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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Psyche Out

Like every gamer on the internet, I like to flatter myself with the belief that I’m somehow immune to hype. It’s all about the game, not the marketing budget or the buzz. I make my decisions deliberately, doing my research, parsing the reviews, and judging by the gameplay footage what will be my next purchase.

Yeah. And I also keep a pair of fairy wings in my closet that I wear for my night job giving little children quarters in exchange for their lost teeth. I use the teeth to build castles for my wife and children to live in.

Seriously. Right now I have a finished basement with a floor tiled entirely with incisors. But getting enough wisdom teeth to build the bookshelves in the library has been a cast iron bastard.

No, I’m susceptible to hype just like every other person walking the planet, or flying above it. I’m particularly vulnerable to small, viral campaigns that spread largely through word-of-mouth. These sorts of campaigns are designed to appeal to the nerd in me, which likes feeling clever because he’s heard of something that a lot of other people haven’t. Like a ring that makes me invisible, even if I only use it to catch fish.

This is not my best feature. It has led to many wasted dollars in my storied past as a gamer. Too many games that I fell for the hype, bought and then put down after putting in an honest, rigorous effort to like a game that I was, at best, lukewarm on because I desperately wanted the promise of the hype to be true.

Because I went to the trouble to preorder the damn game, and it’s going to be good!

This is almost universal to me: Any game that I care enough to pre-order cannot possibly be good enough to be worth preordering.

But so it came to pass that I pre-ordered and paid full price for 3D Dot Game Heroes on the PS3. As a gamer who started gaming in Atari’s halcyon days, and who came of age in the era of Zelda and Mario, the retro-goodness held some appeal. Especially since I had just finished Darksiders, which was alleged to be as derivative of Zelda as a game could be while still featuring entrails. Hungry for more adventuring and block puzzles, I took a look at the gameplay footage for 3D Dot Game Heroes with lust in my heart. When my wife heard that reviewers the web over were comparing the game favorably to A Link to the Past, she stopped short of demanding we buy the game, but did make a heartfelt appeal that nudged me over the edge.

But this was a quirky Japanese title by Atlas. Finding it in stores could prove problematic. But, wonder of wonders, a Gamestop exists right on my route home from work! I could preorder it and make it a DAY ONE PURCHASE!

And that’s exactly what I did. And it’s forty dollars that I wish I had back.

It’s not so much that 3DDGH is a bad game. It’s just not a particularly good game. My wife, on the other hand, would firmly disagree with that. A Link to the Past is one of her very favorite games of all time. To this very day. In fact, the very first downloadable game we bought on the Wii was A Link to the Past. So her devotion to Link’s third adventure in America is not to be questioned. From her perspective, the fact that anyone would mention 3DDGH and LttP in the same breath, let alone compare the former favorably to the latter, creates a burning rage of the sort that grounds flights out of Europe.

And I don’t just make that analogy because her ancestry is of the Norse persuasion.

To put it another way, She played Link to the Past. Link to the Past was a favorite of hers. 3D Dot Game Heroes is no Link to the Past.

It would be apt to draw comparisons and contrasts between 3DDGH and another game that was compared to Zelda games: Darksiders.

Darksiders was a game that was shamelessly derivative, but it was still its own game. Sure, it was stealing ideas from the Zelda series, but those were gameplay ideas. And it didn’t steal them in a direct, bit-for-bit kind of way, rather it stole the high-level concept and chiseled out something unique.

3D Dot Game Heroes, on the other hand, is not derivative. It’s a carbon copy. Except the carbon is old and has been used to the point where there’s almost no carbon left on it.

It is an old saying that good artists borrow, while great artists steal (Pablo Picasso allegedly said it, though it may have been apocryphal). Atlas seems to have misunderstood the meaning of this old saw. Taking another person’s work and slapping your name on it is not the kind of stealing that the proverbial Great Artist engages in.

When Vigil stole Zelda ideas for Darksiders, they still built their own game. 3D Dot Game Heroes feels like somebody got hold of the developer tools used to make the original Zelda and made a new game. Except they didn’t have the spark that gave Zelda’s game design its kick, so we wind up with a game that kind of looks like a Zelda game if you squint hard enough, but plays more like one of those Zelda knockoffs that couldn’t get Nintendo’s seal of approval and was therefore released by Tengen’s incompetent sister company.

