Saturday, 29 December 2012

Stats in Gaming: Console War Propaganda

As 2013 dawns, The International Year of Statistics  begins. It also marks the advent of the latest Console War, which promises to be a very exciting time for gamers, gaming industry nerds, game designers, game design fanboys as well as political commentators, vidigameaphobes and of course, those all important shareholders and development studios.
He may look rich, but he only has five coins. That's nothing.

 Yes, Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony are all set to be vying for a high share of the increasingly lucrative video game market. Further still, the so called 'Triple A' development studios responsible for the kind of big budget games that you see advertised on television (Dishonored, Halo, Call of Duty, Farcry 3) will be aggressively marketing their projects to make a return on their investment in what is a very fierce marketplace. This comes at a time where many gamers own more games then they have time for, where a vibrant and nostalgic second hand games market exists and the prominence of small budget independent game developers offering very popular (and far cheaper) titles not only for PCs but for consoles too, also exists (Phew).  So what has this got to do with stats?

Pictured: Some stats. (Figure 1)

Well... everything really. As the great powers and actors in human conflicts throughout history have all come equipped with their propaganda machines, the big players in gaming have all come equipped with their marketing departments, who all want you (the consumer, I assume) to believe in their version of reality. That their console is more popular, that the games that you play are more immersive and realistic and that you will be having more fun on this particular console or title than any other. To further complicate matters, we have the fans. The fans are more like zealots at times, preaching that their deity (console) has more to offer humanity than other false idols and pretenders. 

It's as vicious a 'debate' as you can think of.

Check out Figure 1. I'm a self-confessed Nintendo child. I have a natural bias towards the publishers that I grew up on and an unjustifiable sense of paternal protectiveness for Nintendo. However, Figure 1 tells me that I have nothing to fear, Nintendo appear to have dominated both the console and handheld markets in terms of market penetration. For a Nintendo fanboy like me, this is bliss because I can go to my preferred online forum, find that pesky Warmasterxx_88 (who loves PS3 and actually hates the Big N) and tell them that despite the fact that I enjoy what he calls 'children's games for babies' that at least a good proportion of the world agrees with me, but oh crumbs...

This is the data from 2012 (Figure 2)
This is the data for the year 2012 to date (as of 15th December 2012) and it would seem that Nintendo have somewhat lost out to the PS3 in terms of console sales this year. No one can deny that the big red PS3 bar is bigger than the piddly light blue Wii one pictured in Figure 2, which could lead Warmasterxx_88 to triumphantly declare (falsely) that 'Nintendo are losing it! Look at the decline in console sales!' using the same fanboy zeal as I would apply to Figure 1. But why believe my version of events? This may seem just another case of lies, damn lies and statistics where it's in fact only the first two that should worry us. As long as the data is collected honestly and accurately enough, it's the lies and the liars that are the problem and not the stats. The previous two figures are simply two different summary measures of sales figures and they do tell us some simple things like 'More 3DS units were sold YTD in 2012 than PSVita'. However, one should be loath to draw conclusions on always complex, sometimes subjective and often normative questions such as 'Are Nintendo products likely to continue be popular, sell well and be fun to play with?' on the basis of two very simple Figures alone.

One can always dig deeper and discover more true parts of the story using statistics. The source I used was and looking at the unit sales of software and hardware I have come to the temporary conclusion that 'Nintendo are doing more than just fine'. Please do not blindly take that home with you though. That would be the opposite of what my intentions for this article are. Go to the gaming stats site that I  have mentioned (and explore other sources of data!) and by all means challenge my conclusion! I have not produced a compelling argument for my case here at all and it should be easy enough to pick apart as I have not supplied much in the way of evidence here.

That should also be a horrifying observation applicable elsewhere. In the big debates of the age (gun control and gay marriage for instances), one should see that mainstream coverage of these events is terribly lacking in hard data. The occasional statistic might be supplied in isolation (which you should always be suspicious of) and this should worry us all. If we are unable to decide whether Mario is better than Sonic or not, how can we sensibly choose between and evaluate competing policies and ideologies concerning something as relevant and as dangerous as the fiscal cliff? Just think on that next time you're playing The Binding of Isaac!  

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Christmas Solves Everything!

So, it's one of the best days in the gaming calendar: the day when presents are given and most people have the day off work. My haul this year was "Dishonoured", "Mario Galaxy 2", "Batman: Arkham Asylum" and "Resident Evil 6". Very nice.

Dr Crygor references make everything better. Even Christmas.

But what do you do if you did not get what you want? Well, you can always try some casual gaming picks from either myself or Jak, which is always an option. Alternatively, if you found yourself with some sudden Christmas funds (and live in the UK), you could try Blockbuster's 4 for £20. It expires on New Year's Eve, but you can really grab yourself some great games. My recommendations? Well, "Deus Ex: Human Revolution", and any other 3 will do you.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Supercharged and indestructible; the joy of the power up

Let me start by saying that I freakin’ love power ups. As a platform gamer at heart, the opportunity to beef up my character with a stronger attack, quicker movements, or momentary invincibility always brings a smile to my face.

Between Crash Bandicoot’s Aku Aku masks, Sonic’s invincibility boxes and Talmit’s wing-and-clone-floating-vortex-of-death combo (btw, if you’ve never played Talmit’s Adventure, I hope that last example will convince you that you should) my childhood was full of moments where I could unleash my fury on unsuspecting minions, even though most of the time I could generally make my way through the level without such upgrades.

