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Returner Mike's blog

5:12 AM on 03.12.2013

You're a Bad Person for Enjoying SimCity

Did the title get your attention? Good. Itís supposed to.

Now, before you get all huffed over yet another blog about the failures of Maxis, Iíll tell you the good news: This isnít about SimCity.

It includes SimCity, but SimCity isnít the focus. Itís just a symptom of a far greater problem. Like herpes sores.

Yes, SimCity is broken. Yes, PR is trying to blame the consumer. But this is, at its heart, not the reason we should be concerned.

SimCity, frankly, should not exist.

It boggles my mind that this game was even released. Ever since it was announced, every single piece of information released on this game was deeply troubling. Intentionally limited city sizes, always online single player, removal of important game elements from previous entries such as landscaping... every time something came up I was shocked. That limitations would be considered a feature of something as creatively uplifting as SimCity had to be a joke. It was as if Maxis was intentionally trying to hamstring its own game.

It's not ok that this is expected.

And yet the media ate it up. Consumers pounced on it from Day 1 and the number of players are still, even after all of this controversy, still belaboring the servers.

SimCity has revealed something fundamentally wrong about the direction the games industry has been taking in recent times. It reveals both a troubling trend towards a bleached, bland center and an overwhelming apathy of the consumer market in regards to how this hobby is being treated.

Iím going to do something that might seem really shocking.

Iím going to agree with Maxis.

Yes, SimCity is a tumor, but itís a tumor that we created. It is our fault.

We have no excuses. Weíve been voting through our purchases for years now. Every re-polished Madden release, every Call of Duty, every Blizzard release in the past 9 years has been setting us up for this day. For always online, watered down, fast food gaming.

Iím not blameless either. Thatís why this irks me as bad as it does. I paid for Diablo 3 even though that little voice in my head warned me as well. I even talked my girlfriend into buying it as some kind of validation that maybe if we had fun together, it would be worth the shortcomings the game had.

Spoiler: It wasnít.

Blizzard admitted this was a bad idea. Even after the cashalance.

Hereís the thing though, the thing that I didnít notice back then.

Itís not about fun anymore.

Donít get me wrong. Games need to be fun. Thereís no reason to play a game if it isnít fun in some sense, but itís about the big picture now.

Every one of us wants our hobby, gaming, to be taken seriously. To become art. To spread out and bring us all kinds of new and exciting experiences. We donít want repetitive garbage. No one wants to do the same thing over and over again for the rest of their lives. Sooner or later, youíre going to get bored.

Unfortunately, every time you buy a Call of Duty game, every copy of SimCity that is purchased, every Dead Space, Bioshock and Resident Evil that slowly creeps its way from meticulously crafted horror to rock-themed, gun slinging action sends the industry one message: Donít change. Stay exactly as you are. Kill off your Mega Mans, your Morrowinds, your System Shocks and give us something less brilliant.

Capcom didnít kill Mega Man or Resident Evil. We did, when we proved we were willing to mindlessly shell out money for mediocre games like Lost Planet as long as they were pretty or gritty or brown. Weíve turned the videogame industry into the food industry, and the consumers are getting fat off empty, cheap cash grabs while the creative and the visionary gourmet designers choke and sputter in a market that just canít be bothered to try something new.

Itís true, too. Name a AAA title in recent memory that was an original IP. Something quirky, like Katamari Damacy or Okami or Shadow of the Colossus.

Now, Iím not necessarily implying that this is due to the Ďdumbing downí argument. X-COM is an exceptional example of slimming down a game system and making it something elegant. But there is a trend and it is not good. Take Skyrim and compare it to Morrowind. Itís prettier, the combat mechanics are far improved but what did we lose? Thereís no magic creation system anymore. Thereís only the barest hint of an enchanting system. The world is more clean and prepackaged. You have only a tenth of the creative freedom you did before.

I mean, really, would you buy your Lego sets already constructed? What the hell happened to us? We have all this processing power, all this development funding and our games feature less than the ones that came before it? How does that make any sense at all?

Look at game developers like DoubleFine, who continues to make unique and fun experiences like Stacking and Psychonauts, even if they struggle with poor sales and limited backing. Think about Reverge Labs and Skullgirls. They fought over a mound of obstacles, including the layoff of most of their staff to produce a fighting game that is artistically stunning and meticulously balanced.

