Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Missing Monoculture

The Missing Monoculture

Television used to thrive on spectacle. Or, at least that’s what I remember from my days of growing up in the 90s (and that one episode of 30 Rock). People would huddle around their glowing boxes full of entertainment and news but, more importantly, major entertainment events: one-time milestones in the history of pop culture. Look at the finale of Seinfeld where ad time was valued at $1 million for a 30-second spot (consider that in 2012, the average Super Bowl commercial cost $3.5 million) and how the birth of Little Ricky on I Love Lucy pulled in even more viewers than Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration the following morning. Who shot J.R.?

But that has mostly faded away. Spectacle is still important, sure, but it’s no longer synchronized around a single timetable like it used to be. With the advent of on-demand and the Internet, broadcast schedules have meant less now than they ever have before. Radio serials, television programming, all that now subsist on audience demand rather than network scheduling. What remains now are New Year’s Rockin’ Eve and the Super Bowl. And the Olympics, but come on, who isn’t going to watch that. It’s basically international sports war. But once again: an event. A moment.

That synchronicity is commonly referred to as the monoculture. We, as a society, basically agree upon for a set amount of time what is popular and what everyone will enjoy at any given moment. It’s a little like a hive mind, but it’s also just consensus and quality assurance. Feel free to follow the popular opinion or not, but when 98% of the world’s population finds something to be enjoyable, it’s hard to argue.

For instance, look at music. The monoculture still happens, just not as often. Recently, we’ve all seen the meteoric rise of Gangnam Style, but when was the last time the world managed to agree on across the board love, ironically enjoy, and on some level loathe the same song? Smells Like Teen Spirit? Thriller? As Salon writer Touré notes, we haven’t even managed to hate something in unison since disco in the 70s.

Part of the monoculture is that you feel like you’ve consumed something when you actually haven’t. You didn’t have to listen to those songs or see people in bell-bottoms to take part in those movements. You didn’t have to see Star Wars to feel the shift in cinema. Watching Seinfeld was not a prerequisite to talking about shrinkage. These weren’t just things happening around you; they were your daily life, whether you wanted it or not.

It’s a loss that is happening in video games, though, and for the same reasons. It’s not necessarily single-handedly the fault of technology and the Internet, but they certainly exacerbated things. You can be knee-deep in any segment of gaming (or music or movies or television) and still not have any idea what’s going on with the other end of the industry. The people that bought a Wii U and haven’t stopped playing Nintendo Land or ZombiU have probably never even heard of To The Moon or Proteus, two titles that were (and sometimes still are) all the people in my Twitter feed talk about.

It’s because things are no longer as finely delineated as they used to be. Just like how music is no longer just classical, jazz, and rock, gaming is no longer just FPS, platforming, and puzzles. Genres have blended in an infinite number ways, and each utterly unique result has found its own audience. Much as how YouTube has proven that no matter your interests, there will be people out there that share your passions. The walls between massive categorizations have shattered, and like under a spent piñata, people are scurrying about picking up their choice candies—and not necessarily every piece.

What would you call, for instance, Dear Esther? How would you describe that game to a crowd of industry folk even 10 years ago? Not only could you not explain it, but it wouldn’t even exist. The breadth of games available nowadays has expanded to such a degree that tapping into both ends of it would be like trying to bear hug the entire god damn universe. The Internet (and the subsequent avenues of Steam, Kickstarter, and even other, more independent and esoteric channels) has made every conceivable notion that falls far from the realm of sci-fi shooters and fantasy RPGs viable because the audience has expanded commensurately. As the fire hose gets bigger, so does the fire. The variety of people’s interests can never be quenched.

Is it for the better? I guess that’s the important question. Was it better when people had to huddle around cocktail and arcade cabinets at pizza parlors and bars? Is that loss of the grand monoculture worth the indie endeavors of these singular microcosms of phenomena? Who knows. It’s certainly an interesting question, but I’m not sure it’s a necessary one. The mere existence of such variety is proof that pop culture is not a zero-sum game; there is plenty of room in the pool for everybody.

So then maybe it’s not about how the monoculture is dead but rather finding out where it’s hiding. Niche interests have certainly made it less necessary for success in mainstream, triple-A products, but necessity isn’t needed for existence. Those niches certainly aren’t required for the moon to go around the sun, seeing as how they weren’t around so much when the monoculture reigned, and the diminished role of that social unity has proven the same for that. Maybe it’s just a dip into anarchy or it’s now an evolutionary step in pop tastes. Either way, it’s here, and I’m gonna go play some video games.

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A Folksy New World

Being It. That’s a concept I grew up on, and I’m sure it’s the same for you. You both love and loathe it. When it’s you, you don’t want to be. When it isn’t, that’s all you can think about. Cumulative years of my life have been spent centered around the simple notion of being different.

Sometimes it’s a meritocracy and other times it’s random. It really just kind of depends on the game. More specifically, I guess, it depends on the folk game, a genre of gaming that doesn’t require a screen or controllers, a genre that includes games like tag, gravel, hide-n-seek, mafia, and any of their innumerable variants like freeze tag, sardines, werewolf, etc. Games like Simon Says and tag shift the It based on mental acuity or physical prowess, respectively. Others, like Red Rover, are arbitrary in their selection.

More importantly, being It can be viewed as either a reward such as with I Spy or as a punishment, such as with tag (and probably every other folk game to have existed). But in every case, being It is generally an empowerment. Everyone else will fear or envy you—or possibly both. Even in Marco Polo where the It is blind and largely clueless, they still wield fear like an ungodly tool. You run, shriek, curse your way from them even though you exist as nothing more than an idea and a sound to them.

This is what game designers call asymmetrical multiplayer (not to be confused with asynchronous multiplayer such as with e-mail chess and Hero Academy). Traditional multiplayer is symmetrical such as with deathmatch modes in Call of Duty or involves mirrored cooperative play like in Borderlands. Being asymmetrical means that one or more players have a completely different gameplay methodology or philosophy or goal or whatever than everyone else. Think about how the second player in Super Mario Galaxy does zero platforming and instead focuses on helping Mario collect Star Bits and stun enemies.

