I'm a journalism student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I'm the editorial editor for the campus newspaper, the UWM Post, which has a readership of over 10,000. I'm a nontraditional student. I went back to school when I was 24. I'm now 27 and will graduate next semester with a degree in print and online news writing. My interests lie mostly in what I would call the nontraditional media: video games, graphic novels, etc. These are young formats with a lot of untapped potential.
My gaming interests are mostly focused on how an interactive medium can be used to deliver a unique narrative. Games like Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit) and Heavy Rain get me all kinds of excited. I'm also a huge Bioware fanboy. My lovely wife Kimberly tolerates my gaming habits. She's a gamer as well, but mostly sticks to The Sims or puzzle games on her DS.
I recently finished Heavy Rain. What makes this game so frustrating in my view is just how close it comes to being something special but falls painfully short. I don't think this is an example of Icarus flying too close to the sun. Quantic Dream didn't overreach; they just built a shoddy set of wings. I argue the core, the foundation of Heavy Rain is sound. It just fails in the execution. Join me as I Monday morning quarterback my way through Heavy Rain and tell somebody else how to do their job. Obviously, there are going to be lots of spoilers here, so be warned.
Reading the playable character's thoughts:
When the game finally reveals the killer, it's supposed to be an amazing twist. With a good twist, however, the clues should hit you right face the next time though. Think of a film like Fight Club, of the first Knights of the Old Republic. When you go back, you can see how an especially clever person just might be able to piece it all together on his or her own.
In Heavy Rain, however, the killer sometimes essentially lies to himself in his internal monologue where the player happens to be dropping eaves. Some have suggested the thoughts system should have been removed all together. That's one choice but I believe it could have still worked in the hands of a stronger writer. The killer's thoughts could have been shaped in a more ambiguous way so as not to feel cheap and dishonest after the reveal.
The mysterious case of the psychic reporter:
I don't understand why it's supposed to be a big twist reveal that Madison is a reporter. Some players will never get that reveal and her character then makes next to no sense. Instead of Madison checking into a random hotel for insomnia, they could have included a scene with her following Ethan to the hotel from his house. This would've been more interesting for the player if Madison had her own agenda and therefore a real plot arc. She starts out trying to get the inside scoop on the latest victim's father. Then she begins to think he might be the killer. She eventually figures out he's not, falls for him, and aids him in her own way.
David Cage's previous games, Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy did a great job of this before the story derailed. One of the playable characters was wanted for a murder while the other two were detectives investigating the crime. The player had to consider the motivations of each character and in some cases ended up creating difficulties for the other characters (and by extension themselves) later. It's a great concept that could've applied to Heavy Rain, giving the Ethan/Madison scenes more tension depending on whom the player was controlling.
This would've also given Madison the chance for an extra scene or two with FBI agent Norman Jayden or private investigator Scott Shelby. Madison could've tried to interview Lauren for her story. Scott Shelby happens to stop by to pick her up on the way to the cemetery scene and Madison talks to him for a moment. After the cemetery scene, we find out Madison was there, having followed them, and now knows to find John Sheppard's mom. This way, she scene where the killer is revealed to her would actually make sense.
Drop it like it's plot
If only there had been a single scene to explain Ethan's dreams of drowning victims, the blackouts, and the origami, I could've forgiven such cheap diversionary tactics. But the fact Cage just drops these plot devices when they become inconvenient is inexcusable. Beyond that, what the hell happens to Ethan's ex-wife? She also disappears half way through the story. Maybe she was the one folding the origami and putting it in Ethan's hands. She ran off with all the plot resolution, never to be seen again.
My Ethan also killed a man. At the end, the police issued an apology for accusing Ethan of being the killer and granted him a full pardon. Ethan should have to face consequences for that sin. Even if faced trial and got off on self defense in the end. At least address it somehow.
Bioware executes the whole moral choice thing far better than most. Dragon Age especially does a great job of giving the player plenty of murky and difficult decisions without clear consequences. Player agency and narrative can be combined to tell a good story. I think where Heavy Rain goes wrong is in where the branching decisions are placed. In Dragon Age or Mass Effect, the awkward and cheesy love scenes only pop up as an option if the player steers the story in that direction. Why on earth does the option for Ethan to get it on with Madison pop up right after he says his son is the only thing that matters? Take out that line and put in a few choices earlier to steer the plot in that direction and you're fine.
Just go for it!
