Friday, November 30, 2012

On the skyrocketing number of "special editions"

A quick perusal of GameStop's "most anticipated" page brings up a staggering number of upcoming games with special editions, limited editions, collector's editions, and the like. These versions of the games with added statuettes and art books and assorted doodads of course increase the price, often doubling the original MSRP. Is this really good for us?

Now, don't get me wrong. I love special editions. My Fallout 3 collector's edition is one of my most prized possessions. But it almost seems like a requirement these days for any big-budget title to release with one--the glaring exception being Nintendo, the only major publisher not to give in to the trend. Even in the off chance that a game doesn't have a limited edition, there will virtually always be some sort of pre-order bonus.

What if Super Mario Bros. 3 or Final Fantasy VII had launched with special editions? What would they have looked like? People would have cherished them, for sure, but that's because they're classic games. My problem with this phenomenon is it relies on gamers devoting serious amounts of cash to a game before it's even released. For all they know, the game could be a disaster. Do you still have your limited-edition statuettes of every special-edition game you've ever bought lying around?

I have no issue with releasing a special edition of an established classic, like the Street Fighter 25th anniversary collector's set and the upcoming Deadly Premonition director's cut. But when your game hasn't even proven itself to be a classic yet, isn't it a bit presumptuous to promote a $150 version of it?

Pack-in items for the 1984 interactive fiction adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

We could look to film, where collector's editions are also common. But movies don't release on home video until after their theatrical release, where it's clear whether the film was well-received or not.

What's my big problem? I'm not being forced to buy the $150 version, right? I harken back to the Good Old Days of gaming, where many games actually came with fun pack-in items in the standard edition of the game. The 1986 interactive fiction classic Leather Goddesses of Phobos included 3D glasses and some scratch n' sniff action, and the old Ultima games came with detailed cloth maps. It makes sense that older games featured more pack-ins because the actual in-game graphics were rudimentary (or non-existent), but we're still missing out on great standard pack-in game items because publishers realize they can charge extra for them.

Of course, in a few years this will be a moot point because everything will be digital. So perhaps the pervasiveness of limited editions is an effort on the publishers' part to keep people buying physical games. It'll be interesting to see where this trend heads in the next five years.

Nintendo of America's Marketing Failure, Part 2

   The entirety of my focus here in regards to the Wii U is completely devoted to its marketing problems. If you had the chance to read my last post on some of the wrong-doings performed by Nintendo and their latest Wii U commercial, you should get a clear enough picture on what can go awry in their campaign.

    It is already bad enough for Nintendo to be bombarded with numerous complaints on technical issues with 3rd party ports, having a slow RAM and CPU, locking Nintendo Network accounts to only one system, and having their top promotional title for the system lock-up frequently for a lot of players. I do not want to take my focus on the mentioned factors of the system's gloomy kick-off because it is not the biggest problem Nintendo has to work around with.

   Be prepared for a colossal plethora of Nintendo of America's marketing results (click on the image for full size):

   I am currently struggling to find out who gets the well-deserved credit for finding all these examples of Nintendo's astounding success in delivering the right message. It's a good thing, though, that I will always have a GIF that was made back in 2011 after the company's E3 showing that year.

Yes, this GIF was made over a year-and-a-half ago.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Global Gaming: De Baron (Netherlands)

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.

De Baron (The Baron) - Victor Gijsbers, 2006 (download it here)

In the gaming world, the Netherlands is best known as a hotbed of hacking and the birthplace of the demoscene. But for its global gaming spotlight, I wanted to highlight another recent trend in indie game design: the resurgence of interactive fiction.

Interactive fiction, or text-based adventure games, were around before games had any graphics. And even when rudimentary computer graphics emerged, text-based games were still able to provide much more complex, varied experiences--everything from Colossal Cave Adventure and Zork in the 1970s to an interactive fiction adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide the Galaxy in 1984 (co-created by the book's author Douglas Adams!).

While our internet-driven culture is infamously ADD and "kids don't read books anymore," we in fact read more than we ever did before. You're reading this, aren't you? Despite all our attention on YouTube videos and Netflix streaming, the bulk of our internet experience is spent reading. So it makes sense that the relatively easy-to-program medium of interactive fiction is seeming a resurgence.

Dutch designer Victor Gijsbers' De Baron is perhaps the most striking example of this. What seems like a standard high-fantasy story of a baron and a little girl turns into a much darker, philosophical and ethical quandary. I don't want to give anything else away. Just go ahead and play it. It's free. Warning: not for kids.

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

View Global Gaming Spotlight in a larger map

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Global Gaming: Eve Online (Iceland)

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.

Eve Online - CCP Games, 2003

While massively-multiplayer online giants like World of Warcraft continue to lose steam, Eve Online is the little engine that could. The science-fiction spacefaring title by Reykjavík studio CCP games has a fertile player base, nearly a decade after its release. MMOs face the colossal task of keeping their subscribers interested in their game after playing for a month or so. World of Warcraft, and others like Guild Wars and The Old Republic, try to do this by continually creating more content in the gameworld, releasing expansions fairly regularly.

CCP Games updates their game with tweaks and patches, but Eve Online's ecosystem thrives because of its reliance on emergent gameplay. Instead of play being dictated by the developers, it's dictated by the players--this is the perfect fit for a massively multiplayer title.Eve features perhaps the most highly-developed in-game economy of any MMO ever published, which contributes to the game's longevity. It's not the most accessible game for casual players, but for those who sink their teeth into it, Eve boasts a vibrant player community that's nine years old.

