Monthly Archives: February 2013

PlayStation 4 And The Necessary Hardware Divide

PlayStation 4 and the Necessary Hardware Divide

It’s been over a week since the PlayStation 4 announcement/event/meeting/whatever Sony is calling it nowadays, and there’s been a lot of interesting fallout. Tech industry folk were disappointed that they didn’t get to see the actual console, game industry folk were excited at the proposition of new games, and developers loved the thought of an x86 architecture. There’s been a question, though, that’s floating around. It comes and goes in the middle of conversations but it never seems to be the point of any of them, perhaps because it’s an arcane inquisition of parents and People That Don’t Understand.

Why do we need a new console?

Back when we were jumping from 8 bits to 16 bits and 16 bits to 32 bits, the reason for a hardware refresh was obvious and almost immediate. No one really ever questioned the notion of selling a new machine to play new games. The developers did their thing and the consumers got their stuff, so it seemed rather moot to battle this established (albeit relatively fresh) order.

This latest generation of consoles, though, doesn’t provide that same immediate revelation of existence. To most people who don’t care about streaming games or spend an inordinate amount of time demoing and downloading games or even just reading about the industry, the thing that stands out most when comparing consoles is the graphics. It’s definitely an incredibly superficial thing to do, but what else is there to judge beyond the surface when all you know is that Mario is a plumber and Sonic is a hedgehog?

And that PS4 event didn’t show much that those not in the know wouldn’t understand. Knack is interesting because it will ostensibly support thousands of complex objects in any given scene instead of the current few hundred. That Media Molecule thing is cool because of its technical implications for development processes and opening people up to a digital artistic medium. But nothing showed would categorically WOW the muggles.

That’s not to say, however, that it’s limited to people interested in games that don’t understand the hardware cycle. This goes beyond the parents that ask their kids, “What do you mean a new machine? Are you saying you have to buy new discs? But you’ve got dozens already!” Let alone that the concept of backwards compatibility is a somewhat unprecedented concept in the world of consoles (it used to be that you just assumed anything you owned before wouldn’t work with anything you bought later; the fact that the N64 and the SNES both used the same power adapter was HUGE and that the PS2 could play PS1 games was nothing more than a happy accident), the features of a console are as intrinsically tied to the hardware as the hardware itself.

We have Xbox Live, the PlayStation Network, the eShop, and all the social stuff that is tied into that: wallets, trophies, achievements, digital libraries, friends, etc. And all of that, in some ways, is interoperable with the new stuff because they all exist in both spaces; your friends list will undoubtedly transfer over seamlessly.

But what, then, to make of features that don’t match up? The streaming capabilities of the PS4, for example, simply would not be possibly on the PS3. The simultaneous download/play can’t happen either. That is enabled by the hardware, and the hardware is the console. That necessitates the new machine.

You would be surprised, though, that purely software-related aspects have similar clout in that regard. Most of the features of the 360 and the PS3 are nothing more than bolted-on odds and ends that served only fill in cracks that emerged in the dam. Digital downloads were originally intended to be only things in the vein of Geometry Wars—tiny 200MB titles that would works more like Flash games than full retail products. But now the Marketplace and the PlayStation Store both offer full disc-based products, whopping 19GB whales like Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, and neither system’s infrastructure or interfaces were made to handle that.

The 360 has cloud saves but don’t seem deeply connected to the system on any significant, fundamental level. The same goes for PlayStation Plus features on the PS3. PSN has poorly integrated social features simply because they were originally designed to be poorly integrated. For all the complaints you have about how Facebook is disorganized and feels disjointed switching between profiles and photos and events et al., the same can be said about the ecosystems of the 360 and the PS3: they’re nothing more than haphazardly stacked debris to meet the incessant demands of innovation, renovation, and fun.

New consoles, however, give manufacturers a chance to start over. More than anything, the PS4 is a blank slate for Sony (and presumably the Durango will serve the same purpose for Microsoft). All the backend architecture of Live and PSN can be rebuilt with little to no regard for the current setup. Servers will run and APIs will work, but it all works as a Band-Aid that only translates old to new. They will build a shiny new monolith that serves to only cast a shadow over the old one, information flowing in and out of its seemingly endless and impenetrable facades.

Which gives rise to the question of what happens when it ends? When the old Live and PSN stuff is finally scuttled and swept under the rug, what happens to your stuff? Well, that ties back to the notion that backwards compatibility is a modern invention. The amount of hardware devices that feature full backwards compatibility is severely outnumbered by those that don’t. Pre-PlayStation consoles, anything ever played on a phone, arcade cabinets, and now most of Nintendo’s handhelds all serve to only play one specific section of gaming history. PCs appear to be the only safe haven for collection and storage of classics and artifacts.

Evolution is a necessity, and these consoles are evolving. The fact that we have new hardware is just a fact of owning consoles. The question of why we need a PS4 and a Durango is largely pointless. What we should be asking instead is are consoles necessary? That ability to evolve does not guarantee existence. Could we be witnesses to the extinction of a breed of hardware?

That’s a question for another time.

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Tomb Raider’s Killing Curve

Tomb Raider's Killing Curve

Crystal Dynamic’s Tomb Raider, the reboot to the storied classic franchise of yore, is less than a week out, but reviews are already running and they’re looking pretty good. I personally haven’t finished it yet but so far, the reviews match up: this is a fantastic game. The opening is a bit too Uncharted-y for its own good, but a stride is found, hit, and stridened soon after. There’s even a bit of Sleeping Dogs in there where it has a very realistic veneer but most of the internal workings are a bit goofier and more cartoonish than you’d expect (which I feel works is this case).

However, there’s one part that kind of sticks out at me and based on conversations I’ve had with other people that have played Tomb Raider, mine isn’t the only craw it’s found its way into. For all the drama that surrounded the marketing of this game from the seemingly unintentional but still sexist comments from executive producer Ron Rosenberg to the sexual assault scene, the fact that they decided to bring Lara Croft back to human roots of being vulnerable and new to the world of being a tomb raider/killer was a good decision in my eyes. The part that isn’t so good is how they did it.

