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Mario Galaxy and the Mechanization of Space

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Mario Galaxy and the Mechanization of Space

Super Mario Galaxy is the spaciest space game of all time.

To be fair, it doesn’t seem that way at first glance. Mario is a plumber from Brooklyn by way of the Mushroom Kingdom, which isn’t the kind of CV you need to get into NASA. The planets have nonsensical and inconsistent gravity, the stars have big cartoon eyes and goofy singsong dialogue, and all of outer space is ruled over by an amazonian princess with a magic wand. But, beyond all the parts of Mario Galaxy’s space that put it squarely in the Disney afternoon sector of the universe, its mechanics are not only what make it unique among platformers, but the only game I can think of that’s both about space, and actually feels like it earns it.

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The Wacky World of Nintendo's Shared Space Universe

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The Wacky World of Nintendo's Shared Space Universe

Years ago, Nintendo used to hold a show called Space World. It was a sort of Nintendo-only counterpart to Tokyo Game Show, which they didn't (and still don't) attend, where they'd announce new games and consoles, and put them out for the public to play. It had very little to do with space as a concept, but its makes for a very convenient segue into the fact that Nintendo has a crazy shared universe you never knew about, and it all takes place in space. Also, it's all perfectly reasonable and requires no insane leaps in fan fiction logic.

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My Multiplayer Story - How Street Fighter Made Me a Better Person

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My Multiplayer Story - How Street Fighter Made Me a Better Person

When we were growing up, my brother and I would fight a lot.

I've heard that's pretty natural actually, but when we were younger it always drove me crazy. Not because we weren't close, I didn't really care about that, but because my parents would always demand we be nicer to each other. Well, specifically, they yelled at me that I was too mean to him. I figured they were playing favourites, but looking back, we were very close in age, had similar interests, plus, we were little kids with awful tempers- we were bound to butt heads.

We would hit each other, a lot. I was bigger and stronger, but not by much. There's about two year's difference between us, so whenever I got a little bigger and tougher, he'd just have to wait a few months and eventually we'd be on the same playing field again. 

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Adaptation: Three Classic Comedies that Need Games

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Adaptation: Three Classic Comedies that Need Games

Look, there are only so many times we can say this, but games can, and should be funny. Sometimes. Maybe not all the time, but there’s definitely room for cracking jokes through gameplay. Sometimes, you just need the right material. Now, I’m no game designer, but I feel like I have some idea the industry could put to good use. Specifically on adaptations of famous classic comedies, beloved the world over. Here’s some material folks- great ideas to better homes. Do with them what you will.

Mrs. Doubtfire:

This summer, Robin Williams is still doing vaguely offensive voices.

This summer, Robin Williams is still doing vaguely offensive voices.

The Pitch:

There’s a new Mrs. Doubtfire movie coming out. Now, I know movie tie-in games aren’t quite as popular as they used to be, but licensed game doesn't carry the same baggage as it used to. It’s a trade off. I’m fairly sure the only movie licensed game coming out for the major consoles this year is Amazing Spider-Man 2, so the market for a tie-in movie game is underserved at best. Now, it’s also nonexistent at worst, but you can’t make money without taking a few ungodly risks. And the biggest, stupidest, most ungodly risk available to you as an investor is getting behind this Mrs. Doubtfire game.

Like, just make that broom a trident and we are halfway to pig monster.

Like, just make that broom a trident and we are halfway to pig monster.

Robin Williams has effectively pissed away his popularity with projects like RV and those Zelda commercials where he had a crazy beard. Actually, can we get Robin Williams to play Ganon in a Zelda game? Check on that after we’re done here. Robin Williams is only slightly more popular than crossdressing comedies. Other than the shambling franchise zombie that is Medea, zany drag comedies don’t really pull in the audiences anymore. This probably has something to with the fact that playing crossdressing as hilarious in and of itself is crazy offensive, but then again, White Chicks in on Netflix and we as a society haven’t started rioting yet, so what do I know?

What I know is I have a killer pitch for a Mrs. Doubtfire game.

 

The Gameplay:

The game has two distinct gameplay stages. The first is a makeup portion, think Cooking Mama meets a dress-up doll game. You have to do Daniel Hillard’s make up perfectly for whatever the occasion calls for. Going out on the town, staying in to take care of the kids, top-secret missions in North Korea, whatever Mrs. Doubtfire needs to do.

That sweater is actually kevlar. 

That sweater is actually kevlar. 

Yes, that’s right, Mrs. Euphegenia Doubtfire is now a top-secret agent for the US Government, the world’s best disguise artist, able to infiltrate any compound without detection, all while maintaining an impeccable falsetto British accent. Depending on how well you do your makeup in the pre-mission portion of the game, the level may be easier or harder in certain places Your makeup affects your ability to blend in and attract interest from NPCs. Different makeup styles will lend themselves better to certain strategies, and don’t forget to try and track down the secret looks, which can unlock special skills like invisibility and constant-being-on-fire.

During the mission portion, you’ll be tasked with infiltrating an area with the least amount of casualties. Like Snake in Metal Gear Solid, Doubtfire only procures weapons on sight, and attacking guards and innocents is likely to arouse suspicion. Be careful not to blow the mission, your president is counting on you to stop terrorist attacks from a country that hopefully won’t be an ally in six months when this game is on store shelves. Games are missing this blend of tactical espionage action and makeup simulation, and Mrs. Doubtfire 2: When in Doubt, Fire, is just the game to give gamers what they crave.

 

Borat:

Every promotional image of Borat involves that green swimsuit, and I just don't want to put you through that.

Every promotional image of Borat involves that green swimsuit, and I just don't want to put you through that.

The Pitch:

You know it, I know it, the nation knows it. We, as a society miss Borat impressions. People aren’t saying “My Wife” enough anymore, or parroting anti-semitic and/or misogynistic comments sans satirical context. We’ve lost the Borat spark. Sacha Baron Cohen has disappeared to parts I do not know where, and there is no one to fill the void left behind by the lack of Borat in our collective life. But now, there is. Look, the Ghostbusters game was supposed to be Ghostbusters 3 until it wasn’t. Then Ghostbusters 3 went back to being a thing that will never happen but we’ll keep hearing news stories about until we’re all dead, so why can’t Borat 2 do the same?

