90’s after all.

Anyway, Aero beats up the clown and his sidekick, Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel, and saves his circus. And then everyone promptly forgot about the whole thing for about 6 months. Sunsoft then decided to adopt Aero as their company mascot, which meant they needed to raise his profile. Thus, the sequels were born.

If you squint, Zero's just someone's Sonic OC.

If you squint, Zero's just someone's Sonic OC.

In April 1994, Aero the Acro-Bat 2 was released, less than a year after the first. Also that month, Sunsoft put out a game starring Zero the Kamikaze squirrel, one of the first game’s antagonists. In November of that year, both games were ported to SNES. Within seven months, Sunsoft managed to totally saturate the market with Aero the Acro-Bat related games. They were oversupplying for a demand that didn’t exist.

THAT IS NOT AN EX-CLOWN. THAT CLOWN IS VERY MUCH CURRENT.

THAT IS NOT AN EX-CLOWN. THAT CLOWN IS VERY MUCH CURRENT.

Unfortunately, the Aero games aren’t  that interesting otherwise. The villainous plot in Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel involves an evil (presumably French Canadian) lumberjack named Jacques le Sheets chopping down Zero’s forest home in order to print counterfeit money. Of course, the evil clown from the first game is behind it all, but the story really pulls at the heartstrings of Canadians who know what it’s like to be accosted by Quebec’s many evil lumberjacks. We suffer every single day.

Also, the evil plan in Aero 2 is called “Plan B”, which is some pretty heavy-handed political leanings for a game about a bat fighting a clown.

Where are they now?

Aero now lives on comfortably through some Game Boy Advance and Virtual Console releases. Zero on he other hand hasn’t been seen since 1994. There are rumours that he’s out there in the forests of Quebec, waiting for the day where he can finally take revenge on the flannel-adorned harbingers of his ruin. Soon, lumberjacks. Soon.

Conker:

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Last seen in: Conker: Live and Reloaded- Xbox (2005) 

Conker might be mascot embodiment of whiplash. He first appeared in Diddy Kong Racing as a new, child-friendly mascot character from Rare. Is Banjo and Kazooie were for kids in middle school, Conker was for their younger siblings.

His solo N64 game was delayed however, when the Game Boy Color game, Conker’s Pocket Tales came out and received mostly mixed reception for being yet another cutesy platformer. The N64 game was in development at the time, and was hewing too close to the Banjo and Kazooie games for Rare’s comfort. So, they pulled a 180.

Look, snitches get stitches. Also impure races and bee plushies.

Look, snitches get stitches. Also impure races and bee plushies.

Conker’s Bad Fur Day feels more like an Adult Swim cartoon than a game concept. Conker is an alcoholic squirrel who was kidnapped on his way home after a night of binge drinking. On his way back home, he deals with a quadripalegic weasel, Nazi teddy bears, an operatic mass of feces, and by the end, a xenomorph that crashes the game.

By the end of the game, Conker is pleading with the programmers to bring his dead girlfriend back to life (she was killed by a weasel mafia boss), and monologueing about how you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. Finally, he drinks his sorrows away in the bar where the game began.

Strangely enough, even though Nintendo had a very close working relationship with Rare at the time, they didn’t publish it, probably because it’s pretty much the exact opposite of the family friendly image Nintendo likes to keep. Of course, that didn’t stop them from telling Rare to change a few things in the game. Specifically, Nintendo asked for Pokémon to be removed from some of the game’s cutscenes, and the removal of a joke making fun of the KKK.

That’s right kids, Nazi teddy bears, binge-drinking squirrels, and a quadriplegic named “Kriplesac” is a-okay, but making fun of the KKK is just too much.

Yes. That's a Sunflower with DD breasts. No, I can't explain it. Please don't think about it too much.

Yes. That's a Sunflower with DD breasts. No, I can't explain it. Please don't think about it too much.

Where is he now?

Conker’s Bad Fur Day got a remake for Xbox in 2005, but Microsoft decided to get stricter than Nintendo with the censorship, which drove most of its fans away. There was a sequel in the works, but it was cancelled when Microsoft bought Rare from Nintendo. Conker is mostly forgotten by Rare today, now that they’re all Kinect sports games and Xbox avatars all the time, but sources tell me you can still hear opera singing coming from a bathroom stall on the third floor that no one’s used in almost a decade.

