Tuesday, November 1, 2011

It's Morfin' Time!

Excuse the Power Rangers reference - I just felt it fit the mood.As you may have noticed if you visit the site, I haven't written in a while. This was intentional. While writing up a piece about Deus Ex: Human Revolution I suddenly understood something: what I really care about in games is their stories.

Then I noticed that while there are a lot of blogs and websites about people playing games and talking about them - there aren't many sites devoted to discussing and dissecting games stories. In fact, most people's idea of what constitutes a good game story seems to be quite different than my own.

When I started this blog I said that the reason I did it was that I hadn't seen enough of my own opinions voiced in gaming journalism. This is still true, and I feel it mostly when it comes to narratives. Games journalists seem to dismiss them most of the time, or at least always opt for narrative-eschewing sandbox games. Even if they like stories, they prefer their stories to have 'choice'. That is, not a real narrative at all but an excuse for the player to make a fake decision, devoid of meaning.

Pondering this, I realized what I had to do. I'm going to close this blog and make a new one that is devoted to game narratives: exploring them, discussing them, analyzing them. Not just the stories, but their connection to the gameplay; how the game's interactivity expressses the narrative, how they combine. Of course, being a gaming blog I will discuss anything that seems important to me at a time, but it will mostly be about game stories. The blog will be called Gamesreader - as in reading into games. The blog is already up here. There might not be anything there yet when you click the link, but there will be.

I'm truly excited about this, as much as I was when I started this blog. As opposed to a general Pc gaming blog, there virtually is no site dedicated to exploring how we tell stories in games. Stories always take a backseat it seems. I hope I'll be able to get a following and show that game narratives matter!

If you've been reading this blog, thank you very much and I hope you'll join me in my new one.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Blindsided by Darksiders

I've just finished Darksiders. I don't think I've ever been as pleasantly surprised by a game as I was playing this. I bought because I'd heard positive reviews and from screencaps I found the style interesting. But I never thought it would be a game of such diversity and depth as it turned out to be. When I started I thought it'd be an ordinary console hack-n'-slasher. But at almost every turn there's a refreshing twist: another puzzle element, another type of weapon or spell, an interesting character. It was really a joy throughout. The checkpoint system is probably the most agitating part of it. Checkpoints are always annoying. But for the most part they're not too badly located and cinematics are thankfully skippable, so that you're never forced to watch the same 5-minute cutscene every time a boss kills you.

I played the whole thing with a xbox360 pad. It was fluid and hardly any trouble at all. I still think how much better the gameplay would be if the entire game had been designed around a control scheme of mouse and keyboard. There could be more precision based puzzles that didn't have to rely on the lock-on mechanism. But of course the game is designed primarily for consoles, so it really wouldn't work out that way. Regardless of that, the game is a real joy. I even enjoyed the story because I'm a sucker for all these apocalypse narratives. Especially biblical ones. The game does seem to have a ball with the book of Revelations and its colorful imagery but the story itself is fun and suspenseful, about a conspiracy, betrayal, vengeance; it's classic stuff.

I am very happy that I got and played it and now I can't wait for Darksiders 2, which hopefully is as good as its predecessor.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Final E3 impressions

Ok, I've had time to relax since E3, watch all the videos and process the information.

So it doesn't ALL suck.

I guess if we're looking at the way games play it was actually a very good show. Co-op is really getting a lot of attention with titles like Overstrike and the new design for Brothers in Arms.

And like I said before, they're very interesting in terms of gameplay but I really do wish that they'd start being more creative with their characters and storylines. I'm not asking for much, I think. A simple variation would be enough to make this more interesting for me. As it is, the games look boring. I wouldn't get them just for the gameplay.

But enough of that. Overall the show as interesting, we got to see some very interesting games, and the Old Republic is looking better and better every time I see it. I sill think it will have to work hard to get subscriptions. I'm a die-hard Star Wars fan and right now I'm not even considering a subscription. A smart move for them would be to go free-to-play right on launch with some sort of payment model. But with the Deathstar-sized investment EA have put in the game, I doubt they'd do it.

Mass Effect 3 is also looking great. I really hope they manage to create a better story this time. The second game literally had no story at all, which made the whole game rather pointless. It was still awesome, strangely enough, but I do hope that the third game will make the plot rich again.

I'm also very excited for id software's Rage. the game looks great and it's really looking to freshen up the multipayer experience. Should be good.

Biggest surprise of the show has to go to the new Tomb Raider. Even though the gameplay seemed every bit as annoying as that of Dead Space (meaning clumsy movement and bothersome QTEs), the setting and atmosphere are really impressive. they're going for a whole new feel for the game and I like it. Lara was moaning just a tad too much throughout the gameplay demo, it seemed to me, but it was still great to watch.

Can't say anything by Activision was remotely interesting. MW3 was as boring as ever and it was the only gameplay video I didn't want to watch all the way through. I seriously don't know how or why this is the best-selling FPS of all time. Surely even those who know nothing about games and only get this one every year would be tired of this crap by now?

The show was OK, despite some disappointments, and there are more games I'm excited about now than there were before the show. That's a good thing, right?

Monday, June 6, 2011

E3, EA ,Egads!

