Gamer culture is one of those topics that just makes people groan, and justifiably so. It gets portrayed in a fairly ugly way for the most part. There are the onerous presentation style television programs, where two attractive white young people try their damnedest at zany banter, with interviews or other pointless on the scene footage cut in wherever it fits.
Or, of course, there are hollow attempts at some kind of referential humour, a la Big Bang Theory and many others. Do you remember Mario? I sure do. Surely this makes me part of a trendy community. I feel like we're in this together now. Is this a good enough attempt at having an actual personality? The Pac Man goes waka waka, I am told.
Certainly one of the problems is that these people are on the outside looking in. This is hardly new information, but we're seeing the youtube generation, and every teenage malcontent with a webcam and a nasally voice is excreting more high pitched squeaky video footage than a surgeon general would recommend you watch in a weekend, which is equally as banal.
Consuming a product doesn't necessarily indicate that one somehow becomes an expert on the topic, or a representative of that community in some way. Just look at how many people watch Master Chef and then suddenly decide that they're an artisan food critic, deeply passionate about gourmet cooking, haute cuisine and molecular gastronomy. There are just as many mongoloids inside the circle as there are out.
GameCenterCX is not a particularly new or innovative formula. A man sits down in a small room and plays old video games. A camera crew films him. Sometimes other staff members attempt to help him play.
There isn't really much here in this structure that you won't have seen before from countless lets plays, reviews, or whatever else, but this is a fairly reductive look at the show. While the core components amount to little, brought together, they create something compelling.
Our man in the vanguard, Shinya Arino, is a middle aged father of two who started life as a hotel chef, then began a career in comedy before landing on the show. He is not the sort of man you would pick for a television star. He has a wide range of bad haircuts, he isn't amazingly good looking, he does not have perfect teeth; the man isn't going to be taking George Clooney's place in coffee ads any time soon.
Arino isn't trying to be anything other than what he is, and neither is anything else on the show. They aren't trying to present this as something it isn't. There is no attractive young white girl with her meat out pretending she cares about the new Bioshock. It isn't a misguided kid with a mic pretending to be some kind of renaissance intellectual. It's just a middle aged man playing video games.
He isn't even great at them, either. In more or less every episode he routinely gets stuck for quite some time doing something simple like jumping over a pit, or navigating between two points. This isn't to say that he doesn't care about games; he's clearly a fan, he's just fairly bad.
It's one of the most simplistic, unpretentious pieces about games I've ever seen. There are other segments in between the footage of Arino playing the game du jour where he visits local arcades that people have written in to the show about to recommend.
A lot of which is just laughs at the man losing his pocket money on arcade cabinets, but again there are open faced moments that tie it together. Sometimes there are children who gather around to watch and shout out advice, sometimes he challenges other staff members or other arcade goers to a match he inevitably loses; in one memorable episode he even plays a few rounds of Metal Slug 2 with the elderly woman who owned the establishment, both of them laughing away.
In fact, that sentimental edge is present more often than not. In another episode, while playing Ghouls'n Ghosts, Arino plays through for around thirteen hours before coming close to just giving up. A staff member appeared with a letter that a twelve year old fan wrote to the show asking for him to keep trying for as long as he could, and telling him to remember his passion.
After that he's joined by two of the assistant directors on the show, and the three of them play through all night, until morning the next day. Again, this it's unlikely you haven't seen three people play through a video game on youtube somewhere before, but the way it's presented here just has a much more sincere connection.
Or in yet another episode, Arino plays Might Bomb Jack in front of a live audience, the first time they had tried something like that. It's a notoriously difficult game, and they cut it very close to running overtime from the window the television network gave them and having to shut it all off. Seeing the audience in the last few minutes cheer on this middle aged man playing a video game is brilliant; they're as excited as any football crowd.
It's been running in Japan for something like ten years now, and it's gained a massive following – there are from memory one hundred and something episodes. There isn't a more honest, endearing television show out there about video games. It's an important program, one that a lot of people should be taking lessons from. You'd be doing yourself a disservice by not checking it out at some point.
Stories are about things. They involve themes and concepts. This seems like a simple notion, but one that eludes many people. Think way back to being bored in your English class, when you had to write tedious papers about silly old books. How you had to squeeze out an essay on how one of the characters represented this or that.
The Count of Monte Cristo is about friendship. It's about what happens when those friendships go sour, and if you can do anything to fix them. It's about revenge, and whether or not it's worth it in the end. It's about ethics and morals, and questioning who the real villain is in any given situation. Dantes is a victim who then goes on to try and victimise others, but is that justified?
