Category: Analyses


Dead Space 2

This is a bit later than I’d have liked, but I didn’t want to review the game until I’d beaten it and that took a bit because the last sections of the game are a load of crispy-fried bullshit. But we’ll get to that in a second. Dead Space is the wildly well-received sequel to the moderately well-received horror/shooter game Dead Space, in which you go to a creepy space ship to fix a problem and get attacked by zombies. Dead Space 2 fixes many of the problems that plagued its predecessor (while adding in a few new ones) and, for the most part, remains an excellent third-person shooter with a thick atmosphere and a steep challenge.

He looks scary, but all he really wants to do is play fetch.

The story picks up 3 years after the first game. Our hero, Isaac Clark, has been in a psych ward for 3 years, a period of time he completely doesn’t remember. He gets woken up to discover that Necromorphs have infested Titan Station, otherwise known as the Sprawl, an impressive-looking space station/city in orbit of Saturn, and has to stomp their skulls into paste. Right off the bat, the absolute best sequence in the game is the very first section. You get woken up and immediately swarmed by monsters. You can’t fight back, you can only run and they are everywhere. There’s a pitched chase sequence and you manage to escape to relative safety. Then the game continues to keep guns away from you and forces you to learn-as-you-go how to properly use the Kinesis and other similar power-ups. It gets a big grating on multiple playthroughs, but it’s easily one of the scariest parts of the game and a great way to introduce you to the adventure.

That said, the story is complete shit. You have characters whose motivations are nonsensical or unexplained, Isaac himself now has a personality, that of a block of wood, and while the voice acting is actually pretty good, none of the characters really have any dimensions or depth–not even shallow depth. They’re just…there. The story itself isn’t much better, being hard to follow and mind-numbing when you do. All of the best stuff in it is packed into the first half of the game and once you reach the second disc (on the 360 at least) the story just simply stops for long periods of time, and much of the “twists” are either silly or nonsensical.

But no one plays Dead Space for the story, even if it is god awful. We play it to shoot alien zombies and that part of the game is just as good as before. Enemies are a bit tougher now, they come in greater numbers and attack more aggressively. There’s a gaggle of new enemy types, like the Puker, and new weapon types to match. All the previous game’s weapons are back, though some have been tweaked and adjusted. The Force Gun is a lot less powerful now, though it is still a god-like extension of your power. Flamethrower has been improved too, so now it’s actually one of the more powerful weapons in the game if you ever can bother to use it. The new guns include the Javelin Gun, which is a lot of fun once you get used to how it works (think a spear gun but you can charge up the spears with electricity and later on they will explode) and the Seeker Rifle,a  sniper rifle which is kind of limited in its use. All in all, the new weapons are fun and the changes to the old ones make them seem new as well. I would like to have seen a few more of both weapons and enemy types, but both feel varied enough to last the whole game.

Though here’s the kicker–make sure you have a wide-spread weapon by the end of the game. I found myself incapable of winning until I went back to an earlier save and picked up the Force Gun because the final boss–which is part of the laziest section of the game, a lengthy gauntlet that you cannot survive without fleeing–is a tacked on wave of tiny fast enemies and a walking instant-death trap. It’s pretty terrible and not at all fun to play through.

All in all, I enjoyed Dead Space 2 a lot. It does lack something however, something the first one also lacked. We have a talented studio with talented developers who are clearly passionate about the project–the level of detail packed into the game is staggering and it’s clear that they wanted to make the best game they could. But here’s the problem: the scares are cheap, the atmosphere only holds intact on the harder difficulties (if you are at all good at video games, start your game on Survivalist. Normal and Casual are way, way too easy.), the enemies start to get annoying, especially when their corpses just magically disappear, taking all their items with them (and leaving you with three shots and a horny Brute sniffing at your ass) and there’s also tacked on multiplayer which is supposed to be alright but nothing great and I don’t know why the hell they included it in the first place. The game IS fun to play, and if you loved the original Dead Space, pick this up and enjoy. If you are easily scared and like a good horror game, you can’t go too wrong with this one either. More jaded gamers might have better luck elsewhere, because for all the things Dead Space changes, it is ultimately just more of the same.

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.

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.