I'm watching the EA E3 press conference, and I'm shocked by the crap being unloaded there. I didn't watch it from the beginning and I haven't seen the other press conferences or what other companies have to offer but I'm guessing it's very similar.

Everything is just so predictable and dull, not just the games but their trailers as well. The Sims Social had this nauseating trailer with two dumb girls talking about dating a guy through the new Sims on Facebook. Seriously. It was beyond stupid. When one of the girls suggested the other to build a guy if she can't find a good one, I just didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Then there were two games, one was a fantasy game (I forgot the name already)that used just about every fantasy trope it could in the trailer - from the land that seemed like it came from a fantasy name generator to the highly original story of saving the world. Then there was a game called Overstrike which was another collection of cliches; everything there was something we've heard before, and that's including the soundtrack. It's all about a wise-cracking team of professionals who use high-tech equipment to - *SNORE*

Gameplay-wise, I can only hope there might be something vaguely refreshing about them. The trailers didn't really show anything too interesting. But why do the stories have to be such throwaway plots? Seriously, I'm not asking for all games to have the cultural impact of Star Wars, but let's freshen things up a bit with stories, not just mechanics! These two games were sad in how banal they seemed.

The rest of it was sports games which also had dumb presentations and were even more boring for me. It was a poor show for the most part.

Of course they saved the best for last with Battlefield 3. In this case there's nothing to say except that the game really looks amazing and taking the single-player to a different level. Even though BF3 suffers the same weak story as the previous games I mentioned, it at least exhibits far more engaging gameplay and a whole new level of immersion in the game world. They didn't show much multiplayer footage but what they did show of the game was impressive.

I didn't catch the Mass Effect 3 portion of the presentation, but I read that the big innovation is Kinect voice control. Woopty-friggin'-doo.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Hail to the geriatric king, baby!

I played Duke Nukem Forever yesterday.

I don't think I can even begin to wrap my mind around that fact. Even as I was going through the demo it was like watching another trailer or teaser... like this was just another one of those old trailer or images we'd see, getting our hopes up before we'd hear nothing else about it for a year.

We've become the ever-waiting wife for Duke; checking the mail every day for some word from him, and fearing the day the message will come that he won't be coming back. Of course, we did get that message but by some miraculous and generous act Duke is finally on his way home. But do we want him back? Or have we moved on by now?

I've known for a while that DNF would never be able to live up to the hype of its 12-year development cycle. That's not really fair when I actually think about it. It's not as if this is the first game the original developers began to work on all those years ago. That's kind of why it's taken so long to begin with. The game kept getting scrapped and restarted; getting a new engine every time, new gameplay, new approach to design. I don't know how long this specific incarnation of DNF has been in development. The problem with this release for me isn't living up to any hype - I'm not expecting it to - the problem is that ultimately this is a game that isn't finished.

I remember Gearbox saying they were surprised by how much of the game was ready when they got it, but we don't really know what was going to be there. That's not to say that the game would have been better at all -it likely would still be in development and not even close to release - but the state the game is in now is a kind of half-existence. It's not really ready, it's a ghost of that it wanted to be.

That's fine by me. I just want to play it, get it out of my system, and hopefully a brand new Duke title can be made now. I just can't help but think that the game should have been released for a nominal fee. Something that everyone who's been waiting for this game could pay and not worry about it actually being worth it. I could be worrying for nothing. Maybe the full game is actually incredibly good. If the demo is any indication, however, then the game somehow doesn't feel right. It's like a new building before people move in. It looks nice but it's like there's nothing there.

I will put my judgements on hold until I've played the entire game, but I'm keeping my expectations low. What Gearbox did was admirably and inspirational - taking this game from its grave and reviving it, polishing, and releasing it, but asking full price for a game that is not really a game - a game that's just out to be out - is off-putting. I still hope I'm wrong about it and, to be honest, despite a lot of faults, I enjoyed the demo quite a bit. I was both surprised by some gameplay elements and amused by design choices and dialogue. So there is hope. At least as far as I'm concerned. I've pre-ordered the game because for me this really is the culmination of a a wait that's almost half of my life, but I will have to wait and see if the game was actually worth the money.

Monday, May 30, 2011

PC Gaming Journal - Resident Evil 5 (Part 2)

Welcome to the long-delayed second part of this long-delayed journal entry. Before going on I'd like to refine the last point I made about level design in the previous part. I realized that I made it seem as though RE5’s major level design flaw was simply in being linear. That’s not precisely what I intended. It is my firm belief that, like cholesterol, linearity can come in good or bad flavors. Linear design isn’t enough to make a game bad. In fact, I think the best games have always been linear. An open, sandbox approach to design offers its own advantages, but when a linear level is designed well it allows the developers a control over narrative that non-linear levels do not. An obvious example is Half-Life and its stellar sequel. These two games are very controlled but offer a fluid experience that doesn’t feel confined. I also mentioned Dead Space previously, and that is another example of a good kind of linearity. DS doesn’t demonstrate the same measure of design mastery as HL but it still uses its levels not as simply a track for the player to ride on. That’s the mistake that RE5 makes.