He is ALREADY A MII. It's that easy people.

He is ALREADY A MII. It's that easy people.

See, Borat 2: The Game won’t be a good game. That’s literally impossible. What kind of game would it even be? We’ll get to my pitch in a moment, but seriously, it’s terrible. Don’t bother. The point is, it’ll light a fire under Mr. Borat’s ass to work on the real Borat 2, or better yet, Borat 3: The Canonical Sequel to the Trainwreck Known as Borat 2: The Game. It’s sure to be a film loaded with laughs, hoots, hollers, and guffaws galore. Maybe there will be a celebrity cameo or two? Maybe I’ll appear, and Mr. Borat can say something mostly offensive to me. It’ll be very exciting. The point is, we need to make this game happen, and then we can all go back to the halcyon days of late 2006 to early 2007, where your dad thought the Borat voice was the key to comedy.

Ahhhh, nostalgia.

 

The Gameplay:

I’m not going to lie to you, folks. This cannot be a good game. I mean, first of all, Cohen refuses to play the Borat character anymore, since he’s too famous to trick people with. Second of all, what do even gamify here? I was thinking to go the easy route, and have Mr. Borat platform his way through America, but we’re not lazy here at Built to Play. We’re innovators, and we have a trainwreck of a design pitch for you. Imagine a 3D exploration game, where you, as Borat, walk around a town, asking for interviews with various townspeople. Using a Mass Effect-style dialog wheel, you find the best way to keep the conversation going, which builds up your catchphrase bar. Once full, you can decide to end the conversation by making them uncomfortable, and physically yelling on of Borat’s many catchphrases into a microphone. By the way, you’re also wearing an Oculus Rift, two Playstation Moves, and Wii Vitality Sensor, so your body language, heartbeat, and head positioning have to be perfect for the NPCs to trust you during the interview.

Remember this? No? Good.

Remember this? No? Good.

Alternatively, you can use the catchphrase bar for point multipliers, which will increase your score the longer you keep the conversation going. It’s a classic risk reward system, like quoting Borat in 2014. You have one life, and villagers react as you move, so it’s pretty much a roguelike too, because the kids are into those these days. And everything has Minecraft-style graphics, because we aren’t made of money here. We’re already packing three high-end VR peripherals into the box, and one of them doesn’t even exist. The game also features a day-night cycle,which affects which NPCs you find roaming town, as well as your tiredness meter. It’s also the key to the endgame. After ten in-game years, your character will be retried, all your relevance is shot, and you’ll still hear people saying “my wife” is a dumb voice.

What’d I say? Trainwreck.

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

No, that is no Donkey from Shrek, but that you for pointing out our cultural touchstones.

No, that is no Donkey from Shrek, but that you for pointing out our cultural touchstones.

The Pitch:

If it makes you feel better, pretend we're adapting the manga.

If it makes you feel better, pretend we're adapting the manga.

Shakespeare is classic. And I don’t mean that in the patronizing, pretentious, you have to read him because he’s so important. You don’t, and he isn’t. I mean it in the literal sense, he’s old, and kids don’t care. But, he’s public domain as all hell, which means a cheap game idea is ripe for the picking. I flicked through a list of his comedies, and the dude didn’t really “get” being funny, but hey, this one has donkeys and fairies in it, and that’s probably good enough. We polish this thing up, give it some grit, market it to the Mountain Dew generation, and we’re golden.

In case you don’t know, and who am I kidding, you probably don’t because who pays attention in high school english other than nerds like me, A Midsummer Night's Dream is about four dumb teens who get messed around with by some fairies in the woods. Puck, the fairy court jester, makes some of the teens fall in love with each other, and the whole thing becomes a confusing love quadrangle. After that, a guy called Bottom shows up and he gets turned into a donkey before everything gets sorted out, and Puck tells you it was all probably just a dream.

There’s a couple directions we could go with this. Obviously, kids love “it’s all a dream” endings. They’re all over video games. Hell, Mario 2 was all a dream, and that’s the greatest story in the history of video games. It has frogs, it has vegetables, what more could drama need? Second, kids love fairies. It’s all over their media. Name me one show that doesn’t have a fairy in it. They all do. They’re tiny and magical and only visible to the pure-hearted, so of course you don’t see them. Maybe stop being such a jerk and work with me here.

 

The Gameplay:

Like this, but with more boredom!

Like this, but with more boredom!

I have two ideas for this project. Both are first person titles, but only one is a shooter. That one has you in the woods, playing as one of the four dumb teens. Each has a different special ability, and is fighting to make their way back to their friends for sweet group makeouts. Hermia is a sniper, Helena uses rockets and explosives, Lysander is an all-around character with an assault rifle, and Demetrius is a close-up shotgun character. There’s no real reason for any of that, but no one’s read the play, they won’t know. They fight all kinds of twisted monsters in the forest, and at the end of each level, they fight one of the fairies as bosses. Threatening monsters like Mustardseed, and Peaceblossom. The final boss is Bottom, with his donkey head as a horrifying, gruesome visage that will scare the daylights of of children for decades to come, guaranteeing our place in gaming history.

Alternatively, my other idea is a first person VR experience, where you sit and watch a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from any seat in the audience. But, no matter which you pick, you’ll always be bored. It’s art!

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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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The Primer- Open Worlds

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The Primer- Open Worlds

This month, we're all about open worlds, so we decided to take a look back at some games that tried to do something new and interesting with the open world concept at the time they came out. Assuming you've already played Grand Theft Auto and its ilk, you're probably pretty well acquainted with the standard concept of an open world sandbox, so how about something a little more offbeat?

Super Metroid:

Super_Metroid_title.png

So, Super Metroid isn't quite an open world game in the way we traditionally think of one. It doesn't have a wide open sandbox, the limits of the world are pretty clearly set out, and there's a very clear linear path you're meant to follow to the end of the game. But, the thing about Super Metroid is that it was one of the earliest games to successfully implement an open world structure into a traditional action game framework.

Even from the beginning, Super Metroid never tells you where you need to go. Hints are dropped frequently, and places too far along the critical path are locked until you find a specific power up that will let you through the gates, but you're never given specific directions. From the moment the game gives you free reign over the environment (pretty much when you enter Brinstar), the linearity takes a backseat to teaching you how to play with carefully constructed, subtle challenges, as well as always giving you enough rope to hang yourself with. You'll never get stuck, but you'll always know you're just tantalizingly out of range of one more secret.

