Sunday, August 29, 2010

Defective Products

There has been quite a bit of talk lately about consumerism and videogames, mostly centered around the economics and ethics of the used game market. The discussion has prompted a ripple effect, with many tangential columns, posts, and twitter conversations cropping up regarding other aspects of the conversation. Among the more high-profile and interesting of these was Leigh Alexander's Kotaku column "Are Games Just Soap?" The piece quickly transitioned from its odd title to a look at the consumerist attitude that many gamers appear perfectly happy to adopt when talking about their passion.

Just this morning, Leigh posted a tip detailing a method for circumventing return-policys in order to return a DVD or game for a refund. The tip was actually written by author Phil Villarreal from his book Secrets of a Stingy Scoundrel.

The challenge with returning any sort of digital media (DVD, CD, Videogame) is that most stores make it policy that they won't take returns on opened items. Villarreal's work-around involves returning the game/movie as "defective," obtaining an unopened replacement copy, then returning that unopened copy for a refund.

It's shady, it's slick, and yep, I bet it'd work. And in a sense, it's not even dishonest, since as Villarreal points out:
Now that I’ve backed into the juicy stuff for a couple hundred words, here are the goods: Tell the man behind your desk that your disc is “defective” and “doesn’t work,” which is the whole truth in the metaphorical sense in the case of, say, Kung Pow! because it’s a defectively conceived film and the humor just doesn’t work. Any reputable business will swap out your opened DVD for a fresh, unopened number directly off the rack.
That raises an interesting question for me. (Insert obligatory disclaimer about how I'm sure this has been discussed before.) What exactly does make for a "defective" game? Obviously, if the disc is scratched or won't play, the game is defective. But what if the game engine is buggy? What if it crashes constantly or erases save-games? What if the framerate dips and loading breaks are so distracting that the game experience is inferior to another console version or the camera is so wonky that it induces motion-sickness? What if overzealous censorship has reduced the game to a pathetic shadow of its former self?

Couldn't PS3 owners of Bayonetta or recent purchasers of Naughty Bear return their games as defective? What about Australian Left 4 Dead 2 buyers? By just about any measure, the products those folks bought didn't really work properly.

I think that everyone can agree that game discs must work. But in a significantly different way than with a CD or a DVD, games themselves must also work. Which raises the question: are poorly-designed, buggy, or "broken" games defective products worthy of a refund?

Friday, August 27, 2010

I've Been Really Busy, Being Dead

A new Portal 2 trailer has surfaced and Golly Moses, does it look cool:


...ssssssSSSSQQUEEEEEEEE!

That is all.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Review

"This is Persia!" (actual achievement name)
Hey wouldja look at that? My review of Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands is now up at Paste. It got delayed through several twists of fate, not least of which was the fact that it took me a couple weeks longer than expected to finish the game. If only I could press RB and rewind time...

The good news is that by now, the game can be found on half.com for cheap. It really is quite fun, and worth picking up for the platforming sections alone. Definitely worth $20-$30, particularly for fans of the series. Check out my review, would you?

I mean what I say in the closing paragraph - to me, Forgotten Sands felt as close to the fabled "definitive" Prince game as Ubisoft has come. If they can just get a worthwhile, substantial story in there and either tighten up the combat or remove it entirely, they'll finally have a real winner.

Lastly, I hope we're all on the same page here, but just for the record: Yuri Lowenthal > Nolan North.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Embarrassment of Downloadable Riches

I spend a lot of time trying (trying!) to come up with different vantage points from which to view games, but today I want to state the obvious: we console owners are finally getting a taste from the cornucopia of independent and mid-budget downloadable games that PC gamers have been playing for years, and it tastes good.