Which is to say that they kind of didn’t do it. Lara does indeed start out inexperienced in the matters of taking lives and general survival, but she quickly steps up her game to Master Chief-level stuff. Her first kill definitely does what the designers and developers intended, which is to shock and disturb you as a player. It’s supposed to be a striking contrast, crossing that line from thinking to doing without any of the former, and you’re supposed to be shaken up—I know I was. It is almost the complete opposite of Hotline Miami where you start out numb to the macabre acts played out at your hands (only to get number).

But not five minutes later, Lara has killed many more times. The act of killing a man with her bare hands apparently no longer fazes her. I understand (the implicit notion) that Lara is one of those sorts of people emerge as an unwittingly cool customer under pressure where if it’s him or her, it will always be her that comes out on top, but there is no transition. There is no curve. According to Tomb Raider, the learning curve for killing is less of a continual slope and more of a sharp drop into easy sailing. Granted, that initial plunge is a huge hurdle, but after that, taking lives is as easy as breathing.

This rang a familiar bell to me and probably did for a lot of other people, too: Far Cry 3. The protagonist Jason Brody is stuck on a pirate-infest island where mercenaries and tigers basically set the rules and he must rescue his friends from some largely unseen evil clutches. He goes almost immediately from dudebro that has never killed or even thought about killing a man since that would take away precious mental processes from thinking about skydiving and saying things like “let’s crush it” and “get your pump on” to a well-oiled death machine.

There’s similar drama, too, surrounding Jason’s first kill (as well as the rest of the game). It’s definitely not has heavy-handed nor as impactful as with Lara, but the intent is the same; we’re supposed to see that murder changes a person and it isn’t to be taken lightly regardless of reason. The messages are ultimately different (or from what I’ve heard as I have yet to finish Tomb Raider), but the point is made.

The point, however, is kind of dulled due to the bludgeoning rock that is the broken killing curve. Yes, this is a video game, and yes, these games are better served to play the way they do earlier rather than later, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some game out there that could cultivate this notion into its own experience rather than having it play into some overarching design that can barely accommodate it.

It seems that the designers were aware of this, too. Concessions are made throughout both games that seem to acknowledge how they skimp on this established but underutilized inner conflict. For example, both games feature hunting. In Red Dead Redemption fashion, there are animals wandering around the game world that you can kill and skin for either materials (Far Cry 3) or sustenance (Tomb Raider). Without any preface, both Jason and Lara can clean and cut a felled beast with ease, and only later is it revealed through optional or easily missed dialogue that both used to hunt with their families in their younger years. They are both so throwaway that it seems like afterthoughts shoehorned into the game because that was all they could do to justify some of the hyper accelerated capabilities of both protagonists.

Of course, as with the killing and whatnot, this all better serves the game, but is there not a way for this to be incorporated from the get-go? Or maybe somehow used as a narrative mechanic? Here’s a thought: the first skinning of an animal takes time. Like, way more time than a player would be comfortable sitting through. A full minute of watching the character struggle with how to rip the hide off a buffalo, saying something like “I wish I’d gone hunting more with my dad” or “that documentary made this seem so easy.” You know what? Make it a mini game. Make it arduous or difficult but make it mirror the difficulties of the character.

But the next time they skin something, it takes less time. The button inputs or the dexterity requirements of the mini game are lessened. Over time, the mechanic of skinning an animal becomes easier and quicker for you because it would obviously become easier and quicker for the character. They learn, and it comes through in this narrative mechanic. Muscle memory and simplified or streamlined motions kick in and eventually you only have to initiate the process and you’re done. It communicates to you that the character has grown without a single line of dialogue or text and it rewards the player for playing. It’s a win-win.

That is, of course, something that has to be deliberately designed and integrated into a game. Plugging that into Far Cry 3 or Tomb Raider will probably serve only to worsen the experience for players, but what I’m saying is that it’s not impossible to have a game with this gradation of murder instead of a jump and a swim in Death Lake. It’s not impossible to ride the killing curve. It’s just that Tomb Raider doesn’t have one.

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A Tricky Sort Of Game

A Tricky Sort of Game

Deceit is wildly unstable. Leveraged in the proper ways, you end up with things like surprise parties and telling your friend that they totally cook as good—nay, better—as Bobby Flay. You get fun and whimsy and encouragement. The line in the sand, though, is infinitesimally small. The turn from right to wrong is but a single degree off-axis. Then you wind up shot in the head at a drug deal gone awry in the middle of a warehouse in Boston.

I watched The Departed again last night, if you were wondering.

Video games also fall prey to this hair-trigger. Sure, this can mean things like the recent Aliens: Colonial Marines debacle where previews are not what they necessarily seem and games go from seven-year projects to nine-month rush jobs, but that is simply a (overly simplified) facet of what I’m talking about in general: fronting as one thing in the service of being something else entirely. Call it a switcheroo or bait ‘n switch or what-have-you; it’s still a bit of deceit.

The trick, then, is when this hoodwinking is purposeful and with a sizable layer of shellac’d mirth. Reynard the Fox and Br’er Rabbit both are tricksters of this sort. Think about Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream where his shenanigans are the root cause of all the complications and problems in the play, but they also eventually fall out into a happy ending for all.

What brings this to mind is Little Inferno. I played this quite a while ago, but a friend recently picked it up for the iPad. Talking about it, he clearly had not made it to the tipping point of the game. After three hours of burning things and killing screaming marshmallows and stuffed animals, he still had not gleaned much of what lay hidden behind the flickering light.

I’d rather not spoil it if you still haven’t played it, so be wary of this next paragraph: there is a seismic shift in what the game is all about around two-thirds of the way through. You’d just spent hours upon hours hypnotized by the flame enveloping and caressing your duly bought and opened packages. Your neighborhood nudges you. She pushes you and sends you careening off a cliff that soon lands you in a world that is contrasted as the bleak world surrounding you is to the bright and whimsical scenes you’ve crafted in your fireplace.

And that shift is what kicks Little Inferno from a give-it-a-whirl to a must-play. That last minute deke makes the revelation of what the world has become outside of your Tomorrow Corporation (the business in the game that sells everyone their fireplaces) entertainment center. You’ve built this bridge brick by brick and halfway through crossing it, the game smashes it and you fall into a wide open chasm that ends with you taken aback in such a way that it digs into your brain like a redwood’s 2,000-year-old roots.

