Hey, I’m Ethan. This is a small piece of my work from my personal blog, Musings on Gaming, where I throw my thoughts on video games, their players and their creators. I have a lot of them. You’ll find my musings on games as art, reviews of games I’m playing, thoughts on upcoming releases or consoles and the occasional bit of original reporting. Head on over to the main site to see more content!
Without much thought, art brings to mind paintings and sculptures, and over time it's grown to include music, and perhaps more begrudgingly books, while film continues to carve a niche in the world of "art".
Why have the last two come so late in the game? Film is a relatively new medium that continues to gain ground and dish out "classics" to be regarded in future centuries, but handwriting has been around just as long as any form of recording music.
Consider the ubiquity of more accepted forms of art. Anyone across the planet sees the Mona Lisa and generally agrees "Yes, this is art!" But more importantly, they may also exclaim "Sí, esto es arte!", "是的，這是藝術！", "Oui, c'est de l'art!" or even "جی ہاں، یہ فن ہے!".
Not sure what those mean? Roughly translated, they all recognize the Mona Lisa as art. Any person, any language, can glean something from the Mona Lisa. For that matter, Bach is also appreciated by more than just English speakers. Try that with "Casablanca".
So what's the significance of this on a blog about video games? One of the biggest hurdles facing the industry is legitimacy. While it spreads day by day, those of us not surrounded by other enthusiasts and industry analysts are well aware of the stigma that can come with the hobby and the glossed-over stares that a video game discussion tends to garner.
But bring up "The Dark Knight Rises" and the majority of the room can relate.
Does this mean "Arkham City" is less ubiquitous than it's film counterpart? Is the caped crusader less accessible to the masses in video game form than on the silver screen? While films translated for various languages overcomes these difficulties to most extents, I think there's something else to consider.
The English language consists of 26 letters and several pieces of punctuation that can be combined in seemingly infinite ways to mean seemingly infinite things. To the untrained Pakistani eye, Faulkner's use of those letters and punctuation means nothing.
Now consider Mario for your SNES. The controller had 12 buttons, the effects of which could be seen when activated. Death was met with a downtrodden ditty and dropping of the screen while victory meant riding a flagpole and trotting into the castle.
More importantly, anyone could figure this out. Without any help.
It might have taken a little while, but an afternoon was likely ample for anyone to get the gist, while learning a language without metaphorical training wheels will probably never happen.
While we've gained a couple buttons and the nuances may be more intricate, games today reflect the same attributes. One might not follow the plot all that well, but anyone can pick up Okami, take less time to learn the controls than it might take, perhaps, to acquire a taste for freeform jazz, and recognize that the scenes being played out are magnificent and wondrous.
And do we ever really do much with art other than enjoy it? Some art sends a message, but scores of people hang Monet in their living room because "it's pretty", and we enjoy "pretty". By that logic, even Mortal Kombat fits the bill as a way to have a rip-roaring time ripping your friend's throat out.
Speaking of multiplayer - does anyone really enjoy art as a group? We can both look at it or listen to it, and should we share a dialect, have a conversation about it. It's not unlikely, however, that the patron next to you at The Louvre doesn't speak much of whatever it is you're speaking, so good luck having a meaningful conversation about just what it is that Mona Lisa is smiling about.
Regardless of what language you speak, however, two people can really bond over a game of Smash Bros.
We overcome gaps in generations, culture and language. That's what paintings, sculptures, music and yes, video games, share. Meanwhile, without help from a translator, films and books struggle more to accomplish this, but it's unlikely anyone will groan and proceed to hide your gift to them to cover up the nerdiness if you bought it at Barnes & Noble.
But even if video games acquire recognition as art, a theme you may have noticed here, does that justify dumping hours of time into them? Not all that much. Additionally, does it grant grossly inappropriate games like Saints Row: The Third a free pass? Despite how much we may enjoy it, not really. There will always be the Hobby Lobby wall furniture we hang simply because we enjoy it - not because it's moving the medium in any significant way or making contributions as "art" is wont to do.
