My first name is Lou, but my second name isn't Chou. That's a bit I stole from an amazing movie called "All About Lily Chou Chou" to round off my gaming handle.
Like seemingly 90% of the internet, I aspire to write about video games professionally. The culture, community, and to some extent the industry surrounding gaming are something I'd like to live from day to day.
I've been playing video games since I was about 3. My older brother traded 2 packs of cigarettes for his friend's Commodore 64. His friend was ludicrously rich, so it was a pretty amazing deal. I used to play a lot of Paperboy and Batman on that thing. The latter would give me a fucking headache though, they only used, like, 2 colors when they developed that thing.
The best game I've ever played is Final Fantasy VII. I'm sorry I can't pick something obscure and cool, but it had a profound effect on me. I mean, to the point where I was having FFVII-based dreams every other night. I fucking loved that game, and I wouldn't dare play it again now. It needs to stay in that period of time for me.
I have a personal gaming blog, which may well live here:
When The Orange Box was announced a few years ago, it presented a line-up of Valveís finest arsenal. Not only were you getting Half-Life 2 on console, a title which would have sold well all by itself, but you were getting both its expansion episodes, and its insanely popular, multiplayer cousin, Team Fortress 2. It was a fantastic deal, and worthy of a price tag double, or even triple its value at retail. At the back of theBoxís lineup was a little known entity by the name of Portal, an unassuming puzzle game which, surprisingly enough, used Portals as its base mechanic. On paper it sounded interesting, but for any gamer anticipating the Box it was nothing more than a quirky, little distraction from the main acts. Valve finally unleashed their collection on the World, and Portal became their little engine that could. Momentum thrust the game from an obscure tent in the corner of the corner of the festival onto the headline stage, bright lights and all, and within a month that quirky little puzzle game had risen to become Valveís hottest property. The Orange Box remains one of the best reviewed titles on any gaming aggregator, and itís thanks, in no small part, to the game with the cake.
That was four years ago, and Valve is back with Portal 2. Having broken free from itís compilation roots, it stands proud as a full-length, and full-priced game. There is no lack of ambition here, either. As we start the game the first voice heard is that of Stephen Merchant Ė co-writer of The Office Ė taking the role of Wheatley, a dense but lovable droid who guides you out of a testing complex thatís collapsing to rubble and cinder. You jump from platform to platform, navigating through crumbled heaps of grey and brown cement. Clearly these are the beginnings of a game that wants to broaden its horizons, and expand beyond the sterile test chambers of its predecessor, igniting the notion that there lies a World beyond the Aperture Science compound.
Travelling through a hole in the wall you enter the complex, only, youíre behind the scenes. Panels jolt from walls, malfunctioning, throwing random bursts of life at you. Itís fitting, and is a perfect summary of the spontaneity contained within the complex itself. These are not the test chambers as we remember them, theyíre feral from abandonment and lacking maintenance. This adds an interesting dynamic to puzzle solving, as it ends up being less defined exactly where and how you react with the environment around you.
Even in this weathered facility, puzzle solving is not beyond comprehension. And the difficulty curve is a comfortable incline, transforming slowly into a steeper and steeper hill. Opening segments act more as tutorials than true challenges, a useful way for those new to Portal to understand the central mechanic, and for those learned in its ways to brush up on their skills before being provoked properly. One intangible quality synonymous with great puzzle games is the ability to make the player feel smart; to imbue a sense of accomplishment from task completion. I had this feeling section after section while playing Portal 2. Even when it feels as if your epiphany has arrived completely by accident, the path towards that solution creates such an air of satisfaction that youíll happily forgive yourself for tumbling over the finish line.
What envelopes the fantastic gameplay is a story with deceptive depth. While the first game kept its narrative consistently light, entertaining from start to finish, its sequel attempts to give the situation, and its characters some deeper context. In one such instance we uncover that GLaDoS, or rather, the intelligence planted within her, may have belonged to a former lover of Aperture Science CEO, Cave Johnson (voiced by the awesome J.K. Simmons). As you tread through sections of the game, hearing Johnsonís voice echo out on old recordings, GLaDoS will recall a mysterious fondness for the man, one for which she doesnít quite understand the basis. It gives her personality, with its antagonistic wit and humour, a bittersweet face, and turns her into much more than just a malevolent machine.