That is a con of the delightful sort, and it is purposeful. But that doesn’t mean that a malicious outcome lines up with a malicious intent. Sometimes the deception is a product of circumstance and lack of oversight.

Brutal Legend, the 2009 action game from Tim Schafer at Double Fine Productions, is a good example, especially since it just came out for PC again today. Sold at face value, many players expected a very specific experience: metal, Jack Black, and some solid melee combat. What it turned out to be was metal, Jack Black, solid melee combat, and two overwhelming scoops of real-time strategy.

Personally, I found Brutal Legend to be all the way a fantastic game, but the RTS stuff really did throw me for a loop. It was confusing. I had just spent so much of the game dedicating my thoughts and expectations to building on top of what the demo and the marketing had shown me: a humorous, absurd, and tongue-in-cheek action game that will occasionally let me hear Ozzy Osbourne try to talk.

Most people had a rather negative reaction to the shift. It wasn’t malicious, but it also didn’t seem entirely intentional which left a lot of people confused, angry, and resentful. Now that folks know what to expect with years to consolidate what happened with what Schafer has been talking about recently, that hurdle might be one they’re willing to jump.

As for a purely malevolent aim, I’m not sure there is one. I suppose you could argue that publishers that market games they know to be bad and take surreptitious precautions (e.g. no review copies, little marketing, embargoes that lift after the release date, etc.) are knowingly mean, but it only ever seems to be a product of circumstance. As much as most people would like to say Gearbox and TimeGate are evil for loosing Colonial Marines on us, it’s hard to blame Gearbox for (supposedly) choosing to focus on their surprisingly successful Borderlands franchise or pin it on TimeGate for accepting a contract that was ill-advised and possibly beyond their capabilities (supposedly). And besides, no one truly sets out to spend millions upon millions to make a bad game (supposedly).

Then again, it’s rare for a game to make me want to Terminator 2 myself in a vat of molten steel, but here we are.

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The Puzzle of Mystery

The Puzzle of Mystery

Mystery is, unsurprisingly, very mysterious. How it works is largely an unknown. What we want from it and what we like about it are both such largely ambiguous, impossible-to-define things that largely get relegated to something akin to “that feeling” (or dat feeling if you want to be contemporary about it). The unfortunate thing, though, is that we love it. It’s about as hard to pin down as the exact inner workings of love itself, and they’re both things we want to have in our lives.

Back in 2007 in the height of the Lost‘s popularity, J.J. Abrams gave a talk at TED about a box. He talks about a lot of boxes, but only one box really matters. As a child, Abrams bought a $15 grab bag of magic from a magic store called Tannen’s. He’s had it for decades and never opened it. It just sits in his office on a shelf and he’ll look at it every once in a while.

But why?

It’s a fifteen-dollar box of fifty dollars’ worth of magic. He loves magic. So why not open it and mine its gold? Because of one very simple yet incredibly complex notion: mystery. “It represents infinite possibility. It represents hope. It represents potential.” Really, it represents whatever you want it to represent because it is a mystery, and as we all know, mystery can be anything. As Abrams puts it, “mystery is the catalyst for imagination.”

This is because our brains are amazing at filling in gaps. More than anything, the human mind loves to find holes and plug them as if a leaky dam would be the end of the world. If you’ve ever encountered those little Internet things like where you can read a passage where all the inner letters of words are jumbled up (which, as it turns out, wasn’t a real study) or only the top halves are showing or entire words are missing and yet you can still flawlessly process the information, that’s because your brain is liberally applying spackle where it sees holes, and it applies it so quickly, you sometimes don’t even see the patching happen.

We do need, however, things to connect and things to fill. The box is a great representation of this. In fact, dress it up in wrapping paper and put a bow on it; that is the perfect metaphor for properly applied mystery. Interest is inherently piqued because it’s something you can’t see and more than anything, humans desire knowledge. So you approach the box. You peer all around it: to the left, to the right, behind it next to the Christmas tree. Hmm, interesting. You know the box is this big, but its contents could be any size.

Pick it up. It feels hefty. You know of a few things that have this weight to it, but you don’t know for sure. You shake it. It’s solid. Anything brittle leaves your mind. Everything about the box and what it contains informs you to believe it is one particular thing but you can never know because you don’t ever actually open the box. It is a mystery.

Mystery, though, and the permittance to allow that spackling happen seems to be where video games fall short so often. In movies, you often find yourself (or at least I do) thinking about the film long after the lights come up. In fact, I find the first half hour after I leave a theatre to be the most difficult to properly converse with people because all I want to do is think about the mysteries involved. Of course, not all films or television shows do this as some are bad or don’t aim to provoke in that way, but the hit ratio is so much higher in those two industries than I often find in video games.

Assassin’s Creed III, for instance, was the cap to three-plus games of mystery. The first layer lets you look at the box. The first Assassin’s Creed allows you to see it from all angles and the size of the mystery intrigues you. You see it from the front, at first, and it appears to be something of an odd sci-fi tale, but you turn to see it go so much deeper than you thought. Templars? Assassins? It’s a big box.

As the first game draws to a close, you begin to peer up over the top. There’s a little opening, a missed flap that someone forgot to tape down. As Desmond, you stand in your cell and Eagle Vision reveals markings on the wall. What do they mean? Could they lead you to ending this timeless, endless feud? But the game ends. The box is slammed shut. And the mystery? It’s heightened. It is pulled taut.

The second game (or rather, the trilogy of the second game) lets you play with the box. Shake it, roll it, toss it. Possibilities simultaneously appear and erode away, burrowing further into your brain. It does a mighty fine job of giving you just enough away to make the box seem so much bigger than it really is.

And then Assassin’s Creed III just opens it and says sorry. It’s a bummer.

It’s a bummer because when we open the box, all we get is an answer when what we really want is an answer and some questions. It becomes boring when we open the mystery and all we get is a note saying “here’s what happened, here’s why it happened, have a nice life.” It becomes frustrating when we pull off the ribbon and cut the string and inside is just another box that is exactly the same size as the last one.

Surprisingly, DmC Devil May Cry has one of the better reveals of recent memory. For a series best known for its action, it’s entirely unexpected for a revival from a new studio to turn in a success on nearly all fronts. It’s still a rather fresh release, so I won’t go into detail with the ending, but it plays the box well. When the sides fall away and everything spills out, we’re left with an answer…and a box. The answer is big enough to where you could tell it bulges against the sides a bit, but stuffed right in next to it is a smaller unopened box. Right before the game cuts out for the last time, it holds it up, lets you look it at, and then takes it away. One mystery is answered while another is brought to light.