And it seems that Nintendo has been focusing on exploring that asymmetry as of late, building on what they did with Galaxy and many of its games before it (there was an N64 game that had one player piloting a ship and the other controlling its armaments; any ideas?). The Wii U, in fact, is largely predicated on asymmetrical multiplayer once you get down to it.

Sure, that GamePad works well enough as a map or inventory screen, but the Wii U has already begun to shine with some of the minigames in Nintendo Land, namely Mario Chase and Luigi’s Ghost Mansion. Mario Chase is pretty much a literal digital translation of muckle, a variant of tag commonly (and crudely) called “smear the queer.” The player with the GamePad must avoid the other players (various colored Toads) as they watch the quadrant’d TV screen. Mario also gets a map detailing the locations and movements of the Toads, but the Toads have a ticker that displays their current absolute distance from the portly plumber at any given time.

It’s tense and exciting and brings back just about every feeling I remember having playing it on my elementary school playground (and, for a while, in Red Dead Redemption). Being It is such an incredibly tense experience, one that I assume can only be accurately equated to being Harrison Ford in The Fugitive. Or Mario in Mario Chase. Or the It in muckle. It’s such a uniquely affecting experience that asymmetry brings to the table.

But more than that is the way the Wii U brings it to fruition, a way that is very much in the vein of those old playground games. Players are used to grouping together remotely against a faceless mass of opposition in deathmatch or a single, lingering threat in co-op. The Wii U brings that enemy into the realm of tangibility; he suddenly becomes a foe you can see and touch with your eyes and hands, whose fear being the sweet stench of impending victory. You can see as he revels in dodging your tackle, driving you to an impotent rage, and how he squirms as you close in on him, bringing you to the edge of your seat and sanity. It’s that very real and personal touch that such experiences would otherwise be missing if played via the Internet, that same touch that is present whenever you chase your friend down over the interminably dusty gravel under the slide or next to the swings, feeling that palpable tension rise and fall with your pursuit.

Folk games, in general, have made a splash in video games lately, though. A perennially popular showcase at PAX and the like has been Johann Sebastian Joust from Die Gute Fabrik, a game studio from Denmark. According to their website, they “take classic play forms from the past … and breathe new life into them with 21st century technology,” which is exactly what they did with Joust.

Joust is a game played with multiple people and a commensurate amount of PlayStation Move controllers. Each player holds a controller and attempts to sufficiently jostle every other person’s grip on both the wand and tranquility. The acceptable amount of jostling varies according to the speed of the background music, inviting bouts of incredible physical feats and boneheaded maneuvers. With the last man standing winning the game, games often devolve into fits of giggles and dirty play, sometimes involving kicked chairs and thrown shoes.

It takes what could otherwise be a traditional playground game from decades past and adds an element of definitiveness to it. It takes a fun concept and makes it work as a game. As opposed to how Mario Chase captures exactly what you experienced when you were a kid running around a jungle gym, Joust creates a new game that could only exist now and puts it back into an old classification of games. You get that same immediate, personal feedback from those around you (both the players and the crowd watching as they ooo and ahh along to the each frightful lunge and balletic escape), but eliminates that Cowboys-and-Indians situation of “no, I shot you first!”

And it doesn’t begin and end with Die Gute Fabrik or Joust. Look at Juegos Rancheros in Austin, Texas, or the games Mega GIRP and Mary Mack 5000. Folk games are back, and with good reason. Capturing the sensation of being It is great and important—and wholly impressive on Nintendo’s part with Nintendo Land‘s Mario Chase and Luigi’s Ghost Mansion—but the exploration of the comeback is just as crucial. Consider the asymmetry a toe-dip into the water, Johann Sebastian Joust a peek beyond the veil. They are simultaneously good games, important experiences, and proof of concepts. They prove that people traditional video games and traditional folk games can co-exist and, more importantly, inform one another.

It’s just a question now of where do they go from here. Years from now, will the concepts of playing outside and playing with your PlayStation be inseparable? Is this the singularity we’ve been promised? Just look at Dancingularity from Fantastic Arcade this year. We’re well on our way to where game design and technological advancements will encompass all forms of leisure and pleasure. To what extent? No idea. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Those crazy Danes.

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Waiting To Appreciate Episodic Content

Episodic content in video games is nothing new. A scant seven years after the release of Pong in 1972 and Automated Simulation’s Dunjonquest series kicked off on the TRS-80 with Temple of Apshai. The definition of the concept, however, has changed in recent times. There was often a year or more separating episodes back then, likening the series more to a franchise of discrete entries rather than a series of quick, connected vignettes.

In its earliest incarnation, episodes were basically expansion packs. They were much shorter little epilogues to a longer, grander story. This is most clear in the add-on of scenarios for Dragon Slayer II: Xanadu that was simply called Xanadu Scenario II. It was simply a chunk of extra things to do, an idea further explored by the series with Sorcerian a year later.

Expansions, however, have come under fire for flying under the episodic banner. Then-vice president of content for GameTap Ricardo Sanchez laid out his Three Laws of Episodics in a D.I.C.E. Summit talk, three rules that would discredit expansion packs and so-called episodics like the Half-Life 2 episodes and Sonic the Hedgehog 4.

  1. Each episode stands alone but is part of a larger whole.
  2. Each episode has a relatively short duration of play.
  3. Episodes are delivered on a regular schedule over a defined, and relatively brief, period of time that makes up a season.

Combined, those concepts seem a bit familiar. In fact, they are what make up the basic building blocks of seasonal television programming, which is handy because that’s what episodic video games have come to resemble. Even the failed alternate reality game Majestic caught on to the seasonal and regular bits because developers Anim-X knew that those are the important parts.

While the success of TV shows are largely predicated on quality content, the meta structure of weekly episodes works in its favor. Each week, another brief but hopefully meaningful entry is made into the series and opens itself to two vital tenants of community: analysis and speculation. Episodes are necessarily short (relative to the season) so that fans can catch up easily and gives regular breaks in the overarching story so that they can extrapolate hopes and dreams into future fantasies. It aims for the ideal confluence of timing, impetus, and resolution so that all that goes on the day after is water cooler discussion.