Frankly, it tastes better than anything else on the menu. Throughout the start of the year, everyone (myself included) was all abuzz about what a crazy awesome year 2010 would be for games. Right up there at the start, we had a hot dozen AAA games released, with more coming each month. And they were good, really - a couple of them were kinda great. But in the midst of the heavy rain and the dead redemption, I didn't quite see the downloadable games coming.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

"The Movie's Good; The Comics Are Better"

To the scores of people who have uttered that sentiment about Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, allow me to enthusiastically add my voice to your righteous choir. As much as I dug the movie (and let there be no mistake, I mondo dug it - I apologize to those who didn't pick up on the facetiousness of my "usability critique"), I'm now two volumes into the comics and yep: They are funnier, cooler, and generally more satisfying than the film in every way.

There's a lot to sort out, and obviously I haven't gotten to the end so I don't want to go too deep, but it's remarkable both A) how faithful Edgar Wright & company were to the source material but also B) just how much stronger the characterizations are in the books.

For starters, Scott is far from the affable slacker that Michael Cera plays in the film. As his actions throughout the story imply, he's kind of this self-involved twit who over the years has left a trail of emotional wreckage in his wake... the books capture that, and for me, it actually humanizes him and makes me root for him more. I'm not rooting for him to get the girl, I'm rooting for him to realize how blithely he hurts the people he cares about, for him to grow the hell up. I kind of found Cera's Scott to be a bit of a cipher - breezily funny, but a bit unknowable.

Marry me.
Even better, I've already gotten more Kim Pine in just two volumes than I got in the entirety of the film. As much as I loved Alison Pill's version of Kim, I wanted way more of her. Really, we get more of everyone - the comics are far less about super-rad videogame fight sequences and more about being a young person, slacking around, listening to music, finding love and trying to figure out why it's so hard not to hurt other people. The film was drenched in blazing colors, but the comic is printed in rich black and white - that beautifully encapsulates the differences between the two works.

Now of course, I'm not griping about the movie - I fully acknowledge that some tweaks and changes are necessary when adapting a 6-part graphic novel series to a 2-hour movie, and I think that making the film more of an action-comedy was absolutely the right call. In fact, I think it's sort of nice that the film was a bit different from the books, since now I can read them and learn the "complete" story of Scott, Ramona, Kim, Knives and the League of Evil Exes.

Pretty cool that the Pilgrim-vese has given us an awesome comic, a by-all-accounts great videogame, and a rad movie, huh? As Gus Mastrapa points out in his great post at Joystick Division, "We've never been blessed with a better geek cross-media trifecta."

So if you liked the movie, allow me to recommend checking out the books. You can order them from a ton of places online, and there's even an iPhone app that gives you all of them at once. I, for one, can't think of a better way to pass the time on public transportation.

Well, other than sitting next to Kim and talking about stuff that sucks and whatever.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Here There Be Sheep

Some days, you're minding your own business and then you see a new Atlus game trailer that reminds you how absolutely boring the vast majority of videogames are. Today was one of those days. The trailer in question is for Atlus's upcoming game Catherine and, well... see for yourself.

(Heads-up: the video isn't exactly NSFW, but it would certainly attract some askanceness should you watch it at your cubicle. Also, it contains freaky sheep.)

 

I know very little about the game other than that it was made by the folks who made the Persona games. I haven't played those, but after reading some really positive things about Persona 3 Portable, I'm halfway considering tracking down a used PSP to check them out.

Wait, who am I kidding? I am totally broke. However, I do consider the Persona games (and actually many other non-Final Fantasy Japanese titles) to be a bit of a blindspot for me. More and more, it's starting to feel like a blindspot that I want to address.

But more than that, the Catherine trailer is just another reminder that when it comes down to it, the vast majority of western games are phenomenally derivative. For example, as excited as I am for Dragon Age 2, that game's recently-released CGI trailer was the very definition of "boilerplate action-fantasy."