Most notably, pour a drink out for Thatgamecompany, who bankrupted themselves to produce Journey for no other reason besides believing that strongly in the artistic and emotional value of their production.

And it shows.

Thereís a clear disconnect between the AAA juggernauts and the consumer. The top shelf release that was created on dreams and vision is a rarity now. Hell, consider Konami, stating that it will not patch the Silent Hill HD collection for the Xbox 360.

Read that sentence again. They told their customers that they will not support the broken game that they released.

This is why Iíve become so interested in Kickstarter. For one thing, it shuts that gap. With Kickstarter, itís impossible to ignore the consumer. The fate of the developer and the fate of your investment are directly tied. It creates a sense of responsibility that you see in pledges, promises not to make something prettier or gorier or shinier, but promises to add content to their product that directly benefits us. Look at Project Eternity, with a goal of $1,100,000 that aims to build a fantasy experience in line with classics like Baldurís Gate and Icewind Dale. Large scale, isometric, sprite-based RPGís havenít been seen in over ten years and they managed to not only meet their goal, but exceed it to the tune of $3,986,929.00. That gives me chills. Nowhere has a more powerful statement of consumer desire been so clear.

Project Eternity

Iíve spoken before about indie developers and how to me, they represent a gleam of hope in a disturbing future. But I also believe that AAA developers can turn things around. I canít bring myself to believe that companies like Capcom or Square or Blizzard have lost their drive to create something new and exciting. Iím aware of the excuses, of rising development and production costs, but seriously, the video game industry is a giant right now. We have more people working in this industry than ever before. There are creative, passionate people in this field and they are having to fight to stand out amidst the mediocrity that chokes it.

Iím not saying that these properties donít have a place, or that they donít make a truckload of money, but our industry is still in its infancy, and itís far too soon to get pigeonholed the way we are. We need to think before buying games, consider the long term message weíre making and not our immediate satisfaction. We need to take responsibility for the monster weíve created. We need to teach it right and wrong just like youíd teach a misbehaving puppy. We donít need to kill it... thereís certainly a place for the Call of Duties and Maddens, but we need to make sure it understands that we donít want it to stagnate. We want it to learn and grow and become something we can talk about with pride.

Otherwise, weíre in for a lifetime of being teabagged. Not just by preteens, but by the industry as well.

Iíd like to hear your thoughts and your comments about this, more than any of my other posts. Angry or impressed, critical or not... is there something Iím missing?   read

2:39 PM on 03.09.2013

Magic and Gunpower: Shadowrun Returns First Impressions

ďWatch your back, shoot straight, conserve ammo and never, ever cut a deal with a dragon.Ē

Those are the words that every shadowrunner knows by heart. To some they were the first words that greeted them when they cracked open a rule book or looked on the back cover. To others they form a mantra.

Those last 8 words are also absolutely true.

To a teenage mind, those words were like a fishhook. Shooting? Ammo? Dragons? How could you stay away? Imagine The Matrix, if Trinity was an elf and the machines were some kind of omnipotent megacorporation. Imagine trolls on motorcycles. Imagine if Smaug ran Halliburton. Imagine if Lord of the Rings had guns and cybernetic body parts.

Weíd be screwed. So very, very screwed.

Thatís a hell of a premise, one that that Shadowrun pays off in spades. For the unawakened, Shadowrun takes place sometime between 2050 and 2070. The future is not a pretty place. If the cyberpunk dystopia wasnít enough, in this future mankind has experienced something called The Awakening, and with it, goblinization. Magic has returned the world and it wasted no time in screwing everything up. Dragons show up (naturally), mages start popping up all over the place and people discover very personally and traumatically that their ancestors might not have been as human as theyíd believed.

The titular shadowrunners are a varied bunch; mercenaries for hire, information runners, smugglers and fencers. People with little to lose and a whole lot to gain who arenít afraid of doing dangerous things and dealing with powerful organizations. They live in the shadows off the grid, dodging the incorporated police force known as Lone Star and taking contracts where they can. Occasionally, their employers actually hold up their side of the bargain.

Teams of them consist of a myriad of personalities and talents, some of which include the famous, bushido-obsessed street samurai, magic-wielding shamans or mages, hackers and riggers who send their consciousness directly into the internet or into their vehicles, shapeshifters and more.

