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12:13 AM on 06.02.2010

Ending an Ending: You Don't Have to go Home, but...

(SPOILER ALERT: There are a lot of Lost spoilers. If you haven't seen the Lost finale, and you care about that sort of thing, move right along. As always, this is the only warning.)

Not too long ago, I wrote about ending something that is expected to lead directly into a sequel, or as I coined it, "Ending an Exposition". To sum it up for you, I said that it's important that ending something that appears in the middle (be it the end of a TV season, or the first game in an obviously multi-part series, or various other things) doesn't leave the audience with a shallow lack of resolution. Or, to really boil it down: the world needs more Mass Effect endings, and less Halo 2 endings.

What happens when something is done? We've reached the finish line. This is it. No more after this. We're packing up and going home. Ending something that an audience has invested a large amount of time into is always extremely difficult.

I'm going to assume that most of the people reading this know that Lost had its series finale recently, and the show is now gone for good. Many people have said many things about this ending. Some loved it, some hated it. Some people (like yours truly) fell somewhere in the middle. Lost was a show that thrived on a high mystery element, and many people felt slighted that they didn't get this answer or that one, be it what happened with Walt, who Sayid shot on the golf course, why did US Press Secretary CJ Cregg kill Jacob and Smokey's biological mother*, or about a million other questions that didn't get answered.

* - I joke, but I really do enjoy Allison Janney. I loved her on The West Wing, and any other show she pops up on, she does a great job. I saw a random episode of "In Plain Sight" (a show I do not regularly watch) last night, and she was on, giving as good of a performance as ever.

A bit of a primer on all of the stuff Lost did not answer. One little thing is not a big deal, but...

Of course, if you buy into the Damon Lindelof/Carlton Cuse theory of "Lost is about the characters," you probably greatly enjoyed the series finale. The show resolved everyone's time on the island, and while you don't know what happened to everyone who lived through the finale (LAPIDUS~!), you do get to watch them party in a church before Christian Shepard opens a door of light to reveal God as played by Alanis Morrisette (wait).

This all ends up boiling down to one major facet when it comes to a huge ending: you can't please everyone. Some people liked the endings of shows like The Sopranos or Battlestar Galactica, while many did not. Personally, I feel that Six Feet Under has one of the better conclusions to any story I've cared about, but I have friends who disagree.

And really, this shouldn't come as a shock. Often, I find myself not enjoying an ending just because, well, it's over. There is no more. Anything you may have wanted to see happen (like Ryo Hazuki kicking the crap out of Lan Di) no longer has a chance of happening. Particularly with Lost, that was a pretty big deal for a lot of people.

Lost's Terry O'Quinn (John Locke) had a good quote about endings on the behind the scenes look at the series that aired before the finale. Sadly, I can't seem to find the quote at the moment, but to paraphrase, he said something along the lines of "At the end of the day, you just want to be able to close that book and say, 'Man, that was awesome.'" Satisfaction is always important in forms of entertainment, but it's doubly important with an ending. The unfortunate truth is that what satisfies some will not satisfy others, so it becomes more about the message you want to give your audience at this point.

Lost ended with a message that I've interpreted to be about finding your soul mate, or whatever else. The Sopranos ended in a fashion I can only describe as, "Make up your own damn mind." To slowly walk into video games, well...

Suddenly, this gets very difficult.

It seems as though many of the games I'd want to use as narrative examples in video games suffer a pretty big, and pretty similar flaw: they all have that "it's over, but..." ending. Often, this is the kind of thing that appears after the credits, as if this is some sort of reward for watching the names of a bunch of developers scroll on your screen while you do something else for a few minutes.

Some of my go-to examples like Dragon Age resolve the present conflict, but are obviously setting up to expand the franchise (and for full disclosure, I have Awakening, but I haven't completed it yet). Mass Effect 3 is not yet a reality, but my understanding is that it's supposed to be the final chapter for Commander Shepard. Bioshock barely had anything resembling an ending (and I haven't played Bioshock 2).

It seems as though tying the idea of an ultimate resolution into video games just isn't compatible with the current culture of narrative-based video games. Everything makes room for a sequel, seemingly, and continues to do so until the franchise is no longer profitable. At that point, you might get a final game, but this feels unlikely. I can't come up with a single example of this happening.

I'd love to tie this into one of my personal favorite games from the Playstation era, Metal Gear Solid, but even that had Revolver Ocelot talking to Solidus after the credits, and that series is still going. I could go to the Final Fantasy series, but for the most part, those games tend to have the "Hollywood Ending"*

* - Which, if you are unfamiliar with this term, I'd advise you to watch Robert Altman's "The Player". Really, you should watch that movie anyway

I am at a complete loss for coming up with a game that concludes for good -- in any variation of quality -- without adding some tag on the end that makes it possible for them to keep going afterwards. This, sadly, is leaving me without a good conclusion for this essay (which I suppose is fitting), and has me wondering if any series has successfully given a message of completion. If you can think of something, I'd love to hear it.

And since I didn't properly conclude this entry, here is a Youtube video of Buddy Rich and Ed Shaughnessy playing drums on Johnny Carson. It is awesome. I hope this ending is satisfying for you, the reader.


(And just as a quick post-script: yes, Lost has plenty of room to rejoin the island, perhaps with the adventures of Hurley and Ben, but we had an actual resolution. I mean, most things have room to revisit a series unless the ending is something like "and everyone ever died, the end.")

(Also, if you haven't seen this yet, get on it. Like, now.)   read

6:12 PM on 06.01.2010

[NVGR] My Past Resignations

Hopefully you got the title reference before clicking into this entry. I love me some Dave Grohl.

I always work under the assumption that no one reads this blog. Everything I write is stuff that I am personally interested in, and putting it into large chunks of words makes it easier for me to reach an understanding of those interesting things. That anyone does read these words is merely a happy coincidence, and one that I genuinely appreciate.

So, when I see a comment like this one on yesterday's entry, I take a step back:

Whoa. Not only did this fellow read that entry, he read my "about me" sidebar. While I did cover my bases by updating that thing a few weeks ago, suddenly I find myself conflicted. Originally, I started writing these things to see if I could keep a daily (well, once per weekends) blog going for any amount of time, and while my results were not entirely what I had hoped for, they were promising.

I don't think it comes as a shock to anyone that writing - and more importantly, writing frequently and in large quantities - is difficult, especially if it's merely a hobby as it is for myself.* The concept of doing stuff on a deadline, however, is something that is prevalent in all facets of most of our lives. Most obviously, this is something that will be a part of your career, whatever that line of work may be.

* - I did try an English/writing/whatever it would've turned into major in college for a semester or two, but it wasn't for me. I have a hard time allowing a hobby to turn into a career, which is why I don't have a degree that lets people know I am good at writing words. For similar reasons, I don't have a degree in making music (my other passion).

My self-imposed deadlines were mostly to keep me sharp during what I was hoping would be a brief job hunt, that hasn't gone as well as I'd like. I'm not worried about it - I haven't slowed down, and I will find something eventually. In the meantime, however, I refuse to let myself turn into mush.

I've been making sure that I'm frequently challenging myself while I'm unemployed, so that when I get my next gig, I'll be prepared to jump right in. This blog is one of those things, and teaching myself how to play a guitar (with aid from Youtube, admittedly) has been my big challenge for the past nine or ten months (I wasn't going in blind, but my ability was remedial before I bought my electric from a then-co-worker). Overall, I'd say it has been going well. Maybe I'll upload a video for your amusement one of these days (then again, maybe not).