As ambitious as Heavy Rain is, perhaps it didn't go far enough. Many years ago, I saw a play called Shear Madness. It was a comedy whodunit. Right before intermission, the victim is killed. At this point, the house lights come up and all the characters on stage acknowledge the audience, breaking the fourth wall. The actors stay in character and answer questions from the audience about motivations, clues, etc. In essence, the audience is the detective. At the end of this little Q&A, the audience has to vote on who they think the killer is. And every night the audience is right. The second act plays out differently depending on who the audience decided was the killer. Everyone has a motive, means, and opportunity and could reasonably be the killer.
I was hoping for something like this out of Heavy Rain where not only would the story play out differently for each player, but the killer would be different as well. Perhaps instead of trying to make an interactive film, Cage should have made an interactive play.
I've gripped a lot here, but I still liked Heavy Rain. It's just frustrating to see something with such potential fail. As a child of the late 80s and early 90s, I have a soft spot in my heart for classic adventure games like King's Quest, Gabriel Knight, etc. Quantic Dream's offerings seem like the natural evolution of that genre. Sometimes I like to let the interaction take a back seat to story, even in my video games. But don't go that route unless your story is solid enough to support the experience. Cage has some good ideas, he just needs to be accountable to somebody. He reminds me a lot of George Lucas, actually. The best Star Wars film is Empire. Lucas had the story outlined but had others write the screenplay and direct it.
We've all seen what happens when Lucas tried to write and direct on his own. It's hard to tell your boss his script sucks or has holes. I know if I worked at Quantic Dream, I'd be weary of telling Cage to fix his script. It takes a damn good writer to work without the net of an editor or superior and Cage just isn't up to the task.
I look forward to Quantic's next game. Perhaps they'll take the criticism of Heavy Rain to heart and build upon their interesting foundation. Or maybe a more capable studio will take a stab at it. Either way, I'd rather have interesting failures than another cover based space marine third person shooter to deal with.
When Bioware first announced their Old Republic MMO, one of the features they were most excited about was the persistent world. According to the producers, they were always disappointed when gamers would quick save before making a game changing decision, explore both outcomes, and then go back and choose their preferred path. There are no save files in an MMO, so players would now be forced to live with their decisions and the consequences.
This always struck me as odd. Being primarily a console gamer may influence my play style. On most PC games, a quick save is only a function key away. Console games require a more deliberate action to save. Either way, I've never been on to rewind a Bioware game if I ended up making a decision with consequences I didn't like. That's part of the charm.
Meanwhile, I've recently realized I was planning on doing the same thing on a much larger scale with Mass Effect in preparation for the sequel. Mass Effect was the game that finally pushed me into getting a 360. I was enamored with it. I've already played through the game several times as both genders and both moral paths. I've been gearing up to give the game one more go before Mass Effect 2 comes out to create my ultimate save file now that I'm informed of all the potential outcomes. But that's just a larger version of the quick save and try both options, isn't it?
Instead, I've decided to import my first ever Shepard for my first time though the sequel. I made some decisions my commander lived to regret that first time though. But I'd argue that's an essential part of the experience. Shock, disappointment, defeat and failure are just as important to solid story telling as triumph, and success. Bioware and other games built around choice aren't so much about getting everything right to get a "good" ending. They're about experiencing a unique narrative in which you get to play a pivotal roll. Sometimes that mean making mistakes and dealing with it.
I urge you, if you're going to play Mass Effect 2, go in the first time with that original save file from the first game when you didn't have prior knowledge of the story or the ramifications of your actions. Forcing yourself to deal with those choices over a three game epic should prove far more interesting than controlling an avatar for 60 hours who always gets exactly what they want.
I'm @Jason_Kopplin on twitter. Samit was cool enough to read my question from twitter on this week's Podtoid. The problem is, it's difficult to ask a nuanced question in 140 characters.
Here's my actual question and point I was trying to condense:
Should games have variable pricing? The example I used was Mass Effect and Dragon Age, two series from the same developer. You can get through the core of Mass Effect in 10-12 hours while Dragon Age is a 40-50 hour experience. Let's assume Mass Effect 2 and three will be of a similar length. That means The whole mass effect trilogy will presumably cost $180 new for a 30-40 hour experience compared to $60 for Dragon Age.