That might be the secret after all to mysteries. It’s giving just enough vines for your brain to swing from but not so many that it’s a wall and not so few that it’s impossible. You need that exhilarating feeling of flying through the air, tethered on by a single thought. Each unproven notion is placed just at your fingertips as you let go of the previous one. There’s that moment where you’re connected to nothing and your mind is swimming, trying to fill the gaps of the mystery. Some games do better than others, just as some films do better than others.

But few do as well as a plain ol’ box.

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The Overt And The Subtle Of The PlayStation 4

The Overt and the Subtle of the PlayStation 4

Last night was the oddly protracted unveiling of the PlayStation 4, otherwise known as the most recent entry in a long line of poorly kept industry secrets. Over a wide breadth of news outlets and, presumably, an equally varied collection of shady, fedora-donning back alley sources, we knew pretty much everything that was worth knowing about Sony’s new console before they wanted the public to know. New controller? Check. Built-in share functionality? Double-check. A smattering of specs? Checkarooney. We knew everything.

Or did we? In a rather quality press event (seriously, compare it to E3 and you’ll be amazed that companies didn’t collapse last June), some surprises lay in store for everyone watching in person and online. Strangely, though, folks managed to miss out on some of the bigger ones in light of flashier announcements. But these are huge deals! Understandably, without some knowledge on the matter, they’re easy to miss, but these do merit some discussion.

8GB of RAM

PlayStation 4 architecture

Quite frankly, 8GB seems a bit like overkill, but the drastic bump is quite important. Consider the fact that the Xbox 360 had 512MB GDDR3 RAM and the PlayStation 3 capped out at 256MB. Megabytes, not gigabytes. That is totally and utterly absurd. But it also makes sense. If you go back and look at interviews with developers are these next-gen consoles, the number one response is invariably something about more memory. They’re tired of delving into the realm of diminished returns with optimizations and hording like animals.

Of course, all 8GB is moot without something that can utilize it, but hopefully the PS4 can deliver on that, too. An 8-core, 64-bit CPU and a GPU capable of 1.84 teraFLOPS just might do it. The jury is still somewhat out on what the Cell architecture is fully capable of, but consider that the PS3’s RSX GPU was doing 400.4 gigaFLOPS. Giga to tera, mega to giga. I think we’re in for something big.

You should also know that the 8GB contradicts earlier leaks reporting 4GB. This is a non-trivial change and probably explains why we didn’t see a console; they’re still working on putting all the stuff in it.

Simultaneous Play/Download

PlayStation 4's second chip

This, on the surface, isn’t that big of a deal. OnLive solved streaming (as much as they could, anyways) and Gaikai improved on all the stuff surrounding it. As much as it can be, streaming a game while downloading it is largely a trivial problem at this point (though, I should point out that “trivial” in this case is very much a relative term to figuring it all out from scratch; it’s still a huge obstacle). This is nothing like what some people thought it was—core engine stuff was downloaded first and then you could play as sequential assets were downloaded—but consider this: in tandem with fast suspend/resume capabilities, is it possible that you could play a streaming game and immediately jump into your local version?

If a whole-cloth dump of memory could be shuttled across Gaikai, could it be possible for the PS4 to fast-load it and launch your local game right where you left off online? This completely eradicates the barrier of traditional demos. Before, those little slices would begin and end and you would have nothing to show for it except 15 or so minutes of boredom once you play the retail version. If this is the case (or even if it’s not since I guess you could just keep streaming and achieve the same thing, but if you can get better quality, you’ll want the better quality), it becomes an impulse purchase. Buying and downloading a full game after its trial becomes as easy as picking up a pack of gum in the grocery store checkout.

It also goes without saying that the second chip that makes this possible as incredible potential beyond this simultaneous play/download trick. Like, huge.

Media Molecule

Media Molecule at the PlayStation 4 reveal

A lot of people hemmed and hawed at Media Molecule’s demonstration yesterday. It was predictably cute but it was also unequivocally a tech demo. Untitled and utilizing something that even Sony seems to have forgotten about—the Move—it was pretty unclear as to what Media Molecule was doing besides showing off how much fun it is to work at Media Molecule.

But if you’ve ever done any 3D digital modeling, you’ll immediately understand the possibilities of what they showed. It’s ZBrush but with a real world sculpting analog. Instead of manually adding basic shapes and nudging things around, you can now immediately sculpt a rough mesh of your final design and then delve into it afterwards for finer tweaks. This eliminates hours of work out of the 3D sculpting process.

And then all the puppetry stuff seems like something Media Molecule (and possibly only Media Molecule) could turn into a game. Charming, whimsical, and fun. Is there any other way to describe them? Well, besides “the new Nintendo.”

Just kidding!

For now.

No Price, No Date

PlayStation 4 release window

Not showing a console isn’t that big of a deal. I imagine the people that wanted to see it are the same people that don’t fully understand that since the start of this generation with the Xbox 360, service now trumps hardware. Every single time. It wasn’t just that the 360 was cheaper, launched first, and had the first indie star of the generation in Geometry Wars, but it also had Xbox Live. It was a paid service, sure, but it also was better than the PlayStation Network in almost every way.

That’s not to say, however, that hardware doesn’t matter. If Sony dicked around on stage for two hours last night and didn’t reveal any specs, the fans and press would be lambasting them across the board. However, they did, but they held back two key points: price and date. Why? Because Microsoft.

Microsoft has yet to announce its new console. Very little is known and the only thing we’ve got so far is some unconfirmed rumors outside of the Sony event last night about something in April. Who knows, but now Sony has the upper hand. It’s a very small, slight advantage, but I’m guessing they’ll take it where they can get it.

Getting out of the gate isn’t as important this time around as it was last time (last launch was still very much a Wild West sort of milieu with impulses and curiosity largely driving consumer decisions; this time will be much more measured), but I can pretty much guarantee you that the PS4 will launch in November before Black Friday. But if Sony decides that they need the edge, they can maneuver the PS4’s release date according to what they see from Redmond.