A perfect example is this year’s The Walking Dead adventure game series from Telltale Games. Aside from the fact that it tells an amazing, grounded story with stellar characters and believable drama, it hits every necessary point for being episodic, and it works in its favor. Each episode takes somewhere around two or three hours to complete—a far cry from the 20 or so you’ll dump into Assassin’s Creed III or, well, Far Cry 3—and has its own encapsulated story of equally potent conflict and strife that fits within the season’s major through line. Each episode hits major points within itself that will trickle down to everything after it while informing things before it. It hits Lost-like levels of discussions after each release. What more can you ask for?

Maybe not much more, but it definitely gives it to you through its release schedule. Released every two months since April, it gives just the right amount of time for people to download, play, cry, discuss, weep again, and then speculate. If 45 minutes of TV can spawn a week’s worth of discussion and salivation until the following episode, it only makes sense that two and a half hours can hold down two months.

But it’s more than that. It’s the anticipation that a regular schedule creates. With the Half-Life 2 episodes, Valve’s “it’s done when it’s done” scheduling may work for quality assurance but it does nothing for fans’ waiting. The focus then becomes about delays and timetables and the like instead of speculating over what the next episode will break down and answer. By adhering to the regular bimonthly schedule, Telltale is able to lodge itself in a player’s brain for long after they’ve stopped playing since they know they’re a scant few days (or weeks) away from validating or refuting their hopes and fears.

Halo 4‘s Spartan Ops similarly works analogously to television. Over 10 episodes and 10 weeks, Spartan Ops tells a story about a team of Spartan IVs called Fireteam Crimson on the planet Requiem. It, however, is somewhat light on story, drama, and, from what I’ve seen, quality. But since it is on a weekly schedule, Spartan Ops still works because you only have to wait seven days until the next episode is out. Faith (and Legendary difficulty) can sustain most fans for that long regardless of objective quality. Spartan Ops is definitely fun to play, but its story is fairly lacking.

The first rule of episodic content is kind of a gimme. That’s just how good visual storytelling works. Every part of a movie or show or game must be able to be broken down into smaller, discrete chunks of drama. And episodes happen to be one of those units of drama, where its own content can be further rendered down to multiple developing plotlines. The last two are more relevant and perhaps most important to episodic games. You are building the community and the discussion from the inside out with each episode where every week or month or whatever you are aiming to create enough tension and anticipation to where you aren’t forgotten by the next episode. You have to know what you’re developing and who you’re developing for to sustain this cycle of fan froth to fan discourse.

And just like any good show, you should be able to marathon through its gamut and still enjoy it. Basically what I’m saying is if you haven’t played The Walking Dead, you should do so immediately. And then come find me because I still want to talk about it.

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Nintenduality: A Conference Of Unknowns

Just this morning, Nintendo pseudo-announced the Wii Mini. I say “pseudo-announced” because Wii Mini confirmed as Canada-exclusive through holiday season, priced $99 | Joystiq”>pseudo-announced because what actually happened was that Best Buy Canada accidentally listed the product available for pre-order on its website and then Nintendo had to come in with the official announcement to bring everything back under control. Or something along those lines. It’s very much possible that Nintendo was ready to announce the Wii Mini today regardless of any Best Buy snafu.

The Wii Mini itself, though, is perhaps emblematic of something larger, a more pervasive problem within the former number one manufacturer, publisher, and developer of the video game industry. Is it hubris? Has Nintendo’s $13 billion war chest removed its finger so far from the pulse of the world that it no longer understands the difference between need and want? Or maybe it’s just foolishness. Maybe the Kyoto-based company has finally run out of vision and is now running on steam.

To be clear, the Wii Mini isn’t a totally horrible idea. It’s a tad pricey for what it is and somehow manages to remove what little online capabilities the Wii has completely from the realm of possibilities, not to mention the total eradication of GameCube disc support. For about 50 dollars more, you can get a full-featured Wii, albeit not in that boss red and black. There are what I believe to be some overreactions on Twitter this morning, but they’re definitely not without merit either.

The Wii Mini is set to hit Canadian shelves on December 7th, just in time for the holiday buying rush. The problem, of course, is that most kids are just going to simplify the gifting notion for parents to something along the lines of “I want the new Wii.” Well, the new Wii U? Or the Wii Mini? Even with the requisite specificity, there are going to be massive mix-ups. Consider the fact that up until the actual release of the Wii U, even mainstream news outlets merely referred to the new console as a new controller for the original Wii.

The release of the Wii Mini operates under the assumption that the general public is familiar enough with Nintendo products to be able to differentiate between them all with ease when in reality, the majority of Wii owners are likely the same sort of people who called everything before 1983 an Atari and everything afterwards a Nintendo. This is that problem I was talking about before. It could be hubris where they believe that Nintendo is once again the only name that matters, that whatever they put out, the public will buy. Or it could be foolishness to believe that everyone in the world wanting to get into the Nintendo family is savvy enough to parse out the Us from the Minis and the like.

Then again, it could all be brilliant and work out better than anyone expected. Or, at the very least, sell a lot. Nintendo has always been this strange clash of good and bad ideas, like swirling meteorological hot and cold fronts. If you look at the Wii U, for example, you can see where this is true. The hardware itself is a complex concept that is mildly difficult to come to grips with. It is the polar opposite of the Wii in terms of approachability; it has every button of a conventional 360 or PS3 controller plus a touchscreen. However, games like ZombiU and some parts of Nintendo Land have proven it to be a solid idea that can be mined by both Nintendo and third parties.

Most of the games, though, proved to lack vision. While good, New Super Mario Bros. U is almost exactly the same as New Super Mario Bros. Wii. The new additions are largely inconsequential and much of the game progresses the same in the same order (plains, sky, ice, fire, etc.), a notion that can also apply to the Super Mario Galaxy to Super Mario Galaxy 2 increment. And save for those few parts of Nintendo Land that are fundamentally interesting and well executed, the rest of that game is bland and bordering on a repackaging of Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort.

