Thursday, December 27, 2012

Global Gaming: Pyongyang Racer (North Korea)

With each post in this mini-feature, I highlight a game from a different country around the world. Keep in mind these aren't necessarily the best or most popular games from each nation, but simply a fitting representative.

Pyongyang Racer - Nosotek, 2012 (play it here)

I bet you weren't expecting a game from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Pyongyang Racer was developed by Nosotek, "the only company in Pyongyang offering western working conditions and Internet access" according to the studio's official website.

It's the first North Korean videogame playable in the West, although I've still had issues getting the browser-based game to load. I would describe it, but the game's website describes it better than I ever could:

"Finally, gamers have a chance to enjoy a driving game based in North Korea, in road rally format where drivers have to capture gasoline cans in order to continue their adventure. Pyongyang Racer, a video game developed in conjunction with a tour company, lets racers ride around the DPRK capital and see the sights, such as a bigger version of France's Arc De Triopmhe. There are also plenty of chances to obey the traffic wardens, which are a site unique to the streets of Pyongyang despite the overall lack of traffic and the rest of the world's fixation with automated traffic signals. In what may be a sign of new openness on behalf of the famed "Hermit Kingdom" which has been ruled by only 3 people in the last 60 years, the Pyongyang Racer video game opens up this piece of the world and gives a glimpse of a unique culture that is known to only a few. The simplicity of the gameplay, and the toned down graphics, serve as a welcome throwback to games of the past which focused far more on gameplay than visual effects. Those who are old enough to remember 8-bit consoles and the hours spent playing them will take note of the concept that flashy effects still take a back seat to the challenge of the game itself. In this setting, Pyongyang Racer offers great promise except for those who hope to find the legendary unicorn lair known to be sequestered in Pyongyang's past. 
Notes and Special Information 
Special note: In actual North Korea, you may have more difficulty with such driving, or driving around in general, since the capital city may have traffic wardens on every corner, but is not known for traffic congestion."
It's goofy enough to make you think it's a parody. But it's not. As to be expected, this is incredibly bizarre. Is this the first leak in the dam before the North Korean Revolution of Game Design? You be the judge.

The Global Gaming map so far (zoom out for full map):

View Global Gaming Spotlight in a larger map

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Vocal Music in Games: MadWorld

In a continuing effort to reveal my poor tastes in not only games but music, I present the second entry in my series highlighting vocal music in videogames. 

When people think of the Wii they tend to imagine a family friendly motion sensitive casual gaming experience filled with the likes of Mario and other Nintendo mascots.  The ultra-violent and ultra-stylish MadWorld from Platinum Games is definitely as departure from traditional Wii fare.  For those unfamiliar with the game, MadWorld puts players in control of Jack, a bad dude with a chainsaw, as he is forced to compete in a game/reality show that puts contestants in a series of violent struggles and challenges.  Think Smash TV but instead of gameplay reminiscent of Robotron it borrows more from the fast paced style oriented beat ‘em ups and hack and slashers of the past decade.  Couple this rather low brow and base concept with a high contrast black and white presentation and you have yourself a fun blood filled romp of an artsy game.

Most of the games I intend to highlight in these features possess only one vocal song on their entire soundtrack, which naturally makes that song stick out more.  MadWorld is quite the oddity then, because it’s chock full of vocal tracks, as in every song has lyrics.  This musical departure from the norm infuses a sense of energy into the game to go with the homicidal tendencies of the main character, Jack.  It’s hard not to enjoy the stress relieving stylish virtual murdering of dudes when your actions are accompanied by the very descriptive lyrics of Ox, Doujah Raze, S.O.U.L. Purpose, Bandy Leggz, Wordsmith, Optimus, and Sick YG.  “It’s a Mad World” exemplifies the musical stylings of the title as it concisely delivers a summary of what you can expect from the game.