As for the price, well, it’s pretty much guaranteed Sony will be taking a loss on the PS4. Like, a big loss. The only question is how big. If Microsoft announces something high, Sony can go slightly higher without much recourse and stop some of the bleeding. Otherwise, they’ll have to match Microsoft and hope they can recoup on software during the holidays. This event was definitely a power play, but it was also not without its safety nets.

Watch_Dogs Security Camera

Watch_Dogs at the PlayStation 4 reveal

I’m not sure if you noticed at the very end of the Watch_Dogs demo, but when the game zoomed in on the security camera as the player was escaping on top of the train, a word popped up over it. No, not a world: a name. It is the gaming handle of Frag Doll Edelita Valdez, otherwise known as PixxelFD. Apparently that camera was controlled by another player in realtime, even as the player was walking around down in the streets doing his protagonist thing. Um…WHAT.

Strictly speaking, this isn’t a PS4-exclusive thing (at least, I don’t think it is), but it is a really interesting thing to keep in mind the next time they show off Watch_Dogs.

Wrap-up

Those were some of the less discussed aspects of last night that I found really interesting. The big stuff like the share button and Ustream partnership, Bungie’s Destiny, and Mark Cerny’s both soothing and unsettling voice are all the talk around the water cooler, but some of this small stuff is too good to let slide under the rug.

Of course, it wasn’t all puppies in top hats and rainbow ice cream last night (see: Square Enix, Blizzard, and remarkably unremarkable first party offerings), but there’s so much time between now and launch. PAX East will undoubtedly house some more announcements either to continue the buzz or subvert Microsoft and E3 will almost definitely have some big news. Of course, remain skeptical since nothing has been put in our hands like with the Wii U announcement, but so far the PS4 seems promising.

That is unless you’re John Teti.

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A Beautiful Cacophony

A Beautiful Cacophony

The human brain is nearly three pounds of strange, amazing, and sticky stuff. As a people, we’ve had brains since, well, forever, and we’ve attempted to study it for almost as long, and after thousands and thousands of years, we still don’t know what it does exactly. We know certain parts have dominion over certain aspects of our personalities, our physical capabilities, and our mental capacities, but so much of it remains a mystery.

One part of that unknown sector is something called fast thinking, a concept usually attached to slow thinking. It’s explained fairly well in this YouTube video, but allow me to break it down quickly: fast thinking is instinctual and sometimes irrational. It operates on the assumption that receiving input and dumping output as quickly as possible is the most important thing. It’s how you can tell Garfield is orange without focusing on his fur and thinking, “under all that lasagna, I can see that his fur is orange, therefore he is orange.”

Slow thinking is the complete opposite of that (duh). Slow thinking operates entirely to get everything right 100% of the time. If you see a complex math problem, your fast thinking tells you that intense cerebral activity will be required to solve this mathematical conundrum, but your slow thinking is what actually helps you figure out the value of X and Y. Consider your favorite video games news outlet. Dozens upon dozens of posts are put out each day with minimal friction between receiving news and it hitting the front page. Features and reviews, however, take time and consideration. That is the difference.

The contrasting qualities of slow and fast thinking (originating from a book called Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman) flared up while I was playing Proteus. Going through that pixelated, Willy Wonka-colored world forces you through a process, one similar to the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief.

No matter how open-minded you approach Proteus, there is a moment in the beginning where you think “well, this is isn’t a game.” I’d heard many good things about Proteus and approached it knowing that weird little exploration titles like this one are my bread and butter, and I still had that thought. The controls seem perfunctory to the experience; why not just turn this into screensaver and call it what it really is?

As you approach the island from the water, blips and bloops and dinks and thonks slowly rumble up into your aural periphery. It is a discordant affair, each noise generated seemingly at random to only serve the silence in its wake. It feels like someone shoving dry spaghetti into your ears—too fast and too much at once. An annoyance comes over you, a slight indignance.

But that is your fast thinking taking hold. It is the irrational part of your rational being that is speaking out against everything you are experiencing. The quick, reactionary part of your brain says that games have explosions and cars and guns and characters that lack depth and show no personal growth. It is telling you that music have an immediate semblance to resonant harmonies and an overarching melody.

That, however, is not what Proteus is about. Proteus does not fit into the small window of what your fast thinking can parse and comprehend. Proteus was made for your slower, deliberate side. If you manage to stick with the game, a resignation washes over you, not so much in defeat but in acceptance. Bits and pieces from your fast thinking’s Hulk-like smashing come back together in a T-1000 fashion. The muddle together at first, but once whole, a new, unforeseen image takes its place.

The abstract blocks that your brain initially dismissed as colored squares of nonsense take shape: trees, frogs, and bees, yes, but also a lively world full of twittering movement and personality. Things you’d previously associated merely as concepts of forms familiar to you take on a life you didn’t know existed on that little slab of land. A narrative slowly builds in your mind of a complete and yet impossible-to-know history of the creatures and seasons and landmarks you encounter.

A filter gradually sifts out all the noises you here, too, into aural slots, a sort of innate quantizing that happens regardless of will. Greater than any other ability or attribute, the human brain is best at making sense of nonsense. It will attempt metaphors and analogies, rearranging thoughts and experiences to fit a mold that may intrinsically not make any sense at all, and that’s what happens with the beautiful cacophony of Proteus.

It eventually becomes your personal soundtrack. Randomly generated, your movements and choices create new tracks and remixes based on the predetermined interactions of what the island can gin up. Rain drops become hi-hats, pitter-pattering to a spritely tune you’d just discovered. A dark world creeps up as you approach an unknown monolith, darkening the minor key horizon. Cadences and rhythmic harmonies are created out of a jungle of nonsense because you slow thinking can rationalize it, metabolize the nonsense that your fast thinking swallowed and spit out.

The final stage, of course, isn’t acceptance. After all that subliminal subterfuge of rational battling the irrational, the slow versus the fast, we arrive somewhere entirely different from where you’d expect. Your instincts tell you one thing: this isn’t it. Proteus isn’t a game you’d want to—let alone be able to—experience. It is a stack of irregular blocks that look like nothing more than a teetering tower of crumbling physical reactions.

