Monthly Archives: April 2013

According to Some Plan

According to Some Plan

There’s something to be said for when things go according to plan. It feels extremely validating when machinations are perfectly executed and go off without a hitch. Every single thing happens when it is supposed to happen or not happen and you arrive at your goal without so much as breaking a sweat, literal or figurative. Being the mastermind behind some plot is its own reward in many ways.

Sometimes it can feel a bit like riding down some snowy slalom course, pivoting and carving out hard turns at an exhilarating speed as powder kicks up all around you. At times you feel like you can’t see the way forward, but you know the plan, you know what you need to do, and you know how to do it. It’s the smoothness of the operation that provides the ecstasy. It’s the inability to pick up anything so much as a bump or kink as you glide down the mountainside. It’s that perfect run.

There is, however, also something to be said for when things go horribly wrong. In fact, there are a lot of somethings to be said about that. Almost every story you’ll ever hear is only about how things go sideways. No Country For Old Men is a story only about how everything goes to shit, just like A Series of Unfortunate Events, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, every play ever written by Shakespeare, and almost anything else you can think of. When was the last time you saw a heist movie where everything went according to plan?

This is largely where video games succeed. Movies, books, and cave paintings all tell a very specific and inherently static story; the author has pre-conceived notions of who does what and when and it’s all laid out in words and images for you. Nothing changes. Even in Choose Your Own Adventure books or the theatrical release of Clue, the beginning, middle, and end are all already set in stone.

That’s why I only say “largely” succeed; video games also tell stories, and the nature of stories is that they start in one place and end up in another and we’ve yet to reach the point of truly and totally dynamic storytelling technologies. What they can leave up to the player, however, is the middle, which is usually the most exciting part of stories anyways. Blake Snyder, screenwriter and author of his seminal how-to book Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, actually calls the middle shenanigans “Fun and Games”, so it should be pretty clear that the middle is open to be manipulated in its most pliable form.

Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine, the latest from Andy Schatz’s Pocketwatch Games, is an excellent example of this. It is a heist video game wherein you and optionally three friends (or enemies or strangers; I won’t judge) attempt a series of robberies. Played from a top-down perspective, you assume one particular role such as a locksmith or lookout and put your special abilities towards aiding your team.

For the most part, each level plays out like a little video game story, a digital and malleable novella. You start out in one place and have to go to another, but the actions you take between those two steps are entirely up to you. You can explore dark hallways and vents or charge straight through from goal to goal and call it a day, opting for the speedy run. The plan is, after all, very simple: get in and get out. Plans, as we know, have a horrible tendency to go awry.

Guards are watching over whatever establishment you’ll be burgling, and they, much like people, rarely act in a predictable manner. They’ll cause you, after minutes of careful observation and patient waiting in the corner, to scream and run away like a spooked child in a game of hide-and-seek. They’ll chase you and you’ll look for a door. You’ll pick the lock and they’ll close in on you. You might make it and you might not. Fuck it just run but oh wait you just ran by your mole and crap there’s a guard chasing him.

The steely cool demeanor of something like James Bond with the slick, quick, and efficient stealth bits shown in mere seconds of jump cuts quickly unravels into that of a Benny Hill skit. It is the little bits of nonsense that permeate the Ocean’s heist movies like the malfunctioning charges and the botched theft of the pinch taken to the ludicrous extreme.

Of course, none of that is exclusive to Monaco, though it does tend to pull it off better than most. Splinter Cell games are fantastic at offering up a rapid succession of tests of chaos management. Hotline Miami thrives on putting you in unpredictable predicaments where your improvisation techniques are just as important as your point-and-clicking skills. Literally flying by the seat of your pants in Super Mario Galaxy as floors and walls evaporate and appear under your feet at some third party’s whim is thrilling in every sense. And all of those offer the same setup and execution: you start at one place, head to another, and then muck about with everything in between.

Friedrich Nietzsche said, “One must still have chaos within oneself to give birth to a dancing star.” Chaos is necessary. Problems are natural. It’s not so much that we must strive for what Nietzsche says but rather accommodate it in our lives. Plans are fine. Plans enable you to get a lot of things done, to check off your entire to-do list. But the fun in books, movies, video games, and life is when things go wrong. And boy do they go wrong.

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An Age of Import

An Age of Import

You never forget your first. Your first time behind the wheel after you get your license, your first broken bone, your first kiss. Major life events are often noteworthy because they happen once or twice over your entire time on this planet, but even the repeated ones get remembered because they have a genesis; an origin. Everything that follows is an epilogue to the weight it bears on your life and the person you become.

Dismissing the maiden voyage of any sort is foolish because you are dismissing precedence and influence. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first Kit Kat, your first pair of shoes with green laces, or first slap bracelet. These set a standard against which you compare everything that follows. And as you regress through your years in your memories, it makes sense that more and more of these seminal events are bundled up with your earlier years.

Those nascent bits are, for the most part, paramount to the later ones simply because they take place in a vacuum. They occupy little space in the grand scheme of things, but when they are the large majority of everything you know, they tend to be important. Picture it as a test tube. It starts out small and empty and you gradually put more and more stuff into it. The volume of the stuff—your memories, your experiences—stays the same but the tube grows longer and longer, able to hold more and more. When the test tube is small, it’s easy to fill it up and each little bit takes up precious space. As it grows, though, it becomes harder and harder to find singularly formative pieces that can fill the void.

That’s why all the video games you grew up with seem to be the most important (and often “the best”) ones to you. Granted, some of those you hold in high regard like Galaga and Super Mario World are actually landmark titles, but the personal value of those games is the important thing here. It doesn’t matter if you grew up on Atari or SNES or 360; what you played as a child will develop your tastes and opinions as you continue to game.

