Archive for January, 2011

When I’m watching recent trailers for games like Deus Ex 3 or Dead Space 2 I am both impressed by the visuals and the cinematics, yet somewhat put off by one simple thing: these trailers don’t make me think of a video game. They could be trailers for a movie or TV show–they utilize the same tricks of the trade, the same juxtaposition of brooding monologues or music against a rapidly changing series of scenes, edited together. They often don’t show gameplay. They often use non-game music, or maybe a particularly grandiose track from the game’s score. But they don’t make me think of a video game–as I imagine video games to be.

Gaming has become much more cinematic as technology has evolved, and more power to it. Games look better now, certainly, and there are many truly amazing spectacle moments, such as the Stage Fight in Alan Wake or scaling the destroyed train in Uncharted 2, and these are examples of a great blending of beautiful graphics and Hollywood-esque dramatic flair with engrossing and hard-hitting gameplay. It lets you feel as though you really are doing whatever it is you are doing on screen. But a part of me is victim to that crippling industry curse of nostalgia, and so I wonder at times if games have lost a bit of their identity.

Look at Anamanaguchi.

THAT is the sound of games. Something you could never imagine seeing in a movie or any other medium. An artistic blend of primitive sounds for primitive visuals, yet stellar gameplay. When I hear bands like Crystal Castles, I think of games–when I listen to the soundtrack for Alan Wake, I don’t. Music in games has always been important, but there’s more to a game soundtrack than it just sounding good. When games were stuck in the 16-bit era, games had an identity–every pixel and animation was unique, imitating nothing but previous games, while at the same time invoking unique art styles or cartoons or even attempting to replicate real life. Pixels were a paint all of their own, and talented artists who had no histories to draw upon instead had to craft something truly different, using tools untested and unproven, and the result was a collection of some of the most, if not THE most memorable games of all time.

Look at Megaman. Megaman is one of the oldest and most enduring (if maybe the most overplayed and oversold) franchises in gaming history. Anamanaguchi takes great inspiration from the stage themes for these games, the strange, off-kilter, synthesized Midi tracks that were all they could fit into the cartridges. You take one look at Megaman, any old Megaman, and you know it is a game. You immediately recognize everything a game has: a life bar, side-scrolling, pixel art, Midi music, enemies and power-ups. It’s the absolute quintessential game experience–a test of a gamer’s skill and reflexes as he or she must win against insurmountable odds and forge the adventure forward. The plot relies on the gamer completing the levels–whether the story ends happily is entirely in the hands of the player, and all that transpires on-screen is because of your actions.

This is a video game.

Modern games are not bad, and I don’t want you to think that this is a criticism of modern games in anything more than maybe aesthetics. This is really just me being  nostalgic for a time when games had their own identity–when the medium was unique and vibrant, more than just a simulator or pastiche.

Compare. What tells you this is a game, despite the CG model?

The above screenshot might as well be an actual gameplay shot. Or how about this:

Take away the ammo counter and the nametags, and what is this?

Games have only gotten better over the years. Yes, there’s tons of derivative games on the market and, yes, many would say that the market stifles innovation, but games play better, look better, and generally have better stories and writing. But I can’t help but wonder if the term “video game” really means much nowadays. I wonder if games have an identity anymore. 3-D models are now the norm, but 3-D models don’t invoke the same degree of…I want to say charm, but perhaps the better term is “uniqueness”. Old 3-D graphics, like Silent Hill 1, look horrible in today’s day and age, whereas old NES graphics, like Megaman up above, still hold up, despite their age and the jutting pixels. 2-D has aged incredibly well, all things considered, and it’s nice to see it isn’t completely dead and that pixel art can still be seen even in modern games like Call of Duty: Black Ops. Back in the day, games simply had a look that was wholly and completely their own. Now, that’s less the case.

