Game Eaters

Monday, February 27, 2006


I just don't understand the poor reviews gathering around Marc Ecko's Getting Up game. I don't think the tone of his response is going to win him any fans but at least I can see where he's coming from. Both the game press and less mature gamer crowd seem happy to roast him and his game in the process of proving him right.

Maybe it's exactly the opposite problem I had with Shadow of the Colossus but the much-maligned camera simply doesn't trouble me at all, and for everything it gets wrong there's so much good going for it. It does swing around when you reach the boundary of a level, which is a relatively subtle cue of "don't go this way," and it does occasionally shift oddly when you're in graffiti mode, until you realize that it's actually pointing at a civilian or cop who's about to hassle you. The "translucent avatar and walls" solution to obscured third-person view is given a very complex and visually appealing treatment. When it comes to stealth challenges, the appearance of "surveillance camera" reticles and static on HUD cleverly reminds the player that the character is being watched all the time... if not by the cops, then by the player. The implementation of this camera feature has far more emotional impact than the underlying "you have 5 seconds to get out of the cone of vision" game mechanic would naturally suggest.

In general, the game borrows conventions when they work well for the setting (PoP platforming, "rep" meters, the Buffy combat system, completion statistics), invents new ones when it needs to (texture selection and spraying, drips, a substantially different setting from other "urban" games) and brings a lot of new twists on old ideas (intuition, in-game music, game secrets, the protagonist can't shoot!). The game is surprisingly respectful of good game design while trying to introduce the concepts of graffiti culture as seen by Marc Ecko.

This is undeniably an "outsider" game. It had the backing of a seasoned developer team, but the motivation and experience of play is substantially rooted outside of game culture. The game does not make you feel like a badass, a hero or a cunning strategist. Instead, it makes you feel like an angry teen, constantly harrassed by external forces, looking for any opportunity to stand out, to "get up." Combined with a relatively complex message about class and power, and how criminality is defined within those variables, Getting Up could be an important tool in the fight for games to be recognized as a viable medium of expression for all kinds of different, culturally important messages. If only gamers could learn the value of appreciating what they don't necessarily agree with.

The Developers' Choice Awards!

The Oscars are next week. Not long after are the Developers' Choice Awards, the closest thing the commercial videogame industry has to the Oscars. (No, I'm not counting SpikeTV's utterly patronizing annual Video Game Awards Show.)

The IGDA has announced the nominees, so I'm going to add my two cents.


Animal Crossing: Wild World
God of War
Guitar Hero
Shadow of the Colossus
The Movies

For me, it comes down to Guitar Hero and Shadow of the Colossus. God of War was a dull genre exercise, regardless of its ultra slick production value. The Movies... eh. Cool concept, and I admit to having not played the game. But I get the feeling they nominated it simply for diversity's sake. And Animal Crossing is great, but it's just the same thing we saw on the Gamecube + online. In terms of games that appeared out of the ether and managed to make big artistic statements through sheer force of personality, I think Guitar Hero and Shadow are the only real stand-outs.

Between the two of them... hell, I dunno. I might edge more towards Guitar Hero simply because it, at the end of the day, is probably less flawed than Shadow. Shadow reaches for the sky and stumbles a bit. Guitar Hero has very few faults. Still though, both these games distinguish themselves by putting emotion at the center of the experience. One is about making you feel the magic of performing music. The other is about feeling the sweat, agony, and exhilaration of living a myth. Both are utterly human experiences, which is unusual for games.


Call of Duty 2
God of War
Guitar Hero
Project Gotham Racing 3

Er... Electroplankton, I guess? Seriously, this category confuses me. Is it innovation in sound usage? Is it the technical proficiency? Is it the quality of the emotional experience the sound helps create? I guess I'd give Call of Duty 2 technical props, and Electroplankton innovation. But overall I guess I'd go with Guitar Hero here as well. In terms of combining all the aspects I mentioned into a cohesive, meaningful whole, I don't think there's much of a contest here.