Of course, not all boring games are equal - with good writing and design, I'll still enjoy uniting the kingdom and saving the world and the yadda, and the yadda. But I see something like Catherine and I can't help but wonder: What if more mainstream games were this wildly different?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

There Are Many Copies

So this morning I was perusing my usual websites and twitter feeds when I saw that Kotaku editor Stephen Totilo had gotten an updated look at Milo, Peter Molyneux's Kinect-centric stab at creating a reactive artificial intelligence. Totilo wrote a bit about what he saw in a post titled "What if the Xbox Kinect Virtual Boy Simulator is Great?"

Leaving aside the fact that if read in a vacuum, that title makes it sound like the Kinect is going to be used to emulate the worst piece of gaming hardware ever made, (Update: fixed now, good show Kotaku) let's talk for a second about the actual virtual child in question - Milo.

(You know what? Hang on a sec, shh... let me put on some really loud music first.)

((Whispers)) I think we can all agree that there is something creepy about Milo. He's an artificial intelligence, and he can see you. That's kinda fundamentally unsettling, right? If I'm playing Fallout 3 and I want to sneak up behind the Super Mutant on my TV, I know I can get up and do it and the big guy will be none the wiser. This will not be the case with little Milo. I bet if I got up and crept behind my monitor, he'd know. He'd probably say something cute like, "Hey, where'd you go? Are you trying to sneak up on me?"

And maybe a lot of us will have absolutely no problem with that. Maybe we'll even find it adorable. But let's get back to Totilo's piece. Skim through the rest of it, why don't you? Among the bits about using the Kinect while seated and the fact that Molyneux has added a sad backstory to humanize the little Go-bot ("He's a British boy who has moved to the U.S. His parents are too busy to help him with his problems, so he conjures you as an imaginary friend"), you'll see the following tidbit:
"The most ambitious element of Milo will be that the simulated boy will be connected to a Microsoft data network, enabling the simulation to be more complex. Says Molyneux: 'His mind is based in the cloud. As millions of people use it he'll get smarter and more clever. He'll recognize more objects and understand more words.'"
OM FUCKING G ARE YOU SERIOUS.

The little digital boy who can see into your living room is going to be wired into a giant cloud-brain that connects to all the millions of other little digital boys around the world and synthesizes their collective information into an all-seeing, all-knowing super-consciousness?

AND NO ONE HAS A PROBLEM WITH THIS?

Then I am too late. The seeds, they are already sown.

Say hello to our destruction; say hello to Milo.

There are many copies.

And they have a plan.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Scott Pilgrim's Usability Problem


Editor's Note: This is the second in a... a series of critiques discussing films that appropriate some aspects of videogames. It is highly recommended that you read this one, about Inception, first.


After seeing Edgar Wright's new film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, I found myself thinking about videogame tutorials.

In-game tutorials are both hugely important and difficult to pull off, and today's game-designers have gotten pretty clever about putting them together. Usually placed at the game's start, a tutorial must not only communicate the game's unique control scheme, it must also impart the rules that govern its particular universe. On top of all that functional stuff, most tutorials also integrate themselves into the fiction of the gameworld ("Okay, soldier, let's show these new recruits how it's done. First, grab a sidearm and put a couple of rounds into that watermelon").

In theory, a good tutorial should try to get out of the way as quickly as possible, but the more elaborate a game's controls, the longer its tutorials might need to last. Games that are built around extraordinarily complex, layered systems like Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy Tactics and Dragon Age: Origins require scads of well-designed tutorials, some at the start of the game and some woven into the gameplay, to help players to keep things straight.

It can be distracting, but it's a shortcoming for which I cut game designers a lot of slack, mostly because it's accepted as a handicap of the form. After all, a player must understand a game's mechanics in order to properly experience it, and no two games play exactly alike. What if, I often ask, complicated fantasy novels didn't allocate whole pages to exposition, lore, maps and appendices? What if a film didn't spend a huge percent of its spoken dialogue on long-winded exposition, telling its audience what it is they are seeing instead of simply showing them?

