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AwesomeExMachina's blog

5:39 PM on 04.29.2012

The Secret Resumes of Video Game Characters

[Note: This is part two, with the other five resumes available here, if you missed them way back when.]


12:43 PM on 04.12.2012

10 Things About Awesome From the Machine

When I clicked 'Make New Blog,' my edit page shamelessly revealed to me that my last post was back in September of last year. That fact stung, it really did, especially considering how much Destructoid - the community in particular - has done for me. Spoiler alert: It's a whole, whole lot.

If you'd like to read me gush about it, refer to this post, but if you came to learn weird things about the man with his face obscured by half of a racially offensive comic book, it begins now.

10. I live in Chicago, the Breezy Metropolis by the Lake. Of Lights. That Never Sleeps.

Most of you are likely unsurprised by this, but I moved to Chicago a few years ago following a depressing few months dwelling in Ohio post-college. It's been ridiculous, having been a mostly suburban kid growing up. I had to get over my neurotic mistrust of buses, decline two separate offers to watch a homeless man pee, and learn the hard-way to watch out for car doors while biking.

Chicago has been good to me and I intend to be here much longer. I've learned the train system, remained employed, gone to BBQ Rib festivals, watched Jurassic Park in a prohibition era theatre, and been up in the Sears Tower with relatives more times than I'd like to remember.

9. Every year, I celebrate National Corndog Day.

It's an international celebration! Corndog day comes early March every year and my friends and I don't pull any punches when it comes to the festivities. There's grilled corndogs and deep-fried tatertots for everyone. Check out this video montage of what happened last year.

There's even the Corndog Challenge, a standing goal to eat 10 corndogs, 100 tatertots, and drink 10 PBRs. Despite my years of experience, I've failed every time.

8. One of my front teeth is entirely fake.

Here's a tip to all you young kids trying to look cool with your mohawk, attending punk shows, and gawking at girls with leather jackets. I was you once, so you can be sure I know what I'm talking about. Don't jump in the moshpit. When you came back down, some asshole place his elbow squarely into your jaw.

Ever see a tooth become white mist? I did and it was not an experience I'd like to repeat.

Now, one of my front teeth is 98% plastic replica. You'll never guess, it's a perfect match. But, if it comes time to test us all to see who is a Cylon, I'll likely raise some suspicion.

7. I don't drink.

Those fated words made a thousand strangers at college parties cringe at me. No, I'm not a recovering alcoholic, the child of recovering alcoholics, or allergic to wheat gluten. It was just an activity that I tried, but never got into.

After the age of 19, no one cares anyhow. In fact, I'm that awesome dude that will always and forever be your designated driver. Want a late night drunken trip to Taco Bell? I'm your man, provided you pay in Chalpuas.

In fact, my years as the sober guy have given me an extensive catalog of excellent anecdotes. I've seen friends puke, fall down stairs dressed as 90's Cher, prevented house fires, witnessed embarrassing drunk dials, and stopped imminent bar fights. I could write a book about it all and, if I did, I'd probably title it the most common phrase I hear as the sobriety fades.

Don't Be Like Me, Ben.

6. I have not beaten a single one of the original Super Mario Bros games.

My parents are amazing, fantastic, supportive, hilarious people. But, one decision they made as young parents will forever shame me in the company of other gamers. As a child, I never once had a video game console. Not one.

I managed to eventually circumvent this rule by saving up and buying my own console, but that wasn't until the Nintendo 64 was somewhat old news. I've gone back to play a few classics, but I've never earned my Mario merit badge. Shame, shame, shame.

5. I have two distinct scars, a horseshoe mark from a failed attempt to ride a donkey and gash on my knee from a street-luging accident.

For being a pasty white nerd, I manage to get into some crazy shit.

The donkey was a pet of a rural family in Tennessee. I was a teenager volunteering for an organization that assisted struggling folk do household repairs and provide social support. The donkey did not want to be a horse, but I was challenged to try. I lasted four seconds longer than a professional rodeo rider, but made the mistake of falling off the back-end.

Did you know that when you approach a turn on a street-luge board, you should lean to turn? You should, but not too much. If you do over-compensate, you'll do some concrete-somersaults and end up with a nasty scar on your left knee. True story.

4. My brother lives in a hand-built cabin and sometimes in a teepee.

This isn't technically about me, but it's fun to hear about, so shut your stupid mouth. My brother is only about two years older than me, but we couldn't be more polar opposites. I sit on the internet, well-versed in memes and ingesting pop culture like a sponge.

My brother fights forest fires on a volunteer basis, clears trails for the park services, lives in a solar-powered cabin with wood-stove heating, lived for two years in a teepee that he made himself, and once stabbed a mountain lion in self-defense.

I respect the ever-loving hell out of the guy, but our differences make Christmas gift shopping a nightmare. Three holidays ago, I got him a new Bowie knife and he got me a Jack Kerouac book. That's about right.

3. I put on a four week show at the Second City theatre.

Have I hit the humblebrag limit yet? I think I'm pushing it, but I'm really proud of this one. Upon completion of taking a year of courses at the legendary improv/comedy/writing studio here in Chicago, my team and I put on a four-week sold-out sketch show. If you haven't heard of SC, it's the location that trained great comedians like Dan Akroyd, Tina Fey, Bill Murray, John Belushi, and a whole lot more.

It was terrifying, exciting, and plenty of mistakes were made. But, it was still a landmark achievement in my life. Since the show ended, a small pocket of brilliant writers and myself have formed a writing group. You can expect to see some web videos and possibly a variety show in the next few months.

2. I'm a card-carrying, quarter-blooded Native American.

No. This isn't one of those "1/300th Cherokee" things. While we don't actually get a card to carry, I was born a member of the Mohegan Tribe, which resides with their huge casino in Connecticut. Those wonderful bastards have the best Pow Wows you've ever seen and no, I'm not kidding.

I'm the whitest guy you'll ever see, sure, but that certainly didn't stop those beautiful Natives from covering my college tuition. Tribal status has a lot of benefits, but it also means I'm an easy target for jokes and even once was denied a car loan because of my "untrustworthy ethnicity." I'm not even kidding.

1. I miss you all.

Was this a lame way to end this? Yes. Does that make it any less accurate? No. You guys are fantastic and while I don't recognize a lot of faces filling up the C-Blogs these days, I'm still lurking about and reading blogs almost every day.

Writing for the C-Blogs made me a writer instead of someone who claimed to be one to impress girls. I attended PAX East this year as press, interviewing developers I've idolized for years, and wore the soles of my shoes right down to the rubber. I met writers I'd never thought would even respond to a tweet of mine. I've found my work in forums and subreddits and I've been called every possible negative thing in the world in comments section from here to Gamasutra.

I won't be anywhere close to all of that if it wasn't for writing here every week, trying to impress Knutaf, earn a comment from Stevil, warm Occam's lizard heart, give MrAndyDixon a boner, or live up to the expectations of every phenomenal writer on this blogroll.   read

9:49 AM on 09.30.2011

Obscurity: Lucky & Wild

I used to be an arcade nut; Iíve made that clear in the past. But, really, what gamer didnít have many memories in a mall arcade playing Tekken, Time Crisis, or the Star Wars Arcade game? There are so many staples to the market of arcade cabinet, itís almost like a universal language amongst gamers. Still, lurking amongst those tried and true favorites are some hidden gems. I found mine in a dank mall outside Bangor, Maine.

Lucky & Wild is a co-operative mish-mash of shooting, driving a sports car through a mall, and 80s buddy cop movie clichťs mixed into one amazing arcade package. How the game works may not be entirely clear upon seeing a picture of the cabinet, as it appears to have too many parts. It looks as if someone jammed a Rally Racer with an Area 51 arcade cabinet.

The game can be played solo, with one player both driving and shooting. But, preferably and if youíve brought enough quarters, itís best played with a second player handling either one or both guns and tearing up the endless waves of vague bad guys on motorcycles and in black sedans. The whole experience is a typhoon of sounds, ridiculous catch-phrases, and the traditional blinding fits of flashing lights every light-gun aficionado is familiar with.