A tight, constricted design works well in survival horror. The problem with RE5 is that it doesn’t take advantage of that. The levels in the game are basically one long corridor with changing wallpaper, and they don’t offer a challenge in terms of combat or exploration. That’s why I said the focus seemed to be the graphics – because this design allows the game to run very smoothly, but doesn’t seem to have any effect on the gameplay. Again I have to take DS as an example, because the tight design there is often broken by large areas which have no gravity, suddenly changing how you play the game. You spend the majority of the time looking in four directions to detect enemies, and suddenly you have to start looking above and below you as well. That adds not only a level of atmospheric tension, but also an intriguing gameplay mechanic. This spark of innovation is sorely lacking in RE5. Ultimately, if a level set in a mine plays exactly the same way as one set in a city, clearly some not enough effort was put in them.

The level design and story are the most basic elements that go wrong here. If either one of them was acceptable it would overshadow the other’s faults. Unfortunately they’re not alone in this bouquet of inadequacy. If a boring story and lackluster levels weren’t enough, actually playing through them is a hassle at best and infuriating at worst. Controls in survival horror should be clumsy, I believe. Moving and fighting shouldn’t be as easy and precise as it is in a shooter; this is what embodies the survival aspect of the genre. Struggling is the whole point. However, RE5’s controls somehow manage to fall just beyond reasonably challenging. Moving and fighting aren’t that bad, if I’m honest. They feel just a bit too rigid but overall they work.

The most rage-inducing part of the gameplay are the QTE sections. I’ve discussed these on several occasions and how much I despise them. A QTE is the developer compromising. The developer is saying he doesn’t want to or can’t make the game exciting by letting me play so he’ll give me a cinematic which gives me an illusion of control by having me press an elaborate ‘play’ button sequence. Actually, the reason I am so against these sections is because of their abundance. It seems more and more that this is what stands for good gameplay. And it’s not. The very existence of QTEs is counter-intuitive. They’re supposed to show you something exciting and let you feel like you’re a part of it. But if I actually want to play the game and pass the QTE section, I don’t really look at what’s on screen as I’m just paying attention to what key to pres next. If I do want to look at the pretty pictures I don’t pay attention to the keys and then I die and have to do it again. In short, I’ve never experienced a QTE section that I enjoyed or that I felt was well implemented. RE5 is no exception. Every boss fight, every so-called ‘epic’ moment in the game has some ridiculous section where I’m supposed to tap a key furiously for the movie to go on. The worst part of it is that it was painfully obvious that this is where the money went; to these dazzling action scenes which I can’t even enjoy if I actually want to play.

In addition to that, the inventory system is simply awful. First there’s the tedium of having to constantly shuffle the contents of my bag, just so items can be easily accessed, then there’s the trouble of swapping items with my partner if we need to. This is simply a bother most of the time, but trying to make a swap in the middle of a fight is suicide. Just trying to find what you need and click it or move it takes too long and is incredibly unintuitive. Doing it in a fight just doesn’t work; it feels like trying to solve a Sudoku while running an obstacle course. Where the obstacles are zombies. The inventory being limited is an important staple of the genre, and the fact that you need to split the loot between you and your partner is a nice touch. But organizing the equipment shouldn’t be this wearisome.

Despite all these faults, the game manages to provide genuine thrills through its most intriguing facet; the possibility to play it in co-op mode. In fact, the gameplay is entirely built around the interaction between you and your partner - advancement depends on your working together. This is a feature I’m happy to see becoming more and more popular in gaming. People are finally realizing that multiplayer doesn't have to be limited to competitive virtual murdering of others, but rather co-operative virtual murdering of virtual others. This type of gaming has existed for a while in gaming but only fairly recently has it really started to gain momentum as a primary development focus for games. I think the reason this is picking up with other game types is probably due to how mainstream games are becoming nowadays. So now we're seeing co-op modes in games such as Call of Duty and games made entirely for co-op such as the excellent Left 4 Dead. The latest example is Portal 2, which has a completely separate story for its co-op mode.

This element of RE5 is certainly enjoyable and original and can even be great fun. It does distance the game even further from being a hardcore survival horror game, though, as playing with another person always dampens the mood of the game. But since it already isn’t very scary to begin with playing with someone else only makes it better. The real problem is when you want to play without another human and you're left with the AI, which is frankly absolutely terrible. It's a problem not simply because the game is less fun to play that way, but again you see an idea here that wasn't thought through. It’s as if the designers were thinking either that people wouldn't want to play with the AI or simply that they shouldn't.

As exciting as co-op play is, playing alone should never disappear as an option for gamers. This medium is different from novels or movies in terms of experience, but some things are similar. You don't want to be dependent on anyone else for your enjoyment. You don't want to read a book with someone else who tells you when to turn a page, or watch a movie with someone else holding the remote. As such, a co-op options is a wonderful addition to the story experience, but it should be just that; an option, not the only way to properly experience the game. With a human partner RE5 can be great fun. You solve environmental puzzles together and help each other out in trouble. Having to depend on your partner is a good mechanic, but it’s a mechanic that should be moderated when the partner is an AI. For example, when your partner dies you get a ‘game over’ and restart from a checkpoint. As you can imagine, that happens a lot. The AI constantly runs into groups of zombies or just doesn’t fire at enemies coming right at it. So most of the game is a challenge just because I have to run around after Sheva and save her, or I lose. It would’ve been easier for them and much more fun for the player if they’d just removed the AI partner for someone who preferred to play alone. Or maybe it could simply respawn when it dies. That would make the game easier perhaps but blissfully less annoying.