Consideration, however, tells you otherwise. An open mind and a trusted exposure to the mishmash of noise and pixels tunes you to a new frequency of appreciation and understanding. Step back and you see not a falling travesty but the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Bask in the rays and you don’t see a dim, nigh grave portrait of a woman but the Mona Lisa. Open yourself to Proteus and you don’t get a shaken jar of broken stimuli but a symphony, a story, and a game that teaches you slow thinking is sometimes good thinking.

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400 Years In A Single Proteus

400 Years in a Single Proteus

Proteus is a very short game. Or rather, it’s a very quick thing as some people would hesitate to call it a game. For all the wandering and pointless frog-chasing and bug-fleeing I did, the entire experience wrapped up in a mere 45 minutes. There were confusing moments when I thought parts of the game were broken (they weren’t) and when I didn’t understand how the island worked (I’m a dummy) but nothing truly impeded me so much as to call it a deliberate challenge traditionally associated with a video game.

For those that are unaware, Proteus is a strange little indie game from Ed Key and David Kanaga. In it, you explore a randomly generated island that seems to only produce strange, spritely sounds and impossible-to-capture, occasionally glowing creatures. You find strange clusters of odd statues and towering trees that vilify the landscape. You’ll also find transcendent spots of what can only be described as Disney-esque magic and wonder.

Of course, when I say “you,” I mean the literal You and not some You that is a digital representation of a person on this (500) Days of Summer-infused clump of rainbow dirt and singing plants. As pointed out in a trio of “artisanal” reviews from Ian Bogost over at Gamasutra, you don’t exist in Proteus. In fact, “there is only an island,” and “Proteus is a game about being an island instead of a game about being on one.”

Every action you incur or witness is something that came from the island, its genesis laying somewhere deep within its creaky trees and mysteriously snow-capped hills. When the seasons change or the sun sets and the moon rises or low clouds roll in and cover everything with dripping notes of a mostly random melody, it has less to do with that you did anything and more that you simply happen to be there to witness it. This island, with all its complexities and infinitely melancholy emotions, is something that just exists, immune to changes while still mutable to a cyclical existence.

It actually reminded me of a Flash game I recently played called 400 Years by a fellow named Scriptwelder. It’s an incredibly brief game (as are most narrative Flash titles) about a, uh, statue(?) that wants to stop an ominously named “calamity.” The only problem is that said calamity is 400 years away. The intrinsic solution, of course, is that you are a statue. Or whatever. Either way, you’re set for the four centuries and then some.

400 Years is also a very simple game to play—almost as simple as Proteus, which is capable of being controlled entirely through looking with the mouse and the left-click button. In 400 Years, you can move left, move right, pick things up, put things down, and wait. In the grand scheme of things, the picking up/putting down of objects is perfunctory since they are actions meant for very specific instances where they are less options and more compulsory inputs to progress the game, so now you have movement and waiting.

Movement itself isn’t really about the distance traveled, though. Quite literally you will move from point A to point B, but 400 Years isn’t about that. It isn’t even about the 400 years between the start of the game and the impending calamity; it’s about the waiting. When you hold down the space bar, time whizzes by. It’s like you are watching a movie in fast forward, the cycles of the seasons and nature moving by at lightning speed.

And it clicks. Or at least it did for me. The waiting isn’t standing idly by; it’s the statue’s life. There’s this notion that life seems to go faster as you live longer because each day is an increasingly smaller portion of your overall days lived, and by that statue’s count, each day is like a snap of the fingers. Blink and a year has gone by. A village you watched learn how to plant wheat is now a thriving community that itself is now helping you (unknowingly, but help is help). Your observations are nothing more than the CliffsNotes of this statue’s life, your interactions nothing more than the step controls of a VCR stuck in forward.

Proteus, in that regard, has found a kindred spirit of games. Its island is nothing more than the needle of a compass, pointing forward as the world around it swirls and spins. It is a bookmark that doesn’t move, where the pages sifts around it as the reader watches this tome mingle with itself, just as this statue and this world of 400 Years presses forward (and only forward) at the insistence of its patient, existentially detached observer.

Neither game is about you. There is no you. Much like Michelangelo set David free from his stony cage, Proteus and 400 Years existed long before its developers or you came about. They just let you look for a while.

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A Generational Gap

A Generational Gap

You may not be aware of it, but video games change a lot and quite often. The industry is pretty much unrecognizable from what it was just a few years ago. Going even further back, businesses and products are now an apples-and-oranges comparison. As you wind back the clock while ours incessantly ticks forward, the Venn diagram of now and then drifts further and further apart to the point where they are almost two distinct, separate rings. That sliver of similarity hinges on the fact that we still call them games.

We just don’t notice it because we see it every day (or at least I assume you do since you’re here on a rather niche website reading about a nice topic). Like how you don’t notice that your little German Shepard has grown to Fenrir-sized proportions, but when your friends come over, they’re taken aback by the fact that you now house a small horse in your apartment instead of the tiny little puppy they saw four months ago. Your relative increments in difference are minute, easily crossed in a commensurately tiny step; theirs is a god damn canyon that only David Copperfield could manage.

If you want proof, I’ve got it. Two years ago, Dan Ryckert over at Game Informer started a little video series called Dan and His Dad. It was established on the simple premise that his dad, while knowing of video games doesn’t necessarily know anything about them (the announcing post was entitled “Watch Me Make My Dad Play Games He’ll Hate” if that paints a better picture for you). I watched them at the time and they’re pretty good stuff since they’re both pretty entertaining fellas, but I’d largely forgotten about them since then.

That is until people, for some reason or another, started tweeting about it. Or rather, one video in particular: the one where they play Heavy Rain, the 2010, uh…actiony adventure game from Quantic Dream. Watching the video, it’s easy to understand why people still like to talk about it; both Dan and his dad are pretty funny people. It’s very different from Two Best Friends Play! in that Dan never gets frustrated with his dad (I mean, I’m sure he does, but that’s not the crux of the humor) and most of the joy isn’t derived from half of those involved yelling at the other half. It’s more that his dad is a very odd mix of open to all comers but still highly critical in an absurdist sort of way. I mean, they spend most of the video talking about or thinking about grapes, so absurdism is definitely at play here.