Layered into every corner of the screen are those early 90s arcade tropes that Japan assumed was what America was like. Everyone wears sunglasses and Lucky wears fingerless gloves. It's almost a parody of 90s style in of itself, a time when comic book artists were giving every superhero a leather jacket to make them hip. The words 'radical' and 'whoa' can be heard at regular intervals. Trucks dump barrels and the health of the characters is indicated by the way in which they twitch their faces.

I may have actually loved Lucky & Wild before I even played it. Because, before there was really enough of a genre for me to love, I never realized how much I adore the idea of co-operative play. At least, the ones where the two players truly worked together. Playing Contra, for instance, is less of a cooperative experience and more of two players who happen to be playing their own games simultaneously. But a game where one player steered a careening sports car down the streets of San Francisco and the other blasts sunglasses-wearing enemies of motorcycles from the passenger seat is what co-op is all about.

My brother and I were the ones to discvoer it and, to be clear, we were not comrades. We were not friends or pals. If I were to pick a phrase to describe it, I would unquestionably go with mortal enemies. We loathed each otherís existence and fought ruthlessly to reveal that to each other. But games were that strange, social middle-ground where rivalry didnít matter. Maybe thatís where my love of co-op games stems from. If two people who hated each other so throughly could be friends even in competition, then there comes this peaceful unity in co-operative gaming. To me, itís unquestionably where video games truly shine.

Lucky & Wild was that game, where each player shouted panicked instructions in an endless tandem of chaos. Donít hit that mall kiosk! Watch out for the guys on the left! The right was your side to shoot! As fingers wore out, guns switched hands. If the driving became to tense, both hands griped the wheel while the other unloaded strangely large clips of ammunition in inaccurate criss-cross patterns. Strategy sometimes fell to disorder, but that was acceptable. Because that was when the laughing started.

No one plays Lucky & Wild in stern, focused silence, driving with caution against a merciless clock. No one winces painfully and squints earnestly at a screen, trying to link combos and uppercuts. Iíll admit, no one even looks like a fool swinging arms and slapping their Converse on colored light-up arrow squares. Lucky & Wild, when it could be found, was universally the most joyfully loud game in the arcade.

Of course, there are scarcely any versions of the game left and even less arcades for them to be found in. I havenít had a chance to play the game in ages and it exists only in the form of a memory of two consecutive summers spent dumping quarters into it. It could be that Iíd find the game now clunky and troubling to control. Perhaps my jaded attitude would realize it was built to be loose and out-of-control to facilitate constant death and more quarters fed into the machine.

I suppose it doesnít matter, in the same way itís irrelevant that Goldeneye 64 doesnít look nearly as good as I remember it or that I canít recall why I was always so intent on choosing to play Tails instead of Sonic. Lucky & Wild wasnít built for the cynical, narrative-seeking, snarky gamer that I am now. Itís from another age, when the job wasnít sinking players into hours of achievement hunting from their couch, but drawing people in with flashing lights, 90s lingo, and the loudest sounds possible. Lucky & Wild may be an obscure relic, but itís still an unbeatable co-op shooter in my head.


4:21 PM on 08.16.2011

No Clip: Infamous 2

[No Clip is an experiment in player interaction, where I return to popular games and play them with a set of critical restrictions to rethink what we thought we knew. Note: this edition contains MASSIVE SPOILERS for Infamous 2.]

As I perform the gruesome act again -- a thing that had begun to disturb me in such a way that I had stopped counting how often Iíd used it -- I couldnít help but wonder if I was that thing dying uncles and kindly butlers tell their superhero counterparts to be careful not to become. In a fictional city built to mirror our very own Big Apple, Cole is a scrappy, agile hero often misunderstood by the people he fights to save. But as I turn him into a terrifying killer, I wonder if the gameís main enemy, a violent, boisterous evangelist, is right when he calls me an abomination against God and nature.

Beyond his incredible powers of bending and wielding electricity, there is another trait that draws players to Cole MacGrath. Like all the best superheroes, heís incomplete. His weakness is reality. Though his ability to somehow throw electricity from his hands like grenades certainly makes him formidable at stopping an average knife-wielding mugger, heís no more than a man when it comes to guns and knives. Bullets will still meet his flesh with unfortunate consequences. He canít fly or teleport or surf his electric current into the atmosphere. In fact, Cole can only boost a faint few feet of the ground not unlike a toy gyrocopter. We like Cole because he struggles just like everyone else.

But there is something else that lurks below Cole MacGrathís electrically conductive skin and iconic messenger bag. An element that, when exaggerated, could be a much worse, even traigic, weakness plaguing him. You see, the designers at Sucker Punch included something very disturbing right at the heart of Coleís suit of powers. Its use is only mentioned for a half-second in the first gameís tutorial section, but remains as a widely available choice straight through the third game. In Empire City and later in New Marais, there is another abundant source of electrical power in these bustling cities that outnumbers parked cars and streetlamps. Human beings.

A strange inclusion allows the Ďheroí of the series to hurl an NPC character to the ground, clutch his hand across their face, and drag the bioelectric current from their body. With a loud rush of crackling air, the electric current comes out with such force that the victimís skeletal system glows through their skin. There is no limitation on who the victim may be, as it useable on stunned enemies and weakened civilians alike. A strange ability for a 'hero' to use.

Of course, the game doesnít ask you to ever use this power and most donít, as itís significantly more time-consuming and complicated in comparison to the simple button press to yank a few volts from, say, a rooftop air conditioning unit. But what if this wasnít how Coleís power worked? What if he was prevented from simply pulling electricity out of soda machines and power lines? What if he had to fuel his great powers at the cost of others? If Cole MacGrath was forced to find a ghastly, parasitic alternative source for his powers, could he still be the hero?

Cole follows the path of nearly ever superhero preceding him, with the usual prerequisite to obtaining great powers simply being his own disinclination. He probably wouldnít have agreed to gaining his powers had be been asked, considering the result was watching his city explode around him. Itís this very genesis of his powers that starts his character at the bottom of the pit, figuratively and literally. Cast as the scapegoat for the explosion and the ripple effect of Reaper gang activity, Cole is a lightning rod for all that becomes wrong with the universe he occupies.

Like any experiment of limitations, the difficulties became clear very quickly. Without the chance obtain quick infusions of health during the gameís more grave moments through the act of drawing upon the cityís electricity, Cole is a sitting duck. A single enemy given free range to fire even just for a few moments will end everything. This meant a huge change in strategy over my first playthrough. Brazen, unplanned head-on assaults were replaced with guerilla tactics. Striking enemies unaware, hurling them off rooftops with an electrical wave, and hurling whole cars and buses without discretion became the chapters of my new playbook. I ambushed enemies with quick, lethal attacks. Mercy took no part in it.

This also meant I could no longer be concerned with collateral damage. Though the act of throwing an entire car at a pack of enemies was an efficient solution, Iíd slanted away from it in my first playthrough for fear of hurting whole crowds of civilians that often ran about during conflicts. This time, though, I couldnít wait for them to get clear before I launched a salvo of grenades when I was working on a limited cache of energy. Conflicts had to start and end in an instant.

Because of all this, one thing became very clear; my hand would be forced to the dark side. Inarguably, the act of draining a personís life-force would be a pretty bad thing to do, especially in the abundance that would be necessary. In todayís video game morality system model, the extremes are where the action is. That is to say, you have to be very good or very bad to access the really cool stuff. Infamous 2 is no different, with the major suites of powers located on both branches of the karma meter. In for a penny, in for a pound, I suppose. Strange, though, that it turns out the karmic shift of scaring off a bucket drummer is identical to draining the very soul from an innocent civilian.

Of course, the bio-leech couldnít be something as ghastly as stealing a personís actual soul, right? Unfortunately, my morbid curiosity confirmed that, yes, it is plausible. If one were to absorb electricity out of the human body, in whatever form of pseudo-science lets Cole MacGrath do such a thing, it would likely be from the plethora of neurons in the human body. These are the things that compose your nervous system, which sends electrical impulses to trigger muscles and interact with nerve endings. There isnít a whole lot of electrical current in the human body, relatively, but if it came from anywhere, it would be the nervous system. Of course, humans are always more complex and thatís precisely where it gets rather interesting.