It’s an odd adage of the gaming world that the first Mario Kart you play is your favorite one, but it’s true. While I acknowledge that Mario Kart 64 is a superior product and perhaps the best in the franchise, I will still prefer to race about in Super Mario Kart. It’s way more squirrely than any modern Mario Kart and harder and less pleasant to play, but it elicits a very specific feeling inside of me when I’m puttering around in that Mode 7 world. Sure, it takes me back in the nostalgic sense, but it also reminds me of everything that follows. Playing Super Mario Kart enables me to remember the times I played everything from Mario Kart: Double Dash!! to Mario Kart 7, but it doesn’t go the other way around.

That is, however, a very specific example of a generalized concept. Super Mario Bros. 3, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, and Kirby Super Star all hold up to this ideal. Each first not only informs my opinions of future franchise titles but also those of similar ilk. The definition of what feels like a good platforming jump is what Mario felt like back then. The sense of clearing out dungeons and earning rewards for future explorations go back to my time with Link.

These notions are all forward-facing and can’t be directed back. That’s just not the way it works either psychologically or technologically. Information and capabilities advance so aggressively that it would be unfair to point any of it backwards. It’s much like how many important battles were fought before the invention of the gun, but putting modern day warriors into Genghis Khan’s army wouldn’t make a lot of sense.

Our fundamental games would better be served by not calling them landmarks, however, and instead label them as milestones. As time marches forward, more and more of these influential markers are dropped along the way and each one serves the same purpose as those before it. The only difference is that as you go further along, staking each one into the ground becomes harder. You move from open, soft, pliable land that is rife for soaking in anything and everything to hard, cynical tracts of impenetrable dirt and clay. But when you drop them, you can be sure they carry just as much weight because it’s not just about objective quality but about where you are on this timeline and what it means to your remaining trek. This is how you arrive at an undying love for Journey or an impossible or inexplicable passion for Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.

That’s the odd thing about time, I guess. At certain ages, specific things you thought were important may fade as new ones take place, but the idea that they represent never go away. Road trips are undoubtedly fun but they never match the exhilaration of that drive to your friend’s house to show off your brand new license. You may break an arm or fracture a wrist a few more times down the line but that first cast with all its signatures and scratches represents a frozen moment—a snapshot—in your life. And each kiss, well, maybe some things are always special.

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The Couched Impetus

The Couched Impetus

Did you know there’s a difference between couches and sofas? Despite what you may have heard or surmised after years of experience regarding the two, it’s not just about size nor at all about the price; it’s about the design. Couches were originally designed for Victorian-era women to flop down on after falling ill to wearing-a-corset-itis and hence have no arms and a tapered back. The word “sofa” originates from the Arabic word “suffah,” which describes a bench covered with padding, hence a sofa’s arms and straight back.

Personally, I prefer the sofa because when you cram three other people in there with you while you play video games, everything is a personal vendetta.

Before the advent of the Internet and online shenanigans, video games that featured multiplayer were played in physical proximity to other players by necessity. The phrase “couch co-cop” didn’t exist because it was the only kind of co-op, which is to say you always played together in the same room or on the same couch. Split-screen or shared-screen, it didn’t matter; it was one machine, a few controllers, and a commensurate number for friends/soon-to-be enemies, something I thought about while going through both online and offline play in Pocketwatch Games’ latest release, Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine, a four-player cooperative heist game.

Co-op and multiplayer in the modern lexicon have certain connotations, namely that they are both online. When someone says to you that a game has a cooperative campaign or competitive multiplayer, you just kind of assume they mean through Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network. And I mean, why wouldn’t you? High-speed Internet access is as pervasive as it’s ever been and with UI designed to be specifically seen at a certain size and resolution, it kind of makes sense everyone would play on their own console in their own home on their own television.

The upsetting thing is that this preconceived notion of isolation has broken down certain aspects of multiplayer gaming. The degradation is perhaps most notable in LAN parties. Before everyone had reliable and speedy Internet connections, LAN parties were the only way to guarantee everyone could consistently play and have a pleasant experience; lag would be pretty much a nonfactor.

Perhaps the most important thing, though, is that everyone would be together. I know that sounds super cheesy and comes across as a 70s hippie message, but having the people that you are shooting at and working with all in the same room is a massively different experience than when all you get are tinny, delayed voices coming out of your headset. Now you can catch out of your peripherals the way people lean forward when things get tense or sit back in resignation at a round far out of reach. You can feel as they jitter about, anxious for the next bullet-laden encounter or for the countdown to reach zero. Not only can you hear and see on the screen that they are revving but that they are also feathering every other button on the controller as some arcane pre-race ritual.

This now exists solely among the die-hard. Granted, LAN parties were always something for the more technological and gaming inclined, but it used to be I would need a spreadsheet to track all of the gatherings in a given month. Now I can count exactly one that I regularly attend: QuakeCon. And that’s usually in some work capacity as a journalist (you can read about what it’s like as an attendee over at SB Nation).

What is missed most, though, is the actual act of playing a video game with some other people all on the same couch. Or sofa. Whatever. The important thing is the absolute immediacy of our collective adjacency. LAN parties were great because online multiplayer games have such higher player counts than same-screen multiplayer so it felt an awful lot like playing in an arena that happened to be populated solely by you and your friends, but playing on a sofa with just three other dudes is so much more intimate.

That intimacy leads to a meta game of sorts. Suddenly, not only were able to mentally gauge the situation among your cohorts and competitors but also physically engage with them. Granted, the extreme of this (that is: pushing, shoving, slapping controllers, hitting buttons, etc.) is usually reserved for more lackadaisical settings and more accommodating friends, but even the more moderate utilities are pretty great. Locked side-by-side, foes can’t escape steely stares and heated trash-talk as they can from across a room full of computers, networking cables, and pizza. Partners in crime can give you the most imperceptible of nudges to initiate your favorite predetermined play (The Annexation of Puerto Rico).

It also taught to hold your cards a little closer to the chest. For all the little signs and ticks that you could read off of others, they could just as easily read off of you. If they lay in wait, you sense a calm from their static hands but a great storm of nerves and mild perspiration coming from their body. If you jump, you’ll give away your foreknowledge and you’ll give away what is now your advantage, only to have the pursuit begin anew. Play it calm (or at least unknowing) and their trap becomes your trap.