Don't take this for anything beyond its face value, but self-improvement is one of those things I never stop thinking about. There are few challenges I look at and think to myself, "I will never be able to do that." Sure, I'll never play for a Major League Baseball team, but I can still work on my hitting so I can reliably hit the ball where I want to hit it. I'll never sell out an arena with my music, but that doesn't mean I can't improve as a musician.

Even in video games (oh no, the video game tangent), I always have room to improve. I may never win tournaments at Street Fighter, but I certainly have not come remotely close to my limit in that game. My only major phobia is a colossal fear of heights, so about a year ago I decided that before I am 30 years old, I will go skydiving. I like the idea of facing a (debilitating at times) fear head-on. Maybe now that I put it in writing, I'll actually do it, too.

So what does all of that have to do with this?

While I'm sure it was not meant to be taken that way, I see this comment as a challenge. In an attempt to improve myself further, I will once again attempt to update this here space daily, with one small qualifier. Currently, I am involved in some all-day activities on Fridays with a few friends, so I can't reasonably keep a normal amount of sleep in my life while also updating six times a week, so I will cut that to five times. Every Monday through Thursday, expect daily updates. Friday, expect nothing. Saturday and Sunday, expect one update (don't know which day yet, and it might change!)

This might last a day, or maybe a week. Maybe it'll last for years, I have no idea. All I know is that it's Beyamor's fault. I hope you're happy.

(As a side note, a call for content would be awesome. If you've been reading this blog regularly, -- first of all, thanks -- you know what kinds of things I feel comfortable writing about, so if you can think of anything you'd like to see me talk about, help me! Coming up with daily prompts (which I usually think up that same day) can be difficult if I run out of them. I have enough for at least a little while, but any help is good help. This entry excluded, I like to stay as close to video games as possible, given that this is a video game website after all, but I may venture outside of that realm, as well. This is a lot of commitment for like a handful of regular readers! And really, Shenmue's non-ending still makes me angry.)   read

5:09 PM on 05.31.2010

Street Fighter and Me -or- How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Spam Hadoken

Ahh, the blank canvas. Scourge of all writers. Killer of students. The greatest form of torture to someone working on a deadline. This is what I've been dealing with for the past however-long. For those of you who follow this blog, you've probably noticed a lack of letters, words, paragraphs, and entries in this here blog. I'm not here to apologize (really, I'm not required to update this, but I prefer to), but rather explain how this came to be. I'll end up in a video game related tangent, don't you worry.

As I hope is clear, I do try to put a decent amount of effort into whatever I upload to this site, as I don't like to come across as misinformed, ignorant to what I'm talking about, or just downright stupid, even if all of these things are true at various times. So, when I start enjoying a lot of things that don't directly involve video games (like reconnecting with old friends I haven't seen in years, or finally buying an amp for my guitar), some stuff falls behind the wayside.

But enough about me, let's talk about what video games I am playing.

Actually, to be accurate, it's fair to say I am monogamous in my video gaming, currently. I have found a home with a large joystick in my lap shooting balls of fire at not-quite-racist-but-totally-stereotypical "world warriors". Yes, I'm talking about Super Street Fighter 4.

It was more than a personal victory than it should have been when I realized I could consistently beat online players who use the same exact tactics at all times, even when it's clear they don't work.

Outside of music games and MMORPGs, fighting games have been able to ruin my ability to enjoy multiple games at once like no other genre. Ever since I was a little kid playing Street Fighter 2*, the games have always appealed to me for a variety of reasons. The gameplay is always solid, sure, and the games are usually well-done, but there's definitely more to it than that. And no, I'm not just talking about balance (though that is important!)

* - Sidenote: how many games out there have only increased the sequel count by two in nearly two decades? Yeah, I know they didn't exactly rest on their laurels during that time, but this has always struck me as hilarious.

One of the biggest problems I had with Street Fighter (or any fighting game, really) back in the day was that I never had enough competition. Once I got to the point that I could beat my friends regularly (well, one of my good friends always kept up with me), there wasn't much more beyond that. I don't think I need to discuss how bland of an experience Street Fighter is while playing against AI.

Now, back in those days, the arcade scene was big -- let's say big enough, actually -- around here that I could have conceivably gotten better by playing in arcades, but I was too young back then, so it's almost like me talking about how I never got to see the Beatles perform live since I wasn't alive in the 1960s. I was stuck playing with my friends, who inevitably burned out on the games. Naturally, this leads to me burning out on them, as well.

As I grew older, I still appreciated fighting games, but never really played them. Sure, I had Soul Calibur on the Dreamcast (who didn't?), and I had a brief (and I do mean brief) love affair with Tekken 3, along with a bunch of other stuff mixed in at that time, but none of those games lasted very long. For the majority of the past 15 years or so, I've probably spent the most time with Soul Calibur, and that's only because my friends seemed to think they could get good at it. Of course, they were viewing the game in the light of Ninja Gaiden rather than in the light of Starcraft that (in my opinion) they should have seen it in, so they lost, I ran out of competition, and got bored again.

This is the kind of mentality a lot of my friends had, albeit in a more friendly manner. And yes, I did beat that guy. He could have very easily beaten what I was doing.

Once I entered the realm of the internet, I discovered just how good people had been getting at these games over the years. Things like "Evo moment #37" way back in 2004 (the fact that I can say "way back in 2004" without being sarcastic makes me pretty sad, by the way) appealed to me in the greatest of great senses. Sure, I wouldn't be able to do that in a million years, but it's moreso an example of me realizing how much potential there was that I had never even seen.

At that point, the floodgates of information poured open for me. I discovered David Sirlin's infamous "playing to win" series and wondered how on earth people could disagree with that stuff, found and picked out whatever info I thought was interesting, and sought out high quality videos of other people playing video games (and really, that's a point of no return).

Of course, this was all six years ago. I had no fighting game that I enjoyed. I tried to enjoy Guilty Gear XX #Reload on my Xbox, but it never really "clicked" for me. I wasn't really enjoying it, and even though I could go online with it, I never really found a community to play with. Randoms are only so exciting (especially since I was losing pretty handily at that one).

After that, I played Dead or Alive 4 for a bit, and I had a good group of friends I rolled with on that game, but we were all basically playing it because it was our only option on the Xbox 360. That XBLA version of Hyper Fighting was depressing.

Then Street Fighter 4 happened.

Yeah, this game (and its sequel/expansion/"thing that should've been DLC/a patch"/whatever you're willing to call it) certainly has its flaws (a bit too defensive/slow for my tastes, really unwelcoming for new players, links will ruin your brain), but it was finally a game I clicked with. When it first came out, I was in the middle of a crunch at work, so it kind of fell by the wayside, but it was never out of my mind. Once I heard about Super Street Fighter 4, all hell kind of broke loose in my mind. To make matters worse/better, PAX East was like a nail in the coffin.

At PAX East, once I discovered the large amount of people playing SF4, that was it. As luck may have had it, I was already in the process of buying a Mad Catz Tournament Edition stick from a friend of mine also attending the expo (and they are as good as everyone says, really), but that didn't even matter once I sat down in freeplay. If that weekend hadn't been one of the busiest weekends of my life, I probably would've spent the majority of it playing Street Fighter, and I would've lost a lot. I've been bit by the bug, and now there's no turning back.