As hypothesized by some biologists, clusters of neurons in the brain (particularly the Brocaís area) are known to activate in response to the motions and emotions of others. Specifically seen in animals imitating the body motions of other animals, a hypothesis has emerged that this portion of neuron activity is related to emotional response as well. The idea is that these neurons reflect the emotions of others back at ourselves and trigger our own emotions, which is essentially the definition of empathy. So, the question stands that if Cole MacGrath is absorbing the entirety of a personís neural electricity, could it be that he takes their soul along with it?

Thinking about the real science behind the act only made the idea all the more difficult. There has always been an option for any player to be an evil Cole MacGrath, but tossing cars around offhandedly and knocking down the occasional civilian felt rather passively destructive rather than straight-up evil. The pre-programmed evil sequences werenít really my own actions, but atrocities which played out without my control. Being an evil character within the game's initial parameters had previously just felt dispassionately wicked. This was different and full of moral conflict and it made me feel downright awful.

Many lines were blurred. The Militia, an ultra right-wing militarized collective that ruled the dilapidated city of New Maris, function as the predominant enemies of Infamous 2. They can often be found robbing and kidnapping people and shooting police, which fit them comfortably in the role of Ďbad guys.í But, on an individual level, I had to wonder if each and every enemy could really be an unforgivable villain beyond pardon? Was it Cole MacGrathís decision to not only fight them at any moment -- whether they were robbing a stranger or standing idly on a rooftop Ė but also rip their literal humanity from their dazed bodies that made them so prone to fire first? Maybe itís that same fear which drove these soldiers into the arms of a charismatic evangelical leader.

All this sacrifice is for a greater good, I kept telling myself. The true enemy of the game, the seemingly immortal Beast, seeks to destroy all of civilization. After it reveals itself at the start of the game, it proceeds to leave the literal apocalypse in its wake as it marches across the eastern coast of the United States. Cole MacGrath is the sole man destined to destroy it. My actions are justified because the only alternative is the end of the world. Right?

That became increasingly less clear as the experiment progressed. You see, for what itís worth, experiment or not, the world as written by Infamous 2 is remarkably darker that what I would have given the creators credit for before playing. You see, the moral choices you can take in the game do more than just cosmetically alter your lightning color and open up new power sets. The path of evil karmic actions isnít a frivolous or shallow one, but the route to an entire alternate, disturbing end to the storyline which is leagues different then the good ending.

Instead of defeating the Beast, Cole embraces his plan of igniting the power dormant within the tiny fraction of the population capable of using powers, known as Conduits. This act rescues them from the plague that ravages the nation but, in the process, carves a path of slaughter through the remainder of the powerless civilization. Through these murderous acts, Cole takes on the mantle of the Beast, the near god-like enemy force that spent the entirety of the game burning its way down the eastern coast. The lives of thousands of innocents are sacrificed to make way for a new evolution of humanity, which had become a rather familiar character trait of my perverse version of the character.

As this storyline fell into place alongside my struggle of playing with the handicap of bio-leech, a strangely unifying narrative thread began to reveal itself. Too often, the restrictions in place of a No Clip require me to vie against the established storyline and game mechanics. But, instead, a cursed Cole MacGrath falls into the darker side of the Infamous 2 storyline with eerie precision. A protagonist more fitting replaces what normally would have been a reckless, street musician hating, evil-for-the-sake-of-evil character. This twisted Cole MacGrath enters the finale the same way his story has gone thus far, sacrificing everything but himself with a global event of catastrophic and parasitic destruction.

In all my time playing modern narrative-centric games, the evil side has always been unappealing. Superficial acts of rampant violence powered by nothing more than boredom seem off-color for a hero of the ages. But when given a heady mantle of struggle and limitations, taking the evil course somehow becomes more viable and even authentic to the story. We see a criminal that violates the law for his or her own gain as deplorable, but the person who defies the unfair rules cruelly set for them as revolutionary. Cole MacGrath is still, vaguely, a hero at the end of Infamous 2, despite all my utter disgust for his acts, which is a turn of events that I satisfyingly did not even remotely foresee.

This is what our modern games need when designing morality systems. To provide the player with a storyline that justifies their evil deeds through struggle or, at the very least, give us reason enough for us to show them empathy. Characters that are indisputably good are just as difficult for us to comprehend as senselessly evil ones. Nothing is that simple and we know it. But a person that drifts into good or bad with the right reasons, or for any reason at all provided it is told well enough, is one that is more complex than the black and white morality bar. Emotional choices are something we can follow even if they take place in a world otherwise full of fiction. Morality systems in modern video games need to become complex alongside our protagonists if we intend to keep them as anything more than a gimmick. Evil Cole MacGrath brought me the same amount of emotional response as my original play-through as a good version, which is unique and something to be lauded.


4:11 PM on 05.18.2011

P2: The Proximity of Play

There was a time when being an online gamer meant work. It meant a crash course in motherboards and video cards. You had to learn how to put a computer together from the ground up. It took troubleshooting network issues and hunting down driver files. The truly involved learned the ins and outs of game files and doing some light coding work. It was strapping your monitor into the seatbelt of the passenger seat of your momís sedan. It was drinking so many energy drinks in a single sitting that you could hear your dentist whimper somewhere in the distance.

My first LAN party was in high school, in a basement, and Iíd have it no other way. Forget the fact that said location was actually part of a particularly fancy mansion-house, with plenty of other locations for setting up a network of homebuilt PCs. We chose the basement. Something about LANing demanded secluding ourselves. Not out of shame, but to completely immerse the group into decadent nerdery.

My first homebuilt computer, complete with glow-in-the-dark band stickers, was set up on a plywood board propped up by two chairs. We played every LAN-enabled game on the docket. Early Team Fortress. Counterstrike, Command & Conquer. We traded difficult-to-find punk albums and early ripped movies, which were of devastatingly poor quality. But it didnít matter, because the real joy was not in watching them, but the subtle act of trading in something we shouldnít have.

It took over ten games of Starcraft for me to understand the full Terran tech tree, but only one to understand that I was bad at it. It didnít matter. LAN parties were never about competition beyond the friendly type. You never get mad or frustrated with loss. It was all about banter and the good friends were never above showing you the ropes about spawn order or bunker placement. Itís like playing poker with a table of close friends. You may lose your last paycheck to some crummy bluffs, but you do it all while making obscene jokes and insinuating the promiscuity of everyoneís collective sisters.

LAN parties are a dying concept and it makes me sad. They were always weekend getaways, decadent engagement in all things gaming. But there was a time in my life where it became more than a shoddily organized all-nighter. My junior year of college, I lived in a sleepy Midwestern city, where the downtown was vacant and boring, but the cost of living was downright criminally low. My circle of friends took advantage of the latter and landed ourselves an entire three-story house. Eleven of us moved in and it was nothing but gigantic parties, movie nights, great friends, and utter glory.

Because of limited personal space (My room, for instance, was technically listed as a closet on the rental form) most of the computers were set up in the large, high-ceilinged study. This was done purely out of space concerns, but with this many video game enthusiasts in one place, it quickly became the greatest, Guinness Book length LAN party of all time. Our desks were in a semi-circle around the outer walls, with space in the middle of the room or in the adjacent living room for the laptop folks. This fixed proximity meant we could all leap to battlestations at the same time with the very mention of a video game title.

This set-up created the best atmosphere for nearly every multiplayer game you could imagine. Our team cohesion in Battlefield 2 was unparalleled. We flanked and covered. We repaired vehicles and sprang upon downed teammates with defibrillator paddles at a single shout. If someone secured the Commander role, there were supply drops on a moments notice and artillery would decimate enemies with pinpoint precision. We competed for top leaderboard spot, turning our teamwork into friendly competition. We unlocked gear and coordinated classes so that every game was a tidal wave of success and wins.

Games like Civilization IV turned into a massive rivalry of vocal strategy and bargaining. Give me that resource of horses for my wealth of gold. Trade me some musketman so I can destroy that jackass Montezuma. Donít take my southern city and Iíll go fetch you a coke. We were a tiny United Nations, except our major forum table was a stack of pizza boxes and our negotiations were punctuated with thrown objects. Rebuttals to an unprovoked invasion were usually handled with a respectful, disagreeing desk chair tackle. It was the perfect environment for quick-witted adverbial combat and, even more so, the absolute ideal atmosphere for cooperation. In fact, it was thanks to this inescapable air of teamwork that we found our entire house forming the greatest team of superheroes the world of video games has ever seen.