Ef Pee Ess

Let’s talk about the humble First Person Shooter genre. Boy, there’s an enduring game genre. Ever since Wolfenstein 3-D first handed us a pixellated pistol and had us kill Nazis for fun and profit, gamers have time and time again gotten behind the barrel of their favorite rifle to make a nameless bad guy a little holier than thou.

I like FPSes. There’s a simplicity to them–point, shoot, dodge–that makes just about any given FPS easy to pick up and play, and the fun is right there in the title–shooter. Who doesn’t like shooting things? And what about the novel concept of the first person at all? Beyond the world of literature, the first person perspective has been ignored by most entertainment mediums, for a variety of reasons–in movies, it makes you dizzy, it’s hard to film. In comics you COULD do it, but why would you? It’s far more dramatic to have two superheroes visibly punching each other than to have just one giant fist filling a panel. But games? There’s a different story. It’s instant immersion–you and I see the world through the first person every moment of every day, and it’s a natural transition from the real world to the digital one as soon as you pick up the controller.

An image for the smudgy pixel history books.

But it’s not exactly fresh discourse to say that FPSes have grown just a tad bit…stale. I mean, how many times can you shoot an alien with a plasma rifle, or snipe a sneaky Kraut from atop a clocktower 100 yards away before you start to get a sense of deja vu? The FPS genre is very generational–each gaming generation, a new FPS introduces a fresh, innovative mechanic that captures the hearts and minds of gamers, and then for the next three years every other game studio tries to emulate that mechanic until it has been run into the ground like Mufasa.

It started getting really bad around the Halo years. Now, Halo was a great game–it wasn’t exactly innovative, but it took a variety of different gameplay mechanics from a bunch of other shooters and combined them in a slick package with a fun story and co-op so that you and your friends can do more than just shoot each other. It popularized the shield mechanic, limited weapon inventories, and grenade-heavy combat scenarios against multiple, varied, and deadly intelligent enemies. It was lauded for the ground it broke and heaped with awards and awards. So how did the game’s industry respond?

They ripped it off. Boom! Space Marines everywhere! Limited weapons everywhere! Dodgy vehicle sections everywhere! A female voice in your ear telling you where to go! Bang, boom, and only the World War II shooters–who have been stuck in their own inescapable quagmire since the mists of time were still fresh upon this earth–were spared from the unending rush to be Halo–or to beat Halo. Problem is, everyone wanted to beat Halo at its own game, ignoring completely the reason why Halo was so popular–not because it had space marines or grenades or blue aliens, but because it was something new.

Remember when this was new?

Then Halo 2 came along, changed the formula even more (regenerating health! Smarter enemies! Not shit level design! Bigger storyline!) and shit went bananas. I’d argue that we’re STILL ripping off Halo 2, almost unavoidable at this point when you start making a game about space marines.  Everything was basically “Halo with X Gimmick” and very few of them were particularly good. Now, though, we stopped ripping off Halo because a new kid came to town and kicked Halo in the balls, took his lunch money, and then shock-tortured him with a car battery.

Of course, I’m talking about COD.

It's starting to look...

No, wait, wrong one. I meant Call of Duty–specifically, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. While the Call of Duty franchise has always been a somewhat above-average World War 2 shooter franchise (never seen that one before) doomed to the comfortable quiet mediocrity that has afflicted the World War II shooter genre (and by Christ, am I the only one who is bothered that that is an actual genre?) and it would have remained as such if not for the fact that, in a stroke of utter brilliance, Treyarch decided to hand development over to a studio called Infinity Ward, who promptly dropped the played out WWII trappings, set the game in present day, and created a tense, powerfully cinematic, poignant and topical first person experience. So good was Modern Warfare that its sequel, cementing it as an official spin-off series, Modern Warfare 2 was like a nuclear bomb made out of money, exploding into millions and millions of dollars and leaving the poor bastards stuck in ground zero a slow and painful death of ten thousand papercuts.

And thus…you may have guessed it…everyone ripped it off. It’s kind of a vicious cycle, isn’t it? A camo-clad, alien Ouroburos, the genre continues to churn out derivative and samey shooters, each one like a fat man at a buffet, desperate to get all the fresh chicken wings before they all go cold, heedless of the flecks of hot sauce staining his shirt, dribbling down his triple chins, splashing everywhere. Let’s keep pumping this shit out, because people buy them. And they will. And you have. Remember the idea of an economic vote? Y’know, where the games you decide to buy determine what games will be made? Yeah, well, you fuckers love shooting things and apparantly you love shooting things the exact same way. We’ve had Call of Duty with Vehicles, Call of Duty with Dust, Call of Duty with Vehicles and Dust, Call of Duty in a Jungle, Call of Duty in my Pants–it’s unending!