The Wii U’s system software is equally confounding. Online identity management is a mess and its censoring bewildering, but MiiVerse is genuinely interesting and packed with potential. The broad scope of possibility with asymmetrical multiplayer and improved social hooks combined with the little touches that Nintendo traditionally excels at (just listen to the Nintendo Land music, or do a Wii system transfer) butts heads with the categorically slow loading and clumsy interfaces.

But perhaps this is the eternal struggle of Nintendo, the endless plight of seeing where we need to go and not where we want to go. The N64 controller brought us the analog stick and a true trigger button. The DS and 3DS showed us that dual screens and glasses-free 3D were viable gaming technologies. Did we know we’d want Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Minis March Again! or Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story before they came out? So maybe it’s a matter of us keeping up with them. Maybe we are the ones that can’t see the reality of the situation, that our minds are so far removed from the mainstream that we can’t even feel the zeitgeist while Nintendo cradles it in its warm embrace.

But what about the Virtual Boy? The decidedly lackluster Paper Mario: Stick Star? The incredibly shortsighted Game Boy Micro? General missteps, sure, but also something more. For better or worse, that hubris, that pride does exist in Nintendo. Decades as the king will do that to you, so it’s not entirely unfounded, but just the same as it has led Nintendo down a path few are willing to brave, the company has also gone down some paths no one should ever travel.

Nintendo has been and always will be a strange contrast of big ideas, small details, and middling faults. They aim high and win big just the same as focus small and crash hard. And no one can predict how they will fallout. Nintendo has and will buck the trend again and again, just as they will fall flat on their faces again and again, and usually all in spite of what pundits and analysts say. So no, I don’t know—nor do I suspect anyone else does—what to make of the Wii Mini. But then again, it’s hard to tell what to make of Nintendo in general.

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Not So Born For This

Heroes generally fall into two categories: Marvel and DC. Just kidding, this isn’t that kind of article. I’m more talking about how heroes are usually portrayed as either a destined savior or just an everyman that happens to succeed (in the face of insurmountable odds and multiple real and/or pseudo deaths, but we’ll address that later). You’re probably more familiar with the two concepts than you realize; in just about any game that involves you defeating some world-conquering villain, you’ve played as one of these two archetypes. And given how many video games you’ve played in your lifetime, you’re probably a god damn scholar on the topic.

A pre-destined hero is one that—if prophecy or history or power from on high is to be believed—will succeed no matter what. So long as he makes an attempt and isn’t a total dum-dum, the hero will defeat the villain and save the universe or whatever. He may or may not survive the ordeal, but that’s not really part of the “success” qualifications anyways. He just needs to save his constituents as The One. Everything in his life has led to this moment, whether he knows it or not.

This is usually found in fantasy stories where a noble warrior with some hidden lineage must take the throne to fulfill his destiny or something along those lines. It can also happen in sci-fi, but since fantasy stuff is much more open to the occult, that’s usually where all this destiny stuff happens. Take for example The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. You play as a Dragonborn, an individual born of mortal flesh but with a dragon’s soul. By extension, he or she is able to speak with dragons and learn their language, which then enables them to use dragon powers. You, in particular, play as the prophesied one from Alduin’s Wall, a large sculpted mural depicting you defeating the World Eater (which is as bad as it sounds).

An everyman hero is something more about an ordinary person that finds himself in extraordinary circumstances as opposed to the extraordinary-on-extraordinary of destiny. This doesn’t necessarily exclude anything involving the supernatural; it’s just that the protagonist has to be just as likely to fail as he is to succeed since he’s not meant to succeed. He’s just some dude trying his best, and that’s the key.

Imagine someone along the lines of Nathan Drake. He was just some relic-robbing charmer with a sordid past, but he’s found himself in some exceptionally extraordinary situations. Hell, he fought zombie Spaniards and giant blue furry ape things, but he’s still no different from you or me. I mean, all right, he has seemingly infinite finger strength and an amazingly high bullet tolerance, but he’s still just some guy. He’s was never destined to be a treasure hunter or fight vaguely European villains. That’s just how his hand played out.

The important thing is that you can relate to that. Taken as an analogy or some less wisdom-imparting parable, we’ve all found ourselves in similar predicaments. We are by definition just regular people. As far as I know, no prophecies exist detailing someone reading a thousand words on video game heroes or anything, but we’ve definitely all felt pushed out of our element at times, pushed into doing thing we didn’t think we’d ever have to do or would need to do. It highlights the serendipity—the happenstance—of life because things just happen and we can’t control it. It’s relatable in that way and as it turns out, we like to relate to things.

Destiny is a bit…stranger in that way. We’d all like to think we’re destined for greater things, that those odd, random encounters were mile markers along your path, showing your progress to your future. It was all meant to be! That is a feeling that we can all relate to, wanting to believe you were meant for something greater.

But then somewhere along the line, perhaps at a certain age or a lifetime milestone, you realize that particular notion is a bit selfish. Perhaps you are destined for something, but that something just might be being the stepping stone for someone else who is on the way to making it big. That little nugget dawns on you—dwells and festers within you—and you begin to opt for the belief that there is no preordained life for anyone, that everything is up in the air up until the moment it happens.

That disenchantment is where destined heroes, the ones that can’t fail because everything in the universe is in cahoots with them to succeed, fall apart. We as players and human beings understand the feeling of wanting that to be true but nowhere do we tangibly appreciate anything of the sort coming to fruition. Worse yet, we eventually come to refuse (and possibly resent) that idea, leading us to refuse and resent the hero that we play.

If you look at Desmond Miles of the Assassin’s Creed series, you can find that entire arc played out. Desmond starts out as the present day ancestor to Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad of the High Middle Ages. Altaïr is a cold, calculating man with little in the way of character that helps us sympathize with him. We fall more in line with Desmond, a guy who just happens to have a valuable bloodline. A stroke of bad luck and he’s kidnapped for, well, something (it’s all very vague in the first game).