These are little physical things that are only present in couch co-op, a catchall term that includes any sort of multiplayer in a single physical location rather than strictly meaning cooperative play taking place on a literal couch. And they are things that can’t be emulated once game data is filtered through routers and cables. They may not always be advantageous or even preferred, but they are undoubtedly wholly unique to that setup. That’s why online poker is often viewed as where you hone your gameplay strategies while face-to-face poker is where you hone your interpersonal ones.

I also like that a sofa makes you feel like you’re slotted into a roller coaster. It’s an appropriate metaphor for the ups and down you are guaranteed to experience fighting and conniving with three of your closest friends.

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Why the Hayte(r)

Why the Hayte(r)

David Hayter is doing fine. The man with the vocal chords made of gravel is mostly known for voice acting Snake (and all other clones, descendants, progenitors, etc.) in the Metal Gear Solid series. He defines what it means to be a lone wolf action hero whose philosophical quandaries outmatch his ability to kill a man to many people, perhaps even an entire generation of gamers, developers, and writers.

Hayter has plenty of other things on his plate, though. Aside from a few one-off live action acting gigs and a plethora of other voice acting roles, Hayter is primarily known for his screenwriting. He wrote the 2009 adaptation of Watchmen, X-Men and X2: X-Men United, and The Scorpion King and will make his directorial debut soon with Wolves. What I’m saying is that Hayter is going to be fine not being Snake anymore (if lacking in a few Twitter lessons).

The question, though, is whether everyone else will be.

Late last month, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (and Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes) was officially announced. It featured a lot of what we already knew about the game due to either sloppy secret-keeping, a desire to avoid another Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty switcheroo fiasco, or some combination of the two. It had Snake, stealth, and narrative nonsense translated into visual nonsense—the Kojima mirepoix, as it were.

What it didn’t have, however, was Hayter’s signature voice backing the grizzled war veteran. It’s a testament to how much Hayter has done for the character and the franchise in how quickly and ubiquitously fans were able to point out the fact that it was not him voicing the sneaky, I’m-too-old-for-this-shit commando. Fans were understandably upset.

So imagine how they took it when they found out Hayter wasn’t even approached to voice Snake. Issued through a *shudder* TwitLonger statement—perhaps the most telling sign of the times—Hayter set the record straight: he’d come back from Canada to LA after working on Wolves to find out that voice recording for the new Metal Gear Solid titles had already started. So he talked with someone involved in the production and found out he wouldn’t be needed.

Handled with aplomb and like a consummate professional, Hayter told fans he valued his time as Snake and, given the chance, would keep doing it. “It’s been fifteen years, nine games, and an enormous blast to undertake,” he wrote. “If it were my choice, I would do this role forever.” Of course, that decision lies with Kojima, but Hayter does take time out to thank his fans for sticking by him.

And I’ll admit that I was a bit sad, as well. Metal Gear Solid was actually one of the first non-arcade games I ever went back to beat multiple times, and ever since then, I’ve always gone back for more on every other (console) release. So the nostalgia weights heavy on me, too, but does the voice necessarily make the character?

To an extent, the answer is obviously yes. Even casual observers were quick to notice that Snake simply did not sound like Snake, let alone the sort of folk that have FOXHOUND tattoos. I remember I used to be a huge fan of the Pokémon animated series. I remember I wormed my way out of a day at the mall with my parents just to watch the US premiere episode (which was, oddly enough, not the first episode of the season and really threw me for a loop).

After eight seasons of hearing Eric Stuart and Veronica Taylor do bang-up jobs as Brock/James and Ash respectively, it was shocking to hear them change. They were swapped out after Pokémon USA took over the rights to the anime and aimed to keep production costs low with simple sound-alike voice actors. I was, as much as you can in such nascent years, livid. How dare they tinker with such a perfect show. I couldn’t believe it.

One week later, it never came up again. Unless some friends and I were shooting the breeze over old episodes, it didn’t even bother me. Ash, as much as I loved the character, had changed. He had been shaped, obviously, by the talents and inflections and personal touches of Taylor to become the personality, but the type of character had changed that a new voice actor seemed natural. The Advanced trilogy was over and Ketchum and the game were off to the Battle Frontier; it kind of made sense that this would be the time to recast.

The same goes for Snake and Hayter. The character was obviously cultivated by influences and knowledge and quirks of Hayter’s that no one else could have brought to the table, but Snake is hardly the same person as before. Hell, he literally is not the same person in some cases. I’d like to think of it as if the original voice actor created and crafted and honed the template, and now someone else can fill it and make it their own as well. Narratively, now is the time; Big Boss has been in a coma for nine years (and in Ground Zeroes‘ case, will be right after the aspirations for Outer Heaven come to light), so why not a new voice?

Changing a voice actor is much simpler than changing a live action actor. It takes fans to notice when a voice changes, but it only takes eyes to notice they’ve swapped out Katie Holmes with Maggie Gyllenhaal. And the change itself may not be necessary, but it’s usually more beneficial than diehard enthusiasts are willing to admit. The originals lay the groundwork, the foundation of a character, and those that follow can then build in their stead and create new characters. Don’t get me wrong; I would love to see Hayter return for this and all other Metal Gear Solid games. But war has changed, and so have voice actors.

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When Familiarity Backfires

When Familiarity Backfires

The games industry (along with every other industry and the entire Internet) operates on buzzwords. Every few months or so, the zeitgeist morphs and skews a little to accommodate a new bit of something. The pop culture scoots over and makes room for people to say “power fantasy” or overuse “literally” to the point that both the Oxford Dictionary and Merriam-Webster slapped in the absolutely wrong definition into the global lexicon and called it a day. Before that, it was about “player choice” and “entitled” players.

Over time, these catchphrases become jokes: visceral, cinematic, emotionally engaging. You can basically plot it against the rise and fall of the abuse of the word “epic” (and if you still use it to just mean neat or cool, we’re no longer Internet friends). At this point, I’m guessing the next one will be “ludonarrative dissonance.”