It’s kind of like watching Kermit the Frog today. Steve Whitmire is trying desperately to remind everyone how much they love Jim Henson, but ultimately he doesn’t have the same soul. Kermit ceases to be Kermit, and he becomes just a sock puppet with ping pong eyes. Because Steve Whitmire, though talented, is not Jim Henson, and Kermit was only Kermit because Jim Henson made him Kermit.

The kicker is if they hadn’t struck out to build a game that reminded you of how much you liked Zelda, they could have made a good game. I played through the first three dungeons before giving up on the game, and not once did I feel like Atlas put any effort into making the game interesting in and of itself. Instead of “Oh, they did this kind of puzzle. Cool,” It was “Oh, this puzzle type was so much better done in Zelda. Sigh.”

That about sums up 3DDGH for me: I spent more time sighing than smiling. I don’t finish games like that anymore. Life is too short to spend it being bored by a video game.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

How to Get A Free Wii

The first thing you need to do is have two kids. And they have to have been born between 2004 and 2009. So you’ll probably need a time machine. Which means you’ll want to get in touch with some Libyans that hang out in Hill Valley…

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Recently, The Missus and I bought a Wii, thus invalidating my theory that the Wii never actually existed.

Backstory on that joke: My only-half-joking theory was that the Wii was actually just a clever marketing campaign for a nonexistent product designed to create the ultimate in artificial scarcity (what’s scarcer than a product that doesn’t exist?) and drive Nintendo’s stock price through the roof. Anyone who claimed to actually have a Wii was in truth a guerilla marketer employed by Nintendo to fool people into thinking the Wii was an acual product.

That may have been the case three years ago, but today the Wii actually does exist, and we have one.

And we didn’t pay a thin dime for it.

If you want to replicate our success, you have to go back to 2004 and conceive a child.

Why? Because if you have a child in the infant-to-toddler range, chances are you bought baby Tylenol. And as you should be aware, baby Tylenol has been recalled for nebulous reasons that certainly don’t warrant a class action suit. Nope. Not at all.

But the makers of Tylenol will reimburse you the cost of any baby Tylenol you’ve purchased prior to the recall. That reimbursement netted us $60 cash money.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. $60 doesn’t buy a Wii. It barely buys a controller for the Wii. So where did the rest of the money come from?

Well, that leads to the second thing you need to do: Wait for Gamestop to have a sale in which they offer you an additional 50% on all trades. Under that condition, you want to dig out any systems you haven’t used in a year or more (in my case, a PSP and a GBA), and every game you own for them (25 and 14, respectively). You also have to have a wife that will do the same (in her case a DS and about a dozen games)

If you do that right, you will have enough cash and store credit to buy a Wii, an extra Wii-motion-plus controller, an extra nunchuk, two classic controllers, a Wii Fit Plus bundle, $40 in Nintendo Space Bucks, and an 8GB SD card (from Sandisk, not Nintendo. Just because it’s free money doesn’t mean I’m going to be stupid with it)

You’ll note that this doesn’t include any games. That is, as you Wii owners out there know, because there aren’t any.

Well, that’s hyperbolic, sort of. It’s widely understood that the Wii is not a system for Gamers. The Wii is a Family System, capital F capital S. That means games that we can play as a family. So single player games are pretty much out, which is fine because A) they don’t make many good ones anyway and B) I already have a system that is superior to the Wii in the Single Player library (the PS3). Basically, if two or more players can’t play at the same time, it’s probably not a game we’ll consider for the Wii.

Of course, I’ve heard that the new Mario games are more cooperative. Unfortunately, my experience with Super Mario Sunshine and Paper Mario for the Gamecube completely and utterly soured me on Mario games made after Nintendo moved to optical over solid state media. There are only so many times you can kick me in the balls before I stop spreading my knees.

So while we will probably be picking up games like Elebits and Raving Rabids, there won’t be a lot of first-person-shooting or platform-jumping.

There will, however, be lots of Zelda, a Link to the Past-ing and F-Zero racing, as well as some Starfox 64-ing, because Starfox 64 was the pinnacle of the brand. And we have a number of games for the Gamecube that I’m sure the kids will enjoy once they’re old enough.

