Saturday, March 31, 2012

In the Game Store

I've been quite bored with my current crop of games, and have all but abandoned many of them, unfinished. Gerbil Physics, The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter, Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, Resistance: Fall of Man, and a few others have failed to maintain my interest long enough to see them through to completion. It's not that they're bad games. I just think I'm just suffering some kind of ennui; that is to say, I'm in a rut of boredom.

So, I decided to visit my favourite bricks-and-mortar video game store to seek out something new. Specifically, I went to look for Catherine because the demo I played on XBox Live intrigued me enough to get the full game. I did find it; I bought it (new, for PS3) and three other used games (there was a buy-two-get-one-free sale going on), but more on that at another time. Right now I want to mention something that went on at the store while I was there.

Now, this place is small. So, if there are more than four people there, it's busy. I walked in to discover that it was indeed busy. Amongst the patrons were a boy, around 17 years old, and his mom. While he perused the games, she stayed by the entrance, like she was anxious to make a quick exit. Every now and then, though, she came over to him to see how he was progressing with his choices and, as I soon found out, to (indirectly) express her displeasure at his decision to buy some games. The first time she came over he showed her the two games he had chosen so far. Then came the inevitable question, "Are these games violent?" I just rolled my eyes as he explained to her that the one game wasn't, but the other one might be. "Might be!?" she said. She gave him that I'm-so-disappointed-in-you-now look, sighed deeply, and walked away. I guess she was worried that these silly, violent games would turn him into a lazy, anti-social loner who would eventually give up girls and then go on a killing spree.

As I wandered back and forth between the PS3 games and the 360 games I heard one of the clerks say to the mom, "Is there something I can help you with, ma'am?". She responded with, "No, I'm just here with my boy --- the overgrown one over there." I glanced at the kid and could see that he was embarrassed, and a little cowed, by her narrow-minded comments. She then came over to him and said, "Wouldn't you rather buy some workout equipment? Are you sure you want to spend your money on this? Are you sure?" I believe I heard her ask that at least three times before they left: "Are you sure you want to spend your money on this?" Then, just before they approached the counter, there was a variation on that: "Well, if you're sure that's what you want? If you're sure that's what you want to spend your money on?"

To his credit, the kid --- who, by the way stood at least 190cm (6') and probably weighed around 80kgs (approx. 175lbs) --- never raised his voice, talked back, or whined in protest; he just made his choices and stuck with them, even after his mom said, "How much is this going to cost me?". After they left, I had a bit of a chuckle about it with the three clerks, one of whom mentioned that of the three games the kid had chosen, the most violent was a Castlevania title. I neglected to ask them if they witness situations like that frequently. I think I'll do that the next time I'm there.

I wish I could have said something to that woman, but as I do not have kids of my own and am not aware of the dynamic in that family, it was not my place to do so. I felt sorry for the kid for having to deal with his mom's attitude, but I also was exasperated by the mom's failure to understand and support her son's interest and for falling back on stereotypes of games and gamers (games are violent and played by overgrown boys). Did she not notice the diversity of people who came in to shop while she was there?  Didn't she see the other mom and her two young children, probably 10-12 years of age looking for a Wii game; the couple in their early-30s looking for a singing game; the couple in their mid-20s looking for a game that featured co-op play (whose flirtatious banter about previous games they'd played together was quite cute); the couple in their late-30s looking for a game they could play together, but which could also be played by their kids; the 43-year-old man (me) chosing games for himself; the young kids looking to buy some Microsoft points; the early-20s couple looking for another controller? The world of video games is populated by all kinds of smart, interesting, well-adjusted people who do not feel they're wasting time or money playing them. You just have to open your eyes and your mind to see and understand them.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Game time

I recently played a charming, artful platformer called One and One Story after reading about it on Joystiq. It is quite brief --- 15 minutes, maybe --- but it has some unexpected mechanics, excellent music, and a strong, touching lovestory that make it more substantial than some AAA retail games. Also, the ending is wonderful. It made me smile and say, "Awww, that's so cute and clever". You can find it on Kongregate or Armor Games.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


It seems GiantBomb is joining Gamespot, again.  When I heard this news, I believe I was as stunned as everyone else, and felt wary of such a move. How could Gerstmann do this after what happened back in 2007? How will GiantBomb maintain its independence? Will GiantBomb continue to be cool and reliable and accessible? These questions and more crossed my mind, but I think they were largely answered, and most of my suspicions put to rest, after watching Gerstmann's talk with CBS Interactive vice president of games programming John Davison. It seems GiantBomb was becoming huge, and needed a partner that could help it grow further. According to Gerstmann, who still respects the editorial board at Gamespot, CBS Interactive was the best partner for that. Check out his comments in the video below. The juicy stuff comes at around the 5-minute mark, when he addresses the issues behind his firing from Gamespot 5 years ago.

So, after watching, I'm more confident about the move. I like Jeff Gerstmann. He's a smart, insightful, articulate game critic who understands not only gamers, but also the business of games and game criticism. I don't think he would enter into a partnership like this if he felt it would go badly for himself and the other Giantbombers. I'm sure there will be some glitches along the way, but I think this is a good move for both GiantBomb and Gamespot. The Bombcrew can comfortably grow its site and influence, and Gamespot could, possibly, regain the respect it lost when Gerstmann left all those years ago.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

It's Uncanny

Video gamers are a fickle, dissatisfied bunch. If our favourite developers don't have a new title every 18 months or so, we go a little batty. So, developers tease and appease us by releasing in-game footage, screen shots, or developer's diaries of their latest titles to keep us calm until the big day. They also like to release tech demos to show us all the shiny new features of their fabulous new graphics engines. They're usually impressive, but I've never been more impressed by a tech demo than I have by Heavy Rain developer Quantic Dream's Kara.