There are many games that have a distinctive appearance, of course. Many modern Nintendo franchises retain something of their 8 and 16-bit sensibilities even in their more modern offerings–probably because the Wii might as well be a 16-bit console (no no, I kid, Wii games look very nice for 5 years ago). Sonic as well, though god forbid they’ve done everything they can to  make Sonic as anime as possible. For a realistic-looking game, Assassin’s Creed also has a rather distinct visual style, integrated into the story as well by the Animus and the means through which you are actually viewing the past. It’s actually a sterling example of explaining gameplay mechanics in a way that furthers the story and immersion, rather than requiring gamers to ignore it in favor thereof. But the traditional trappings of games are falling by the wayside. Scores are gone from everything but arcade titles or those trying to BE arcade styles, health bars are being replaced by red screens and blood spatters, and music is becoming traditional, utilizing orchestras or heavy guitars and all that business. And it is good, yes.

But a part of me can’t help but sigh a little, as nostalgia creeps into my cynical mind, when I listen to the Scott Pilgrim Videogame soundtrack and I remember how games looked, and how games sounded. I still think it’s good. I still think these older titles hold up in aesthetics and sound, and while I’m not one who goes on about  how older games are much better than current ones (They aren’t, for the most part) I do feel that older games were more…game-like. They had a feel,a  voice, a look all of their own, and of all the casualties of innovation that we’ve shed a tear for, this may be the only one that really strikes me. I don’t want a return to health bars and three lives, score counters or anything like that. I don’t feel the trappings are as necessary to a game’s identity moreso than the feel of the experience is.

Gaming is going through a tough adolescence. It was a prodigal child, ambitious and impressive, full of attitude and vigor, and underneath the corporate manufacturing process, the demographic-fueled imitation industry that grips game development like an infant with a rattle, I feel that there remains a potent lust to make games their own again. Give gaming back its identity, its sense of self. How can we do this without sacrificing variety or innovation? That I don’t know. How can we do this while still pushing graphics engines as far as they can go? I don’t know. What I do know is, there must be a way. Maybe someone can tell me. Maybe someone will make a game that shows me.

For now, I’ll toast my nostalgia and listen to my midi soundtracks and let out a single wistful sigh. Then I’ll plug in Bioshock 2 and see how many Splicers I can get in one Electro-bolt chain.


IGN wrote:

” Heavy Rain is a hell of an experience. Its controversial control scheme actually works really well in allowing the fantastic story to dictate how events play out, and many of the game’s scenes will keep you on the edge of your seat. It starts slow and the presentation isn’t perfect, but the character development, dialog and story twists will hook you like few games can. Heavy Rain is not to be missed.”

I suppose “controversial” is good enough a term for “endless Quick Time Events that have no rhyme or reason”. This review gushes over the quality of the written dialog, which…eh…doesn’t really hold up. We get such fantastic gems as “Time to be the sexy girl” (from the token female character whose role it is to be naked or a shoe-horned love interest for the main male lead) and “The rain never hurt nobody; c’mon let’s go play” from one of the most insipid flashback sequences I’ve seen anywhere. I suppose you can call the dialog passable–it certainly is dialog, that is words exchanged from two characters to advance the plot. If you ignore the AWFUL delivery of just about every individual line by the myriad voice actors who can’t figure out how to fake sounding French or the fact that much of the dialog serves only to cement how cliche and shallow the plot is, then yes, the dialog will hook you. I was certainly hooked by Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room”, much as watching a train-wreck will hook you too, which is perhaps the most generous comparison I can give to Heavy Rain, so there’s that. It seems to me that Chris Roper has maybe never read a book beyond the instruction manual to a video game, and god knows it’s not like there are examples in gaming of actually good writing and dialog. wrote: “But a game that prides itself on its story is only as good as its writing and actors. The quality and detail of Heavy Rain’s sets are truly spectacular — whether it’s a faded wallpaper pattern or dilapidated apartment, this is a world that feels lived-in and genuine. The characters have a similar gritty realness, but occasionally veer into uncanny valley territory due to some inelegant animations. Regardless, the game conveys a subtlety of emotion that very few games have ever succeeded at.”