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Super Metroid's constantly expanding map told you where you were and where you'd been, but when you zoomed it out, you could start seeing where secret passages might be hidden, items might be tucked away, and shortcuts might be explored. You would start to find hooks, places you could explore off of the directed path that led towards Mother Brain and the end of the game, and find non-essential power ups and items there. The X-Ray beam and Spring Ball come to mind, but so do dozens of missile expansions and energy tanks.

So no, Super Metroid isn't quite an open world game, but if you want to see a masterclass in how to make a game more interesting by properly implementing open world design, it's one of the first, and still easily the best.

Dark Souls:

Painted_World_of_Ariamis_01.jpg

Dark Souls takes what Super Metroid started, and pumps it full of open world steroids. After the tutorial area, you can start poking around the Firelink Shrine and end up in the nearby graveyard, which is meant to cream any player not already a decent chunk of their way into the game.  If you're quick on your feet and figure out the lay of the land though, you can run by tricky challenges and use the doors between areas to get around anything in your way.

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But, unlike Super Metroid, the doors aren't gated according to what gear you've found. It's hard to get around Super Metroid's Marida until you've found the Gravity Suit, which will let you move freely in water. In Dark Souls, however, there's nothing stopping you from running right through late game areas at level one. The only real gate is Sen's Fortress, which doesn't open up until you ring the two bells, which you can of course ring in any order you like.

Dragon.jpg

Dark Souls is so open to varying playstyles that you can go through the entire game with nothing but a shield. Dark Souls emphasis on atmosphere and careful, measured combat makes that sort of big open world fun rather than frustrating. It's always easy to tell when you're biting off more than you can chew, and retreating isn't terribly hard. Dying only costs you souls, your global currency, and those can be recovered from a bloodstain left when you die. The real measure of your progress, your personal experience as a player, goes nowhere. You're encouraged to fail and try again, and maybe take one of the dozens of different paths to your goal, or even just take up a new goal entirely.  It's a fantastic expression of what the open world concept can do when applied to a genre that isn't "generic third person action game".

Shenmue:

Shenmue-Graphics.jpg
shenmue.jpg

Shenmue came out in North America on November 8th, 2000, just a month before Grand Theft Auto III set the world's love for open-world sandboxes aflame. Shenmue came out for the commercially unsuccessful Dreamcast, while Grand Theft Auto III was a fairly early game for the PS2, which I don't know if you've heard of, but it was the most successful console in history. Shenmue was so expensive to make that it's often cited as one of the reasons Sega got out of the hardware game, while Grand Theft Auto III was so successful they can still afford to blow a quarter of a billion dollars on the latest entry in the series, GTA V.

What I'm saying is that no one really remembers Shenmue, which is a shame, because it is in almost every way the anti-GTA sandbox game. Instead of a huge city to explore, protagonist Ryo Hazuki explores a comparatively tiny town, with just a few locals hanging around. But, instead of Liberty City's sterile, interior-less environment, Shenmue took incredible care in detailing every single aspect of the world. You could open up cupboards and closets, gardens were fully featured, right down to that bamboo thing that fills up with water and then makes a *donk* noise when it falls down to empty out.  You could even swap out the randomly generated weather effects for the historical weather records of that part of Japan in 1986, when the game is set.

shenmue-forklift-racing.jpg

You can eat off of GTA III. There's very little detail to its world, to the point where it's almost not even a world at all. It's a playground, where you can jack cars and shoot blocky polygons with awful controls. Of course, it has the upper hand on Shenmue is about a dozen other ways, but imagine a world where Shenmue became the open world game every developer wanted to copy instead of GTA. All martial arts, no guns, driving forklifts all day through a hyper-detailed, if sort of tiny, town.

We'd live in a very different kind of open world.

Far Cry 2:

The famous story about Far Cry 2 goes that while testing the in-game fire effects, they blew up an explosive barrel, which set fire to the surrounding grass. Then the nearby hut. Then the trees. Then a propane tank, which exploded in a dozen directions, lighting up everything in its path, including an enemy guard who ran into a friend of his, lighting him on fire too. Within two minutes, the entire world was on fire. Obviously, they had to tone it down pretty quickly, but the core idea was now permanently in the game. Everything burns, and if you want to, you can set fire to the world to see what happens.

far_cry_2_fire_2.jpg

Far Cry 2 is a fascinating expression of the sandbox concept, because it never puts any restrictions on players. Want to kill your story-relevant partner characters? Go ahead, they stay dead. Want to play as a suicidal madman who doesn't take his malaria pills until the last second? It's an option. Gearbox's Anthony Burch once held a GDC lecture on how playing the game with permadeath turns into a powerful, meaningful experience on the nature and pragmatism of evil. Any way you want to play Far Cry 2, it's there, and it's probably super cool. The possibilities for emergent gameplay are endless.

far_cry_2_-_machete_kill.jpg

I doubt we'll ever see a game as open and willing to let the player muck around as Far Cry 2 again. Even Far Cry 3 was a much more prescribed, directed experience. That sort of openness and freedom invites dozens of flaws, most of which Far Cry 2 suffers from on a regular basis. Clint Hocking, the game's designer, left Ubisoft a few years ago, and is now working on mystery projects of his own. But Far Cry 2 came at this fascinating delta when open world games were the single most popular game in existence, and first person shooters were just coming off of the high from the initial Modern Warfare. A first person open world game was both innovative enough to draw top talent looking to do something new, and could also get the kind of budget to not be a horrible disaster. We might not live in those times anymore, but Far Cry 2 is like $5 at this point, so you have no reason to give it a shot and party like it's 2008 and we still had hope for the industry.


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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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OP-ED: Semantic Kombat- Videogame vs Video Game

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OP-ED: Semantic Kombat- Videogame vs Video Game

Every time I write the word "videogame", I get this weird squiggly red line under it in word. It means the word is wrong. It means videogame is not a word, even though I see it used on occasion over its proper alternative- video games. “Videogames” is a proper noun, versus “video games”, an adjective and a noun. So why the distinction? Both words mean the same thing, even if one technically doesn’t exist. Why have both words in the first place? Surely we should be able to just choose one at this point. Why do semantics even matter when talking about defining a game? At the risk of admitting how pretentious I am, it does matter to me, at least a little bit.

