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1:46 PM on 11.21.2010

A Pleasant Surprise: Gray Matter

I was unaware of Gray Matter until I looked it up after someone had mentioned the name to me after its release. I'm glad they did - it is an amazing game. Note that this is not a review, but merely me trying to get this game some attention, as I am quite fascinated after the short time that I spent with it.

After originally being announced for a release in 2004, then going through multiple pushbacks, publisher- and developer changes, Jane Jansen's first game since Gabriel Knight finally was released in November of 2010.
At least in Germany it was, it'll be coming to the rest of Europe in February of next year - but since the English-language track is on the German disc, importing the PC-version is an option for the rest of the world. The 360 one most probably is region-locked.

Anyway, here's a trailer:

It's classic point & clicky adventure stuff. What stands out most to me so far - six hours and three chapters in - are the awesome soundtrack and the great characters. And though I'm not quite sure what it is, something about this game just glues me to the monitor like not a lot of games have managed before. The whole experience is mesmerizing - the setting, the characters, the puzzles, the acting and the music; everything just feels right and comes together as a whole beautifully.

I have no idea whether there's an audience for this kind of stuff here, but I'm hoping it might interest at least a few. And my guess is that since this is a US-centric site and Gray Matter is (as far as I know) not yet scheduled to get a release over there, a lot of people would and will miss it completely. I figured writing a blog is as good a way as any to get it some attention. :p   read

8:37 AM on 01.27.2010

Dear Developers: Please Give Your Players Options!

So, Borderlands. I'm sure many of you have played it. Late to the party as always, I've just recently finished it with a friend; I went for the Siren, while his class of choice was the soldier. Overall, we definitely had a great time with the game - yet one that left us with a distinctly bitter aftertaste.
The thing is, the moment we had the most fun playing was at a relatively early point into the game. We had decided to take on a quest that, because of the high levels of the enemies in that dungeon, was marked as downright "impossible" on our interface. "Well screw you, interface!" we said, "We'll show you just how not fucking impossible this is for us! Yeah, that's right!" Well it was, almost. For the next hour or two we constantly were either dying or on the brink of death, running back to shops for ammunition, while carefully taking one step after the other just so the overpowered badass motherfucker around the next corner wouldn't be able to screw us over the split-second we let our guard down. We slowly had to wear every enemy down, sometimes over minutes and sometimes eventually only with the Siren's phasewalk, the Soldier's turret and both of our melee-attacks. And it was awesome.

Little did we know that those moments of desperate struggle should be the last of its kind we were to experience in Borderlands. Because, as the game goes on, even if you do just a few of the side-quests, there will no longer be any missions that are marked "impossible". There won't even be "tough" ones - in fact the highest of feelings will be the occasional "normal" mission among a whole bunch of "trivial" ones. We still had fun leveling up, finding loot and kicking ass but still - that ass-kicking just didn't feel as good as that one time. More often than not we just killed bosses along with their henchman without even noticing they were supposed to be bosses. Huge monsters the fight against was built up to by fearsome growls from miles away went down after a couple of salves without even so much as scratching us. Every fight I could just phasewalk into any group of enemies from behind while my friend would deploy his turret in front of them and then go on to shotgun them in the back one or two shots per opponent. The game basically got piss-easy very quickly. When we finally got to the vault and defeated the last boss we didn't think it was the last boss. We thought it was a road-bump on the way to the surely very hard dungeon that the vault would be. It wasn't, obviously.

Basically, there's three things Gearbox fucked up: most obviously, the scaling doesn't give the player enough of a challenge. But what ultimately made me decide to write this blog are the other two. They don't give their audience enough options. Borderlands still is a good game - but it could have been a great game had they only deemed it necessary to add the tiny little option that is scalable difficulty. And then, there's their dick-move to disallow any modding. Had we been able to up all enemies a few levels via a console command - it would've taken us much longer to beat the game and we also would have enjoyed it a great deal more. But they took that away from the users, presumably because they wanted to make more money by selling DLC; which ironically they now won't be getting from us because they took customizability away. It's a shame, really.
I hope this trend doesn't continue and developers realize that denying their players options does ultimately not add value to post-release additions they might offer. Please, let us modify our games.   read

6:55 PM on 12.05.2009

Guild Wars. Or: Why People Are Important

What I basically wanted to do was to write about one of my favorite games ever. It's also seemingly pretty much unrecognized outside of the still very active (though by now dwindling) community. But then I came to think about what exactly it was that I enjoyed so much about Guild Wars. It certainly was the game itself that got me addicted almost five years ago - but once I had discovered every area in Prophecies, the original, the only thing I had left was pretty much PvP. And that was when i REALLY started playing Guild Wars.

Up until I discovered Heroes' Ascent and Guild versus Guild (the two primary competitive modes, both 8v8), I had invested about thirty hours into the game. Which, by my standards, already is a whole damn lot for any game I play. But by now, that number makes up less than one percent of my total playtime. Yes, I did spend an unhealthy amount of time playing this game - but I don't think any of it was wasted. My personal life was unaffected as far as relationships, school, etc. are concerned. But that isn't really what this post is supposed to be about. The next paragraph is.
WHY did I play Guild Wars for thousands of hours? Well, shortly after I had played through the player-vs-environment-campaign I joined a guild that focused on the play mode I had gotten into, Heroes' Ascent. And by joining that guild, while not expecting it at the time of joining, I got to know a whole bunch of interesting, fun and overall awesome people that I still am in contact with today. Even though the game remained the main focus of us coming together, what "playing" consisted of a lot of the time was just us talking about all kinds of topics, making fun of each other and just generally having a good time. A thing that was not intrinsically linked to gaming for me up until that point. I of course had played all kinds of games with friends before many a time - but that was different. To meet up with people I knew solely through a game in order to enjoy their company in said game was a first for me.