Not to mention, I have a good group of people to play with even at home now! Yes, online has its share of issues, and playing with lag is always unfortunate (though that is a topic for another time), but this random site called seems to have a decent core of Street Fighter players that are enjoyable playing, and have skill levels ranging from "I can beat them without trying" (Nishant I love you) to "What the hell did they just throw at me?", and everywhere in between. If you spend some time in Destructoid's IRC channel, you'll find a match eventually. Go in with the right attitude, and you'll also learn a lot.

So, thanks guys. You've probably added at least a month to my unemployment. I hope you're happy.

(And just for you regular readers: Bioshock, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Bioware, Lost, Mad Men Shenmue 2's ending sucked.)   read

3:50 AM on 05.13.2010

If You Choose Not to Decide: Choices, and Their Impact

While perusing the recaps of yesterday's blogs (brought to you by the always awesome cblogrecaps who are awesome and no I am not just saying that because they topsauced me yesterday), I came across this entry by Om Nom On Souls. First off, while I don't venture too far outside of this here blog very often (except for my frequent presence on Destructoid's IRC channel), I do know that ONOS is particularly awesome, and you should click that link and read that entry. It's good.

Also, as you can probably guess, it got me to thinking. Not directly about good and evil, mind you, but choice in a more general sense. Choice is one of those things that has compelled people for almost as long as people have walked this planet. Do we have free will, able to create our own path as we see fit, or has it been written in stone for eternity that I'd be typing these words right now? Was Oceanic 815 always destined to crash, or did changeable events lead to this happening? It's definitely unnerving (to me, anyway) to imagine a situation where everything in my life has already been predetermined.

I don't want to get more philosophical than I need to for this, but it's unavoidable to some extent. Choice is one of those things that comes up time and time again when discussing storytelling through video games, and I'm sure it'll remain a topic long after I hit the giant button underneath this text box. Usually, choices are represented in a binary fashion of good/evil, and in the past, it was taken to extreme. I can save that burning bus full of orphans, or I can slow down the rate at which those orphans die the most agonizing death possible - stuff like that.

Some developers (like the perennially-mentioned-in-this-blog Bioware) have pushed the envelope a bit further in that regard, making sure that even the most altruistic action you think you can take can lead to negative consequence (in my opinion, I think Mass Effect has taken this a bit too far, but that's a topic for another time). On the opposite side of this, many games have tried to add incentives if you choose be Jim Badguy. Generally, this comes through increased stats, items, abilities, etc. Whatever makes your life easier, at least in the short term. (As I'm sure many of you know, harvesting the little sisters in Bioshock actually was a net negative compared to saving them in the long run, and yes, I did just mention Bioshock again. Is it the fall yet?)

I'm trying to stay in the habit of throwing images with relevant quotes into these essays just to break up the monotiniy of the WALL OF TEXT, but I'm having trouble coming up with related images that aren't just from the same references that I always use. So here, have a Rush song.

Of course, there's a lot more to choice than good and evil. Dragon Age presents a variety of choices that have no clear "this is the real good, and this is the real bad path," and it opens up a bit more to the interpretation of the player. I've heard stories from friends about how they played through the game while developing a role for their character, similar to how they might make a character in Dungeons and Dragons (or anything else that involves roleplaying).

This is interesting, but I hold the belief that the game should present all of the challenge without me creating my own rules outside of the program I'm currently running. Most of the choices I made in Dragon Age were the ones that either gave me the most benefit, the "best" possible ending, or were simply the most difficult choices to make (for example, if there was a choice I could make only if I had a good enough persuasion, that was always my first choice. As an added bonus, that usually tied into my first qualifier anyway).

The other issue is that these decisions usually don't have any significant impact on the game, as I griped about yesterday. Say you choose to kill the Rachini queen in the first Mass Effect. After that happens and you return to the Normandy, you get chastised by the Council, and then you continue your mission. If you choose to save it? You get chastised by the Council, and then you continue your mission. Either way, it has no impact on the rest of the game, and only serves to change a few lines of speech in its sequel. Naturally, this could change in the next game, but I can't speculate on something that doesn't really exist yet.

This is all too common in games, especially ones that are "all about the choices you make." This does make Bioware the main offender (and it's worth noting, the only reason I talk about Bioware so much is because I really do love the games they make), as the choices you make are mostly pointless. For the most part, all of these choices have cosmetic effect over a few lines of speech here or there, but the lasting effect - the impact - is rarely there.

Sure, you have to choose whether Ashley or Kaidan dies, but why do I care? This particular point ties back into what I discussed yesterday - in that I don't care about these characters at all - but it also became even sillier when Mass Effect 2 was released and neither of them are playable anyway. Granted, I haven't played through the game where Kaidan is alive, but I'm going to make the safe assumption that he shows up in the same place that Ashley does, and serves more or less the same role that Ashley does in that context. If I'm wrong, feel free to correct me.

Choosing for the sake of making a choice isn't the correct way of going about this. Adding meaning to these decisions is vital. Given the nature of developing a video game, a narrative-heavy game will never fully be able to escape a limited set of paths you can take. I don't consider binary options to necessarily be the kiss of death for making decisions, although it may not be the best way of going about it.

And honestly, just creating an impressive back story for these decisions isn't enough. Sure, that's a benefit (and one I would never belittle), but it's not the whole story. I guess I could put it like this: make me scared to choose the other option. This isn't necessarily the only way you can succeed at creating impact, but it is probably one of the simpler methods. I wasn't scared about killing the Council instead of a massive amount of innocent people in Mass Effect, since they were replaceable, and they were all jerks anyway. Oh, you mean I can cause the demise of these intergalactic, xenophobic leaders who don't seem to realize that I'm saving their asses? Nah, let me kill all these innocent people instead. Impact, not cosmetics.

And please, don't make me wait two years (or longer) for a sequel where this impact presents itself. Have I ever mentioned the Shenmue blue-balling in this blog?   read

1:56 AM on 05.12.2010

A Developing Character: Because We Can't Search for Sailors All Day

(SPOILER ALERT: There are spoilers of the current season of Lost, Justified, and Treme in this entry, as well as spoilers from older seasons of Dexter. If you're not current on these shows (or even a week or two behind), but care about spoilers, avoid this entry until you are current. There are no more warnings after this point.)

Son of a bitch!

For no reason other than being unemployed (still!), I've found myself watching a lot of television shows on top of my usual gaming habits. While this may seem like a rather mundane way to begin an essay, this is actually somewhat outside of my realm of normal behavior. I'm by no means opposed to television - in fact, I quite like it. For several years, however, I chose not to watch because "I have other stuff I could be doing."

Well, that's not the case right now, and I'm glad it isn't; there are some mighty fine shows on TV right now. Primarily, my TV time is focused on three shows: Lost, Justified, and Treme. These three shows are vastly different in significant ways, but share a few common themes that separate them from the majority of other shows I've seen lately (although I hear Breaking Bad is good, and I'll certainly be ready for Mad Men's return).

Of course, this isn't about TV shows. If I wanted to review them, I could do it pretty quickly. In fact, I will: good but inconsistent, took a few episodes but is really flying high right now, absolutely fantastic on all levels, but might get bland quicker than I'd like (fans of The Wire are currently yelling at me about how wrong I am).