What, pray tell, is ludonarrative dissonance? Well, probably not what you think it means (assuming you think it has something to do with Ludacris). Let’s start with the ludonarrative part. This is a portmanteau of “ludology” and “narrative.” Ludology is the study of games. This isn’t just limited to video games but rather all games so it often includes concepts like audience theory and content analysis. And a narrative is a story, and if you need more explaining beyond that, then you’d better call Jay-Z because you went from zero to 99 in a flash.

Put together, the ludonarrative in a video game refers to the storytelling controlled by the player. It’s the plot equivalent of emergent gameplay, the non-discrete (or at least non-explicit) complex interactions of simple systems and mechanics that unveil new events within a planned framework. This means that every time Mario jumps, you are building some implicit backstory on how this funny little Italian plumber has just the most amazing, Olympian-quality quads and calves.

So ludonarrative dissonance is when your actions contradict the non-interactive story told through a video game’s cutscenes and whatnot. You may recall that this exact problem was something people brought up as a point of contention with Red Dead Redemption: how is John Marston, a man attempting to redeem himself from a life of unsavory practices, able to so easily and recklessly rampage across an entire countryside and still feel like a changed man?

That was in 2010. The term itself was coined in 2007 by Clint Hocking, former creative director at LucasArts and Ubisoft and current designer at Valve, in a review of BioShock, so the concept has been around for quite some time, if simply unnamed. And given that this is the first game since to bear Ken Levine’s massive signature, it seems appropriate that the discussion would come around again. If you look at the Google search trends for “ludonarrative dissonance,” you’ll see that it has reached an all-time high since BioShock Infinite‘s release (the initial spike from May to June of last year was when Tom Bissel mentioned it in his Grantland review of Max Payne 3).

And the discussion with the term has stuck around since then, in no small part, I’m sure, to Conan O’Brien’s Clueless Gamer series in which he, a self-professed non-gamer, reviews a video game. It surely is a frustrating exercise for his well versed Clueless Gamer partner, but when edited for mass consumption, it is hilarious, poignant, and unforgiving. All of the nonsense that we as avid players so easily gloss over and excuse as a necessity of the medium is immediately and harshly brought to light by Conan’s ever watchful eye (and blundering thumbs).

His review of Hitman: Absolution is a great example of this. Conventions of the stealth genre are basically digitized insanity, but we ignore it because that’s how we’ve been brought up to interpret and interact with games. Conan plays it for a minute and quickly and succinctly eviscerates our hallowed tropes.

The practice itself is something brought up in Tim Rogers’ amazing and lengthy review of BioShock Infinite over at Action Button Dot Net. He discusses how he almost uses the shortcut catchphrase of “ludonarrative dissonance” without fully understanding what it means, and when he finds out it isn’t exactly what he thought, he comes up with a new one: ludonarrative interference.

Ludonarrative interference is a convenient phrase for pointing out instances of game-mechanicky elements flopping dead-fish-like at the feet or into the face of the story a game is trying to tell. Ludonarrative interference is when a little taken-for-granted videogame design trope unceremoniously bubbles corpse-like to the surface of a game’s story’s otherwise pristine ocean.

Sound familiar? That is exactly what Conan O’Brien does with Clueless Gamer (as pointed out by Rogers; don’t think I made the connection first). The things we overlook are so easily and frequently noticed by those unfamiliar with the industry and its conventions. How do you carry an entire armory with you in Grand Theft Auto IV without tipping over and collapsing? Who leaves exploding barrels next to stockpiles of munitions inside army bases? How does Link reappear at the top of a bottomless ravine after falling in?

Because no one wants search for ammo in the middle of a six-star shootout, you’ll say. Because it opens up new combat possibilities, you’ll proclaim. Because they can’t go building and designing the bottom of every chasm or not allow you to try to jump it, you’ll explain. And guess what: none of those are reasons. Those are all excuses, and bad ones at that.

The question, then, is whether or not they are necessary. True, all games being designed like DayZ probably wouldn’t be a lot of fun and would definitely be counterproductive to artistic growth as an emerging medium. Having to collect arrows in Shadow of the Colossus would have drastically changed the final product. These are the concessions made by designers and developers to ensure that the player is having fun.

Of course, there isn’t just one way to have fun, and just as that entire nebulous concept is still being figured out, most of us are still trying to get a finger on the pulse of ludonarrative stuff. Perhaps the answer is more consistency; why can I shoot out this wall to destroy and build cover when I can throw grenade after grenade at this potted plant and get nothing but dirt textures in my eye? Does it not bother even the most entrenched of gamers when guards don’t mind fresh pools of blood but freak the fuck out at a clink 50 yards away?

Maybe that’s our fault. Maybe our blind eyes to these most obvious of ludonarrative interferences have cultivated this current predicament—a Gozer of our own making, if you will. Maybe it couldn’t hurt to slip into the shoes of one of those fresh-faced, uninitiated non-gamers and look around at the daily absurdity we witness and are party to.

Or maybe give it like three more months and all of this will blow over.

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A Judicious Injustice: Gods Among Us Review

A Judicious Injustice: Gods Among Us Review

At last year’s E3, you couldn’t escape the Flash. I mean, you can’t really escape him normally but it was especially egregious wandering between halls in the Los Angeles Convention Center last June. Huge, spanning banners for Injustice: Gods Among Us dominated the entire airspace in the walkway between South and West Hall and all I could think was how much I disliked the character design for the ol’ Scarlet Speedster.

Nearly a year later and that much hasn’t changed, though after playing through the entire story, most of the side stuff, and a hefty amount of online multiplayer matches, I’ve decided to set aside my superficial qualms with the game and appreciate it for what it is: a rather fun and mostly unique fighting game with just enough hooks to keep you interested.