What could be more fun than being possessed by an ancient spirit you found in a box?
And there is what I believe a power up should be; unnecessary fun. You should be perfectly capable of progressing without the use of any upgrades. Power ups should reward you for finding them by allowing you to let loose and go crazy, making the game slightly less difficult and slightly more fun.

Naturally the king of the power ups is Mario; whether it was fire flowers, capes or stars most people first encountered power ups through this series. Not to mention that if asked to name a power up from a game, most people will respond with be “super mushroom”. What was important about Mario's power ups is that they felt like an optional advantage; you can complete the sun level in Super Mario 3 on your own, but using the P-wing will always be more fun.

I'm not sure what Copernicus would think of this game, but I 'm pretty sure he'd hate this guy
Yet for a series with such strong roots in power ups, installments such as Super Mario Galaxy disappointed me. Consider the Bee costume and the Spring costume; these power ups change the mechanics of the game in order to allow you to complete the task at hand. There is nothing ‘upgradey’ about them, they are a necessary obstacle, and they introduce a new way of controlling your character in order to overcome a challenge. These are not power ups; they are cleverly disguised vehicle sections.

Super Mario Galaxy's Bee costume
Often modern power ups will take this form; more and more games use power ups as a way to integrate new game mechanics into the world they have created, and that is fine, but I do miss the fun that comes from the traditional power up. Luckily though, whenever I worry about the future of power ups I just remember the New Super Mario Bros Wii Penguin costume, because no power up will ever beat its pointlessly daft, slidey fun. Also... 3D Land's Boomerang Flowers are a just a bunch brilliance in a can. 

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

New Year Party Games of 2012

Well it's that time of year where I, Jak Marshall, put my reputation on the line once more and recommend some games for y'all to be playing with your mates over the holidays. I think I did a good job of it last year so check out that shit first if you didn't do so last year. In fact I will go out and say that I did very well and all the evidence says so. My analysis is to a decent standard and my opinions are pretty okay sometimes! 

I still maintain that New Year's Eve is a time for staying in and not going out. Who you choose to see out the end of this year with is pretty crucial but  there are three (almost) distinct choices. Family (The Wii has done wonders for family room gaming), friends (as always) and lovers (I mean sersiously, who doesn't play takesy-turnies through Sonic and Knuckles with their special one? Sky Sanctuary is so romantic!). I'm going to make it my mission to pick a game that would entertain any of those three main types of company.    

Don't forget Granny!
By my own hazy definition of what a New Year's game should be, I can already eliminate the online multiplayer heavy games such as Halo 4 and Call of Duty. In my humble opinion, offline multiplayer at home with company trumps many distant souls shooting virtual bullets and real insults. I have no major problems with the online gaming community at all as you all well know, but it is also true that online gaming can happen all year round, whilst having friends and family in your house is something that is sadly a rarity for a great proportion of us. Also, you are likely to be playing with people who don't have a complete mastery of FPS skills. Same logic applies to FIFA.

Although Granny's sniper skills will knock your socks off.

So if offline gaming is key I would also require that such a game be fun for a mixed skill group. This is where ZombiU shines. It has asymmetric multiplayer (as does the new New Super Mario Bros game) in that not every player has the same objective and/or the same means by which to achieve them. In ZombiU's 'King of Zombies' mode, even a complete gaming noob can join in and it is most certainly the case that a less skilled gamer friend can compete and have fun without being completely muscled out skill-wise. The only drawbacks I can see are that someone has to own a Wii U and be willing to subject it to a party environment. I personally think that the Wii U is a worthy purchase and more than suitable for a party so if you have the gear you can stop reading this article now and take that as your New Year game recommendation from me. If you're not adopting the new console just yet (reasonable) then please read on.

Granny is unsure. Granny reads on

I'm going to go back to 7th Gen for inspiration and say that Rayman Origins is still the game to be playing outright if you haven't finished that with your mates yet. If you haven't played it all the way through on co-op or haven't got sick of hitting each other's characters in the face whilst chasing those pesky red challenge chests then just go play the fuck out of that. It's still one of the greatest party games ever made. If you want an alternative co-op challenge that still stacks up then you can't go too far wrong with Castle Crashers for Xbox Live Arcade. It's newcomer friendly. Also, why not earn that achievement in Portal 2 for helping a mate get through it? Surely that's worth an evening with one special friend or lover?

But I still haven't finished. PS3's Sony All-Stars Battle Royale has very recently come out and at first glance it appears to tick all the boxes. It has offline multiplayer, a very low entry barrier and a strong sense of party atmosphere built in. It's being released on a console that someone is likely to own and be comfortable bringing along to a party (despite the fact the console weighs more than all of Neptune's moons combined) and it's got bags of nostalgia factor going for it even without Crash or Spyro in the character roster. My problem with it is that it appears to hold up more strongly as a two player fighter such as Tekken than it does as a four player brawler and you can see that the game design is heavily influenced by the standard beat 'em up formula. The risk-based AP fighting system is a really neat idea. The game is full of neat ideas but I'm still not yet convinced that the game is super awesome yet so can't with all honesty stake my reputation on it.

It'd be like recommending a calendar based novel having only read until Easter. Only time will tell.

I will say this though. It's definitely worth playing and getting the practice hours in as it will take over a living room near you this New Year whether you like it or not so for that reason alone, start getting good at it! But here's the cop out Super Smash Brothers Melee is a rich man's version of Sony All-Stars and if I'm going to recommend a four player brawler for this holiday season I can't really say fairer than SSBM. If you haven't got really into this game yet then you should do so although I would recommend that groups of players start toying with handicaps to level the playing field somewhat as it is an incredibly easy game to be muscled out of. Enjoy the holidays!