And beyond all that, just like the girl on the train reading Tolstoy today and Dickens next week, we're more than that. That girl probably enjoys partying or hiking just as much as I also enjoy rock climbing or cooking. It's not defining to be an enthusiast, but gaming beyond your smartphone still seems to imply that.
If we recognize games as art or even just a legitimate hobby, maybe we can start moving past that.
If you're a frequent reader, you're aware that I'm not the world's biggest fan of the Assassin's Creed series. That being said, the story continues to pull me back - "I gots to know!" So I cracked the cover on Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood.
Desmond is beginning to more strongly feel the effects of the bleeding as he begins to gain some of the skills his ancestors so often utilize, which led me to realize why everyone really started to love this series. Sequences with Desmond are Nolan North climbing on stuff and creating witty banter with a cute blonde. It's Uncharted! So much explained.
Of course, this is not the girth of the game. We meet up with Ezio Auditore da Firenze once again, who has lost the Apple of Eden to Cesare Borgia, a Templar. The rest of the game consists of building factions, procuring knowledge and getting the Apple back.
This title feels much tighter than the last two - a very good thing. Gameplay finally feels like it's found its footing, letting the entire experience mesh much better. Guiding Ezio through the city feels much less frustrating than it has in the past. This is not to say that there aren't moments where I'm rolling my eyes because jumping backwards is nigh impossible to gauge, but all in all, a much more pleasant experience than past outings.
The story continues to impress, though sometimes dialog and Italian names go flying by, so hopefully you remember faces well. Ezio is often tied up in someone else's problems, not actually making strides towards getting the Apple back, but such is the nature of being one of the most popular men in Rome.
That being said, the main path is not all that long. You'll spend much more time getting lost among the many other tasks available in the city. As before, Ezio will be renovating the storefronts of Rome to gain an income. Flags have taken the place of feathers as the collectible of choice, though there are still ten feathers floating around somewhere. There's some sweet armor to be had by tracking down a religious cult, quests for each faction and Borgia strongholds to usurp.
Unfortunately, all of this side-questing can be cumbersome. The map is littered with things to do, and some waypoints don't even disappear after being addressed. Repaired aqueducts and bought up landmarks stay on the map in the same form after the fact, so it can become confusing keeping track of what's been done already. Additionally, many of these things have no inherent reward. Do all the courtesan missions you want - I'm not sure there's a payoff. Playing through the entirety of Ezio's teenage love story is cute enough, but doesn't give much to the overarching cause.
One sideline of the game that actually performs very well is the "brotherhood" aspect. Ezio begins recruiting rebellious townsfolk to his cause and must train them to fulfill contracts across Europe. When they aren't out of town, assassins can be called to aid in battle. This is an extremely useful mechanic in many cases to keep cover while getting guards out of the way. The death of a comrade can feel like a real loss after training them to a high level, however, so one must weigh the chances of failure before calling them in.
All in all, it's really more Assassin's Creed, so there isn't a lot to say. The team at Ubisoft really colored inside the lines this time so that the game is genuinely fun and not as frustrating at a platforming level like the other games could be. That is, until the last forty-five minutes or so.
It's as if the team realized that release was impending. Most games, you simply delay the release date, but Assassin's Creed is an annual entry - no sir. For the last portion of the game, the player must wield one useless weapon that can't be switched off. The story begins fast-forwarding in time extremely quickly, bouncing months at a time. Suddenly, there's a siege. I'm not sure anyone knows where or why, but it's there. Ezio heads for a nameless castle and starts climbing things, but it takes a while to realize why or what's happening. Not only does the story start unraveling, but things start getting buggy. I got caught both in the corner of a catapult and the middle of a courtyard, enemies would ignore me and the game froze altogether at a couple points.
