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Lenore Coffee's blog

8:56 PM on 06.25.2010

The Great Escape: Reclaiming Innocence

I played games a lot as a kid, and this gameplay was very similar in experience and diversity as my Lego, Barbie, and kid-on-kid action was. As children, we're free to explore, play, and--perhaps most importantly--make mistakes, mistakes we learn from, whether learning the boundaries of parental control, that round peg does not fit in triangular hole, or learning how to do what we want without getting caught.

As we mature--in theory--mistakes are less tolerated and their ramifications increase, sometimes to drastic proportions--losing jobs, mates, etc. This phobia of wrong-ness has induced near paranoia in many individuals who will do and say anything rather than admit wrong, otherwise known as taking personal responsibility for one's actions.

Gaming, however, is something of a deliverance from the expectations and ramifications of reality in the sense that we are once again allowed this freedom of exploration, play, and--again, importantly--making mistakes. It's an escape back to the freedoms of childhood wherein we learn by experience, by trial and error, and mistakes are often rewarded by processes of creative problem solving that lead to ultimate solutions of grand problems.

It's also liberating as we're allowed to make mistakes in front of other people, with perhaps only a temporary slagging off from our friends on multiplayer, we then move on and kick some ass to make up for our momentary lapse in, say, aiming, or not paying attention as we dash to the kitchen for another beer/lemonade/twinkie (I make no judgements). We learn again to work with others through our mistakes toward a common goal.

The ability to respawn, rethink, proceed, and defeat trumps our everyday drudgery in which those would-be valuable mistakes (that could make us better worker bees or even human beings) are instead turned into badges of ultimate failure. Even on the vast and anonymous internet, even on this site, saying the "wrong" thing (i.e.: something someone else disagrees with, which is also known as a differing opinion) can earn the trolling ire of hundreds descending upon a poster for making such a muck of him-or-herself. Unless it's Jim Sterling--we can't deny a man his one true joy in life, can we?

Gaming teaches us the lost innocence of play. Obviously, one plays a game, but play as a child and play in grown-up land are abhorrently different. Gaming is the great equalizer here--where a 13 year-old can kick the shit out of a 50 year-old gaming exec or a girl can rip the crap out of some dude's testosterone-fueled (and failed) rushing strategy. We learn to think creatively again--on the spot, in the moment, and without constant worry of permanent and possibly life-altering consequences. We PLAY again, I mean really play, instead of constantly monitoring the reactions of our peers for approval/dismay.

If we could learn to capture this essence of childlike freedom found in gamespace and transfer it to our non-digital selves, perhaps we'd all feel more freedom, creativity, and joy in the pursuit of . . . twinkies? Whatever faps your fancy, my friend.   read

4:17 PM on 10.06.2009

Defiling the Wasteland – A Memoir, Part 3

Scars spread across my body like the patchwork of a web, armor all its own, a story formed by warfare so individual as to fail descriptive faculty—just connect my dots, follow each jagged line to its edge till it splinters in another direction, marks another battle for fight. Flight is not an option.

And it’s the same with everyone. Billy Creed’s torso read like a telemetric mountain range. Jericho’s back echoed a narrative of continual strife, and some Raiders I find etch their respective body counts on limbs, stomachs, even some of their skulls. The most isolated, the most withdrawn from the world cannot escape the story this environment etches into each of us, but this is no recourse for sympathy. Those I’ve spared have only come back to burn another line in my skin, for which I now draw “The End” on virtually everything I come across, with few exceptions.

The Wastes aren’t as desolate as so many seem to think. Dig just a few feet in any one spot and you’re sure to find former vestiges of life, some older than others, some still smoldering. It’s a graveyard—the whole fuckin place—a testament to centuries of error, strife, and the stubborn insistence of humanity to keep going. So if you think about it, wherever you find yourself—here, you’re never completely alone. The ghosts of war are not those to settle silent in the dark. And far from its inherited misnomer—The Wasteland—I intend to waste nothing. Not a moment, not a cap, not a life.

And it has its own maligned sense of beauty. No composer could improve upon the imminent song sung as a man breathes his last, the jingling of rifle shells trailing behind as I go on the offensive. Smoke clears; dust settles, blood sinks swiftly into the brown-yellow dirt that smothers the landscape beneath your feet to the far reaches of the horizon.