But CCP isn't done. They're currently working on Dust 514, a first-person shooter which ties in to gameplay in Eve Online. While Eve players control world events on the macro level, Dust 514 players execute events on the micro level. This merging of strategy games with first-person shooter games has been attempted numerous times over the years, but CCP is trying to finally get the concept right when Dust releases at the end of the year.

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

View Global Gaming Spotlight in a larger map

Cause and Effect in Moral Choice Systems: Where Dishonored Fails

[Note from Jake: Introducing the newest writer to the fold, Joe Kendra!]

The purpose of this article is to critique how some of Dishonored’s game mechanics negatively impact its narrative.  Additionally, as Dishonored’s most egregious examples of moral choice/player agency disconnect happen at the end of the game, beware of spoilers.


While I am not categorically opposed to moral choice systems in videogames, it is safe to say that I am more excited about where they will eventually take the medium, rather than where they currently are. Moral choice systems are still rife with growing pains, as developers have not quite perfected the weaving together of these mechanics with narrative. In otherwise great games where the concept is present, I find that moral choice systems weaken the narrative instead of complementing it.

Think of games like Bioshock, where the difference between the good and bad endings is jarring to the point of absurdity. Consider Fallout 3, where the karma system can nonsensically make NPCs hostile to the protagonist for cat-burglaries committed on the other side of the map. Think of Mass Effect, where I kill dozens of people in every firefight, yet it is largely my dialogue choices that determine my moral standing. A single, fundamental problem lies at the core of what we find unsatisfying about these games: there is a disconnect between my actions as a player and the downstream effects the game insists they cause.

What ultimately makes a moral choice system “work” in a game is how effectively it establishes a clear cause and effect relationship between player action and in-game consequences. It is not sufficient for a game to throw tragic scenes up on screen and demand that I ought to feel bad about them. It only works if I have been given reason to believe that my actions as a player had a direct role in instigating those events. If not, the game is effectively asking me to take responsibility for something outside of my control. At best, this makes the scene feel forced and contrived. At worst, the disconnect between action and consequence can cripple a game’s narrative and undermine its major themes.     

Arkane Studios’ Dishonored is the latest game to experiment with a binary moral choice system. Assuming the mantle of framed bodyguard-turned vengeful assassin Corvo Attano, choices I make over the course of the game have an impact on the dystopian city of Dunwall as well as the game’s ultimate conclusion. The game halfway succeeds at connecting my actions to the in-game consequences, and the end result is frustrating. At times Dishonored made me feel that my actions really mattered, and that I was an active player in transforming the world around me. On other occasions –especially near the conclusion of the story- there was a sharp disconnect, wherein Dishonored asked me to accept baffling leaps of logic and  feel culpable for things that Corvo literally could not have influenced. These missteps greatly diminish an otherwise excellent game.


Dishonored’s moral choice mechanics are at their strongest when they are subtle. The way in which Corvo’s choices influence Dunwall’s environment, for example, is brilliantly executed. Racking up a high body count provides the local plague rat population with a steady food source, allowing their numbers to explode. This in turn leads to an increase of people infected by the plague, filling the city streets with fever-crazed “weepers”. The mechanics here are elegant in their simplicity. Without saying a single word or pointing a single finger, Dishonored presents a straightforward, logical procession of events that show how I am actively contributing to the problems of an already troubled city. Even if the game had not gone out of its way to tell me that a higher chaos rating leads to more rats and weepers, I still would have recognized them as downstream consequences to my actions.

What doesn’t work is the game’s insistence that my actions can alter the personalities of major supporting characters. By far the most egregious example of this is the impact of Corvo’s chaos rating on the young heir to the throne, Emily Kaldwin; her personality completely changes depending on play style. When Corvo avoids collateral damage and chooses to fulfill his missions through stealth and nonlethal means, she retains her innocence till the very end and ushers in a new era of peace as Empress “Emily the Wise”. In contrast, over the course of a high chaos playthrough she becomes progressively more enamored with violence and begins to draw pictures of Corvo carrying out assassinations. Most jarringly, when saved from Corvo’s former allies at the end of the game, her face contorts into a sneer as she casually remarks that she was planning to have them executed anyway, signaling the birth of her reign of terror.


There are two major problems with this. First off, the game does not provide the slightest justification as to why Corvo’s behavior is capable of altering Emily’s personality and moral values. Unlike the rats and the weepers, where a clear, causal relationship is established,Dishonored simply tells me to accept these two things as connected. Worse, the game provides evidence for why this couldn’t be the case. Emily’s Loyalist caretakers emphasize throughout the game that she is largely kept ignorant about the conditions of Dunwall and the nature of Corvo’s nightly missions. So how could they possibly exert an influence on her?

The second problem is more fundamental to Dishonored’s narrative. If Emily’s behavior is dictated by Corvo, it means she ultimately doesn’t have a personality at all.  Yet, she is supposed to be the person most important to Corvo. As a player I am meant to care about her well-being and want to restore her to her rightful throne.  But if her personality is so dependent on the player’s actions, how am I supposed to become attached to her? Without her own agency, Emily cannot be a fully realized character; instead, she’s a side effect.