Itís in this narrative depth that Portal 2 effectively distances itself from its progenitor, proving that beyond its longer length and funnier jokes, itís a game with with genuine soul, and worth of anyoneís time. Even if the cake does remain a lie.
Iím no JRPG fiend. Many, many times over the years Iíve dabbled: a Legend of Mana here, a Wild Arms there, theyíve all been fairly distant and inconsistent forrays into a decidedly enthusiast style of game. Oddly enough, it was 11-year old Lou Chou who struck much more of an affinity with leveling up and the almighty grind than his 24-year old counterpart. Way back then SuikodenĎs was a World with near limitless possibility, committing to lengthy battles that juggled finite control of potions with hit and magic point conservation. I was overwhelmed by the potential these games offered, but all too suddenly things changed. A bright, bitingly chilly January morning in 1999 saw me tearing through a gift-wrapped rectangle, and behind that vivid paper was an orange box sporting text that read Half-Life. The rest, as tired cliches note, was history.
What Valve accessed with the creation of Half-Life, among a thousand other visionary things, was a way to tell a story so artfully, and with such engagement, that it became roleplay. It was by extension an RPG, only without experience points or jarringly translated text. The Japanese RPG had long remained the bar for those looking for a little sophistication or depth from their narrative experience, but with one game a standard was redefined.
In a post-Half-Life World western development had become increasingly more relevant, and when a game like Deus Ex was hitting the criteria for an RPG experience, whilst also escaping the standard trappings of party systems and gender-ambiguous protagonists with eyes like dinner plates, it became all too clear that there existed a lot of imagination in the West.
The current generation arrived, and thanks in no small part to Microsoft the West had become a crucial place for development. Microsoft was, very obviously, close to the PC platform. It recognized the talent behind some of the more seminal games studios, and put a lot of faith in those guys to bring interesting new ideas to its console. You have to wonder, in a World where a Microsoft console didnít exist, would we still have Mass Effect or Bioshock? As notable beneficiaries of Microsoft support, itís arguable that the budget just wouldnít exist for Bioware or Irrational Games to be creating such staggering, triple-A titles.
Gravity is a motherfucker, and just as sure as things will soar, itís only a matter of time before the consequent fall. The popularity of COD spawned an army of me too titles looking to cash in on the popularity of the first-person shooter, the effect of which has left us with a culture where even those within the industry are surprised if a period of time passes without the release of another shooter. The irony is that now Western gaming has a face, and itís Call of Duty. The same way an uninformed, surface interpretation of Japanese gaming is that itís all JRPGs with sickeningly cutesy Anime characters, Western gaming is now just army men awash in machismo.
So what does this mean for Japanese gaming? Well, nowís as good a time as any for Eastern development to force its way back into mainstream consciousness. While people are suffering shooter fatigue, itís the perfect opportunity to come in with some different ideas and methods. All it takes is one game, one success story, to change the way people think about the games they want to play. Who knows, maybe somewhere in Japan a studio is working on exactly that game.
Iím not going to be the guy who starts his article with a definition of the word ďsports,Ē but itís fair to say that that word does not belong to those who can throw an object 50 yards, or those who run several blocks in 8.3 seconds. Sport, on its most fundamental level, is people competing. And whether itís the Superbowl, or an Albanian regional staring contest, the point of sport boils down to people being in competition with one another.
When you throw a lowercase E in front of sport, I start to take issue. See, eSport sounds a hell of a lot like sport, but it isnít. It exists to separate competitive gamers from participants of more traditional, athletic activities. Itís a way of very easily saying that what a certain sect of people are doing is not in fact sport, but something else that likes to pretend itís sport. This, to me, is wrong. If youíre playing a round of CoD, or racing in Need for Speed, then youíre part of a sport. Unfortunately, beyond the borders of gaming, the mindset is not the same, the irony being that the term eSport has come from the gaming press, and us, the gamers. We have sectioned ourselves off, and shot our own competitive scene in the knee caps, reducing it to a shortbus-riding version of something bigger.
