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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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