It is tempting to argue that Emily is written this way for thematic purposes. Perhaps the change in her personality is meant to serve as a mirror for how corrupt Corvo has become, just like the dark and stormy sky in the high chaos final mission. However, this explanation runs against the grain of Dishonored’s major theme. The game is an examination of the seductive effect of absolute power on otherwise good people. This is why Corvo “works” as a silent protagonist despite having an established reputation at the beginning of the game: his past doesn’t matter, only his actions after his imprisonment. It is similarly no accident that the game offers a wide array of gadgets and powers to kill enemies, only to punish the player with high chaos when used too enthusiastically. This theme extends to the Loyalists as well. The game never gives any reason to doubt their good intentions, yet they promptly turn on Corvo the moment he dispatches the Lord Regent and creates a power vacuum.

Emily does not fit this pattern. She ought to: she gains the highest seat of power in Dunwall at the end of the game. An opportunity is squandered here to explore what happens when an innocent child is put in control of a city that Corvo helped to ruin. The ending is not surprising or even disconcerting if she has been practicing to be a miniature despot the entire game.

The most frustrating aspect of Emily’s arc is that it is not beyond the skill of Arkane Studios to craft a character who responds believably to my moral choices. The boatman Samuel Beechworth, who serves as transportation and Corvo’s closest companion, is a perfect example of how to do this correctly. Unlike Emily, he has an independent moral compass that significantly changes the final mission... If Corvo has kept the chaos of his missions low, he commends the assassin’s humanity; alternatively, Samuel will reveal his contempt for Corvo as well as the disgust he feels for having ferried around a destructive sociopath for the course of the game. He then spitefully decides to fire his pistol into the air to alert the Loyalists of Corvo’s approach. In my game I killed him before he succeeded, and doing so made me feel far worse about my choices than the “bad ending” did.


Emily, as well as Dishonored’s moral choice system, could have been salvaged if Arkane Studios had given her a similar treatment. She would be far more compelling if she was her own character with unique personality quirks and moral values, rather than a homunculus whose personality is a direct reflection of the protagonist. One can only imagine what a bad ending under these conditions would look like: the young empress finally sees her trusted bodyguard as the irredeemable monster he has become, and is forced to inherit a city crippled by his vengeful rampage. Perhaps Corvo is forced to leave Dunwall in disgrace as she gradually cracks under the strain of undoing the damaged he caused. Maybe she assumes dictatorial powers as a last act of desperation, resulting in the further downward spiral and eventual collapse of her beloved empire. Actually, that hypothetical ending is quite similar to Dishonored’s actual “bad ending”. The only difference is that the fake ending would be completely and irrefutably the player’s fault.                    

Monday, November 26, 2012

Lego Lord of the Rings: Open-world game design for kids

I'm new to English developer Traveller's Tales' series of surprisingly well-received video games based on the Lego universe. But as a Lego enthusiast and die-hard The Lord of the Rings fan, I had to pick up their new Lego The Lord of the Rings title (it didn't hurt that its pre-order bonus was a nerderrific Elrond minifigure from LotR's prologue).

From what I've heard about previous Lego video games made by Traveller's Tales, they've begun to head in an open-world direction, and Lego Lord of the Rings is the logical next step in this approach. While there are about a dozen isolated "story" levels based on the pivotal events in Peter Jackson's film trilogy, the bulk of Lego LotR lies in its open-world Middle-earth.

It's interesting to see how Traveller's Tales adapts the open-world concept for kids. Of course, it's simplified: locations are all incredibly close together, and virtually no enemies appear while players are exploring the world (bad guys appear in story levels). And to make a waypoint system that kids can understand, not only is your destination pointed out with an arrow on the map, but a trail of translucent blue Lego studs leads you in the right direction. Much like a car GPS, it recalculates your trail depending on where you are.

AND SO MANY COINS. Well, not coins--in the Lego universe, they're Lego studs. But these studs are literally everywhere in Middle-earth, and hitting any bush or rock or tree in the game will unleash a wave of silver and gold studs. This in-game currency is the very definition of a virtual Skinner box, but kids love it. I talked to multiple parents of children who play the Lego video games, and all the kids are addicted to smashing Lego walls all day for studs.

Strangely, if you play through the game from story point to story point without exploring, you miss a huge portion of the game. For example, when you first get to Lothlórien, it activates the cutscene where Galadriel and Celeborn send the Fellowship on its way. Before you know it, you're already rowing past the Argonath. If you never backtrack to Lothlórien on your own, you never get to explore the forest city. I expect a large number of players will totally miss areas like this.

The game is meant to be played by two people together. On your own, you can play the game switching between characters on the go, but when played co-op, the two-part puzzles become much more fun. It reminded me of Portal 2's co-op missions. And either player can drop out or re-join any time they want, which makes it perfect for parents playing with kids.

The bulk of Lego LotR's content happens after you destroy the Ring. My brother and I blazed through the game's story over Thanksgiving weekend, but we finished with only about 30% "completion." After the game ends, players unlock Free Play mode, and are encouraged to explore every nook and cranny of Middle-earth to find every playable character and goofy costume. It's surprisingly meaty, especially considering Traveller's Tales developed the game so shortly after this summer's Lego Batman 2.

Lego Lord of the Rings' condensed open-world Middle-earth means there's no dead space anywhere. And while players can fast-travel wherever they want, it often doesn't take much longer just to walk there. This encourages players to travel on their own and experience this beautiful, kid-friendly Middle-earth.

The fact that there are no bad guys to kill you while you're exploring the world means kids don't feel intimidated from veering off the beaten path. And the blue-stud waypoint system means it's impossible to get lost.