Wild Woody:

Last seen in: Wild Woody- Sega CD (1995)

As the story goes, in 1995 Sega was looking for a competitor for Nintendo’s newest success, Donkey Kong Country. They wanted a game that could show off the Sega CD’s superior processing power, as well as have 3D graphics to rival what Rare was pulling off on the SNES. That same day, Sega’s executives were approached by the Number 2 Pencil Association of America, who wanted to make a game that would get kids excited about traditional pencils again, and leave gel pens and mechanical pencils behind.

The face that sold exactly zero Sega CDs.

The face that sold exactly zero Sega CDs.

Okay, that last part is a lie, but it’s the only reasonable explanation for why Sega would make a mascot platformer starring a pencil, of all things.

Wild Woody almost seems like he was designed to end up in the unfortunate mascot graveyard. For one, he has the world’s worst name. Wild Woody is catchier than Peter Pencil, but Peter Pencil also isn’t a euphemism for uncontrollable erections. Next comes the part where he’s a wacky, ‘tude-ified pencil. A PENCIL. I don’t think it’s the first case of a non-animal cartoon mascot character, but Wild Woody is definitely the first tool-based mascot platformer.

Is that God? Is Woody erasing God? Could God even create a pencil so radical it could erase even himself?

Is that God? Is Woody erasing God? Could God even create a pencil so radical it could erase even himself?

Worth mentioning are the prerendered 3D cutscenes, which, while more elaborate than Donkey Kong Country, are somehow orders of magnitude uglier than even Bubsy 3D. Trying to figure out what you’re looking at in the cutscenes is almost as challenging as moving Woody with the game’s stiff controls.

Woody still has the mascot-standard smirk, wild expression, and white gloves, but he also has an eraser on his butt which he uses to “rub out” enemies, according to the manual.

I’m starting to think Sega had an internal competition to see who could cram as many penis jokes as possible into one terrible game.

Where is he now?

Wild Woody has been (rightfully) forgotten by Sega, but one employee hasn’t let the torch burn out. Sonic, who still hates Woody for trying to take his place as Sega’s lovable mascot with ‘tude, made sure Woody was transferred over to the art department of Sega USA. Woody is being slowly whittled away, forced to draw pictures of Sonic until the day he dies.

Blinx the Time Sweeper: 

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Last Seen in: Blinx 2: Masters of Time and Space- Xbox (2004)

Poor, poor Blinx. He suffered a fate far worse than being an anthropomorphized cat stuffed into a dorky turtleneck/hoodie combo and steel-toed boots polished to a mirror sheen. You see, Blinx was supposed to be the original Xbox’s mascot.

Seriously, tell me that shade isn't Mountain Dew green.

Seriously, tell me that shade isn't Mountain Dew green.

That’s right, that adorable, Mountain-Dew-green eyed face was to launch a thousand consoles. Probably more, if Microsoft had anything to say about it. Unfortunately, people were sick and tired of mascot platformers by then, no matter how forward thinking the time manipulation mechanics were (no seriously, it’s like a crappier Braid before Braid existed).

Blinx is a Time Sweeper, an employee of the Time Factory, a facility that creates, distributes and maintains time. Which raises a lot of questions. Why are cats in charge of manufacturing time? Also, if Blinx’s job is to produce and maintain time, why are his powers represented by the buttons on your remote control? I think a more accurate title would be Blinx the VCR Sweeper, who is really good at setting the clock on it. He knows which buttons to hit, trust me, it’s nuts.

Anyway, a bunch of pigs mess up time in a certain dimension, so the Time Factory stop giving them time, freezing them in place But then Blinx gets a call from a local princess, and decides he has to save her; even though his job description is being a time janitor, not macking on human princess from other dimensions.

Basically, Blinx is horrible at his job, so the clunky controls and weird difficulty his games are known for are an early example of ludonarrative integration.

And you thought I couldn’t be pretentious about a cartoon cat wearing goggles.

 

Where is he now?

Surprisingly, Blinx is still at Microsoft. His developer Artoon was absorbed into AQ Interactive, and Microsoft was only too happy to offer him a job at their headquarters in Redmond, Washington. Blinx is now sweeping the halls of the Xbox division, hoping one day they’ll make him into an avatar costume, or better yet, a gritty reboot.

 

Now that's a face that not even anyone at all could love.

Now that's a face that not even anyone at all could love.

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Turn on, Tune In, Drop out (of Videogames): The Pandora's Box of Fan Interaction

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Turn on, Tune In, Drop out (of Videogames): The Pandora's Box of Fan Interaction

After a long, drawn-out twitter feud last week, Phil Fish cancelled his upcoming game, Fez 2, quit videogames, and for a few days there, quit the internet.