We ended up spending hundreds of hours in said mode, often winning the last map lots of times in a row. We shifted to GvG after a while, also very much succeeding there but...both of this is just really me bragging about things nobody here knows about anyway - and totally besides the point. I got to know all of our members better every day while at the same time never getting to know any of their real names. While I didn't even stop to think about that at the time (otherwise, I just would have asked); in hindsight it is quite an interesting thing to think about. I didn't care at all that we all just addressed each other with our nicknames. There wasn't a difference to our real ones; that was how we knew each of us were addressed in this online world - and everyone reacted just the way you would if you heard your actual name called out in real life. It wasn't only the game that kept us playing, it was us, as a group, coming together, having fun; the game just happened to be what we happened to come to know each other by. And, while rage occurred sometimes, all of us were having an absolutely great while.

As time went by, of course, many stopped playing the game. I basically did as well. I still talk to three people of our group of over eleven every other day though. And we're still having an awesome time. Also, unfortunately a few just didn't come online at all anymore. But whether that is online or not, abandoning relationships over time is a very human thing to do.
And I still talk to who I know as "cookie" all the time after I have moved to Japan while I only write an email every other month to my parents...

I guess what my point here is just that a) games are better when played with great people and b) relationships online are becoming more and more important as our society goes global.

Thanks for reading my first post. :-)   read

6:52 PM on 12.05.2009

Visual Novels and How They Are (Not) Games

Ok. What I wanted to talk about in this post are visual novels. I will assume that most of you have not only never touched one of them but also have totally wrong preconceptions. Everyone who has never seen an Anime probably thinks all Anime is just cartoon porn. It's pretty much the same with visual novels, only worse - for two reasons. 1: Far less people have ever played/read a visual novel than seen an Anime, also for the reason that only a very small number of visual novels ever have been translated from the Japanese original. 2: Niney Percent of visual novels do include sex-scenes which kind renders all prejudices accurate. Even though the focus of almost all of them is still the story and the characters - the fact that a sad few fans buy them for the existent sexual content does sadly make them very, very hard to appreciate for people who might be offended or embarrassed by this kind of content.

What visual novels actually are is just novels, enhanced by what capabilities of today's media do offer. You basically read a book, only that it is enhanced by backgrounds and anime-style characters with voice overs bettering the overall experience. They do share some of the things that do make games what games are, most prominently interactivity - but should they be regarded as games or not? After all, most of the time you only read a story and listen to characters partaking in it. I myself am not sure about the answer to this question...but the fact that I deemed them worthy to be blogged about on a gaming website probably speaks a bit about that as well.

The fact of the matter is that many of those visual novels do tell stories that are a hell of a lot better than anything told in any "actual" game ever. They also have characters that no game ever created does even come close to. As seen in the image above, I don't think anything I've played in any actual game has ever even come close to the eerie world that Saya no Uta has created. There are slight spoilers ahead if you haven't played it - but the premise is that the main character does perceive everything differently from everybody else. Everything in the world looks, smells and feels like blood and guts to him. Everything - except for one being - who is actually (perceived as?) a monster by everybody else. While I'd want to go into detail about the things that happen (some of the both most gruesome and most beautiful stuff I have ever come across) that isn't what I wanted to write about in this blog.
What I believe is keeping many people from appreciating this work of art is the sexual content. I am not saying that I don't like it or that I don't think it should be there - most of it does actually ADD to the value of the work and does make a lot of sense in the context of it. The problem is just that many people will be turned off of it by only that one thing. It just bothers me a fair bit that a considerable bit of folks won't even try this great work of art (which it is!) only because it does contain content that they might be bothered by.

Tsukihime is another example of the same phenomenon. While both critically and universally acclaimed (and translated into English), it still was hardly played by anybody ever outside of Japan. Which is a shame, since it is one of the most descriptive, visceral, alive and AWESOME stories ever told in a modern medium - and it still never reached a mainstream Western audience. There even is an anime-adaption - which basically is shit compared to the original work - and yet reached many, many more people simply because of the medium. This is happening all the time - films simply have a bigger audience, even if that is simply due to their rather short length compared to the original. Visual novels don't have those capabilities - though I tried exploring some of the shortcomings here in reaching a mainstream audience in the end I cannot really tell. "Games" as well as "Visual Novels" do have undeserved connotations, I believe.

Right now this very captivating medium still gets too little attention in the West. And if it does, it is, in my opinion, often the wrong titles, for the wrong reasons, by the wrong audience - which isn't that different in Japan either.
That's the problem in the first place, I guess. Currently the whole medium is marketed towards the otaku-crowd; which is the reason the majority of titles rely on sex and pretty girls. This stigma now sticks with all visual novels and a change of marketing and introduction to a wider audience will surely prove very difficult.
What I am saying is this: don't ignore visual novels. Don't ignore them because they contain sexual content most of the time. Many of them might be some of the best experiences with media you'll ever have. I am not exaggerating here. You'll never experience a world more creepy than Saya no Uta. You'll never see a character more fleshed out than Haru in G-senjou no maou. Surely people not capable of reading Japanese might have difficulties here - but there are more than enough of those grand games translated to get English-speaking people converted to this glory.   read

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