So here, in this haunted sprawl of anguish and mutation, survival is for those who’ve already given in, relinquished life as something to which they grasp blindly. No—mere survival…that’s for those already dead. I intend to flourish, to grip every opportunity by the throat and transform, as the great ancient Sirtomas of More once wrote: “Your sheep, that were wont to be so meek and tame and so small eaters, now, as I hear say, become so great devourers, and so wild, that they eat up and swallow down the very men themselves.”

If ever I was timid, so now watch me devour.   read

6:12 PM on 10.03.2009

Defiling the Wasteland – A Memoir, Part 2

I had never killed another human being until the day Amata put that 10mm in my hand. Funny, really, thinking about it.

A couple or a few or however many days ago, I came upon a settlement even more ramshackle than Megaton, a wooden bridge leading straight across into “town.” No wall, no gate—nothing. Even from a distance I sensed the small populace was in a frantic state, sputtering on fumes of fear. Super Mutants, apparently. Pathetic.

They were thus stricken utterly useless. “What are you doing here?” barked the quote unquote sentry “keeping watch” at the bridge (not even a door; not a damn picket fence). “Just thought I’d stop by, slaughter the lot of you, then pick your bones for swag. Needs some repairs.” He laughed—laughed—commended my sense of humor, even slapped at his knee. Vulnerability via stupidity. An insult in ease.

So much for honesty.

However, “truth” is something men invented to pursue the greater farce of “nobility,” a synonym for “superiority” created by those who couldn’t last two days on their own out here. What’s so fucking superior about that? Self-importance, postured morality—I suppose there have been times where such behavior was more conducive to “productive models of society,” but society’s done, and all that goes with it.

From what I surmise, there are two kinds of people left in the world: those who do whatever they can and those too chicken shit to do anything. The whole population of this tin-plated tinker town reveled in their defenselessness, whined about the failures to protect and look after their own, then admitted, one after the next, they were all just waiting to die.

The first person I killed—I mean the first,, right after Dad jumped ship and left me on the plank—my first, the guard, that was reflex; Butch, call it payback; the Overseer…well, that was fun. I hear people call the Raiders psychopaths, but—no. Raiders have, at the very least, some motivation, something I can relate to. That man was a void, an inverted Charybdis. Radroaches have more feeling.

I suppose it was something like disgust, then—an anger toward this tiny population that refused to do anything for itself. At least I presumed as much when I landed Mr. Easily Amused between the eyes. Good, strong armor; rifle; ammo; worth it. I think a shot grazed my side next. Now they fight back.

I tucked into a protective bunker, crouched low to the ground. Leather creaked around my ankles and stabilized my stance against the dust-filled sacks at my back; dirt spilled down my neck as tiny shells dotted holes across the top of the barricade. A young man came around the corner first, leapt right into my scope. His eyes were bright, a blazing blue. The one after tripped over his body, the next on hers—how quickly this harrowed settlement reduced itself to a mangled mass of blood and limbs, grim faces drawn by gravity and life lost.

I admit—a delicious exhilaration filled the vacuum of silence that followed, doubtless fueled by the ambivalence that collided in my chest, caught half a breath in my throat. They hadn’t done anything to me, nor were they terribly likely to do so. Somehow, it didn’t matter. It’s not that they deserved it, but if it was to be Muties if not for me, or Raiders or Lurkers….

My finger still cradled the trigger. I’d made a decision; it was the only one I had.   read

11:27 PM on 09.21.2009

Defiling the Wasteland—A Memoir in Parts

Imagine living your whole life in darkness, in a monotonous debasement of mundane tasks and surrounded by the same handful of people the entire time. Imagine just a single shelf of books to read over and over again, the same replayed holotapes, same tins of food and moronic banter to go with it. Now imagine you knew of a place without any of it, without walls and rules and this regiment of futility, and you knew that world was out there, somewhere, not far off, just above your head, but you couldn’t get to it. You’re locked in this Petri dish and told that this other world, this blessed escape, is full of danger and evils so perilous as to make life in this can a Paradise.

Well, you’d do everything you could to get the hell out of there, too, right? Only there was no out. All vents and ducts led in the same circles as the rest of life. I just never imagined Dad, of all people, would be the impetus of my liberty, nor did I imagine the stupidity with which he’d pull off such a stunt. If I taught him nothing all these years, I thought at least he’d understand that when you engage in activities other people (i.e.: everyone in this sink hole) decidedly do not favor, it’s that you don’t get caught doing it. Then would come the “blah blah morality” and “blah blah what would your Mother think?” Fuck whatever “Mother” would think. I never knew the woman.