Fast-forward back to Desmond, who begins climbing about the Roman Coliseum. How he knows where he's going, we're not sure. The apparitions that lead him earlier in the game are altogether missing, but the camera points us in the right direction, so as the player, we roll with it. This portion is heavy on platforming, none of which lends anything to the story other than to be an obstacle to overcome. While playing as Ezio, platforming is part of who Ezio is. It develops his character. We know little-to-nothing about Desmond, and this isn't growing him in any way, shape or form. After an extremely redeeming game for the series, these last portions undermined a great deal of it, so if you're wondering why the score seems low for the praise I've given thus far, you can point to this section of the game.
Ignoring that, there's a lot to be said for Brotherhood bolstering the series. I may not be able to stay away as long as before. Revelations might just have to happen sooner than later. While I'm still not sure it warrants an annual installment, Assassin's Creed has me pretty well roped in now.
This morning, Nintendo unveiled a slew of details about the WiiU, officially due out November 18th. Here’s the important stuff:
There will be two versions available. The base $300 model comes with the system, a GamePad, and HDMI cable, sensor bar and all the other goodies you need to get started. It’ll have an 8GB HDD, and it’ll play Wii games. This means no standard WiiMotes, which are necessary for multiplayer, and must be Wii Motion Plus controllers.
The $350 model upgrades to a 32GB SDD and tosses in a charge cradle for the GamePad and a console stand. The bundle will also come with Nintendo Land, the big launch title featuring your Mii, and a subscription to Digital Deluxe Plus through 2014. Currently, all we know is that it will discount your digital downloads, which will be available for all games.
The WiiU is going to have processing power similar to the PS3 and Xbox 360, which means its getting a ton of third-party titles shipped over including Assassin’s Creed III, Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition, Black Ops II and Darksiders II among others.
Nintendo TVii is a new feature that will ship with all consoles and be free to use, giving users the ability to direct streaming services to the GamePad, even if someone else is using the main TV. This includes Hulu, Netflix and even your DVR.
There will also be a social network for WiiU users called MiiVerse, which will support real-time communication among other things and will be accessible through your PC or smartphone as well.
So where does that leave the skeptics?
Overall, we have to look at the fact that the WiiU is still just catching up to current-gen systems. What’s Nintendo’s plan when Sony and Microsoft roll out their next consoles in a year or two? Rumors currently have Sony utilizing 4K resolution for the next generation, and while those TVs are way too pricey now to be mainstream, it’ll be interesting to see what the next year or two brings.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is filing patents for projection-based gaming technology that may well take over your living room. Should either of these come to fruition, the WiiU will be right back where it started, and third-party developers will have to scale back their dreams if they want their titles to work on the WiiU.
Speaking of third-party devs, while it’s great that the WiiU is getting ports of solid titles at launch, there’s no guarantee they’ll do well. To start with, few other than the Nintendo faithful can pick up a WiiMote and go – it takes a little getting used to. While some titles will make unique use of the GamePad, there are bound to be some straight ports. Why would someone want to buy an entirely new console to play the games they can already get on the consoles they already have with controllers they already like?
Things like Arkham City: Armored Edition are also disheartening. Similar spin-off titles of AAA blockbusters, such as the Wii’s Modern Warfare: Reflex Edition, have proven watered-down and sub-par.
Additionally, we have very little information on how the WiiU’s online will work, which will significantly hamper many of these titles. Look at Mass Effect 3, a game with, what I consider, one of the best online multiplayer experiences to date. How well will this work on the WiiU? It’ll already be hurting since Wii players won’t have played the first two titles.
Another of these third-party titles that has been confirmed is Bayonetta 2 – a sequel to a combo-heavy button-masher from Ps3 and Xbox 360. This is an interesting move by Platinum Games, considering other hardcore third-party titles exclusive to Nintendo’s latest consoles haven’t done so well. MadWorld and Red Steel were generally well-received by critics, but didn’t sell nearly as well as even the most average Mario titles.
Nintendo TVii is a great idea, but not a make-or-break feature by any means. TV is universal enough that the whole room is usually content watching.
