Thursday, September 29, 2011

Losing The Legend: Too Linked To The Past?

We are at the end of days, my friends. Not in the 'watch out for the Rapture' sort of way, more like the 'sorry I ran your Teddy bear through the wash, you probably shouldn't have left him in the hamper with all of the other clothes perhaps you should just pay more attention to where you're playing pretend so that I do not have to go sorting through these filthy rags that keep you decent' sort of way. We are, in fact, on the cusp of the Nintendo Wii's demise. But in one final gasp for air, an attempt to find relevancy in the zeitgeist, a way to rekindle all those old nostalgic flames of glory before the fire is doused and the Wii-U rises from the remains. And in that final breath we are met with a familiar shield, a green tunic, and a whole lot of waggling. Yet as the November release date of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword draws ever closer, an entry in a franchise that I have been enjoying since I was a child, I struggle to garner any sort of excitement for the game. And there has to be something wrong with that.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"Reefer Madness" L.A. Noire DLC Review: Quick Fix

For a game that is steeped in crime syndicates, the morphine trade, and murder the existence of marijuana trafficking almost seems irrelevant by comparison. No, I'm not using that introduction to make a case for the legalization of Even if it is totally natural, I mean why not just ban topsoil and tree and stuff, right? Don't the cops have bigger fish to fry? Well, Cole Phelps certainly does, but that doesn't mean he can't take a break from uncovering the corruption in the city of angels to put an end to a Tijuana drug operation. In the final - but maybe not really - expansion to Team Bondi's magnificent L.A. Noire, "Reefer Madness," we take a trip back to the vice desk to crack down on the sale of that ol' wacky tabbacky.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Assault on E3 2011: Nintendo Announces the WiiU

At this year's E3 Nintendo just kind of, sort of announced their new console: the WiiU. Supposedly this machine is a successor to the Nintendo Wii (missed nostalgia opportunity to call it the Super Nintendo Wii), but the focus of the conference was placed primarily on the new controller. This new device is a pad with two joy sticks, looking like a beefed up Playstation Vita that Sony showed off just a night prior. In what seems to be an attempt to fire back at Apple's dominance over the non-gaming electronic market, the new controller will also be a touch pad. What is really mind blowing, according to Nintendo representatives, is that the actual console can be playing some other form of media while the controller itself runs an actual WiiU game. Nintendo did not explain how this works, though I would have to guess that the two devices still need to be within some range of one another otherwise the 3DS seems to have become a bit more irrelevant (despite the announcements of a great slate of games earlier in the press conference).

What I was most impressed with was Nintendo's ability to make me ask questions, to become curious. Regardless of what the WiiU turns out to be, EA higher ups have touted that it will finally have an "open online community" that hopefully negates friend codes, I want to know what it is and I want to get my hands on the product. Since the console itself was not showcased at the press conference, and no price was announced, my guess would be that the 2012 window they are setting for its launch will happen around holiday worldwide, but that is complete speculation on my part. I'm sure as E3 continues and more members of the press get a hands on with the controller we will learn more -Reggie Fils-Aime, just seconds ago, confirmed that the WiiU will put out a 1080p signal, but right now I'm mostly just baffled that I am both surprised and excited for a new Nintendo product after being stung by the Wii in the past.

Here's what I'm interested in, friends: what do you expect from the WiiU? What would make it a successful console in your eyes?

Friday, April 1, 2011

From Noir To Noire: A Call For Critics

Video games, we've come a long way. Remember those days when we spent hours together, just going through all those same sections of Princess Tomato: Adventures in Salad Kingdom because we lost that save level code that I wrote down in a game manual that, all these NES-less years later, still has not been found? Or how about when you first told me I had to switch discs, and I sat wondering if I should save, shut off the console, and then switch because I had ruined that old copy of Croc: Legend of the Gobbos when youthful curiosity told me I should open the PSX disc tray while playing? And do you remember that time when we went to the movies together, I was waiting for the NCAA tournament to finish in hopes that my bracket would hold up so that I could buy the popcorn for once? Wait. You don't remember that last one? That's probably because it hasn't happened, at least not yet. But soon, so very soon.

Gamasutra, Joystiq, and a myriad of other sources have recently posted articles about the upcoming screening of the upcoming Team Bondi developed/Rockstar published game L.A. Noire to be held at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival on April 25th. Naturally this could easily be used to fuel the ongoing debate about the artistic merits of video games, but I'm not here to settle that debate. I repeat: THIS POST WILL NOT ARGUE FOR OR AGAINST GAMES AS ART. I am firmly, completely, on the side that games, as a form of culture, are an artistic medium, and from this position I plan on exploring what the inclusion of L.A. Noire in the Tribeca lineup may potentially mean for the future of video games, and some of the pitfalls that the medium needs to avoid as it continues to evolve as an artistic medium.