The Lord of the Rings is about the many different kinds of heroism and bravery - and the whole trilogy can be taken as an allegory for World War II. Don Quixote is about a misunderstood romantic soul trying to find a way to fit into an increasingly alienating modern world.
Films, too, of course; To Kill a Mockingbird was about racism, about fear, and how ugly things can seem from a child's perspective. It's about one man trying to stand up and do the right thing against the world. It doesn't even need to be a complicated story; Wallace and Gromit is about a man and his dog who go to the moon in search of cheese, and then find a robot with dreams of skiing. Clerks is about one day in the life of a convenience store employee.
My point is, all of these stories are about some things, but there's also a great many more things that they're not about. The Count of Monte Cristo is not a story about how technology can change society for the worse. The Lord of the Rings isn't about a lonely hobbit looking for love in all the wrong places. To Kill a Mockingbird definitely wasn't about the horrors of war and the difficulties a soldier can have trying to fit back into society.
This all seems pretty stupid to point out, doesn't it? I mean, obviously stories include some elements and not others - that's an incredibly simple thought, right? So, then why does the gender card get thrown into games so much recently?
With Dragon Age and Mass Effect in the vanguard among others, people have been buzzing about gender in games a lot more lately than they have in the past; which is fantastic. It's commendable that people are talking about something like this, and that some games are trying to do something with it. Games are a great medium to try and explore issues like gender, and that it's even come up at all is a sign of progress here.
My problem is, does it really belong in every game, just because we can shoe horn it in somewhere? Gender is a big, messy, complicated and confusing thing. Which is all the more reason that some developers might choose it as a central theme for their work, but how central is it really to something like Mass Effect?
Catherine had quite a lot to say about gender, and traditional roles in relationships. It made for interesting characters and an engaging narrative. Vincent was presented as a relatable, sympathetic protagonist, especially in comparison to some of the other male leads out there like Marcus Fenix, and the drama in the game that stemmed from his relationship woes was interesting and fairly organic, too.
Purely in mechanical terms it was a pretty traditional block puzzle game, but in terms of narrative it was low in scale, which isn't something we see in the mainstream very often. You might not have been too fond of the anime influences, but if nothing else it wasn't about a gritty space marine who had to save the world by shooting a big gun at any aliens he happens to meet. It was about a guy who wasn't sure what he wanted in his life, where he wanted to go, or who he wanted to go there with. That's an impressively down to earth focus for a triple a release.
More to the point, gender is important to the game. All of the male characters are portrayed in certain ways, as are all of the female characters, and it plays around a lot with notions of what men and women are and are not supposed to be. It's a major part of what's going on, and the game would be entirely different if it was changed.
Then there's the less mainstream as well. Most, if not all, of Anna Anthropy's body of work has something to do with gender, and she's a talented designer who puts out sharp, interesting pieces.
What about something like Mass Effect, though? It's about a cool space captain who saves the galaxy by being cool, punching news reporters and jumping between chest high walls. Which is fine. Lots of decent games have been about that, but why does it get lauded as being so innovative and progressive just because you can choose to play as a lass as well as a feller?
RPGs are mostly about choices. Baldur's Gate plays out pretty differently if you choose a wizard instead of a thief, right? We like being able to choose things. Even forget RPGs, most games are about choosing something at the end of the day. Do I go left or right? Do I shoot the bad man with my big gun or my little gun? Do I put my points into horticulture or into dragon slaying?
Some of these choices are, clearly, more important than others. Making a character with black hair in Oblivion isn't going to be significantly different to making a character with brown hair. Putting all of your points into horticulture is certainly going to make your game experience different, especially if you meet any dragons that need slaying, but it probably isn't going to change the narrative much, is it?
Which can make the game feel a little hollow, if its trying to have a heavy focus on the narrative. If the game is something like Skyrim, about how the player is the brave and heroic dragonborn, and yet I've put all my points into alchemy and spent ninety percent of the game picking flowers and eating mushrooms, you can see how there's a bit of a disconnect there, right?
Not all games are story focused of course, and that's fine. Crazy Taxi isn't about a young actor working as a taxi driver on the side to earn a living while they hunt around the city for that one big break, it's just about going fast and making crazy money. Games are just like films or books or anything else in that regard; some of them are The Brothers Karamazov and others are Transformers 2.
When you are given choices in a narrative driven game though, then it's important how the game world responds to that choice. In Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, if you pick a character belonging to clan Malkavia, almost every line of dialogue in the game changes. Malkavians are all insane, and the game reacts to that - each character you encounter treats you like an insane person, and you even have hallucinations and other bizarre moments in the game, one of the more memorable ones being some dialogue with a stop sign. It really feels like it's acknowledging and validating your choice, and it's engaging because of it.