A “lived-in” world with the exact same six pedestrian models, all of whom are young-to-middle-aged white people, a world where a drug dealer in a shitty neighborhood lives in a five-room sprawling apartment or a hooker has a spacious and lushly decorated loft or the fact that actually every location in the game, while nice to look at, is completely incongruous and some of them make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Every store and brand is essentially named “Brand”, like “Asthma” brand inhalers or “Video Store” video store. It’s funny at first, but quickly seems to be just plain lazy. The “subtlety of emotion” is wonderfully broadcast by the main character, who is sad because he looks sad the entire game, except for his eyes which never stop staring blankly forward, like a dead fish. Considering the animators took the time to put in nervous habits for many characters, like foot-tapping or twitches of the mouth, it’s odd that no one’s emotive abilities extends to their eyes, and most of the time you have character’s lips flapping up and down while their faces remain completely neutral, even as they’re yelling angrily.

Joystiq wrote: ”
Of all the games on our list, Heavy Rain was the only one whose appearance — even at the most humble position on the pedestal — was called into question. With such apparent spite for the title coursing through our collective veins, you might wonder how it made any showing at all. The answer is indicative of the game’s overall reception in the gaming community’s collective consciousness: Many writers gave the game no weight in the discussion at all, while few gave it just about as much weight as they could possibly throw.”

I read this as them basically saying “Well, actually a lot of people are saying this game is shit but it’s really popular and got great reviews, so it’s on our top ten!” and it makes me laugh a little, a sort of sad, choking laugh that quickly gives way to tears. I also love how all of these reviews point out things that I take issue with–like the questionable voice acting and the primitive animations–yet still reward the game 9’s and A’s, as though they forgot that their “criticism” should carry some weight. I understand that reviewers don’t control the weight and meaning behind their point scores, having to please the myriad of insipid scorehounds and advertisers who just want shiny numbers to slap on the back of their game boxes to drum up sales, but come ON. Can’t we qualify this a little bit? Is it not so hard to say “Well, okay, this part is bad, so I’ll subtract a point”? Either assume a game starts at zero and moves its way up, or starts at 10 and moves its way down–I don’t care, but if you’re not going to take your review system seriously, why the hell should I?

Gamerant says: ”

Does Heavy Rain utilize quick-time events for a number of the game’s action sequences (brawls, shootouts, and a highway chase)? Yes. Is it fair to categorize Heavy Rain as a quick-time game? Absolutely not, because in Heavy Rain, QTEs aren’t patched in as a means of testing the player’s skills or a gimmick to keep you from getting a snack during a rendered cut scene.

The QTEs are as essential to the game as the story because the story continues regardless of your success or failures – which makes the action scenes that much more tense and nerve-racking.”

Bullshit. The QTE’s are a measure of testing a player’s skill, because passing or failing some of the hardest ones dictates who lives and who dies. If you can’t press the buttons fast enough, you fail and somebody dies. Except for the one character who can’t ever die, or the many times where failure doesn’t matter at all, but I digress. The action scenes are thusly not that tense or  nerve-racking  because most of them just go overlong as an excuse to try and shoe-horn some measure of excitement into a game slower than a stoned snail crawling through molasses. But if this statement is meant to be taken at face value, then are they saying that this game doesn’t test the player, and that the player’s involvement is passive and unnecessary? Hm.

Gamerant said: “In addition, the four playable characters have distinct personalities as well as approaches to following the trail of the Origami Killer. Each character utilizes specific gameplay mechanics (one character might be more analytical, another more physical) offering the player a varied gameplay-experience in a title that could have been hammering the same note too often.”