For now, while waiting for the kids to get old enough to play, my wife and I are enjoying having Bowling night without the rented shoes.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Navel Gaming

Yes, it’s another video game article. This one will be more philosophical in nature.

I have spoken on the types of gamers in the past, but what makes a gamer? Why, it’s someone who plays games of course, you trite nitwit. True enough, dear reader, true enough.

But what makes something a game?

Oh G-d! Not another one of those articles! Now I bet he’s going to open with a dictionary entry!

Quiet, you.

So, Merriam Webster’s (GAH! I KNEW IT!) defines game four different ways, two of which are pertinent to this discussion:
1 a: Activity engaged in for diversion or amusement

3 a: A physical or mental competition conducted according to rules with the participants in direct opposition to each other.


I’m aware that a number of you out there might dispute the above definitions; particularly number 1; but I’m taking these as the accepted definitions of the word Game, in particular because these two definitions are what people who don’t necessarily call themselves gamers think of when they hear or use the term game.

Also, the rules I’m about to lay out, to steal a bit from the late George Carlin, are my rules. I make them up. If you don’t like them, you’re free to think I’m an idiot. If you follow me on twitter, I’m sure you already do.

Anyway, from the above definitions we can derive two fundamental rules of what makes something an actual game.

First, a game is fun. Or, at least, it’s intended to be fun. If you claim to be designing a game and making it fun isn’t one of your goals, then you are not making a game.

It’s very important to make this distinction, because a developer can intend for a game to be fun, but fail. It’s still a game, just not a good one. Plus, it we don’t make this distinction, then MS Word can call itself a game, and nobody wants that. It may be a puzzle to figure out how the heck you’re supposed to do anything (or, more likely, how to make it NOT do something), but it was definitely not designed to be fun.

If your goal in making your “game” is to challenge people’s ideas about what makes a game, then you’re not making a game.

I know of “games” that were specifically designed to not be fun, but to make a statement, or force the user to think about something. While that may be interesting to a certain type of person who is not me, it’s not a game. You can make a game educational and even thought-provoking, but if you’re not also trying to make it fun, then you’re not making a game.

And remember, that’s my rule. I made it up.

The second rule, derived from definition number 2 from Merriam Webster:

Games have a clearly delineated difference between failure and success.

If you’ll never see a “game over” screen, you’re not playing a game; you’re playing with a toy. Toys have their merit, and I’ll be the first to defend them, but toys and games are related in the sense that poems and limericks are related. One is a subset of the other, carved out by having rules that do not apply to the larger group.

But even if you have a “game over” screen, if winning and losing share the same outcome (from a narrative perspective), then you’re not playing a game either.

So sorry, Gravity Bone, you are not a game.

If you’ve played Gravity Bone, you either love it or hate it. But either way, you’re not allowed to call it a game, and here’s why: (SPOILER ALERT)

At the end of the game, you encounter the big-bad. You give chase across rooftops, and when you finally catch up to the big-bad you get shot and you fall off of the building to your death. While that may be interesting storytelling, it is not materially different from what happens if you simply miss a jump while pursuing the big bad. Either way your character plummets to his death. The only difference between victory and failure is that you get to try again if you fail, and you get a cutscene if you succeed. But since you already know the ending, I don’t know why you’d bother. Just jump off the first ledge you see and call it a speed run.

Another example of something that’s not a game is Noby Noby boy on the Playstation Network. It largely satisfies rule number one in that it’s amusing enough, but there is no hard objective to meet, no condition for victory or failure. Noby Noby Boy is a toy that keeps track of certain statistics while you’re playing with it.

I know this post will irk some people, because it sounds like I’m passing a value judgment. I’d like to stress that I’m not saying that Noby Noby Boy (or Gravity Bone) is a bad example of whatever it is. I’m not even saying I don’t like it (well, in Gravity Bone’s case I am saying I don’t like it, because I don’t). All I’m saying is it’s not a game.

I can see where some people might make that mistake, because typically when someone says “that’s not X” it means they don’t like whatever they’re describing. Like when someone points at a toilet and says “that’s not art.” What they really mean is they don’t like Duchamp or the Dadaism. Well, that’s not what I’m doing. And I can prove it.