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Let’s think about the term “video game” for a second. It’s two words, technically. Video, which refers to visual content, and game, something people do for amusement. So it’s a visual amusement, or specifically, a game where the visuals are on a screen. It’s a simple definition, and it doesn’t really offer too many problems. If it isn’t visual, it isn’t a “video game”. Taken on its own, game more commonly refers to an amusement played along set rules, usually with the possibility to win and lose. Video games pretty much always have rules by nature. Even in games like Minecraft, which lets the player do almost anything they want, they are still trapped in the confines of the world. There’s an internal logic to a game world, both from a narrative perspective, and a technological perspective.

Anyone down for hide-and-seek?

Anyone down for hide-and-seek?

Technologically, games can’t account for infinite possibilities. Programmers and game designers can only do so much, and that’s why you can’t develop superpowers in the middle of Call of Duty and start flying around, melting people with laser beams. Sure, they could have done that, but they put their resources and efforts into making a different kind of game. One where that doesn’t happen, and can’t, because the developers didn’t code that in. Narrative-wise, every world has rules. In Star Wars, Luke doesn’t suddenly defeat Darth Vader by turning into a giant and crushing him underfoot. The story has established Luke can’t do that. He has some pseudo-magical powers, but we all understand their limits. On the flip side, that means everything that does happen in a narrative happens for a reason, even your own personal narrative of playing the game, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Take THAT, cel-shading.

Take THAT, cel-shading.

For now, we understand that any game does technically have rules. You can only do what the game allows you to. However, we run into a problem with that idea. Sure, the world has established rules, but what happens if I break those rules? Speedruns often involve clipping through the game’s architecture, or glitching out certain segments to make the game go faster. Link can’t usually pass through locked doors without a key, but Wind Waker speedrunners can make him slip right through. But they’re still playing the game, they’re just playing for a different goal, with different rules. That’s part of what makes video games so great, often, you can take an existing set of rules, and layer your own over them for a totally different experience.

So rules are a bust, at least in the traditional sense. You can’t just suddenly start playing a heavily modified version of tag while everyone is playing hide and go seek, you’d be breaking the rules. Sure, you’re playing by your own, but the existence of communally agreed upon rules means you’re not the playing the game everyone else set out to, and that means less to some jerk who really care about defining games by their rules. Video game rules are inherently malleable, since, at least in a single player context, there’s no one to tell you that you’re playing incorrectly.

My uncle words at Namco and he told me that if you get to the kill screen they take you into space to pilot Mecha-Pac-Man and fight the alien ghosts.

My uncle words at Namco and he told me that if you get to the kill screen they take you into space to pilot Mecha-Pac-Man and fight the alien ghosts.

What about win/lose states? Does a game have to let you win or lose? There is no traditional winning or losing in say, Animal Crossing, which goes on forever, with or without the player being involved. There are tiny win states when you pay off your loan, but those don’t end the game or anything. But what about a game you can’t win at all, like Pac-Man? You don’t “win” Pac-Man, you just go as long as possible. You do, however, lose Pac-Man. Not “can”, but “do”. You will eventually lose Pac-Man, because you can’t win. You can hit the kill screen, but that’s not a win state, it ends the game destructively, in an unintended way.

The same win/lose problems come up in playground games. You don’t win jump-rope, for example. You just go as long as possible until you lose. So at the end of the day, games by nature have to have a win or lose state. Even most playground games technically have win or loss states, because they are, by nature, multiplayer experiences, and it’s hard to have those in the real world without forcing a win in some way. So the “game” part of “video game” differs from its traditional definition. Malleable rules and non-traditional victories that don’t involve another player make up the backbone of video games. The “game” portion of the word is different than the one we based it off of. Why not come up with a new word for these kinds of games?

Merriam-Webster says that the first known use of video game was in 1973, which makes sense. That’s one year after Pong, and right when video games were hitting it big in North America. They were still simple enough that they could sort of be defined as anything. It was easy to call it a game, because that’s what it was, and it was played on a TV screen, so video. There. But there’s a weird issue here, both words come from other mediums. Video referred to video screens, like computer monitors and TVs, while game was referring to the fact that, at the time, video games were a lot like games that already existed. Pong was ping-pong, everyone knows what ping-pong is.

Game. Or not. It's up to you.

Game. Or not. It's up to you.

It’s actually a lot like movies. The word “movie” comes from “moving picture”, which means movies are just a series of images flashed before your eyes. Kind of demeans the experience right? Aren’t movies supposed to be about combination of the acting, the music, the directing, the cinematography and everything else? I mean, if movies are moving pictures, then are .gifs movies? Are viewmaster reels? Movies are also called films, but that just refers to the thin layer of chemicals spread on photographic plates for developing film reels. Defining a medium by its physical presence isn’t the worst idea in the world, but it does offer some issues when it comes to video games, which are becoming increasingly digital, and began life as discs and cartridges. Can we just call an NES game a ROM? Is that the same as calling a movie a film? I don’t really have the answer, but common sense says we don’t because no one else does.

The best way I personally have to define a video game is by saying that it’s interactive entertainment. You watch movies, you look at art, you listen to music, but you play games. That verb distinction is important to me. It changes how I experience the medium, how I ingest it. You look at art, because it does not move. You watch a movie, because you have to observe the motion. You listen to music, because you use your ears. You play a game, because your actions have influence over the experience. That’s the distinction, and that’s the definition I like. The win or loss matters only when you start dissecting the “game” part of the word, and that's for another time.

It’s hard to be mad that we use a word. We’ve been calling them video games since the ‘70s, and we won’t really stop anytime soon. Video game rolls off the tongue a lot better than “interactive entertainment”. And it’s truly incredible that we’ve come to the point where calling something a “game” defaults to a video game, rather than a board, card, or playground game. I’m not looking to change the way we write the word out, it’d be silly to. This isn’t a crusade, I just prefer videogame over video game. As a proper noun, the word has a transformative power that pushes it just a little further from its two parent words.

This is the first google image result for "video game". Seriously.

This is the first google image result for "video game". Seriously.