...so very very...

And when it isn’t Call of Duty, it’s Halo! Still! Halo evolved combat in 2001–almost ten years ago, and we are still playing it. I understand why of course–there’s many reasons, chief amongst them I would say is the accessibility as well as the emphasis on multiplayer over single-player. FPS games basically thrive off their competitive (or occasionally cooperative) play, and when a formula works, folks don’t seem to want to change it. Half the people who contributed to the 55  million Modern Warfare 2 units sold are the kinds of gamers who only play first person shooters anyway. They’re the ones who want a simple, familiar, pick-up and play experience so they can shoot people online for hours on end. It’s a kind of sad reality, especially considering just how innovative FPS games can be.

Look at Metroid Prime. Or Half Life 2. Mirror’s Edge, Vampire: The Masquerade, Fallout 3–also first person, mostly shooters. But each is radically different from each other, and from the mainstays of the genre–Metroid focuses on platforming and exploration, Half-Life on story and physics, Mirror’s Edge on falling off tall buildings a lot, Fallout on the 1950’s. The first person perspective opens up as of yet untouched, fertile avenues for storytelling and gameplay. The idea, the concept of not just experiencing events through an avatar, but through your own literal two eyes is incredibly alluring, and there’s still so much to be done. The shooter genre has fallen behind even the most conservative gaming genres, and while the smart developers have taken the FP part of FPS to new and exciting places, the S remains stuck in 1944, still trying to liberate France.

...familiar.

So what can we do? Simple. Stop it. Stop buying this shit. Stop accepting the bare minimum–you have Modern Warfare, you have it. Don’t pretend like you don’t, everybody does. If you want it, you have it–why buy the same game again and again and again? Wake up and smell the ashes! We live in a world of easy information, where we can compare and contrast anything and everything, where we can be as informed about what we buy and consume as we care to. Does nobody care? Does nobody care that one of gaming’s cornerstones–one of the most enduring and historic gaming genre in the history of the medium–is also one of the most stagnant, most bereft of creativity, thought or innovation? Who is going to be the first person to shoot these lazy games in the kneecaps and shake them until they give you something new and unique? Will it be you?

Or do you just not care?

Well, it’s Halloween, and I know you all like scary shit on Halloween, so I’ve done something horrifying and terrible–I’ve made another podcast.

This one is about a little freeware game called Yume Nikki. Don’t be scared by the Japanese, just click game and you should be fine.

There’s an old Let’s Play here. And you can download a REALLY awesome remix album of the game’s soundtrack here.

What is that on the wall

I pray a demon doesn’t eat you in your sleep.

Okami vs. Zelda

Wow, been awhile since I posted any updates. Sorry about that. Here, have a thing I made as apology.

http://www.tindeck.com/listen/txev

Bioshocking!

So, because I love to be irrelevant, let’s talk about Bioshock.

Shit, it’s a series now? Yeah, evidently the announcement of Bioshock:Infinite cements that Bioshock is now a brand name. What a surprise–a popular video game being branded. If I wasn’t so ludicrously pumped for Bioshock:Infinite I’d be cynical and bitter about a unique and bold concept being mass-marketed and diluted by sequeilitis.

Ah, but there are legacies to think about. What about poor Bioshock 2? This poor, sad shell of a game wasn’t even developed by Ken Levine and the original team that’s helming Infinite. Released to lots of good reviews, but also a lot of eye-rolling from the more pretentious crowds, Bioshock 2 has been called everything from a “knock-off piece of shit” to “a glorified expansion pack”–which is what I say it is.

So that's what Bomberman's been doing on his days off...

The problem with Bioshock 2 is that it plays better in every way than Bioshock 1. The levels are better designed (at least from a mechanics standpoint), the gameplay is more balanced, the combat is improved, the weapons are better, dual-wielding Plasmids and firearms makes combat fun and fluid, and the limitations on health kits and Eve hypos, as well as the layout of the levels and the new system for gathering Little Sisters means that hacking turrets and cameras and laying out traps is far, far more necessary than it ever was in Bioshock 1.