City of Villains
God of War
Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath
Shadow of the Colossus

Ack! Shadow or Psychonauts? God of War, again, is strictly an example of slickness over imagination. Oddworld and City of Villains have more flair, but not like nothing we've ever seen before. Shadow is a no-brainer champion in terms of sheer artistry: the colossi are triumphs of imagination. But, on the other hand, so is the Pixar-worthy cast of Psychonauts.

If I have to choose, I suppose I'd go with Shadow. Psychonauts is awesome, but no more awesome than what Tim Schafer's done before. I doubt we'll see anything that matches the majesty of those colossi in a game any time in the near future.


Animal Crossing: Wild World
God of War
Shadow of the Colossus

Nintendogs. Hands down.

Same story again with God of War. Psychonauts's level design was, I still say, rather pedestrian give the awesome potency of its concepts. Shadow was an impressive argument for minimalism and non-linearity, but I don't think it out-shadows the "Holy shit, why didn't I think of that!" quality of Nintendogs. Shadow merely stretched conventional game design concepts to their limit, but Nintendogs transcended them.


Battlefield 2: Modern Combat
Guitar Hero
Project Gotham Racing 3
Shadow of the Colossus

Guitar Hero, Nintendogs, and Shadow strike me as the leaders here. I admit I don't know much about Battlefield 2 or PGM3, so they might be doing some amazing under-the-hood stuff I'm not aware of. But there's not much on the surface to indicate it. Shadow, on the other hand, screams hardware-twisting magic at a mere glance. I think we can forgive a little pop-up considering the developers somehow managed to squeeze a game from 10 years in the future onto the PS2. Guitar Hero isn't amazing graphically, but you have to admit you've probably never seen a better use of a specialized controller. Then of course there's Nintendogs, which transforms the Nintendo DS stylus from a cheap gimmick into the best videogame interface since the invention the analog stick.

I'd probably have to go with Nintendogs on this one. Shadow and Guitar Hero's achievements are just more impressive examples of what we've seen before. But Nintendogs feels like a revelatory marriage of software and hardware.


God of War
Project Gotham Racing 3
Resident Evil 4
Shadow of the Colossus
We Love Katamari

Shadow of the Colossus. Nothing else is a contender.

Okay, RE4 was pretty damn good. The way it realized its rural-gothic setting was effective in ways that horror games (including all the previous Resident Evil games) rarely achieve. God of War? Zzzzzzzzzz. Katamari rocks, sure, but we saw the same thing last year. None of these games approach the sum total impression left by Shadow's powerhouse visual design. If Michelangelo painted a fucking videogame, it would look like Shadow of the Colossus. End of story.


Freedom Force vs. The 3rd Reich
God of War
Indigo Prophecy
Jade Empire

I don't really have much of a preference here. I typically find the writing category a travesty, considering what passes for "writing" in videogames. This is the closest thing there is to a Best Story award, and none of the games I played this years that impressed me narratively are on this list. God of War is competent but unimpressive. Jade Empire, while I didn't play much if it, seemed about the same level as KOTOR: good, but not amazing. Freedom Force might be a contender if you count for comedy, but if it's anything like the original it's not much more than a big running gag. Indigo Prophecy at least aspires to something better, but it becomes so obnoxiously self-congratulatory in the process it undoes itself.

Out of all these I'd have to go with Psychonauts. Schafer's eccentric grasp of character and dialogue would be right at home in the next Pixar movie. However, if I could supply my own list I'd have gone with Dragon Quest VIII. It has snappy dialogue (translated, no less!) and a story that breaths real life back into the waning console RPG genre.

Monday, February 13, 2006


Raph Koster took the time to respond to Clara's previous post with links to his blog. I originally posted a comment in response, but it got pretty long... so here's the response in its own post.

Reading his elaborations, I think a major element of his argument is equating the medium of digital "games" to non-digital games. I'm not sure if we've gone through this on the blog, but I've certainly discussed with the other Game Eaters regarding how "game" is fast becoming a misnomer of the digital medium as we know it, dictated more by genre laziness than anything else.

Electronic Entertainment (i.e. E3) is a much more accurate description of the thing we've got today that tries to lump The Sims, World of Warcraft, Fatal Frame and Battlefield 2 under one banner. The majority of entities that are accurately described as "games" are dominated, or certainly improved, by multiplayer. Entertainment, on the other hand, is a much broader term than games.