P.S. By the way. SSBM is my choice, cop-out or no

Friday, 14 December 2012

Falling is Fun, and Fun is Fun

As part of my consistent efforts to be deliberately behind the line and out of the loop, I've recently been playing all of the platformers and puzzle games that everyone was raving about last year, or even earlier. Most notably Portal 2 and Rayman Origins. Now whilst playing these, I noticed all of the normal things that everyone noticed months and months ago about them being really well written, voice acted, innovative, unique, charming e.t.c e.t.c. However, I think I noticed something that no one else has captured quite as efficiently as I hope to in the next sentence. They are fun. That's it. Particularly Rayman. I'd almost forgotten what that feeling was like for a game, and playing Rayman was like experiencing transcendental bliss. At one point I just started laughing and when my co-op partner asked why, I simply told her that I was uncontrollably happy.
This is a candid photo of me, the first time I got a medal. I don't know who took the picture.

So, to me, these games are a shortcut to a zen-like nirvana because of how fun they are. This seems important; let's look at why, or specifically one aspect of why. I think it has to do with the way that they don't punish you, as for some games, punishment is essential. We're all a little masochistic at heart, but these games don't drag you down with realism and as the title of this article suggests, I think that has to do with falling. Fall damage sucks. I've never heard anyone say, 'I hated when the game let me jump off a mountain and be totally fine', but there's plenty of rage and anger directed towards games that make us traverse needlessly thin platforms and then punish us for taking a tumble. I delight in watching Ben play Mario 64 because he gets to exploit the snow mountain level - you start at the top and traverse the obstacles to reach the bottom - except you don't, because if you know it well enough you can just jump straight off at the right moment and land at the finish line. He's earned that privilege by playing the game for years on end and it's fun to watch, I imagine fun to do too. I very sincerely doubt that the game would be made more fun if Mario was punished for this game-breaking, terminal velocity fall by crippling both his health and the rest of his body.
Who would have thought a design this perfect could be flawed in any way?

So in Rayman, whilst there are plenty of bottomless pits that will kill you instantly (and the same is true of Portal), just occasionally you pull off a body-slam or a portal jump in just the right place and get the joy of hurtling towards your objective free from any fear of hitting the ground with a thud. On a related note, I heard a rumour when Portal first came out, that the developers had to go back in and add the foot springs to Chell's feet because testers thought her extreme falling ability was unrealistic...In a game based entirely around a teleportation gun. But why not give these foot springs to all characters from everything ever? Look at every genre you can think of, RPGs, FPSs, Adventure, Horror, Life Simulators, all of these genres could benefit from careless clumsy vertical drops. Why is it that we make certain concessions for things video games are allowed to do - Health Bars, HUDs, timelessness, First aid kits as a universal panacea for gunshot wounds - yet gravity gets such a hard rap in video games? I know I can't actually fall 40 feet and walk away unscathed, but I can't fight a dragon or touch a gun without pissing myself, that's why I'm playing a game.  This is why Rayman is fun. They understand the escapism of games and so just pump it full of joy; if you mess up, it doesn't punish you, and in fact in co-op you turn into a bubble and float around until you're saved, and that's almost as much fun as actually being alive.

They have an underwater level and it doesn't even suck or nothing. In fact it's great! Jesus this game is good. Someone tell 2011.
Look at bungie jumping or freefalling. We all love hurtling through the air, but we all hate liquifying when we hit the ground, that's why we're constantly looking for ways to have our cake and eat it too. But that's what games should be about. Gaming is like a reality in which we get to make up the rules, like a lucid dream. We all have dreams of flying. Sometimes we even have hopes of dreaming about flying; that's how much we love the idea of hitting the ground without consequence and that's a power that games have the chance to grant us, but for some reason choose to ignore most of the time. Have you ever fallen off something and broken a bone? It's quite likely that you have, or know someone that has. Did you, or that person at any point think 'Hey, this is great, I'm having a blast'? If the answer is no, please help me eradicate this sensation from games, and write a letter to your local MP. I'm going to start an internet petition. People listen to those right?

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Put that one there; the plague of backseat gaming

Games are a great way of testing you mentally. Obviously they're good for many other things, but I’m glad that we can all agree that most games are at the very least an intellectual challenge. However, most games offer a single-player challenge. Now, watching other people play video game is great, but the chances are the people you are watching don’t want your help.

To highlight my point, let’s take a quick look at Mr Tom Dransfield. Tom enjoys nothing more than spending his evening grinding away at some new challenge. I personally enjoy nothing more than telling him where he is going wrong. I can’t help it, I’m not saying I’m any more intelligent than he is (I am) but often when watching a game without the added stresses and tensions of playing the game, you tend to figure out the big picture slightly quicker.

You should totally turn right at the next puzzle block

Combine this with the obvious limitations caused my brain's inability to vocalise a solution any sooner than 1.5 seconds after I figure it out, my advice coming at the same moment Tom has figured out the problem for himself is a common occurrence; not to mention my advice will often consist of nothing more than the meaningless phrase “Push that one”.

What I’m saying is that I’m surprised I've yet to be punched in the face with an Xbox controller.