Now that that's out of the way, let's get to my real point - one of the biggest things these shows all do is develop their characters. One of the most important things you can do when telling a story - yes, even a non-fiction story - is to present it to the audience in a way where they develop a bond with the story's key players. This goes beyond the words that come out of their mouth, but the way they react to things, the small mannerisms that are a core part of who they are, and countless other things that need to be taken into consideration (although not necessarily obsessed about).

The two main writers of Lost, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have spoken about how they feel that Lost is first and foremost about the characters. While that may not be true in practice, it's a good ideal to stick by. Looking at the characters still currently relevant on Lost, most of them possess enough qualities to make them seem "human" in a way where the audience cares about what happens to some or all of them.

Certainly, I found myself moved by Jin and Sun's unfortunate fate, and I've found myself the most curious about what will happen to Hurley in the long run. I want nothing more than for Kate's Lost career to end with a bullet in her head, but I know a few people who do still like her. Desmond, of course, is awesome, as is Lapidus, who totally isn't dead.

Justified is a bit more top-heavy in its character development, putting the majority of the focus on Raylan Givens (although not all of it), who is played brilliantly by Timothy Olyphant. Raylan started off the series coming across as some kind of Superman character who always was three steps ahead of the people he was chasing, but as the season has progressed, we've discovered the things that can reduce him down to the level of mere mortal. There was a good moment in this week's episode - one where Raylan was without his signature hat the entire hour - where he reached for his hat upon entering a building, only to realize that he didn't actually have it on. Those minor details are a good way to develop character, even if the entire audience isn't going to notice them.

People do lots of dumb s*** because it's easy.

Treme is a bit of an outlier, in that there's no real central plot. Each of the main characters has their own personal conflicts (and in a city like New Orleans after the storm, conflict was not in short supply), but they rarely overlap into a more major theme - outside of New Orleans itself, of course. Rather than tell a traditionally focused story like a crime drama in Justified, or a whatever-the-hell-they're-doing in Lost, Treme's whole existence is seemingly based on characters and characters alone.

No other show I've seen (and before you ask: no, I have not see The Wire, yes, I know it is awesome, yes, I plan on watching it eventually) is capable of staying compelling with as weak of a key conflict as Treme. The best way I can describe it for someone who hasn't seen it is that it basically is several "side story" level stories from any other show matched together. You've got Antoine, a struggling musician trying to make ends meat while sleeping around town, Janette, with a mostly flooded house and a restaurant she can't really keep up with, Creighton, a professor in a school that he doesn't seem too thrilled about who is suddenly becoming a Youtube celebrity, and several other interesting characters.

There is one character, however, who seems to have polarized the show's fans. Davis comes across as a holier-than-thou, too smart to realize how dumb he is personality that just doesn't resonate with most people. It always feels like he's a bit too unaware of what's going on around him, and while people like that do exist, they're not usually popular characters in stories, especially when portrayed as an important part of the story. From this week's episode, it looks like we're still having the layers of Davis peeled back, and we were showed a bit of how Davis manages to get through life (his ability to persuade is incredible).

Of course, having good characters isn't necessary for a show to be compelling. A show like Dexter gets by having bland, one-dimensional characters that take cop drama archetypes to a bit of an extreme. It succeeds largely due to the suspense it creates through the plot, rather than any character not named Dexter Morgan developing in any meaningful way (unless you count what seemed like an interesting subplot for Doakes until they killed him off in season 2).

Naturally, I mention all of this to give a frame of reference to discuss character development in video games, a part of the narrative process that seems to be completely ignored in the majority of games. The most popular example with my friends is Final Fantasy 8, where everyone not named Squall is more or less meaningless to the game, and the only development Squall experiences is going from "emo kid who doesn't want to be bothered" to "emo kid who doesn't want to be bothered, except by Rinoa" (I'm overgeneralizing, but not much).

Excuse me, I'm looking for some sailors.

The list of good or great narrative-heavy games with terrible character development is staggering. One of my personal favorites from days gone by, Shenmue, is full of characters that were seemingly cut out of construction paper, be it Ryo (the protagonist!), Lan Di, Nozomi, or whoever else. They're all one-trick ponies with no real reason to become attached to them (except for Ryo, who is an inconsistent zero-trick pony who you are forced to control for the majority of the game). As I've discussed in the past, this issue is augmented by the fact that the series was never completed.

As far as games that are moreso praised for their writing (and that I've actually played, sorry Heavy Rain and Half-Life, I'll leave you two to the comments), a game like Bioshock gets by through the means of not really creating a protagonist. Usually in games where you follow a plot, you're never given any motivation for walking into those obvious traps, other than "you have to or the game won't finish." I won't spend time discussing how Bioshock gets around this, as that has been discussed many times by many people. The game succeeds by being moreso about the antagonists of the game, and while they aren't necessarily the most interesting characters in the world, the real interest comes through discovering the methods they screw around with the nameless, faceless, voiceless protagonist.


Mass Effect (and really, most Bioware games of the same nature) is a bit of a mixed bag. You can develop Shepard in a few different ways (good thing!), even though it ultimately has no bearing on the rest of the story (not-so-good thing!).

The people around him/her are inconsistent, as well. For checkmarks in the "good" column, I'd commend a character like Mordin, who we discover throughout the course of ME2 is a lot more interesting than just a doctor who is good with a gun. Not to mention he's a great singer. For characters that crossed over from the first game to its sequel, I'd surprisingly give kudos to Wrex. While he seems like a very typical meathead for the most part (which is mostly true of his species), there's enough going on under the surface that gives him a decent amount of depth. Meeting him in Mass Effect 2 and discovering his forward-thinking ways to help unite and save his people was refreshing, given that my main memory of him from the first game is his single-word greeting of Shepard.

Most (not all, but I'm not discussing everyone for the sake of brevity) of the cast outside of that isn't so wonderful. I feel like Ashley could have been a more interesting character, but she never really gets beyond just being an annoying xenophobe in either game. Jacob is pretty one-dimensional in a similar way that Doakes was for most of his run on Dexter. I happen to enjoy those characters to an extent, but if he shows up in the third game, I hope they do a bit more with him.

I wanted to end the body of this essay with an example of a game that has good character development across the board for the key players, but I really can't think of any game that really hits a home run. Even the games that rely heavily on archetypes seem to mess it up somewhere, usually by not spending enough time on it, presumably for the reason that most developers assume that to develop a character, you have to be in a conversation that doesn't actually use the main mechanics of the game itself (be it the combat system, the puzzles, or whatever the "core gameplay" is). It's a shame, because I don't feel like this would be a difficult task to complete. Writers have been creating compelling characters for thousands of years.

I'd love to hear if any of you have examples of games with good (not even great!) character development. I definitely haven't played every critically popular game that relies heavily on story, so hopefully you guys can fill in some of the blanks for me.   read

6:42 AM on 04.16.2010

You can't handle the truth!

I'm not particularly good at re-sizing, and I couldn't find an image with decent dimensions. Sorry.

Let's face it, everyone: the most popular game on the Xbox 360 isn't actually a game. If you look at your list of friends at any point of the day, you're more than likely to find at least one or two people to be playing this. While other games come and go with the tides, this game never goes out of style, and is constantly being refreshed with new content.

I am, of course, speaking of the one and only Netflix. Since this service has launched on the Xbox 360, it has taken over everyone's spare time, and (in my mind) gave credence to the thought that the console is more than just something to play video games on - it has a legitimate argument as being an important part of any home media center.