If I were just saying that anything I didn’t like wasn’t a game, I’d condemn Braid as not being a game because Jonathan Blow was so hot to challenge our preconceptions about gaming. Well, he certainly made some pretentious crap, but he still made a game, and my perceptions of him and his game can’t change that.

I’m not going to speak about whether games are, or can be, Art with a Capital A. That is a subject for another post that I am not qualified to write, though you wait and see if that stops me.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Overclocked Episode 2: Rapture, human nature, and which one Andrew Ryan was wrong about.

Welcome to the second irregular installment of Overclocked, in which I go off the deep end and think too hard about something in the hopes that my tortured musings will entertain you. Kind of like Christians in Rome, except the lions are all figurative and live in my head.

Lately I’ve been playing Bioshock 2, which takes place sometime after the game that Ken Levine conceived and sometime before the series ceases to be a profitable brand. The two games have more than Big Daddies and creepy little girls with glowing eyes in common. Both games are skewering one political viewpoint while a significant number of players of the game think they’re skewering a different ones.

In Bioshock the first, the message most people took from the game (at least as far as I can judge by reading reviews) is that capitalism = bad. In fact, the message of the first one is that objectivism doesn’t work as a form of government. I can understand the misconception. At its core, free market capitalism is about letting entities sort out the best way of doing things for themselves with minimal supervision, and that people who earn money should be allowed to keep it. There is common ground there, but the difference is that free marketers favor a system by which property rights can be enforced. This gets back to the whole “keeping what you earn” thing, because there are more people than just government officials who look at your money and think “that belongs to me!”

The objectivist doesn’t agree. To the objectivist, you are entitled to keep only what you can keep. If someone with a bigger gun than yours comes along, well then your money belongs to him now. Unless he falls into some kind of repetitive pattern where he exposes a weak point for you to exploit every third attack. But since life isn’t a Zelda game, that’s not very likely.

The problem with most objectivists is that they don’t even recognize the possibility that someone with a bigger gun would try to take your stuff. Thus, the problem of objectivism is not that objectivism is objectively wrong, but that objectivists are incurably optimistic about human nature. They don’t think out the consequences of their own policies under the immutable fact that human beings are nasty, wicked creatures who will do what benefits them in the easiest way possible unless someone or something stops them from doing so. That’s why societies have laws and constabularies.

This blindness that objectivists have for the unscrupulous is precisely why Atlus caught Andrew Ryan so off guard in Rapture. To Ryan, he had created a true utopia, in which everyone was free to explore their own full potential in the absence of stifling laws or cultural mores. It simply never occurred to him that anyone would want to run the place for his own gain. Just like it never occurred to him that it might be a bad idea to let people give themselves super powers by freebasing sea slugs. What they do with their bodies isn’t his business, right?

Bioshock 2 is likewise likely to be misunderstood. I expect people will take it as a shot at Christianity, when in fact it’s about fascism.

Yes, yes. Feel free to pat yourself on the back. I’m sure you’re the first person clever enough to think “what’s the difference” to the above sentence. Good for you.

Fascism usually starts where you have a disproportionate amount of losers in a society. I don’t mean losers in the forty-seven-years-old-and-his-mom-still-picks-his-clothes-for-him sense, but in the actual I-tried-to-open-a-business-and-lost-my-shirt kind of way. When you get a lot of society’s losers in one place, you get at least one person who sees those losers and realizes that there is power in numbers. That person will then take up the cause of the downtrodden and offer them something they want, or think they want. Chances are they don’t even believe what they’re peddling; they’re just trying to get power.

For Sophia Lamb, she saw that people were missing G-d. Ryan, being the secular humanist and objectivist libertarian that he was, saw religion as a hindrance to the greatness of man. So long as you believe in a power greater than your own, and adhere to artificial laws handed down from some musty old book, then you can never be truly free. Or so Ryan would argue. So naturally, religion was discouraged in Rapture. And bibles are the only books to be banned.