You might know the story by now. Phil Fish, game designer, creator of the “worst map ever” award winning game, Fez, and subject of the documentary Indie Game the Movie, is prone to emotional outbursts. If you haven’t heard of him from the projects he’s been involved in, you might remember the time he said that all Japanese games suck while on stage at last years Game Developers Conference. Or maybe you know him from his frequent twitter battles with games analyst Kevin Dent. Or maybe that time he publicly stated he couldn’t update his own game after releasing a broken patch due to Microsoft’s draconian patching policies.

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And more recently, Marcus Beer, who rants as the accused Fish and Braid creator Jonathan Blow of using the press as a means to an end. He specifically cited the fact that neither gave comments on Microsoft’s self publishing policy for indie games until after the fact. This led Beer to call the two “self-styled kings of indie games” and accused the pair of only giving quotes to the press when it suited their needs.

Fish took Beer to task on twitter, fans of the two, as well as casual observers and the legion of people don’t necessarily like Beer, but definitely don’t like Fish got involved, and the rest is history.

Basically, there hasn’t been a moment in the last couple of years where Fish wasn’t in the public eye, made even more apparent by his active twitter presence. Going back through his replies and looking at forum posts about him around the internet, it’s pretty clear that a significant number of people took it upon themselves to constantly put Fish down. Heck, according to him, the reason he’s getting out of videogames isn’t because of his most recent argument, but the constant abuse he faces on the internet, day in and day out.

 

The thing is, I find it hard to blame him for this. It’s hard to make things for an audience that seems to only be out for your blood, especially something as personal and draining as a videogame. I think he could have handled it more elegantly and not quit videogames entirely, but at the end of the day it’s hard to argue with the kind of abuse he put up with.

We live in an era of facebook, twitter and e-mail, where the person who created your favourite game, song, movie or book is just a few keystrokes away. But for most people, we live in an era where the person who made something you don’t like is so much closer. It’s hard to be genuine and express your gratitude for something you like. It’s easier to find someone you don’t and by a jerk to them. Abuse is easy to give, but it’s hard to filter through for the person getting it.

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Sure, Fish has a reputation for making emotionally charged, off the cuff remarks, and he probably knows that. Yes, he could have put two and two together and realized that being constantly active on twitter and engaging with his trolls would eventually lead to a situation like this, but these days, it’s becoming impossible not to be a public persona.

Look at Super Smash Bros. director Masahiro Sakurai. There aren’t a lot of public Japanese developers, at least not public from a Western perspective, but Sakurai has an active twitter presence, he writes a monthly column on game design in Famitsu magazine, and when developing a Smash Bros. game, makes daily updates to fans on his progress.

Nowadays, he posts pictures to the Smash Bros. community on miiverse, Nintendo’s Wii U social network. The most interesting comments are preserved by a blog called Please Sakurai, where the blog’s manager spotlights the posts made by people specifically trying to contact Sakurai.

 

Wherein Megaman is Sakurai, and DK is the fans.

Wherein Megaman is Sakurai, and DK is the fans.

As far as I know, Sakurai doesn’t speak English, but the people trying to reply to him, at least on the North American miiverse, don’t really know that. They request (mostly outlandish) characters, new info, and occasionally, get very angry and try to insult Sakurai personally for his design choices. 

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These aren’t the only mean-spirited comments on the blog, but they’re probably some of the most mean spirited. The blog doesn’t really highlight any posts that are people having rational, logical problems with the game, but knowing how the internet works, I have to imagine they’re very, very rare in the first place.

There are plenty of positive comments too, but always tied to requests. I know Sakurai can’t read these, so I’m left to imagine what would happen if he could. First of all he wouldn’t be able to do anything, because I’m pretty sure the character roster and choices about cutscenes were finalized a long time ago. But I wonder if he’d be disheartened by the negative comments. Maybe not enough to change anything, definitely not enough to make him quit, but enough to make him wonder why there are people who are dedicating their time and internet presence to attacking him.

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Not so say that communication between audience and creators is a bad thing. Look at what happened to Mass Effect. Fans got together and expressed their displeasure with the game, then found rational arguments, and presented a unified front. The organized campaign wasn’t one of personal attacks or internet bile, but of a reasoned argument made by people who loved Mass Effect, and wanted to see it end in a more satisfying way.

Whether they were right to do it, or if the ending actually sucked, or if their motivations were pure doesn’t matter. What does is that they created positive change in a game they loved by speaking with the creators. And they did it without resorting to being anonymous jerks on the internet, at least for the most part.