Once things begin to get a bit supernatural, though, we see that Desmond is destined for greater things. He is the man that can single-handedly save the world from a lingering cataclysmic event from the First Civilization. Ezio Auditore da Firenze, however, is for all intents and purposes a pawn. He is played but not necessarily destined for anything in particular beyond being a utility. Ezio then becomes the more relatable character and over the course of three games, we begin to drift further and further away from the preordained heroics of Desmond and towards the largely immaterial Italian nobleman. It was a combination of the fact that the role of Ezio is much more easily understood by us and that he’s a much more likable dude that Desmond. I mean, come on. He’s one charming rogue.

Assassin’s Creed III kind of cements the notion that we have been evicted from the Feels of Desmond and side with the history-pokers as most people find Connor still more appealing than Desmond, and Connor is kind of a dick. I understand he had a rough childhood and was betrayed a solid number of times, but can’t he at least just once thank Achilles? Or anyone who helps him for that matter. Altaïr was reserved by nature but it seemed like Connor was off-putting by choice. And despite this, we still side with the self-serious Native American over the destiny-ridden Desmond. Why? Because we find the preordained even less appealing than the dickish (mostly; Connor did have a fair amount of redeeming qualities).

Then again, it’s not always so cut-and-dry as this, nor is this emblematic of every story in video games (or books or movies). The one-man army shtick, for instance, falls somewhere in between these two archetypes, and favor falls all over the spectrum of relatable characters for that and the destined and the everyman. I’m just saying that the inherent storytelling qualities of the latter two fallout with relatability on the “just a dude” side of things, and since we like to feel like we’re understood and that we can understand things greater than our vocation, it’s a great boon towards likability as well. Hmm, maybe the Marvel and DC crack was more apropos than I thought.

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Where Difficulty Matters

I’ve always found it upsetting when people describe games as “unforgiving” and then just leave it at that. That sets up such a small facet of the game that you might as well start over with the plastic wrap around the box. A game can be unforgiving but fair or unforgiving and an unrepentant piece of satanic horse hockey. It can ply and test the tensile strength of your gaming resolve or it can make you feel cheated over and over again like a blackjack dealer with glaucoma.

Difficulty, as it turns out, is a difficult thing to tame. It’s a bucking, wild colt that must be reined in properly, otherwise you’ll find yourself in the air and on the ground more than you are riding those majestically powerful chestnut haunches. Difficulty, above all, must be fair. The Golden Rule doesn’t just apply to face-to-face communication but also asynchronously virtual interactions.

And that defines video games pretty well. Designers and developers spend months and years building up one side of the conversation, and then you get to work on your response following that. It’s a paradigm that, at its foundation, represents a digital conversation, and as with all conversations, you don’t want the person you’re chatting with to every once in a while slap you across the cheek and call you Amy Whiny-house as you attempt to hold back the tears.

Super Meat Boy, for instance, is a hard game for all the right reasons. It’s a side-scrolling platformer with the number of ways to die outnumbering the number of hits you can take somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 to one. At certain points, it feels like you can die just from existing too long or for cursing the game too loudly (oh god, can it hear me? DOES IT KNOW?!). Your replays start out innocuous enough, numbering somewhere in the five to 10 range, but by the end of the Dark Worlds, it’ll look more like the product of a gyroscope formed from crystallized DMT that also is probably on a fairly severe acid trip.

You never, however, feel overwhelmed. You are always equipped with everything you need to successfully overcome each challenge and level. The controls are fine enough to where you can break a block on crumbling wall as you jump against a fan so it pushes you back over a swinging saw. The nuance afforded to you is so great that you can wall jump between undulating platforms of spikes over a rising pit of lava. But will you? Probably not.

At least for the first few (hundred) times, but eventually you’ll get it. Some of the obstacles require a bit of consideration and a little pause for personal reflection and introspection, but none of it necessitates rote memorization and a subsequent physical manifestation. The solution is always right in front of you, goading you to try your best (if that’s even good enough), but never will it force you to poke and pry at the cover to see what’s underneath.

Contrast that with Pid, the inaugural release from Might and Delight. It is also a side-scrolling platformer, but you get to throw around light beams that will float you along in whatever direction they’re pointing. Since you, as a character, are limited in your ability to jump and climb, these light beams become necessary for you to explore this strange, sleepy world and escape from its hostile robot inhabitants.

Pid is also, however, difficult in a…less agreeable way. Given that Might and Delight is mostly comprised of the same team that brought us the equally difficult Bionic Commando: Rearmed, it’s no surprise to find Pid also on that end of the challenge spectrum. Just like Super Meat Boy, though, Rearmed felt more or less appropriate in the ways it punished you. Pid just feels punishing for the sake of being a dick.

Don’t get me wrong; Pid has its moments. In fact, it’s an all-around good game. It looks great and is charming as hell, but it can be difficult with absolutely no recourse. The entire game looks like a dream with everything being somewhat soft and bloomy, but that dream-like nature extends to how everything moves as well. Enemy animations are buffoonish and exaggerated and, more importantly, slow. The speed at which everything moves feels just a hair too slow for reality, making it a perfect match for the ethereal nature of the game’s milieu.

But you as a character also move slowly. Not only that, but you move insufficiently. As slow as everything else is, you always seem to move a bit slower. Death far outpaces you, making every checkpoint an exercise is rote memorization. Remember how I said Super Meat Boy avoids the need for that? Pid didn’t get the memo. Those glowing death boxes that hound you seem to require prescient input on your part, and don’t even get me started on that butler boss. Or the one after that.

They all require trial and error and precise parroting but also introduce elements that will also need in-the-moment acts of rapid response time. All of those combined feed into a feeling of being inadequate. Understandably, this fits in rather well with the theme of the game, but the actual playing of it needs to be handled much more adeptly. You can be outmatched for any given situation, but for a game to not be frustrating, you have to feel capable. In this case, you feel outmatched and woefully incapable of much more than dying a lot.

Another good contrasting comparison would be Dark Souls. Dark Souls (and its predecessor Demon’s Souls) is notoriously brutal. Enemies cause just as much (if not more) damage than you with more health and usually are much larger than you. By and large, it’s safe to assume you are in danger of dying at any given moment. You aren’t, however, any more likely to die than anything else in the world. This may sound like a contradiction, but it’s true. You are more than able of defending yourself and taking down every bad guy around you, but you have to be capable of doing so.