We have a problem, though. Netflix, the most popular game on the Xbox 360 by leaps and bounds, has no achievements. Achievements, such a necessary part of Xbox 360 games that even Final Fantasy XI has them. People, we can't allow this to continue any longer.

Here is my modest attempt at making some worthwhile achievements for Netflix. I'm trying not to deviate too far from current achievement conventions (showcasing features from the game, rewards for "critical path" usage, and so forth), so don't expect anything too crazy.

For added fun, I've made the title for every achievement a quote from a movie or TV show (with a heavy lean towards movies). Some are iconic, some are merely famous, and some are rather obscure favorites. See how many you know!

Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. - 10 G
--Add a movie or television show to your instant queue.

You're gonna need a bigger boat. - 15 G
--Add 25 movies or television shows to your instant queue.

I loved you in Wall Street! - 30 G
--Add 50 movies or television shows to your instant queue.

If you build it, he will come. - 10 G
--Invite someone for a party watch session

What the **** is the internet? - 30 G
--View a movie or show that you added to your instant queue from

It stinks! - 10 G
--Rate one movie or show.

I have always depended on the kindness of strangers! - 15 G
--Rate 25 movies or shows.

Whoa. - 30 G
--Rate 50 movies or shows.

Worst. Episode. Ever. - 25 G
--Watch any movie or show with a rating of two stars or less, and then rate it.

There's always a choice. - 25 G
--Watch any movie or show with a rating of four stars or more, and then rate it.

And the Oscar goes to... - 15 G
--Watch any movie that has won an Academy Award for Best Picture. (pending legal sign-off from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)

Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. - 50 G
--Watch an entire season or series of a TV show in a single day.

Do you know what your sin is? - 20 G
--Watch any movie or show classified as "Sci-Fi & Fantasy"

That rug really pulled the room together, dude. - 20 G
--Watch any movie or show classified as "Comedy"

You trying to say Jesus Christ can't hit a curveball? - 20 G
--Watch any movie or show classified as "Sports & Fitness"

Hang on to your turban kid, we're gonna make you a star! - 20 G
--Watch any movie or show classified as "Children & Family"

But...this one goes to eleven. - 20 G
--Watch any movie or show classified as "Documentary"

What kind of place is this? It's beautiful: Pigeons fly, women fall from the sky! I'm moving here! - 20 G
--Watch any movie or show classified as "Foreign"

A man once told me that the only causes worth fighting for are the lost causes. - 20 G
--Watch any movie or show classified as "Drama"

Some people are just born with tragedy in their blood. - 20 G
--Watch any movie or show classified as "Independent"

Movies don't create psychos, movies make psychos more creative! - 20 G
--Watch any movie or show classified as "Thrillers"

Where we're going, we don't need roads! - 55 G
--Watch 1000 movies or TV shows.

There. It's not a comprehensive list of all of the achievements you could make for Netflix, but this should be enough to ship achievements for this, the most popular game on the Xbox 360. Currently, the gamerscore adds up to 500. I figure since this is more content than an XBLA title, but isn't actually a game, this is a good compromise for your score.

If you have some awesome achievements (complete with quotes!), throw them in the comments and I can try to balance them in. Remember, though: try to keep them within the standard flavor of Xbox 360 achievements!   read

12:05 AM on 04.14.2010

APRIL 15, 2010: The END DAY (Well, at least for your old Xbox Live games)

So the Crystalis developers weren't exactly Nostradamus.

The fifteenth day of April, the fourth month of the year Twenty-Ten, Anno Domini. A day that will go down in infamy? Nope. This is a day that will be forgotten a few years from now by most people. To most Americans, the significance of this date is that if they haven't mailed their tax return by now, they better hurry up and find a post office.

To those who play video games? Even still, not all of us will care about this day. It will, however, be a day remembered by those who have fond memories of the Xbox Live service at its beginning. Those of us who accepted online gaming on consoles as the wave of the future. Or perhaps, those of us who just happened to have a friend in a different location, but wanted to play Halo with him or her all the same.

For me, this day has stirred a rather interesting feeling inside of me. Xbox Live has had a fairly large place in my life for the past five (almost six) years. I originally signed up for the service not too long before the release of Halo 2 in 2004 so I could play with my friends without having to haul televisions around and worrying about someone stepping over a cable causing us all to disconnect.

Shepard. I was just waxing goddamn nostalgic. - Zaeed Massani (This line just doesn't work as well without Zaeed's awesome articulation of "goddamn")

Just like anyone else, I had bad experiences joining random games and playing with people who seemingly couldn't keep their mouths shut. However, I also had a forum account at Gamespot at the time, and a fresh copy of Burnout 3 that I was dying to play. A random post from a user I had heard of invited anyone to play with him, so I did. I was introduced to a smaller community on the site (Gamespot allowed their premium users to create their own board for purposes beyond the official forums), and while we're not on Gamespot anymore, I still talk to those guys to this day. Some of them have gotten married in that time, some had kids. All of us have had our ups and downs.

It's a very small, tight-knit, private community. It started off with frequent games of Burnout 3, then turned into Halo 2 games, and whatever other flavor of the month games seemed like fun to play at the time (a somewhat obscure game called Phantom Dust was very popular for a long time there). Eventually, I played World of Warcraft with some of them.

It's weird, then, to think that on April 15, 2010, the servers for all of the original Xbox games are going to be taken offline forever. Hopefully it will lead to positive gains for the current generation of systems - I know I'm tired of the limit to my friends list. Supposedly the original Xbox was holding back some features for the Xbox 360. I don't know if any changes have been made official, but I hope this does turn into something good.

Perhaps some doomsayers will talk about how this is the problem with a service like Xbox Live, that a game will never be supported forever. It'd be better if clients could host their own games on dedicated servers. They're probably right, but Xbox Live certainly does add an ease of use, at least to me. Finding an enjoyable server on Team Fortress 2 has always seemed like a chore, especially since I don't play the game heavily.

Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. - Rick Blaine, Casablanca

It doesn't matter, though. What matters is that this is the end of a chapter in the life of online console gaming. Certainly, this was an important chapter, too. I'm probably going to hop online and play some Burnout 3 today, and if you enjoy playing those rusty old games online, I'd recommend all of you do the same. That random online session nearly six years ago introduced me to a lot of cool people (some of whom I met face-to-face for the first time in my life at GDC and PAX East), and I think a day of nostalgic gaming is in order.

My gamertag is also my username on this site. If you find yourself wanting to play Burnout 3, feel free to add me today. I likely won't be on XBL until this evening (probably around 6 PM or so? Maybe a bit later.), but I'd love to play with any of you. I might also be coerced into playing a round or two of Halo 2, but that'll take a fight.   read

3:11 AM on 04.13.2010

Ending an Exposition: A Somewhat Game Related Post

After finishing off a season of a popular television show, I decide to contemplate endings for awhile. I tie it into video games so I don't feel like I'm totally wasting my time. I don't know how to end this intro.

SPOILER WARNING! I have a lot of major spoilers for the first season of Mad Men and both Mass Effect games in this post. If you're working through any of these things, you may want to skip this entire thing. Everything is unmarked after this point

Have you ever finished a book, walked out of a movie, completed a game, or finished off a TV series and suddenly you were filled with a sense of completion? Perhaps, as the credits roll, you feel satisfied, but if you were told there was more, you'd be happy.