We often wonder when we'll see a truly great open-world Lord of the Rings game. While Skyrim has the "open-world Tolkien ripoff" market cornered, Lego Lord of the Rings may be the closest thing we've seen so far to this ideal LotR game. It's got the depth and epic scale of Middle-earth with the charm and wit of Lego. And it teaches us a little about our approach to open-world games, too. While it's a very abbreviated version of Tolkien's story, it's a great introduction to the series for kids, and a wonderful trip through memory lane for the rest of us.

Oh, and it features one of my favorite Easter eggs ever.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Let’s Play: walkthrough on a new level

Before we go to the meat of this blog I would like to introduce myself:
My name is Steffen Lund. I hail from the frozen north of the Vikings (i.e. Denmark). I do not consider myself a gamer at all; I would rather say that I am game interested. Many of my friends game about 3-5 hours per day, whereas I am lucky to barely cover that quota in a couple of months. This is both due to me taking my bachelor’s degree in political science, but just as much (if not mostly) my quite picky taste in games.

So why do I even read A Capital Wasteland, let alone get to write here? Well, Mr. Shapiro was so kind to ask me whether I wanted to do a sort of Scandinavian take on the Wasteland (a Scandinavia correspondent, if you will). In time, if this all works out, I would be delighted to look more into Scandinavian titles, but for now it is all about my more recent experience with games: Let’s Play.

So, let us get on with it, shall we?
One of my main problems with games today: the larger companies keep putting out new titles. I simply cannot keep up with the pace.
Now, I could just go pick up a game magazine once every month if I wanted to keep a finger on the pulse – heck, I could grab one for free in Denmark! But again, the problem here is probably me. I am too lazy. I want entertainment (dare I say need?). This is where Let’s Play-videos fit in the picture.

The concept of Let’s Play

Rooster Teeth's Achievement Hunters about to play Mari0.
Let’s Play are videos of gamers (or non-gamers), well, recording themselves playing games. The concept, of course, did not start out as a video concept (this would be a great moment to refer to the Let’s Play archive:, and of course the grand old let’s players from Something Awful).
Anyway, the video type has various purposes:


It is my personal opinion that Let’s Play-videos set out to entertain the masses. The goal is mainly to catch the funny/scary/you-name-it moments ‘on tape’. This offers YouTubers, such as Irish madman, oneyNG to take a break from their ‘regular’ jobs with animations and so forth, and still be entertaining, but Let’s Play also serve as a platform for a new audience. Swedish multi-voiced, bro-fisting eccentric, PewDiePie is a good example for a YouTuber who is actually making a living on screaming his lungs out during various horror games.

Play-through/walkthrough – educational/reviews

You may consider this a somewhat less interactive, but at the same time the more entertaining way of demoing a game. Walkthroughs are nothing new in the gaming world. Back in the good old days when we were not able to film ourselves playing games to show our audience through various games, we would instead write the so-called walkthroughs – this type, of course, is still used, but whether the videos has exceeded in popularity compared to text-based walkthroughs over these last couple of years, I leave for you to decide or even research upon (depending on your scientific interest on the subject).
A personal favourite in walkthrough videos is Rooster Teeth’s Achievement Hunter section. With branches covering both reviews type walkthrough, such as their own Let’s Play series, and the more entertaining, forever angry Michael’s Rage Quit.

Genres of Let’s Play

Now, I do not want you readers out there to think that I consider you imbeciles who do not know a thing about Let’s Play – on the contrary you probably know a lot more about it than I! This article is mainly for testing my (English!) writing skills, and to write, as much as possible, an objective (naturally, this is not possible) article on this phenomenon, so please bear with me on this one.
So, what types of Let’s Play-videos can we find on the old world wide web? It would be utterly banal to just list all genres being played in Let’s Plays since we would assume that all genres in video/iOS/PC/und so weiter-games are found here, so for now I am only going to talk about the particular genres I watch:


“To see others suffer does one good […] without cruelty there is no festival.” So are the words of one Friedrich Nietzsche.
He also said this planet is filled with humans “who inflict as much pain on themselves as they possibly can out of pleasure in inflicting pain which is probably their only pleasure.”

These two sentences pretty much narrow down the concept and success of horror-themed Let’s Plays; earlier I mentioned PewDiePie, who has made a career out of playing various games. Some of his more famous work is with playing horror games such as Slender and Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Here we have come to meet many new friends: Stephano, the French golden statue, Mr. Chair, the always passive, but loving leveller, in Homer Simpson's words, but also we have made new enemies such as the evil, scheming barrels (BARRELS! Sorry, I just had to do that).
The main agenda of Pewd’s horror Let’s Plays are screaming, and horrible, gut-wrecking moments. Now, we could all claim that videos of others playing scary games do not scare us, but come on. That, simply, is not the truth. My point here, leading back to Nietzsche, is that horror Let’s Plays both hold the pleasure of us getting to watch someone having the living crap scared out of them, and at the same time getting a slight jolt of our own. Thus, horror Let’s Plays appeal to both the sadistic and masochistic side in us all.