For years game developers, critics, and casual players have bared witness to new trends in interactive story telling. Ken Levine and Gabe Newell have surrounded players in story, excising cut scenes from their games and asking the player to 'live' in the moment. Other developers, personal idol Hideo Kojima for example, have taken the traditional cut scene formula and expanded them in to blocks of time that encompass the length of a traditional film. And somewhere in the middle we have cut scenes that seemingly never end, keeping the player detached from the main character while still maintaining an active part in the storytelling process. A game like Heavy Rain or various Point and Click adventures seem to fit this bill, as does, from what little has been revealed about the actual gameplay, L.A. Noire. And we seem to know less than that about how the game will be showcased at the Tribeca Film Festival.

But we know it will be there.

What does this mean though? It means that a cavalcade of critics and the public will have a chance to see the game in action. It means more exposure, and likely more sales, for the newest Rockstar joint. It means that a completely new form of media has a chance to share the spotlight with some interesting upcoming filmmakers and other veteran crafters. And, just maybe, it means that video games are one step closer to being recognized, on a larger scale, as a type of text capable of being approached, discussed, and examined as works from some of the most well known artists in recorded history. Shakespeare, Faulkner, Twain, Welles, Hawkes, Kurosawa, and even contemporary artists like the Andersons, McCarthys, and Dylans of the world. That's quite a bit of pressure for a game that has not yet been released. However, the pressure is not what concerns me. No, I am concerned with the ongoing trend in games to attempt to legitimize their existence as art by identifying with film criticism.

The comparisons to film in interactive storytelling are easy to find, both forms are visual mediums, both need to pay attention to the construction of frame and the use of score, both maintain a sense of control over the player/viewer. But by attempting to stand alongside film, video games seem less like an original entity and occasionally come off as a strange mutation that, by the very nature of the medium, resists the language to be discussed on a wider level. So while the exposure for L.A. Noire, and video games as a whole, is fantastic, the larger problem of being nearly absent of academic language is left unaddressed, and as a result I fear that this opportunity to help develop the construction of a specified language may be squandered in favor of another rush to try and coexist in a resistant medium, serving as a toddler attempting, repeatedly, to squeeze a star shaped block into a square hole in the hope that the board will eventually become so worn down that it just accepts.

Now I understand that film and literature have had at least one hundred years to develop their own critical languages. Despite being in the seventh console generation video games are still in their infancy, and video game criticism is still in a period of flux. I read magazines and websites, and the majority of criticism I come across is superficial. They are filled with reviews, not criticism. Critics talk about graphics, gameplay, and replayability, all important in evaluating the technical merits of a game, but when that is the entire focus of an article games lose that chance to advance the conversation. Criticism doesn't generate traffic, at least not as much as a review would, and the majority of people reading the reviews, no matter which cultural medium we are discussing, just want to know whether a product is worth buying, but this time I would say that taking a look at modern film criticism is not only warranted, but practically required.

I have a confession. When Roger Ebert wrote about video games never being able to exist as art, the blog post that launched a thousand angry comments, I was a bit infuriated; however, regardless of Ebert's position on the medium, he is one of the key figures that video game criticism needs to look at if any journalist ever hopes to elevate the conversation beyond technical jargon and hollow final scores. In all of Ebert's criticism, both classic - using the term classic is probably the most applicable in binary talk, but pretty damn frightening when describing a critic who continues to operate at a prolific level - and contemporary, addresses all the technical elements in film. His reviews mention direction, cinematography, editing, performances, and he even arrives at an easily consumable star rating, but interspersed in his writing Ebert offers commentary about the social topics films discuss, the thematic material that occupies the screen, it extends the conversation while still remaining accessible and fulfilling for casual readers. Games have the technical language, the next step is blending that technical language with critical and theoretical talks. How do the controls correspond to the narrative? What does the art style mean in relation to the themes? These are the questions this new criticism can, and at times does, answer.