Again, that's a big choice, but little choices can be just as interesting if handled well. The Stanley Parable does a lot of interesting things with story driven gameplay. A narrator announces that the player moves through door A, but then the game proceeds to give you a choice between doors A and B; the narrator then has to change gears completely to accommodate the choice. It's an interesting piece, and highlights some of the hurdles in effectively telling a story in your game.
Then you've got games from the Dragon Age school of thought. I was impressed by the idea of the backstories in the first game, where in addition to picking your class and race you got to choose if you were a commoner or a noble; a bit of flavour for your character's past. This was a neat concept, but unfortunately, implemented pretty clumsily.
It started well. You got a very different beginning to the game if you chose human noble instead of dwarf commoner, but they didn't really take it anywhere. After your interesting start, you got rail roaded straight into the same path everybody else did. Then when you join a group called the Grey Wardens, your new friend says to you "we don't get many elves/wizards/dwarves/women/collective nouns here."
This is lazy design. There were some instances where it was slightly more important - going through the dwarf area as a dwarf had some differences - but overall it was a fairly ham handed attempt at acknowledging your choice.
As I said before, this isn't necessarily a problem, it just depends on what kind of game you have. The plot in Diablo II doesn't change if you pick a barbarian instead of a paladin, but that wasn't the sort of game that had much focus on the plot. A game like Dragon Age devotes quite a lot of time and effort into its narrative, and it really should be of a certain quality if that's the draw of the game.
Instead of skilfully making sure all your choices were important by significantly changing how the game reacted, they made your choices unimportant. Rather than something like the Malkavian clan in Bloodlines, they just changed a noun or two in some lines of dialogue. It's pretty ineffective for the most part, and it undermines giving the player a choice in the first place. Why bother choosing between A and B if they both have the same outcome?
So what about gender? Everybody's been campaigning that we need more strong female protagonists in games, and everybody lauded Bioware for their excellent work, but is it really all that? I mean, describe Shepard's character to me. If somebody spilled a drink on them in a bar, would they blush and run to the bathroom, or would they laugh it off and buy them another round? Does Shepard prefer stage shows to cinema? Does Shepard enjoy classic literature or trashy crime novels?
Not so easy, huh? I mean, Shepard does have some quantifiable character traits, certainly - a lot more than a blank slate like Gordon Freeman - but for the most part, as a person, Shepard is fairly boring. We can't really empathise much with Shepard because there isn't much there to empathise with. In trying to give the player choices about Shepard, most of those choices are rended moot in the same way as Dragon Age. The game isn't significantly different if I pick the War Hero back story instead of the Sole Survivor back story. Yet again, it just alters one or two lines of dialogue in the game.
You could argue that you're supposed to project yourself onto Shepard, but that's a fairly weak argument from a narrative perspective. I can project whatever I want onto him. I could pretend that Shepard is a gladiator from Rome who found a time machine and went on magical adventures before settling down as a manly space captain, but the game sure as hell isn't going to change because of that, and it isn't going to change significantly based on whether or not I'm projecting a wise cracking lothario onto Shepard or a meek, cautious pencil pusher.
The choice of Shepard's gender really is about as important to the game world as whether you choose to have pet fish on your ship or not. In a story driven game, that seems to stand out to me as slightly odd, but what is Mass Effect's story about? I thought it was about saving the universe from space monsters, not so much about social commentary on traditional gender roles.
You can analyse certain elements of stories, of course. I can spend all day analysing Eugenie Danglars and Louise d'Armilly in The Count of Monte Cristo, and the implications of their lesbian relationship with one another given the time period, not to mention how Eugenie elopes with Louise on the day she was to marry somebody else, and there's absolutely value and worth in that analysis, but that isn't what The Count is about. It isn't a story about lesbians in 1800s France. The major themes do not include sexuality nor gender roles. That isn't really the point.
Is gender the point of Mass Effect? If not, why is the choice there? If so, why does the choice change so little in the gameplay? If it is supposed to be a central theme to the game, shouldn't the difference be a bit more significant than playing Mrs Pac Man instead of original Pac Man?
McPixel seems to have slipped past the radar a bit. There was a little buzz when the demo was released, but after the full version came out, nobody seemed to notice. Which is a bit of a shame, really, because this is quite a singular thing.
I like adventure games. Classic Lucas Arts like Full Throttle - Grim Fandango still remains "The Game" in my heart. Recent chaps like Gemini Rue or The Experiment. Weird oldies like Blade Runner or The Neverhood. Mostly forgotten titles like Zero Critical. Hell, I even put down money for both Momento Mori and The Next Big Thing. If your game involves pointing and or clicking then that's pretty much all I need to hear to secure a purchase.