The memory available is paltry, especially considering the whole library is supposed to be downloadable. Not including any WiiMotes with launch bundles simply means that it’ll be tough to get newcomers to the Nintendo brand – they’ll only have to pay more.
Speaking of paying more, the low price-point of the original Wii was a big draw to the casual gamer. While $300 or more for the WiiU isn’t unreasonable for the hardware you’re getting, it’ll be a turnoff to casual gamers anyway as smartphones absorb more of that market share. Where the Wii had a defined audience that no one else was targeting, the WiiU looks as though it could appeal to a slim niche.
So good news for Wii owners looking for HD graphics – it’s going to get the job done. And they’ll get more of the Nintendo IP they love with a healthy dose of third-party tossed in – for now. But it’s not going to get people who currently own a PS3 or Xbox to make the switch – but has that ever been Nintendo’s goal? We’ll see if Nintendo can keep pace when the new consoles hit, and that goes without paying heed to new players on the scene including Valve’s console rumors and the Ouya.
Be sure to comment with your own thoughts and anything I missed!
From the inception of the Wiimote through the latest Kinect developments and even the in-between PlayStation Move, consoles have been plagued by shovelware – games designed to take advantage of a new and in many ways gimmicky feature. Red flags include low production value, poor or no voice acting, short development cycles, a collection of mini-games and release day price-points that cause you to raise an eyebrow. Little kids love them – they aren’t seeking any kind of artistic stimulation. While the game claims to target the party scene for any age group, it’ll never actually catch hold of the college crowd hanging out on a Saturday night. Mario Party remains the only franchise to ever overcome the party game stigma with Nintendo’s watchful eye separating it from the piles of shovelware.
Lights, Party, Camera from Frima Studio is looking to change that. Taking full advantage of the PlayStation Move controller, LCP is offering a set of games with a tad more polish that will hopefully gain it a following from those who can’t enjoy Mario Party.
ESRB: E10+ (Mild Fantasy Violence, Crude Humor)
In the face of a market that hasn’t fully embraced the Move controller, LCP gets off on the right foot by using a pass-and-play method instead of requiring each player to wield a Move controller. Not only does this facilitate up to eight players, but it also means that PS3 owners don’t have to invest in multiple controllers to make the party happen, opening up a wider audience. This is supplemented by the $30 price point – a tad higher than your average non-AAA collection of mini games, but still low enough to constitute a gamble.
This is where the accessibility ends. A party game is at its best when anyone can pick it up and play off the bat, and LCP isn’t always fitting this bill. Don’t even consider the hard difficulty for first-time players (and often even for veterans). Additionally, instructions for each game fly across the screen at breakneck speeds, sometimes not even covering the entire premise (there’s still one game involving dodging cream pies that I don’t quite grasp). This can be frustrating for newcomers who just want to play. While the Move functionality is very cool, it means more complex games as opposed to mashing a button as many party gamers are used to.
Some games require a bit of finesse, or at least give the impression they do. The Move controller is extremely intuitive, and so it reflects that no person can really hold themselves completely still, especially with a controller in hand. This can make intricate tasks seems abysmally difficult, especially on a 3D plane, which is still a fresh way of playing for many people. It’s hard to deem this as inherently bad, since this is the direction that gaming seems to be headed, but for the time and place, it might be a little much.
The story mode offers next-to-nothing and doesn’t even justify the time that may have gone into it. As many players as desired can participate to build a house for the Funzini family as they partake in a game show, Lights, Camera, Party! The characters sit in a couple different places that have no bearing on the festivities and then segue to strictly single-player mini games, many of which you’ll play multiple times, as there aren’t really that many. Whichever player wins the round gets a portion of the house built in their character’s fashion. The whole process takes about half an hour. With no script and paltry humor, time would have been better spent elsewhere.
Of course, it’s a party game, and so we’re much more interested in the party modes. LCP offers three, all of which balance a little bit of luck with a little bit of skill, meaning any player can win - a smart move to give experts confidence and newcomers the drive to become a dark horse. The mini games remain one player at a time, which eliminates some competition, but also helps to eliminate stratification of guests and the party host who has already played the game a thousand times.