I don't think any of us will disagree that even single-player games are often enjoyed as social experiences. Audiences contribute a lot and there's always discussion around the game. The same could be said about many forms of entertainment, such as movies. However, to produce an effective piece of entertainment, must the content be explicitly designed for the involvement of multiple people?

I, for one, don't believe it's a requirement. Gamers are clearly used to single-player games, and just because the "non-gamer" demographic tends to prefer social games doesn't mean that they don't appreciate solitary entertainment. Music is traded in a social context but the success of the iPod shows that the solitary experience of music can be enjoyed and appreciated by the mainstream. Many kinds of emotion get harder to achieve with increasingly larger groups of simultaneous participants, such as sadness and fear, but the popularity of Korean drama and horror games clearly indicate there's an audience that enjoys such emotions in their entertainment.

Business managers are constantly reminded that you can't ignore market data, no matter what you believe. The growth we're seeing from Nintendo is being spurred by games like Phoenix Wright, Nintendogs and Brain Training. Whether they are "games" is questionable. Whether point-and-click adventure, pet-care and brain-teasers are genres that work well for a single interactor is undeniable. I don't want your hand-me-down Tamagotchi, I want to bring up my own. Don't tell me the answer to the puzzle. Let me read at my own pace. The experience can certainly be shared, as anyone who's tried to play Nintendogs in public or taken part in the MIT Mystery Hunt can attest, but "non-gamers" seem to be liking voice recognition and math problems tuned for the individual, and there's real, observable market growth.

I would argue that multiplayer games are actually targeted at a different kind of "hardcore" - the player who is willing to set aside time for the enjoyment of strangers. While everyone is willing to do this on occasion, most modern societies don't bring up people with this set of values. More people live in "apart"ments than communes; when company profit encroaches on personal gain, many would prefer to leave; one is encouraged to get out of one's parents' house or town when one grows up. It might be better for mankind, in general, if everyone decided that they would choose to share their entertainment with others, but this does not necessarily make a compelling case for business.

I agree with Raph that it is counter-productive to think of digital "games" as an entirely solitary experience. No Game Eater would support that contention. However, what we now know as "the single-player game" has been enjoyed in a social context for quite some time, quite far removed from the solitary "aberration" he paints it to be. Even with his caveats, to simply proclaim it "doomed" makes it very hard to take his proclamation seriously.


You know... it is really hard to offend me. I was at an MIT lecture once where the audience was blindsided with 20 minutes of hardcore transexual porn, but it made me more bored than anything. This though is the sort of shit that really gets under my skin. I suppose there are two kinds of people in the world: the people who would find this kind of prank funny and those who would find it the most base form of human cruelty. I am one of the latter. Maybe it's because I was a child with a powerful imagination, and I remember what it was like to stay up nights literally screaming because of a single picture I saw in a ghost story book.

Pay close attention to the child's face in the video. Feel the laugh catch in your throat as you see how hurt he really is. You can see the horror cutting through the child's brain like a knife. I think a video of this kid being beat to tears would have felt about the same.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

MMOS are the future... ?

So a couple of days ago, big heads of the industry ("Lars Butler, former vice president of global online for Electronic Arts and current CEO of the upstart TWN; Laurent Detoc, president of Ubisoft North America; Raph Koster, chief creative officer of Sony Online Entertainment; and Peter Moore, corporate vice president of Microsoft's interactive entertainment business") got together to discuss that the future of gaming, which, according to them, must be online.

The highlight of the evening was a metaphor provided by Butler:
"Linear entertainment in single-player is to media what masturbation is to sex," Butler said. "It'll always be there, but it is not the real experience."

Let's leave aside the fact that making comparisons between videogames and sex is giving ammo to ultraconservatives, who don't like videogames or sex. I'm just tired of people to hear that MMOs are the next best thing. The gist of the panel can be summarized as "one-player games are going to die one of these days." Since many of the guys in the room seemed to be businessmen, it sounds as if the suits of the industry want money to be invested in online playing, since it requires bigger investment. This panel sounds like a pitch for investors--they mention "consumers" and not "players" once too often, as well as "shopping" instead of "playing".