What sticks out about this particular video, however, is that somewhere along the way from waking up in bed as Ethan Mars and getting dressed, Dan’s dad gets stuck. He doesn’t get stuck in the sense that he doesn’t possess the skill to progress but rather he gets hung up on the notion that he can lean against the balcony railing and look over his backyard. “I’m doing what it’s telling me to do,” to which Dan replies with, “it’s not something you need to do that progresses—it’s just something you can do.”

That is something that seems to be epitomizes the generational gap in understanding how video games work. For all the crap we give games nowadays about being linear, we forget where the industry came from a scant three to four decades ago. Call of Duty, sure, has you mostly funneling down hallways and conveniently closed streets, but games of the arcade generation had its own way of linearly guiding you through its digital wares.

Through limitations in mechanics, games of yore would force your hand in the matter. Pac-Man, for instance, really only has one mechanic, and that is to move in one of four directions or not. Your experience is shoehorned into what you can accomplish in these four actions and one inaction. In Donkey Kong, you have cardinal movement and you can jump, but you must always be aiming to move up. With Frogger, you are once again relegated to only movement, but at least you have a directional goal now.

Of those three examples, only Pac-Man gave you the freedom to choose how you went about attaining your goal of collecting all the dots, but you are literally put in a gridded maze that limits your movement. Donkey Kong and Frogger both have only one way through and that is forward (or upward, but really it’s the same thing). These are distinctly linear games.

That isn’t a knock against any of them as they rely on being linear; the joy in playing those games is the moment-to-moment decision you have to actuate or not actuate an available mechanic in rapid succession. It is, in many ways, why people find the aforementioned Call of Duty games so fun. The difference, though, is that whereas every mechanic is a necessity in the starved palette of input options with older games, modern games have a bevy of controls. They are a veritable deluge of possible inputs that you have to mentally network up between your eyes, brain, and fingers.

Most of them, though, aren’t necessary. You can play all of Medal of Honor: Warfighter without ever meleeing or crouching or throwing a grenade or any other number of things you can do in that game. Warfighter still operates under the “you start here, now go here” goal as Donkey Kong and Frogger (with some enemy elimination from Asteroids and Pac-Man) but with a myriad of ways to accomplish it in terms of mechanics. With those arcade titles that Dan’s dad still primarily and nigh wholly—and presumably—associates with video games, you had an analogous freedom of movement but a bare-bones scope of interactivity (which was a serious problem with some of those more scripted sequences in Warfighter, but that’s a discussion for another time).

That seems to be the greatest portion of the gap in generational understanding of how video games work. It’s not that those of yesteryear aren’t accustomed to utilizing physical input and receiving digital output (though I’m sure that’s part of that massive expanse) but rather the plethora of possible input/output combinations is not what they associate with how video games work. In arcades when the industry was first burgeoning—before it could even be called an industry—you had a stick. Then you had a button, maybe two. Or maybe they took the form of a steering wheel with some pedals or a light gun, but the point is that from screen to eyes to fingers back to the screen, the total permutations were limited and almost all were essential.

Today, we deal with arguably an overflow of those combinatorial options. One of an infinite number of outputs comes into our brains, we process it, and then a similarly overflowing number of responses are at our hands for dealing with things we’ve often never seen before. Now whether or not this is good or bad is up for debate (and largely based on context of both the game and the action), but it is a drastic change from what used to constitute a video game’s interactivity. And boy howdy do I sometimes miss that simplicity.

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The Atomic Unit Of Games

The Atomic Unit of Games

Listening to a recent Idle Thumbs episode (the one with The Fullbright Company’s Steve Gaynor), a reader asked a question that prompted an interesting notion from Chris Remo: atomic units. In the context of the response from Remo, he was saying that Tetris is basically a fundamental concept in video games and called it “atomic,” an implicit analogy to how atoms are pretty much the base unit for matter composition. It was a simple, almost throwaway line, but it really made me think: are there things in video games we can call atomic?

If your first instinct is to bring up subatomic particles, then all you’re really doing is building the case for the answer to be in the affirmative. Just as there are protons and electrons and so on and so forth, Tetris can similarly be divided in its atomic state to sub-elements. Blocks, for instance, are in probably every video game ever made. Scores are a staple that have been around from the get-go and don’t look to be going anywhere any time soon. We can easily (and almost trivially) subdivide Tetris ad infinitum to fit the subatomic structure. But that’s not what’s interesting here.

More so we’re talking about the conglomeration of indivisible concepts that, once gestalt and made whole, are nigh inseparable as a new idea, such as Tetris. These new ideas cannot be effectively reduced any further. Tetris has been the base of many composite ideas over the years. Many of them are still well within the realm of puzzle games, but that doesn’t stop them from being based on Tetris. It has given way to everything from Dr. Mario to Puzzle Fighter to every match-three game you see today. Tokyo Crash Mobs is built on top of Zuma and Luxor, but it all can be boiled down to the atomic unit of Tetris.

This, perhaps, is what we talk about when we discuss video games reductively. When we say Punch Quest is simply Canabalt but with punching or Jetpack Joyride is Canabalt but with jetpacks, we are really saying that Canabalt is the atomic unit of endless runners. Canabalt is the basest of endless runners because it is pure in its intent, which is endlessly run and jump to avoid falling or crashing to your doom. Anything that Canabalt has to offer is what makes up the endless runner atom.

Then in reductive conversation, we can easily identify those atoms. The combat system in the Arkham series has become atomic. The way crowds sift into singular attacks that prompt rhythmic, univalent responses can be found in Captain America: Super Soldier from 2011 and in Sleeping Dogs from last year. That has become the rhythmic response combat atom.

Denoting types of atoms is an interesting subject, too, which is to say that each composition of subatomic particles results in a different element. In that same way, the subatomic parts of gaming come together to form different atoms. Going back to Canabalt, its subatomic parts are running and jumping, but so are Mario‘s. So are every other action or adventure game ever made, but put together with forced scrolling, we have the endless runner atom.

You’ll notice, though, that this is not new. Super Mario World actually had these bits and pieces before in levels that had forced scrolling, but that also had enemies and a goal and so many other things that it is a conglomeration of other atomic pieces. Distilled to its essence, Canabalt is the endless runner base.