The first step is admitting that your have a problem

So if like me you can’t resist the challenge of a puzzling game, please just play it yourself and if you have to watch someone else playing video games, remember to give them the courtesy of your silence; nobody wants your advice, because not only does it ruin their fun, but your advice will often be late, useless or just plain wrong.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Tricking Perverts into Playing Great Games

I'm going to go out on a limb here and I won't be disheartened if nobody backs me on this, sexuality is a confusing place, for everyone. I don't mean the often misconstrued and badly represented, do you like boys or girls kind of confusing; I mean the weirdly repressed, suppressed, untalked of, ever present and just ocassionally terrifying world of individual sexuality that exists in everyone behind this thin veil that we call society. Now I'm not going to try to weigh in on this and try to solve any of society's problems, sexuality is difficult and tricky for everyone all the time, that's a fact. What I will say is this though, a lot of people complain about sex in the media, usually on the grounds of decency, exposure or simply just 'think of the children'. But I have come up with what I think is a much better argument - everyone is a bit fucked up and money grabbing ad men aren't exactly helping the situation.
I typed 'Sexually Confusing Advert' into Google. Here's a tip, don't do that

Now, before I creep any readers out by mentioning the word sex again, I'd like to steer this neatly into video games. The depiction of alluring women in video games is a subject that has received a lot of coverage over the years, many essays, news articles and research proposals have attempted to delve into the heart of the problem, proclaiming that it's wrong, exploitative, emotionally damaging, potentially dangerous and perhaps worst of all, largely ignoring the sizeable heterosexual female gamer market. But here's the thing, I didn't care. Not because I disagreed with any of these points, or just loathe reactionary news stories by 40 something journalists who never picked up a control pad, but simply because most of the games that were being lambasted totally sucked noodles. If they want to use Lara Croft's pixelated assets to sell more copies of Tomb Raider, fine, the gameplay is still dull and the platforming is horrible to manage, I ain't buying it. But recently the problem of using sex to sell games has washed up on my prudish shores and that's because of the recent trend of genuinely excellent games that are steeped in sex and perversion for pretty much no reason at all.
Well of course it's an article about Bayonetta, look at the title

 Two titles that I've recently devoted a lot of time to are the games Bayonetta and Catherine, both fantastic games for very different reasons. Bayonetta is one of the best god of war/devil may cry type beat-up-demonic-monsters games that you're likely to find. And Catherine is an intensely complex, multi-faceted and unique puzzle game....uh, and a disturbing dating simulator. And there's the problem, every time you pull off (wahey) a successful move in Bayonetta you are 'rewarded' with pretty much all of her clothes coming off - her clothes are made of her hair, which is also her main makes sense in some weird way if you play - and equally in Catherine, every time you reach the summit of another challenging level you are 'treated' to a (no joke) twenty minute interactive erotic story about a detestable, pathetic protagonist and the ludicrously proportioned women who throw themselves at him.
Sorry Zeta Jones, first Google result goes to cartoon Catherine
For the record, I have nothing against dating simulators, I think they're boring, but so is Tiger Woods Golf and nobody gets given grief for enjoying those games. And perversion is also nothing I'm against, morally or otherwise, in fact as I alluded to in that disturbing opening paragraph, I think we're all perverts in our own individual ways, like lots of precious dirty snowflakes. I wouldn't even call these games perverted, that would be to wrongly marginalise the people who enjoy that content within them. The problem is simply putting sex where it seems completely unneeded, in every sense of the word, simply because, hell, both of these games happen to be incredibly difficult. When I manage to perform a seamless combo in Bayonetta, I'm not pleased because I got a glimpse of arse, I'm happy because the fight itself was an incredible challenge. Even if arousal was something I was looking for from my Xbox  It'd be like trying to maintain an erection whilst solving a Rubik's cube, it can't be done (submit your videos directly to YouTube and link me).
Why are you so happy? Your other hand had better be on another rubik's cube
Sex and terrible games go hand in hand, and rightfully so, companies love selling them, people love buying them. But sex and great games have no place in bed together. The worst thing is, I'm now in the horrible position of loving both of these games uncontrollably; the conversation is always the same: "Man, have you played Bayonetta?" "ooohh Yeah, isn't that the game where she..." "Yes! Fine! But it's also really really good despite that, please try it" I have to spend the first 5 minutes trying to explain that I don't sit at home sweaty palmed and drooling; sometimes I even try writing an incredibly long article about it. But as I find, time and time again, the harder you work to convince people it isn't true, the worse you end up looking by the time you're done.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Living with the consequences; a love affair with auto-save

Back in the days of the arcades, gaming failure carried a real world incentive; when you died, you paid up. In the transition to consoles the measure of failure remained in the form of the lives system, albeit now without the financial hit. As gaming has evolved over the last decade or so, there has been a clear shift away from this outdated system towards new ones that punish failure in more sophisticated ways.

Bankruptcy was common for gamers in the 1980's

From World of Warcraft’s degrading armour to Diablo III’s perma-death mode, there are many ways in which a game can punish you for failing, but one feature all the best punishment schemes have in common is that they are irreversible. If you die, you can’t just reload to 5 minutes earlier and make everything ok, you have to live with the consequences of disappointing the game. And here we see my favourite way of enforcing punishment on a player; forced auto-saving.

See, you didn't just waste 25 hours, your deeds will be remembered.

The main role of autosaving is taking the responsibility of remembering to save completely out of your hands, though many games will also let you create other ‘back-up’ saves; for the purposes of getting to my point let’s look at what happens when there is no back-up.

Consider Heavy Rain, Quantic Dream’s dramatic thriller, in which you only have one save file per playthrough. One thing I should mention about this game is that it is pretty darn tense, and as a result you are prone to sudden (often stupid) reactions; combine this with constant autosaving and what you have is a game where you have to deal with every mistake you make unless you want to start over.