In addition to leading to my subsequent release from Vaultic Oppression, Dad drove the final nail into my argument against “morality.” If there was ever a man who extolled signals of virtue, the likes of which I had read but scarcely seen, it was my father. This same man, who defended even the murkiest of characters to insipid rationale, then ventured to leave his life behind, without dropping even a hint of his intention, and me with it. Me, his daughter, left to fend for my life not only in getting out but with no actual conception of what lay before me.

Luckily, I’ve always been quick on the learn.

Bless the Wastes for all this space, all this sunshine, all the many varied things to do out here. Chalk it up to naiveté, but I just strolled up to the first sign of civilization I found: Megaton, great heap of all junk heaps, the population of which, well, the only person of partial interest I met was a shady, self-styled “gentleman” called Burke, who proceeded to hit on me with insufferable zeal and then proposed a piece of business, in that order.

I’m also fortunate in that I’m not the most emotive of individuals, for I was a bit surprised to hear this man, this complete stranger, ask me to detonate the giant nuclear bomb that sits quaintly in the middle of Megaton, but I suppose this is how things are done out here. “Pleased to meet you! A) I’d like to shag you senseless, and B) Care to annihilate a community for me?” I didn’t exactly have any qualms about the job itself—anyone content to make a centerpiece the means of their eventual destruction must, at least secretly, yearn for its arrival. I was also promised a lofty reward.

By reward, however, I do not recall the words “undying” and “love” making their way into our agreement. True, I used my baser charms to secure the contract, but I’ve yet to see the wily bastard since. All I get are these damn “letters,” which are more like sprawling spews of sentimental tripe. Very well, I resolved—if I can’t blow the place, someone here should have the sense to want the threat neutralized, which seems to be the only sense our local “Sheriff” does possess. I got a sack of caps and some local real estate from the deal, and while there’s not much of a view, at least it’s a start.   read

10:23 AM on 08.29.2009

Arbitrary Experience—Where’s the “Earn” in “Learn”?

My Fallout 3 character is one badass little honeypot. I stacked Sneak, Small & Big Guns to 100; Agility and Perception are at 10. When I first started playing, I’d tiptoe around Raider camps and lure them out one at a time to be picked off like distracted little deer (rabid and ammo-laden though they may be). Now, however, I hunt those bitches down, striking known camps when enough time has passed for them to respawn in even greater, more armored numbers.

This is, of course, after a couple early attempts at the game when I ventured towards creating what I felt were more interesting and complex characters based on skill, which promptly led to my inevitable and repeated slaughter. My Charisma is shite, Speech and Barter next to nothing, yet I spend a good part of the game picking the bones of my victims for goods to sell and trade, and my Karma is so stellar that I’ve attained a follower from the Brotherhood of Steel and random Wastelanders approach me bearing gifts.

One would think that, based on these two main components in my gameplay, attributes like Charisma, Speech, and Barter would rise, yet due to the arbitrary nature of XP expenditure in games, I get to place it where I damn well please. Due to my aforementioned failures, I learned to place these points in areas that would better ensure my survival rather than in places more reflective of the kind of “actual” experience my character was garnering through play.

So what does it mean to gain experience in a game? Back in my tabletop and online roleplaying days, XP was most often granted in much the same way—play a bit, earn some points, and spend them where you damn well please. No matter if I’d devoted my time to investigating the intricacies of a plot or simply terrorizing whomever I could find—I got the points and placed them where I desired, no matter how much (or little) it had to do with the way my character behaved.

Once I started GMing, however, I took a new approach. The characters under my care had to earn the experience they sought, and I didn’t simply assign a number to by divvied out as the player saw fit. Based on the actions of each character, the time devoted to and success by which they had performed certain tasks or actively pursued particular skills or sets of knowledge, I assigned them very specific points of experience. If a character spent most of her time slaying enemies, I would offer points in skills and attributes such as Melee, Strength, Guns, Agility, etc. If another devoted his play to seducing every other character and NPC in the game, they might gain some Charisma, Seduction, Speech, or even lose points in some of these areas if his efforts were dreadfully disastrous.

Naturally, some players disliked this XP “assignment” regime I developed in my games, and I invited those few to promptly fuck off, but for the most part I found a troupe of players that became more focused, more purpose-driven, and endowed with a sense of reward for this acknowledgment of their efforts. Further, it encouraged them to devote more time and creativity toward earning what they wanted for their characters and to develop more intricate, complex, and realistic personalities, knowing that I would steer the details of the story to compliment and challenge each of their strengths and weaknesses through the course of play.