New atoms are discovered (or created, depending on your philosophical stance on the subject), too. Speaking to the recent Dead Space 3, it caps of a trilogy that created the methodology of creature-killing that depends solely on dismembering enemies. Necromorphs, the zombie-ish foes lost in space that Isaac Clarke finds himself to be fighting interminably, can only be defeated by shooting off limbs one at a time. This is something that hasn’t quite made it into other games (the shooting of enemies being a subatomic particle), but that doesn’t mean it won’t. Not all atoms are in all matter, after all.

Perhaps that’s why we get so excited when something new comes along like the active reload from Gears of War or the aforementioned dismembering combat style of Dead Space; it’s because it’s a discovery. It is analogous (if not tantamount) to the actual discovery/creation of new elements in the real world. We are part of the process when we take part in games that bring to light these new atoms of the table of gaming elements. We can see the fundamental framework in which our digital worlds work and we know what has been made from them.

But we don’t know what can be made, and that is so very exciting.

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A Sense Of Place

A Sense of Place

For being totally and utterly at the mercy of the whims of any number of artists and creative types, video games sure can be boring. Or rather, they sure can look boring. Though nothing explicitly ties our little interactive industry to realism, we still adhere to it, and for good reason: it helps keep an already abstract thing relatable. That doesn’t mean that instigating the feel of otherworldliness should be taken off the table, and yet it seems to always be kept out of reach.

There’s a fellow named Jon Brouchoud. He describes himself as a freelance architect and 3D designer and he wrote this thing about architecture in video games. He admits it himself that the post is “disjointed and meander”—as mine sometimes are—but he brings up several good points, most of which are backed up by literature and photographs.

Most structures and buildings and landscapes in games are designed by artists, not architects, which usually means that many fundamental elements are missing. The examples Brouchoud uses include how digital courtyards usually lack a spatial anchoring point like a monument or statue and how buildings almost always go straight into the ground without a plinth (the slab upon which things are built). The first one helps orient people as they wander around, whether in the virtual or the real world, and the second can help convey a subconscious notion of quality. They are small things but pile up enough pebbles and you have a mountain; these details matter.

Then those artists’ renderings have to go through several layers of mashing and bashing by technical artists to make it into the game under memory and level design constraints. That is a problem where technical limitations take precedent over the artistic. Either the console or the engine or something can’t handle the design as the original artist intended or the gameplay itself will suffer for strict adherence to the art. The artistic design is first to go because that is, by and large, not what makes the game go; it not crashing or it being playable is.

The biggest problem, however, that Brouchoud correctly points out is that most video game architecture lacks a sense of place, and that is what architecture is at its very core, at its very essence. Even from the scant few years I spent thinking I wanted to be an architect, one of the first things impressed upon you through teaching and reading is that this is a practice that is hard to define. It is mostly about buildings and how they are built, yes, but it is also about how everything around a building—the trees, the type of brick, how the walkway stones are laid—comes together to induce a very specific feeling.

Frank Lloyd Wright is famous for this. He manages to marry many psychological and artistic concepts together in his designs that many of his pieces are still revered and studied to this day. Many of his buildings have a structure to it that you would find in narratives or music where there is a build and a reveal and climaxes and so on and so on. Wright’s foyers open gradually and layer on spectacle until grandeur hits in a Skrillex-esque drop of awe. Our eyes are drawn along directing lines that make us think or move a certain way and then expectations are simultaneously met, exceeded, and defied.

That is what video games are missing. We are missing that narrative structure in our designs (and, in some cases, our narratives). This is why sewer levels are universally abhorred; they are so one-note. You enter underground and you don’t come up until it’s over. It’s the same as if you were punished with busywork at your 9-to-5 where you keep your head down until it’s quittin’ time.

The underground section in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, for instance, almost single-handedly ruined what was an otherwise excellent game. There was no structure or sense of place down there. Hallways and corridors lead right back into hallways and corridors you just saw and nothing is ever built up in anticipation and nothing is ever resolved. You are simply down in a place with no lights and it kind of sucks. You have nothing to orient yourself with and everything just feels the same.

Contrast that with Dead Space 3. The ice planet is, well, kind of forgettable, but the space bits are most excellent because the design itself of wandering has pacing and beats to hit and feels more than the sum of its parts. You start out in a room that, relative to the rest of the ship, at least has some light. While not a guarantee, we psychologically feel safer in a well-lit environment, and this room provides that. As we open the door and step out, we see a claustrophobic, dark hall, and it instinctively feels dangerous. We are hesitant to even leave the light because the little lizard part of our brain is telling us to stay in the light.

We trudge forward, cautiously, until the inevitable jump scare hits. Tension has been building and building and suddenly there is an immense release of adrenaline to meet the fright of a necromorph trundling and screaming towards you. The battle over and hearts still pounding, we come across another door and open it: relief. It is an airlock and we are sucked into the serenity of a silent space and slow, soothing movements of free-floating debris. Air rushes by you into the vacuum, as does all your tension.

That is a narrative in microcosm. We have build up, climax, and denouement. It is the perfect representation of how the architecture of the ship and feed into the gameplay and reinforce how we feel about the simple act of exploring or playing the game.

This feel trumps many of the things that games otherwise recklessly and heedlessly try. The Syndicate remake from last year, for instance, tried many things in terms of architecture and, for the most part, failed at inciting any sort of sense of place. Things looked futuristic, but that was about it. The light bloom and lens flares all checked the aesthetic points off the list, but the structures were bland and unfortunately normal. Stairs simply led to the second story you can see through the translucent floor, not some unknown room of future tech and tools. Warehouses were floating in the sky, but they sort of felt like normal warehouses with encompassing structure of industry.

The slums, if anything, were where Syndicate succeeded. Everything felt rundown and gross, and the way multiple floors fed into cluttered, broken-windowed hallways only to open up into wide-open but caged courtyards had the perfect mix of fancy and trashy to really give you the sense that these buildings used to be something more than monthly leased coffins and drug dens.

Don’t take it to mean that the actual framework of video game buildings are lackluster because they are not (Mass Effect and Halo have giant planet-humping monoliths for goodness sake). But that doesn’t mean that they are good at giving the player a sense of place, which is what really lies at the core of architecture. Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days actually was one of the best at ginning up that feeling despite being based in the preset, real world. Architecture is more than foundations and beams and roof styles. Architecture is about making you feel like you’ve gone somewhere you’ve never been, the same feeling that video games should be the best at. So why aren’t they?

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