Would anyone flip a shit if if Bioware had split Dragon Age into thirds and released each chunk for $60? I realize more work is being done to tweak and refine Mass Effect entries, but Valve is doing the same thing (slowly) with the Half Life 2 episodes. Those episodes are almost as long as some stand alone games, yet retail for a third of the full original Half Life 2.
That's not to say length equals quality or that a short game can't be good and worth full standard price. However, it's clear more effort/money/resources go into certain games. Different media have variable pricing. I know comparing media is tricky business, but join me as we go down this rabbit hole...
Video games cover such a large swath of experiences compared to most other media. Look at motion pictures, however. A single film on DVD costs less than a season of a television show. Star Trek goes for $15.99 new on Amazon while the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation goes for $52.49 even though it's much older. Why is that? Sure, there's a cost involved with physically printing more discs, but the television season costs more because there's more content there.
Most modern action games last 10-15 hours while an RPG can last 50-100 hours. Those 10-hour action games are comparable to a film while a long epic is more like miniseries or season of a show. Shouldn't that longer game with more content, which cost more to produce, cost more at retail?
Length doesn't always equal price. I don't even want to know how much Uncharted 2 cost even though it's not a terribly long experience. So length isn't a perfect metric, but can be a useful indicator of production cost. We see this a little with budget titles. Wet, for example, came out under the standard $60 price point because it wasn't a top tier game. Something like Uncharted 2 is probably worth $60 and so is Dragon Age. But Something like the last Prince of Persia game maybe should have came out at a $40 price point.
It's hard to articulate this point without sounding like I'm just whining about games costing too much or that shorter games should be cheaper. I don't feel I got my point across in a single tweet, or even here for sure. But I think it's worth pondering.
I have a confession to make; I almost never buy new games. Hell, I almost never buy new media of any kind. Almost all my books, DVDs and games are used. While I feel guilty about not supporting developers and publishers, I can't justify paying a full $60 for most games. Allow me to make my case:
- I Fly Solo
I don't really care at all about online multiplayer. Maybe I'm old and curmudgeonly, but I don't enjoy it. I'll play with friends on a couch. I used to play WoW when I had enough real life friends that were still playing. I just don't like playing online with strangers and most of my friends don't game online. I borrowed CoD 4 from a friend and beat it in two sittings. I tried the multiplayer once or twice and gladly gave it back. There's no way I'd get $60 out of that game, but an heavy multiplayer guy probably would. I don't care about getting in on the multiplayer right away. So I can wait.
- Game prices fall... fast.
I was able to pick up GTA IV about three months after release for less than $30. I'm a patient man. If you're willing to stay about six months behind, you can save hundreds of dollars a year... which brings me to my next point.
- The Paradox
I'm sort of a media dork. I'm a journalism and media studies student. I love digging deep and getting the most out of any medium. That includes music, graphic novels, film, and even video games. My voracious appetite for media means I want to play as many games as possible. If I buy cheaper games, I can play more of them. My love of the industry leads me to buy second hand and deny the industry money.
- Game Prices Need to be Variable
I'm actually breaking my rule for Dragon Age. I'm a huge Bioware fanboy. They have yet to disappoint me. It's easier to justify a $60 purchase when a game is all but a safe bet, especially when a single play can go up to 80+ hours and encourages multiple plays. That's worth $60, but should something like Prince of Persia or Too Human cost just as much? New DVDs go for around $20, but a season of a television show can cost several times as much. Physical media almost always costs the same at launch, regardless of quality or length. We're seeing some price variability in the online market, which is great.
- There's No Second Hand DLC
While I bought GTA IV used, I did buy The Lost and the Damned mainly because I couldn't get it any other way. While I grumbled about paying almost as much for the DLC as I did for the original game, I felt better knowing that Rockstar was finally getting some money from me. I also feel I got my money's worth out of a $15 Shadow Complex or $10 Flower. Now if only I could sell them when I'm done with them...
- Mitigating the Middle Man
While I buy used, I avoid Gamestop like the plague. They've built a whole industry out of exploiting used game buyers and the industry. I tend to stick to hunting for deals on eBay or hitting up a pretty good "mom and pop: store here in Milwaukee.
While I'm legally buying these games, I still feel guilty for denying funds to the games industry. I'm still a student. Maybe when I have a real job I'll buy new games. But when funds are tight and I never get to play everything I want anyways, it's easier to justify buying that game from last year for $30 versus the hot new shit for $60.
