Tuesday, March 27, 2012

...Could Be Better I Guess

Last time we discussed the shocking revelation of what my favorite example of game design is. The infrastructure in place in Three Rings' long-running puzzle-centric MMO Puzzle Pirates might not reveal itself at first blush, what with the cutesy G-rated Playmobil-like visual design and general "kid-friendly" style. But, as one plays on, well-modeled systems for player-run affiliations ("flags" and "crews") in both naval and economic conflict get their chance to impress. So the question begs: with such a rich and capable world in which to play puzzle games and pretend to swashbuckle, why don't more people participate... and why don't I play all that much, for that matter? Well, the following are a few overarching hypotheses: some blame lies with the game, some with me, and some with the world at large.

It really is uncanny, to an extent.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

My Favorite Video Game...

Did you cringe at the title? Good, I would too. You can relax, though, thanks to the following facts.

  1. This is not about the video game that I personally enjoyed most as an experience.
  2. This is about the video game whose design ethos I hold the greatest admiration for.
  3. The game in the former description is not, nor was it ever, the game in the latter.

That's right, the video game I admire most as a work of design is nowhere near the one I "like best," nor was it at any time. I have of course played it now and again, and enjoyed most of my time spent on it to a reasonable degree. But, for a number of reasons I will address as well, I have stopped playing it and will likely not come back to it for months... or even years, should it exist that long! But, before I nitpick the things I find personally unlikable, let's go into what it does right.

If you guessed a game with any of these bozos in it, you lose!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Fun & Games, Pt. 4

We've spent our fair share of this series considering games from a design perspective, and where games big and small, lauded and loathed, have betrayed their narrative-heavy stylizations. But what about "fun"? Can a game be judged on it as a criteria? What do people really mean when they talk about it? Are in we in need of some kind of system to categorize different "fun types" and determine how a particular video game delivers each?

Fun, in the most general sense, is enjoyment. When someone tells you a game is "fun", they are articulating their appreciation of the overall experience, even if they cannot particularly put their finger on or elucidate why. It could be they are engrossed by the plotline and cutscene; it could be the draw of visually and audially rendered splendor; it could even (perish the thought) be the mechanics and interactions of the game itself. What's certain is that the word, for all its value as a common term, is useless when trying to operate critically, analytically, or descriptively. The number of times I've seen "it's just fun" as the beginning and end of someone's defense of a game is just staggering, to the point where I have to assume that people who use it are, at least some of the time, avoiding having to admit they like a video game for its shiny colors and/or pulpy romance subplots.

You know... for kids!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Fun & Games, Pt. 3

Okay, okay, okay; one more case. Along with some other stuff.

Case #4
Name: Casey Hudson
Game: Mass Effect 3
Fault: Illusory player agency (among other things)

I'm not here to decry this game as the nadir of modern gaming; the game is... mostly well-crafted as far as what it intends to be. I'm not here to stoke any flames or dog-pile on the poor, beat-up, downtrodden multi-billion-dollar publisher; the business practices surrounding the game are a separate issue altogether.  I'm not going to get too deep into the lack of structural interplay of the dialogue trees from the FPS sections; I've done that before. This isn't even about the conclusion of the game/series; the fault in question here goes far beyond the specific bizarre endings that were chosen as the capstones of a major video game "trilogy". (Let's face it, they're probably halfway done with #4 and drafting storyboards on 5 and 6 right now.)

This Shepard is based on Bjork. I like Bjork.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Fun & Games, Pt. 2

As discussed in Part 1, an internally coherent formal system of analyzing video games as games is not some fanciful pipe dream. Neither is it a savage assault on the nebulous concept of "fun" or any other subjective appraisal value. With this skeletal but strong basis, we can finally tackle what proves so problematic about a swath of design elements and the games that utilize them improperly. And because controversy drives page hits, let's call out as many people as possible for poor game design!

Most of the games and designers targeted in the following text are by no means the only guilty parties, but are certainly some of the most egregious offenders. Games from studios large and small with reputations illustrious to spotty have all in some way transgressed against the idea that power in games should belong to players, and rather than some fictional verdict and sentence, each will conclude with a separate medium in which the assumed aims of the designers could have been better met, and why. Just trying to be helpful, because that's that's just the kind of guy I am!

The best games always seemed to make for terrible movies...