As close as they might be to my heart though, they routinely break it. Adventure games are fickle, mysterious beasts, liable to be spooked away by the faintest spot of logic. I'm not going to push out a trite piece on the purported death of adventure games. You could easily find a thousand of those already, and each one makes me cringe. Genres don't just disappear. I'm sorry, they don't. That isn't how things work.
Which isn't to say that they don't have a point. Adventure games sometimes seem like they're almost inherently flawed. Much as I love Grim Fandango - and I love it with tongue - it's got big problems. In a game about a cool, smooth talking film noir protagonist who's down on his luck, trying to get by on his smarts, why exactly do we have a timed puzzle with a fork lift inside of an elevator where you have to line the vehicle up pixel perfect to an ill-defined area between floors?
There's not really anything left to be said about the infamous cat moustache puzzle in Gabriel Knight 3, but it's hard to take things seriously with that in mind. These are important games, don't get me wrong. They're a lot of things to a lot of people, but that doesn't mean that they aren't riddled with perplexing elements.
It doesn't just stop at a few ludicrous puzzles though. Take the first episode of Sam and Max. The first puzzle you encounter is that a mouse in your office stole something and he wants swiss cheese before he's going to give it back. You have a cupboard full of cheese, but it isn't swiss. So your solution is to shoot a bunch of holes in it with your gun.
Clever, and simplistic - adventure games excel when they have you using one or two items for lots of things instead of a billion items for very specific purposes. To take Grim Fandango as an example again, Manny's scythe gets used frequently, but only ever once as a weapon.
That on its own doesn't make a game shine, though. The first episode of Sam and Max is fairly dull, really. There's a convoluted plot about aging child stars being hypnotised, and a lot of contrived attempts at being wacky. My problem with it was that they were taking bizarre characters and placing them in an every day setting - walking down the street to go check out the convenience store doesn't become terribly engaging when you add a black man with hilarious costumes and a homicidal rabbit.
Still, you don't necessarily need much in the way of narrative to have something great, but adventure games are more often than not slow, lumbering creatures. When you have to spend twenty minutes concentrating on figuring out a puzzle, it's hard to fill the screen with gun shots and explosions, high octane car chase scenes, and sexy lady-folk doing sexy lady-folk things.
So with a slow burning position, they often delegate the job of keeping your attention to the story. After all, why should I bother messing around with a rubber duck and a window in The Longest Journey unless I actually care about the consequences of that?
McPixel, oddly enough, fixes a lot more of these problems than I'd expected it to. Each level is a different location where a bomb is going to explode in twenty seconds, and your goal is to avert that explosion before the time runs out. That's understating things a little, obviously; in one level you hand an exploding hot dog to a strange alien hiding behind some bushes smoking a joint who tries to eat it.
The twenty second time limit is the most important factor here. Most adventure games have you wracking your brain over a situation for much, much longer, and with more consequences. If I don't figure out how to get Manny on the boat in Rubacava, I'm never going to be able to catch up with Meche to save the girl and save the day.
With such a short window of time, and not to mention a lack of characters or ongoing goal past get rid of the bomb, a lot more freedom is granted. I'm a lot more willing to experiment with things when the outcome doesn't have a whole lot of weight to it. I don't care if I end up squirting tomato sauce on the hot dog and hitting myself in the face with it if I've only got twenty seconds to play with. The looming threat of failure just isn't there.
Which works greatly in the game's favour. The situations are bizarre and surreal, and the solutions even more so. You don't have your traditional collection of verbs and enormous inventory. You can only move your character, or left click to interact with something, which usually defaults either to picking up an object or kicking somebody in the nuts.
That lack of verbs is another important quality; the puzzles are quick, as they have to be in a twenty second window. I'm not going to spend all day wondering what the hell to do with the cat moustache because instead I can just run up to somebody and kick them in the balls. There's never a point where you're not sure what to do, because everything is right there.
It still has an insane logic to everything, but it works to McPixel's favour rather than against it. Playing with remote controlled robot bunnies in Full Throttle when the game is supposed to be about a buff manly biker man doing manly biker man things didn't fit at all. In a game about a man running around hitting dudes in the junk, though, solving a puzzle by punching Han Solo in the face, sticking a light sabre in your mouth then flying along the death star, picking up an exploding R2D2 as you go, and dropping it to explode harmlessly on Darth Vader's face, well, it matches up.
That's the stand out quality about McPixel, really. It all fits together. Everything works perfectly. There isn't a cat moustache puzzle because, simply put, they're all cat moustache puzzles. Adventure games rarely pull of silly well, but here it's very neatly done. I mean, come on, how many times have you wanted to solve an adventure game puzzle by kicking dudes in the balls?