I donít mind that competitive gaming be something all of its own, but itís a sport. If youíre a CoD player, then you still play sports, your sport just happens to be CoD, and so on/so forth. Sport, as a concept, got all fucked up when society decided to throw the word itself at folk doing athletic things, but at its root a sport is just a competition between people. If youíre an absolute boss at Starcraft, or Madden, then there should be no unwritten guideline deeming the skills you possess as any less useful than those of Dwayne Wade or Serena Williams. And perhaps dropping terms like eSports from the lexicon of our own community would be a small step on the way to making that a reality.
I have to admire any peripheral that inadvertently causes child abuse. That's not to say I'm a staunch advocate of waving a makeshift Nintendo wand around, or thrusting the PS3' glowing, blue dildo in opposite directions to knock a virtual Danny Trejo spark out. But when you can justifiably punch your step mother in the left tit during a game of Wii Sports, a device is bid a due.
It seemed inevitable we'd reach this point. The epiphany probably hit Nintendo creatives as they pondered how they could compete in the current market, and why they wanted to. Sure they could try, desperately, to compete on performance, producing a system that was just as fast as an XBOX 360 or a PS3. But why bother? Why attack a market that is already satisfied? Three's a crowd, after all. Nintendo decided instead to go for people who didn't even want to game: your mum, your infant brother, your gran, shit, you could get your dog Rex involved, granted you can fit the controller in his mouth. These were people who didn't want to play games, what they wanted was to play Wii.
Nintendo's Wii has led to the creation of modern gaming's favourite label, the casual gamer, the irony being that anyone considered such a thing, by a newly-defined ruleset, isn't a gamer at all. They are Wii players. They are clean, wholesome, fun people who take their vitamins and drink plenty of milk. They have lots of clean, wholesome friends with whom they occasionally play Wii sports between volunteering at animal shelters.
On the other side of town, far away from the glorious sunshine, and smiling babies farting rainbows, there dwells the core gamer. We're overweight, socially maladjusted, and probably play Call of Duty to realize our vivid dreams of shooting everyone at our school/college/workplace. We're disgusting, oozing energy drinks from every pore and orifice. We will kick your dog Rex, and burn your animal shelter. Milk is for pussies.
Seperation politics have created a clean, clear divide between those casual and those core. While the former take precedence over the latter for the time being, it wont last. Microsoft can't give their Kinect away, and I don't know a single owner of Sony's glowing, blue love instrument (seriously, it looks like it belongs in a hooker's bedroom in Mass Effect). We're the ones sustaining this industry, and as casual gamers fill more and more of their days with milk drinking and sending cute gifts to their parents, they will commit less money and effort to playing video games, until they become the afterthought.
I've never owned a Wii. I'm someone who sits down after work and just relaxes, and the idea of having to stand and ferociously throw my hands around to within an inch of my TV screen is opposite to my desires. I don't deny that there are plenty of core gamers out there with Wii consoles, I'm merely highlighting a vast majority outside of that sect. Be proud of the fact that you're the industry equivalent to a dirty word, because when the shit hits the fan it wont be Johnny Wholesomeface and his dog Rex that'll be turned to for help.
Shadows of the Damned is an important game. Sure, it features fantastically tight gameplay, an eccentric and entertaining series of key characters, and a soundtrack you'd be more than happy to buy on iTunes for ten or more dollars, but there's something a lot more important going on here. What this game represents is the near-perfect collaboration of two men to whom Japanese gaming owes a reasonable debt.
The first man is Goichi Suda (more famously known as Suda 51), the eccentric and arguably visionary game designer who brought us Killer7, and Wii cult hit, No More Heroes. Followers of his work, and he has a few, will tell you that the ace in the Suda pack is a wildly vivid, exciting imagination. The more honest of those followers, however, will also admit that this creativity often comes at the detriment of solid, or just downright enjoyable gameplay. For every fantastic idea that creeps into Suda 51's rainbow-colored brain, there's an element of functional game design screaming out from the distance with muffled pleas for consideration. All too often that voice is stifled, and tapers to a whisper.