See, in the original Bioshock, while it was awesome all the stuff you could do, it was hardly necessary to do much of it. Sure, you could lay out traps, set up a killzone guarded by turrets, hypnotize a Big Daddy and use him as a meat shield–but you never really had to except maybe in Hard Mode. You could just use the Electric Buck shotgun ammo and win the game. And you will. In fact, there’s a Three Panel Soul comic that really exemplifies this:

Dapper!

See, you could do a lot in Bioshock, but you didn’t have to or really need to. In Bioshock 2, the game encourages you to hack everything and set traps and manipulate the environment through providing item incentives or just making it easier and more cost-effective to do so. In every aspect of gameplay, Bioshock 2 is superior to Bioshock 1.

It’s not the better game, of course, because Bioshock 1 has a very, very tight story. It’s totally solid and really well-told, contained with character arcs and all that fun English Lit stuff. Bioshock 1 is also hell of a lot scarier–it’s kinda hard to feel creeped out in Rapture when you’re a Big Daddy yourself.

But Bioshock 2’s story is still quite good–there’s a big theme about family and what that means and the relationships between family members and the search for meaning and identity, and unlike Bioshock 1, this game actually gives us a fucking ending and not that lazy-ass slideshow at the end of Bioshock 1. God damn, what a let-down that was…but whatever. Bioshock 2 is also much prettier than Bioshock 1, which is to be expected.

Yet Bioshock 2 isn’t going to have an enduring legacy. The original fanbase was divided on it from day one, and the fact that it’s really short and adds very little to the overall story doesn’t help. If it had been released as an expansion pack, it would have been amazing. As a proper sequel, however, it just can’t cut it–especially now that we have Infinite raising the bar higher than anyone’s anticipated.

Yet if you ask me, I’m kind of torn. I really, really liked Bioshock 2–it left me wanting more, which is never a bad thing, and I intend to get the DLC, Minerva’s Den, as soon as possible. Bioshock 1 is very different from 2, and depending on what you want out of a Bioshock game, you may be disappointed. But the gameplay changes, the increased customizability in terms of plasmids and tonics, all of that adds up to a really compelling experience. If you’ve not taken the time to play Bioshock 2, now’s the perfect time. You can find it for $20 and less all over the place now, especially Amazon.

As for Bioshock becoming a franchise, well…we’ll see. I’m excited as hell for Infinite and feel that the developers have enough great games under their belt that I’ll trust them. Franchises are the way to succeed in the gaming, for good or ill. Considering the high cost of games, consumers need names that they can rely on, and if Bioshock can continue being innovative, even as a franchise, then I’ll have no complaints.

Rated T for Titties

Hey guys! Wow, it’s been a long time since my last post. I apologize–classes have started up and I had to do lots of grown up stuff like find a job and take care of an apartment, so I had no time to ramble about video games on the internet. Still, to you, my small but loveable fanbase, I feel as though I’ve let you down. Let me make it up to you.

…a little disturbing, isn’t it? I understand that we have fancy things like jiggle physics and that we may be tempted to give our lovely video game ladies some more bounce, but one doesn’t need to reduce the female breast to a rubber ball surgically grafted to a 90-pound frame.

The female breast is actually something quite familiar to gamers–an enduring image associating with changing times and technologies. With every console generation we have had games that set out with one singular purpose–to render the female body as lovingly as possible. From Lara Croft to Ninja Gaiden’s Rachel, the female anatomy is almost always the very first object to be rendered by a next-gen console, and that’s kind of my problem with it. That it’s an object.

Sex sells. We all know this. In gaming, however, sex doesn’t just sell–it practically drives the market. It’s no big surprise to anyone that women are not particularly well-treated within the context of gaming. When they aren’t being paraded around in tight, skimpy, or otherwise ludicrous outfits then they’re being snatched and held captive atop some distant tower, awaiting our rescue. Neither depicti0n is particularly flattering, and anyone who is confused as to why there are significantly fewer female gamers compared to male ones needs only to play Bayonetta.

I mean, Jesus Christ, what the hell is up with her legs? This is anatomy gone horribly wrong!

And you know what? There isn’t really anything being done about it. There’s no particularly loud outcry demanding that gaming stop representing women as objects and try to at least provide some veneer of dignity to the fairer sex. While gaming journalism calls it out when it sees it, most reviewers seem to take it in stride, or at least see no overarching problem with it. Maybe once we could chalk it up to gaming being an “adolescent” medium, young and still allowed to waste its resources on silly things like boobs.