The interesting thing about Bioshock 2 is that it changes the meaning of some of what the player saw in the first game. The first game featured smuggler’s crates full of bibles, and the introduction of the spider splicers had them spouting pseudo scripture instead of the usual incoherent ramblings the player had come to expect from splicers. This was to be taken as hypocrisy on Ryan’s part; the great champion of freedom in all things taking the decidedly totalitarian step of banning literature as subversive. In the context of Bioshock 2, we see that Ryan wasn’t simply preventing people from reading the good book, but was defending Rapture from the fascistic rumblings of Sophia Lamb.

This is made clear in the audio logs, in which Ryan voices his disapproval of Lamb’s coordination of artistic activities in Dionysus Park. He explicitly says that he disapproves, but as it’s Lamb’s property, he has nothing to say about it. But he adds ominously that he will take a sledgehammer to the place if his investigation of Lamb confirms his suspicions.

This exposes Ryan not as the megalomaniac we first took him for in the first game, but as a tragically deluded figure who truly believed his vision would be best for everyone, and was trying to defend the nature of Rapture against elements who would turn it into another totalitarian state.

Lamb, however, is the prototypical power-grabbing fascist aspiring to dictatordom. She uses high flown rhetoric about unity (in Lamb’s case, the buzz word is Family, but it might as well have been Worker, Proletariat, or any of a hundred terms that real-world fascists use to claim they speak for the people) to whip up support for her agenda, but she’s certainly not above strong-arming the odd surrogate mother into giving up a child if it benefits her. Lamb’s own transgressions against the family are forgivable, even laudable, because her only real principle is that of the attainment of power. Because, like any fascist, she believes that everything would be beer and skittles if only she ran everything.

Ryan was actually trying something new. Something that had never been tried before. But it didn’t work out, because people are people. Lamb is just rehashing the ideas and tactics of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Joe Stalin and Che Guevara. That never works either, for much the same reason.

Which is kind of fitting, when you think about it. What could be more appropriate to a sequel than a villain that cranks out the same old rhetoric hoping that it will work this time?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Late to the Party Reviews: Darksiders

They say when you’re looking for a mate, you should find someone who is strong in areas you’re weak, and vice versa. That way you can bolster each other and provide support during difficult times. In that spirit, it’s worth noting that my wife is a big fan of Zelda games, while I am not.

It’s all about temperament, really. She’s more of a How gamer, while I’m more of a What gamer. Puzzles are her thing. But she doesn’t have the experience I have driving dual analog sticks, so modern Zelda-type games are more difficult for her.

But Modern Zelda type games are good for us to collaborate on. She can help guide me on the puzzle solving, which I’m weak on, and I can mow down enemies and complete jumping puzzles, which she is weak on. I drive, she navigates.

Just like in the car, but with less angry grumbling about the fact that nobody in New England knows how to make or hang a street sign.

This is how we came to be in possession of a copy of Darksiders for the PS3. Too much combat for my wife’s tastes, but too much puzzle solving and block moving for mine, Darksiders is a game that neither of us would have picked up on our own. But together, as a team, it’s several flavors of excellent.

The plot revolves around War, one of the 4 fabled horsemen of the Apocalypse. He is summoned to oversee the apocalypse and maintain the balance between the forces of heaven and hell. Of course, he’s not supposed to be alone. But he is. Being the dutiful type, War sets about his work while presuming that Plague took a sick day, Famine is at lunch and Pestilence is having his house tented.

Slackers.

It turns out that the apocalypse wasn’t supposed to happen, and the other horsemen were never summoned, and weren’t just holding out for better pension benefits after all. The world of humankind is destroyed, the balance is out of whack, and everyone is blaming War.

Now stripped of most of his powers, and his horse, War convinces the Council, aka the powers that be, to grant him passage to Earth so that he might find out what happened and bring the responsible parties to justice.

Thus, we are thrown headlong into a conspiracy that involves angel and demon alike.

The game is structured like your typical Zelda game, or so I’m told by the Missus, who has played the typical Zelda games. You set out on your quest, only to find that the guy who knows where you need to go wants you to collect three things for him. So you do, only to find that you need to collect seven more things to access the place that the guy who wanted three things told you to go. You will face bosses that are so confident in their own power that they store the only weapon that can kill them in a crate right next to the entrance of their home. Also you find currency and health if you open chests or hit chickens with your sword.