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Fun & Games, Pt. 1

There have been quite a few spats of late over what is or is not a "video game", or "game". As video games and the software engines governing their behavior have grown ever more complex, the diversity of creations that have sought shelter under the "game" banner has ballooned, arguably to some kind of critical mass. Attempts have been made by many a theorist to detangle this mess and bring about some kind of descriptive classification, but strangely their efforts have been met with a fair amount of resistance.

Some choose to take exception to the choice of words given to specific concepts, becoming hung up on the baggage of some terms' more colloquial usages. Others refuse to listen to any critique in the fear that a critical or analytical approach might destroy a game's "fun" like tugging on the ends of a slipknot. What follows is an extremely basic and simplified illustration of a particular model of hierarchy, cobbled together from the ideas of more respected theorists.

Juul's Rules - For Your Health - Check It Out!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Killing Time

I try to keep abreast of other writers who are trying to break from the old model of discussing video games. Every so often I will come across a piece that proves insightful, enjoyable, probing, or perhaps all three. Coverage of smaller titles and the burgeoning world of the greater "indie games scene" or detours into the worlds of board/card/physical games can prove to be at the very least refreshing once in a while. This all said, though, the majority of the time I am forced to cringe at the obvious growing pains of a young and anemic writing collective groping desperately at erudition.

This "mode" of analysis is something I have seen before in the past, which I now have the luxury of looking back on and shaking my head at in bemusement. Some of it is reflected in turn-of-the-millennium alternative music journalism; "deep" personal anecdotes framing a flimsily drawn parallel to namecheck some obscure bit of historical/cultural trivium, with some grand existential thesis and some sentence fragment beat poetics thrown in. Too many times have I visited a certain video game site in 2012, only to have memories of 2000 and Brent DiCrescenzo leading with "I had never seen a shooting star before…" echo from the recesses.

Shall I compare thee to an aquarium?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Three Girl Rhumba

Look I promise the whole "name articles after songs" thing is not going be a pattern. It's just… it's fitting okay get off my back.

Anyway: women in video games! They make them, they play them, they review them… and apparently lots of people seem to have a very hard time dealing with any of that. If you were to believe the rest of the Internet, behavior towards women primarily falls under two major categories. One is the "white knight", in which you cannot agree with a woman or enjoy anything a woman does unless you want to have sex with her and think expressing your praise will lead to it. The other doesn't seem to have a particular name, but it generally involves verbal sexual harassment from a position of perceived anonymity. So let's have a look at three instances where the latter group made its presence felt and then see if we can't hone in on a cause!

Some people believe that other people believe this.

Friday, March 2, 2012

In The Flesh

With these stories finally told, we can at last answer the primary question: so what?

Consider it a parable. The world of video games, as it stands today, is a very warped and bizarre place that is slowly but surely forming the black hole center of a cultural quasar. Rather than engage with the world around it on the terms of reality, it chooses instead to create an entire supporting psuedo-culture, either by bending existing media to its will or making new abominations to further extol its own virtues. "Hardcore" players of plastic instrument games are generally attracted to metal because of its difficulty as gem sequences, and clamor for video game-related novelty songs because their subject matter reinforces their lifestyle. It's why people remember "Jordan" by Buckethead from Guitar Hero II, "Through the Fire and the Flames" by DragonForce from III, and why when given the keys to a content pipeline in Rock Band there came a surge of Jonathan Coulton and Evile. To be fair, though, those are also some of the artists that sold the best, so they at least deserve credit for knowing their audience (themselves).

"Note Shuffle", i.e. "Just Put The Gems Wherever"

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 3

The Rock Band Network, or RBN for short, was an extremely bold move with great potential at redefining the kind of music that could be made available for band rhythm games. As of this moment, any act with master recordings and legal reproduction/sales rights to their songs can, with time and effort, make their music into a playable file, or "chart", of for-profit downloadable content for the Rock Band series. The entry cost is relatively low, even with hiring outside parties to do the charting and the added cost of piggybacking onto Microsoft's XNA indie development distribution program; most songs are capable of at least breaking even financially under the right circumstances. Acts from well-respected independent labels from Sub Pop to Fat Possum to Polyvinyl to Barsuk have all released material at some point or another, and even Matador and EMI made attempts to release music through this alternative pipeline. This was a major opportunity at expanding the song selection exponentially, and hopefully appealing to a wider swath of people and realizing the promises of series-as-platform on a new level.


Suffice to say, this did not happen.