Except now it doesn’t seem so silly. We live in fairly enlightened times–and I think we’re smart enough as consumers to know when we’re being pandered to. Games like Wet or X-Blades exist solely to cater to sex-starved shut-ins desperate for any sort of virtual love they can find, because real love has abandoned them. Sadly, these developers seem to assume that the mass gaming market falls under this unfortunate description, and you know what? We’re not really all that offended at the suggestion. In gaming, you have trade conventions marked with B-list models strutting the floor in flimsy cosplay efforts just to drive up interest in whatever schlocky, cut-and-dry, bland simulation that company happens to be peddling that day.

Yeah, that’s right. I don’t like E3 Booth Babes. I don’t like the notion that a supposedly journalistic conference–a literal trade show, where writers and experts on a technology (in this case gaming technology) gather to see what major companies have planned for the year ahead–is treated like a Vegas gala, complete with half-naked women traipsing around trying to grab as much attention to their employers as they can. Games with big marketing departments, who can afford the most lavish parties and most gorgeous models get the largest write-ups in the big magazines and websites, regardless of whether the product they are offering is at all newsworthy!

E3 was gutted because of this Caligula-esque hedonistic facade, but that lasted what, a year? Maybe two? I won letter of the month from EGM commenting on how I felt this was a very good thing. And what happened? E3 came “back”, resumed it’s regular circus show, and is scarcely even a credible tradeshow anymore.  The Tokyo Game Show and especially PAX have completely eclipsed the once gargantuan E3, and we’re all the better for it.

This is all game developers think you really care about.

I don’t really consider myself a feminist. I laugh at too many inappropriate jokes for that sort of moniker. That being said, the treatment of women in gaming is absolutely abhorrent. It’s reminiscient of comic books, really. Both comics and games are considered a “male-dominated” medium, and thus they put out a product that not only alienates any potential female customers, but actually drives them away with shameless and insulting imagery while promoting shallow, insubstantial products loaded with nothing more than innuendo and blatant gratification. Comics is, I think, slowly turning away from this sort of disparaging imagery–writers like Gail Simone are certainly doing their best to move their medium away from that, and I’d like to see something similar happen in gaming.

The problem here is that the mainstream gaming audience doesn’t seem to care. Why aren’t we indignant that developers think so little of us? Why aren’t we calling them out on their sexist bullshit? Is it really enough to slap a pair of tits on the cover of a game to get sales? Why do developers need to resort to such petty sales tricks to get the numbers they need? It seems odd to me. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

What do you think of the portrayal of women in the gaming media? More importantly, why do you think they’re portrayed in such a way? I wanna know what you think.

Sorry again for the late update. I’ll be moving to a more regular schedule from now on.

So, I’ve been listening to the Decemberists lately–and by lately I mean “replaying every album they have over and over again for the past four days” and I think it’s making me sick. I’ve stopped eating meat, I’m growing a big bush beard, and I found a scarf in my closet, along with all natural, 100% hemp clothing and…and even right now I feel…pretentious…and…and finicky and…AAARGGGH!

Hello, I’m the MidiMaestro, and I’ve now taken over this insipid video game blog to educate you plebeians about proper culture. None of these blips and bloops, these synthesized pseudo-sound effects to accompany your silly digital simulations–I’m here to talk about REAL culture, REAL music. None of this mind-numbing dreck that takes a sophisticated mind and reduces it to a liquified quivering mess.

Which brings us nicely to the Decemberists. The Decemberists, a Portland-based folk-rock band are, of course, a Bad Band. Now, you insipid sheep who think that Kanye West and My Chemical Romance are the epitome of culture and sophistication may be confused by what this means, because your infantile minds are incapable of grasping the graceful elegance of true culture, so I’ll explain. A Bad Band is a band that fails to do what it should do. The Decemberists are a bad band because they are a fusion of folk and rock who utilize rousing ballads about sailors and whales and an alarming amount of rape to express their sound. With their doughy faces and their big buttons and their heavy coats and their enormous hard-on for any word or phrase that is at least 80 years out of date, they smack of pretentiousness whilst remaining devoid of any real…real…AAARGH!