You overlooked a key clue at a crime scene? Deal with it.
You stood on some crisps and alerted nearby threats? Deal with it.
You missed a punch and took a sledgehammer to the face? Deal with it. Also that nice detective is now dead because of you, you dick.

These will forever terrify you.

I reserve no modesty in telling you that I managed to keep all four characters alive during my first play-through  however knowing that they could (very easily) die at various points in the game added to both the tension of the game and my commitment to the characters, and I don’t believe Heavy Rain would work if you could simply undo your last move with a quick-load.

Obviously, Heavy Rain a very stylised game, but that doesn't mean this model can’t work elsewhere. Some examples of games that use auto-save successfully include X-COM’s Iron Man mode, Dark Souls and Minecraft; these games bring fear and consequence back to failure, and whilst at times this can be frustrating, I’ll never find avoiding losing a life as rewarding as avoiding losing my team-mates  my soul or my giant golden statue of Megaman.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Narrative In Detective Games

I’ve had a theory since my last article about the narrative in Batman: Arkham City. The reason that Batman isn’t a compelling protagonist and his villains steal the spotlight from him so often is because he is a Detective. By this, I mean that Batman’s actions does not drive the plot, his villains do, resulting in him being a more passive character who exists to restore status quo. For example, it contrasts games such as Uncharted, Call of Duty or Skyrim as their protagonists set events in motion, make choices and are much more crucial to the narrative.

Batman’s a big fan of Status Quo.
It could be said that this is evident in the Christopher Nolan films as The Dark Knight Rise makes Batman a more compelling character than in The Dark Knight. In The Dark Knight, Batman is just trying to catch the Joker and counter-act his scheme. This means that Batman is without a character arc and the plot is driven entirely by the Joker. Whereas in the Dark Knight Rises, he’s much more of a fighter and has to develop and overcome how crippled he is at the beginning. Take away the Bat motif and fancy gadgets and you essentially have a Rocky film, even down to how incoherent the main character is.
This doesn’t just apply to Batman. This is a problem that Detective games as a whole can suffer from and may be why there isn’t a huge market in them. It is the role of the Detective (hereby known as the “D-man”) to follow a story by means of examining its effect on the environment. Therefore the D-man (hereby known as “Magnum PI”) is basically a middle man between the audience and the plot making his role fairly redundant. Admittedly you can characterise Magnum PI (hereby known as “Tom Selleck’s Moustache”) to respond emotionally to the events before him and make him either a hard drinking, wise-cracking, police bruiser or a cowardly and malnourished hippy with a talking dog but it still doesn’t mean they have any control over the events that occurred.


Did you know Magnum PI was actually based on Agatha Christie’s Poirot but with a Moustache update?
Another problem that Tom Selleck’s Moustache Simulators have is that they are very hard to categorise into one genre. The natural assumption is that they would fall under puzzle games as they are presenting mental challenges to the player. However, there is a difference between the two. For example, Professor Layton isn’t a Detective game; it’s a puzzle game with a mystery narrative. A Good Detective game should give you the ability to wrong and make erroneous conclusions and still be able to proceed. Professor Layton is a mystery story is based around pseudo brain training exercises throughout the game. What makes a Detective game unique is it lets you piece together a continuous thread of events bound by reason, motive and opportunity, that is an entirely different experience and feeling to doing a Rubix’s cube and reading a bit of text as a reward like in Layton.
L.A. Noire had many issues (especially in its production) but was still a solid detective game at its core. Once again its genre was fairly broad as it contained elements action, adventure and even had the arbitrary scavenger hunting for collectibles that must be in all sandbox games these days by law. Cole Phelps, the protagonist, receives a lot of good characterisation in the game. We are shown flash backs to his military career in short cut scenes as an origin for him. His interactions with characters show him as incredibly self-righteous, having a clearly defined morality. He doesn’t adhere to the social norm of the time by discriminating against people based on their race, gender or religion like many of his colleagues. However, when his superior officers show these prejudices, he stands in line, showing his soldier like respect for the chain of authority. We see that all his of his moralising is just to perpetuate an image of him as a good cop and receive acceptance from others and that he is both an insecure and flawed character. Its shame that even with all his depth, Cole’s story outside of the cases is he gets a few promotions, rubs up the mafia the wrong way before finally getting an abrupt and dissatisfying ending.

Cole Phelps Car Buying Tip #164: Always check for a spare tire first. 
Maybe that’s a problem with games that emulate people’s jobs. The characters generally lack arcs and growth because they are literally just doing a 9-5. Would you criticise a game like Trauma Centre for the Wii because a surgeon doesn’t breakdown from the difficulties of maintaining patient relationships in regard to the frailty of human life? Would you criticise Cooking Mama because she doesn’t monologue about being trapped in a loveless marriage? No. So maybe it’s harsh to judge Detective games in this respect. What Detective games do like nothing else, is let us approach a story from an outsiders perspective as both the Detective and player go in knowing nothing and learn together throughout.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

The Writers' Guild Award For Video Game Scripts

Did you know the Writer’s Guild of Great Britain gives awards for best video game script? Well they do. I don’t know why I was surprised to find this out recently. The average video game script has about 7000 lines which, when you think about it, is a mind blowing amount of dialogue. To give that figure a reference point, the average film is only 600-1000 lines long. Writing a script of such magnitude and trying to keep it engaging, while not making a game become disjointed is an achievement that deserves a great deal of praise and recognition.
Seriously, who watches the VGAs? Not on Neil Patrick Harris’s watch.
It’s a shame that I’m questioning the first decision I heard from the Writers’ Guild. The winner this year was Paul Crocker, one of the writers behind Batman: Arkham City. Don’t get me wrong, I love Arkham City. It’s well paced, incredibly designed and has a lot of depth to it. However, in terms of its dialogue, my only description really is that it is functional. Batman says he needs to go to a place. Batman comments about the indirect route he needs to take to get into a place. Batman questions a guy about which place he needs to go to next. Repeat until you’ve got about 10 hours of gameplay.