No time to waste, I'm on a death watch.Wipin' out the enemy is my next thought. 10K bounty, thoughts not cloudy. Chainsaw make ya brains raw, don't doubt me. Put your life on the line to survive. This game of death, you must thrive. Stay clear because the world is mine. And the right fist backs every word in my lines. Attack on sight - Red, Black, White. Is all that is needed. Delivering a beating. Face all bleeding, you're no longer breathing.Stop sign through your eye, life is depleting. Call me a heathen, this mad world is feeding. My appetite for destruction and my reasonIs to last, ya feeling my drift? If not, you can feel your chest cavity split.
It's a mad world. Better watch ya step. It's a mad world. Now take your last breath.
No one can be trusted, get your face busted. The result is a fatal concussion. Organ combustion, metal spike thrusting. Through your back, Jack has no time for discussion. Spike bat busting, man darts gushing. Through your flesh, it's a mess while I'm pushing.Your body in the trash can. Who will be the last man? Ask me, I'll reply Jack while I'm bashing your head in. Homicide veteran. Psycho. If you were me then you'd might go crazy. Looney. Schizo. Better yet, insane. Now I must come and cause pain. The price on my brain is at 10,000 dollars. Don't let the chainsaw stop ya. I slice through similar to a surgeon. This is my world and I'm still here lurking.
It's a mad world. Better watch ya step. It's a mad world. Now take your last breath.

No time to waste, I'm on a death watch. Wipin' out the enemy is my next thought. 10K bounty, thoughts not cloudy. Chainsaw make ya brains raw, don't doubt me. Put your life on the line to survive. This game of death, you must thrive. Stay clear because the world is mine. And the right fist backs every word in my lines. Attack on sight - Red, Black, White. Is all that is needed. Delivering a beating. Face all bleeding, you're no longer breathing. Stop sign through your eye, life is depleting. Call me a heathen, this mad world is feeding. My appetite for destruction and my reason is to last, ya feeling my drift? If not, you can feel your chest cavity split.
It's a mad world.Better watch ya step. It's a mad world.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

My relationship with violent videogames

After the most recent mass shooting in Connecticut, of course many people found a way to blame videogames yet again for "inspiring" kids to kill people. And of course, these claims are totally unfounded. Videogames do not make kids violent. In fact, with the surging popularity of games over the past twenty years comes the consistent decrease in youth violence since 1993. These arguments against videogames are hedged by people who don't understand the new medium, like they did with rock music in the '60s and rap music in the '90s.

But videogames do have an issue with violence. Although I repeat, games don't make kids violent, there are far too many violent videogames. Not because they're a murderous influence on kids--they're not--but because it shows how shallow games still are as an artform. It's easy to see why the casual observer thinks games train kids to kill--because the vast majority of mainstream blockbuster games today are about killing things, and in particular, shooting things with guns. Even if they aren't totally about killing things, they're still about killing things. Even Mario is about killing things.

Why are so many games about killing things? It's much easier to program compelling gameplay revolving around killing than it is to create interesting gameplay revolving around conversations. And with the history of games intertwined so deeply with "nerd" culture, we can see the appeal. For many socially awkward kids growing up, games are an escape from pressures at home and tension at school. This is why so many games invoke the power fantasy aimed at teenage boys.

When it comes to American game design in particular, our history of gun enthusiasm adds to the lust for  firearms in games. The first-person shooter genre was invented in the United States, and continues to be the most popular genre in this country. The first-person perspective makes the game more immersive for the player, and it's much easier to put a gun in players' hands than, say, a pen.

While the FPS gained prominence in the '90s with games like Doom and Quake, they were taken to the next level in the '00s. Halo truly made shooters accessible for the younger console gaming crowd, and the post-9/11 culture of fear perpetuated by the U.S. government and media has made us stick to our guns more fervently than ever.

But there is hope. As the medium matures and the average "gamer" grows into an adult, the industry will stop marketing games solely at teenage boys. We're already starting to see a wide variety of nonviolent games aimed at all sorts of people. Right now, many of those games are relegated to the independent scene, but an increasing number have gained mainstream attention.

Of course, I'm not saying there's no place for violence in games. Some of my all-time favorite games are about shooting things. But we shouldn't limit ourselves to that. There are classic films about killing, but not every classic film is about killing. There are classic novels about killing, but not every classic novel is about killing. As the games industry reaches its adolescence and grows into an adult art form, we'll see the nonviolent videogame become the standard.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Hobbit review

I was incredibly worried about The Hobbit. Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is one of the most important works of film in my life. I know, if I were a "real" fan I'd care more about J.R.R. Tolkien's original books. And I do. But being the age that I am, Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy came out smack dab in the middle of my formative years.