I'm sure you've all experienced the opposite, too. Maybe you're watching a single movie in a series, and the only thing the ending accomplishes is setting up for another sequel; one that you'll have to wait at least a year to see, maybe even longer. If you followed Stephen King's "The Dark Tower" series, you probably know exactly what I'm talking about. Endings that serve the long-term, but not the short term.

Or maybe it was something that came to a complete stop, but just didn't deliver that particular thing that you wanted so you could move on from this show, or whatever else. Maybe you don't even know what that thing is, but you know what you saw wasn't it. Seinfeld fans certainly know the feeling, and fans of The Sopranos probably can relate to this.

What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons. You're born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I'm living like there's no tomorrow, because there isn't one. - Don Draper

And honestly, this is on my mind right now because I just finished watching the first season of Mad Men. The show is very deliberate, very witty, very well-written, but also very slow. Seemingly the entire season was nothing more than an exposition - something created to hook viewers to watch for a long, long time. As the season ends, Don finds his marriage falling apart, Peggy has the success in the workplace she desired, but also gave birth to a child, and (while it's not part of the finale) Roger is entering the twilight of his life.

These are all excellent hooks that will get me to watch season two, but they threw it all on at the very last minute. The show progressed so slowly for the entire season, that I just ended up so unhappy with this finale. The writing is so good, and the setting so alluring that it got away with it this season, but all of the major conflict seems to have been avoided. We all knew Don's marriage was going to fall apart. We didn't necessarily know Peggy was going to have a child (although in a "hindsight is 20/20" moment, the signs were there for awhile), but we knew that what happened between her and Paul was not about to go away. Sure, we had the interest of one Dick Whitman, but that arc was barely even touched until the final few episodes. Hell, at times, it felt like the show had no present conflict, which is a bad habit for most works of fiction to fall into.

It annoys me a little bit. I let a show like Mad Men get away with it because the writing is so good. However, I started thinking about examples of this that soured me much more than Mad Men, and I constantly ended up looking at my shelf of video games to find examples. Halo 2's ending was one of the worst I experienced. When that ending happened, it felt so sudden - so rushed, as people like to refer to it. I'm getting pumped up to kick some ass, and all of a sudden I have credits rolling. We all knew Halo 3 was coming, but that isn't a pass for skimping out on an ending. It is entirely possible to create a satisfying ending while also setting up a sequel.

You would undo my work. You would doom our entire civilization to complete annihilation, and for that, you must die. - Saren Arterius

Hell, look at both Mass Effect games. The first game gives you Saren to chase around, and you end up defeating him at the end of the game. Shortly before that, though, you figure out that Saren isn't the real evil at work, and with all of the damage done to the Citadel, it's obvious that you have work ahead of you. Still, you got your conclusion to that major act of the story.

Again, we got this same sense of satisfaction with Mass Effect 2. Your main enemy was and is clear right from the start, although the Collectors prove to add more to the mystery. However, you get the satisfaction of blowing up a giant Reaper, and eliminating a Collector base (or choosing to deliver it to the Illusive Man, if you so please). Again, though, it's obvious that there's more work ahead. Both of these games had such satisfying endings that also had me going, "Alright, where the hell's the sequel?" Kudos to Bioware, they really know how to end a game. It'll almost be a shame that Star Wars: The Old Republic won't really be able to have any sort of real ending.

Why is it that so many writers (in any walk of life) feel the need to wave a carrot on a stick in front of their audience? I was having a discussion with a friend about Lost (another show coming up to a big ending, one that people flat out assume will be disappointing, just because of lofty expectations), and she argued that these unsatisfying filler episodes I've seen this season are necessary to set up the bigger moment. I contended that on both a micro (each episode) and macro (each season) level, I should be entertained. "Filler" is a word that needs to be done away with.

Certainly, it's much easier to just stretch out a few minutes of excitement into hours upon hours, but this is a lazy method of writing. Deadlines always make things more complicated, I'm certainly aware of that (and am angry at myself for forgetting to update this blog yesterday), but this shouldn't be at the expense of your audience. Don't jerk us around with sequel setup, especially if you've already made clear your plans for a trilogy, or whatever else.

This is how Shenmue 2 happens, and you're damn right that I'm still bitter. I don't even care that the games weren't that good in hindsight. I have absolutely no closure to that story, and will likely never see that closure. With studios popping up and getting shut down all the time, and copyright law being what it is, it's nothing short of cruel to do that to your audience. Just like in any other day and age, you have to be prepared for the worst at all times, and that includes how you manage writing your works of fiction.

So please, writers and aspiring writers: prepare your story in a way that it's always entertaining. When you're closing an act - even if it isn't the final act - don't present it in a way that creates no value for your audience besides a reason to tune in next week, season, year, or whatever schedule you're on. It takes extra work, sure, but doing it this way will guarantee that the amount of unhappy groans over your ending will be significantly less. Write like there's no tomorrow - for all you know, there won't be.   read

2:28 PM on 04.10.2010

Wise Men 2: THE DARNDENING (featuring contest winner!)

Back by popular demand (or rather, a few inspiring comments), I've put together another compilation of bad box art. What wonders will we see today? Also, yesterday's contest winner inside! Woo!

Let's get to it. First off, some bad album art.

Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow can stop this man's teeth from giving you nightmares. Now then, box art!

The "Yo Dawg..."

We heard you like box art, so we put some box art in your box art, so you can anime hand pose while you anime hand pose.

The reason I really like this one, though? The nested art still has the company logo, the ESRB rating, and even the region code. I want to know who approved this as a good idea. I really need to shake their hand, as this is the best idea. If I ever see this in a store, I will buy it, just because of the sheer absurdity of it all.

Do any more of these exist? I want more.

The Gamestop, part deux

I can relate to this. Gamestop employee got a game in trade without a case (happens frequently, usually when younger chilrden trade in games). Gamestop employee has an empty store and a generally clean store. Maybe the manager is on shift and the employee wants to look busy. So, let's re-create the Excite Truck box art that is sorely missing. When he's done, out comes this masterpiece.

He even went so far as to add the Wii logo in the top right, and the ESRB rating in the bottom left. Good sir, they're not paying you enough (because they don't pay anyone at Gamestop enough, but especially you).

Just because it's awesome

Yet another one I found while researching for this post. Combined with Lee Trevino's Fighting Golf, we have a LOT of scary golfing on our hands. I'm a bit more scared of ninjas than I am Lee Trevino, though. At first I figured this was a misleading box art example, but then I went over to Wikipedia. Quoting...

The player starts each hole by aiming his ball and shooting it toward the green. He then runs toward the ball, in traditional sidescroller fashion, fighting various enemies encountered along the way. These enemies include other ninjas, gophers, birds, giant mutant frogs, sharks and more.

I would play that so much. So much. Someone remake this and release it on XBLA. I mean, the game is #1! #1 means the best, folks.

The "This didn't get vetted enough. Or maybe it did."

I'm kind of playing dirty pool with this one, I guess. To Wikipedia once again:

Touch Dictionary is a Korean dictionary software title for the Nintendo DS released in 2005. It was once called Touch Dic and met with hilarious comical consequences.

Completely oblivious to phallic innuendo, or a toilet humor joke they can pass off as "a mistake"? I report, you decide.

The Mega Man 2



My plot for topsauce worked! This means my life now has purpose. Or something. As I said, I'd buy a <$10 game on Steam for one random commenter on that entry. I had someone off-site pick a random number for me and Ace of Knaves, you've won! Let me know that you're interested ASAP, because if you're not, I'll re-draw. However, you do have until the end of April to pick your game. Hooray!