It's like The Breakfast Club, except with elves, mercenaries and a lot more people die.

You can see, quickly, how such a premise would make for an awesome video game.

The Return

After watching the trailer, all I can feel is excitement. Itís clear from the design, the game systems, the characters and the dialogue that Harebrained Schemes knows the world theyíre building, knows the audience theyíre catering to and actually, genuinely cares about it all.

Thankfully Harebrained Schemes is here to unfuck the property.

When I first heard about it, I was skeptical, but little could be worse than the digital abortion that was 2007ís Shadowrun. Iíd always pictured the perfect Shadowrun game as a sort of Grand Theft Auto clone with a strong co-op centric focus. You could have your street samurai and mercs mixing it up in the streets while your riggers offer support from remote controlled attack drones. Mages would keep the area nice and on fire and hackers would function in a sort of Watch Dogs style capacity, turning street lights against the authorities, hacking bridges and unlocking doors or gates.

Sadly thatís not a vision that the current market seems willing to support, and I approached the first look with cautious hope. What I found was something amazing.

Beyond the clear admiration and love for the original source material, Harebrained Schemes has gone the countless extra miles to satisfy everyone whoís ever played a Shadowrun game in any form. The moment an NPC was revealed as Jake Armitage, protagonist from the 1993 SNES Shadowrun, my jaw hit the floor. He even was sporting the dopey sunglasses he stole for a disguise. When the battle music kicked in, a reimagining of the same gameís combat theme, I was stunned. Then I learned that theyíd gotten the composers from both the SNES and Genesis versions to do the soundtrack.

Holy shit.

Our hero protagonist, Jake Armitage.

Throw in a robust editor through which the entirety of the actual game was made and you have a product that offers limitless possibilities.

Watch Your Back

My interest in this runs deep. Shadowrun is an important property to me. Itís the game that defines my life and my start as a gamer. It was the first tabletop RPG Iíd ever heard of. It wasnít the first tabletop RPG I played (that honor goes to Mechwarrior 2nd edition) but it was certainly the one I played the most. From hiding in the stairwells at school with my friends to running 13 player games out in Colorado, I can safely say that itís the one tabletop I grew up with.

The SNES game deserves mention here as well. Despite being a bit liberal with the rules system the game absolutely nailed the atmosphere and setting. For its time, it was groundbreaking. The opening scene of the game showed you being brutally gunned down by a hit squad. You werenít even a good guy by any sense of the word... Jake Armitage was a Shadowrunner and an information courier. Sure, he could be nice to people, but this was a man who killed people for money. He stole from corporations and hacked bank accounts. He hires other killers to work for him. He doesnít even go through anything like a redemption story... heís just out for revenge. Add to that a flat out awesome soundtrack and have a hell of a setup.

Buzz, chummer.

Watching that first look Harebrained Schemes released made me grin like a madman. To know that there are talented people in the industry who clearly want to make a game that includes and defines what Shadowrun means to so many different gamers is like a breath of fresh air. Nothing is more depressing than watching your favorite, most beloved property be wrung out, chewed up and pushed around for a cheap money grab. To know that itís finally getting the attention it deserves is worthy of applause.

Thank you Harebrained Schemes. I canít wait to see what you can do.   read

4:25 PM on 03.07.2013

Growing Up Gamer

For the four or five of you who remember, my last article was an overview of Ys Origins. In that article, I briefly mentioned an encounter back in the day with a game the US knows as Wanderers From Ys III.

Well, after writing the article I got sucked into the nostalgia trap and started poking around for more info on the series. During this all, it got me thinking back to what it was to be a gamer growing up and how things have changed so drastically over the years.

Games have always been a part of my life. Back in the late 80ís/early 90ís, my NES was my entire world. Thinking about how my friendís older brother would explain how to pronounce Japanese names after beating Section Z and Mega Man 2 still makes me grin. Funny that I ended up majoring in the language.

I owe a lot of it to my awesome parents, who may have never imagined raising a geek but certainly never balked at it. Heck, my fondest gaming memories are of watching my dad play Dragon Warrior (or even earlier Adventure on the Atari 2600) and playing Life Force (known as Salamander, a Gradius spinoff, to those less familiar) with my mom. She was my partner, which was good because she was the only one who was dextrous enough to enter the Konami code until I got older. Itís funny to see how that code has grown to mean so much to so many gamers, when to me all it reminds me of is my family.