Because Violence doesn’t solve everything.
There isn’t one character interaction in the whole game that I would call exciting. The overall story was okay but it didn’t really get much further than “What’s protocol 10?” and that’s pretty much forgotten an hour in to the game in favour of Batman doing a convoluted series of fetch quests. In fact, the game has to keep telling you that Protocol 10 is happening by means of a really unsubtle reminder by Hugo Strange’s countdown. The only parts which I think could even be called a stand out piece of writing is the Hugo Strange tape to Batman, a few inmate interviews and possibly the Joker voicemails; and even then I can’t be sure how much of that can be put down to the sublime quality of voice acting.

The game still manages to be exciting but on reflection, I find it’s because of the things that Batman does cool rather than anything he says. The engaging things I recall are moments such as Batman leaping from a bell tower to avoid an explosion; Batman drifting in and out of reality when fighting in a drug induced state; and who could forget the simple pleasures of Batman beating up a shark.

It’s like this, except the shark repellent is his fists.
Maybe this is just an inherent issue with the character of Batman. He doesn’t really get emotionally involved in anything he does. It’s like watching an accountant in the hope he’ll have a breakdown and reveal his true emotional colours when performing an audit or contemplating his tax returns (in this simile, “performing an audit” means “beating the misguided, criminal underclasses into submission” and “contemplating his tax returns” means “contemplating the time he beat up a shark” ). The whole Writers Guild award thing seems that is was due to game sales and by the numbers reviews rather than overall writing merit. I mean last year saw the release of Bastion, one of the best narratives I’ve played through since Portal and far more deserving of the award. Now the voice over from Bastion over a Batman game, that is an award winning game right there.

Side note:
My other two main pleasures from the game come from:
1) making some kind of pun, turning detective mode on and singing The Who to emulate CSI Gotham.
2) Getting in a fight with a group of thugs and playing this playing in the background:

Monday, 12 November 2012

Does Dark Souls give you a Dark Mind? - A Psych evalutation of the current male residents of Bedford 11

There's a very popular personality test used by employers and psychiatrists to divide people up into four main trait classes, each with four sub classes. Apparently I am a Guardian Protector. Reading up about it actually convinced me that the theory behind the testing framework was definitive  but other intelligence has come to light that suggests otherwise.  I now know that From Software's Dark Souls holds the key to understanding the innate psychological profile of anyone who is made to play this game.

Take myself for instance, I completed my first playthrough as a female Sorcerer by the name of Munfupper. Note that I completed my playthrough, which already means that I have the tenacity, persistence and wisdom to accomplish my goals in the face of both crippling difficulty and immense pressure. However, my character build also revealed a certain level lethargy and moderation. I almost exclusively relied on a high intelligence statistic and a couple of very powerful sorceries to win almost all of my boss encounters. I would rarely entertain the notion on attempting a boss fight unless I was reasonably confident that the spells in my possession would have more than enough damage potential for me to win without having to resort to any other form of combat. I played the game with skill and intellect and to great effect, but took almost no risks at all. It shows an chronic default level of restraint in my psyche.

If both my Kamehameha and my Spirit Bomb fail, I'm generally fucked
Contrast with Tom Dransfield's build, a berserk motherfucker (named Tiawoo) with an axe of lightning and a nothing but a butcher's sack for her headgear. There were countless times throughout Tom's (ongoing :p) playthrough where anything but a sack would have made Tiawoo's life that little bit easier stats wise but Tom had forsaken all but the sack for the sake of the sack itself. Bear in mind that this is a man who created an entirely naked Elder Scroll's character simply named 'The Fist'. This hardcore aesthetic isn't just for show either. Tom plays with a very direct and in your face manner, using Tiawoo's relentless lightning strike combos to cut through defenses and stagger slow enemies. The only enemies that give Tiawoo much trouble (other than the final boss :p) are those which are effectively brick walls that nullify her desperado offensives. However, as we know from his own blog posts on the subject, Tom rather enjoys running into brick walls endlessly for hours on end and so too is Tiawoo. I also know that if Tom wants something, it would take a pretty tangible and real obstacle to deter him from doing so, (a big fiery king for instance :p). Tom plays the game with an intense sense of passion and style, which fits in with his no compromise style of living. Direct in Dark Souls, direct in life.

Ragna the Bloodedge from BlazBlue, with his unblockable sword attacks and anarchicism, is a good fit for Tom.

Where Tom shuns indirect methods, Liam champions them. Etheroth (his Thief Archer) is more than capable of parrying, evading and generally stabbing away at adversaries that are of a similar lightweight build to Etheroth's skinny woman body. For most other challenges, Liam is more than happy to exploit terrain, glitches and game mechanics to sit Etheroth down somewhere and fire an endless stream of arrows at the unsuspecting enemy. Oddly enough, it can be very difficult to aggro certain enemies in the game with arrows at various points in Dark Souls. Where I'd find this immersion breaking and Tom would find it wussy, Liam does not give a flying fuck so long as it means he's winning and making progress. A very methodical and business like approach to playing this game means that Liam has all the best gear (stats speaking), is able to farm for souls optimally and ruthlessly (and hypocritically) uses game guides to find all the elusive loot drops, hidden rooms and enemy weaknesses. That leaves only logical evaluation for Liam and his Etheroth play style...