And I'm out. Have a good weekend, folks. I'll be back on Monday to examine a stereotype in an article maybe two of you will read. I suppose having half of my general userbase read something shouldn't be considered a big loss.   read

12:35 AM on 04.09.2010

Ode to Cblog Recaps -or- Shameless Pandering for Topsaucetoid

I really like the cblog recaps. Often, I stay awake until they're posted. So, I've decided to create an ode to them, that totally isn't me without an idea tonight. Let's see how this goes....

The recaps are totally awesome. In fact, I stayed up way too late last night waiting for the recap, not realizing that they sometimes do double caps. I was super bummed. It's nice to be able to see who is saying what about what each day, and, for someone who likes hearing his own name (like me), it's always fun to see what they have to say about whatever I wrote that day. Am I being more cynical than I realize? Did I do good? Am I a giant nerd? (that one is always a yes).

They also highlight their favorite blogs of the day, a distinction I have never achieved. So here, I am going to create a small blurb using as many of their classifications as possible (check their page for what they all are). My hope is that if I use everything, it will be so hard to classify that they will have to put it at the top. Here we go.

A - I'll keep it short, but lately I've noticed myself unattracted to most games. I go through this cycle often, though. I play a ton of games, then I just put them all down because I'm burnt out or something. Immediately after getting laid off, I played more games than I had the entirety of 2009 in the span of two weeks. Now, I basically am only interested in Street Fighter. What can I say? Street Fighter never gets old.

S - SNEAK PEAK AT MONDAY'S STEREOTYPE OH WOW! I'm not sure what direction I want to go yet, actually. Black t-shirts is probably an easy target, as are goatees. I don't really have any inspiration for how I could approach breaking those stereotypes, though. The direction I plan on going'll be tough, and I doubt I'll convince anyone (like my sports one convinced anyone, I'm not that delusional), but it should be a fun one to develop.

M - For the "E for Effort" musing, I plan on avoiding the usual suspects like shooters, MMOs, JRPGs, and what have you (especially since I have varying interest in all of those). I was thinking about using licensed games...if I can figure out one significant piece of the puzzle, I totally will. For a direction I won't go in, but probably could, I totally get that people like Metroid Prime. I know this argument is pretty passe, but it just doesn't feel like Metroid to me, and I think it's a clear sign I'm getting old. I don't want to be on the old end of that generational gap. Not yet!

P - Well...okay. There's no podcast. Guess I can't hit them all.

As a showing that I'm not going to cheap out on this category, if this entry gets Topsauced, I will buy one random commenter on this entry within 24 hours of me posting this a game of their choosing that is less than ten dollars on Steam. Personally, I highly recommend Plants vs. Zombies, but there are some good games to choose from. In case there's a good weekend deal, this poster will have until the end of April to let me know what they want.

Yup, bribery. Like I'm above that.

E - One quick story from PAX East: there were these guys walking around with a portable stereo and signs that plainly said "/dance", an homage to the /dance emote that is frequently found in MMORPGs. It was pretty neat, but seemingly every time I walked by them when I was in "I need to conserve energy if I'm going to last this whole weekend." Sorry if I came across cranky!

D - Here's a picture of me from college. That qualifies as "in the wild," right? Also, my skin complexion is generally better these days. That picture is several years old.

S - To add one more story from my D&D post from earlier this week: our tank, our rogue, and myself had a contest that I thought up as a bit of a nod to Lord of the Rings when our dwarven paladin started talking with a Scottish accent. I proposed that whoever had the most killing blows on enemies would win an amount of gold from the other two players at the end of the competition (minions didn't count). When I left the campaign, I was in dead last. are we doing? Almost there? Gotta keep going. Gotta keep going.

C - It was 90 effin' degrees in Rhode Island on Wednesday. At the beginning of April. I can't claim to be an expert on global warming, but that is way too hot for April in New England. I couldn't even sleep because of how hot it is. Grrrr.

R - Kind of a late to the party review, but Batman: Arkham Asylum blew me away with how good it was. Putting aside personal bias, it was my favorite game of 2009 that I played (as I've mentioned, I don't own a PS3 and haven't gotten to play Uncharted 2). The game's combat mechanics were incredibly addicting in the best way possible, the stealth wasn't my cup of tea but it was well-done, and the Riddler's stuff was actually entertaining, which hidden "side-quest"y type stuff rarely is for me. Oh, and Mark Hammil is the best Joker. Yeah, I said it, Heath.

T - It occurs to me that we're pretty far into the current generation of consoles. Usually consoles are around for roughly five years or so, but it doesn't seem likely that we're going to be replacing our old systems next year. Are Natal and Playstation Move big enough deals that we can treat them as a sort of "replacement" for new consoles? I'd be okay with that, honestly, because those are optional add-ons, so I wouldn't have to spend a few hundred dollars on a new system. At least we can count on Nintendo to keep pumping out new handhelds, and making bank in the process.

D - To keep myself sharp while I job hunt, I'm collaborating with a few friends on a currently unannounced indie game. I'm testing a lot of ideas that I've had about games over the past year or so. Some of them might work, some of them might not. It has been a lot of fun, though, and expect to hear me talk about it more in the future (like when I have nothing else to talk about).

M - Honestly, most of the music I'm listening to right now is stuff I discovered in 2009, but came out in 2008. Mother Mother has been an obsession since I first heard their album "O My Heart", and the song I just linked is a personal favorite. Maybe I'll blog about music in the future since I listen to (and play) a lot of it.

F - I am SO late to the party on this one, but I started watching The Office this year. The current season definitely isn't as good as stuff from years past, and has been overshadowed by both Parks and Recreation and Community, but I don't think the show has run its course yet. They just need to figure out what direction they're going. I also started watching Lost but let's not talk about that.

L - I haven't read anything since I finished an Orson Scott Card series last year that I refer to as Space Mormons. Seriously. If you read it, and then read what Mormons believe, it's more or less identical, except the books take place in space. Because, y'know, it's Orson Scott Card. It is also really offensive at points.


I'm going to do this whole category with a video. A classic, Ryo Hazuki's obsession with sailors!


Here's a super-old internet meme that I didn't embed properly into this post.

So...there it is. It's not every single category, but it's a ton of them. I fully expect this to rest squarely in the fail column. With my luck, this has been done before, and someone did it better than me. Don't worry, I'll be back to my usual self with my next update.   read

5:05 PM on 04.07.2010

Don't Fear the Farmville Counterpoint: Fear the Farmville

Sean Carey recently posted a column about why Farmville is a game that should be embraced, instead of scorned. While he raises some very valid points, Farmville is the symptom, not the disease.

Many of Sean's points are accurate - Farmville isn't about to bring the industry to its knees. Hell, even looking at it on a bigger scale, Zynga (Farmville's developer) isn't going to kill anyone. They're a smart company that is doing a bunch of stuff right (especially if bottom line is your primary focus as a developer), but they're not necessarily evil. I met a few people from Zynga at GDC, and I left San Francisco with my limbs intact and my wallet as full as it was when I got there (totally empty).

He's even right that Farmville isn't going to ruin modern society as we know it. Of course, this is where it gets more interesting, though.