You must understand the systems at play: how your attacks work, the timing of defense and counters, where geography will be an advantage or disadvantage, etc. If you manage that, you then are on equal footing with the game. The tools are there for you to learn, not memorize. Your ability to intuit and understand the things happening around you is your advantage, not some abstract sense of overbearing power. You feel commensurate, an equal in the eyes the game. Neither of you look down on one another, and that is why Super Meat Boy and Dark Souls and the like have difficulties that feel manageable, that feel right.

In Pid, you feel like you’re constantly fighting uphill against frightful gales and smashing debris. Not only that, but you’re fighting against yourself, too, as if your feet were a separate entity that communicated with you via semaphore and furtive winks. Its difficulty is not fair and tends to overwhelm. It does not serve to enrich the gameplay or work on some metaphysical narrative level but instead frustrates and punishes to do just that: frustrate and punish. We want to learn how to play, not memorize when to press buttons. Worse yet, those memorized sequences are often subverted by things that would similarly require a strict commitment to memory if they were not random. It is the Golden Rule torn asunder.

It’s a shame that I really do like just about everything else about that game.

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Finding Yourself

Most days, I merely hope to impart some lingering question on whoever these words may fall upon. Even if that question is how best to troll me, it feels good to know I at least somehow affected your day without being a giant asshat or raging philanthropist (I win! So take that, trolls!). I mean, I might still be an asshat and I would definitely prefer it if you walked away thinking about video games and the culture and industry around it differently, but I’ll take what I can get. No one’s gonna bat a thousand on that.

Today, though, I’d like to be more direct. How do you define your self?

Notice the space; I do not mean “yourself.” I mean how do you define your identity within a video game? I’ve talked about how identity applies to the game itself, but what about you? What about the player? Without you, the game loses all meaning, save for that given to its creators. Like most art and entertainment mediums, video games are bifurcated into two symbiotic halves: the consumer and the producer. The difference is that for a game to work fully, you must also produce for the video game to consume. So where do you fit into that as an individual, as a person?

Video games, for the most part, tell their one story and that’s that. It differs from game to game, but like a book, a movie, or what have you, that story is pretty much set. We’ve yet to reach that point where stories can organically and programmatically shift and mutate into wholly unique products for each and every player. Even games like Mass Effect and The Walking Dead are predetermined and merely mask the immutability with (mostly) inconsequential choices or the illusion of choice. Story-wise, video games are no more inherently potent or capable than books and movies.

And in books and movies, we speak on our experiences from the point of view from the characters. We say, “oh, Harry and Voldemort? They haven’t met yet,” and not, “oh, I haven’t met that snake-faced ragamuffin yet.” You may say, “I haven’t gotten that far yet,” or something, but that is a statement of your interaction with the story and not with world within it. We talk about those stories as outside observers, like a Greek chorus singing commentary with the characters none the wiser. You are looking from the outside in.

But in video games, we commonly say, “I haven’t gotten that far yet,” in a different sense, meaning that the character you control hasn’t gotten that far yet. It’s as if any story beyond where you are now doesn’t exist simply because you haven’t experienced it yet (though we know, as we’ve previously established, the story is predetermined). You’ll say, “I haven’t met Funky Kong yet,” or, “that damn witch tricked me again!” Now you are the character. Discussions and recaps happen from your point of view, as if you were that 15th century assassin or that ThunderCat.

The inclination, then, is to assume that the agency afforded to the player in a video game changes his or her perspective. Though you are still working within the confines of a story already told—immutable to any outside influence—the fact that you are able to dictate what direction and at what speed you walk is enough to make you fully inhabit the mind and life of the character. The ability to press X and climb buildings turns Nathan Drake from an Indiana Jones-ish rogue you’ve read about into a digital mirror of your own self.

The question, then, is why? Why does this happen? What makes that little wrinkle in the fabric enough for you to fundamentally (if briefly) alter your concept of your being? We know this story is the same story that everyone else in the world experiences, and yet we have found a way to convince (or, maybe more accurately, trick) ourselves into thinking it’s us in that story, that it’s us hiding from the cops in South America, that it’s us defending New York. We’ve thrown away our old identities and adopted a new one, only occasionally emerging from the facade with a merged tableau of reality and fantasy.

We are still ourselves but we’ve integrated these new lives into our own. “We” have met with aliens on strange planets. “We” have defied a king and won a war. “We” have done so much without having done any of it. It was not Solid Snake and it was not Mario and it was not any Belmont that did it but us. We have flipped the direction of assimilation and now in some alternate universe, they tell a story of a man playing a game and saving the galaxy/princess/whatever. We have gutted the self of old and folded in something new but intangible and nonexistent.

Do we call it a lie? Do we call it a fantasy? Question yourself the next time you talk about a game. Ask if this is your self or a new self, if this forms a new identity or replaces your old one. Go down that rabbit hole and stretch and break things until you find the truth. And then ask the other guy in there if it matters.

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Picking Call of Duty: Black Ops 2’s Pick 10

As a whole, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is a strange confluence of three discrete and disparate ideas. There’s the traditional story element which seems to be losing both relevance and priority as the years and the sequels go on, an idea reinforced by this year’s release. Grasping at the zeitgeist, it offers branching decisions within the main story, a well-executed if slightly meandering narrative punctuated with horrible messes and spots of genius.

The zombie partition seems to be cloying at some notion of undead sentimentality. Though offered with commensurate aplomb when strung up alongside previous iterations, this one seems to offer minimal changes that add up to neither a revolution nor an evolution. Grief, while an interesting aside, isn’t really all that fun or different to play and the Tranzit sequences tend to gut the usual vittles in exchange for bus play. The bus play is, however, fairly neat, but there really just isn’t enough of it.