Actually, now that I've seen Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, I have a pretty good idea of what that would be like. For me, Wright's psychedelic comic book adaptation was the film-going equivalent of sitting through a videogame that is all play and no tutorial.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Jesse Schell + Gamepocalypse = Video

We've dedicated a significant amount of space here to analyzing and reporting on Carnegie Mellon Professor Jesse Schell's gamification talks. So when I heard that the video of his mid-July "Long Now" talk in San Francisco was online, I wanted to share a link. I tried to embed it but it only allows embedding of the first ten minutes, which is barely enough time for Schell to get started.

So, go give it a watch over at Fora.tv, where they allow for chapter selection and everything.

It really is worth taking the time to check out. I remain impressed by how engaging Schell is as a speaker, and how provocative many of his ideas are. What's more, if you really want to, you can fact-check me and see what I got right and what I missed in my own write-up of the talk.

Best of all, you can finally get a load of Schell's surprisingly capable harmonica chops.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Icarus, Irrational and Infinite

So, Ken Levine's Irrational Games announced yesterday that their mysterious Project Icarus is, in fact, the next installment in the BioShock franchise, titled BioShock Infinite. Anyone who's read my posts probably realizes that I was pretty stoked about this. The teaser is all over the internet; if you haven't checked it out, do so. I'll wait.

(waits)

I KNOW RIGHT?! I'm not going to discuss the look or feel of the game, though, because there's admittedly little out there. (I do recommend checking out Totilo's surprisingly detailed gameplay preview at Kotaku - ed.) If you remember back to the preview cinematics of the original BioShock, there were some pretty major shifts and changes, and since Infinite isn't due out until 2012 we've got plenty of time for there to be dramatic alterations. Let's not forget that BioShock itself percolated for quite a long time - I remember reading an issue of PC Gamer that talked about the game being set in a Nazi bunker with half-mutated soldiers and that... didn't really come to pass.

I was struck by a few things I saw in an interview with designer Ken Levine in Computer and Video Games. In it, he discusses a couple of key shortcomings of the "Shock Approach" that I discussed in an earlier post.

Monday, August 9, 2010

How Grand Theft Auto IV Should Have Ended

  Artwork: "Grand Theft Awesome IV" by Patrick Brown

All things considered, I felt that Red Dead Redemption had a stronger story than Grand Theft Auto IV. There are several reasons for that, and they are encapsulated by the games' respective endings.

Despite all of the problems I had with Red Dead Redemption's story up until its dénouement (and believe me, there were a lot of 'em), I felt like its clever finale did supreme justice to the themes, characters and narrative arc that led up to it. After I completed the game, I returned for a spell to Liberty City and realized that GTA IV had the makings of a story that was as strong as if not stronger than that of Red Dead Redemption. Unfortunately, it squandered its promising setup with an overlong and thematically muddled final act.

I wanted to take a minute to talk about why I think that was, as well as to offer my own alternate GTA IV ending. Fair warning - I'm gonna spoil the crap out of both games, so proceed with appropriate caution.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Question of the Week: It's... August

Not that we've really had a "down" period this year, but it does seem as though we've reached something of a plateau. After the monster release of a certain sci-fi real-time strategy game, the world has seen fit to take a few breaths before the plunge into the oversaturated-as-usual fall-release season. Finally, an opportunity to catch up on some games we might've missed during the busy first half of 2010!

It seemed appropriate to ask everyone (and you) what games, if any, y'all will be spending the quiet, hot weeks of August playing. After the break...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Zombie Apocalypse is the New American Dream

Ah, another productive day, another increasingly devalued dollar. Time to log the hell out and go home. All things considered, it wasn't a bad day. I made improvements to a few lingering problems, rectified a minor user experience issue, and built a fairly horrible piece of pre-fab office furniture. Yup, I sure did accomplish stuff today. I am making progress. I can go home satisfied that I'm a contributing member of society who works hard and will someday be promoted to middle manage-- GET THE EFF OUT OF MY WAY, YOU LOITERING BOURGEOIS SIMPLETONS! Jeez. Don't these self-involved shitheads know that not everyone is a damned tourist? Some of us actually LIVE here and are trying to leave work. Fucking self-involved, entitled, brainless... WTF, did that dude just bite that other dude?!