When I see reviews for various video game blogs, news sites, or podcasts, I invariably see comments about how funny the staff is. I don't really care about the humor level of the content, I care about the quality of coverage. I've wasted effort whining from time to time about too many dick and fart jokes, lack of basic journalism tenets, etc on numerous sites. The usual response I get is along the lines of, "Dude, this isn't a serious site. We're here to have fun. Lighten up." That seems more like a defense to me than a justification.
Why are almost all game websites full of snarky, juvenile writers? Why does every picture leached from Google images need a snarky comment attached to it? I'd like to see some serious journalism and industry press. Sometimes, I think video games suffer for breaching into the mainstream in the internet age. Most other popular media has respectable industry press. It's all but nonexistent for video games.
Now, don't get me wrong. I enjoy Destructoid. I've been a regular reader/Podtoid listener for about a year now. There are moments when I gain some real insight or learn some interesting information. But I'd hardly call it a real news site. It's more like an online community for all kinds of random crap that happens to talk about video games often. That's cool. I have no problem with that. But that only scratches one itch. Where would a serious news hound go for hard games industry journalism? Why does it always come with a large helping of sophomoric humor?
No seriously, I want to now. Where do you guys go for that kind of content? I'm not looking down my nose at Destructoid; it's fun. I am looking to compliment it, though. Giant Bomb is probably the other site I frequent the most. Those guys have some great insight into the industry and games as an evolving medium. But all too often, they're posting stupid videos of all the weird crap people send them.
Why aren't there more features like Bonus Round on Game Trailers? I LOVE that show. It's a bunch of adults taking games seriously and having earnest discussions about them without having to resort to crass humor to make sure it all goes over well. As an avid NPR listener and video game enthusiast, I have real trouble finding quality content that lines up with my interests.
Again, there's no need to come to the defense of Destructoid. What they do, they do very well. I'm just looking for something a little different. And I have to wonder, I am the only one alone in my want for serious games coverage?
I enjoy the Rock Band/Guitar Hero formula. These are the best social games available right now. Who doesn't want to be a rock star? And with a wide range of difficulty settings, everyone can have a good time. Grandma can jam out playing bass on easy while little Johnny shreds some epic solos on expert. There is a group that I feel often falls through the cracks in these difficulty settings: actual musicians.
I've been playing bass guitar for over 17 years. I've been in a couple different bands in that time. I've never been a rock star, but we were good enough to get paid on the bar circuit. I'm also a pretty decent guitar player and I can keep a simple 4/4 beat on a drum kit. When I pick up a little plastic guitar, I want it to work like the real thing. I have a very talented drummer friend who cannot wrap his head around those four pads and pedal. Our brains cannot break out of the skills and behaviors we've learned over the years.
I'm not a a guitar player elitist that looks down his nose at Guitar Hero and Rock Band players. I own both Rock Band games and too much DLC. While learning to play Dream Theater on expert is a challenge and requires skill, it's very different from playing a real instrument. Just as playing Rock Band won't give you any skills transferable to a real instrument, actually knowing how to play guitar or drums does you very little good in a video game.
I can imagine this is what it feels like for a football player to try madden, or for an MMA fighter to hug men virtually in a UFC game. There are songs I know how to play on a real instrument - songs I've been paid to play at music venues - that I can barely scrape through in Rock Band.
Of course, these two ideas should have nothing to do with each other. aside from the fact that the button are encased in something that vaguely resembles a guitar, these plastic controllers have very little in common with the real thing. At the end of the day, these band games are simply Amplitude with rock music instead of techno. And I'm ok with that. They are a load of fun. But it seems like some people expect a real musician to be good at these games, simply because of the shape of the controller. Would Leather Face be better at Resident Evil 4 if he used the chainsaw controller?
I think what trips me up is that I fall prey on a subconscious level to the same assumptions. I try to play the damn thing like a real guitar, but in reality it's a controller for a falling gem rhythm game. You have to be precise to the recording, hitting every little nuance of the original artist where, in reality, you would probably put in your own little flourishes. This is especially difficult when playing live tracks which are full of numerous variations that even the original artist likely wouldn't replicate from night to night.
I need to learn how to turn the musician part of my brain off and the gamer part on. I can play Lumines, Tetris, and Elite Beat Agents no problem. Rock Band should be no different, if I can just get over that mental hurdle in my brain. Then I can let people think that I am that awesome at Rock Band because of my guitar skills and not because I'm a gamer.