Sure, it’ll always be stuck there, since most video games are still games in the traditional sense, and almost all have some visual element. That’s why keeping that parent word DNA at the fore is still important. I don’t think the word even separates the conversation. Personally, I don’t want to let games that are less visual, or less game-y get brushed off as “not a video game”, but honestly? That doesn't happen that often. I think I just want to combine the two words, make them inseparable, as their own concept. A proper noun that shows that these aren’t like two other mediums. That video games aren’t a combination of video and game, but something greater. They can’t be viewed in the same lens as movies, nor like traditional games. They’re inherently comparable, but that’s because they’ve evolved from them. They’re something bigger than video games They’re videogames.

And also, I’m pretentious. But that’s a given.

 

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The Primer- Games on Games

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The Primer- Games on Games

[The Primer is a new monthly feature  meant to tie in with our monthly theme question. Every month, we’ll put together a short list of games related to the theme question that we think are worth your time. Hopefully, you will too.]

“What is a video game” is a pretty big question. It’s open ended, and has a lot of answers. So we want to give a little bit of a reference point. Some games you can anchor yourself to as we think about why we define games, and what those definitions mean. Some of them are rooted in “gaminess” while some are about expanding what you might consider to be a game. Either way, here a few games you might want to check out.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf:

ctrp_egd_illu03_a_r_ad.jpg

Animal Crossing is one of the first games that comes to mind when people talk about open-ended game experiences. It’s technically open world, in that no part of your tiny town is blocked off from you, and it never pushes any goals on to you. But unlike most open world games, there’s no clear “end” to Animal Crossing. There’s no win or lose condition that ends the game, or any clear-cut way to progress. If you decide progressing means getting all of the villager pictures, that’s your prerogative, the game doesn’t mind at all.

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Like most sandbox games, Animal Crossing asks you to make your own fun, for the most part. But unlike the Grand Theft Autos and Saint’s Rows of the world, there are no missions, no bosses, no clear ways of measuring your progress in the world. You don’t get better, you don’t get further, you just continue existing in your tiny village. It’s distinctly un-gamey. Nintendo actually coined a term to describe Animal Crossing and its ilk: “non-game”. At the 2005 Game Developer’s Conference keynote, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata called titles like Brain Age and Nintendogs non-games because of their lack of “a winner, or even a real conclusion.” And even though Animal Crossing: New Leaf, the newest entry to the series, adds dozens of new tasks to do in your town, the core of the game remains the same. Choose how you want to measure your progression, or don’t. Just hang out for a while, no one’s going to stop you.

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Johann Sebastian Joust:

(Photo from the Johann Sebastian Joust press kit.)

(Photo from the Johann Sebastian Joust press kit.)

Including JS Joust on this list is double cheating, in that it’s neither a video game, nor is it even available to purchase as of writing. It’s played with PlayStation Move controllers linked to a computer playing selections from Bach’s concertos at different speeds. When the song is slow, the controller is very sensitive to slight movements, but when the music gets faster, you can move around more. The goal is to force the opponent to move their controller too much, causing the light on top to turn off.

But it’s not a “video game”, mostly because it doesn’t really have a “video” component. It may be played with game controllers, but even the developers, Die Gute Fabrik, call it a “no-graphics, digitally-enabled playground game.” It’s a game in the purest sense. Simple rules with clear winners and losers, and entirely free-form outside of that. Nothing in the rules says you can’t throw your shoes at other people, for example. JS Joust might not be a video game, but it does open the floor for discussion of more “digitally-enhanced” games, which, when you think about augmented reality games becoming more and more popular on iOS and Android devices, might soon become a much more crowded field than ever before.

(Photo from the Johann Sebastian Joust press kit.)

(Photo from the Johann Sebastian Joust press kit.)

Noby Noby Boy:

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Noby Noby Boy is...weird. It comes from the mind of Keita Takahashi, the creator of the cult-hit Katamari Damacy, which might explain some of its oddness. You play as Boy, a snake-like creature that gets longer as it eats things using either of his two mouths One’s on his face, one’s on his butt. And that’s pretty much it. You eat everyone and everything on a map, and grow longer and longer and longer, until Boy becomes an enormous, unwieldy snake monster, incapable of moving without bumping into one of his own colourful segments.

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Oh, there is one thing though. Boy gets bigger so he can give his length to Girl, a much larger snake monster hanging out on top of planet Earth. As she grows longer, she can reach other planets, unlocking more content for Boy to explore. Since Boy can’t do it alone, every single Noby Noby Boy player in the world contributes to Girl’s growth, and also reaps the rewards when she reaches a new planet. There are no personal goals, nor is there really any win or loss, like a traditional game, but there’s definitely progression, in a strange, totally impersonal way, where rewards are global, rather than individual. Noby Noby Boy isn’t an MMO, but hundreds of players were, for a time, all contributing to the same goal, without much of an end in sight. It’s strange, but it’s hard not to like a game where you can eat your own butt.

WarioWare, inc.: Mega Microgame$:

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If Animal Crossing is Nintendo’s poster-child for non-games, then WarioWare is the exact opposite. Playing WarioWare is basically playing “video games” in their purest form. Simple, five second affairs, with only one button, a directional pad, and a single command. Beat one, move on to the next. One second you’re shooting ducks in Duck Hunt, the next you’re being asked to choose the “praise” option from a menu. WarioWare takes for granted the idea that the player is experienced enough with the grammar of games that they’re able to figure out what do with one word and limited input.

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When the game presents you with a top down view of a girl with a gardening can and a plant, then commands you to “water!”, someone familiar with games would understand immediately that the top-down view means the girl is controlled with the d-pad, and the plant, as the only other sprite on screen is the target. WarioWare puts you through the ringer of platformers, RPGs, shooters, matching games, every kind of genre that’s playable in 5 seconds with one button and directional controls. It’s pure video game.

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At the same time, the games are incredibly short, and packed together tightly. While they constantly reference video games and gaming history, some people would hesitate to call them “video games” on their own. They’re microgames, sure, but they’re also distillations of video game in the simplest sense of the word. Like a reduction of the medium, they get rid of anything not explicitly required for a video game. Separated into its base elements, it’s a series of incredibly simple tasks without much in the way of reward other than more microgames, but taken as a gestalt, WarioWare throws game after game at you, asking you to use your familiarity with various genres and gaming history to keep on your toes. If nothing else, WarioWare is the gamiest game that’s ever gamed.