The demo begins with this disclaimer: "The following footage is a prototype running in real-time on PlayStation 3. It is a concept only and is not taken from any software title currently in development." It would be a shame, though, if Quantic Dream did not pursue it further because it is stunning, not only because of the obvious technical aspects of it, but also because of its emotional characteristics.

The lighting, the texture detail, the subtle shadowing, and the sound are all amazing. But what really struck me were Kara's eyes and facial animations. Video game characters --- and their cut-scene counterparts --- usually have those lifeless, motionless doll-eyes, but Kara's have that sparkle and depth that we all have. Her facial animations, too, indicate that she is more than just a machine. The first time I watched the video, I was transfixed by her when she said, "My name is Kara". It's a wonderful moment of self-awareness that gets me everytime I watch it. It was at that moment that I began to feel a connection with her and, I have to admit, I got a little choked up as she begged for her life with the operator (and I still do). It's rare for a computer-animated character to make me react this way, and it may seem odd to you while reading this, but once you watch the video, you'll understand what I'm talking about.

There are so many wonderful things in this video that I could go on and on about it. There's the excellent voice acting by Valorie Curry, after whom Kara is modelled, and the themes of Man as Creator, the relationship between Men and Women, and the relationship between Creator and that which is created. But I'll just let you watch the video. Pay close attention to it.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

The Games I Play

I've had several games on the go over the past few months or so. I recently finished both Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary's co-op campaign and Portal (PC). Of course, Halo is still fantastic and Portal is just about perfect. I can replay both games a hundred times over and never get tired of them. Then there is Resistance: Fall of Man. I'm just over halfway through the campaign, but I doubt I'll finish it because I don't find the story or gameplay compelling enough to do so. It is definitely not a Halo killer.

The two other games I have been playing are a little bit different from the ones mentioned above, and are not my typical type of game. They are The Longest Journey and The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom; the former a point-and-click adventure, the latter a 2-D puzzle-platformer.

I find The Longest Journey terribly boring and slow moving, while Winterbottom is amusing and a good deal of fun. With both games, though, I am often confounded and frustrated by the puzzles and situations that I must solve to move forward. The clues and paths I have to take are not immediately obvious, and these games certainly don't hold my hand to guide me to or through them.  So, of course, I become impatient and either give up or open up the in-game browser to find a walkthrough that will.

This reaction to these titles has caused me to question how I play games and how that relates to the type of games that I play. You see, I am more likely to go for shooters and racing games. According to Raptr, 73% of my game collection consists of Action games --- 53% of that is composed of first-person shooters, while platformers make up a mere 8%. Racing games account for 16%, puzzle games 6%, and RPGs 4%.

Obviously, then, I like Action games. They move quickly, there is little dialog, and no character development. In these games, my objectives, and the paths to them, are clearly defined. If I get lost, forget my objective, or can't figure out how to do something there is usually some kind of in-game helper to guide me (nav points, on-screen prompts, QTEs, etc.). Also, I start the game with everything I need: a vehicle, a gun, and a few grenades. It's just a matter of going from start to finish or from point A to point B to win a race or to blow something up. I never ask myself the question, "How the fuck am I supposed to do this?" with such games because everything is given to me from the outset. I don't have to worry about dialog trees or managing inventories or about solving mysteries or puzzles. I don't even have to concern myself with backstories, plot points, or character development. I just drive it, shoot it, punch it, or blow it up.

Perhaps my game preference has made me a passive player who expects everything to be spelled out for him from the very beginning. Then, when I go into a game like The Longest Journey (or Winterbottom or any RPG) and I find that everything is not obvious or given to me outright, my impatience rises and my frustration fogs my mind. Or, perhaps, it could have something to do with the type of person I am. I'll explore this further in a later post.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Video Games

One of my favourite pastimes is video games. The technology, artwork, level design, gameplay mechanics, etc., fascinate me no end.  I wish, though, I could say the same for video game storylines. Mostly, they are mediocre and forgettable, and usually are overshadowed by spectacle, graphics, and multiplayer considerations. There have been a few bright spots since the beginning of the current generation way back in 2005 --- Portal, Bioshock, Assassin's Creed, for example --- but, for the most part, the big studios have been releasing a steady stream of samey games and undifferentiated sequels (some of which, I must admit, I have enjoyed).

I used to think it would be quite a while before the video games industry matured enough to develop solid, memorable stories. But, after looking through Gamesradar's 100 Most anticipated games of 2012, I am hopeful this will happen sooner than I expected.  Titles such as I Am AliveThe Last of UsPapo y Yo, and The Last Guardian look quite interesting from a story point of view, and also seem to employ some very cool gameplay mechanics.

Of course I'm also looking forward to Ghost Recon: Future Soldier and Halo 4, as I am a long time fan of both franchises, and I'm very curious about Quantum Conundrum, a game developed by Kim Swift, the lead designer on the original Portal. Much like Portal, its gameplay mechanics are physics-based, and I can't wait to see how they are employed in puzzle-solving, without the assistance of portals. I'm also excited about Metro: Last Light, the sequel to Metro 2033, a solid FPS, with some excruciating stealth sections, a pretty tough ammo conservation mechanic, and a wonderful, creepy atmosphere. Even though it taxed my GTX560Ti, I loved it. (I recommend playing it with the Russian audio and English subtitles for that extra, realistic grittiness.)

Before I found Gamesradar's list, I had my own list of 4 or 5 games to play this year. Now, that list has ballooned to 14. It looks to be a busy, expensive year of gaming for me.