The most crucial thing I can say of these problems is that they are all a result of misguided design. It wasn’t because of a rushed release or financial difficulties. This is what the developers considered to be a game worthy of release. There is a cause to the all-round mediocrity of the game, and it is called 'consolization'. Now, if you're an avid gamer that statement either provoked an indignant grunt of agreement, or a sigh topped with an eye-roll.

Both of these reactions are legitimate. On one hand, we cannot deny the simple fact that console gaming is effecting gaming in general. The popularity of consoles and the ease with which they can be used means that developers will cater to their strengths more. That's why we get games that give you more of a cinematic experience than an interactive one, and that aim at simpler control schemes. The most recent (and horrendous) example of this I can think of is Dragon Age 2. Regardless of that game being good or not, it is a testament to how much developers are willing to change a game to be more marketable on consoles. One of DA’s strongest pitches was its return to old-school RPGs in terms of style and gameplay. It was the first game in years that Bioware seemingly made especially for its PC fans. Therefore the outrage at the sequel is understandable. Again, it doesn’t matter if the second game isn’t really bad; it’s more that it represents a well-loved company backing down on its promises in favor of console sales. And the game is, without a doubt, more console-oriented than its predecessor.

On the other hand, one might say that as a crowd PC gamers have become spoiled brats. I’ve read some comments on Crysis 2 forums that made me grunt at how absurdly nit-picky they were. FOV, mouse smoothness, anti-aliasing… in all honestly, I do think that to some people these aspects genuinely matter a lot – competitive gamers or the tech-savvy. But the assumption that all PC gamers are hardcore is wildly off base. I don’t really care about that stuff. Well, perhaps I care only in principle – as a PC gamer I want us to get the attention we deserve, but tweaking the games graphics or mouse smoothness doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the game. I just want it to run properly. I think many PC gamers ultimately enjoy the game even if it doesn’t have all the configuration options the PC can take advantage of.

There are obvious pitfalls to consoles being the popular kids on the block these days but it’s really not the end of the world. I think that co-op play becoming such a big focus right now is thanks to the consoles. While the idea of gaming as social is not new to those who’ve been at it for a while, I believe it’s definitely an opinion that has become more widespread because of consoles. So console influence isn’t automatically bad.

However, RE5’s situation is a result of a console-design mentality gone terribly wrong. This game represents exactly what PC gamers fear when games are designed for consoles. It’s a game with too many cut scenes, it is poorly designed for use with a keyboard and mouse, its level design is dull and its gameplay is repetitive. To be precise, this isn’t the fault of consoles in and of themselves; rather it is how people believe games should be designed for them. I’m sure this ethos works out for developers; otherwise they wouldn’t be making so many games this way. I don’t know many avid console gamers – maybe for most of them the fun really is to be had in sitting back and watching mesmerizing scenes while randomly clicking buttons. But I doubt it.

People who play on PC and on console enjoy games differently. Not just in terms of tweaking or modding but in the simple terms of what they like in a game. But even a console game shouldn’t strive to be more cinematic than interactive. This isn’t a dire problem, however. Not every game is a best-seller and even those that are don’t need to be revolutionary. Even in films, for every Citizen Kane there's at least one Solomon Kane. More than one, usually. But we do need to take note of games such as RE5 to learn from their mistakes and hopefully improve the way games are made.

In the next journal entry I'll be looking at the Brothers in Arms games and the changes they underwent as FPS focus shifted from the PC to the consoles. The three BiA games provide a very interesting and tangible demonstration of that shift, as playing them all consecutively revealed to me.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

PC Gaming Journal - Resident Evil 5 (Part 1)


Each entry in this series will examine a game and its different aspects - such as design choices, looks and mechanics - and through them discuss the current trends and opinions in the gaming world and the directions it is (or could be) taking.

The first game I'll be going over in the series is Resident Evil 5.

At first it was just a random pick out of a few games I was playing at the time, but as I got through it I realized it was actually a very important game to cover. This game is a shining example of a design ethos which I believe is not good for gaming in general. Practically everything about it, from the interface to the controls to the story, is flawed. That's not to say that this specific game is all that bad - I even enjoyed it somewhat - but the way it seems to compile a lot of awful design decisions makes it ideal to explore in-depth.

Actually, there is one part of the game which is pretty fault-free, and that's the graphics. It's not breathtaking but it looks shiny and slick. But, for now, let's look at the game's story.

The game's protagonist is Chris Redfield, accompanied by Sheva Somethingorother as they attempt to chase down some terrorists who are using the zombifying virus to their own evil ends. 'Course, things go out of control fairly quickly and a far worse villain emerges from behind the curtains. The evil, black curtains.

The first fault? Yeah, it's the story. I think the air of childish silliness to the whole thing is typical of the series, and of many other games as well. I mean, just because it's violent and has some overly-sexual women doesn't make it adult. It's a cliche of several motifs put together all with the purpose of giving vague context to shooting things in their hot-spots. It's not interesting but it's also not so different from the majority of games out there.