Building, creating and puzzles

Limbo, a popular title among Let's Players.
Puzzle games is something that has been out there for aeons, but it would be completely irrelevant for anyone to make a walkthrough of Tetris (though I suppose there would be some kind of entertainment value in Rage Quit playing it). Since non-linear building games like Minecraft and Terraria, and puzzle games like Portals, and more resent titles Mari0 and Catherine (big ‘thank you’s go out to Jake and Achievement Hunter for directing my attention towards the last title), and let us not forget a personal favourite, Limbo (it is a little patriotic of me, I know, but do forgive me) came out, it has been made more easy to make good reviews and achievement hunting (no lame pun intended) videos for these genres.
The main goal for these videos is simply walkthrough with a slightly more entertaining angle apart from their text-based older sister.
Achievement Hunter from Rooster Teeth is, in my opinion, the very best in making entertaining walkthroughs with these games. Mainly, as an Xbox user I have been most pleased with their work, introducing new titles as well as showing us how to attain certain achievements.

My only concern with Achievement Hunter is their obvious focus on the more famous titles, which does not present me with any opportunities of discovering indie games, though they have done so on some occasions. This is where YouTubers like PewDiePie once again come in. Private individuals sitting in the comfort of their homes have a much larger freedom with what games to play in their videos, and so they may ones in a while come to play unknown (to the wider publics) titles, thus teaching me of new games I would not otherwise have known about (Slender, Amnesia, Lucius and many other titles come to mind here – again, I am not in any way "in the loop" when it comes to games, and ones again I must thank A Capital Wasteland for helping me out on this one).

In conclusion (if there is such) Let’s Play is a fun, entertaining way of gaining new knowledge from old titles as well as learning of new games. It can also purely be for entertainment purposes, a time killer, but by the end of the day, still, we would have learning something from these videos – well, at least we now know what it takes to intimidate us or how much fun Happy Wheels really is.

So why not try it on your own? Go grab your best camcorder, plug a game in the ol’ drive, and let us join you in the rollercoaster of horror and creative skills that await us out there in the world of Let’s Play.

Lastly I will say this: I am no wiz in the area of gaming (at least not anymore), but here is an opportunity for me to get back on the horse. If you, the reader, have anything to add to this blog (do not go gently on me, I am pachydermatous) please do not feel hesitant to write a few words in the comments.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Why Bastion is, like, fantastic

So, I've been replaying Bastion in between DotA 2 matches, and I'd like to elaborate on why the design methodology behind it should be the way people make solid single player story-based games in the future.  So let's jump right in!

"Build That Wall" 

One of the first things you see Bastion lauded for is Rucks, one of the main characters and the narrator for the game.  While it is one of the best aspects of Bastion, when I started thinking about it, I don't remember many games actually having a narrator, and I think for many games, it would help.  One of the biggest narrative problems with games is the disconnect between the player and the character.  Very often in games, the player must make their character act in ways that are deliberately stupid to advance the plot.  Most of the time, you'll roll your eyes and play the way the game wants you too, and get over the tiny bit of suspension-of-disbelief shattering idiocy.

Not mentioned in the article: the sweet 'stache

In games dealing with complex issues, a narrator is a clever way of providing a biased perspective without outright stating it.  As you play Bastion, you slowly begin to suspect Rucks is not entirely impartial , and as the game evolves it's clear that his perspective on what is happening is actually one of the "sides" you can take.  It's a refreshing way to inject some actual world-building into plot and forcing a player to confront these issues in a way more complicated then "do I kill them or not?"

I can already address some of the criticism I feel this idea will get, namely that Bastion's narrator was a "gimmick" and this shouldn't be universal.  In a sense, I agree.  The specific way Rucks was used in that game is not something I would want to generalize to all games trying to tell a story.  Just because it worked very well once doesn't automatically make it some sort of categorical imperative.  All I'm saying is that the use of a narrator, and in general narrative tools that divorce the player from the protagonists, is something that should be used more often.

"A Proper Story" 

I am a fan of games that have deep and relatively unique settings, and it seems that for once, gaming trends have actually followed what I think should be core in any game with a serious story.  The problem is in the execution.  Following the popularity of games like Mass Effect and The Elder Scrolls series, a lot of games these days include codices in the menu, or in-game pamphlets (usually labelled books) that you can read to learn about the world.  This is how you do world-building poorly.  In books, it is considered massively bad form to just "infodump" pages of exposition explaining the world, and in movies, characters who exposit too much are the sign of a bad filmmaker.  The same standards should also apply to games.

Oh, if only.

How does Bastion do this better than its mainstream competitors?  By acknowledging that simple fact that people can create very interesting stories off of very few bits of information.  The audience has an imagination, it can fill in the blanks, so to properly explain a setting the only thing you need is short bits of evocative description.  J.R.R. Tolkien didn't dump The Silmarillion into The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings; he described old ruins, threw out mentions to famous events in past history and let the readers fill in the blanks.

In Bastion, every weapon you pick up has a one-sentence written description, and a few phrases from Rucks.  Same with the upgrade material.  From about a paragraphs worth of information, you can reconstruct an entire profession in the setting.  The fact that I don't know the entire history of the maybe-sentient Windbags is a good thing.  Any explanation I come up with will be much more satisfying, and probably have fewer plot holes.  By making quality more important than quantity, you streamline your game world and make it much more fun to explore.

"Get Used to It"

And just when you thought I was going to stick to storytelling!  I really can't help myself.  Bastion's story is about exploring the world to find survivors and rebuild the Bastion.  What happened in "the Calamity" and the backstory of the world are slowly revealed as the game goes on as the underlying support for the main plot.  Bastion's gameplay is exploring levels, fighting enemies to reach "cores" that rebuild the Bastion, and you slowly start collecting bits and pieces of the old world that help you understand just what went wrong that support your overall goal of finding more cores.  This embedding of narrative and gameplay is what makes video games unique as a storytelling medium.  Putting it simply, if your game doesn't do this, it is not telling a good story.