Well, just kidding about the chickens. This game his giant bugs and bats instead, and they attack you back.

The game has been criticized for being derivative of other games. There is some merit to that: The best way to describe the game is to say it’s Legend of Zelda with God of War’s combat and World of Warcraft’s art style (also known as the Never-mess-with-a-man-who’s-fists-are-larger-than-his-head-and-has-white-hair school of design), with some puzzle elements from Portal (you actually get a gun that shoots orange and blue portals at one point in the game)

But let’s be honest here: If you make a game that gets favorably compared to Legend of Zelda, God of War, World of Warcraft and Portal all in the same sentence, I can’t think of logic tortured enough to conclude that the end product is a bad game. It’s like complaining that a pizza has sausage, pepperoni, meat balls and peppers on it. Sure, you’ve enjoyed all of those things before. But now here they all are in one place, with a tasty crust, homemade sauce and three kinds of cheese.

You might as well criticize a Swiss army knife for being too useful, or criticize John Ford for making too many movies with John Wayne in them. The very question is absurd.

The game features a good blend of puzzles and action. The twitch gamer in me that took years to make its peace with the death of the arcade didn’t get bored, while at the same time the puzzle gamer in my wife who finds it tedious to watch me mow down enemy after enemy with an over-compensatory sword didn’t lose interest in helping me figure out how to go about bouncing an energy beam off of six mirrors by slowing down time and lighting a torch with a boomerang in order to get the energy beam into a portal that sends it to a kind of mystical capacitor that stores energy beams until a path to another mystical capacitor is made.

And no, I’m not kidding. Except it might have been seven mirrors.

The controls took some getting used to, I’m not ashamed to admit, but it works well considering how much the game lets you do. This is a game that would have been made for the PC ten years ago, and probably would work on the PC today if there were any money in that niche market of Triple-A-PC-Games-that-are-not-developed-by-Valve. (Send hate mail to…). On the console, I occasionally found myself wishing for a Nostromo or an updated version of the old Atari Jaguar controller, because twelve buttons and two analog sticks barely covers everything you need in order to play Darksiders effectively.

Basic combat and puzzle solving is straightforward enough (X to jump, Square to attack, circle to grab), but when you get into spots where you’re fighting off legions of hard-to-kill mini-boss type enemies who are being aided by easier to kill run-of-the-mill enemies and you have to summon your chaos form, or use a rage-based ability (that’s right, you have both a chaos meter and a rage meter, which enable you to do different things) while blocking, dodging and figuring out which alternate weapon would be most efficacious in dispatching the hordes of enemies, it’s really easy to accidentally summon your horse or use a health potion before you actually need it.

As with any game that tries to go 3D with a third-person perspective, the camera sometimes gets in your way. For the most part it’s no problem at all, and it works better than a good 80 to 90 percent of the third person action game cameras out there. But there is this boss fight against a critter that can teleport, and who does so quickly and often, where I died a number of times just because the camera whipping around the keep him in view was so disorienting.

But these are minor quibbles. The complexity of the controls is mitigated by the fact that the game eases you into your abilities with a nice, gentle learning curve. By the time you need to do anything really complicated, you’re pretty close to the end of the game. And while a few of the bosses are frustrating (there is one that involves using portals to jump on his back, but the portals only work if you stand very still and hope you don’t get hit by the boss’ unblockable, almost undodgeable attacks) most of them are challenging without being cheap. The final boss in particular was a good example. Without getting into spoiler territory, I was out of health potions and darn dear dead when I struck the final, triumphant blow.

And yes, it was an actual attack. Each boss fight, as with the rest of Darksiders in general, is refreshingly free of quicktime events. The worst offenses in this category involve a few minor “tap circle as fast as you can” instances, and the “press circle to finish him” moves. But since circle is mapped to a context-sensitive grab move anyway, those moves don’t really count as QTEs.

I would heartily recommend Darksiders to anyone who has a bit of the puzzle-gamer in them. For my part, even though I had to marry my puzzle gamer, I thoroughly enjoyed it and I eagerly await the sequel that the ending so blatantly set up.

Worth 55 out of 60 dollars, for those of you who must apply a number to everything.