It wasn't weird to fight a giant pharaoh head in a space fighter inside of a monster back then.

Back in those days, we didnít really question our games. They were fun or they werenít, simple as that. Little things, like the personalized letter packaged with StarTropics, were amazing to me (especially that upon opening it, the letter was addressed to Mike). The hidden watermark wasnít clever DRM... it was a holy shit moment that transcended the digital reality I spent most of my life in. Multiplayer wasnít a feature... all games had it. Sometimes, it just involved passing the controller around the room. Playing through Ninja Gaiden with a friend wasnít strange at all. To us, thatís what lives were for... a signal to let someone else take a shot.

The SNES was probably the biggest turning point in my life. When I think of the SNES, it marks the time that I went from just playing games to really thinking about them. When Final Fantasy VI (3 at the time) came out, I played it for a few hours and then dismissed it. To me, it was too confusing, too weird, compared to Final Fantasy IV (2 at the time).

It wasnít until a year or two later that I revisited it and discovered how wondrous it was, how complex characters and stories in a game could be. It wasnít about the good guys stopping the bad guys... it was about a lone soldier pulling his dead son out of his bed, about a thief who killed his partner and left his daughter after the death of his wife. It was about brothers coming to terms with the assassination of their father. It was about a general, disillusioned with the war her nation was fighting. It was about people. I think it was the first game that ever made me cry, not because it was sad, but because it ended. I never wanted to leave that world and the people who I'd come to think of as friends.

Iíd become more thoughtful, more rational. I sympathized more with the deeper elements of a story rather than just plowing from point A to point B.

How many operas do you know that have perverted octopi and tyrannosaurs?

Press Down To Crouch

Strangely, if you had to ask me what I missed most about those days, I likely would respond with Ďinstruction bookletsí. In those days, when there weren't lengthy tutorials or controllers with 40 buttons, you could take the time with a booklet. Make it an extension of the world you were entering. I had almost as much fun with them as I did with the games they came with. Tracing the Mega Man bookletsí pictures of the bosses, the misprint in the Blaster Master instruction booklet that saw the last boss being shown but the first boss being censored out, reading Metroidís entry about Samus and how Ďheí was the best bounty hunter alive (damn, was that ever an awesome reveal)... that stuff was fun. Heck, I still have the aforementioned Life Forceís booklet, scanned and copied onto printer paper and stapled into a booklet, that I accidentally kept after returning it to Dorothyís Fashion in Knoxville. Yes, I used to rent NES games from a fashion store.

Iíll never forget waiting so long for Chrono Triggerís release, bugging mom to take me to buy it and then the crushing disappointment when we went out to BW3ís to meet with dadís coworkers. I spent the entire time in the corner, reading the instruction booklet cover to cover, over and over.

Music to Grow By

Itís probably not surprising that game music was my genre of choice growing up. It still is, in many respects. Looking back, itís not hard to see why other people thought I was nuts listening to chip tunes, but they were lacking context. When I listened to the Final Fantasy 6 ending, I wasnít just listening to tinny midi music, I was flying away from Kefkaís Tower alongside Terra and Edgar and Mog. I was dashing off into the wilderness to seek adventure. I was descending into Brinstar in the hunt for a dangerous space pirate.

If this makes you want to run out and kick ass, youíre on the level.

Itís strange the stuff that sticks with you too. Sure, I could probably hum everything that came out of Squaresoft in the 90ís (who couldnít?) but others had their place. Take the opening to Lagoon, for instance. Not a particularly well known title (or even all that good) but for some reason, this intro sequence is just perfect to me. The timing, the music, the visuals... I wanted to know more. Also, Thor was the first time Iíd ever seen a character or person with heterochromia, and it made him stick in my memory for a long time. That, and I also thought he was a girl at first.

Thereís no way this music is anything but awesome.

Itís also at this exact moment that I realize how much of an Ys clone this game was. Huh.

Next Gen!

Things changed a lot in the mid to late 90ís. My family started getting into computers, starting with a 386, and I remember both being amazed at how I could run Duke Nukem 3D (without sound though, since the computer didnít have a sound card) and being sad that Iíd never possess a machine that could run the awesomeness that was Quake.