I'm sure many of you have heard the term "social gaming" at one point or another by now. It's a very popular buzzword, and one that is seemingly inescapable. The "social" aspect of most of these games seems to be remarkably anti-social (updates on your Facebook page asking for/giving out specific items to try to get more people to play, a staple of Zynga's game library, is the primary example of this), though. You would think that that game of Modern Warfare 2 with your friends you played last night would be "social gaming," but that's not at all what people are talking about when they use that term. "Viral gaming" might be a better way of putting it, but that's too negative (whereas "social gaming" is too positive in my mind).

And yes, you will see Twitter/Facebook integration pop up in traditional gaming (Uncharted 2 comes to mind), but Sean is absolutely right: programmers aren't about to suddenly put down their knowledge of Python, perl, C++, or whatever else just to pick up Flash because social gaming is currently a cash cow.

(On a slightly tangential note, the iPad not supporting Flash makes me happy. At one of the panels I went to at PAX ("The Death of Print"), while they were discussing video game websites, someone in the audience yelled out, "Stop using flash!" The entire audience erupted in the loudest applause of the panel.)

Of course, I'm agreeing with a lot of Sean's points, here, but where he loses me is his discussion of external rewards. Again, Sean is right that external rewards have been around for a long time (and the DICE example of the Toyota Prius is only a very current example), and they've even been around in video games for longer than perhaps you're aware. Take, for example, one of my favorite games: Diablo 2.

Playing through Diablo 2 that first time is always fun. You're seeing the quests, hopefully enjoying the story, and trying to build a character that 1) is enjoyable for you to play 2) can adequately allow you to overcome every obstacle in your way (a lot of people seem to forget point 1 when they build their character, which is a shame). What happens after you've gone through the game, though? Well, some people will just shelve it forever. A very common reaction, though, is to go balls-to-the-wall collecting the evilest of evil substances known to man: loot.

Loot has become a bullet point over the years on games (a lot of people pitched Borderlands to me by using the loot argument, especially since my love of Diablo 2 is no secret), but it isn't necessarily a good thing. I can't tell you how many times I killed Mephisto on nightmare because he had a good loot table, and it was remarkably easy to kill him and kill him fast (especially as a sorceress). At this point, I wasn't actually having much fun. Really, what I was doing was playing a slot machine.

Godly Item X of Godliness had a X.X% chance of dropping (much like you have an X.X% chance of triple 7's showing up on a slot machine). I wanted that item. I kept killing Mephisto in hopes of getting that item. The longer I tried to get that item, the more frustrated I'd get. However, knowing that unless I'm the unluckiest person in the world, I'd eventually get that drop kept me going. This is similar to an experience grind that you do in just about any RPG ever, but you have no idea when you will gain that next level. It might be after one kill, it might be after several thousand.

Why did I do it, then? That notion of external rewards. I cite this example not to make a point that Sean basically agreed with, but to depict that achievements aren't the only example of this, but rather, just one of the more recent ones. I could cite a few more examples, but I'd rather not have this entry be several thousand words that no one reads (it's much better when it's several hundred words that no one reads!)

Sean is right - we shouldn't have a kneejerk reaction to achievements by banning them outright. We could ask developers to use them a bit more responsibly (by, y'know, making it so that the achievements represent an actual achievement instead of 'collect a billion items that have zero bearing on the game and are near-impossible to find without looking it up on the internet or buying an expensive strategy guide'), but even that is a leap of faith.

Why is Farmville scary to me, then? Because developers are getting smarter at playing the psychological game. Loot still has some life left in it as a way to create addiction without any sort of creative gameplay (or more commonly, very standard gameplay with loot tacked on), and achievements are still popular, albeit easy to mess up (Here's lookin' at you, Final Fantasy XI). What Zynga has done is just another example of this, with even more positive results (to them). Using Facebook as a distribution method proved to be a massive success. I've been saying for awhile now that Facebook now is essentially what America Online was in the 1990s (except less limiting), so using that to their advantage was a smart move.

What's going to happen after this generation, though? I certainly agree that psychological mind games aren't going to bring society to its knees (well, unless Mike Judge was right in Idiocracy, and the current political field doesn't strike me with a ton of confidence in that regard), but I feel it's going to get worse before it gets better. I have a friend who registered an account on World of Warcraft, and we literally didn't see him in the real world for over two years (dropped out of school, quit his job, basically just fell off the radar entirely). We tried, but he got sucked into that game like no other. This will never happen to everyone (I think), but I'd prefer if it didn't happen to anyone.

Of course, maybe the fact that people are talking about this kind of thing now is a step in the right direction. Maybe we've gone too far into the obvious that now we can begin to examine the subtle closely. I'd rather not have the fun sucked out of games, only to be replaced with addiction.

Now, if you'll excuse me, my crops are dying.   read

12:41 AM on 04.07.2010

Fooding the Food: A look at food in video games

I am incredibly hungry, with no food to actually eat. I want to make an entry that's actually about video games. So here: have a blog about food in video games. Someone please feed me. FOOD.

Food in video games is a pretty weird subject. You'd expect that if your protagonist is human, he or she would need to eat. Of course, this would generally ruin the flow of the game, as you don't generally want to spend a significant portion of your gaming experience performing menial tasks. Well, unless you're playing The Sims, I guess. Of course, the one time I ever played The Sims, my guy started a fire trying to cook dinner and he died. True story.

You may get that one token scene in a more story-driven game where the character/party goes to town on food (I'd come up with an example but I am just so hungry), or maybe some sort of mini-game to cook a meal (Final Fantasy IX comes to mind). Or maybe, food is there, but it's something you only use when you need some extra health or something.

There's also that stupid pizza. That evil, friendship-ruining pizza. The pizza so devious, it will almost always cause a fight. Don't know what I'm talking about? Maybe I can jog your memory.

That filthy pizza. That game is hard enough without there only being one damn pizza every 24 hours or whatever ridiculous interval it is. The second that pizza comes up, one person usually needs it, and they'll call for it. But let's be honest, you all are playing with that one idiot who ends up eating the damn pizza by walking over it and going, "Oops sorry guys. I didn't realize anyone needed it." Yeah, I'm sure you didn't, jerk.

So enjoy your damn pizza. I hope you choke on it. Maybe after you choke on that you can go eat the chicken from Final Fight and get food poisoning or something.

What else...what else...ah, what about San Andreas?

This damn game forced you to eat to keep your health up, and if you ate fast food enough, you got fat. Social commentary about the state of obesity in America? Hell no. It just tried to make me feel guilty about eating at McDonald's. Jerks. If I want my KFC Double Down, I don't need my damn video games judging me about it. I will eat what I want, and these video games will not tell me otherwise. I am so hungry right now. more, and then I think I am going to Taco Bell. They're open at 1:30 AM, right? Oh, how about Animal Crossing? Animal Crossing understood the value of food.

You see that fruit on the trees? That fruit is the best. Yeah, you can eat it, and it'll be awesome, but this is a video game. You don't have to eat that fruit. You know what I see when I see that fruit? Profit. That fruit can make you some good money if you sell it. It doesn't end there, either. You can buy turnips once a week, and those turn into huge profits if you know what you're doing.

See what I mean? AC gets it. If you feel like eating the food, you eat it and it's awesome. Your dude smiles and is all happy and stuff. Don't want to eat it? That's cool, too. You sell it and make crazy profits. Win-win. Animal Crossing is the best.

So there. I wrote stuff about food. Now then, I need to go get about a billion chicken nuggets.   read

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