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The internet’s obsession with social media and reducing anonymity has opened this channel for people to communicate with creators. The audience and the artist are no longer separated by each other by security guards, PR handlers, critics, and the work they’re associated with. The two can now speak, one on one.

I think it does more good than bad. I think a lot of people have thick enough skin that an anonymous internet troll won’t affect them as much, and are more capable of focusing on the people who stay positive. I also think we might see more instances of fans banding together and creative negative change. Right now, focus grouping and the unbelievable success of Call of Duty has “told” publishers that first person shooters will always sell, and a game needs multiplayer to be viable. That’s completely different from this, but it’s not hard to imagine that publishers and market researchers will turn to the internet next, and look to the masses of uniformed fans who don’t necessarily know what they want out of a game until they get it.

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But, I also think that having this channel opened between artists and creators makes both more informed. Fans get to learn more about how the sausage is made, and developers find out more about what they people who play their games want. They can choose to listen or not, and then hope that when they don’t, the internet abuse will be worth it because they’ll know they’re right.

It’s become impossible not to be on some social network or another for people under 30, and as time keeps passing, less and less of people responsible for making the media we consume will be able to be private people. The internet has offered these people Pandora’s box. Do they want to hear exactly what fans want from them? Do they want to know what’s popular? Do they want to hear the personal stories of the people who were touched by the thing they made? All they have to do is open the box. But with that comes the abuse, the trolls, and the people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

For now, the choice is theirs. The box isn’t open for everyone just yet. But give it a few years, and there won’t be a single person left without a presence on the internet. After all, everyone always opens the box; we all just want to know what’s inside.

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Animal Crossing: The Cure for my AAA Doldrums

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Animal Crossing: The Cure for my AAA Doldrums

A few weeks ago, I thought about buying The Last of Us on launch day. Usually, when I think about buying a game, there’s not a lot of decision process. If it’s something that interests me, I dive right in if I have the money. If I’m not interested, then there’s no sale. But for some reason, even though I knew that The Last of Us is a game I’d probably enjoy, and was a game I was following for a while, I was so throughouly disinterested in buying it.

Probably because I’d been playing so much Animal Crossing: New Leaf.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf is the fourth game in Nintendo’s life simulator series. You play a customizable villager who has moved to a town populated entirely by talking animals and just sort of live your life. You make money by fishing, or catching bugs, or cultivating and selling rare fruit and you use the money to build public works projects for your town or furniture for you home. Of course, first you have to pay off the obscene mortgages places upon you by local extortionist and racoon, Tom Nook. 

 

"Why is (Animal Crossing) making me want to stay away from big budget, AAA gaming, at least for the rest of the summer?" 

 

Yes, it's a cartoonish looking children's game, but maybe that's what it takes to show the flaws of this industry.

Yes, it's a cartoonish looking children's game, but maybe that's what it takes to show the flaws of this industry.

It’s not like this game fills any of the same niches that AAA games do for me. It’s a strange beast, a social game divorced of social game mechanics and simple connectivity. But it has the same constant goals and generally passive atmosphere of the traditional social game. One wouldn’t be entirely remiss to call it an expanded Farmville, but with rocks that spit out money to check every day instead of crops. So why is it driving me away from gaming’s latest darling, why is it making me want to stay away from big budget, AAA gaming, at least for the rest of the summer?

There are a few reasons. First, and this point can’t be understated, Animal Crossing might be one of the most progressive games on the market. Now, saying that makes me very sad, because it’s a game from Nintendo, a company who recently patched out same sex marriage in one of their other life simulator games, Tomodachi Collection. Japan is not known for gender equality or race equality, or progressive views in general, but somehow, Animal Crossing manages to be more progressive than any FPS I’ve played in years. 

 #dealwithit

 #dealwithit

Men can wear dresses and skirts, girls can wear pants, gender isn’t a binary in Animal Crossing; it’s unbelievable, unprecedentedly fluid. I can only really think of games like Saint’s Row and Second Life that allow you to present your character in a similar way. Haircuts of either gender are available to any character, and multiple characters comment on how boys can wear makeup and how you look damn fine in whatever you choose to wear.

People smarter than me have already discussed at length Animal Crossing’s core customization flaw, the fact that there’s no race option. The fact that you character defaults to white is made even more ridiculous by the fact that the system-level Mii creator allows various skin tones. The only way to change skin colour in Animal Crossing is to leave the game for a few hours in the summer and “tan”. The terminology is frustrating. Where gender isn’t binary, race is default. You are white, unless you want to go out of your way to be not white. Two steps forward and one step back is the name of the game here, but that one step still puts Animal Crossing five steps ahead of the AAA competition, where deviations from the norm are cast aside and either made fun of or exploited.