Overall, LCP rises above the shovelware stigma, but is still trying to bust into a generally monopolized genre. Without popular IP, it’s a lost cause on gamers who don’t make a habit of browsing the PlayStation Store, and this is only kind of a bad thing.
If you haven’t heard, Papo & Yo is the story of a boy, Quico, and his large rhino-like friend, Monster. Monster likes to eat poisonous frogs that make him catch fire and become hostile to Quico. Quico is searching for the Shaman to cure Monster’s sickness. But this is merely scratching the surface.
Games create an avenue for stories that no other medium can create – a belief I’ve touted before. And these stories can come in many shapes of sizes – fiction and nonfiction, both tall tales and the eerily realistic. Papo & Yo provided an avenue for one developer to share the story of many living in abusive relationships. An extended metaphor for his own relationship with his alcoholic father, Papo & Yo knocks an emotional home run over the proverbial fence and further contradicts arguments that video games should not be taken more than lightly.
However, games also possess an ability to drag down a story like few other mediums can. Experts in the industry have long cited the inherent conflict between advancing a story and continuing to play a game. A challenge in the environment may be necessary from a gameplay standpoint, but it can be a severe hindrance to the narrative being told, and so it becomes a balancing act to keep the story moving while providing a reason to bother holding a controller at the same time.
Papo & Yo sometimes makes the player feel like a second grader trying to read Shakespeare in this way – what good is the story if we can’t advance?
The game is very short, and therefore doesn’t allow time to really develop a tool in the way that gamers who’ve played Portal establish the portal gun. This detracts from many of the “A-ha!” moments that Portal garnered – everything can be solved with the gun and tools in front of us; we just have to figure out how.
This lack of an established tool means that the solution to a puzzle is sometimes extremely unclear. To combat this, most puzzles are less “puzzles” and more “flip every switch you can”. In at least one case, however, Minority foregoes that formula, which results in a completely counter-intuitive solution with absolutely no indication of how to actually do it. When most paths or moving platforms are at least marked with chalk, this one came from nowhere. Even in the old days of video games without tutorials or hint boxes, the days that purists long after, we at least could say “Hey, that painting’s crooked. I’m going to straighten it and – oh I get it now!”
Any player can bite the bullet and find a walkthrough, but the fact of the matter is that this reflects a developer that was blind to the player and the careful balance required to keep a player interested in both that challenge and the story. And unfortunately, the short length of the game magnifies this singular moment.
Also awkward from a gameplay perspective are the numerous nooks, niches and crannies that exist in the environment. Small alleys and empty overhangs beg to be explored, but appear to offer little in the way of reward, and we’re left wondering why even bother?
Beyond this, there really is a fantastic story being told here. I’m skeptical of the blatant nature with which the developer approached the extended metaphor, and in my opinion may have done well to keep the entire thing under wraps until the player reached the twilight of the experience. Regardless, it’s an emotional keepsake that, for the small time investment, gamers would be remiss to pass up.
For being in development so long, the game is not well polished. Players will pass through several aesthetic features of the environment, Monster may reach through walls to grab you and one spot in particular has a severe sound discrepancy that caused me to think my headphones were going dead. No, that awful static was just the game. Things like this make me wonder what we were waiting for.
Overall, Papo & Yo does good things, but poor design really cramps its style.
In Barnes and Noble, I came across “Castle in the Mist”, a novelization of the critically acclaimed Sony title “Ico”. This struck me as odd. I picked up the book and gave it a once over, and after a couple of pages, sure, it seemed like a good read, but something was missing. And as I thought about it, it occurred to me that any video game that can effectively be translated into a book is not using the full potential of the medium.
There was a day when the argument I’m going to make was less clear and fewer examples existed. There wasn’t a lot to take away from Mario if you weren’t just looking to kill a couple of hours. There wasn’t much to Crash Bandicoot beyond Dr. Cortex seeking world domination and you stopping him.