MMOs are cool, but are just a different way of playing. Butler mentions that online gaming is to videogames what TV was to movies. And hits the nail on the head--they're two different media. As a media scholar, I must frown at the attitude of looking down on one medium and favouring another. Some people think that books are better than movies, some others think that movies are better than TV, and so on. Truth is, there are media that are better than others to do certain things, and if you want to tell a story from one medium into another, you have to adapt it. In the same way, it's different to play single player than multiplayer than online playing. I was not very interested in getting Mario Kart DS, since I've played all the others; I played the demo and I did not feel it had much to add to previous versions. However, now that my brother has it, I can't wait to get it and play with him, while he's on the other side of the pond.

The other problem I have with this panel is that they stress the fact that playing is social. Duh! That it's social does not mean that it necessarily has to be online. What about party gaming? What about watching how other people play? What about people making their own games, or inventing your own goals? I'm a bit creeped out at the attempt to make everything for me, including my social life, and transform a playground into a shopping mall because they're interested in making money. I'm also worried that the publishers decide what content is adequate, or not, which is another issue they tackle in the panel. (Remember the Blizzard GLBT controversy.)

Since Raph Koster is coming the the Living Gameworlds Symposium next week, I'll make sure he elaborates on his statement that "offline games are primitive". Sure, he's not talking about MMOs alone, he also refers to forums and online updates. But concentrating on connectivity, and how it can increase revenues, instead of improving gameplay, does not seem to be the path for a "revolution" in games.

Here is the Gamespot article and the link to the complete video of the panel. Mind you, this takes place in a business club, so don't expect academic theories, or gameplay discussions. They talk a lot more about selling than about playing. And they have to explain what machinema is (and don't get it right, BTW).

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Reasons why I'm not crazy about the XBOX, 360 or not

I don't own an XBOX. I'm not crazy about getting a 360--better graphics do not necessarily mean better games. I'm still a computer gamer, turned portable gamer because of necessity. Unless they start releasing great, innovative games en masse, I don't plan on spending $400 for an XBOX any time soon.

I have some other reasons why I'm not crazy to get an XBOX. One is that an XBOX is just a PC that is not customizable. That a system is easy to hack does not bode much good, how much thought did go in it? I came across this article, by the xbox-linus group, explaining the kind of thought behind it.
17 Mistakes Microsoft Made in the Xbox Security System - Xbox-Linux

Then, I saw this video about what a XBOX 360 can do to your game discs.

I think Microsoft should look into this problem...


Chibi-Robo is a new exclusive for the GameCube. You effectively play a little household robot in a house... think of a bipedal Roomba or Rosie from The Jetsons and you get the idea. You cook, clean, eradicate pests, and have to deal with the Toy Story-esque assortment of stuffed creatures that magically wake to life when the humans aren't looking. There are a couple of reviews out there for Chibi-Robo. A good number of them are relatively negative, citing how the Pikmin-esque day/night cycle and short "battery life" and legs of the Chibi-Robo hinder the ability to explore the game world.

Frankly, that's a load of bull.

The game gives plenty of options to upgrade your robot so that it has new means of mobility, extended "battery life" and longer time limits. To obtain these, you need to do two things: gain money and "spread the happiness," that is, make people (and sentient toys) happy. You make people happy just by doing regular chores, cleaning the dog's paw prints, picking up trash and occasionally doing a special favor for a family member. This earns you no small amount of "happy points" and "moolah," which raises your Chibi-Robo ranking (increasing your battery life) and allows you to buy upgrades to extend your day/night cycle. You can also buy new tools, and with them, you can start hunting little robotic pests and use their scrap to make teleportation devices to beam you across the house in a hurry. Game play is surprisingly leisurely for a game that has a timer as a primary mechanic, and there's always a power outlet nearby to max out Chibi-Robo's cells.

None of the reviewers completely miss these game mechanics. All the "problems" of the game are merely challenges to be overcome in a clear, logical manner. Why the frustration, then?