Now, Iím not really an MMO player. Iíve dabbled infrequently in a motley assortment of these games, but Iíve never really committed to the experience. But a little darling of an MMO called City of Heroes that came out in 2004 was different. Albeit an imperfect game, the world of superpowers and villains that Cryptic Studios had built was the perfect vehicle for our friend-powered teamwork machine. It may have been struggling a bit at the time with the release of the newly released World of Warcraft, but we fell in love with the universe and built our flashy team of superheroes with pride.

We rejected the idea of lazy names and we would have none of that numbers for letters nonsense. We werenít 13 and picking our Instant Messenger screen names. We were creative folks, so our names were all original and catchy creations. Atlas Star, Riot Shield, Estha, Mistress FaÁade, Captain Caliber, Scarlet Sparrow. We were a mix of personalities, genders, and with a variety of wildly different color palate choices. We took pride in our costumes and character creation was an all-afternoon process. No mis-matched askew character shoulder pads or strange tie-dye color choices. Our heroes could have easily fallen in line with legends of the Golden Age of Comics.

Even more diverse was our past experience with MMOs and, well, with games in general. Many of the team had never played any online games of any sort and some had played none at all. Some, like myself, were avid comic nerds, who could go at length Mall Rats-style about any superhero you could name. Others had scarcely ever opened a Marvel or DC issue in their life. But there was something so compelling about the ability to stand shoulder to shoulder with friends in brightly colored spandex and hurl about the city, jumping from rooftops or teleporting across the city skyline. This is what made our time in Paragon City so unique. It was appealing to everyone not just because the gameplay leant itself to inexperienced players, but because the cooperative element was so damned strong.

City of Heroes was still a somewhat new game at the time and the gameís content was constantly changing. It was also somewhat player-isolated, with very little overt communication between players who werenít already playing together. What this meant was that we often had no idea what was in store with each mission. No one ranted in broadcast chat about instances or bosses. When massive Clockwork behemoth robots assaulted us, it was genuine panic. When we beat a battle that came at us out of the blue - with a notable villain appearing from thin air or discovering a death-weapon being constructed inside a volcano - it was all completely new to us. We broke exciting new ground every time we strapped in for a play session.

All it took was a word, or even a knowing smirk, for the call to action to happen. The roommates milled about the living room or study, reading books or chatting or cooking dinner for each other and it would all start with someone declaring ďTo Paragon City!Ē For the next few hours, weíd ignore adult responsibilities and pummel henchmen into dust.

We composed fake character dialog, mocked each other in the friendliest sense, and even created our own phrases. When Mistress FaÁade inflicted her blind power on an enemy, my roommate would shout, ďTheyíve been blound!Ē This being a word he had decided was the past tense of Ďto blind.í It stuck and never ceased to get a laugh. Gaining aggro was simply called making friends and our tank character was certainly a popular guy. We made our own sound effects and mocked terribly designed heroes that whizzed past. We wandered about Atlas Park and interacted with other heroes, emoting and engaging in repartee with complete strangers.

Our sprawling headquarters was meticulously designed with trophies of our victories. We didnít power through instances or sit alone at our desks, grimly leveling our characters in the dark, in crippling silence. We bragged and jeered and did absolutely everything as a team. We shouted tactical advice and demanded heals and revives. If you walked into a session of the Protectorate Unlimited knee-deep in vigilante crime-fighting, you wouldnít understand a moment of what was happening, but the jovial atmosphere would be indisputably apparent.

Since those days at the three-story house up on the sloped street, across from the dingy laundromat, Iíve never been able to return to MMOs in the same way. In fact, multiplayer gaming as a whole has never quite had the same feeling as it did for that year-long LAN party. Online gaming has taken massive strides with things like Xbox Live, PSN, and Steam making the act of playing with friends the easiest thing ever. But no more are the days of phoning your friend to read off an IP address or pack up your duct taped PC into someoneís basement or guest room.

In a way, this is something to be lauded. LAN parties were complicated and inconvenient, sure, but the experience is irreplaceable. Multiplayer, whether itís competitive or cooperative, can happen spontaneously now, with a button press and a notification pop-up. But, with it, we have to say goodbye to the days where players would disappear from reality for a weekend to shout at each other and fall asleep at their desks. The days were playing online games with your friends looked more like a party than a lonely endeavor, albeit an often predominately gender imbalanced party. The modern inventions of Ventrillo and party chat are incredible advancements for social gaming. But nothing can quite replace that perfect storm of friendly jeers, vocal teamwork, and utter chaos that was the LAN party.   read

6:16 PM on 05.02.2011

Room for Emergency: Why I Love Playing the Medic

Show me a class-based competitive multiplayer experience, and Iíll show you an awesome medic. Me. Iím the medic. Iím referring to myself. I am perpetually enamored with support classes, in particular these medic or healers. I play them at every opportunity. My parents may have been disappointed with my liberal arts degree, as opposed to a career as a medical professional in the exciting world of having paychecks, but they can rest easy. Iím still helping others, except the blood is pixilated and gunshot wounds are repaired, paradoxically, with heal guns.

My obsession with support classes as a concept is pretty basic. I like to help. In reality, I hold open doors for strangers and I give up my seat on a crowded bus to elderly ladies. I'm still waiting for the city-commissioned COOL DUDE plaque and trophy on that one. So, in the heat of virtual battle, I like to be there to back up friends or complete strangers, as long as they can restrain from screeching their background conversations to their mother about making them a sandwich through my headset speakers.

Iíll be honest. Some of that joy of playing the medic comes from the fact that I myself happen to not be all that amazing at all shooters. Donít get me wrong, I play my fair share and, particularly in Battlefield titles, Iíll be in the top section of scoreboards. But frantic games, with little time for anything but short moments of pensive strategy and support tactics, are where I sometimes fall short. I may outflank the assaulting enemies in Gears of War, but when I launch my surprise assault, I often flounder. One moment Iím a tactical genius, the next I come fumbling out of cover like Iím Jerry Lewis with a shotgun.

Reflexes will fail me and a brief opportunity to take down a distracted player is lost to a poor finger movement (A phenomenon I will henceforth call a 'thumble'). But, this plays to the versatility of teamwork-based class design. I don't have to be good, I can keep the better players alive. If Iíve been in a game lobby for a few moments, Iíve probably discovered who our MVP is or, in games like Battlefield, the squad thatís doing the best and exercising the most efficient team unity. So I join up, provided they donít immediately take offense to a silent, blank-staring avatar trailing them, occasionally listlessly hurling a medpack at their backs.

When playing a non-support class in a shooter game or in a game where no classes exist whatsoever, your task couldnít be simpler. Kill things, i.e. people. Youíre a death dealer. You take out your opponents so they donít take you out. Itís the law of competition. But we forget that there are other people on the opposite ends of our assault rifles and broadswords. Thereís a real person behind that avatar trying to win, trying to succeed, and just trying to have a good time. But only one of us can have it.

That becomes power in the hands of the medic. In the context of the game, weíre only really reviving in-game avatars and our medpacks are only really affecting a tiny red bar, when you really get down to it. But those things are attached to a player and, by that logic, their experience. So when medics are saving players or giving them health to keep them from needing saving, weíre manipulating the fun of the game. Weíre extending the positive experience for our players without impairing, or at least disrupting, the same for the other team. Weíre playing our own meta-game and itís called Everyone Needs to Be Alive. Simply put, medics are entertainment suppliers. Joy manipulators. Fun alchemists.

Medic is also one of the riskier class options if you play to its empathetic limits. This is often my favorite part. A medic will find him or herself scampering into blistering danger to jam a revive syringe into a teammate while bombs detonate and bullets pop into the dirt. The stunned ďWhoa, Iím back?Ē line uttered by vocal players on the receiving end of a revive is often a reward in itself. It's a unique concept, really. How often in your day-to-day does a complete stranger genuinely thank you? In a game context, I understand it's a trivial thing, really. I'm aware of that. But there's something very compelling about rescue and the corresponding appreciation, even if it's entirely digital.

When I was a young and dedicated PC gamer, I found myself drawn to a small space RPG title called Earth and Beyond. The last game Westwood Studios would ever make, it was an ambitious little space ship MMO where you could battle your way across the galaxy in brightly colored space ships. But, to be honest, most of the game was spent space mining asteroids and space trading the space minerals for space cash. I effin' loved it.