That shouldn’t be much of a surprise, though, given the pedigree of the game. Led by Ed Boon, the Chicago-based NetherRealm Studios put out the Mortal Kombat reboot from 2011, which makes sense seeing as how Boon was co-creator of the franchise so many years ago. That was a fantastic fighting game with enough quality content in it for perhaps another one or two releases. The question, then, was how NetherRealm planned on setting Injustice apart from the latest iteration of Mortal Kombat and 2008’s inbetweener Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe.

Injustice: Gods Among Us

For starters, the roster is wildly different; they’re all DC comic book characters. A purely 2D fighter (with some brief background interactions), Injustice features a cross-dimensional war between a prime representation of the DC universe and an alternate one. They are, ostensibly, the same universe save for one crucial detail: the Joker. In the warped dimension, he succeeds in nuking Metropolis, shooting Jimmy Olsen, and tricking Superman into killing Lois and their unborn child. This causes the Man of Steel (and Less-Than-Steely Resolve) to lose it, killing the clown and establishing himself as High Chancellor over the One Earth government where his might guides his rule.

As far as wackadoo comic book stories go, it’s relatively acceptable and even borders on dark and thematically complex (absolute power and whatnot). The tie-in comic miniseries is kind of hard to swallow once you understand how the Joker managed to do all this, but at least they justify most things, even if the justification is a haphazardly explained pill that makes everyone super strong and super durable.

The problem with all the non-fighting stuff is the character designs and development. Personally, I’m not a fan of the armored look on superheroes (I think it makes them look over-the-top and clashes with the idea that all they need are their skills and smarts to succeed). The Flash has claws and Batman looks like Big Daddy from Kick-Ass. And the female characters are, um, salacious, I guess you could say. Sure it’s a trope for fantasy and comic book women to dress in garb ill-suited for combat, but this is kind of ridiculous. Wonder Woman has two bounce houses on her chest and Harley Quinn is basically wearing half a napkin.

Injustice: Gods Among Us

Given the chance to reinvent some of these characters in a one-off and an alternate universe, they all feel a bit standard and stock. They seem to make a concerted effort to make Aquaman come off as more of a badass, but it never amounts to much more than some yelling and trident waving. Cyborg has always come across as a lazy character to me anyways and Injustice doesn’t do much to change my mind. The often muddy textures and flat-looking clothes and faces don’t help the matter, either, nor do the goofy monologues (the voice acting itself, however, is fantastic).

This is, however, a fighting game, so most of that is ancillary to the primary experience offered here. The story does have a nice, satisfying conclusion even if it is all the way predictable, but the gameplay is the meat, potatoes, and part of the dessert in fighting games and Injustice serves it all up rather well. It’s a three-button fighter with light, medium, and heavy attacks and, in a massive shift from Boon and Mortal Kombat‘s wheelhouse, uses back and crouch to block instead of a dedicated block button.

That little fact alone changes most of how the game feels compared to Mortal Kombat, though most of the special and combo moves feel very much like NetherRealm’s more gruesome offering. It’s a lot of down and back or back and forward with some stick presses tied in for combos, but it’s the speed that really makes Injustice go. It will look a lot like your average Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat match when everything is in motion, but it seems like Injustice wants its button inputs as fast as possible. Like, if you could put it in all at once, then it might be happy. This increase in speed on the player side translates to a massively different and much more hectic experience despite the commensurate output.

Injustice: Gods Among Us

That’s not to say, however, it isn’t accessible. The mechanics are simple enough that even newcomers to the genre can pick it up and have fun. Button mashing is a totally viable option for most of the story and, I’m guessing, most of the beginner-only multiplayer lobbies. But the layers beyond that are where it gets interesting. You have unblockable throws that have to be countered with your own throw, overhead smashes for blocks, meter burns on special moves that increase damage, environmental attacks, bounce cancels, and, not least of all, your character power button.

With the simple press of the button, you activate your character’s special ability. For some, it’s simple like with Superman where he gets bonus damage for a little while or Deathstroke who gets longer bursts of gunfire. Others are complicated and introduce pleasant complexities to the proceedings. Green Arrow, for instance, will instantly fire off a shot, but depending on other inputs, could freeze your opponent or set them on fire. Wonder Woman switches from a lasso to a sword and shield and all of her combos and moves change along with them.

All of the inputs for Injustice are simple and straightforward but the interactions between them all make it endless interesting. The one thing that doesn’t work quite so well, though, is the clash system. As your meter fills, you can execute a super move à la Street Fighter, or you can interrupt someone’s ongoing combo with forward + medium attack to initiate a clash. At that point, you select how much of your meter you want to wager in the clash, and the difference in the bets determines how much health the defender gets back or damage the attacker does. It features a nice little cinematic with custom dialogue that matches each duo, but it doesn’t really make for much fun.

Injustice: Gods Among Us

I’ve never had a match that hinged on a clash and instead frustrated me in either having to whittle an opponent’s health back down or charge back up my meter so I can do my super. And all I really want to do in each match is get out my super move because those are ridiculous. They may begin to wear on you after prolonged sessions, but that doesn’t stop them from being great. Aquaman has a shark come bite you in the god damn chest. Deathstroke kicks a freaking sword through your torso. It’s great.

The surrounding accoutrement mostly fits the previous Mortal Kombat template, which is pretty much a good thing. The S.T.A.R. Lab is a direct analogue to the Challenge Tower and is, for the most part, just as fun if lacking most of the ridiculousness. They get tricky, though, and to earn all three stars in the advanced challenges will definitely take skill and practice. Just don’t expect to get any of that in the tutorial.

And the online multiplayer stuff is solid and everything you would expect from a modern online fighting game. Eight players can band together to spectate and chat and fight amongst each other in either one-on-one, King of the Hill, or Survivor matches while an ESPN-like ticker of tidbits scrolls across the screen, detailing how many Nightwings have fought and how many suits of armor have been destroyed. There’s also a really neat little practice arena thing you can do so you can just dick around with other people that has onscreen frame data and favorited moves.