The focus on combat as the only real mechanic is the triumph of execution over innovation.  Looking at it, you don't really "do" that much in Bastion, and almost none of it is new.  All the minigames focus on improving your skill with your weapons, the only thing you can use money for is to buy new weapon skills and upgrades.  If you want to take a break from the main story, you can explore the character histories by...fighting waves after waves of enemies in a dreamscape.  The dev team only really had to get one thing right, as far as playing the game goes.  By paring everything down to one core element, you can spend so much more cognitive time on getting the visuals, the sound, and the writing to a much higher standard.

Actually, exactly 11.

That's not to say the game is boring, though.  There are a number of different playstyles based on the weapons you use, all valid depending on the situation.  One of the better innovations (used here not in the sense of doing it first, but consciously doing it differently) is letting the player adjust the difficulty of the game in different ways.  You can make the AI more aggressive, give enemies more defensive abilities, make them explode when they die, or just buff their health and damage.  The dynamic, bottom-up way of adjusting difficult is much more friendly then the top-down easy/medium/hard most games do.  In this case, focusing on one thing gave them much more depth, and depth is usually what drives replay value.

"From Wharf to Wilds"

So how can other game companies truly take advantage of the success of Bastion?  The first, and in my mind most important, would be to shrink the size of the teams developing the games.  Smaller teams lead to more cohesive work.  You can't get as much stuff done with a smaller team, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Instead of cramming in content, focus on a few aspects and really nail them.  This can let you spend much more time focusing on telling a proper story with your game.  Most of all, as gaming gets bigger and bigger, it's important to remember restraint.

Monday, November 19, 2012

My favorite games are the ones I don't understand.

From the polarizing reviews to its quirky creator, plenty of people have written about the 2010 cult hit Deadly Premonition. Despite its incredibly dated graphics and horrendous combat mechanics, Hidetaka "Swery65" Suehiro's intricate Twin Peaks-inspired tale is full of deep character development and a realistic small-town open world that truly feels alive.

What really struck me, though, is how much it reminded me of another Japanese gaming auteur with a similar nickname: Suda51. While Goichi Suda has never made an open-world crime game, the "rough around the edges but incredibly out-there and original" soul is the same.

Suda's newer games have been a bit of a letdown for me, because they've forgotten what makes his work so gripping: the strange dark tone. Killer7 and even the more recent No More Heroes had a very twisted underbelly that made them compelling. It's black humor, but it's also a sort of gallows humor. Shadows of the Damned and Lollipop Chainsaw featured plenty of dark and evil, sure, but they didn't have that certain... je ne sais quoi.

So what is that je ne sais quoi? The more I think about it, the more I realize that the games I think about long after I finish playing them are the ones I don't understand. Deadly Premonition hit me the same way Killer7 did because it hinted that there's more to this game than I can fully comprehend.

We all remember playing Pokémon Red and Blue back in the day, and one of the aspects of the games that kept us coming back was the aura of mystery around them. Before the age of internet FAQs, rumors about the game spread by word-of-mouth. You'd hear "if you go to this place at this certain time and do this, this happens." Because there were a few Easter eggs and glitches like the Rare Candy Trick, this led us to believe that any of the urban legends could be true. And more than anything, that's what made the first Pokémon titles so memorable.

Many games from our youth are like this. Partially because we weren't old enough to fully "get" them, and partially because the internet hadn't given us all the answers to every game yet. I remember everything from Myst to seemingly-innocent games like DinoPark Tycoon feeling like they were full of dark mystery.

Suda's older work captures this feeling perfectly. And I love Deadly Premonition because its creator Swery captures it, too.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Global Gaming Spotlight - S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (Ukraine)

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.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl - GSC Game World, 2007

Ukraine is outpacing its former overlord in game production these days. And they seems to have the "post-apocalyptic survival-horror first-person shooter" genre on lock. I really wanted to feature one of my personal all-time favorites, 4A Games' Metro 2033, for the Ukraine global gaming spotlight. But Metro is based on a Russian novel, and takes place in the subway tunnels of Moscow. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, on the other hand, takes place in... Chernobyl, one of the most globally significant places in Ukraine.

GSC Game World's title is an open-world affair, which is rare for horror. Usually, horror (whether it's in games or film or anything else) depends on a very linear storyline so the audience gets scared by exactly what the creators want them to get scared by, at the exact right time to maximize creepy pacing.

On top of that, open-world games are often "jacks of all trades, masters of none" because they have to render such a huge amount of content for players to experience. This doesn't seem like the ideal approach for scaring your audience. But Shadow of Chernobyl somehow makes it work.

Shadow of Chernobyl achieves its goals by relying on emergent gameplay. When the player isn't told what to do, they can often scare themselves--we see this in Slender, and even to a certain extent in the creepy procedurally-generated underworld of Minecraft. Because the player isn't always sure where they're meant to go, they often peek into the most horrifying of places they didn't even know existed.

I've recently fallen in love with Eastern European game design. It makes sense that the whole "former Soviet republic" thing, combined with the legacy of Chernobyl, make for some melancholy post-apocalyptic choices by Ukrainian studios.

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

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You don't go to jail for these beats: Jubeat Plus and Reflec Beat Plus.