I mention it because it had a particularly small element that I found completely addicting. At any given time, every player in the fictional galaxy was out mining. The safer asteroid clusters were forever-crowded and over-mined. Some areas resembled a busy cosmic version of a Taiwanese market, with people zipping in all directions. The bolder ship pilots would go off the warp lanes and find rich, profitable, unpopulated asteroid fields to stake claim to. But unmarked space was dangerous. Really dangerous. And many pilots would scarcely mine themselves one single ingot of space copper before they were jumped by wandering marauders.

But death in Earth and Beyond was handled in a truly legit sci-fi way. When a player became disabled by enemy warships, their systems fried and ship drifting impotently through space, they had the option to trigger a distress beacon. Most players were too self-involved to notice these radar blips, which were one tiny light flashing on a screen of hundreds of flashing lights, but not me. Every time I was kicking back and gliding through a warp channel, only to spot a little orange blip on my heads up display, I dropped my Jenquai ship out of orbit and opened up a communication channel.

Being a medic, or just an empathic player, is more than just being nice for nice's sake. Helping players is hard, ruthlessly dangerous work. Strategy and danger assessment are inherent qualities of being a medic, whether it's in a shooter or MMO, and it's much fun as being the the top killer in the room. In Earth and Beyond I would communicate with the distressed player and determine the threat from afar. Then, it was just a matter of dropping out of warp-lightspeed, determining the layout of enemy ships in milliseconds, and trying to blast my way to my new-found friend through over-whelming odds. It helped to picture your ship as the Millenium Falcon hurtling in to save Luke in A New Hope. The "yee-haw" was not optional.

When you start tactically observing the playing field of your basic shooter or instance level, it almost becomes like a more engaging real time strategy game. You have to take charge of all the elements of the battle, rather than just what's moving at the end of your iron sights. Where is the enemy? Where's my team advancing from? Who needs medical assistance? To effectively play the medic, you have to help the right players at the right time. The medic has to constantly pay attention to where players are doing well and where they aren't. Are there holes in our team's defense? Is there room for the enemy to flank? If so, that's where the medic has to be, tossing out medpacks or heal spells. That half a second it takes those players to respawn could mean the whole battle.

Behind every good killer is a good medic. If you respect the healer, the positive result is easily perceivable. Wins. More wins. When a team is properly supported, they can easily take down an opposing team with more powerful adversaries. If a team can lock down an area they would have lost or struggle through a boss-fight they should have lost, it's a great achievement to be the medic backing that success.

But video game competition isn't all about winning, of course. Itís about the quality of winning. Thereís something more satisfying in a victory that comes from coordinating a defensive or offensive line, or embracing strategy in the heat of battle, rather than the coincidence that all the players on one team happen to be better at putting bullets into the torsos of the other.

So, next time youíre in a game and strapping on your plasma grenades to your oiled-up super commando torso, donít sneer at the goofy-looking medic in the glasses. Though our kill counts are low, weíre doing some serious life-and-death wizardry behind the front lines. We keep you from screeching obscenities into the mic and getting put on Youtube. Weíre the reason the ĎDí part of your K/D is where it is. You handle the 'K' part, weíll just keep throwing syringes and heal spells your way and roll our eyes at how you totally f-ed up that mob pull and missed that sniper on the ridge-line. Donít worry, comrade. Weíve got you.


12:04 PM on 04.28.2011

Aaamaazing: Condemned Criminal Origins

The following contains spoilers for Condemned: Criminal Origins

Everything begins with a start, a moment designed to make you jump. Your partner raps on your window with a flashlight. ďPeople are scared,Ē he says with behest. ďWeíve got to get this one.Ē A precedent is quietly set. He doesnít make it clear who it is that is scared. Whether itís you he refers to or the people in the neighborhood with the potential to become victims. All of us are scared he has told you Ė everyone - and, more alarmingly than all of this, is the fact that he hasnít excluded himself.

Little do I know that the darkness of the hallway as I crouch through the police tape isnít an anomaly. I recall double checking my gamma and brightness levels. Itís nearly overdone, too dark, but my partner doesnít seem to care. So I squint and follow his shadowy outline up the stairs.

Your crime tool works better in the dark, my partner told me moments earlier. Alone now, I think to myself ďOf course it does.Ē My friend in forensics, Rosa tells me of vagrants and vaguely defined Ďpsychotics,í teeming with rage brought on by the unknown. Some new drug is to blame, a beat cop surmises. His transmission is cut off by the sounds of scuffling, loud crashing, and muffled gun shots. Iím told one of these crazed homeless is near me, making such a racket to reach me that everyone else is aware of it before I am.

I draw my weapon and announce my presence, alerting him that I am, in fact, a police officer. He shouts in a way that sounds close, in a real way, yet still echoes in the empty dingy warehouse rooms. ďF#@k you,Ē he tells me through the vacant hallways, his location still indeterminate despite the volume. My roommate jumps. ďOh shit,Ē he says. ďThat dude is going to get you.Ē This is the first enemy and I havenít even seen him yet.

Iíll be the first to admit it, I bought Condemned: Criminal Origins not because I saw an ad for it or because a I followed its hype in a magazine like a paranoid schizophrenic. No. I bought it because I had just bought an Xbox 360 and Perfect Dark Zero was more of a disappointment than watching your own son graduate from clowning school. Condemned was an anomaly for someone like myself, who tracks video game news and subscribes to at least three different gaming magazines. I had no expectations and nothing to prepare me for any of it.

Condemned was the first game people asked me to play in front of them. Later, the same would be said for Portal, Uncharted, and Bioshock. One roommate scolded me profusely for having played a bit further without letting her watch, as if I had jumped ahead an episode of LOST. I offered to replay it for her, but she denied me. ďYouíd know what happens,Ē she said. ďIt wouldnít be as scary.Ē She settled instead for being told what she had missed, so that she could continue to see the story unfold.

These are games that are mislabeled as cinematic experiences. No one would complain about watching a horror film with someone who had already seen it. As long as that person restrained from the obnoxious ďOh, this next part is great,Ē the experience is unaltered. The same promiscuous campers will get slaughtered in the same order. But a video game is different, because the player is creating the cinematography on the fly. If he or she knows, generally, when an enemy will come whipping around the corner with a shotgun or when the floor is programmed to give way, the illusion is destroyed.

I recall, vividly, the moment when my detective partner left me, because I would never see another ally for a very long time. He will be the last person for quite awhile who didnít want to swing a hatchet through my skull. Every other friend will appear only as a detached voice on the other end of a phone, the unannounced author of redacted words in my personnel file, or represented only by the distant and unreachable pulsating flash of police siren lights.

Horror games are best delivered heavy with limitations. Resident Evil stripped the player of a free camera and, in that sense, of perspective. Hallways couldnít be properly looked down and, often, the way youíd just gone disappeared off-screen. It was difficult to keep track of your path and your perception was completely askew from all the constantly changing camera angles. It taunted your desperate need to see oncoming enemies and made their arrival all the more terrifying.

Condemned gives you full first-person camera range, but it tears way plenty to compensate. Your HUD is nearly non-existent. All information is delivered through phone calls and detective tools. Your pistol has an on-screen ammo counter, but only if you pause to remove the clip, and even then it fades away after youíve reinserted it into your weapon. The game demands, instead, that it stay in your memory and then accepts the challenge of scaring that information right out of your head, to ensure you hear that gut-wrenching click at the most inopportune times.

Weapons are a constant fight and, unlike so many games that equip you with rocket launcher shoulder pads, youíre left to merciless beat your enemies to death with pipes ripped from walls and loose rebar. I killed three men in a panicked torrent of swings, my brow drenched in sweat as they lay at my feet with a paper-cutter I tore from its stand in my fist. Whatever building material or abandoned baseball bat you can find will hurriedly become your close, close friend. But you canít get too cocky, as the enemies will be wielding the same equipment.