Injustice: Gods Among Us

I’m not sure how much lasting power Injustice: Gods Among Us will have, but for the time you play, it is definitely a good game. It changes enough up to where it doesn’t feel like any other fighting game out there and adds enough NetherRealm flavor to the broth that it still has some heritage. It’s fun to jump in on a fighting game before things get figured out and solved (Deathstroke is a favorite online because no one has figured out how to consistently get past his interminable gunfire), and navigating those wrinkles in this game means a lot of the Flash running around the world to uppercut Sinestro and Batman running you over with his Batmobile, so this just might be one game you don’t want to escape from.

+ It moves fast and plays into skillful hands just as easily as it does clumsy ones
+ The intricacies of interacting mechanics opens up to more nuanced fighting
+ Super moves are ridiculous and I love them all
– Sloppy textures and bland story don’t do much to bolster confidence in the unfortunate character designs
– Clashes seem to only serve to slow down fights

Final Score: 8 out of 10

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Learning Context In Injustice: Gods Among Us

Learning Context in Injustice: Gods Among Us

Fighting games and all that surrounds it is inherently insular. There are no other genres that focus so much on netcode variance and frame counting because no other genres demand it to be successful. Up until the Cross Assault debacle in February of last year, few people even knew that the fighters and fans referred to themselves as the FGC, or fighting game community. It’s not impenetrable by any means, but the effort to get involved does lie squarely in your hands.

That ideal extends to most of the games themselves as well (and, in broader strokes, most other eSports games, but let’s keep it focused for now). I’ve only just started Injustice: Gods Among Us—so expect a review coming soon—since press copies went out in odd phases, but even going halfway through the story mode and a few matches deep into online multiplayer isn’t required to see that it has the same problem most fighting games have, and that’s that they provide little to no context for your knowledge.

Imagine having never seen or heard of a hammer or screwdriver or saw before and someone simply hands you a toolbox and says to build a house. You have all the tools and all the supplies like wood and nails and paint but you have no idea how each piece is used to accomplish the task. A brief tutorial teaches you that hammers hit things and saws cut things, but how do you properly frame a wall? How big do you make windows and how do you make a roof that doesn’t collapse? Do you know how to lay a foundation? All of these are so impossibly important to building a house that is and will stay a house, but you don’t understand how to do any of it because all you have the tools and none of the knowledge.

That’s what Injustice: Gods Among Us‘ tutorial mode is like, though to be fair, that’s what almost all fighting game tutorials are like. I used to be into fighting games (namely the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat franchises) but never to the degree of being competitive; I simply appreciated the pure skill required to become good at them. So my peripheral education of ancillary tactics such as turtling and proper mitigation and use of meter is at best rudimentary, but I can intuit even how most other fighting games work because this base level of knowledge gives them context.

That learning started before tutorials were a standard part of games but continued as they emerged as necessities. As first-person shooters teach you how to aim and that grenades are for lumped up groups of enemies, fighting games provide little more than a bare, interactive instruction manual. Is there any reason why I wouldn’t always use a wakeup attack? Wait, so there are different character types that interact with the environment differently? This lacks, as I said, context, which isn’t all that surprising given this is from a community that often says “three-button fighter” like it was a whole chapter in your How to be a Human handbook.

Of course, that is some of the fun in this and all games: figuring stuff out. It’s fun to learn how discretely listed combos can actually be strung together into mega combos or how you can use environmental bits to launch juggles. It’s fun when you begin to understand how much health you can knock off with each character’s super so gauging when you can end a match becomes almost second nature. Piecing together the basics of some framework into a larger structure of your own creation is what video games are all about.

But a nudge in the right direction shouldn’t be too much to ask for. Throw beginners a bone to know that some attacks are fast and can interrupt other ones that have a longer startup time. Give them a heads-up what the fudge the block advantage number means in the moves list. How about a tip off that the health bars represent rounds of a match and aren’t just two layers of a continuous block of health so maybe don’t use your super when they’re one sliver away from their second bar?

Like I said, figuring stuff out is the inherent fun in video games, but that doesn’t mean it has to be obfuscated or ostensibly insurmountable from the outset. It’s a fine balance to strike between being informative and being annoying, cloyingly hand-holding so that you feel more like a swaddled baby and less like a capable gamer. Fighting games, however, seem to have mostly given up on attempting to find that balance and instead assume you’re knee-deep in the culture already.

Most of us, however, aren’t, and even those of us with at least a working knowledge of the scene either out of work or habitual obligation are feeling a little stiffed on the matter. So how about a little context the next time around, huh? Or I guess I could keep trying to cut this 2×4 in half with a handful of drill bits.

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Nintendo Direct for April 17: EarthBound, A Link to the Past, Bravely Default

Nintendo Direct for April 17, 2013

I’m still not sure how I feel about Nintendo Direct events. First off, they’re super early because of, you know, Japan being so effing far away and I’m not really accustomed to seeing this side of noon, so I’m already off my game. Second, what are the numbers behind these things? I would love to see the analytics that support a single dump that will dominate one entire news day instead of a trickle and roll the dice on several days or weeks. Does Iwata know something we don’t? I bet he does. It’s probably why he wears gloves on streaming press conferences.

EarthBound at Nintendo Direct for April 17, 2013

This particular Nintendo Direct, however, brought some sizable news. Or at least some heavily directed news. In this case, it’s EarthBound, or Mother 2 as it’s known in Japan. A role-playing game for the SNES, it was only re-released after its initial 1994/1995 debut in Japan for the Wii U’s Virtual Console. Now, after a delay in 2008 for the Wii, teasing by creator Shigesato Itoi, and an incredible outpouring from incredibly vocal fans, EarthBound will be coming to North America and Europe for the Wii U Virtual Console. More information should be coming in the following months, but at least we know it’s happening.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past 2 at Nintendo Direct for April 17, 2013

The Legend of Zelda made a big splash today. Correction: three big, 3DS-sized splashes. First were two old Zelda titles in Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages, which were originally released for the Game Boy Color back in 2001. Nintendo is gearing up to re-release those on the 3DS eShop on May 30th, but real news is a sequel to A Link to the Past. Or, I guess, air-quoted “sequel” to A Link to the Past. It’s set in the same world and is called The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past 2 in Japan, but I’m fairly sure the word “sequel” was never actually used, though we do get an expected timeframe of this holiday for North America and next year for Japan.