I think it largely comes down to the fact that your one compelling motive to do anything in the game is to make others happy. If this concept is not appealing to you, or if you find the characters annoying, you'll never get anywhere. On the other hand, if you're the type who likes putting a smile on others' faces, the pace of the game really picks up. Spending a little effort to do favors for individual NPCs yields hefty rewards. Despite the low detail of the graphics, the art style is cute, the family has some genuine dysfunctions that present many opportunities for you to cheer them up, and the music is top-notch in a Maxis sort of way.

You're a household robot, not the owner of the place. You're supposed to be patient, hard-working, and well-meaning. If you're willing to play the role, the game rewards you with plot and upgrades. If you're not willing to buy the fiction, that's not the fault of the game.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

A Fun Experiment

In a satirical post, a game developer puts game-violence statistics in perspective. The actual article includes links to supporting evidence, but in doing so, accidentally gives away the name of the game. I've reposted most of it here to avoid that from happening. Guess the game!

Fans of this game tend to follow bizarre rituals and wear odd costumes in an attempt to feel closer to the game. However, this behavior seems to be considered socially acceptable.

Over 20% of the people behind this game have been accused of committing a crime. It is unknown what percentage of those actually have criminal records.

Two years ago, West Coast fans of this game rioted. At least 80 people were arrested in a single evening as a result of their behavior.

Each year, almost 186,000 children aged 5-14 required treatment in the emergency room because they were emulating what they saw in the game.

Recent Congressional hearings led to nothing but rave reviews for this game, however. This is undoubtedly because of the large amount of tax revenue that these companies bring to the table.

Another high school music performance

This time featuring Mario, Luigi, Peach and... Toad? As a percussionist, this warms my heart...

Monday, February 06, 2006

Truth is just as scary as Fiction.

Remember how Metal Gear Solid 2 had this goofy plot about the U.S. government wanting to censor the Internet? The story went they were terrified with the unchecked flow of global information and wanted to create a filter, defensible by the military, to make sure Americans got only the information they sanctioned first.

Orwellian stuff, but not far from the real U.S. government's plans it turns out. A recent BBC article outlnes a declassified document called the "Information Operations Roadmap." The author explains:

Perhaps the most startling aspect of the roadmap is its acknowledgement that information put out as part of the military's psychological operations, or Psyops, is finding its way onto the computer and television screens of ordinary Americans.

"Information intended for foreign audiences, including public diplomacy and Psyops, is increasingly consumed by our domestic audience," it reads.

"Psyops messages will often be replayed by the news media for much larger audiences, including the American public," it goes on.

The document's authors acknowledge that American news media should not unwittingly broadcast military propaganda. "Specific boundaries should be established," they write. But they don't seem to explain how.

The above quote isn't even the half of it. Be sure to read the part where they talk about the U.S. military's plan to "provide maximum control of the entire electromagnetic spectrum". (!)

Amazing stuff, especially considering MGS2 came out almost 5 years ago. Who says life doesn't imitate art?

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Blizzard tells GLBT-friendly guild to stop recruiting

An excellent opinion article on ShackNews goes into the details of this WoW situation. The comments are extremely unsurprising but still saddening, with a surprisingly large number of them stating that using racist or homophobic slurs is neither racist nor homophobic.

A Shacker and World of Warcraft player named James S. was aware of the guild in question. "I used to play on that server. Advertisements were merely of the form '< Oz > is currently recruiting members! We are a GLBT friendly guild!'," he states. "From what I recall (correct me if I'm wrong), nothing inflammatory or offensive." When I contacted him for further comment, he made the important point that MMOs are by their nature social games, and it is only to be expected that many players will want a place where they can speak freely, especially through private channels, about their lives.

In their attempt to protect players, the company has played it a bit too safe. In the case of Andrews' innocuous advertisement, it's tough to find any insulting language. In fact, language insulting to gays (and any ethnicity, and disabled people, and so on) runs rampant throughout chat channels in games like World of Warcraft, completely unprovoked. I see it every time I log in, any time of day, and it's disheartening to see it run rampant while Blizzard mismanages the situation by stopping legitimate guild advertisement. I do not suggest Blizzard institute a zero-tolerance censorship policy to compensate; rather, they should simply allow interested players to be aware of a guild that specifically does not want any part of that kind of insulting chat.