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.

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.

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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.