You'd think that with Africa being the setting we'd get some subversive anti-imperialist comments or some issues with racism but nah... it's just black zombies. That's why I find it pretty funny that the game sparked such debate upon release. There are ingredients for something controversial but ultimately it's a very innocent and meaningless affair. And even if there is some underlying socially-relevant theme to it all, it's likely on the same intellectual level as an average Pokemon episode. My guess is that Africa was the chosen as the location for the game because of films such as Blood Diamond and the like which popularized the setting.

That's not a bad thing per se. Games don't need to have deeper meaning or themes and presently most of them indeed don't have any. I do wish, however, that games started utilizing the tools of their medium, even if it's just for escapism. The most important aspect of the story in survival horror is the atmosphere. Dead Space had a better plot than Resi 5, but the reason I truly remember it is for the fear it managed to emulate in me and the sense of barely surviving the horrors on the Ishimura. Resi 5's more childish approach to character removes a lot of the fear of the game, regardless of how gory it can get.

The problem is that the game tries to set atmosphere through its numerous cinematics rather than the actual gameplay. There's barely a 10-minute length of game that doesn't have a cut-scene interrupting it. Cut-scenes can be nice rewards for a hard level or something to set a mood - but here they're used to pretty much tell the story. That's exactly what I mean when I say they don't utilize the medium. The plot in a game doesn't have to be spelled out to the player. It can be part of the fabric of the world they play in; hints in the world itself. Done right (like in Portal 2, for example), and the story can be told from actually playing rather than watching a movie disguised as a game.

The atmosphere and story problems extend to the level design. That's not just how everything looks, but how the player can function in this world. In terms of random-creepy-things-lying-about, such as dead goats and human cadavers, the game has plenty. But there's something about the way the levels are formed which is just boring. This is hard to explain because Dead Space, for instance, isn't so different. Levels being constricted is necessary for survival horror. You can't have too much freedom to move. You need to feel suffocated. You need to want to get out of whatever place you're stuck in. So maybe the problem with Resi 5 is just the setting; maybe it's because it's sunlight most of the time and whenever something big with a chainsaw rushes towards me I can see where it's coming from. Maybe they just picked the wrong kind of backdrop.

But I'd like to delve deeper than that. I keep choosing Dead Space as an alternative because it's the most recent survival horror game I've played and I think it does the same things better. So, sure, both games have constricted level designs, but if you look at Dead Space, the game constantly puts you in front of something overwhelming. Just looking into space and the emptiness that threatens to overtake you, or a hint of something running in the corner of your eye. And in most cases you have to double back throughout a level... the place feels like a spaceship you need to navigate through. The story is told better through the level, and it is rich in atmosphere. Resident Evil 5 does have the required constricted level design, but where Dead Space comprises of a straight line which branches off into several interconnected straight lines, Resi 5 is just one line.

The game, probably because of engine limitations, doesn't let you see a lot, either. What you do see looks great, but your view is often blocked by crates, or trains, or buildings. When you get some breathing room, there's nothing to see... they don't use the space to make you fear or feel anything. The places are just places. So it's not just the setting that doesn't work for the genre. They could have worked fear into it. A zombie is just as frightening in the day as it is at night (just watch Walking Dead if you don't believe me). It seems that in terms of level design more focus was given to how shiny things looked and how smoothly it played than making the game evoke any actual emotions through its levels.

This journal entry will be continued in Part 2!

The opening 30 seconds of Dead Space 2

First goddamn minute of the game and there's...that's right! A QTE!
Brilliantly, the indicator that's supposed to indicate which key I'm supposed to press is helpfully off screen. So to pass this section I had to replay this part twice - and this is, again, in the first minute of playing - and manage to catch a glimpse of that indicator to know which key to press repeatedly to make Isaac not worthless. All this In the first. fucking. minute.


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Replayability values

One of the reasons I started this blog was because I felt that no one was representing my view of things in the gaming world. I'd read all kinds of comments and opinions on gaming sites and forums , but I practically never felt that I agreed with any of them. This was even worse when it came to game reviews. I felt that game journalists often put too much focus on things which were not as important, and generally that people were missing the truly great things about PC gaming and gaming in general.
I felt that starting my own blog where I could be free to express my opinions and not be afraid of a flame war was the best choice.

Why am I mentioning this now? Because I've again stumbled across an avalanche of opinions which I find so misguided that it's impossible for me to ignore them.
What I'm referring to is people's complaints regarding Portal 2's lack of replayability options. You see, if a game doesn't have randomly generated levels or a competitive multiplayer mode it's not replayable enough, and therefore not as worth our money.

Now I know that games are a unique medium, but in this case I don't see why this is any different than a book or DVD. When you buy a DVD or a book, that's what you get - there is no re-read or re-watch value. You buy it to own it and be able to watch or read it as often as you like. Why are games different in this respect? Why does a game have to include things especially made to make us replay it? It's ridiculous.

The problem with this opinion of putting so much emphasis on replayability is that designers end up giving this more focus when they ought to be using their resources on improving the core game experience. Thus we get games such as the new Aliens vs. Predator, which had a mediocre plot in single player and even worse multiplayer. If they'd canned the multiplayer and put the extra time on crafting a worthy single player experience I'd probably give the game another go.