I’m not exactly sure if they understand the meaning of “gameplay mechanics” because the characters all have the same gameplay mechanics, i.e. press or hold a button for a certain amount of time, or twist a control stick in a specific direction for five seconds to make X happen. The difference in characters is that one has X=punching someone in the face while the other has X=JAYSOOOOOON or SHAAAAAWN! The mechanics only very loosely change when you are playing as the FBI agent, who has the only really interesting gimmick of the bunch, a pair of super-sci-fi glasses that can magically analyze DNA and fingerprints instantly from a crime scene, can ID cars from their tire tracks, and basically do everything you see on CSI (regardless of whether it’s something that can actually be done) and eliminating all actual player involvement from crime-scene investigation beyond “Go here and click this”. Imagine a point and click adventure game without any actual puzzle solving and you’ll have Heavy Rain in a nutshell.

What’s most ludicrous about these reviews is that they all end with something along the lines of “If you are twitch-gamer who only plays teh Haloz or shooty-bang-bang kill games, you’ll hate this game, but the more sophisticated gamer will love it” as some excuse for why they are giving almost perfect scores to an over-hyped boring piece of shit with lousy writing and directing and completely uninspiring gameplay, because anyone–say, me–who argues against the game must clearly by a left-brained neanderthal who can’t enjoy a game unless I’m BOOM headshotting everyone from 100 yards away. But as much as I hold modern shooters with a degree of scorn due to their sameness, at least they have some measure of gameplay. Even the most retarded modern FPS at least is more fun to actually play and, in truth, is a better game because I, the player, have more influence over what happens then I ever do when playing Heavy Rain.

The game lovingly rendered his ass too, so in the first five minutes of gameplay it literally moons us.

I just don’t understand it. Are our game reviewers just hype machines? Are we really going to get perfect scores for games whose only great achievment is being kind of “different”? I know we’re starved for innovation in this industry, but this game doesn’t innovate at all–it just says it innovates. It thinks it innovates, but all it does is craft an utterly insipid, cliche-ridden story with a few really good scenes sprinkled about. And yes, there are good scenes, and even good ideas here and there. I’d love to play a game that only featured FBI-man and his magic know-it-all glasses. Like “The Room”, this game is so bad it’s actually very entertaining. But it’s entertaining in every way it doesn’t want to be. It trumps itself as a serious and gritty story, but all it is is a shallow, superficial piece of pompous crap. It’s an ego piece, and not even a very good one. Everything it does well has been done better by other movies–not games, mind you, but movies, because mere video games aren’t worthy of emulation by auteur David Cage, no sir! Again, I recommend watching this Let’s Play to see this game in action, because you’ll laugh your ass off at all the parts you aren’t angrily demanding it explain any one of its many, many, many plotholes.

Maybe I wouldn’t be so upset at this game if it wasn’t for the fact that there is not one big-name video game publication that gave it a bad score. Not one. And it’s not like this game is a flawed gem or that I’m being overly critical, because believe me, I wanted very much to like this game, I did. I went into it expecting to be able to dismiss the many forum-going naysayers and find the good in it. But within the first hours of the game, if you aren’t bored by the lack of anything substantial to do, you’ll likely just be pissed off by the arbitrary melodrama, the unimaginitve gameplay, and the utter lack of respect for the intelligence of the player, who is expected to just quietly bask in awe at the emotional maelstrom this game revels in. Instead, we have a pretty shit game with some good bits here and there–and yet this game, this fucking game sells 2 million copies on the strength of the nigh-perfect scores it earned across the board. How? How the fuck does that happen?

I guess you could sum up this entry as me disagreeing with someone else’s opinions, and I guess that’s true. After all, maybe it’s just me. Maybe I just didn’t find myself riveted by this game, and these reviewers really, genuinely felt it was fun enough to award such sterling scores to. Then again, maybe somebody ought to say “y’know what? This game’s fine, but does it deserve such a high score?” Maybe somebody should point out that IGN and 1Up’s reviews move copies, and if we’re trusting this people to judge a game fairly and not just hype up a shit game for the sake of hype, maybe somebody should say something once in awhile.