Another route, obviously, is for games to be recognized on a scholarly level. Studies have been conducted to measure the addictiveness of games, or if games cause violent tendencies in players, but these are all scientifically grounded projects. You don't tackle Shakespeare with science, you confront him with liberal arts. The trouble, it has been argued, with games is that difficulty settings require skills which deny some individuals the experience, and while this is true, I think we are overlooking a much larger problem: finances. The console war, while great for the companies involved, makes the cost to enter insanely high. If a professor assigns a student to play Metal Gear Solid 4 before the next class and this student does not own a PS3, completing the assignment is going to be near impossible. Consoles aren't going anywhere. Less games are remaining console exclusives, but the first party titles are always going to exist. But since game studies can be both scientific and artistic, college budgeting a certain part of money to buying a few consoles for student access is not a farfetched scenario. And trust me, a new game is usually cheaper than many of the used books that students will be fighting to buy when classes start up. An ideal solution? Hardly. But it's a start, and as the medium grows I'm sure access will flourish.

Right now L.A. Noire screening at Tribeca is huge, and who knows, in a few years when video games and video game criticism have outgrown all of those outfits we got at the shower this event may be remembered as the turning point. Or it may fade in to obscurity. I cannot predict the future, I can only hope, aspire, and work towards a world where games have this language, where they house these discussions, where they are no longer niche. Maybe it all starts with a visit to the movie theater, I just hope it doesn't end with that trip. I can only eat so much popcorn.

Thanks for taking the time to read. As a reader, your feedback is my writing's lifeblood, so let me know what you think down in the comments section below.

And if you can't get enough of me you can follow me on twitter at FLYmeatwad and check out Processed Grass, my blog on all things film, music, and non-videogame related culture, or my Poem A Day blog for all your poetry needs.

Monday, March 28, 2011

I Have Two Big Hands And A Heart Pumping Blood

As I compile my Quarterly Review over at Processed Grass, I have come to the sad realization that in a world of digital downloads, bite-sized games, and tent pole January releases I have played one game released in 2011. Sure I have poked around at my backlog, finally getting a bit of time to dive in to Darksiders and Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time, but all I have ended up playing consistently has been Pokemon: Black Version, and before that a few Nintendo DS games that I had been meaning to spend a bit more time with before bigger releases overshadowed them. With the 3DS hitting the North American wilds just a day earlier I got to thinking about why it is, with so many options, I have spent so much time with my handheld lately.

The major reason, I believe, is the accessibility that a handheld offers. I don't have any problems asking it to share a night with me, but it won't get offended if I only have time for a quickie. The DS doesn't judge (the PSP, maybe, but the PSPMinis may take umbrage with that statement). I can relax in bed when I should be asleep and put a few more hours in to The World Ends With You, or if I really need to get to sleep popping in some Picross DS is a simple way to close off the day. I remember growing up and reading a book before going to bed, setting it down on the night side table and being carried away to that night's beautiful dark twisted fantasies. Perhaps it's indicative of the technology age that I now, despite finding darker and more twisted fantasies, do the same thing with the book shaped Nintendo DS. The action becomes habitual, cracking open the spine, turning on the light, and finding a small burst of gratification that builds toward a larger goal. Sure there are a few differences, but the process for reading before bed and playing DS are fairly similar.

Fairly joyful, always rewarding.

Rewarding because one of the reasons I love games - pause to remind readers that the Metal Gear Solid series houses four of my favorite games ever (including the top spot with MGS2) - is the way it allows me to experience a narrative. For me great game design is not about opening up a world entirely, or setting checkpoints that don't force me to replay frustrating portions of a game, they help, but that's not what makes a game 'work.' What handheld games, and many of my favorite console and PC games, benefit most from is that contract between developer and player that, I interpret, reads: 'Here is my vision. Savor the experience at your leisure, discover what I have tucked away in spots where many may gloss over, don't just stare at the pixels, enter the world.' Approachability and Accessibility. Whether I play for a five minute burst or a binge session I am moving the narrative along at my own pace.

Surely this is not the crux of good game design, but it is one of the qualities that I perceive to be much more prevalent in handheld gaming than it is in console games. When playing console games I feel I either need to choose between those concentrated bursts or the multi-hour binge sessions. My favorite game from last year, Super Meat Boy, was one that I felt blended both of these perfectly. The levels were all straight forward, but they were contained enough that I could sit down, play a couple of levels, and stop with a feeling of accomplishment. Similarly, the day I purchased the game I probably played it for three hours straight, and the satisfaction derived was neither more nor less than when I played in shorter bursts.