And that's my real point here - multiplayer games have never drawn me back as much as well-crafted single player games. I'm not saying that games don't need multiplayer - but not for the sake of this replayability nonsense. As a result of this hokum, Valve have recently stated that Portal 2 would probably be their last game which had an isolated single player experience. Hopefully, this doesn't mean they will never make single player games again, but that they'll always include some multiplayer element. In the worst case this could mean we'll start getting less than stellar games from Valve, as too much of their focus will be divided, or in the not-quite-as-bad case it will take them longer to release games. Either way, this stupid insistence on replayability in its most shallow form has brought us to this state.

I don't really believe that the masters of the medium, such as Valve, will be hurt by this. They know how to make good games and know what part of the community they should listen to. What worries me are the up and coming developers. People whose first game could be one great idea put together beautifully, or a bunch of good ideas strung together poorly just in fear of failing to please the ravenous crowds. A bad first game could also become their last.

It's a shame many people with short attention spans just don't get this. I have no problem replaying games because I appreciate them. I don't need crappy gimmicks such as a tack-on multiplayer or randomly generated (but virtually identical) levels. I've replayed The Longest Journey, Max Payne an the Monkey Island series, for example, more often than any game which offered "replayability value!" I've replayed Portal 2 about three times since its release. Why? Because these games are good. They're genuinely great experiences and that's their replayability value right there.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Et 2, Portal?

Right. Let me make this clear.
Portal Two is the best video game ever made.

Obviously some won't agree with me. Some who like strategy better, or some who enjoy games which let them make their own adventure. Sure, they don't have to enjoy the game. But in terms of storytelling and style, this just doesn't get better. I'm officially convinced now that Valve are the masters of storytelling in games. They're the ones we'll look back at years from now when these virtual narratives are as valued as film and novels.

Valve aren't there yet. I think a lot can be done in terms of how stories are told through video games, but they have definitely gone further than anyone else. No one tells a story the same way they do. They embrace the strengths of the medium, and use them to tell the story rather than rely on methods used by film or texts. They understand this medium is different. Portal 2 is an absolutely brilliant piece of work.

I'll write more of my thoughts about this game later. I just wanted to put it out there. This is the best story ever told on our monitors.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Video Killed the Blog Star

Well, it's finally happened. I've decided to stop making (or trying to make) video logs for this site. It was a hard decision for me to make because I really wanted to have a go at this - making interesting and fresh video journals of games. The idea still appeals to me.

But the reality is that I don't have the hardware or software to make videos in a quality I'm satisfied with. What happens is I spend a lot of time recording both myself and the games and by the time I get close to finishing I'm not satisfied with how it looks or sounds so I end up deleting the whole thing. That's what happened with my Bioshock review way back and this has happened now with the log about Resident Evil 5.

However, I've not given up on the idea of thinking about these games and gaming in a broader fashion. Instead of a video journal I will just upload larger articles on the blog from time to time discussing basically the same things I planned for the video, with some screen grabs to illustrate my points.

And, even though I'm giving up on video for the time being, I have something else in mind which will hopefully provide some variation to the site. I'm going to upload something like a podcast in which a friend and I will be discussing various issues connected to gaming. That way there is no burden of video editing and we still talk of intriguing gaming-related topics.

So despite having to give up on a good idea, there are still exciting things to come. Stay tuned!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Crysis 2 DeCrysified

What do you say when you neutralize a crisis, anyway?

In any case, I've just finished Crysis 2 and I'm happy to say I really enjoyed it. I like it more than the first game, actually, despite the fact that this outing was not a PC exclusive.

I'll post more thoughts on the game later on, but just wanted to mention in a nutshell that it has a really intriguing story - rare nowadays for FPSs - and even though it is nowhere near problem-free it's an immensely enjoyable experience.
More on this later!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Back Again (Again)

It seems that this happens a lot with this blog. I start writing with a bunch of ideas in mind, all excited, and then I just stop... and then I come back, saying that THIS time I will write without stopping. And then I stop. And then I come back.

Well, no more! Why? Because THIS time I will not stop!
... no, really.

Honestly, I don't know that I'll always be able to write - but I do know that I want to keep at it. As long as that's true, I'll continue to write here and do my best to provide you with my perspective on gaming.

Importantly, I've also finally finished my degree so I really do have more time to invest in this journal. The first thing I want to do is continue with the videos I started a while back and just gave up on for lack of time. I made one video review of Battlefield Bad Company 2 and decided that I want my videos to be less actual reviews and more just 'views' - that is, looking at gaming in general through the games. This is what I would like to get to now, started with Resident Evil 5. True, it's a pretty old game by now but I want to examine it for its design - I think it is a good example of a game that is geared towards 'console gaming'. I'll explain what I mean by this in the actual video post. But, yeah, I'm back again.

Monday, February 28, 2011

More Streamlining

While still pondering the meaning and consequences of streamlining adventure games, I got to thinking about other game genres as well. I came to the conclusion that I disagree with Jonathan Blow when he says that adventure games are the only ones which haven't been streamlined. Again, this is assuming I got to the bottom of his tragically obscure opinion.

However, if indeed he meant that in adventure games the problem is that the player has no real direction - he's solving puzzles without knowing why - well, then, the same can be said for shooters. It is true that FPS games are more scripted and their story often intense and gripping, light-years away from Doom's endless corridors of bad guys who basically stand in place and wait to be gibbed. I'd still argue, though, that players often don't know what they're doing.