So in most games with Experience Points, I continually find myself in the same cycle of arbitrary adherence to earning what I can to assign what I must for the simple sake of survival. It’s most often not a reflection of the character I’m building through concept and action, but it’s what the game requires to manage gangs of Super Mutants or regain health by sliding my electrically-charged ass across power lines or even set off viral detectors whilst pointing the finger at another patsied soldier.

I just don’t see why it’s so damn difficult to set up a system by which a character earns new powers or skills based on the actions one, as a player, chooses to make. Especially in the expansive RPGiverse, an engine should be able to track the types of maneuvers one makes and thus assign XP to reflect these actions. It’s cause and effect. It’s consequence, and the possibilities for greater depth, immersion, and commitment to a game and one’s character could, in this way, expand profoundly.

It’s not about an algorithm insinuating worth, but the player’s interaction with the code of his or her gamespace to realize the decisions we make, as those who wield our characters often with so much abandon, may indeed shape meaning from the incongruous intentions of these, our binary souls.   read

8:37 AM on 07.17.2009

Shoot Em Up: Jonesing for the Game

It’s 4:30 in the morning and I have to be at work tomorr—err, today, but for some reason I’m playing [Prototype] again, from the beginning, to see if I can better my mediocre performance throughout the missions and side events during my first go-round.

The logical reaction to this sort of behavior would be, “What the fuck is your problem?” But I think I’m amongst company that knows full well of what I speak. This isn’t logic—this is gaming, and play has nothing to do with alarm clocks or deadlines or “when was the last time I ate?” It has its own drive, its own pulse, and it drives you at least as much as you drive it. The urge to pursue, conquer, slay, devour, decode, investigate, riddle-with-bullets, or pop sticker bubbles can be all-consuming, and it makes me ponder the reason for this compulsive, illogical, entirely addictive behavior.

I’m sure many of you saw the recent report on China’s brilliant use of electroshock “therapy” for internet/gaming addicts, the majority of whom are teenagers, which was ordered cease stop by the country’s Ministry of Health. However much I desire to refer not just to video games but to acts of play in general, it seems that gaming—like gambling—creates greater compulsive behavior.

In gambling, the payoff is not only financial, but a feeling of acquired skill, stealth, strategy, and beating the system. The same (or similar) can be said of video games, where one desires not just to explore the world divulged in the system, but to discover and ultimately unravel the many faceted obstacles and intrigues programmed to obstruct your success.

With video games, however, I feel there’s something much deeper at play—the immersion and interaction a player experiences once hitting <START> and plunging into whatever universe the developers have concocted, be it rapidly falling jigsaw pieces to the ethical dilemma of saving or sucking dry scores of Little Sisters. The fact that video games offer this interactive, action/response involvement creates not just a system of development and problem solving, but an anxiously desirable realm affected at every turn by a player’s instinct, insight, and imagination.

Gaming provides an other world that is beyond mere escape and traverses into the framework of creation, empowering the player’s every touch of the D-pad with virtually limitless endeavors, custom experiences that change based on a variety of factors located almost solely within the player him/herself. This state of empowerment is both highly desirable and, as history’s legers and the rising of the sun on my sleeplessly addled brain inform, potently addictive.

We play beyond limits because we’re offered the limitless. We thwart common sense and even basic needs because the state we’re in—the gamespace—often has something far better to offer. The Chinese may have decided to cremate the brains of these experiential entrepreneurs, but at least in this world of mine, the worst I can do is…get fired?

BEDTIME!   read

8:09 PM on 07.16.2009

Step by Step: Stealing the Strategy

Strategy guides are plentiful online, not to mention the “official” guides released from publishers to accompany games at an exorbitant price. I’ve dipped into one or two in the past to help me through particularly difficult and/or plain god damn WHAT THE FUCK!? moments in a game, but considering many of them are complete walkthroughs, level by level, action by punch by wash, rinse, repeat, I got to wondering how many users capitulate to this form of gameplay and how it affects the overall gaming experience.

Then, for some confounded reason, I found myself playing Condemned 2: Bloodshot, and one section of one of the missions baffled me so entirely that I Googled for help and found IGN’s handy little walkthrough for the game. Perusing said guide, I found it to be so informative and helpful that I proceeded to follow its instruction through the next mission, and then the next. Perhaps it speaks to the game more than my personal measure of satisfaction, but I was actually enjoying the success provided by the guide more than my attempts to make sense of whatever the hell skill or accomplishment the game was trying to enforce unaccompanied.