Theyíre deviously clever, too. Watch and they will tail you through hallways for whole tracks of time before actually making an assault. Rattling window bars and knocking shelves over. They mime injury when you swing, only to lurch forward with a terrifying assault when you take a step closer. They lure you into traps, jump you all at once, and will leap on top of you, tearing at you with their bare hands and howling inches from your face. The game provides you with execution moves, which seem cartoony and out-of-place at first. But after you've struck an enemy over and over with wet thuds to keep him from tearing you apart, the bone-snap that ends his assault is somehow satisfying. What has the game done to my moral compass?

Iíve never been more scared of an enemy in a game before. My roommates Ė my audience Ė validate my terror with genuine screams and gripping tight to my arm. At one point, my roommate begs me not to enter a room. I can hear the enemy, his heavy breathing is very audible with each panicked intake of air twitching with desperation to come at me. I can see the slight shape of a blunt weapon in his hand poking around the edge of a corner. ďHeís going to f#*king kill you,Ē she tells me. Itís not helping.

Condemend seems to delight in tearing at your sense of comfort. Each twist makes you more vulnerable. You lose comrades and credibility. The game begins with a murder investigation and you are a murder investigator. Simple, right? But, soon, it seems the serial killer responsible for the original crime scene is actually dead already. Where does that put you? On the trail of the killerís killer. But itís still not that simple. The quickly-named Serial Killer X has orchestrated the facts to make you look guilty. Now youíre chasing a killer killer and the police think youíre the killer.

It becomes a labyrinth of complications. Slowly, it stops being a police detectiveís story and becomes something personal. Serial Killer X knows you, has been monitoring you. Heís taken photos of you in your home and trailed your crime scene progress. Youíre his unknowing informant, his incidental accomplice. Your fate is tied to his now and you will not know safety until he is dead by your own hands and you, the player, go along with it because the game has made regaining your safety tantamount.

Condemned engages in a torrent of Ďmeta-scares,í programmed scare-tactics in which the designers accept the fact that youíre playing a game, rather than try to make you forget it. They embrace the idea that you canít look two ways and send enemies from two directions. They deny you the information you take for granted in other games and play upon gaming tropes. Piling on ammunition supplies and then giving you no boss to fight. Scaring you in forced perspective animations, when you canít react immediately, and jarring you in moments where you expect to be safe from enemies.

A traverse through an abandoned shopping market is made infinitely more terrifying by the groupings of mannequins that line hallways and rooms. Some wear dingy Santa hats. I smacked a few upon arrival, to double check their inanimate appearance. It seems inevitable that one will jump to life and come at me, but eventually there are too many to check in a single room and after whole minutes pass without your paranoia validated, I start to forgo the wrench-to-the-head checks. Thatís when one pounces on me with a guttural scream. Somewhere, a designer laughs manically. ďI knew it!Ē I shout, my confidence bruised and my nerves completely shot.

Condemned undergoes some radical departure from its origins. Drifting into the supernatural, it never deviates from the formula it originally introduced, but never stops heightening all of it. Detective tools are for murder scene investigations, until youíre using them to track and read the cryptic wall-scratching of a maniac. Youíre a dutiful police investigator, until you are framed for multiple murders and find your cryptic personnel file with, perhaps most disturbing, your x-rays with whole organs redacted. Heck, even your firearm, which should be for shooting, is re purposed as a blunt tool in desperate times.

The game wants you unnerved and never comfortable with your location, your weapons, or your allies. It succeeds here, as for the first time I found myself having to pause before to move into rooms, and it accomplishes a horror experience so effectively, that it became a group activity to play it. Condemend: Criminal Origins set a high precedent with horror games for me. It showed remarkably cunning design, with carefully laid traps and constant psychological warfare designed to undermine the player, and did so with a tight-lipped, twist-laden story. It is terrifying, riveting, and just plain amazing.   read

5:24 PM on 04.12.2011

We Are Destructoid: What Dtoid Can Do for You

[Hey gang! Last week, I challenged some community members to tell us why Destructoid's community is so important to them. Don't let them be the only ones! Tell us how you feel in your own blog. -- Kauza]

I still remember my first blog here because, at the moment of its conception, both it and I were an unfocused, terrific mess. Without any introduction, I wrote some slap-shod attempt-at-humor post about making Red Dawn a video game. It was nonsense. I didnít know what I was doing, but I did have the free time to do whatever it was. I had hurled myself at the city of Chicago after college with no money or plans and my stint on D-toid began in the throes of a three month unemployment death spiral.

My entire existence was a rusty sedan stalled in the center of an intersection. I knew two people in the entire city, had no employment, and my bank account groaned like an empty stomach. I was perfectly happy, but stagnant. One particular night, after heating up water in my coffee maker to stir into pre-packaged ramen noodles and watch reruns of Quantum Leap, I was struck with a sudden and desperate sensation. I needed to just make something. My English major brain was atrophying and a call-to-action in the form of my first monthly musing was the solution.

I came back to the site a few days later, having forgotten about the article I poured hours into, and found it missing. I was enraged and rather slighted. Had my writing been so bad that an editor felt compelled to purge it from the Internet? I typed the title in the search function and, to my surprise, it appeared. But it wasnít in my blog roll any longer. The link hurled me instead all the way to the front-page. A year and a few months later, Iíve returned to that hollowed ground twelve times.

My life is together now, more than Iíd expected I could get it to be, and though I canít give all the credit to the Dtoid Community, I can say that it was as much an element as anything else. After a string of months being only a person by technicality, having something I wrote Ďpublishedí was the shot in the arm everyone needs at some point in their life. Beyond that self-indulgence, simply being welcomed into Xbox Live friends lists and twitter feeds across the internet is just as triumphant of a reward.

In writing this post, I found myself repeatedly deleting statements like that. Everything I was writing kept ending up sounding like a backhanded boast. Even small anecdotes sounded self-congratulatory in a roundabout way. I tried hard to write around it for a moment, to highlight the site and not myself, but I realized something in resisting what came so naturally.

The sheer fact that I canít talk about the D-toid Community without citing a steady parade of incredible opportunities Iíd been given, the continuing recognition for my work, and the never-ending stream of writing support and criticisms Iíve received is a fact thatís telling in itself. You canít talk about being a member of the C-Blogs without bragging about something. By simply being here, itís inescapable that youíll have something to humblebrag about.

Whether itís winning a Dtoid bobble head simply for writing a haiku or watching 700 gamers silently try and set me on fire with their minds for getting to walk to the front of a line at an industry event, say ďHey, Nick Chester sent me,Ē and then stroll in to play Marvel vs. Capcom 3 months before itís release. Perhaps itís getting strangers messaging you on nearly every form of social media to wish you compliments on a front-pageíd article or the near equal-joy of finding a simple comment screencapped in an edition of Commentoid. It could be discovering your posts being discussed at lengths upon aggregator sites and forums or the utter joy of settling in for six hours of making quips and rap lyrics with earnest friends on a weekly Friday Night Fights.

These are my experiences - the triumphs Destructoid has given me - but they could be anybodyís. Iím no one special. I donít know any secret connections or have any undisclosed tips. Iím just another C-Blogger who started writing simply because I wanted to write. I wrote for myself, for my own sanity, and to see something finished. Just doing so was itís own reward, but the community decided that was insufficient. Destructoid whisked a year and halfís worth of success and achievement my way simply for being here.

Beyond presents and events, I can honestly say my writing has improved too, an acquisition that will go on long after the site goes down when Skynet comes online. If you climb on board, your writing will do the same. Be it through simple practice or the thoughtful comments of the other members. If you try and try hard, your success will be rewarded with front-pages and faps. Though it may seem like hurling your words into a void at first, stay with it, because the comments will come and the camaraderie with it. As CaptainBus said so succinctly, ďÖ enjoy the process. If you start out and expect to get a wave of comments and faps, you typically end up disappointed.Ē

The Internet world sees Destructoid as a source of good news and original features with a strong current of personal humor. Theyíre right, of course, but there is so much more to it. The community is a welcoming place for young writers and advanced wordsmiths to cut their teeth and sharpen them all the same in one unified place, at an equal level. There are those disinterested in writing all together, who post blogs here just to share an opinion and that's just as welcomed. What matters above all is that you want to share something, because this is place where people want to see it.