Do I regret not taking the time to experience many of the year's most intriguing games so far? Of course, I think everyone who writes about games wishes there was more time for gaming. However, it's reassuring to know that even when life gets hectic, when final papers start piling up, when it seems like I have not booted up my consoles for close to a month, that my handheld is waiting for me to dump another hundred staggered hours in to Picross, Pokemon, Final Fantasy Tactics, or any of the other countless titles left to be experienced.

Thanks for taking the time to read. As a reader, your feedback is my writing's lifeblood, so let me know what you think down in the comments section below.

And if you can't get enough of me you can follow me on twitter at FLYmeatwad and check out Processed Grass, my blog on all things film, music, and non-videogame related culture, or my Poem A Day blog for all your poetry needs.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The FOXHOUND Chronicles - Metal Gear Marathon Introduction

In the 1960's Bob Dylan recorded three records that collectively have come to be recognized as one of the era's greatest cultural triumphs. Years later George Lucas's Star Wars films built a universe that captivated a nation. Even after that literature is revolutionized by the release of Twilight! All culture, good and bad, uses the series format to create worlds, explore complex themes, and even uncover a bit about humanity. I propose that, since Bob Dylan released his records all those years ago, no single individual has crafted as important a cultural touchstone as Hideo Kojima. In the form of the Metal Gear Solid series (and, I suppose I will soon discover, the Metal Gear series) Kojima displays a brilliant awareness of the world surrounding us all, traditional story telling techniques, and the uniqueness of the medium he uses to tell his stories.

I hope to apply a closer inspection of each game individually and in a larger context, discussing the artistic merits of Kojima's universe with a specific focus on the aspects that distinguish Kojima's games from those of his contemporaries and the similarities his works bear to other storytelling mediums. Combined with the man's one of a kind perspective these games not only transcend the medium, but also demand inclusion in the cultural cannon. Even more impressive is Kojima's future prospects, as he clearly is showing few signs of slowing down in his output, even if his time int he Metal Gear Solid universe is finally drawing to a slow close. Through weekly, or more depending on time, blog entries I will track my progress in these games (though mostly all are replays) and record my observations. At the conclusion of each game I will post a lengthy entry that is more focused on specific aspects of each game in relation to my larger goals.

Now to outline the list of what shall be played.

Tentative Entries:

Just to make a few comments so you better know where I am coming from:
1. I have never played Metal Gear or Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake
2. I have not decided if I am going to play Twin Snakes or just stick with the original Metal Gear Solid, though I'm leaning toward the PSX one to see, again, the jump between the two platforms.
3. I have never played through Subsistence, so I am looking forward to playing that one instead of the original Snake Eater, but if anyone thinks MGS3:SE is the 'right' version to play let me know in the comments with a short explanation.
4. I own a PSP, but with little memory and I do not own these games yet, so I do not know if I will have time for those entries at this point in time.

I am incredibly excited to share this examination with you and to hopefully accurately convey my respect, admiration, and love for Kojima's universe. I look forward to playing through many of these games again and I hope you enjoy reading my take on this wonderful cultural triumph.

Until the first official entry of my FOXHOUND Chronicles, take it easy,

Richard Thorne

For all reflections film and music be sure to check out my other blog Processed Grass and if you are looking for some nice reads you can peruse my Poem a Day blog filled with all original writings.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter as well for all extraneous musings at

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Noby Noby Boy: Bringing the Impulse Back to DLC

So yeah, I finished all the games in my marathon, I may post on them later, the Naruto one was the winner with The Darkness finishing as a close second, Harry as a farther third, and LOST in dead last. This is my first post in a while, so you know I mean buisness.

In a little less than sixty minutes the date will be February 19th, 2009. Hell, in some places we are already there. And what is so special about this particular date in the world of video games? Well I would reckon nothing. Street Fighter was just released yesterday, Killzone 2 is coming next week, and really neither game is likely to go down as one of the most important games ever developed. However something does happen tomorrow, the PSN release of Noby Noby Boy, a follow up from the creator of Katamari Damacy. Now I'm not here to talk about the game, I'm going to pick it up and I am incredibly excited to do so, but Hell if I know what it's about or how fun it will be; I know it's from the same guy who brought me one of the PS2's greatest series, that's all I need.

The striking thing about Noby Noby Boy, in this new fangled age of DLC where the ease of purchasing depends on a person's ability to purchase a points card at the local store or the strength of his internet connection, is the five dollar price point, a modest price for a game from a fairly well known creator. I have to note the similarity between this release and that of Katamari Damacy. Both titles relied on price to push their product during an initial run, and I think this is one Hell of a strategy. I mean what's five dollars? A Domino's pizza when you're drunk? Five cheese burgers at a fast food resturant? A few hours to have fun with a game? It's really irrelevant, at that price I am obligated to take a chance on a product that shows promise. In this economy, where gaming is an expensive habit, every dollar counts, but the impulse buy is still a huge factor, especially with DLC, and hopefully Noby Noby Boy cashes in.