That said, some guides or tutorials—while explanatory—simply point the way toward the possibility of success rather than guaranteeing its attainment. This is likely also testimony to the quality of a game—if you can ace any game or level simply by following a set of instructions, a developer has likely concocted something closer to an IKEA cabinet than a story or world worthy of immersion and true, creative problem solving and dedication.

Because I can…

Take [Prototype], for instance. I watched some of the Youtube how-to videos for a few side events, and while it helped me to understand the approach that was needed to reach the goal, I still had to work my ass off to attain it—if I did at all (read: epic fail). Then there are other games that, while cheats and tutorials abound, it completely saps the challenge and the fun from the search and blissful glee of discovery (like acing LBP levels—sometimes it’s more fun to find the honey with your nose than to GPS the bees).

There are also those occasions where I’ve run in circles for an hour dodging exploding dolls in one little room trying desperately to find out how to proceed, and upon reading the solution online, the brunt force of my occasional stupidity launches like one of Sterling’s italicized bons mots.

So I suppose it depends, both on the game in question and one’s own standards of accomplishment. What do you think? Are you an insufferable pussy for seeking help from the webiverse? Does it destroy or enhance your enjoyment of the game? Does it not fucking matter one bit? Did you get a thrill through your loins watching that NKOTB video again? I know I did…   read

1:39 PM on 07.15.2009

The Finish Line: How LBP Helped Overcome One of My Many Childhood Traumas

I never really bothered with finishing games—it wasn’t a goal of mine. I was content to muck about within the world the game offered me, enjoy the thrill of cutting enemies to ribbons or besting my own scores on challenges, but to combat the final boss and reach that nebulous frontier of completion…let’s just say it wasn’t my thing.

And then I was playing Media Molecule’s Little Big Planet and realized, quite before I knew it, that I was in the final level of the built-in game play and I kicked the fucking shit out of that snarky Collector and his electric minions. Bubbles popped and fireworks ensued, and as the prim narrator explained my accomplishment I thought to myself, “Holy hamsnacks! I’ve finished my first game ever!”

When I then recalled, suddenly and without warning, that this wasn’t the case.

I got the original Nintendo Gameboy when it first came out, and I thumbed my way through Super Mario Bros. god knows how many times in a dire frenzy to MASTER those little bitches, and I DID IT. In a rush I remembered the glee with which I awaited my reward for conquering that green-on-green, 8-bit universe, and the crushing disappointment I felt when the screen flashed, solely, in devastating monochrome: THE END.


Imagine my 11 year-old heart being ripped from its triumphant chest at this blow to the entire, universal concept of success→reward. It’s a memory I (understandably) repressed, something that apparently kept me from future disappointment by subliminally steering me from the desire to finish a game, any game, in fear of a similar emotional trauma.

Enter Little Big Planet, costumes popping over my head, animations and the glo-o-o-orious feeling of having—single-handedly—erased this festering wound from the tortured confines of my past, all without having to pay an analyst. I WAS FREE!

Enter—present day. I will slay these sunsabitches to the ends of the earth (or my bandwidth) and revel in closing credits. The final song in inFamous is reward enough to finish that baby over and over again, and I’m going to suck the marrow from this Supreme Hunter in [Prototype] if for no other reason than to send this strong message to Nintendo: YOU HAVE NOT BEATEN ME! Your psychotic fans who accepted the scalding blow of betrayal all those years ago shall not deter my Sony-fueled binges of master-destroy-repeat.

Still—err, seriously—some games still don’t provoke me into this frenzy for the finish, either because the story isn’t compelling enough to feel worth the effort or simply due to the fact that it’s more enjoyable to wander aimlessly, picking off events of my choosing. Some games don’t even have endings, and allow one to race/fight/gobble to the heart’s content.

There is also something a bit sad and anti-climactic in reaching a game’s conclusion. As many theorists have stated, in regards to collecting—to finish a collection is to die in some way. The collection must remain open and unfulfilled to instill purpose and drive in the collector. Perhaps this is part of the fuel for franchises—you can beat me, but I’ll keep bringin’ it on.