When The Fellowship of the Ring was released in December 2001, I had just turned 12. I remember seeing the very first trailer for the movie earlier that year; I spent the next few months rapidly reading The Hobbit and LotR in time for the film's release. While older fans took issue with the numerous changes Peter Jackson made to Tolkien's classics, I've essentially been experiencing the movies just as long as I've been experiencing the books, so to me Jackson's version is no less legitimate than Tolkien's version.

With The Hobbit, however, my time between reading the book and seeing the movie was much more significant. I had eleven years of reading the novel before Jackson's first Hobbit film came out yesterday. So I was afraid I would be far less receptive to the movie's changes than I had been to the changes in the LotR trilogy.

I was wrong.

It didn't start so well. I've long been a skeptic of 3D cinema being the wave of the future, as Yahtzee Croshaw illustrates more eloquently than I ever could. But Peter Jackson is insistent that 3D is the way to go with The Hobbit. So I trusted him. And what I got was... exactly what I thought. Upon the film starting, it looked like the cheesy cardboard-cutout 3D I expected. I thought I was bound to hate it for the duration of the film. Fortunately, by the end of the movie I stopped being bothered by the 3D effect, which I suppose shows its success. There were even a few nice 3D touches, particularly little things like smoke and a few close-up shots of characters' faces. But I still want to see the movie again in 2D.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Vocal Music in Games: Night Trap

Music: they say it's the universal language.  Well what about deaf people?  The people that say that look like assholes now don't they? Back on topic, music is present in almost all multimedia.  A lack of music in a video game is a stylistic choice that would be more striking to most gamers than a tremendous score (score in the musical sense not "point" sense, though I guess it really works either way).  I do love me a good original  soundtrack and find that I enjoy/appreciate game music a little more than regular music.  That is to say, if I was to listen to two identical songs but one was labeled "Generic Overture 5" from Even More Olde Timey Classics and the other was "Theme of Mobius 1" from the Ace Combat 04 official soundtrack, I would tend to gravitate towards the one that I remember engaging in high-stakes dogfights to.

It's a safe assumption that most people are the same and this applies to anything (tie-in marketing is more or less built around this idea).  I mean I mark more for Diamond Dallas Page's theme than "Smells Like Teen Spirit."  There's some association thing going on that causes people to enjoy certain products of an inferior quality if they are related to something else you enjoy.  But you don't need me to tell you that and right now this whole piece seems asinine.

Let me get to the point: game music is good.  Game music with a vocal track is a whole different level.  No matter how you hum a tune, doing it with other people makes you an a cappella group, and you don't want to be an a cappella group, do you?  So I will be singing the praises of some of gaming's vocal anthems.

We begin this excellent adventure with an full motion video game shrouded in controversy: Night Trap.  Much ass-devastation was had by the typical anti-gaming crowd of the early 90's over the game's supposed "ultra-violent" and "sick" content.  Hate was particularly aimed at one specific game-over scene.  Night Trap players would contest these claims, but were too busy reevaluating their life and the choices they made that would lead them to play the game.  Concern really should have been focused on the fact that the good guys were totally into SCAT.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Global Gaming: The Witcher (Poland)

With each post in this mini-feature, I highlight a game from a different country around the world. Keep in mind these aren't necessarily the best or most popular games from each nation, but simply a fitting representative.

The Witcher - CD Projekt RED, 2007

It's not often we see games directly based on books--at least not without a film adaptation in between. But like its Eastern European brethren 4A Games and their Metro 2033, Warsaw-based CD Projekt RED decided to take literary inspiration for their debut title. The Witcher is based on the cult fantasy series of the same name by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski.

Poland is so proud of its videogame creation that The Witcher's sequel, Assassins of Kings, was given to U.S. President Obama by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk as a gift when the two heads of state met last year.

The Witcher is a dark fantasy tale about, well, "witchers," or monster hunters. The series is given credit for taking a more mature approach to the genre than many other Western RPGs. This dark tone is indicative of Eastern European game design, and as the region gains prominence in the industry, hopefully we'll see a wider variety of melancholic tales drawing on Slavic imagery.

The global gaming map so far (zoom out for full map):

View Global Gaming Spotlight in a larger map

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The death of G4, and how to make a successful gaming TV channel

Last week, it was announced that videogame television channel G4 will be rebranded as the Esquire Channel in 2013. It's a loss for videogames--as the biggest industry in entertainment today, how could a videogame TV channel fail?