And, unlike Blow, I'm going to give an example. The game that immediately sprang to mind when I thought of this was Portal. By the way, I'm going to speak a bit of the game in terms of plot so if you haven't played this, consider this your spoiler warning and skip to the next paragraph. The first part of Portal is a self-aware puzzle game. The protagonist is solving puzzles to apparently test the portal gun. This part is 'streamlined' in the sense that the player knows what he needs to do and why, and so is in tune with the plot. Things get complicated once Chell (the protagonist) escapes the death trap prepared by GLaDOS. This is actually a beautiful moment of design when the player is being lowered into the fire and, without instructions or hints, he has to understand for himself that he needs to use the portal gun to escape.
After this moment, however, the design begins to break in terms of said streamlining. The player is still in a puzzle game, but now moving forward has no context. When I played the game I realized that I'd been, for some reason, heading towards GLaDOS herself only when I actually got there. Each puzzle the player solves after the escape leads him to the end, and that's only because it is the only way to move on.

This is a technique used in all shooters. Some don't try to pretend and just give the player a straight path, while others give more breathing space. But in every situation, the player moves forward because that's the only way that isn't backwards. The player is not always thinking in terms of plot or game-space, but rather "Is this where the game wants me to go?" "am I going the right way or will I have to double back?"

This isn't only because a shooter is linear. Deus Ex has moments like these as well. Granted, there is definitely more of a sense of purpose when the player gets an objective and a level of choice in how to perform it, but with all the bonus experience and hidden places this becomes a treasure hunt rather than a streamlined game. On the very first level of the game I spent a good hour trying to get into a place that really wasn't worth the time, all the while thinking it was a hidden way to the objective. These gaps between what the player thinks and what he does in the game world are always there.

The question I'm finally confronted with is; is this really such a bad thing? I think this desire for streamlining comes from a perspective that sees the player and game protagonist as one - the immersion must never break. As a literary critic I don't see why that is necessary. Games don't have to be escapist. Just because they're interactive doesn't mean that every time the player does something it's on behalf of the character on screen and they're minds must be as one. Besides, as a lot of gamers know from experience, games can be very atmospheric and immersive even if while playing them you spend a lot time thinking "how can I pass this level?" rather than "how can I save the princess?"

There are many more games and genres in which the player's actions are out of the plot's context. This is how games work. If there was complete unison between player and character I'm not sure it could be a game. That's not a bad thing either, but there is room for different types of games with different levels of immersion or interactivity.

I do agree that adventure games are perhaps in a most dire need of a re-imagining, though. I hope Blow has an ace in his inventory.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Jonathan Blow Interview

Jonathan Blow is the creator of Braid, a time-twisting platformer that combines puzzles, a mesmerizing art style and even a sort of general idea that wraps it all up nicely.

PC Gamer had an interview with him about his next game and his views on game design. The point that roused my interest was the one he made about adventure games.

He says:
"Adventure games are still what they used to be. And what the core gameplay actually is, is very different from what the designer intends. The designer wants it to be, “It’s going to be cool puzzle solving. There’s going to be a story and stuff.” But really what’s actually going through the players head in adventure games is, “I don’t know if I should be clicking on this thing” or “I don’t know if this is a puzzle” or “I don’t know if I need an item to solve this that I don’t have yet, or if I’m just not thinking.” "

I had to read it twice to grasp what he was saying. I don't think he is being very clear, and his interview is sourly lacking in examples. This is why I wanted to bring the point up, clarify it (assuming that I got it right), and offer my own insight. Because I believe that he’s right in a way.

In adventure games, even the best ones, we often go around solving puzzles for no real reason. I can bring many examples from my own experience - from The Secret of Monkey Island to the recent Back to the Future: The Game. You usually know what you need to do to advance but the playing field is large (such as Mêlée Island) and so the way isn't clear. For example, in The Secret of Monkey Island's first act, you know you need to pass the three trials to become a pirate but there's no real notion of how to do that - you just go around finding puzzles and then solving them, often doing something for no real reason (like following the shopkeeper to get to the Swordmaster) and then you 'solve' the game.

I think this is what Blow means when he says adventure games aren't streamlined, because this central mechanic is still here. In Back to the Future, I know that I need to somehow switch the keg of soup with the keg of liquor, but I randomly try things until something works. Of course, the game does give clues how to get that done (I’m not referring to the hint system), but ultimately – if you didn't notice the hint – your puzzle solving consists of mainly trying to click everything that is clickable and combining it with everything else.

However, even though Blow says that adventure games have stayed this way since their heyday in the early 90s, I do believe that recent adventure games have been heading in a direction of streamlining the experience. There are rarely cases where you wander aimlessly in TellTale's adventure games. There is a much stronger sense of knowing specifically where you need to be and what to do, just not how to go about doing it.

But that's also the problem. One of the greatest issues which plague modern adventure titles is that they are reduced in detail and scope, and I believe this is the result of what Blow refers to as streamlining. This has been the major critique of Telltale's Back to the Future game and I think it's a flaw with many of their titles.

Maybe my opinion simply comes from me being an avid adventure game fan myself, but I don't think they're only about solving the puzzle: they are about exploration, character; they're about doing things at a slower pace, soaking in the atmosphere. The obscure puzzles actually enable us to enjoy everything else in a much more profound way.