This is exciting for many reasons, but let’s start with the fact that ever since the original, Nintendo has simply been rehashing A Link to the Past in its 2D releases. Of course there have been new storylines and new mechanics and they’ve been great, but nothing ever felt as innovative or invigorating to play as that was when it first released. Seeing what is included in this sequel, however, is refreshing. It seems small, but check out that analog turning. And the use of z-depth in dungeon traversal. And wow that wall-walking thing seems neat, especially when Link went from inside the dungeon to outside on a balcony. If you weren’t excited for Zelda before, now might be the time.

Bravely Default: Flying Fairy at Nintendo Direct for April 17, 2013

In October of 2012, Square Enix put out a role-playing game for the 3DS called Bravely Default: Flying Fairy. It is a spiritual successor to 2010’s Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light and came out to rather glowing reviews. It’s an absolutely beautiful game with an interesting augmented reality twist and was potentially a system-seller sort of game. The only problem is that it was (and currently is) exclusive to Japan. But now, as Nintendo’s Bill Trinen announced today, it will be heading for North America in 2014 and Europe in 2013. Quite the wait, but good localization takes time.

A new Yoshi's Island at Nintendo Direct for April 17, 2013

Also to file under Things to be Excited About: a new Yoshi’s Island. No title or release date announced, but we do get a brief glimpse of gameplay, which you can see by heading over to Kotaku who captured some of the press conference feed. I mean, come on. Look at the size of that egg!

We also got a release date and a teaser for Mario and Luigi: Dream Team, the role-playing game about dream worlds that was announced in February. It’ll be out August 11th in North American, July 12th in Europe, and July 18th in Japan for the 3DS eShop.

Then a bunch of equally interesting but less content-filled news came around. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • New Super Luigi U, a downloadable campaign for New Super Mario Bros. U, will launch this summer for North America and feature traditional Luigi twists, i.e. floating jumps and sliding movement
  • A new Mario Party will be coming to the 3DS sometime this winter
  • Mario Golf heads to the 3DS this summer with Mario Golf: World Tour and will focus on community play
  • The previously announced 3DS port Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D will be releasing May 24th and will feature new gameplay tweaks for portability
  • An impending Wii U system update will reduce load times, as shown in this hilariously titled “sizzle reel
  • Mario and Donkey Kong: Minis on the Move, the portable puzzle game for the 3DS, will hit the eShop May 9th with four modes and over 180 puzzles
  • Five new minigames for Wii U’s Game and Wario were shown off with the game itself pinned for release on June 23rd
  • There’s a $200 3DS XL bundle coming to North America on June 9th in celebration of Animal Crossing: New Leaf and will feature polka dots and a preloaded copy of New Leaf
  • The long-awaited and long-in-development Shin Megami Tensei IV will finally come to stores on July 16th. The special edition will feature a limited edition slip cover, a strategy book, and a CD copy of the soundtrack
  • Level-5’s The Starship Damrey, Bugs vs. Tanks, and Attack of the Friday Monsters: A Tokyo Tale will all be coming to the 3DS eShop sometime “soon”
  • Professor Layton and the Azran Legacies, the next installment of the Layton puzzle series, will come to North American 3DSes in 2014 after being available in Japan since late February and will cap off the prequel trilogy (bye-bye Layton!)
  • Pikmin 3 will come to the Wii U on August 4th and now has confirmed flying Pikmin

That’s about it. You can watch the whole thing here via Nintendo’s YouTube channel if you want. Catch all the glory as it happened two hours ago!

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Concept Art Roundup: BioShock Infinite, The Last of Us, and More

Concept Art Roundup: BioShock Infinite, The Last of Us, and More

Concept artists are kind of the unsung heroes of game development. Well, so are the programmers. And the designers. Everyone, really, but concept artists are tasked with the nearly impossible on a daily basis: craft something unique and fresh and amazing from nothing. The lead’s idea or whatever conglomerate concept the leads decide on is nothing more than words. “Post-apocalyptic mega city” or “ethereal sandscape of dreams and nightmares” or “cyber medieval space castle” are provocative words, sure, but they elicit a wide range of responses.

All those wildly varied ideas that flit in and out of existence in everyone’s minds have to be simultaneously consolidated and honed through the hands of a concept artist. Given them an idea, point them a direction, and watch them go. They’re like one of those windup toy monkeys with the cymbals except each tinny crash also brings about an amazing piece of art. Both rough and refined, raw and kinetic, these bits of visual magic inspire an entire team of modelers and designers and engineers and other artists to explore a space that was previously nonexistent.

The most amazing thing, though, is that a lot of it is on the Internet now. Code takes years to go open source and design docs rarely make it out in any state less guarded than a GDC slideshow, but art is thrown out into the world as soon as (and sometimes before) the game releases. Portfolio sites, art repositories, social networks: they all house visual treasures beyond measure, and we’re going to look at them. Hard.

I’ve sifted through said sources and dug up some neat pieces that came up this week. There’s a lot of BioShock Infinite stuff from a fellow named Ben Lo, a concept artist at BioWare who cooked up things like The First Lady airship and Finkton Docks. One of his pieces was even selected into the 2011 Into The Pixel gallery, an annually cultivated collection of art from all over the industry by the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences (AIAS) and the Entertainment Software Association (ESA).

Next up is Maciej Kuciara. Kuciara is a concept artist currently working at Naughty Dog on The Last of Us. He also worked on Crysis 2, so I’m guessing he’s probably really tired of coming up with wrecked, empty metropolises overtaken by foliage and monsters. Kuciara also works on films like the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending and Sergey Bodrov’s The Seventh Son, so don’t be surprised if you recognize his work in other places.