I look forward to being ostracized by the gaming journalism community and never being employed by any of these people as a result of this blog post, leaving me penniless and destitute. But maybe it was worth it.

Heavy Rain is shit and you are shit for liking it.

There, that’s a way to start off a new year. Happy 2011 everyone! It seems that the general consensus about 2010 was that it was quite awful and so everyone’s looking forward to this year being better, and what better way to improve your year by bitching about game’s journalism and likely black-listing myself from ever having a respectable job with a credible gaming website ever again, but god damn it.

This is not going to be a review for Heavy Rain. Having not literally played the entire game all the way through–having played bits and pieces here and there–since I don’t own a PS3, I’ve only experienced Heavy Rain via a rather informative Let’s Play. This particular LP is a better criticism of the game than anything I could possibly write, illustrating the game’s few strengths and many flaws in a very hands-off manner and I’d recommend anyone still on the fence about buying this pile of shit interactive storytelling experience to watch at least the first four or five videos of the LP to see exactly what you are getting into.

Origami: Waterproof I want to talk about the fact that everybody and their mother fucking loved Heavy Rain. It’s gotten high scores and rave reviews across the board. IGN gave it a 9.0, 1Up awarded it an A+, GameRant 5 stars, and Joystiq said it was one of the top ten games of 2010. Well, damn, with that degree of praise, it must be good, right? Surely it couldn’t actually by a mysoginistic cliched piece of crap with poor writing, enormous plot holes, absolutely horrid voice acting, and character and facial animations that look like somebody with Downs syndrome tried to make clay figurines. Except that it is. It’s ludicrous–seriously, go and watch that Let’s Play if you have never played this game and tell me that this game isn’t a series of cliched scenes bodily ripped out of a dozen different Hollywood movies and strung together with Quick Time Events and bullshit. There’s a character who exists solely to be sexually objectified, plot twists that make no sense, plot threads that are abruptly abandoned, and across the board you see complete ignorance as to how actual law enforcement officers operate, how psychiatry is practiced in the United States, and generally how human beings actually interact with each other.

But I’m just a shithead with a blog. What’s my opinion matter? Let’s take a look at what the professionals have to say:

IGN: “Rather than taking out the bad guy right then, you might get knocked down but get another chance right after that. Miss too many and the bad guy might get away, but like I said, the story will continue on, no matter the result. In other instances, these options (as there is often more than one button available to you at any one time) will decide what a character says, how they react to something, what you interact with or so on and so forth.

The result is that although you’re still matching button prompts, Heavy Rain feels much more like you’re choosing and influencing what happens in the game, rather than simply reacting to it.”

This is talking about how  there’s no “game over” in Heavy Rain, nor indeed, any permenant fail state at all. Even if you fuck up the QTE’s, the game continues on, and you have to live with your fuck-up, and every action has far-reaching consequences. Except that they don’t. To IGN reviewer Chris Roper’s credit, you have no real idea that this isn’t true just playing through the game normally. It’s been said by the game’s fruitbat designer David Cage that this game should only be played once. Just once–no replays, no going back and trying a different route, just once, so as to maximize your emotional investment in the game. Really, though, the reason he says this is because, for pretty much the first half of the game, your actions have no consequences at all. Missing vital clues at a crime scene just results in you being given those clues an hour later. Abandon a woman to be beaten half-to-death and she still comes to your aid later in the game. It gets worse than that: let a suspect escape you? Doesn’t matter, his plot thread is dropped immediately afterwards. Kill a man thanks to an itchy trigger finger or let him live? Doesn’t matter! You get one line of dialogue, maybe a slightly different read on the next scene, and that’s all.