This pic doesn't do the cabinet itself justice:
it's an impressive machine. 
Has that expensive new iPad kept you from traveling the world and seeking out new experiences? Well, if one of those desired experiences is playing a few select Japanese arcade games, YOUR WAIT IS OVER. Nearly two years ago, Konami released two of its most popular push-button and touch-screen music arcade games in near perfect ports for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch on the Japanese App Store: Jubeat Plus and Reflec Beat Plus. Better yet, Konami has also released them in the U.S. App Store as Jukebeat and Reflec Beat +. All four versions are free to play with three included songs, each with three difficulties, and have in-App stores where you can purchase four-song packs for ¥450 and $3.99 each, respectively.

Jubeat Plus (ユビートプラス, pronounced yu-bee-toh pu-ra-su) is my favorite, easily. In the game, you touch the virtual buttons in time with the music and, as the difficulty rises, the more frantic your fingers get. But, the sense of satisfaction you feel when you finally clear a song that had been driving you nuts rivals finishing off a boss in Dark Souls or, way back in the days of the original Guitar Hero, finally, finally beating "Bark at the Moon" on Expert. If you have friends who also have the game, you can play a hosted game where you compete against each other for the best score, exactly like the original arcade game.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Global Gaming Spotlight: Limbo (Denmark)

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.

Limbo - Playdead, 2010

I've written about the boom of Nordic game development, and Denmark is no exception. But their roots go deeper than the past ten years. Designers at the University of Copenhagen in 1991 created DikuMUD, one of the most important multi-user dungeons--text-based online games that pioneered internet gaming.

Today, the highest-profile studio in Danish gaming is IO Interactive, creators of the stealth-action Hitman series and the underrated revolutionary title Freedom Fighters. The composer for the music in many of IO's games, Jesper Kyd, has become perhaps the biggest name in game soundtrack writing. He recently penned the scores for big-budget works like the Borderlands and Assassin's Creed series.

But the most important Danish game design was done by a few people who split off from IO to create their own independent studio, Playdead. Their minimalist platformer Limbo is a masterwork in atmosphere and noir-inspired art direction.

Limbo is about a little boy looking for his sister. There is absolutely no heads-up display of information on the game screen, and nothing in the story is really explained. Players must figure it out on their own. While most mainstream gaming assumes the player is stupid and must be spoon-fed information, Playdead does what all good art accomplishes: respects the audience's intelligence and lets them come to conclusions on their own.

Playdead's game had the unfortunate luck of being released in the wake of another "arty" 2D platformer featuring a kid with a large head--Jonathan Blow's Braid. But while Braid hits the player over the head with exposition and walls of text, Limbo takes a very Scandinavian approach and goes with a more elegant, minimalist approach to its design. It will forever live in Braid's shadow, but Limbo is perhaps the most important platforming game of the last decade.

Why are arcades so damn popular in Japan? Americans have it easy is why.

[Note from Jake: as we expand the staff here at the blog, we add our first foreign-based writer. Let's call him our "Japan correspondent"--John Mason!]

Japan is an industrious nation. As a people, the Japanese work very hard. Much, much harder than any normal Westerner's schedule - it is not uncommon for a Japanese office worker, or salaryman, to leave his house at 7 am and not return home until midnight, every night - and it shows in their recreation. "Onsens," or public bathhouses, are one of the most popular recreations in Japan because it's a place designed for people to go and relax for a few hours away from home.

Come Hither! Kitty.
"Away from home" is the distinguishing qualifier here. A lot of Japanese adults spend so much time at work that they literally do not have time to do anything else after work except go home and go to sleep, maybe spending some time with their wives or children if they're still awake. Because of this relentless schedule, they simply never go out during the week.

So when the weekend rolls around - sometimes Saturday and Sunday, sometimes only Sunday - it's understandable that you wouldn't want to stay at home for yet another day. Given the choice of staying at home and firing up your PS3 or Wii or going out and blowing off steam at a bevy of exhilarating, fantastic, sometimes physically exhausting arcade machines, many people choose to get the hell out of the house and blow some of the Yen they worked so hard for during the week. I know I do.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Global Gaming Spotlight: Mass Effect (Canada)

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.

As I've touched on recently, Canada has been a colossus of game development over the past decade or so. Everything from EA Sports to Eternal Darkness to Sins of a Solar Empire. Both Vancouver and Montréal are hubs of North American game development. So who was I going to pick as my representative of the Canadian games industry? I was tempted to go with the Canadian stereotype and pick the Greatest Sports Game of All Time, EA's hockey classic NHL '94, but I knew I had to choose someone else.

Mass Effect - BioWare, 2007

A company in Edmonton, of course. Between Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, and Dragon Age, BioWare has essentially shaped the Western approach to role-playing games. And none of them is more important than their sci-fi action/RPG trilogy Mass Effect.

BioWare pioneered the idea of an open-ended moral compass in Western RPGs. Do good things, and people will realize you're a good person. Do bad things, and people will realize you're a bad person. It seems almost cliché and binary at this point, but before this system, gameworlds would often react to players the exact same way regardless of what players did. BioWare's games make the player feel like they're actually making a difference in the gameworld they inhabit.

The other big innovation of BioWare's games has been the conversations between characters. Games as a medium have struggled with learning how to make conversations interactive and interesting. While BioWare still features the traditional "conversation trees," they've taken these to the next level of emotional nuance.