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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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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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Pokemon X and Y- Tipping Point

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Pokemon X and Y- Tipping Point

Pokémon X and Y add a fascinating new feature to the series. It’s a game changing idea, one that totally changes the way I perceive the world that the game presents. It’s not the full 3D battles with a dynamic camera, it’s not the brand new fairy type, it’s not the ability to fully customize your trainer, it’s not even the fact that Pokémon names can be up to ten letters now, allowing me to nickname my Gyarados “Skullkraken”, as God and President Obama intended. 

No, the game changing feature is tipping: the ability to tip buskers, waters, and any number of NPCs who offer you small services.

Stay with me here, I promise it’ll start making sense in a moment.

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Occasionally in Pokémon X and Y, you’ll come across a wandering minster who will offer to sing you a song, or you enter a café and a waiter seats you. Maybe you just asked a maid to assist you in sending out a battle request, or found a poor Pokémon with a sign around its neck saying it needs money for a trim. After interacting with them, the game will ask if you’d like to top them, in denominations of either 100 pokédollars, 500 pokédollars, or 1000 pokédollars. Assuming that’s equivalent to Yen, we’re looking at a $1 tip, a $5 tip, or a $10 tip.

Here’s the kicker though, tipping doesn’t do anything.

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It doesn’t increase your stats, no one mentions it, and all that happens is that you’re out a couple of bucks for what would have otherwise been a free service. It’s weird in a videogame context. Mechanically speaking, videogames tend not to have wasted parts. Everything means something, otherwise a developer spent hours slaving away on something players would find pointless, when they could otherwise spend their time working on things that would enhance the game in general. There are exceptions to the rule, but even those tend to prove it, in a way. Open world games like Grand Theft Auto and Saint’s Row have plenty of “pointless” areas, but they exist to enhance the open world. An area that isn’t used in a quest line has purpose if it’s there to create the feeling that the world is more real.

So, because everything in a game has purpose, the savvy gamer has been trained to expect results from almost everything in the game world. Thus, the first time I tipped, I expected some invisible generosity stat to tick upwards until it hit max and I got a free Pikachu wearing a party hat or something. Instead, I didn’t get thanks, no one ever mentioned it again, and according to the internet, the game doesn’t even track it. It literally does nothing.

So why have I been tipping every single NPC who asks?

It started pretty simply. I was expecting something to come of it. I thought tipping would increase my catch rate, or EV rate, or somehow influence an obscure stat with a byzantine equation drawing from my average tip amount combined with my tipping frequency. Then, I realized it wasn’t doing anything, and I didn’t’ tip a maid after asking her to send out a battle request for me.

And then she sassed me.

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That’s right, a wall of dots. Her unvoice-acted silence was deafening, so much so that I spoke to her again, and gave her a tip that time. And then I continued giving everyone else tips, because I felt guilty that a fake person was angry because I didn’t give them fake money for their fake service.

It’s ridiculous, but hear me out. I think it changed the entire game for me. One of my biggest problems with Pokémon has always been its lack of a cohesive world. To flesh out the things going on in this world and contextualize them as events happening in a fictional world with rules, I had to turn to other sources, like the cartoon and comics. I wrote an entire essay going into detail exclusively about the Pokémon world’s system of governance, just because I felt like it was one of the few things the game explained just enough as to make it seem insane.

Obviously Pokémon has always had bigger problems. Balance issues crop up every few games, and the fact that, at its core, we’ve been playing the same game since 1998, are also problems, but as someone who’s always been way too into Pokémon, and far too interested in world building, the cohesive world thing has always pissed me off.

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I always wanted to know how people operated in this world. Do they eat Pokémon? Is all work centered on Pokémon? Are there Pokémon rights advocates? Why are they both slaves and celebrities?  Do people have jobs? Is the Pokémon Center subsidized by the Pokémon League? And so on. The tipping thing was the first moment that a Pokémon world felt real to me without any extra material in years. It was the first time my imagination was truly piqued.

It was something pointless, something I do out of kindness and social convention in real life, but served no real purpose in this videogame. It made me poke around more and start talking to more NPCs, seeing if they needed tips, just so they could make their rent that week. It didn’t fill in any gaps, it just started making me ask more questions.

World building is usually about presenting both a question and an answer to your audience. Even in something like Harry Potter, Rowling presents a question, how do Wizards get to school without being seen? And then she answers it by having an invisible train platform. Of course, she wisely doesn’t answer the question in full. A savvy reader asks if there are other invisible platforms, or invisible airport terminals, who built the platform, when? And the smart world builder leaves it at that. Those answers aren’t necessary to have a realized world, but the leaving some less important questions to be pondered by the reader makes for a richer world, personalized to them.

Pokémon gave its incomplete answers, but the world lacked the fidelity to inspire the kind of questions world building needs. Sure, Red and Blue tell me that the Pokémon League is in charge of pseudo-government affairs, but since the world is so abstracted, I don’t really think about that too hard, at least not until years later when I stop and really consider that problem.

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Tipping in X and Y asks me a strange question. Do I give these people my hard earned pokédollars? It also asks and answers simpler questions, like how money is treated in this world for people who don’t need to buy pokeballs and hyper potions every day. But the most important question is if I’m going to tip. The answer is yes, because I’m interacting with them in a way that makes the world less abstract. I’m contributing to this weird economy, an undefined social construct. Something I don’t quite understand, but makes this fake world move.

When writers and artists build worlds, one of their greatest tools are those aforementioned empty spaces. Those areas on a map that don’t’ serve any purpose but to make you feel like this is a vast world where not all your questions are answered. A world where things can be wasted and answers aren’t offered around every corner. But when it comes to an interactive world? Nothing is greater than convincing me to contribute to a system I don’t quite understand, to make me interact with these digital mannequins as if they were real people.

It also means NPCs are no longer there for my benefit. Where before they existed only to talk about how much they love Pokémon, or point me in the direction of the next route, now they have an expectation that I give them something in return. NPCs feel just a little more real by opening that door. It’s a small thing, but world building is done in increments like that. Small touches of fidelity in the world do a lot, from the winding alleys in the game’s equivalent of Paris, to the NPC who mentions that cafes exist so people can debate views and opinions, like they did around the time of the French Revolution. It all adds up to a more fully realized, detailed world, and one that I explore with a real sense of wonder. I haven’t felt that way since I was a child playing Blue, and I’m so glad to be back in that world of imagination.