First I would like to examine the Katamari series. It debuted in North America with a modest MSRP of twenty dollars, the cost of a Greatest Hits title. The sequel came out at thirty dollars, a minor increase, but by now you know what you are getting and that purchase is justifiable. Then we skipped a generation and something happened. The failure of Beautiful Katamari can, for me, be attributed to three factors. The first is the timing of release, it came out during the holidays when a slew of considerably bigger games came out, this little name had no chance for its initial 360 run. This leads to the second problem, the 360 in general. While Microsoft's presence with a more Eastern oriented crowd has grown the Xbox had hardly attracted the Japanophiles that it has since the FFXIII announcement, so that interested audience from the PS2 was likely playing Odin Sphere or Persona 3 instead of dropping $400 on an Xbox to play Katamari, plus the controller was not suited for the game. Katamari relies on gamers simply pushing forward, you feel like the silent Prince when both sticks are right next to each other, like a pair of hands, and you just push. The 360 controller does not allow for this stick placement and the game just feels off. And then there is the third problem, and what I would say was the largest, the fourty dollar price point. Sure it's still twenty dollars less than a regular game, but I still cannot get behind the idea that I am not supposed to be paying a premium for a sixty dollar game. I'm a huge fan of Viva Pinata and I cannot bring my self to purchase the sequel at fourty dollars, which will arguably give you considerably more play time than a Katamari game. The price killed it, and the thought that fourty dollars is a bargain cannot sit well with an audience who was previously used to paying fifty dollars for a new game and who can go back and catch up on a couple of older titles for fourty dollars.

This brings me back to Noby Noby Boy and the question of exactly what five dollars means in the gaming world. Braid, last year's independent sensation, had me excited months before release. And then the price was announced. At ten dollars the game would have been a steal, I would have purchased it the first day it released; instead, I have yet to download the title, it is out of impulse range thanks to other games on the market. On one hand you have a game that you get maybe 5 hours out of and that's it, limited replay value if any, and you are out fifteen dollars for a great experience. Conversely, with this fifteen dollars you can pick up an entire album on Rock Band, or numerous packs and/or singles, all of which can potentially add hours of enjoyment if you like the songs enough to purchase them, plus it bolsters your library, who doesn't like to brag about how big thier's is? On its own five dollars is nothing, Noby Noby Boy has it right, price low and you will sell even with a what appears to be a lean experience and certainly a developmental risk, but you know what? I still haven't picked up Flower even at ten bucks because, frankly, I cannot justify taking that big a risk on an impulse buy when I can get those Rock Band songs instead. The DLC market, originally an inexpensive way to purchase a game, has become a miniature version of its older retail brother. Even for me, an almost twenty year old man, the choices in this 'impulse' market have become heavy choices to make because the number of things out there are now as plentiful as games, not to mention that, for ten to twenty dollars, I could catch up on tons of older games from this generation and last that I had previously passed on. Five dollars, here, turned me from a curious and hesitant spectator into a future customer.

So that's what five dollars is, it's the difference, for me, between taking a risk on something new and falling back on the safety option. I'm not proud of it, it's this type of mentality that hurts the industry, it allows the evil corporations like Activision-Blizzard to churn out sequel after sequel whilst neglecting IPs. I'm a bad man, but I guess I'm just like any person, I don't want to be disappointed, I don't want to feel ripped off, and when I don't have the wallet to take these chances, even on a smaller scale, the safe bets win out. I would like to thank Noby Noby Boy for coming out and doing what it does, for better or worse, I wish it the best of luck in the market and I hope it sells like a dead horse at a glue factory, but most of all I hope other independent developers follow suit and make sure their games can get out there to as many people as possible while still remaining profitable. Maybe I'm just complaining because I don't have the money to spend, or I don't want to spend what I do have, but I don't believe this is the case. I think pricing is an art in a market that basically relies on establishing IPs to sequelize for profit (Activision, Insomniac, Microsoft...etc), and I think the best way to compete and get a new concept out these is pricing, and I think, for the second time, Keita Takahashi knows this better than just about anyone else in the industy. He brings the impulse back to DLC, just like Harmonix has done with their DLC or what Geometry Wars did when the concept really started taking off in the console world.