I had my wisdom teeth out sometime in middle school and while recovering, my parents rented me a Playstation along with Warhawk and Twisted Metal. Soon after I discovered Final Fantasy Tactics, Symphony of the Night and Resident Evil. It was around this time that I went from appreciating games to being critical of them. I demanded more and sought out rarer, more unusual titles rather than playing them at will. I discovered modding on the PC side of things, starting with Archmage and Airquake for Quake 1 (SPOILER: I eventually got a computer that could run it).

We shall decide with our weapons whose hair is more luscious.

Games started to become less of an experience and more of a hobby. I no longer lost myself in them wholesale. I still loved them fiercely, but the moments where I was so in these worlds that I forgot to breathe had become few and far between. I saw potential in them, not only in what they were but what they could become. After the Playstation, my hobby only became more and more tempered.

Looking Ahead

More than anything, I love how the hobby that has defined my world has finally become so popular. Sure, I bitch and moan at times about Farmville ruining games or EAís terrible business practices, but seeing so many people who arenít gaming geeks who didnít grow up with Toe Jam or Dr. Light playing video games makes me happy. Maybe itís validation, maybe itís just joy knowing others are finally discovering something amazing Iíd always lived with, but I canít help but love it.

Which is why Iím not scared about the future of gaming. For every Dead Space or Bioshock that blends more towards the mainstream, for every cookie-cutter modern war shooter that hits the market, for every Capcom cancellation or Konami cash grab, I see a sea of indie games that arenít afraid to push the envelope or try something crazy, unpopular or downright insane. I see creators like Suda 51, Peter Molyneux, Keiji Inafune, Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, Itagaki and Warren Spector who actually care about what they make, even if their audience doesnít always care back.

It turns out that eyes can have orgasms too.

I also see a new generation of gamers with new expectations and demands. Maybe we wonít always see eye to eye, but I can safely say that Iím excited to see what games Iíll be playing with my grandchildren.

Oh, and as for my mom? She's still my favorite partner. That's her on the right.


9:29 PM on 03.05.2013

Indie Cred: Ys Origin - All Along The Watchtower

If youíre a gamer in the US, likely your only encounter with the Ys brand before this era would have been with Wanderers from Ys for the SNES. It was certainly my first experience, and one that has stuck with me since the day I first played it. While it was deeply flawed and stupidly difficult at times (especially the bosses), the gameplay was still something unique and fun and the music was absolutely awesome.

Ys Origins is another game in the epic series that is finding new life on Steam. Itís a standalone game, being a prequel set 700 years before series hero Adol ever touched a sword, and is easily accessible for anyone.

Thereís a bunch of fantasy mumbo jumbo, but the long and short is that the two goddesses of Ys, one who's a decent harmonica player, have run away from their floating continent with a Macguffin of stupendous power and a group of mages and knights are sent to find them.

Now this is a religion I could get behind.

The entire game takes place inside of Darm Tower, a huge spire on the surface thatís chock full of demons, helpfully sorted in order of strength from the ground floor up. Thank goodness they didnít switch that, or the game would be really short. Demons know their shit, clearly.

Hugo, entering the Castlevania wing

Initially, you have the choice between two characters: Yunica, a young girl and knight-to-be of Ys and Hugo, a mage. Iíd like to take a second and say how awesome it is that the main bruiser of the game is a female, wields an axe and is dressed very conservatively. Sheís also never treated like a weakling, holding her own against powerful demons and sorcerers in spite of being unable to use magic. In short: a badass.

Hugo is entertaining in his dickery, easily pissing off everything with a pulse with his witty comebacks and hardass attitude. He can be a bit grating, but after Yunica's wholesomeness, some snark can go a long way to freshening up the experience.

There is a third character, who is more difficult to play than the other two, but is just a whirlwind of asskicking when you play them right. I can't talk too much about this one without giving away part of the story, but the third time through, the path is different enough to refresh the experience and the revelations within round out the plot nicely.

How many teen girls do YOU know that can one hand a battle axe?

Yunica and the third character were the most fun for me. The gameplay and breakneck speed made physical combat crazy fun, especially once you unlock more of their abilities. Hugo plays far differently, with most of his fighting taking place at range. It was more carpal tunnel inducing, but being out of the fray made the game a hell of a lot easier. Trapping enemies in a web of magical remote mines never gets old either.