Perhaps strangest of all is that the multiplayer of all things is the one to cement the notion of the three-in-one Call of Duty package. Quality alone would be enough to warrant individual sales of the single player and the zombie modes (which is to say there are much worse that succeed with much less, not that either of the two in Black Ops 2 are especially worthwhile), but revenue and server stats point to the online component of every Call of Duty since Modern Warfare necessitating an emancipated release.

For the most part, you know what you’ll be getting into. The gameplay of the series has been mostly static since Modern Warfare and doesn’t look to be changing anytime soon. After all, why bother when you are the reigning king? When you are the standard and the bar setting it? Not mention that it is a tool honed to a fine point. Fast-paced console shooting is unlikely to find anything much better than it has in Call of Duty.

But unlike the other two parts of the game, Black Ops 2‘s multiplayer is rife with innovation (or at least innovation-ish things). Most apparent is the dropped 3-2-2 perk/weapon/equipment loadout system of games past in favor of something called the Pick 10, something at least partially inspired by German board game Carcassonne.

This, along with the Score Streak system replacing the barbarous Kill Streaks, has drastically overhauled and refined the Call of Duty multiplayer experience. It may not be enough to warrant a jaded shooter fan to come back to do more of the same (like, waaaayyy more of exactly the same), but it does manage to build on and improve something that was quite impeccable, gaming tastes notwithstanding.

That Pick 10, though, solves a fundamental problem within the military online shooter space: how to allow more customization without removing the balance. How do you Burger King it and allow people to have it their way without fundamentally breaking everything it is that fans have come to love and expect from a multiplayer Call of Duty experience?

Pick 10 has you spending 10 points across your entire loadout with everything costing a single point. So instead of a secondary weapon, you can put another attachment on your primary weapon. The exception is Wild Cards which allow you to equip multiple perks of the same tier at the cost of an additional point. You can also flip the bird to points altogether and just roll with a knife. You can, as promised, build a class of your own.

And that is exactly what I want. I am not usually one for secondary weapons as I’m not usually alive long enough to burn through an entire mag and force my hand at either reloading or switching guns to finish the job. It’s either I got the headshot or I’m in for a nice little respawn. But now that vestigial armament can be cut loose and I’m better for it. I can equip another flashbang, an item crucial to my tactics (that is, kill people that stumble around as they clutch their burning eye sockets).

Now the game is not necessarily a more level battlefield but definitely a more competitive one, if that makes sense. The game was always fairly balanced given that everyone had the same options—or at least chance for availability for equipment and perks—but now that you can mold the system into a custom grip, players across the board will become much more potent. Everyone gets the same gumdrops and toothpicks but not every bridge is going to be the same because not everyone needs the same bridge. You need all those Tier 1 perks because you use them to facilitate your Score Streaks. I need my swath of arms to even get a chance to kill. Our loadouts should look nothing alike, and now they don’t.

This is how Treyarch manages to answer the Burger King question. This is how they’ve made an online shooter feel as personal as a Bioware RPG (albeit in shooter parlance, but it’s still quite admirable). The Pick 10 system is something I could see making its way into other shooters, just as many other things of Call of Duty have: persistent progression, kill streaks, and now a true build-a-class system. Amidst the rote zombies and the trite campaign, an idea has grown, discrete and quarantined from the rest of its host. But is it done blossoming?

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Curiosity Isn’t So Curious

There have been great experiments in modern gaming. MAG, for instance, is one I would consider a great experiment. It ultimately failed to fulfill on its original promise (still a pretty good game, though), but it was a great learning experience. Zipper Interactive made its hypothesis, created its tests, and ran them. The results were interesting and showed promise on paper, but by either flawed pseudo-scientific process or broken execution or what-have-you, MAG failed. But what an experiment.

Heavy Rain. Spec Ops: The Line. One Chance. All great experiments. The quality of the games may vary, but they are all undoubtedly products that stretch conventions to the breaking point, just to see what happens when they snap. They have that quality that all great experiments have: retrospect provides a veritable treasure trove of insight and revelations, perhaps overshadowing their worth as individual games. They find value as great experiments in gaming.

Here is what I would call a failed experiment: Curiosity, the first release from legendary game designer Peter Molyneux’s brand new studio 22Cans. To make sure we’re all on the same page, Curiosity is a game where the entire world is presented with a cube. At the center of the cube is—in Molyneux’s words—a “life-changingly important” secret. The entire cube is made up of thousands/millions/billions/who-knows-how-many of even smaller cubes that form onion-like layers around the center. Everyone around the world pokes at the tiny cubes to destroy them, working together in a Noby Noby Boy-esque fashion to uncover the secret. The catch is that only one person gets to see the video that lies within.

Molyneux, as most fans know, has a tendency to over-promise, his reach far exceeding his grasp. The string of false hopes surrounding the Fable series is probably the freshest in everyone’s mind, but you don’t even really have to look any further than the fake Peter Molydeux Twitter account to see that his ability to overreach is known far and wide. While you have to admire his ambition and drive, you’d like to see him finally hit his grand slam. Maybe Project Milo was it. We’ll never know. What we do know, though, is Curiosity is not so curious.

Right from the get-go, though, we encounter problems. Namely, server problems. Since the night of its stealth/early launch, I’ve only been able to connect intermittently and even then, spending coins has been kind of troublesome. A million or so simultaneous network connections basically turned 22Cans’ servers into metal and plastic goo. An experiment isn’t worth much if you can’t, you know, experiment with it.

That’s a fairly superficial and ultimately trifling complaint, though. My problems with it go much deeper down to a fundamental level.

The premise of Curiosity is really incredibly interesting and hopes to answer a potent and mostly vague question: something something curiosity? My interpretation is how do curiosity and competition work in concert when people must cooperate on a massive, worldwide scale to uncover a hidden treasure? I think that question, regardless of whether that is the one Molyneux intended to answer or not, is super fascinating.

Unfortunately, Curiosity distills the notion of actual curiosity too far. The mechanic of tapping on cubes is made slightly more complex with the coin economy but to what effect? In short, you gain coins for destroying blocks, but you can gain bonus coins for tapping intact cubes back-to-back and for clearing screens, both of which operate as incentives to not haphazardly slap around every available digit on your touchscreen device and to not draw dicks. You can then spend these coins on consumable powerups that help break cubes faster (most of which only cost in-game coins but one does cost $50,000 of real money).