BioWare is not infallible. The massively-multiplayer online adaptation of their Star Wars series, The Old Republic, was a huge commercial failure. And Mass Effect 3's controversial ending led to mass player complaints which led to the developer actually changing the ending of the game--setting a dangerous precedent for authorial control in gaming. But we can't question the importance of this bastion of Canadian game design.

A Completely Unwarranted Deeper Analysis of Superman 64

Superman 64: general consensus was that it was an abomination of a game.  Have you ever stopped to wonder why, though? Sure, the first level involved you navigating Superman through  a series of hula hoops suspended in a pink sky.  Sure, the controls were more or less ass.  Sure, most people said enough of that shit and promptly returned the cartridge to Blockbuster.  The evidence all leads to the conclusion that this was a godawful videogame that should share an unmarked grave with E.T.  What this also proves, though, is that Superman really is one of the best superheroes ever created and is deserving of the title "Superman" in the Nietzscheian sense of the word (how the hell do you turn Nietzsche into an adjective, the dude might have been so dour because his last name is goddamn crazy).  That is because Superman always does the right thing and if faced with the task of playing a bad videogame to save his friends, nay anyone, then he would rise to the challenge in a single bound.

Hold onto your Rumble Paks

What led me to challenge the traditional opinion on Superman 64 was a discussion with a GameStop employee.  Somehow we began to discuss upcoming movies and he mentioned he was excited about the upcoming Superman film.  I concurred and mentioned that anything would be better than Superman Returns, and I facetiously added even Superman 64.  This statement was quickly rebuffed, but the thought had already entered my mind.  Unable to form a coherent argument for my controversial stance at the time has led me here, and hopefully others can join in on the enlightenment.

The flight, strength, and near-invincibility is hard for bad guys to adequately counter.  That is why Lex Luthor is Superman's iconic villain.  While Lex may trade blows with the son of Jor-El on occasion, Luthor is at his best when scheming and attacking Superman from other means besides frontal assault. In that respect, the floating rings of doom in hotdog-flavored air is one of the most evil machinations in all of the multiverse.  You cannot always have a pocketful of Kryptonite; sometimes you hold hostages and issue frustratingly tedious demands.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Global Gaming Spotlight: La Abadía del Crimen (Spain)

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.

La Abadía del Crimen - Opera Soft, 1987

Most of the games I've written about so far in this series have been either modern games or well-known classic games. La abadía del crimen (The Abbey of Crime) is a bit more obscure--it was never even officially translated to English or released outside its home country. While Spain isn't a major producer of video games today, the nation went through a golden era in the 1980s when it was second only to the UK in terms of European game production.

La abadía del crimen is perhaps the most important of these Spanish titles from the '80s. Originally meant to be a direct adaptation of Italian philosopher Umberto Eco's first novel The Name of the Rose, the game is about a Franciscan monk solving murders taking place in his abbey.

The game was notable for being one of the first to exist over a specific period of time--it's split into seven days further split into Canonical hours. In addition to solving the crimes, the player must still carry out their daily routine as a monk. If they're late for services or caught wandering around at night, the abbot kicks the monk out of the abbey and ends the game.

This fleshed-out gameworld, explored with a rudimentary 3D isometric map of the abbey, was decades ahead of its time. The game wasn't given the respect it deserved until the past few years. The game's creator, Paco Menéndez, committed suicide in 1999 at the age of 34.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Global Gaming Spotlight: Every Day the Same Dream (Italy)

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.

Every Day the Same Dream - Molleindustria, 2009 (play it here)

I recently wrote a lengthy essay sparked by Molleindustria's newest game, Unmanned. Although the most famous videogame character of all time may be a fictional Italian, Italy hasn't had a huge history as a mainstay of the games industry. Recently, though, they've emerged with a number of high profiles in independent gaming, like Molleindustria and Fotonica creators Santa Ragione.

Every Day the Same Dream is about daily routine. It's about finding inspiration in the little things that break up this constant rhythm of adult life. While Molleindustria is known for its sociopolitical work--which is fantastic, by the way--this game is more about personal struggles. The developer also writes a fantastic blog on their site that's worth reading even if you don't play their games.

While the mainstream gaming industry doesn't want to touch politics with a ten-foot pole, Molleindustria embraces the concept of games as an activist medium. And their work is often not about the games' mechanics or "winning"--they're about sending a message or finding a feeling.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Global Gaming Spotlight: QWOP (Australia)

 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.

QWOP - Bennett Foddy, 2010 (play it here)

Along with Germany, Australia has been one of the Western world's greatest video game censors. When considering the a game to represent their industry, I was tempted to pick L.A. Noire--a title infamous for the working conditions and "crunch time" that publisher Rockstar Games imposed on Sydney developer Team Bondi, leading to the studio's demise despite their game's critical and commercial success.

No, I had to go with QWOP. Its creator Bennett Foddy (former bassist of Cut Copy) now lives in the UK as a professor at Oxford. He teaches things totally unrelated to games. But in his spare time, he's a pioneer of anti-gaming: games specifically meant to anger the player.

If you still haven't played the international sensation QWOP, you need to play it now. It's a commentary on the quest for realism in game design. Players must control each of the main character's thighs and calves individually to run in the Olympics, and... it's incredibly frustrating.

Foddy is showing us we don't really want true realism in our games. We don't want a game about running in the Olympics to be as difficult as actually running in the Olympics. We want games to be simplified approximations of real life that are easy to do and fun. He shows us the limitations of the conventions of the medium. Maybe our quest for "fun" is pointless after all.