You can check it out for yourselves: the first playthrough of an adventure game, without a walkthrough, can take weeks. Once you've finished it, however, the game can be completed again in under an hour. It's those nonsensical puzzles that make the player walk back and forth, talk to people, look for clues, and so on. These puzzles help flesh out the world and enrich the player's exposure to it.

If Blow can make his new adventure game streamlined (in the sense that as players we’re not going around solving random puzzles but actually thinking about how to advance in relation to the story), and at the same time manage to keep the feeling of exploration and atmosphere… well then, I daresay his game will be amazing. But we just have to wait and see.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Crysis 2 Has a Story!

I'm not sure if I've made this clear yet, but one of my greatest passions about games is their story. What interests me most in the gaming world is how interactive narratives have evolved over the years, and how they continue to develop. So this interview with Crysis 2's story writer over at IGN was a very interesting read. It's good to see writing in games getting more and more focus by the gaming crowd. This article doesn't spoil anything in the game and the writer has a lot of insights about writing for video games.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

I Suck at Starcraft II

Do you find it hard to admit you're awful at a game you like?

That's what I had to come to terms with this weekend as I played SCII online and yet again won one game out of like five.

It's not even an issue of mastering build orders or knowing unit counters. I'm no master of course but I do know enough to be competetive in the lowly Bronze league. I basically know what to do in the beginning of a match and what to do to win.

I just never do.

If I have to try and define my condition, it's like a total inability to think tactically and execute a coherent plan. I can have a plan in my head and build units and even have the advantage in a match (indeed, often when I study the graphs at the end of matches I lose I see that at a certain point I had the advantage in terms of units), but I never try and attack. But It's not like I'm defensive, either. I'll build forces to attack but never use them properly.
It's the same reason I'm terrible at chess. I have a problem thinking ahead and executing plans.

Why's this depressing? Well, because I love RTS games. In singleplayer tey're a blast; every level is like a puzzle. In multiplayer, however, it's about thinking faster than your opposition and achieveing some manuervers with such mechanical percision that a computer can't do it better.

I think an important part of being a gamer is to acknowledge what you suck at. This doesn't mean I'll stop playing SCII online,but perhaps the goal wouldn't be to win as much as it is to try and enjoy the ride. And I am proud of the fact that I never rage-quit and through each and every loss I endure (even when it's to a no-good rush) I say 'GG' with a smile and, if I'm not too annoyed, go on t another match.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Medal of Honor - Verdict

Alright, so I've played MoH since I wrote about it last time.

Mostly the game does suffer from being so similar to other modern warfare titles out there. However, I was very pleasantly surprised by the story and setting. It seemed much more realistic and really gave the sense of this huge, complicated military operation. It had its share of hyperbolic drama, of course, which I could have done without, but all in all I enjoyed it.

The game takes place in the mountains of Afghanistan, and the player transitions between the different units which have different goals to achieve. We play from the Tier 1 perspective, who are these silent infiltrators, going behind enemy lines and bringing intel or causing some damage to the enemy; we also play as a ranger (I think), which is a more standard in-your-face approach to warfare. We also play as a chopper pilot, giving support to the troops below. The transition between playing these characters is especially good because it happens when they interact, emphasizing that these people work as part of a machine and their success depends on them working together, with every part doing their job.

In this sense I really liked the game because it wasn't about this insane action movie plot. There is no real narrative here; there's no big boss to kill or any resolution. We don't win the war by the end. The entire game is just about this collection of soldiers in this operation, trying to survive and protect each other. This is what I really connected to, because it felt like the developers wanted to convey this and they did a good job of it.

Where the game shines a lot less is in the gameplay area, where it takes way too many cues from CoD, meaning the scripted events. I have no problems with scripted events and I think that, if done correctly, can be a huge asset to storytelling and atmosphere. But this is a huge problem when the game simply will not continue unless you stand in a specific spot to trigger some animation - and the game doesn't directly tell you this. A script needs to seamlessly fit into the game, where the player doesn't even notice it's something scripted. Here, there were moments where I literally could not continue the game simply because I didn't fire from the 'correct' position to trigger the final showdown script, or something. I hope they do less of this kind of thing in the future.

All in all the game isn't bad, and I'm even enjoying the multiplayer - although it's nothing new.

The next military shooter I played was the Brothers in Arms, which gave me a lot of insights into shooters in the console age. More on that later (hopefully with video).

Monday, January 24, 2011

Loooooong Delay

Well, here I am again.

I keep coming to this conclusion that keeping a blog updated and informative is hard, and yet I keep trying. I really believe in what I want to do with this blog, though, so I don't intend to stop.

I've also just finished my studies for now and, even though I've got assignments to write which will take up most of my time, I hope I can organize my time efficiently enough to still write here properly.

Here are some of the things I have in mind:

-I'd like to post a debate (if you can call it that) I've had with someone who posted an opinion on games and art. I think I've touched enough on the topic so I might choose not to put it up, but it was a pretty intreresting argument in some parts.

-I've also been playing some games that gave me some things to think about. I've played through the Brothers in Arms series, which got me thinking of the transition games have made in their presentation and ethos.
Also, I'm playing Assasin's Creed 2 right now. It is a very good game with some intresting design elements.

That's what I can think of for now, but as I said my aim is to keep on posting so expect more updates.