When discussing television channels devoted to a specific medium, many people point out that MTV doesn't exactly play music anymore. But MTV had a solid decade or so of music programming, and even today features a number of sister channels that actually play music videos.

G4's Attack of the Show

There seems to be an untapped TV market for videogames. In the future, how could a videogame channel succeed?

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Global Gaming: Lineage (South Korea)

With each post in this mini-feature, I highlight a game from a different country around the world. Keep in mind these aren't necessarily the best or most popular games from each nation, but simply a fitting representative.

Lineage - NCsoft, 1998

While we're on the topic of massively-multiplayer online games, I thought I'd take the global gaming spotlight to South Korea. We all know Korea has a passion for certain American-developed games, but what about their own domestic industry?

South Korea is the most internet-connected country in the world, so they love online PC games, and MMOs in particular. There's no bigger name in Korean MMOs than Seoul-based NCsoft. In the West they're most famous for Guild Wars, developed by NCsoft's U.S. subsidiary ArenaNet. But back home, NCsoft's biggest titles are perhaps their Lineage series. Influenced by Blizzard's hack-and-slash looter Diablo and seminal MMO Ultima Online, Lineage at one point sported three million subscribers--impressive for a Korean game in the '90s.

Today, NCsoft's biggest effort is its 2009 MMO Aion, most notable for its twisted artistic direction compared to other MMO stalwarts like World of Warcraft and even ArenaNet's Guild Wars. With the classic subscription model for massively-multiplayer games going down the drain, we'll see if NCsoft can adapt to a new MMO landscape in the next five years.

Friday, December 7, 2012

This World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria commercial is everything wrong with gaming today.

This 30-second commercial for World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria has been blasting me in the face everywhere I look, from TV to website banner ads to pre-video ads on YouTube. And it's everything wrong with game marketing today.

Why does a trailer for one of the biggest games in the industry neglect to feature any actual gameplay footage? The intricate cinematic isn't even using World of Warcraft's in-game engine. I understand it's hard to convey a great video game through a non-interactive medium like television, but surely we can find a way that includes any of the game at all?

And it's not limited to WoW. Beginning perhaps with Halo 3 in 2007, live-action and cinematic TV commercials for big-name game releases have become the way to go.

I'm not saying these commercials are bad, per se. But it's embarrassing that we as an industry are so ashamed of the quality of our gameplay that all our marquee titles go out of their way not to show what the actual game looks like. And what's worse, gamers embrace these "cinematic" trailers. This one for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 starring Everyman Gamer Jonah Hill and zero gameplay footage is considered by its top YouTube commenter to be "probably one of the best trailers ever made for a shooter game."

Maybe it's because developers realize that what the games actually look like is a huge turn-off to casual audiences. Back to World of Warcraft, would you want a sizzle trailer on national TV featuring this?

From the first page of Google image search results for "mists of pandaria gameplay"

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

What modern sports games tell us about competition in the market

There's been hubbub lately about Sony's upcoming baseball simulator MLB 13: The Show being, for the first time, the only baseball video game on the market. Sports video games, once a genre full of games made by competing companies in each sport, are nearly now down to a single game per sport. Want some NFL? Better play Madden. Want hockey? Better play NHL 13. Many people worry that this lack of competition in the annual sports game market will lead to studios getting lazy and publishing the same product year after year, since consumers have no other choice if they want to enjoy their preferred sport in virtual form.

Let's take a closer look at the last ten years of critical reception to sports video games. Any farther back and the market gets veritably flooded with other competing sports game franchises, many of which lasted only a year or two; the last decade has seen a relatively consistent market. I normally don't look at aggregate review scores to judge the quality of games, but annual sports games are a unique genre--objective improvement is slightly more conceivable here than in other types of games. All my statistics in this article are taken from the review aggregator site

American football

We want to believe competition breeds innovation, right? Nobody likes monopolies. It's simple economics. The posterchild for this is the biggest sports game franchise in the United States, EA Sports' colossal Madden NFL series. While the series has gone downhill since 2004 when EA bought the exclusive rights to NFL video games, this may be the exception, not the rule, when it comes to the results of competition (or lack thereof) in sports games:

We talk about competition in football videogames like it was yesterday, but Madden has had nearly a decade on its own now. It's been a bumpy road that's never quite reached the glory days of a bygone gaming era. Much of players' anger directed at EA stems from the fact that rival 2K Sports ended its football career on a high note--the final game in the series, ESPN NFL 2K5, is considered by many fans to be the pinnacle of virtual gridiron.