Holy shit. These people aren't tourists, they're zombies! Well that explains a lot. It figures I would miss the advent of the zombie apocalypse because of overtime. Good thing I've been carrying this mannequin arm around in my laptop bag since I played Dead Rising that one time back in 2006. I mean, we've had this coming for a while. I can't say that I'm surprised, nor even upset. In fact, I think I'm rather enthused…

Monday, August 2, 2010

That One Puzzle in Limbo

So... there's this one puzzle in Limbo. Yeah, you know the one I'm talking about.

The gravity flip, the jump onto the rope attached to the zipline, the slide down that rooftop into a leap over that hidden right-arrow sign, timing the "use" button to switch the room's gravity, pushing the little boy right instead of down.

It's signposted, but it's not signposted well. Just before hopping onto the zipline, players encounter the first of the gravity-shift arrows. They're pointing up and down, and the boy uses them to coax the zipline over to him by switching the room's gravity, causing it to fall up to him. It seems like the game moves a bit quickly from there, since immediately afterward players are expected to understand that gravity can also be shifted left and right, as well as that they are being asked to time their presses in midair to redirect the boy's momentum.

Further complicating matters is the fact that there's a rope hanging right near the sign that looks for all the world like a usable rope, and yet each time I leapt for it the boy would sail past, falling to his death in a pit of spikes.

I was playing the game early for review, and although I did figure it out, it was more by luck than anything else. After dying a dozen times, I tried spamming the "use" button over the rope and in doing so I hit the arrow instead. Whether or not PlayDead had intended that result by placing the rope next to the arrow, it felt like the only time in the game that I survived on luck rather than my wits.

After I'd completed the game, I watched as my gaming twitter-friends played through it, and many folks hit the same roadblock. I could always tell when they got there; initial tweets of "Wow, Limbo is something else" gave way to "BLARG LIMBO FUUUU." Usually they'd work it out, though at one point a fellow early reviewer just went ahead and asked me what to do. It was a neat moment - there were no FAQs yet online, and the game offers no built-in hint system, so the only thing to do was to turn to another human and ask. Which in turn made me think a bit about self-containment and game design.

Do all games need to function perfectly if played in a vacuum? To what extent is it fair to assume that each player has access to a community that can help him or her through a tough spot? Certainly Demon's Souls does this - the game is so impenetrable that surviving it without aid from others seems next to impossible. In fact, Demon's Souls builds that community into the game itself - my trek last night through the Boletarian Palace was made quite a bit less daunting by the warnings that previous players had left for me, helpful crimson etches upon the castle's chilly stone.

And that's to say nothing of the meta-community that's sprung up around the game. The incredible Demon's Souls wiki is the result of countless hours of labor by those who edit and contribute to it, and each time I've felt like throwing in the towel for the night, I'm heartened by the mere fact of its existence.

Now, I don't think that pushing its players outside of Limbo was PlayDead's intent. I think that what makes that zipline/gravity-arrow puzzle stand out is that it's an inconsistency in an otherwise spectacularly polished game. But all the same, I actually liked that the upshot was to get everyone together to complain about it, I liked that it prompted a helpful conversation between me and another gamer. By not explaining itself, Limbo forced us to get by with a little help from our friends.

As Demon's Souls demonstrates, the same approach can work by design. In this age of accessibility and built-in hint systems, pushing players to help one another outside of the proper game adds a new dimension to the experience. Heck, my own review of Limbo was as opaque as it was in part because it seemed a safe bet that if anyone who read it wanted to know, say, about the game's length or its control scheme, they could find that information elsewhere in the blink of an eye. At this point, it seems safe to assume that the vast majority of modern-day videogame players have internet access.

There's a fine line, of course. But all the same, I have to wonder: must every game be playable in a vacuum? To what resources can a game assume its players have access?