I now say: bring it. I may suck to epic proportions at nearly every game I touch, but I will endeavor in rushes of self-debasement from one boss battle to the next until that “THE END”—once the blight of my gaming enthusiasm—is not only in sight, but crushed beneath the trembling callous of my thumb.   read

1:56 AM on 07.10.2009

inFamous vs. [Prototype] : The Non-Flamer’s Version

These two games have been pitted against one another since rumors about both began to spread, and rarely have I read anyone discuss one without mentioning the other. While I do see the similarities between the two—ranging from character to powers/moves and the open-world setting—those similarities are, I feel, superficial at best. What we have here are two distinct games that offer two distinct experiences, and you need not loathe one to love the other.

I’d been anticipating inFamous for months, and reading the write-ups and user comments slamming the game for its predicted “identical” nature to [Prototype] instantly turned me off to the latter. I loathe the console wars, and as much as I have my own preferences and loyalties, I’m not going to flame a game I haven’t played because of its exclusivity, nor am I going to judge my experience with a game based solely on its comparison to another.

When I finally got my hands on inFamous, I proceeded to play it for about six straight weeks. I’ve finished it about 5 times, and—as mentioned in my discussion of trophies—finally earned my first platinum from the game. As I was playing, the gaming site reviews started pouring in, and—again—most of them, including the review here on Destructoid, simply had to put the games against each other.

I mean, I get it. Both games are about a character suddenly fused with new and unknown powers they must learn to master. Both are open sandbox realms—[Prototype] set directly in New York City and inFamous’s “Empire City” comprised of three islands suspiciously reminiscent of NYC. Many of the powers are similar—Cole’s “Static Thrusters” vs. Alex’s “Glide”; they can both climb buildings; Alex “Consumes” enemies, marked targets, or pedestrians for lunch, while Cole can “Bioleech” for a quick power up and in pursuit of evil karma. Both cities suffer from a type of plague, an impending reality in [Prototype] and a containable, mind-altering toxin in inFamous. Both have searchable sources for evolving the backstory for the game (“Dead Drops” / “Web of Intrigue”) . . . and more.

While that seems like virtually the same game on paper, the context, intentions, interface, enemies, storylines—basically everything that adds layers of depth and thus the experience of the game—these are all different. One point I left out above, and that I’d like to argue, is that both are “Superhero” games. inFamous is the story of the the birth of a superhero. A blast imbues our man Cole with electrical abilities he must learn to master. The game opens with him wounded and terrified at Ground Zero of the blast, and he painstakingly makes his way through the game, earning Experience Points (EP) at a slow rate and on the side of “good” or “evil.” This is a comic book game without a comic, and many have said it’s the best comic game they’ve ever played, despite its lacking of pulpy origin. It’s a game about someone coming to terms with a life he never asked for, responsibilities, enemies, and moral decisions most normal men (or women) never face. It faithfully adheres to many comic themes in this sense, and its conclusion clearly promises a continuation in which our Cole will not only have a power base he can finally build upon, but a man hardened by loss and the weight of bearing those powers and all they’ve cost him and the world the player has decided to protect or destroy.

I don’t believe, however, that [Prototype] is an actual “Superhero” game. Alex may be super at a lot of things—jumping, eviscerating, spawning tentacles from every pore of his body—but he isn’t what I’d call a “hero.” At least…not yet. I’ve yet to finish the game, so I don’t know what he becomes, yet the superhero genre pounds its pavement straight away, setting the limitations, contacts, and projecting the character’s goals early on to place the player within the heroic realm. Alex Mercer is a loner, answers to no one, and has virtually no option but to kill or be killed. And he doesn’t just kill—his attacks spray the game’s every texture and plane with gushing torrents of blood and strewn limbs, and Alex seems to revel in the perpetual slaughterhouse that follows in his wake.

But again: I’ve yet to finish the game, so I don’t know what will become of Alex—if regaining his memories will instill a conscience; if he’s going to fall in love or have someone he loves ripped away; I don’t even know the scenario that’s playing out in cinematic intercuts from the near-future, or the present, or the whenever . . . (a very interesting story tactic—for gameplay to take place in the “past” whilst your character narrates from the supposed “present” or . . . yeah, whenever). I don’t know to whom he’s telling his story or why, and I’m very curious to discover this game’s resolution, especially if it does turn into a superhero game. To transform from filet-happy sociopath to a hero with massive quantities of blood on his hands would be a gratifying twist, something the next installment’s Alex would have to reconcile within himself—but now I’m projecting too far when I should just shut up and play.