I could have also gone with Business Scrub from Zelda
Many personality tests exist. I quite enjoy this one used by companies worldwide to categorise their employees/applicants and of course the D&D alignment test. They're well worth doing for their own sakes but if you really want to see what truly lies within your mind and spirit. Try your hand at Dark Souls. It will get inside your head.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Undefined Laws of Momentum In Video Games

by Tom Dransfield

Let me just start by saying, I love momentum. Simply love it. Can't get enough; I use it nearly every day. And yet it seems like sometimes momentum is ignored, overlooked or otherwise sidelined in games, when it is in-fact so crucial for going into what makes a game truly excellent. Physics is hard to grasp, or so I hear, but this isn't necessarily about physics, at least not in the A over B = neutron bomb sense; this is all about the physics of satisfaction. If you want to ask yourself what it is that makes Super smash bros. Melee an out and out enjoyable, non-stop beat-em-up romp, the answer isn't the characters, zany items, nostalgia or even rubbing your stupid best-friend's face in the digitally rendered dirt with a world breaking smash.
In my mind, Ness looks like this after a sweet connection. His 'true form'
The answer is the inexplicable satisfaction that comes from making a great meaty blow connect with your opponent and seeing your former foe go flying across the screen. If you want a notable example of how important this is, you need only to look at Smash Bros. Brawl, a game that kept all of the same fun items, characters, powers and gameplay, but somehow managed to lose the enjoyment that comes from the physical momentum of the previous title.
But for some reason, that appears to be a common pattern within games that really get the physics right, they love releasing sequels that miss the mark completely. It's well known that the sonic series has really nailed and really failed at satisfying physics time and time again like they're grasping at slippery fish; sometimes even within the very same game - like Adventure or Generations.
"Yeah, speed platforming is okay, but I'd like to see more heavy, clunky robots and laser targeting" - No one

But it's easy to see why, the balance is incredibly hard to achieve, but once its there everyone can see it. You can pick up a game and within 30 seconds of running about say "this is it" or equally "this is not it". The games that do it right, really sparkle with an undefined quality, if you want a fun immersive city-wide romp, you can pick up Spiderman 2 and enjoy swinging between buildings freely like the wiry hero himself to the point where you almost feel the wind in your spandex. Alternatively, you can pick up infamous, and slowly crawl, shuffle, grind and climb your way around a city like a Zapdos with it's wings clipped. But this is what I've been building up to all article, the best single example of momentum done fantastically well.....are you ready?

I've looked everywhere and I still can't find my rose tinted spectacles. Oh here they are, on my face.
The answer is Jet Set Radio, a true gem of both wonderful stylisation and phenomenal gameplay. You weren't always fast in jet set radio, you weren't always graceful, often you'd trip, fall, get shot and just generally make a fool of yourself, but guess what, that's because you're not doing it right. The same was true that summer when you really tried to rollerblade, but for the pros, real-life rollerblading is a world of unlimited freedom and effortless movement. If you can't do it, the game won't just let you coast on by with some easy mechanics, but when you're good, oh boy is it good. The same is true of Melee and it's what makes that so incredible to play in relation to it's dumbed down sequel. When you become well practiced in these games, you become a true artisan of the physics, akin to a ballet dancer. Whether it's performing that connecting smash after rolling around your opponent twenty-odd times, or if it's grinding your way to victory in one of the torturously difficult race levels of JSR; getting good takes time, and your reward is perfectly flowing, flawless momentum.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Reinventing the Self: A look at character creation - by Michael Dodds

In October 2012 two games were released that I desired so much that I valued them higher than a victory over Jak Marshall at Smash Brothers Melee and a hug from Bryan Cranston combined. 
...and I adore this man's hugs.
Dishonored and XCOM Enemy Unknown have been sweeping the review tables, as well as sweeping off the shelves. However, being a student and concurrently living on a weekly budget similar to a post glory days MC Hammer, I could only afford one. While both games possess multiple play styles, nail biting tension, and unparalleled immersion, XCOM Enemy Unknown won my forty-odd quid in the end. The reason for this? I love the ability to make my own characters.

Character creation is something that has been around for decades. We all remember the first family we ever made in The Sims, only to move them into a mansion and drown them. 
"At last. The life I've always wanted"
However, it’s only been recently that I’ve realized what a profound affect character creation can have on the feel of a game. Recently starting a new gameplay of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, I realized that I was fiddling with the cheekbones and jaw line of my Dark Elf for a good 20 minutes or so before I was happy to continue with the ravaging of Helgen and the beginning of my quest. Keep in mind, this is a game where the only opportunity to see your character’s face is to stand still, weapon sheathed, and zoom the camera around your head like a crazed bluebottle.

This doesn’t change the fact that knowing you have a unique character can help you enjoy a unique game experience. While many will charge on through the various customization menus and settle for a default character setting, and a similar number of people will meticulously construct the most photogenic character they can, the majority of us enjoy the feeling of taking charge of our character’s appearance. In games such as Mass Effect, you’re going to be fabricating an inherently good or evil character based on your actions in the game, so why not alter his or her appearance to suit this? The appearance of an old, battle scarred saint to uphold justice and reason, or of a young, twisted and devious bastard who bullies others into doing his or her bidding can make or break the feel of a character.
"You think this is a motherfucking game, son?" 