Graphics are a nice mix of 3D landscapes and bosses with sprite based characters and minor enemies. It has a Xenogears/Final Fantasy Tactics vibe to it that I canít help but love. There are minor perspective issues when platforming because of this, but itís nothing unforgivable.

The music, by the way, does not disappoint. Some of the themes, such as the one in the desert area and the last floor are great background tunes to slaughter demons to.

To me, what makes this game are the boss fights. Whether itís a nail-bitingly close duel with one of the many colorful villains roaming the tower or a life-or-death struggle with one of the gargantuan demons that live on each floor, theyíre all memorable, exhilarating and brutally hard. The best part is how carefully designed most of them are. When you die, you know damn well what you did to screw up. Rarely is it ever a bad mechanic or cheap tactic that kills you, which is what kept me coming back. I might have been cursing up a storm after being killed twelve times by a giant centipede, but damned if I wasnít grinning the whole time. It helps that the controls are razor sharp and very responsive. Ys Origins is a blast to play.

Didnít I ride you in Ocarina of Time?

The gameís not without its flaws, however. The levels are mostly uninspired, ranging from generic desert area (in a tower) to underwater world (still in the tower) to gigantic lava factory (strangely high up in the tower). Deaths can come extremely cheap as well at times, with some enemies being far more deadly than they first appear and your character giving little feedback to how much damage theyíre really taking. Donít even get me started about drowning, which is almost as stress inducing as any underwater adventure Sonic ever undertook.

To really beat the game and understand all the events going on, youíll need to beat the game a total of three times. The third time is a bit different, but the levels, major bosses, music and enemies never change. If you donít enjoy the gameplay enough to carry you through this, it could be a game breaker. To me, I loved every second of it. The thrill of overcoming a particularly tough boss is just too much to pass up.

Dalles, continuing Chester and Ernst's lineage of terrifying Ys villain names.

If youíre a long term Ys fan... well, youíve probably already played the hell out of this. If youíre a fan of action rpgs with a solid difficulty curve, youíll likely get your moneyís worth out of Ys. Just kill that centipede once for me.

Has anyone else gotten the chance to play Ys Origins? What are your thoughts on the game? Should I pick up 1 & 2?   read

2:57 PM on 02.13.2013

Dare To Be Badass: Project Development Part 2

Hey Destructoidians, Returner Mike here once again with the thrilling second episode of my special, ĎSo Your Rampant Insanity Has Driven You To Create Somethingí. Last post dealt with what I like to call Ďcruel realityí.

This one is going to be a bit different. Now that the ugly parts are out of the way and youíre hopefully beginning to understand the monumental task ahead of you, we can get on to my favorite part: Why you should make a friendly gesture at the rest of the world and kindly inform them of where they can store their cynicism.

Thank you for your input. I'll take it under consideration.

Is creating an amateur project a lot of work? Yes. Is it going to be a long, brutal, possibly thankless task? Oh sweet Mario yes. Should you do it anyway? You are damn right you should. Why? Because someone has to. I write because my stories wonít be told any other way. Theyíll sit there, in my head, screaming to get out and unless I write, thatís where theyíll rot and metamorphosize into those obnoxious Ďregretí things. I donít want that. You donít want that. Your future therapist wants it, but heís likely a huge jackass whoís cheating on his wife or something, so stick it to him.

Besides, proving your detractors wrong is beautiful.

The Warm, Uplifting Truth

Your vision is possible. Try it, you sitting there, staring at your computer. Just whisper the words at the very least. I'll wait. Mull it around. Your vision is possible. Whatever is in your head can be realized in the medium that you want. Will it be easy? No. Nothing of worth ever is.

Your idea is possible and there are people out there who you can find who will be just as eager to see it through as you are. I have some other awesome news for you... you are living in science fiction. You are in a world where we have nearly perfected electronic telepathy, and through amazing sites like Destructoid, Reddit, 4chan, Deviantart, Soundcloud, Newgrounds... you too can find these awesome, like minded folk.

Look! There's your new art director on the left!

Post some ideas. Talk to your friends. Have them ask around. Post on message boards, scope out subreddits, follow artists on Tumblr, scoop up people as they are just getting started or are just in school.