I can’t do this, I’m not snobbish enough. I love the Decemberists. I love every silly lyric and every rousing sea shanty ballad. I love their ersatz war songs, their twisted love songs, their heavy, intricate and obscure vocabulary. Sure, I can’t disagree with such scathing critiques as this Something Awful article, though I’d say it’s just a little unfair, but y’know what? They sound nice, and sometimes, very rarely, that can be enough for me.

The face of Rock and Roll, ladies and gentleman

Actually, let’s discuss appearances. It’s cripplingly difficult at times to try and justify the artistic merit of video games, mostly because not everyone can agree on what exactly qualifies a particular piece of work as “art”. Everyone’s favorite gaming critic, Yahtzee Croshaw (more famous for those ever-so-entertaining Zero Punctuation videos) remains one of the biggest defenders of gaming’s artistic credibility, assisted by his incredibly broad definition of just what art is. By Yahtzee’s definition, spelled out here, essentially defines Art as anything that inspires an emotional response (emotional attachment, he says). It’s a fair and fine definition, slightly less broad than TVTropes’ “everything ever written, filmed, drawn or shat upon is art and deserves its own page and twenty bazillion examples yes including gay fanfiction”.

The key to Yahtzee’s little article isn’t the definition of art he subscribes to, but rather his statement that art is “subjective” and nobody can agree on what that means. Personally, I think art is something that challenges you to think, that offers valid social critique and commentary, and/or touches you in some way, inspiring a powerful emotional response. See? Yahtzee’s definition is there and I just added to it. Problem is, games are such a new and unique medium, even twenty years later, that we still haven’t quite figured out what to do with them, and how to utilize them in an artful way.

Games are still rigidly trying to recreate movies, trying to make us cry using the same tricks of the trade that films do. This is, of course, changing–Modern Warfare has one of the most heart-wrenching finales I’ve ever seen in a game because it chooses to play out the final, tragic scene not in a non-interactive cutscene, but rather as part of the regular game experience. You get to lay there, paralyzed, able to look around but helpless to stop the horrible things happening around you, but in the end, you are still in control, and the final actions of the game are yours to deliver. To this day, I still hold that the climax of Modern Warfare is one of the finest in gaming, because it does what a game does, but still makes you feel.

But here’s the thing–it isn’t that hard to make a person cry. I mean, I could post a picture of a baby seal getting clubbed and 50% of you would burst into tears. Emotion is pliable, easily manipulated. If inspiring an emotional response is the prerequisite for something to be considered “art”, then I argue that true art has to step beyond that. It can’t simply be trying to make the audience feel–it has to be an expression of the artist’s feelings and, more importantly than that, it has to have a message. Maybe not a moral–but at the end of the experience, you should be able to look back and say “Ah, I see. My actions here have taught me X.”

See? Art! (Note: I do not condone the clubbing of baby seals and oh god I think I'm going to go cry now)

I don’t see that as often as I think we should. It does exist, of course–games like Persona 4, Fallout 3, Phantom Brave (though you may kill yourself out sheer despair before learning this game’s lesson) have morals and messages built into their narratives, and the first two actually tie their message into the gameplay itself, but…well, I guess what I’m getting at is, where are the protest games? Where are the games that make a political statement, that demand revolution and change, that inspire controversy beyond just “oh it is corrupting the children”? Where’s the game where you play a closeted homosexual suffering prejudice and intolerance in a society that claims itself to be a bastion of acceptance and freedom? Where’s the game where you are a poor, uneducated Afghani boy who has to join a sadistic terrorist organization or watch your family die? Where’s the game where you play a corrupt politician who casually subverts the desires of his own constituents whilst crafting broader and better lies to keep them placated?

In 1979, Pink Floyd released the Wall and it blew everyone’s fucking mind. Subversive, intricate, full of social, emotional, and philosophical impact wrapped around trippy melodies and satire-ridden lyrics, the Wall remains in my mind–and the mind of many–as one of the best albums of all time, and certainly one of the best pieces of social commentary ever made. And don’t get me started on Bob Dylan–he managed an entire career of protest songs in just three years, and then found drugs and later Jesus. MY point is, where is video gaming’s “The Wall”? Where’s our Bob Dylan?

The game would force you to eat your meat or you won't get any pudding. Then you have to jump on the Hydra's back.