So that’s why I tip every time. Part of it is guilt, sure, but part of it is a sort of gratitude. Thanking these NPCs for inspiring my imagination for the first time since I was a kid. Also, I’m still kind of hoping it makes it easier to find shiny Pokémon somehow. Just a little, at least.

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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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So, What's Happening With Capcom?

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So, What's Happening With Capcom?

Capcom might just be the single most confusing company in videogames right now.

That’s right, more than Microsoft’s Xbox One backtracking, Nintendo’s WiiU bullishness, and Square Enix’s maddening attitude towards Final Fantasy, Capcom has managed to make their every business move so confusing, so baffling, that they’ve developed one of the largest hatedoms in gaming.

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There isn’t a news article about Capcom in existence that doesn’t have some commenter fuming beneath it about how it’s the worst company in existence ever and why did they kill Mega Man those horrible people. But I don’t think these people necessarily hate Capcom. It’s hard to hate a non-physical entity that exists to put out products for your entertainment, even when they aren’t always great. My best guess is that these people are, like me, completely and utterly baffled by Capcom, and are angry to see their favourite games caught up in the mess they’re making right now.

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Let’s start with the most recent red flag: PAX. At PAX last weekend, Capcom’s booth was only showcasing one unreleased game: Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies. There was also a photo-op area for the new Strider game, and then demos of games that have already been released. Some demos for games like Monster Hunter 3, which came out in March. It’s strange, but it makes you think. Capcom’s marquee games right now are Ace Attorney and, judging by the amount of advertising still going on for it, Ducktales Remastered. Nothing against either of those games, especially not Ace Attorney since I love it so, but two digital only, niche titles don’t seem to spell out “marquee game for one of gaming’s giants” do they?

Meanwhile, Keiji Inafune, former head of R&D at Capcom and creator of Mega Man, announced a kickstarter for his new project, Mighty No. 9. To spare you the finer details, No. 9 is essentially Inafune making a new Mega Man game now that he’s left Capcom and no longer has access to his character. Inafune left Capcom while two Mega Man games were in development, both reportedly eaten alive by executive meddling, and cancelled soon after Inafune departed from the Company.

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But now that the Mighty No. 9 kickstarter is already funded and hitting stretch goals left and right, I imagine Capcom isn’t so pleased about cancelling those games. I imagine they’re wondering why they didn’t let Inafune make the Mega Man he (and the fans) wanted.

That or they’re still busy putting out other PR fires. Between Devil May Cry fans getting up in arms about the recent reboot, causing the game to miss sales expectations (one million copies isn’t bad, but it seemed like the game was worth a lot more to Capcom), and Resident Evil 6 hitting 4.9 million copies and still being considered a financial disappointment, Capcom is preoccupied with corporate schizophrenia. They can’t seem to decide what company they want to be.

Capcom, pictured here about to do battle with Capcom.

Capcom, pictured here about to do battle with Capcom.

Capcom wants to be like Activision, taking massive risks by pumping huge amounts of money into huge games and getting to call 4.9 million sales a disappointment. Capcom also wants to be like the more fiscally responsible Aksys games, relegating riskier propositions like a western release of Ace Attorney to digital only. But Capcom also wants to be like Atlus, releasing the previously digital only Ducktales Remastered in a limited physical edition with goodies inside the box. Of course, they also want to be like EA, taking risks on smaller games like Remember Me and making them big under Capcom’s umbrella. But then they also want to be like Nintendo, and rely on their classic staples by rereleasing old titles on every digital platform under the sun. And finally, they want to be like Capcom of the ‘90s, releasing minor updates and closely related sequels to Monster Hunter and Street Fighter for as long as people keep buying them.

But none of these companies MOs really fit together in any cohesive way. Especially when your company isn’t doing so well, financially speaking, and you’ve just suffered significant layoffs, like Capcom has.

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And what’s on the horizon for Capcom? Dead Rising 3, which, if its showing at E3 is anthing to go by, is trading off on the series’ trademark humour and zaniness for grim, gritty and brown, presumably to turn a once decently performing series into a next gen cash cow. It’s not a bad move for the company, since it’ll probably fall more in line with current popular consumer taste, but doesn’t bode well for Dead Rising fans, who seem to just want more servebot helmets and mega busters in their million zombie death carnivals thank you very much.

If I was Capcom’s PR, I’d be seeing a feast of good publicity just around the corner. With the company (seemingly) strapped for cash, reusing the Resident Evil 6 engine (which must have cost a fortune) and the DmC engine (which was 100% solid as a Devil May Cry game) for lower budget, back to basics games for each franchise seems like it would kill four birds with one or two stones. Fans would get their franchises back to normal; Capcom would release highly successful instalments in their marquee franchises, and make a nice profit off reusing assets from two underperforming games. I understand that fan desire isn’t enough to get games greenlit, but this seems like an obvious chose to (an admittedly outsider) me.

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So what happened to Capcom? Just five years ago, they reinvented and revived the fighting game genre, turning Street Fighter into a serious franchise again and putting fighting games on everyone’s mind. Ten years ago, they created some of this generation’s most popular genres; the third person shooter with Resident Evil 4, and the third person action game with Devil May Cry. Twenty years ago, Capcom invented modern fighting games in the first place, and before that, codified the template for a side scrolling action game that wasn’t Mario. Now, they’re releasing bloated, broken Resident Evils, shutting down any Mega Man related project that might make it past the greenlight stage, all the while finding new, contradictory ways to baffle fans.

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Ace Attorney not receiving a limited physical release while Ducktales does makes a little bit of sense, considering Ducktales will sell more in a week than AA5 probably ever will, but still leave Ace Attorney fans in the cold. A $60 dollar limited edition with a soundtrack sold exclusively through the Capcom store would probably even make its money back at this point. Similarly, after touting that Mega Man Legends 3 will have unprecedented fan input on design decisions, Capcom cancelled the game, and never released the paid beta/demo. I have to imagine that making back any money on a cancelled project would be a high priority for a company that seems as down as Capcom right now, and releasing the demo on the 3DS eShop for 10 bucks would recoup something. And something is always better than nothing.