Step to the forefront, then, the second half of Shadows' dynamic duo, Shinji Mikami. Not quite as famed a name in quasi-casual gaming circles as Suda 51 may be (perhaps because his name isn't quite as alpha-numerical), Mikami is no slouch, having been the driving creative force behind just about every Resident Evil game since the series debuted in '96. What the godfather of survival horror brings to the feast, in his many years of experience directing triple-A titles, is a technical ying to Suda's creative yang. Mikami becomes the megaphone thrown towards that whispered voice in the back of Suda's brain, projecting at great velocity the kind of veteran guidance that shapes Suda's brain farts into neat sprays of designer cologne.
I'll happily shine over the symbiotic relationship these two masterminds share in Shadows for the rest of the article, but that would be missing the case and point here: the game itself. Shadows of the Damned stars Garcia (Fucking) Hotspur, a Latin demon slayer with more body art than Tommy Lee. His girl is kidnapped by the lord of hell, and made to experience death on repeat. Hotspur's mission is to set her free from this grim cycle of suffering by fighting his way through hell and sticking it to the high ruler of down below. This journey is broken up into acts, each act representing some sort of world, or phase of hell. These sections are consistently different, and you're unlikely to find any two that seem cut from the same stencil, with the game throwing up anything from puzzle stages, to tower defence, even side-scrolling shoot 'em ups are represented here. It becomes crystal clear within an hour's play that the team behind Shadows absolutely adored this project, each act being a true labour of love.
These stages revel in their depravity, and the game has no interest in apologizing for the imagery it displays. For instance, I had to double-take on a string of babies overhead, each one hanging from a noose. Fully animated, they kick out arms and legs as you pass them by. It took more scrupulous inspection to determine that they were in fact dolls, not infants, but the impact that visual has still carried an abundant measure of weight. Remember, people: this is hell. Damnation and hellfire are not the only points of interest throughout your stay, you're going to encounter some gruesome things, half of which will revolve around your girlfriend as she's torn in two, exploded, decapitated (multiple times), and feasted upon.
For all Suda 51's demands to horrify and unsettle, at no point do we reach a level of excess. From the very beginning, Shadows paints a pretty clear picture of its intent. This could very easily have been a horror title, were it not for the tone of protagonist Garcia, and his glowing, bejeweled sidekick, Johnson. It wants to be sick, twisted fun. Humour plays a large part in this adventure, and while it's abundantly crass and juvenile, the funnies deliver with such a loveably cheeky wink and nod that you can't help but raise a wry smile. If Duke Nukem Forever's poor and uncomfortable forray into potty humour (rape jokes? seriously?) cast a doubt over whether that content has had its day, Shadows makes us believe once again - our collective inner-13-year old breathes a relieved sigh.
One thing thankfully deceptive in its maturity is the gameplay, as Mikami steps to the forefront of this process and applies a tighter version of the controls used in Resident Evil 4. It's a control scheme that seems specifically crafted for interaction with multiple enemies at once, giving you a button dedicated to a 180-degree turn, and an evasive roll that grants you escape from the very tightest of hellish (sorry!) situations. The latter offers something of an invincibility hack, actually, as enemies cannot make contact with you mid-roll, no matter how close to them you may be. I can see this being a justified grumble from the more hardcore crowd, but I personally found it a God send - it levels out overwhelming battles and affords you opportunities to restore health or reload weaponary.
I've gushed, but Shadows is not a flawless game. There's the rare issue of screen trearing, or collision detection which could render you stuck in an invisible gap, unable to progress. This is not a gamebreaker, mind you, and happens once or twice, if ever. What's important about Shadows is that it has very reasonable aims, and it hits them with the kind of style and attention to detail that you wont find in even the finest triple-A titles this year. It wants to be the kind of game you can pick up whatever mood you're in, and just have a blast with. It wants to access that dumb fuckin' kid in you, the one that existed before you started watching comedies by Christopher Guest or reading Chekhov, and let you know that it's alright for that kid to breath every so often. Who'd have thought it'd be the darkly depths of hell teaching us all to lighten up, eh, pandejo!