This game is painfully linear, despite its pretensions to the contrary, and in execution it plays out much the same as Yahtzee describes: The “best” ending is so happy and complete that everything else just feels like a nonstandard game over. You have a game lauded on choices having meaning, but choices in this game have almost NO meaning at all, and the ones that do are painfully obvious as such and almost impossible to do “wrong”–unless you suck at inputting thumb-breaking button combinations.

From the same review:

“Each of the four, main playable characters is interesting, developed well and important to the story. The way that everything comes together and winds up feeding into the story progression is nothing short of fantastic. Games have come pretty far in terms of how well stories are told and the level of writing quality that some of them are able to achieve, but Heavy Rain is easily amongst the best that’s ever been put onto a disc. Were this filmed as a Hollywood picture, it would perfectly fit the body of work of someone like Martin Scorsese or David Fincher.”

This statement is an insult to Scorsese or Fincher. It would almost be an insult to Michael Bay. But we’ll come back to this in a second, as it continues:

“Now, that doesn’t mean that the story is told flawlessly. Like I said at the start of this review, the first couple hours are a little slow. As I’ve mentioned in previous coverage for Heavy Rain, this is largely due to the fact that, with a film, you’re able to edit out dull bits like walking down stairs or going from the kitchen to the living room. The exposition and character development that happens in these opening chapters wind up being very important to what happens later, but the pacing is a little on the sluggish side. And, when some of the first things that you’re able to do include drinking orange juice and taking a shower, it may seem like things will get lost in unimportant actions and details of everyday life.”

Yes, so this narrative, comparable to the director of fucking Goodfellas, includes such important details as peeing in any available toilet, showering, drinking juice, and shaving. Because that’s exactly the best way to get me engaged in a story–by letting me piss all over it. The problem here is that this review gives you the mistaken notion that there is character development at the beginning of this game–a much-ridiculed and rightly so beginning that cements that “your choices matter” by having you do absolutely nothing of consequence and then losing your son without any ability to save him or, indeed, any ability to influence the plot at all. The “character” development is: Ethan Mars is happy. He is an architect. It is his son’s birthday. He plays with his sons. They go to the mall. One son runs away. Despite all his efforts, Ethan loses him in a crowd. Ethan finds his son. His son is hit by a car going five miles per hour and dies. Ethan is sad. Two years go by. Ethan is sad.”

There’s no character development at all in this game. Ethan’s motivations are never explored, his thoughts and feelings are thoroughly single-minded: he is always trying to save his son and when he isn’t saving his son he is either happy or sad, and that’s the only defining trait he has. Considering he is more or less the protagonist of the game, my only guess is that they wanted to make him a tabula rasa so the player could project him or herself onto him, but that falls flat because Ethan is a complete moron whose actions do not accurately mimic any sensible person’s actions. Much of the drama in the plot relies on Ethan–and basically every other major character–being as stupid as possible, showcasing not even the slightest degree of common sense towards their situation. On top of that, Ethan is a character with one mystery–blackouts that cause him to wake up on some street hours later holding a piece of origami in his hands, with no memory of what he did in the intervening time–that is never actually explained. So if he is a character for the gamer to project upon, he fails completely because his actions are pre-determined ahead of time and all you, the player, can do is steer him in one direction or the other.

This is a pretty lengthy post, so I’m going to stop here. Tune in tomorrow when I finish up this rant and maybe actually have a point to it all! Thanks for reading.

Voice of Gamers

Greetings programs. Long time no update, eh? Well fear not, because I’m back and this time I’m going to kick this shit into high gear. College managed to rob me of any desire to keep updates steady, but I’ve resolved to turn this blog into something to fear, so get ready. In the meantime, though, have this. It’s what kept me so busy–an end-of-semester project about the Gaming Community. The project was beset with problems and delays, and I can’t say I’m very happy with the final product, but this is probably the best thing that came out of it. It’s gamers on gaming. Big kudos to all who agreed to interviews, and to the Something Awful Forums for their assistance. So, without further ado, here it is: the Voice of Gamers