And these sorts of titles still exist. Mortal Kombat isn’t pushing a lot of boundaries, but there are plenty of gems out there with just as much to say as any of today’s blockbuster films in a span of ten hours instead of two, but now you play parts of it instead of idly watch.
Those games used to encompass my reasoning with people who didn’t “get” games. You like books? You like movies? You’ll like games – at least some of them. But there in the book store it occurred to me that that argument is a great deal weaker than it could be – than it should be. Video games have the potential to be much more effective than those mediums ever could be. There are many titles out there making a case for “Why should I care?” that can’t be ignored.
Books are written in first- or third-person. In third-person, you’re reading about someone or something. “So-and-so went here and did this and was happy about it.” In the current example, “Ico pushed the block.” Well, I guess. That doesn’t seem to encapsulate the situation, though. “Commander Shephard saved the geth.” Now that statement is just plain false. I saved the geth. Or for some, I killed off the entirety of that species! The statement isn’t particularly effective in this context.
What about first-person? “I pulled the lever.” Someone is telling you about it. Not only would I much rather blow up Megaton on my own than have someone tell me about it, but now we know that the main character lives until the end. Spoiler by way of voice. Besides, as anyone who played the game will tell you, Ico isn’t much of a talker beyond “Come on! Let’s go!”
While movies have lent visual stimuli to the otherwise fine stories literature has long been producing, the dilemma remains. The participant is still watching the action – letting it play out in front of them.
This is not to say that all games have built on this. While I enjoy the gameplay of “Metal Gear Solid 4" well enough, it’s the cutscenes and narrative that really get me. I could sit and watch all of those in succession and be content. But at the same time, other games have begun pushing further.
I’m not just talking about tackling more mature and complex themes à la Catherine or the upcoming Papo & Yo. I’m talking about a new experience altogether. I’m talking about being invested in a game at a personal level.
Games are very good at this from the get-go. Describing the premise of a game, in many cases, begins with “You are a…” or “You play as…” or “You take on the role of…” These statements are inherently implicit of the mountains they allow us to move in the long-stagnant field of story-telling. By their very nature, games change the way we relate to the tales we are no longer hearing but experiencing. It parallels the differences between sympathy and empathy. “That seems sad” versus “I’ve experienced that and I know how that sadness feels.”
Let’s bump it up another level with Ico. A boy with horns rescuing a strange girl. The antagonist is, in many ways, a giant castle. The biggest gameplay element? Holding the R1 button. Keep her hand in yours. Don’t let go. So simple, but with a notable lack of cutscenes or speech at all, an incredibly powerful mechanic. Any situation you approach where you have to let go is met with dread. Demons attacking her causes your heart to accelerate. Sure, the underlying fear is a game over screen, but it is so closely related to her not escaping the castle that falling away from her as her path retracts later in the game can be tear-worthy for many despite character development at a narrative level being nonexistent. The simple hand-holding objective created a personal investment and responsibility that set Ico aside from many of its peers.
Ico - an example of emotional attachment unmatched by other mediums
Looking ahead in the timeline, today’s games are moving even beyond that, effectively building upon the “choose-your-path” books, a gimmick once reserved for children’s franchises like “Goosebumps” – hardly a tool to be taken seriously.
These “choose-your-path” decisions now decide the fate of entire races when placed behind the guise of Commander Shepard – an avatar for your long-repressed dreams of being an astronaut. That “gimmick” now means life or death for a reporter, a private eye, an FBI agent, a father and his young son Shaun in Quantic Dream’s “Heavy Rain”. Very few movies have even approached this. The only example I can think of is a VHS-accompanied version of Clue, which was marketed as a game anyway.
They aren’t perfect for every story, but if you don’t “get” games, the only thing I can say is that there are times when a game is going to tell a story in a better way than any other medium ever could. Ico might be good as a book, but not without some artistic embellishment and certainly not on the same level the game managed.