There are some hard pills to swallow here, but if youíve made it this far, you can go a bit further. The biggest one is - your baby is no longer yours. The moment you bring someone else on board, your project is going to change. Probably in ways you never imagined and possibly in ways you donít want. Thatís the cost of what youíre doing. No matter how small a part these people will have in building your dream, their mark will be left on it. This is NOT a bad thing. Just like life, diversity helps strengthen your work and gives it the unique chance to be critiqued during itís creation.

You never know what ideas you'll spawn!

Your Project Doesn't Have To Be Expensive or Difficult

Unless weíre talking about time, youíll be amazed at what you can get away with not paying for. An amateur team, working on a freeware title, can find a surprising amount of assistance online, from their local community or can learn for themselves without too much difficulty. As I mentioned before, social websites like Reddit, 4chan and such (and think outside the box here... places like, Steam and have huge communities of people likely with similar interests, just looking to work on projects with others.

Our artists and writers were found all around the web, and were all brought together by a common idea: the want to create something fun and meaningful.

Think of the wonderful things you'll make!

A side note here, if your project requires things from the real world, remember that businesses are made of people. Call around, ask questions, as for donations or assistance. If you need photos for references, youíll be surprised at how accommodating places can be. It never hurts to ask, and people are almost always thrilled to contribute if you ask nicely.

You Will Improve

Win or lose, succeed or fail, youíre going to learn something during your project and itís going to make you stronger. Maybe your teamís input will point out a flaw in your writing style, or perhaps youíll learn new art techniques from the other artists in your group... regardless, no project is wasted, and at the worst, youíre merely gaining strength and knowledge to make your next attempt that much better.

One point Iíd like to mention here... listen to criticism. In fact, seek it out. Itís not always pinpoint accurate or nice to hear, but it rarely is devoid of meaning. Of course, I mean criticism, here. ĎEet boiled lobster pooí is not criticism. Neither is Ďyour writing sucksí, Ďyou arenít funnyí or ĎI could do that betterí. Ask people why. Ask them why until they throw their hands up and walk away. What about the scene doesnít work? Why donít you like this character? What stops them from being believable? It hurts to hear about how your work is flawed. Thereís no secret way to stop that from being true. You just have to masochist up and throw yourself out there. Itís the best way to learn and improve.

You Will Have An Audience

Itís the internet. The place that gave birth to amputee porn, and Google+. If you create it, chances are a fair number of people are going to explore your work and that some of them will enjoy it. Criticism via fans is a brutal affair, and Iím not sure how much I can recommend getting into discussions about your work online. All I can say is... be civil. Anonymity offered by the web makes it easy to say hurtful things. Try to look past the callousness that being faceless provides and really think about what people are trying to tell you. Be receptive and warm and your audience will be far more likely to grow.

Just do everything that Derek Smart doesn't.

It Will See The Light Of Day

If you refuse to give up, if you crack at it, just a little day by day, your project will see life. Youíll hit snags, youíll lose progress, youíll lose teammates and youíll get so frustrated that youíll want to cry and quit.

Donít. Your project started for a reason. Iím not saying that there arenít genuinely good reasons to shut down a project (there are) but seriously think about what youíre doing. Is your project really going badly, or are you simply reading the first draft? Are you getting a bit of writerís block? Are you listening to your teamís complaints and making them your own? Are you receiving threatening emails from the man whoís kidnapped your daughter and itís distracting you?

Pictured: Not the best way to overcome writer's block.

Be honest and realistic with yourself at the start. You want this to finish. Even a short project can take vast amounts of time to complete. Youíll never be able to account for every delay, so just roll with it when you can. There is nothing like looking back on a year of frustration and delays and realizing just how much work you actually did get done.

Next post will be a bit more in depth about how our project is being run, the systems we have in place and the way weíve overcome our various obstacles.

Hope youíve been enjoying it so far! If thereís any other advice that I may have missed, Iíd love to hear about it in the comment section.   read

3:51 PM on 02.10.2013

Herding Cats or: Running a Game Development Group

Apologies, but thisíll be a long one.

About a year ago, I received a strange notification. An offhand remark that I enjoyed writing in my free time had caught someoneís attention on one of the more popular social media blogs. Turns out that this individual was looking for writers to work on a project of his. I told him sure, as I was pretty bored around that time and to be honest, my dream has been to write games since the dawn of time.