Having a character creation option will not inherently guarantee a unique game experience. While many will want to lynch me for saying this, I feel that games such as Saints Row 3 can have as many hair styles, wacky skin colours and boob size-adjusters that they want; their gameplay is still about as immersive as a fucking duckpond. Similarly, my love of character creation screens should not be taken to mean that I don't respect a game with well designed and well written characters. Certain games manage (and have always managed, might I add) to perfect an engaging and interesting world while neglecting to give the option to create a character at all. Would Deus Ex: Human Revolution have been even better if you had the option to change the aesthetics of the brooding, half-synthetic protagonist? I doubt it.
I never asked to look so god damn awesome. 
Nonetheless, in certain games character creation just seems irreplaceable. In a similar fashion to Skyrim, the first half hour or so of XCOM Enemy Unknown was spent tweaking each and every one of my rookies from boring space marines into unique individuals. By the time I actually got round to any missions, I was particularly fond of such squad members as Albino Viking (a tall and ghostly white solider with a Swedish flag printed on his back), and Phase Boy (a teenage solider with fluorescent pink hair and a pubescent 'tasche; “He’s just going through a phase”). 

Of course, when each of these characters routinely met their doom by the hordes of invading aliens that awaited them it broke my heart, but that’s the point. Every so often, I visit the memorial in my base’s barracks, and reminisce about each and every fallen hero that I myself crafted. So, while character creation might seem like a trivial gimmick to many, it may surprise you what a splash of creativity can do when it comes to enjoying a game.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Games is art

I offer you this vignette

Picture me, Jak Marshall, and the handsome figure I cut at at the bar of the V.I.P upstairs area of a well to do wine bar.  The ad revenue from this blog more than pays for my suit and drinks whilst my fame alone allows me to stride past any bouncer in any city in the world. Powerhouses of industry, art and academia are in attendance and I get talking to a smoky black haired woman in a cocktail dress to die for and hazel eyes that both swallow my soul and pierce it at once.

I'm so cool

 Before I can ask her name she crosses one leg over the other and asks me which video games I'm playing at the moment as my 'mains' . I take a deliberate (and dare I say suave) drink before calmly stating to her that I'm currently attempting a Dark Souls run as a Deprived class to keep my instincts sharp whilst also revisiting Sonic Adventure 2 Battle to really explore the early 3D era of Sega. She doesn't tell me her name but she responds by saying that she is replaying 'the best' Final Fantasy game in the series and shoots me a challenging look. There is a brief silence before I ask her which Guardian Forces (I'd be a Philistine to refer to them as 'summons' of course) she'll be attributing to each of the main characters. Next thing I know I'm in my bed with this woman smoking a cigarette while we snuggle for warmth under my Luigi's Mansion themed duvet. She tells me that her name is Zelda. We are in love. The End.

While the above scenario all sounds perfectly logical it rarely ever happens to anyone in this setting. The blissful feeling one has when someone they find attractive lets it slip that they are actually well versed in the language of gaming is enhanced more so by the rarity of these occasions. Also, the haunting feeling that so many more of these occasions have been missed plays a big role. Social media routinely asks people to submit their favourite movies, musicians and television shows to be audited by the society. This doesn't happen with video games and it really really should. Not only is the worldwide participation level of gaming at least on par with (arguably in excess of) cinema and literature as a leisure activity but it is also an art medium in its own right. Before anybody disagrees with me please read the following wrong arguments that you wrong people might give for your wrong opinion and see how wrong you are first. Thanks. If you believe I've straw manned this argument (I may well have done) then please step up and offer your two cents.

I couldn't find any pictures of Straw Men, just loads of scarecrows for some reason.

Gaming hasn't been around as long as TV, books or movies. -- First of all, art is art from the second it is created. It doesn't need to be hang around to be 'made' into art like some kind of Mafia promotion. Secondly, if you account for the time it took for movies and TV to become art forms at all compared to literature and then compare literature's rise to power relative to pictograms and drawings then one will quickly find that humanity is rapidly accelerating the pace at which it comes up with new art forms. By all logic if you believe that video games haven't been around long enough to be art, then one can hardly include movies and television  as art either. They're just too young! See? Sounds stupid doesn't it?

It's a substitute for a real experience (Guitar Hero vs. learning guitar). -- All art is an experience. There is also this idea that people record or imagine experiences that they or someone else (real or not)    may have had and put these ideas into a form that can be then consumed or interpreted by a general audience. These 'substitutes' can come in the form of books, scripts and songs. Not everyone enjoys 'I Kissed a Girl' by Katy Perry because they can directly relate to a woman's bi-curious experimentation nor do they necessarily want that experience. It's just a thing that's there to be enjoyed or not. Furthermore, sports games such as FIFA and PES are popular because they play well and look good. People don't play FIFA to approximate the experience of playing football. They play FIFA to play FIFA.

It felt so wrong, it felt so right...

The interactive element makes it not art -- Utter rubbish. Video games are a revival of interactive art. Forum/improvised theatre still maintains a presence across the globe which dates back to ancient times. Crowd sourced projects also allow the creators and audience to be one and the same. Interaction also allows for unique new ways to induce emotions that are in part triggered by manipulating an interactive audience's expectations and desires of the medium of games. Even without the dramatic story telling elements being the main selling point, codes and engines are to a game as tools and materials are to artists. What even constitutes a 'game' is not exactly clear in the same way as defining 'art' is. A game can have goals and rules if it wants to but equally it is only bound by what can be imagined and constructed by its creators.  

This is nowhere near an exhaustive list of points but the gauntlet has been thrown down. Let the haters hate, doesn't stop them all from being wrong.