2K Sports' pigskin franchise was a life cut tragically short by EA's multimillion dollar deal. So what did 2K do? They fired back, of course, by buying the exclusive rights to the next-biggest American sports league: Major League Baseball. But unlike EA's NFL deal, 2K didn't take into account that they only got exclusive third-party rights to MLB. The major console manufacturers are still allowed to internally develop their own pro baseball games, and that's exactly what Sony has done. Let's take a look:

Monday, December 3, 2012

How a poor camera and awkward controls can be totally RAD

Robot Alchemic Drive (Gigantic Drive in its native Japan), an overlooked Sandlot gem from early in the PlayStation 2’s lifespan, puts players in control of a giant robot controller.  You read that correctly: the player is not given control of a giant robot ,but instead given control of the one who controls a giant robot.  For adequate enough reasons in a videogame, Earth is under attack by giant biomechanical aliens and naturally the only defense against them is a big ol' mecha.  Since this is a Japanese game, the only people with command of a giant robot are three high schoolers.

The melodramatic story is more or less an excuse to justify the gameplay.  Once past the wrapper that is the game's narrative, the player is presented with the inner sweetness that is a gameplay experience unlike anything else (except of course for other Sandlot games involving robots). The crux of this gameplay relies heavily on one of gaming's essential yet oftentimes under-appreciated aspects: controls.  What the game does splendidly is convey that you are in command of a space-age robot with incredible destructive capabilities  This is done by having the Meganite, what the mechs are called, operate via remote control, and wouldn't you know it--that controller is a PS2 DualShock.

QWOP would've been a lot more fun with giant robots

An argument can be made that the best controls are those that do not remain in the consious thoughts of the player and seem to fade away. Yet Robot Alchemic Drive flies in the face of that line of thinking.  At no point did I forget that I was holding a controller. Maybe this can be attributed to its simulator-esque approach. The best way to translate how this control of a controller controls (the Xzibitness of that phrases is not lost on me) a giant robot is that it is a 1:1 scale controller that forgoes the standard macro-like inputs found in most games. Direct control of the limbs are given to the player in a combination of different inputs. The legs are bound to the shoulder buttons with R1/L1 stepping forward and R2/L2 doing the reverse; walking is then an alternating series of R1 and L1 presses which undermines the now common assumption that tilting a stick directs your character in that direction.  The arms are under the dominion of the analog sticks, and different stick motions result in different punches/attacks.  This understandably cumbersome control scheme is partnered with equally lumbering iron giants that, while incredibly responsive to player input, still move without an ounce of grace, making it a game very different from Z.O.E.  This might not be much of an issue in a Final Destination no-items match, but when you are trading blows with a kaiju in the middle of a populated urban center each misstep is another pricey insurance claim and potentially more lives lost. Which makes the player think carefully about each movement as well as plan one step ahead, as the consequences weigh heavily on the conscience of an ally of justice.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

SpongeBob is a metaphor for TV racism.

SpongeBob, the non-fish protagonist, celebrated by the all-fish background cast

SpongeBob SquarePants is one of the most popular children's shows in the world, and it's aired for over a decade now. But as the most famous cartoon about sea life, it bothers me a bit: why is this underwater TV series devoid of any major characters who are fish?

The whole show features a thriving aquatic community, yet none of the main characters are fish. Instead, we've got a sponge, a squid, a sea star, a crab, and a squirrel. Even most of the minor characters aren't fish: a whale, a plankter, a lobster, the ghost of a human. The only fish in the entire cast is a marginal character named Mrs. Puff, the driving instructor. The show was created by Stephen Hillenburg, a marine biologist, so he should know better. He's doing it on purpose.

Despite this lack of fish, virtually all the background characters and "extras" in SpongeBob are fish. Why is this? Why are there so many fish, yet almost none of them are fleshed-out characters in the show?

The all-white cast of Friends, set in New York City

It's a commentary on modern television; in particular, the sitcoms of the late '90s when SpongeBob was created. Think about iconic '90s TV comedies like Seinfeld and Friends. They took place in major cities like New York--incredibly multicultural urban areas. Yet the main characters of these shows were all white. There were hardly ever even any non-white guest stars.

Is SpongeBob SquarePants a reference to television racism, or is it merely forgetful of fish? You decide.