Anyway, my experience with [Prototype] is entirely and inherently different than that of inFamous, not just because of the gore and lack of super-bitches bugging in his ear (poor Cole), but because the games are built differently, have different stories and goals, and characters that are drastically dissimilar. I’ve seen many people complain that Cole’s powers aren’t worth shit—that enemies can take him down too easily, he ain’t much of a superhero, etc., while Mercer’s bad-assness is apparent from moment ONE. Yes, they can both climb buildings, but Cole struggles to angle his way from ledge to ledge while Alex dashes straight up the sides, almost uncontrollably. This isn’t because Sucker Punch didn’t want you to have as much fun climbing buildings, but because all of Cole’s weaknesses and struggles on a physical, active basis reflect his internal change and conflict. Alex is literally a force of nature gone awry, a genetically mutated being on a mission to recover his past and . . . well, I guess I’ll find out.

But these games aren’t mutually exclusive. You don’t have to hate one to love the other. And, now I’ve played both, I find the cast-off reviews even more hollow than I did before, as the experience of each game—while there certainly exist echoes of familiarity—are, for me, entirely singular. I loved inFamous, and I’m now enjoying [Prototype] so much I stayed up until 7am before I realized I had to work in . . . oh shit!!. Others I know who also love both games seem to enjoy certain parts of one over the other—story here, powers and mechanics there—but from my perspective, the story, the powers, the characters and settings are all enmeshed to reflect upon and create the games themselves.

That is the mark of a truly great game, and both of these, I believe, live up to their respective, however intertwined, expectations.   read

8:34 PM on 07.07.2009

Why Do We Play? – Identity Tackles Entertainment

If you’ll indulge my demonstrative back-story for a moment or two, I’ll get to the meat.

I’m a PhD candidate at a strange, international graduate/post-graduate school in Switzerland that sets its students to work online throughout the year and then throws them into an intense, three-week marathon of media theory and philosophy in a brain fuck that leaves you both numb and thrilled by the time you descend from the Alps. I got my B.F.A. in Film and my M.A. from this same school in Switzerland (, where I was drawn by the list of filmmakers and my favorite (at the time) philosopher, Jean Baudrillard. I didn’t quite know I was diving head-first, unprepared, and blindly into philosophy boot camp.

But I’m a trooper. I ask questions; I’m vocal; I demand the best from my instructors as, I suppose, they demand the best from me, and these are luminary academics, artists, theorists, etc. Most—not all—but most were obliging to the challenge I set out for both them and myself, and the experience of four summers in the Alps changed my life entirely. Yet I didn’t know what I was preparing myself for.

With an academic background in film, theory, philosophy, yet two handy degrees vaguely dubbed “Media & Communications,” additional skills in photography (since I was a teenager), writing (my passion since I was 6 and vocation since I was 22), I wasn’t entirely sure what the fuck profession I was fit for. Even in the academic world, I was too interdisciplinary. Scholastic institutions prefer narrow specialists, but I could teach film theory, screenwriting, creative writing, literature, philosophy, media theory, and found myself groping from institution to institution, department to department, hunting for anything that would take me. I finally began teaching an online philosophy/pop culture class for an art college, which spiraled into my taking on multicultural theory, film history, genre theory, storytelling for film, and a multicultural literature class I authored myself for the luxury of teaching literature in the first place (the only way I could do so lacking an English degree).

But somehow, someway, I ended up in the gaming industry. I won’t say for whom I work, so you needn’t inquire, but the position utilizes every one of the skills I’ve been honing since that tender age of 6 when I was penning depressing, somewhat alarming poetry about my shattered home life. I was to write and manage editorial content for a company’s internal development website, which called upon me to conduct interviews (a stint as intern-turned-assistant editor of a film trade publication helped me there), write articles, incorporate my photographic, film & sound editing skills, and learn all about this great big gaming industry about which I knew very little.

I’m about to get relevant here, so don’t give up on me yet. The dissertation I’d been researching for a year and a half revolved around the concept of identity, subject/object relations, and how I believed narratives and storytelling brought an individual closest to experiencing another’s subjectivity as humanly possible. Then I found myself in this fascinating new world—a world I’d successfully avoided to prevent the addiction I knew it would inflict (success!)—and also a world suffering from a relative void of active, theoretical pursuit.