If youíre reading this and you havenít posted or havenít found that reason to keep posting, know that it is something of immense worth. Once youíve submitted that first blog, provided you havenít butchered the basic style, youíll receive a welcoming hello from Elsa followed by a virtual decoder ring courtesy of Occams Electric Toothbrush. Then, as you post further, youíll have frequent critics and commenters like knutaf, CelicaCrazed, mrandydixon, garethxgod, Steezy XL, and so many others. You'll get a chance to read a constant flow of great blogs, from the likes of Stevil and Wrenchfarm, to name a few. With your name circulating, perhaps LawofThermalDynamics will arrange an interview with you. Maybe one of the Commentoid crew will feature your wit or a C-Blog recapper will feature your work. Even still, there are FNFs to be enjoyed, libraries of backlogs to be read, and things to be mused.

Here, we see success and we see friendship come from nothing more than participation. We play games, as do thousands of others, but here we make stuff just to see it made. We talk about what we do because by doing so we legitimatize and it and improve upon it. We are harsh critics and dedicated creators. We are resolute commenters and fanatical players. We are a community. We are Destructoid.


11:32 AM on 04.10.2011

Occam's Awesome Box: AwesomeExMachina Edition

Our waking world is composed of oddities and immutable truths. Some things are constant; the effect of gravity, the elemental qualities of matter, the transference of energy, and - more important than all of them - the infinite excellence of a man named Occams Electric Toothbrush. But he is also an incongruity of nature, as a man so fantastic and benevolent that it forces the question of if he's even a human at all. Of course, the fact that he has a lizard brain doesn't help.

In a moment of passing compliments, I told Occam's how much I enjoyed the posts of those care packages sent off to other Dtoiders with stunning regularity. Before I could even finish my sentence, he offered to angle his gift-giving talents my way, like a magnanimous trebuchet aimed at the ramparts of our friendship. The man is a freight train of generosity.

So, without a moment's delay, a package comes rolling up on my doorstep. My roommate presents it to me with some apprehension.

"This is either a mail bomb or a fan letter from a 11-year-old girl," my roommate said. "Or possibly both." His assessment wasn't abstract, either. Their was a tender care evident in the gentle placement of the Lisa Frank cupcake stickers, which stood in alarming conflict to the gruff penmanship of a man-hand, which may or may not have been clutching brass knuckles as it was written. Lil' Princess Unibomber.





OTHER STUFF, TOO, FRIEND. Sorry if I was agressive earlier. These presents are just TOO GOOD.

Do you see now what I refer to? Occam's is a towering monolith of win. Seriously, he's a man like no oth- Wait. Wait. Go back a second. Yeah. To that picture with all the cards. What's that on my -

No, no. On the keyboard there. Zoom in. Enhance.

What is-


5:08 PM on 03.08.2011

Technical Difficulties: In Support of Permadeath

Per-ma-death - noun : The player choice or game mechanic wherein a character dies and remains dead permanently. The player cannot or chooses not to reload, revive, or return to a save with said character.

Respawn. Load Last Save. Return to Main Menu. Seeing these options appear within your game is about as routine as the act of putting a game disc into a tray. With this black or blood-spattered screen Ė which may go as far as to taunt you with the gratuitously redundant message YOU ARE DEAD - comes a brief and fleeting moment of retrospection. You have just failed in a task. Perhaps it was your fault, perhaps it was the fault of the game, and maybe the fates simply decided everything that could go wrong would do just that and would do it simultaneously. You shake your head for a moment, consider what other things you should be doing today, and then, with a shrug, you jump right back into the fight one more time.

This was you, mourning. That was the length and breadth of the only funeral that particular protagonist will ever receive and it lasted all of four seconds. A digital life snuffed short and now forgotten. It sounds brief and perhaps even unsympathetic, but it was actually a quite fitting requiem for a character whose life span began twenty minutes ago after the last time you died horrifically.

Death is the most common element in quite nearly every video game title in existence. So much so, that we craft whole systems to manage how frequently we perish. Save files, check points, autosaves, save states. The culture of gaming makes one assumption almost unanimously. You will die. A lot. We accept that, because we need consequences for our actions and as difficulty increases we encounter more situations where these consequences shape the decisions we make.

Itís for this very reason that I find the concept of permadeath so interesting. Not just because the act of playing through a game with only a single life is an invariably difficult challenge. It most certainly is. Rather, just by applying this rule to your game, youíve taken away perhaps the most attractive and fundamental quality of the entire spectrum of video games. Immortality. Once youíve taken up the challenge, thereís no bigger consequence. You risk losing it all, hours of work, at the mercy of one bad call or a random fluke.

All your effort and enthusiasm and empathy are no longer spread across particular moments, but all come down to that one singular character. His or her fate is now your own too and, from that, the distance between player and character is that much shorter. You are no longer learning from deaths and mistakes, but adapting to the struggle of existence. Every enemy now poses a real and dangerous threat. The result of each decision is harshly absolute. Mercy is a term by which your game no longer abides.

Permadeath is different than your typical stakes-raising difficulty options. Itís a challenge that is purely player enforced. Besides requiring a specific virtual masochism, it also means is that the game canít adapt to it. It canít take into account your struggle and adjust the enemies or levels according. It canít be Left 4 Deadís AI director. Legions of zombies or henchmen with assault rifles canít expect you to only have a single life, so they assault the same as they always have; without mercy. The game has no rewards in place for your success and it hasnít spaced out health and ammo with your cruelly terminal existence in mind.

Admittedly, I can see how this doesnít sound very appealing. In fact, it runs completely opposite to how most find their enjoyment from their games. For most, the joy of their favorite games isnít from crippling challenges and brutal consequences. Instead, itís about escaping these very things in the real world. The joy of gaming comes from winning, getting to be the infallible hero. For the very same reason video games happily offer a multitude of difficulty settings, games are designed with the leeway for everyone to get their kicks from the same framework. But something really powerful can come from upsetting the paradigm of protagonist invincibility.

I still passionately recall tales of playing Fallout: New Vegas with a single life with the same enthusiasm I might tell an exciting story from my own life. I retell the deaths of my mercenary buddies in Far Cry 2 with a twinge of potentially legitimate remorse. The tale of a short-lived permadeath run in Red Dead Redemption becomes an inverted Western, with the hero John Marston struggling against the forces of himself and corruption, but never quite achieving his Ė well Ė redemption. Sometimes, it's not even for the emotional or narrative experience. I have a friend who brags about his permadeath completion of Bioshock and that sense of accomplishment is no less remarkable.

But itís not all about experiences and feelings. Putting all your focus into a single life, even in multiplayer, can have remarkable effects. Normally, the thought of staring down at our comrades through a spectator screen, still in the throes of fun and challenge, troubles us somewhere in our subconscious. So we tighten our grip and phase out the world around us for a few moments. We will ourselves to stay alive. Despite the fact that the death looming over us is imaginary and the blood is pixels, the player experiences the urgency of mortality nonetheless. Not over the loss of life, but of entertainment. Which, in the world of video games, is as paramount as existence.

Restrict the respawns to zero in a game of Rainbow Six terrorist hunt and the results are significantly different than the usual unfocused chaos. Not only do I always do better with the knowledge of only one life looming above me, but all my friends playing alongside me experience an instant change in demanor. The banter fades and is replaced with strategic talk, shouts for back-up, and genuinely mournful bellows upon the death of a comrade. We become not just invested in our own survival, but in keeping our friends alive. Put this sort of imperative to you and your friends' survival and your teamwork will never be stronger.

Increasing the difficulty of a video game in the conventional way is easy. Itís as simple as addiction and subtraction. Add enemies, take away bullets. Add dragons, take away potions. Normally, bolstering a gameís challenge can often be akin to just telling the player to go to the other end of a hallway, giving them a time limit, and then knocking over a few trashcans in their way. But permadeath is something from a different realm entirely.

It doesnít just make things harder, but makes them different. It injects a powerful sense of significance to every action, applies earnest weight to every choice, regardless of how minute. With it, there is no such thing as a small victory. Your sense of success is bolstered not just with every complete level, but with every individual second you reamin breathing. Just getting your character from one room to the next is enough to make you feel like youíve already won the game. With permadeath, every sigh of relief or involuntary cheer of success is authentic, poignant, and worth all the difficulty of its achievement. So check your skepticism, dust off a favorite game, and give a peramdeath run a go.   read

11:58 AM on 12.01.2010

No Clip: Grand Theft Auto IV

No Clip is a new blog series. An experiment in player interaction, I dig out old games and play them with a set of critical restrictions to rethink what we thought we knew. A repost of my first edition, lost in the New Destructoid revert, with a second edition to follow in the upcoming week.