Billy Ahlswede (portfolio link might be NSFW) is currently a senior character artist at Sony Online Entertainment, drawing up the dudes and dudettes you’ll be playing for EverQuest Next, but his past is probably more interesting: character artist at 38 Studios, the Rhode Island development company backed by former baseball pro Curt Schilling. 38 Studios, if you don’t remember, was the center of the entire May-June news cycle due to its massive bankruptcy and blowout scandal last year. Hundreds of people lost their jobs and their MMO Project Copernicus got canned. Ahlswede thankfully managed to land on his feet and began to showcase some of his work. Sad to see people get laid off, but Copernicus at least looked pretty neat.

Prior to the Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut, Alex Figini worked almost exclusively on the MotorStorm series. With all five MotorStorm games under his belt, it’s a little surprising to see him branch out immediately to an established sci-fi world like Mass Effect as a concept artist for BioWare, but it fits him like a glove. Illogically luminescent buildings, structures that could only exist with advanced technology or a disregard for safety, and creepily clean-cut environment are all there, so I’d say he nailed it. I guess it’s not surprising given what he draws in his spare time.

This last one isn’t wholly connected to video games, but you know what? I don’t care. I loved Wreck-It Ralph and the Paperman short that preceded it in theatres is easily one of my favorite seven minutes of anything. Part of that can be attributed to Helen Chen, a visual development artist at Disney. She also worked on Frankenweenie but all I really want to do is watch Wreck-It Ralph right now so excuse me while I cut this paragraph short kbyeeeee.

I’m thinking of turning this into a regular thing. What do you guys think?

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Slot and Slop

Slot and Slop

Slots machines have changed. Slot machines have changed and for no particular reason. People always have and always will want to gamble, which leads them by the masses to casinos. And within the walls of your Golden Nuggets and your Bellagios, there are so few innovations with the games themselves. Security, surveillance, and amenities will always change and improve but the games themselves are rather static, which is why the evolution of the slot machine is so important.

In fact, they devolved at some point. Originally featuring five reels, mechanical slot machines eventually went down to three and allowed for gamblers to dream away their fantasies as they tried to line up a trio of cherries. It was simple: coin, lever, wait.

Now the process is much more complicated and much more digitized. Most (if not all) machines are nothing more than computers with screens, and even those with analog reels are simply a facade for a furtive Dell. This modernization has led to a rather important development, though, and that is event slots. Or at least that’s what I call them.

Event slots involve a bank of linked machines and a large screen hanging overhead. It looks a bit like an impotent Megazord, except it’s powered by money and not backflips over cameras and lessons about not using drugs. Each player will sit at his or her machine and gamble as usual. They’ll insert some cash, press a button, and wait to see what happens. You’ll match some lines and you’ll gain money or you’ll come up with nothing and lose money. Simplified and, given the lack of a lever that delivers the hearty ka-chunk of old, less satisfying.

The complication sets in when you start to rack up bonus pips on the reels. The rules for paying out crisscrossing lines under a byzantine set of bylaws and surreptitious implications are already impenetrable, but once bonuses get involved, you might as well resign yourself to glazed eyes and labored breathing. But hit the bonus and you’re in for a… well, a treat, I guess. It’s a treat insomuch that you don’t really know what’s happening but it’s different so bully for you.

In the case of The Dark Knight machine, this means Batman and Joker fight. It’s just two machines put side-by-side, but its trappings are pleasant. The screen is appropriately gaudy and it opens up with a choice: the Bat or the clown. It stages the entire thing as a battle slots experience where one person would be competing with the other, but that’s so far from the truth that not even two Greyhounds and a plane could get you there.

At any time, you can switch campaigns, which will swap out reel pips, bonus activations, and so on and so forth. Before and after each event, you’ll get a clip from the movie and then play your bonus. In my case, it was a match game that wasn’t really a match game. You are presented with a set of tiles, and you start flipping them over one at a time. They’ll each have Gordon or Bruce or whatever, and if you match two then, well, I don’t know. All I know is I got money out of it. I’m not even sure you had to match anything. Between that and the equally labyrinthine Bat Signals, you really have no idea how you are to win money. Given just a hint of intuitive manipulation, this would be WarioWare-level fun what with its rather impressive event variety. Instead, it just became frustrating.

The Wizard of Oz slots were much more interesting. With six machines hooked up, each player was tied into the overall adventure. There weren’t necessarily bonus things on the reels themselves to achieve anything. Instead, there was a large timer on the screen overhead that was counting down to the next big event. Your spins did nothing more than to pump up your multiplier, which also had a timer on it that counted down to a reset. It’s a devious tactic that is sure to drain less vigilant players of their loose change.

The event sparks up the titular Oz to speak out to the players, each of which can associate themselves with a character such as the lion or the scarecrow. Over the course of several free, automated spins, the players will watch as Oz throws out extra bonuses to either a character or the group and you can watch as others win big or win nothing at all. This not only matches the milieu of the movie but also creates a group and individual arc within the play session, a simultaneously communal and adversarial feeling.

And most event slots fall somewhere between those two in terms of making sense. The Deal or No Deal machines, for instance, have the cases, but instead of opening them to reveal money or no money, you open them to reveal numbers that you can order to decide your own bonus. One set of machines involved a fishing minigame that involves you watching fish randomly come up and nibble at lines and hooks that represent each player, but the methodology behind the monetary value of each fish and how you catch them is extremely ambiguous and you aren’t told that it’s a contest until you see the podium at the end.

Event slots, despite having been in existence now for quite some time, are still in their nascent years. Rules and layers of complexity have been tacked onto a simple three-step loop so that the foundation shakes and crumbles under the weight of the modern systems. Rule pages are deep and unclear, a combination perfectly suited for people that don’t give an eff about how to play and would rather just play, but intuitive understanding would do this either intentional or accidental obfuscation a heap of good. The initial ease gets the hooks in but an understanding grants deeper satisfaction, but the complicated and unexplained interactions between players and the machines and Fortuna the goddess of luck makes an already hostile set of gambling circumstances (i.e. pure chance) even more unwelcoming.

Also, that jumbo novelty slot machine took my dollar and I want it back.

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