So I changed my dissertation topic to the question of identity in gaming, and my very first and unavoidable question is: Why do we game? What draws us in? This isn’t a world where you pick it up for an hour, maybe two, then get back to it later, nor one in which you steal a few pages on break, but a space and place where people devote hours every day in pursuit of…of what? Not every gamer is like this, to be sure—the so-called “casual” gamer—but the core of us (though I still consider myself a noob, my rabid zeal qualifies me amongst the ranks) dedicate many hours each day toward conquering some goal, immersing ourselves in worlds of fantasy and/or violence and/or strategy—what is it we’re looking for? What are we after? From where is the satisfaction drawn?

Speaking for myself, I delight in testing my own skill and surpassing my prior achievements. I don’t get off on flaming other noobs to death or even ripping a veteran to shreds. As I’ve previously stated, I’m not a terribly competitive person—but something drives me, hooks me, seduces me into these vast terrains of almost unlimited potential. Is it that very potential that is so alluring? That, in participating by experience of the game, we are treading new paths toward what the future may bring?

I know there is also something very significant—if not inherent—to the concept of the community and interactivity in the game. If we’re not co-opping online or on multiplayer in the putrid depths of a friend’s basement, the A.I.s, the mechanics, the worlds themselves respond to the actions we make in-game, and this type of action/response is extremely exciting on a fundamental, human level.

So I ask you, gaming community, “casual” or “hardc0re” gamer—why do you play?   read

1:42 AM on 07.04.2009

Trophyism: The Unquenchable Work of Play

I'm not a terribly competitive person. When I play Scrabble, I don't even like keeping score; I just think it's fun to make words (yeah, that's how nerdy I am). If anything, I compete against myself, always trying to best my best, to hone my skills and craft and excel for personal gain--but not at another's expense.

So in-game trophies, and the people who so desperately seek them out, have baffled me for quite some time. I know individuals who purchase and play games solely for the gain of a few trophies. I mean, I understand the concept of earning something for your efforts, but what ever could possess someone to haul out the cash and hours of time for ANYTHING with the name "Hannah Montana" on it? "Well, it has trophies, so..."

Yeah, so..."SO WHAT?"

The main echo of disconcertion stems from a distinct feeling that playing a game driven only by the need to "possess" a tiny, binary stamp of represented achievement makes gaming sound...incredibly NOT fun, more akin to hard labor than any kind of escapist entertainment or thrilling ride to hone a virtual set of skills or pursuit of a game's resolution or weapon upgrades or anything else one comes across whilst playing a game that makes a game worth playing.

To summarize, I just didn't fucking get it.

But then something strange happened. I purchased and dove headlong into playing inFamous and found I not only enjoyed the shit out of it, but was actually good at it. I normally suck ass at almost every game I play, which doesn't deter me from playing (you get used to self-afflicted indignation), yet still--it was thrilling to encounter a game I'd been not only longing for but found a particular level of passionate accomplishment I've seldom encountered.

I hadn't even been paying attention to the trophies until a friend on PSN noted I had 75% completion of inFamous's long list of badges, and I let it happen. Suddenly and without warning, I became a trophy whore. After all, I was only missing 5 of them to attain Platinum, a goal I'd never considered before nor assigned any value. I was only 3 stunts, 2 blast shards, and a few other moves away from CONQUERING this game, from leaping out of my chair in sheer and utter victory over Sucker Punch and Empire City and my own consistent, reliable self-abasement in the gaming world.

I set to work.

The thing is, with inFamous anyway, nearly all of the trophies stem from items and/or actions that are of value to the game itself--that either increase your powers, your skill, your knowledge, and your overall ability to play the game and kick its frakkin ass. When I first started playing Killzone 2 (note--I am and imagine will remain a dead Recruit in that game), the first hint of trophy I encountered instructed me to locate a set of Helghast emblems to shoot on walls throughout the level. There was no other reason or reward for shooting these down, but I could just imagine the elation in cries of, "OHHH fuck yeah--here's an easy one!" But what was the point?

I'm still taut on the fence between deeming trophies utterly worthless symbols of virtual hauteur or as marks on a path to give one goals and direction within a game to enhance the overall experience. Those whom I know that strive for trophies in a for-the-sake-of, manic neurosis still continue to baffle me, as do gamers who refuse to speak with--let alone play with--others lacking at least one platinum, but I believe, perhaps, I've learned something of a point in striving towards excellence for my own benefit. I've found the enjoyment of pursuit, not the starvation of swollen, cock-strapped arrogance.

I earned my inFamous platinum today. I still want to play the hell out of that son of a bitch.   read

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