Honestly, what I think is happening to Capcom is what’s happening at every major Japanese publisher right now. The West has fully taken over, and these companies are struggling to find relevance now that they can’t just take being the mainstream for granted anymore. But Capcom’s the one that’s receiving most of the hate. People have totally given up on Sqaure Enix, and Nintendo will always have its diehards, but they always come back to hating Capcom. I’m not sure why. My best guess is because Capcom was one of the few companies that always had titles that appealed to the west. Games like Mega Man, Resident Evil and Street Fighter caught on in the west in a bigger way than Final Fantasy or Castlevania, and occupy a pretty big place in western gaming culture. People hate Capcom because they care about those games, and the longer Capcom spends confusing the living hell out of everyone, the longer we have to wait before seeing them get back to form.

I just hope they get back to form at all.

 

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The 2DS is Not an April Fool’s Joke: It’s a Really Smart Move

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The 2DS is Not an April Fool’s Joke: It’s a Really Smart Move

Over the years, I’ve learned it’s impossible to predict Nintendo, and that’s why you can never count them out. When the 3DS was dying, no one could have seen the massive price cut and ambassador program that gave the system the second wind it needed to become a serious threat that went on to essentially kill the Vita. But somehow, even though I expect to be surprised by then every time, Nintendo always manages to do something completely insane that no one could ever see coming.

This week, it was the 2DS.

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If you haven’t heard of it by now, the 2DS is Nintendo’s new 3DS iteration. It’s a kid-focused handheld that strips out the glassesless 3D feature and the clamshell design in exchange for a lower price and increased durability. Which is to say it looks like it was made by Tonka and it costs $119.99, about $40 cheaper than the standard 3DS.

According to Nintendo, it also boasts slightly increased battery life, a bigger stylus with a dock on the side of the system (where it should have always been), and a sleep mode switch that replaces closing the 3DS clamshell to activate sleep mode. Additonally, the two screens are actually one large touchscreen separated by the casing, with the top screen covered to prevent people from touching it.

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It’s a smart move from Nintendo. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence around the internet and from Gamestop employees about parents holding off on the 3DS out of worry that it’ll ruin their children’s eyes. The 3DS (and every 3DS game) even has to have a little notice on it, warning that children under 7 probably shouldn’t play games in 3D, lest their corneas rocket out of their eye sockets or something. So it assuages that worry for parents.

The new design also gets rid of the 3DS’s flimsy hinge. I’m not one to jump around and move a lot while playing a handheld game, but I’ve had the 3DS top screen shift around when the bus takes a sharp turn, or the subway gets a little bumpy, I can’t imagine how bad it must be for a kid, who’s probably going to get a little hyperactive with their new toy. The brick-like design, with the covered top screen and thick top makes the 2DS look like a safer proposition for parents afraid their kids will break their $160 toy on day one.

Now, it’s not all sunshine and roses for the 2DS. Its existence and branding aren’t exactly the best thing in the world for Nintendo. The name is one thing. We all know it’s ridiculous sounding, but it’s also too clever by half. Sure its sort of a cut little pun, similar to the 3DS, but think back to when that system launched. I can remember Gamestop employees frustrated trying to explain the difference between the regular DS and the 3DS to confused parents. They weren’t frustrated because the parents were misinformed; they were frustrated because it’s sort of hard to explain why a DSi can’t play 3DS games when their names are so close.

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And that’s the kicker. Nintendo painted themselves into a corner with the name. Of course they wanted to name it something similar to the DS, the DS sold tens of millions. But now consumers don’t get the difference. The same thing happened to the WiiU.  WiiU doesn’t sound like a sequel to the Wii, it sounds like an expansion, like the Wii MotionPlus, or the Wii Speak. Even Sony has the sense to just number them.

You now have three 3DS systems on the market, alongside the DS, which is still selling pretty decently. The DS can’t play 3DS games, but the 2DS can. But the 3DS and 3DS XL play all the games that the 2DS can, only with the option to play them in 3D. And the 3DS XL has bigger screens, which don’t actually change the experience. And depending o the DS you get it also has a slot at the bottom for Game Boy Advance games from a decade ago.

Do you see where it gets confusing?

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Not to mention the fact that the lack of 3D splinters the market. There really aren’t very many 3DS games that have a heavy focus on the 3D features, but games like Super Mario 3D Land, the best selling game on the system, have levels that can get pretty difficult if you have the 3D turned off. If the 2DS takes off, we’re less likely to see games that utilize the 3D, since anyone who has a 2DS won’t be able to play. Of course, I can’t remember the last time I turned on the 3D, so it’s no great loss to me, but it certainly got a lot trickier for a developer with an interesting idea for a 3D game to get the greenlight.

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But make no mistake. The 2DS will take off. It’s launching on October 12th, the same day as Pokémon X and Y, in blue and red colours that scream “bundle with Pokémon” to me. It’s targeted at young children, who are going to want Pokémon this holiday season, and is launching with a system that addresses parental concerns while also getting pretty close to very parent friendly $100. It’s an almost guaranteed formula for sales.

Nintendo is going to have an uphill battle explaining what the 2DS is to parents, and explaining why it’s different than the 3DS, but with enough signage, I think they can overcome that hurdle.

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There’s a more interesting nugget hidden amongst the 2DS debate though. It only has one screen, and it’s shaped shockingly like a tablet. You’d need to be living under a rock to miss all the news stories about kids getting into tablets at younger and younger ages, and becoming incredibly well informed about their devices. Nintendo wants a piece of that action, and they want it bad. Kids are mostly using tablets to play games, and Nintendo can offer something app developers can’t: Pokémon and Mario.

I doubt the 2DS is ever going to steal the iPad’s thunder, but between it and the Wii U game pad, I wouldn’t be surprised if the next Nintendo handheld doesn’t launch with tablet and clamshell options. One intended for kids, one marketed to older gamers. Nintendo might pretend they aren’t afraid of Apple, but the 2DS marks the start of a serious effort to take tablet gaming back into Nintendo’s hands. After all, the Game Boy was basically a brick with a screen, and what is that if not the tablet of the late ‘80s?

 

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