I’ve seen games that made me cry. I’ve seen games that made me feel. I don’t doubt games can pass as art, but can games inspire revolutions? Can games unify people, bring us out of our apathetic ignorance to raise our skinny arms to the sky and scream for the walls to come tumbling down? Why is it that gaming hasn’t tried to spark a revolution? Maybe it’s because we don’t have as big an indie gaming scene as we should. Maybe games are too expensive to make, and have too much corporate oversight. Maybe because there isn’t a game developer with the balls to actually make a game that isn’t “shoot bad guys til you when”. Maybe because gamers are too finicky to accept anything that challenges them. Maybe we’ve all grown stupid and complacent. Maybe we don’t believe in anything anymore.

I don’t have any answer for it. Twenty years old, gaming is still in its awkward adolescence. It hasn’t found a battle to fight yet, a flag to fly. Maybe it never will–maybe gaming is meant to remain a simple distraction, a means of escaping the doldrums of our lives. Maybe gaming shouldn’t try to tackle real world issues. I’d love to hear your thoughts, if you have any. But for me? I’d like to see it. I’d like to see games that try and confront issues that we refuse to talk about. I’d like a game to force me to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes, just to show me what it’s like.

Is that too much to hope for? Well, I suppose I can just keep listening to the Decemberists. They’re playing a song about drowning children now. I don’t know what lesson it teaches, but it sure sounds nice.

Level Up!

So, I’ve come up with a pretty nifty idea for how to make leveling up your character in RPGs more entertaining.

Ah, of course you know what I’m talking about? Leveling up has become commonplace in just about every genre over the past five years. Even the biggest first person shooter franchise right now, Modern Warfare, features an extensive leveling up system in their multiplayer. What had once been a mechanic limited to–and even indicative of–Role Playing Games (RPGs) has now become widespread over all of gaming. I think the way we do it now is archaic and dull and can be improved.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love being rewarded with big numbers at the end of every major encounter as much as the next nerd. Experience Points–numerical values representing just how much “experience” your character received for any given action, usually winning a fight–have been and may very well continue to be the main impetus for you, the player, to actually participate in a game’s combat scenarios. Harder, rarer fights would reward more points, and the more points you got, the more likely it was that you would “level up”, the primary goal of the exercise.

Leveling up is the only reason people play MMORPGs

Here’s what I’m thinking–leveling up doesn’t have to be just the ever-growing sum of a string of numbers. The contextual reason for leveling up is that the “experience” of your many battles makes you stronger for it. Why not just break up various tasks in the game as “experiences”, and ditch the number system altogether?

You are probably familiar with “grinding”. That is, doing a monotonous activity in a game–running around fighting enemies, playing a couple dozen map using only an obscure weapon set–in order to level up. Grinding is a time-honored tradition, almost as well-known as leveling up itself, and it makes no sense. There’s no impetus for the characters to do it–all it is is glorified practice with live targets, and you are almost always fighting the same targets. Grinding is very rarely ever much fun, though some find it relaxing. It’s an element of gaming that we should have much, much less of. I don’t want to eliminate it entirely, but I do want us to consider alternatives.

Man, this makes me think of Crimson Skies. That was a sweet game.

Imagine this: Setting out into the game at level 1, basic equipment. You fight enemies, but they don’t drop balls of light or produce numbers informing you that they are helping you. However, by the end of the combat tutorial you have killed, say, 25 of them or a 1/3 of the total population, and that’s earned you a thorough understanding of their fighting style and basic behavior. Now you are able to fight against them and creatures similar to them better, your character automatically adjusting to adapt to their attacks, giving the player an easier time while playing. Now, both story and gameplay benefits have been reaped, and experience has been gained. What more, it’s an actual experience, one you felt and one that is unique, at least to that playthrough.

While individual experience events–which can include completing missions or sidequests, finding rare items, learning skills and craftswork, or just exploring an unexplored cavern–grant immediate bonuses, getting enough of them does, indeed, “level up”, which gives your character more health and allows him/her to explore more dangerous areas.

This could be translated into other genres too. Hell, Call of Duty already has a sort of variation on this, where it rewards perks and skills to players who perform certain specific tasks numerous times. The Achievement and Trophy system does this too, in a way. Gamers respond well to their own individual accomplishments within the game being celebrated. Who wouldn’t? It seems logical. It seems a step towards making games more immersive without trying gimmicky controllers or motion capture technology.