For example, Mass Effect treats same-sex romance options as dalliances for the most part, with only the relationship between a female Shepard and Liara considered to be as valid as the “straight” options, and mostly because they’re two women and thus hot. Male Shepard and his single same-sex romance option, Steve Cortez, don’t even get to have on screen intercourse, likely because Electronic Arts felt that their audience wouldn’t want to be party to something like that. And Mass Effect is considered to be an otherwise fairly progressive game, with women and men treated equally in-universe, and homosexuality is considered to be completely normal. 

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Do you see where I’m coming from? It’s so refreshing to me to see a game that treats gender with such equality and rationality. Sure, Animal Crossing doesn’t have any same-sex options, but it’s not that kind of game. Animal Crossing is devoid of sexuality, likely because it’s an “all ages” title. But it isn’t devoid of emotion, with characters of either gender expressing their love for you, regardless of your gender. It’s not a huge step forward. But compared to where the rest of the industry is, this unassuming children’s game about living with talking animals is the single most progressive (non-indie) game on the market. And it’s hard to dive right back in to the exclusionary, occasionally bigoted culture of AAA gaming after experiencing that.

According to Nintendo's statistics, Animal Crossing New Leaf is primarily played by women. 

According to Nintendo's statistics, Animal Crossing New Leaf is primarily played by women. 

Not to mention the fact that your character becomes the mayor of the game, the most powerful figure in the town, regardless of gender. Animal Crossing is a power fantasy, but it’s decidedly not a traditional white male one. As a straight, white male, I’m sick of being told that violence (often against people who are not straight white males) is power, and I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like for people who aren’t like me, the people who have even more of a reason to be offended by this, the people who feel excluded when games tell them that in order to have power, they must be like the people who came up with this power fantasy. I miss pleasant games. Games that want to be taken at their own pace, games that don’t want me to run and shoot every brown person I see while my player character refers to them as “faggots”. Games that don’t exclude you simply because you don’t “fit”.

AAA gaming is in a rut. Naughty Dog had to fight to get protagonist Ellie on the cover of The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite’s Elizabeth isn’t even ON the front cover. The Last of Us might not even be the best example of a game that falls into the standard pitfalls of AAA gaming, but it's just the catalyst of all this for me. The culture around these games is pushing away anyone who isn’t a straight, white male, and excluding anyone who doesn’t want to take part in these power fantasies of violence and, well, exclusion. And not every AAA game is like that. Tomb Raider is, from all accounts, fairly respectable towards protagonist Lara Croft. Saint’s Row let’s you play as a woman and play with gender distinctions. But these are exceptions, exceptions that often have to make sacrifices to sell well. And I’m just so tired of it.

Just a regular day in Animal Crossing, boys, girls, and gender ambiguous ducks working together.

Just a regular day in Animal Crossing, boys, girls, and gender ambiguous ducks working together.

Let me tell you this fun fact about Animal Crossing before you stop reading this and comment about how gay I am for hating on Call of Duty and Battlefield and Guns of Shooting 69. Animal Crossing lets you run by holding the B button. That’s not a big deal. It’s been a feature in games since Super Mario Bros. in 1985. But running is almost always a bad idea. It destroys flowers that beautify your town and chases away the fish and bugs that make you your profits. Not only that, but it tramples your town’s grass, which only grows back at a very slow rate, and not at all during the winter and fall.

 

 

"Why would the game even let you choose something so negative?"

 

So why would you ever run? It’s a universally bad choice. Why would the game even let you choose something so negative? Because that’s what Animal Crossing is about. Choosing to take the game slowly, to stop and smell the roses, to experience this tiny little world at its own pace. Animal Crossing knows that eventually you’ll get bored with it. Six months in you’ll stop visiting the town, it'll be infested by weeds and all flower life will wither away. It knows that one day it as a world will die. And so it wants you to appreciate it for every thing it is. It wants you to slow down and take a look deep inside of it. It wants you to see that there are flaws with race customization; it wants you to see how it’s barely removed from Farmville and many other time sink social games. It wants you to see it for all of its flaws, because it knows that above all else you’ll see the most important thing.  

You’ll see that Animal Crossing might not be perfect. It might not get all of its progressiveness right, but it wants to. You'll see that Animal Crossing is one of the most well intentioned games you’ll ever play, and that’s something not even the biggest budget can buy.

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