To most gamers, Niko Bellic is a typhoon of destruction. The name is synonymous with exaggerated violence, brazen criminal acts, and a gruff Eastern European accent all wrapped up in a smoldering tale of vengeance. The protagonist for the critically acclaimed Grand Theft Auto IV, Niko is the lightning rod for Rockstarís tale of embellished crime and desperation in their loving recreation of a real life New York City.

Following the series typical arch for their characters, Niko begins as a small time nobody and climbs his way over dead gang bosses to an inevitable spot at the top. This is the way of the Grand Theft Auto series. But I recall feeling something different about this fourth installation during my original playthrough. Niko didnít seem like the usual crime-infatuated character. Rockstar painted him with some depth and a bit more character than previous incarnations, filling his background with vague worn-torn tragedies and consuming his present day decisions with a struggle to preserve himself from these same past mistakes.

This slight moral compass made Niko a tragic character to me. I felt rather plagued with guilt as I guided him away from his convictions and back into the life of a petty thief and mobster. I felt responsible for Niko falling off the wagon and I wondered how things could have played out differently. What if Niko Bellic refused to kill? What if he really did try and keep his head above water and his hands clean? Could Niko really have any other life but one of a criminal?

I knew going into this idea that the only way to keep Niko completely law-abiding was to never turn the game on the first place. The narrative leads down a rather inevitable path. The only mission in the story arch that doesnít involve some sort of criminal act is driving your drunk cousin back to his apartment after disembarking the cargo ship at the very start. Heck, even thatís only true if you respect traffic lights and restrain yourself from slamming into every car you see. With Roman soon in debt to loan sharks, I knew Nikoís ethics would have to be a little flexible. But I held true to one principle: In my game, Niko would never take a life.

That first car ride home was a major test of patience. Holding true to even simple traffic laws was inexplicably painful at first. Waiting for stoplights was pulling teeth. But I respected traffic laws to the best of my ability. After countless hours in single player and free roam with the accelerator to the floor at all times, driving slow was like trying to tell myself not to chew my own nails. I kept catching myself falling back into old habits. Red lights, stop signs, speed limits, the fact that I canít ramp over cars if they happen to be in my way. It was hard to think this way.

But forcing myself into this compulsory reality brought something with it. A slow realization that Rockstarís game wasnít just a set of buildings in which to have your explosions, but a living, breathing city. Walking the streets, I heard near hours of conversation, insults, and quips from the civilians walking the streets that Iíd never heard. Things I certainly would have missed careening down streets and top speed and shooting back at cops in pursuit behind me. I saw billboards I never knew existed, buildings I had no idea I could enter. I watched a man on a bench flip through the fully rendered pages of an actual book, a store owner meticulously clean a sidwalk, and watched a police officer place someone in the back of his cruiser after an elaborate foot pursuit.

It didnít take long before the simple act of parking my car like a normal human being or calling a cab rather than stealing some poor guyís beat-up sedan stopped being a nuisance. It started becoming a normal, even enjoyable, routine. After a few in-game hours in Liberty City, I started to take pleasure in the slow-paced walks to my cousinís cab depot. Even more so, rewriting the pace of the game like this made every deviation so much more interesting. When you spend your time waiting impatiently behind a bus to take a right on red, a car chase through the city became a riveting switch-up. Rather than par-for-the-course, every infraction, no matter how slight, becomes a thrilling crescendo moment.

This made the missions themselves nerve-wracking experiences. I knew I had to carefully tread through the early missions of the campaign because my cousin needed my help. Nice or not, it wasnít in Nikoís design to just leave Roman hanging. But I didnít really know when it was one of the nefarious characters I began working for were going to ask me to take a gun and fall back on old habits.

At first, it was small things. Though I took no pleasure in smashing the window of a china shop, it didnít require me to hurt the owner. So I did so to help my cousin. When some Ďdebt-collectorsí jumped him in a basketball court, I beat the ever-loving piss out of them. Niko could handle himself. But as I justified each mission, I kept allowing myself to step further and further from my design. If I let myself smash a car window for protection money, how long before Iím smashing teeth?

This ethical conflict came to a head when I took off in pursuit of Romanís debt-collector at the tail end of the mission, leading a white-knuckled chase through Bohanís industrial district. Caught up in the usual adrenaline-fueled sequences, I let myself forget what I was doing for a moment. I blew through lights and took corners sharply, nearly running down a few pedestrians. Eventually, I found myself spamming the A button in a dead sprint, intent on catching up to this sleazy loan shark as I chased him into the second story of an abandoned warehouse.

It was easy to disarm him. Iíd become quite impeccable at the hand-to-hand combat as Iíd previously worked towards the Finish Him achievement. But I didnít even see what I was doing as I caught him in a combo maneuver. I was too focused on the timing of the disarm. The kinetic force of the missionís pace had put me right back into the mindset of victory, regardless of the conditions. I nearly didnít catch myself as I pulled the knife from The Albanianís hands and readied it for a finishing move. I stood for a moment, paused as the clumsy gangster struggled back to his feet. I frantically unequipped the knife as he stood and instead knocked the son of a bitch out with nothing more than a solid kick to the gut.

Stepping out onto the scaffolding, The Albanian lay bloodied behind me, but he was still breathing. The mission was over, the loan shark thoroughly defeated. But I was amazed at how efficiently Rockstar had pulled me from my original intentions. I had made a multitude of compromises just to make it only a few missions into the story. I hadnít killed anyone yet, but with nothing more than a flimsy car chase premise and an object marker on my radar, Iíd nearly taken a life without thinking twice. It didnítí feel far off from the realizations in Shadow of the Colossus, a game which drove your character to brutally destroy gorgeous lumbering creatures as you followed obediently to nothing more than a glint of light on your sword.

I attempted a mission or two beyond that, but I didnít get far. After the game had taught me how to fight, it was only a matter of time before it passed me a pistol and asked me to take out a few gangsters. After the incident in the warehouse, I was done with the gameís attempts to breach my ethical code. Vlad was satisfied enough with the work Iíd done so far and Iíd dealt with the majority of Romanís debt-collectors. So, with a level of restraint the game didnít seem to want me to have, I turned my phone to silent and refused all subsequent missions. Instead, I did the only thing I could do; worked my day job and kept my head down.

Niko became an average Joe, running a life that became not unlike playing a stripped down version of The Sims. I woke up in the morning and went to work taking cab fares around the city for my cousin. I outfitted the gruff, intense, brooding ex-mobster in the most unassuming outfit possible, complete with a pair of scholarly glasses. I went on dates with Michelle, which became progressively more hilarious since I was no longer worthy of her under-cover investigation. The most interesting thing to report on my Mr. Bellic was how deft of a bowler heíd become.

After numerous hours plodding around the city in my cousinís taxi, occasionally going out for drinks with Roman, watching television, or nailing the high score in CUB3D, I unceremoniously ended my game. Without a storyline cut scene to cap it, I was forced to apply my own victory conditions. Iíd made a fair sum of money from working a successful job and not bleeding cash in hospital bills and gun stores. Had the game left in some of the previous gamesí intricacy of buying property, I couldíve bought Niko a decent apartment, or maybe invested in crummy night club to turn a profit

But, sans any real assets, my version of Niko was otherwise victorious. He was a part of Liberty City. Bulgarin would never find him. He was able to manage a day job. The police never became acquainted with his ruthless prowess with a handgun and he scarcely put a dent in his cousinís taxi. The citizens of Liberty City were sparred a vicious spree of crime and destruction. No one detonated buses in the center of Times Square and no helicopters were shot out of the air over busy downtown Alderney.

Grand Theft Auto IV had no achievement to award me for this victory, no gamerscore came from being an unassuming citizen. But in my story, Niko stuck to his moral compass and managed to flee his criminal past. His cousin kept his cab depot and no one shot his friends. It wasnít in the design to progress this way and it constantly tried to buck me from my new goal. But, despite everything, it is nonetheless unreservedly possible for Niko Bellic to just be a nice guy.   read

12:59 AM on 10.18.2010


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