It doesn’t mask, however, the fact that Molyneux has set a goal at the end of a stretch of road, and to reach the finish line, we collectively must click a certain number of times. Once a layer is revealed, you can mathematically derive (or just estimate) the least amount of taps that would most efficiently destroy it given bonuses that feed into coins that garner you powerups. It is so bare that the illusion of doing anything more than tapping away at a cubic monolith is completely shattered. I’m not sure it’s so much a question of curiosity but endurance and the ability to ignore the psychological pain of repeating such a mindless task.

But then not knowing just how deep the layers go simply compounds the problem. You then go from knowing how long this particular task will take (read: a long fucking time) to not knowing how many times you must repeat your Sisyphean role. To quote a moderately okay movie, you have to ask yourself if the juice worth the squeeze.

Molyneux is great at grand schemes. He can craft concepts so well and so easily that @PeterMolydeux and Molyjam are both more tribute that parody, honoring the fact that ideas simply flow from the man as naturally as water from a mountaintop, rhymes from Tupac, regret from mac and cheese bars. Molyneux is an idea man and Curiosity is a great idea. But an experiment? Something we’ll value long after someone unlocks the secret and immediately posts it to YouTube? A defense that the man can create as well as he can conceive? Not so much.

But then again, no one except Molyneux has seen what is at the center of the cube, so I could be totally wrong.

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The Gravity of the Situation

Chris Plante of Polygon has in the lede of his Angry Birds Star Wars review this understated gem: “the Angry Birds games, in the most basic sense, are about gravity.” It’s a profound and subtle statement that kind of sneaks up on you with its succinct critical analysis. Whereas most people (rightfully) associate green-tinged pigs and birds of various levels of indignation with the Angry Birds series, simply go a few layers deep and it’s easy to see that it’s less about avian vs. porcine and more about you vs. gravity.

Angry Birds is a game all about physics, but it’s actually only about that one particular aspect of physics. There’s nothing in the way of air friction, and energy transfers only serve to put things under the purview of gravity. The drop (or arbitrary manipulation, as the case may be in Space and Star Wars) of launched birds, the weight serving to inform the momentum, and so on. Angry Birds is a series all about gravity.

It’s something we can easily identify with because we deal with this natural phenomenon each and every day; it is, after all, a physical constant—well, here anyways. We understand how it should look that things fall under the watchful and vigilant eye of gravity, how that 9.8m/s2 has universal practical implications for the earthbound.

Even games that somewhat defy these experiences but still fall in line with expectations are usually memorable for this exact reason. The Halo series, for example, has an odd contrast. Master Chief himself is actually a rather slow-moving, plodding fellow, especially for such an accomplished war hero such as himself. His steps are chunky and heavy and his pace is almost painfully sluggish. But look at his actual movements and it’s almost graceful. He seems to glide across the world, slipping and sliding from grunt to grunt, and this extends to his jump.

Master Chief’s jump is the polar opposite of his gait and yet almost the same. Both are a bit on the slow side, sure, but his jump has the odd characteristic of being gravity-defying. By and large, an object free of outside forces will display a perfectly mirrored rise and fall in terms of velocity. Master Chief, however, springs upwards like a little bouncy ball but falls back down like a feather. It doesn’t make a lot of sense and breaks pretty much every past experience we’ve ever had with gravity, but it makes Master Chief and the Halo series super memorable.

Compare that with the likes of Assassin’s Creed. Aside from the odd left-field twist of an ancient alien/ethereal race and an end-of-the-world plot development, that series is very much grounded in reality. Historical figures seem to come out of the woodwork like those subscription cards that fall out of magazines (is that still a thing? Do magazines even exist anymore?), languages and regional idioms are spot-on, and objects and places that existed back then are likely in the game. While unlikely, it’s not entirely impossible that a human being is capable of climbing cathedrals sans mechanical assistance.

This strong base in reality extends to the gravity of the world. When you jump, you fall in that familiar parabolic arc. When you fall from somewhere really high, your experience tells you that the speed you are gaining as you plummet towards the hard, unwelcoming ground is right, and because of that, it’s going to hurt when you land. Like, a lot. And it usually does, draining you of a full health bar straight to desynchronization. For being so familiar and “correct,” it’s no surprise then that we would find such accuracy so less memorable than something as alien Halo‘s gravity.

Being weird, though, isn’t always enough. Being weird isn’t always being unique. If you look at Need For Speed: Most Wanted, this becomes apparent. Watching how cars sail through the air, you get a bit of a Michael Bay sensation. While the falls you take in Assassin’s Creed hit somewhere deep in the pit of your stomach and carry on straight to your adrenal glands, crashing a car off a ramp, into a billboard, and back onto solid ground is a much more superficial affair in Most Wanted. It has the classic action movie rhythm of immediacy followed by slowdown followed by real time again to give the illusion of a speedup.

Of course, it only feels that way because of how the gravity works. The initial takeoff is fraught with speed, carrying on as you had before but with a complete lack of control. The fall—its speed combined with a subtle camera shift—attempts to enhance this feeling of sailing unabated, but the landing is where it makes the big break. That’s dishonest phrasing, though, as you don’t really land so much as stick to the pavement. There is no bounce and there is no rattle; you simply land. This gives a very immediate feel to the last stage of the fall and a heavy weight to the car, as if it was too heavy to bother with another break from terra firma.

This, however, disrupts expectations. All three stages undermine our understanding of how real world gravity works but falls well within the operating constraints of an action film. And while there is gravity, there is also very little gravitas, so we forget it. Most Wanted‘s otherwise strange perception of how physics works is out of our heads as quickly as it enters them.

Gravity is a strange thing to gamers. We experience it on multiple levels all at once, from the real world to the games themselves to the expectations we set from playing other games, watching movies, and understanding elementary physics. Just like what makes a video viral, it’s a mystery what makes gravity in some games special and memorable while others are just another reason not to jump. At least until you can view it in retrospect. Then let the assumptions and analyses fly!

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