A year later, I find myself in charge of the endeavor (Iíll get to that) and wondered how best to offer words of advice and share my experiences to my readers and game-loving friends out there. So here you go - Returner Mikeís Long, Meandering Advice and Insight on Amateur Game Development.

The Bad

Weíll get this section out of the way, because like any good how-to document, it needs to crush your spirits about the undertaking youíre about to embark on right out of the gate.

The Reality of Failure, or The Venture Bros Were Onto Something

First and foremost, most projects, especially those of amateur passion, will fail. Let it float around inside your head a bit. That includes yours. The possibility of failure is always going to be floating right above your head. Maybe your game sucks, but frankly, if it even gets to release, thatís a huge achievement. Maybe your artists leave, maybe you realize far too late how little material you have for your story or maybe you and your team will just get bored.

How to avoid this? Well, whatís kept me going is this - everything youíve ever played likely started as an idea between a bunch of friends on one beer-soaked, Halo Slayer-filled night. There isnít some tank of bodysuited clones floating in goo to come up with ideas like ĎCube of Meat Saves Girlfriend A Lotí or ĎAyn Rand Failing Under Waterí... itís people like you. Oftentimes without training or anything. Ideas may be a dime a dozen, but if you feel strongly about it, explore it. There may be some merit there.

There are always worse ideas out there.

Another thing is foundation. Ensure your project has a clear goal. Hash that out with the team until youíre sick of it. What do you want to do? Create a heartwarming love story visual novel? Create a shooter with bizarre gravity physics? What? Make sure you always keep this, your end goal in mind.

Next, and this one might not work for everyone, but tell people. This was a piece of advice offered to me while I was writing in my first National Novel Writing Month. Build up your own peer pressure. Tell friends and family so that theyíre always asking whatís new with the project. Youíll feel like a gold-plated asshole after the third time you say Ďnothing, I was too lazy to work on ití and your family gives you that Ďfuck, why arenít you a doctor?í look. Then youíll either get back to work (yay!) or slip into depression (my bad).

Pictured: Gold plated asshole

Last, be prepared for the little failures. Realizing your ending blows or that your character is inadvertently a complete ripoff of another is not the end of your project. Things can change, especially early on, even big things, and youíll survive it. Weíve had to rewrite huge chunks of our project for remarkably small problems and itís never that much fun tearing apart your favorite scenes.

People Are Strange, or Shut The Fuck Up Donny!

Shit is going to happen, as the good Rev. Gump foretold. People will get pissy or bored or frustrated or just have been born directly into a vat of liquid asshole. Likely, this will occur on your team. Sometimes people arenít as mature as they seem at first glance. Sometimes people just run into other people they canít get along with. Sometimes, people just want to watch the world burn.

The biggest thing towards solving intergroup conflict is a strong leadership hierarchy. If someone can point at someone and say Ďshut the fuck up and workí and the other person does it, youíre already leaps and bounds ahead of the game. Emulate other works you've seen or ask for advice. I had someone who worked project management for awhile, and we implemented an old IBM software development system. Everyone will find their own way but there needs to be strong leadership.

Now, what if the leadership is causing problems? That can be tricky. First, Iíd recommend talking to whoever is causing the problems. Be gentle and respectful and try to figure out some way around the issue. Biggest pitfall - weíre all human. Sometimes we just donít agree and we have to learn to live with it. If this doesn't lead to solutions, ask around to see if this problem has been encountered with other members. It may be something the group is trying to work through.

Also, and this is a big one, ask yourself if youíre the real problem. Take off your blinders and take a good, long look at yourself. Be honest, for the sake of your team and your project. We can only improve if we acknowledge our shortcomings. Itís never easy, but itís necessary.

Some teammates complain. Some saddle you with killswitches.

So what if our unique ability as humans to reason and discuss things logically fails? Well, you have two choices here - get the fuck out or stage a coup.

Getting the fuck out isnít a bad idea if problems canít be reconciled. You might even be able to drag a few people with you.

Spoiler: If you get this joke, you're older than you think.

Staging a Coup, however, is what will get you placed onto hipster shirts. This, I happen to have some surprisingly accidental knowledge in.

In my situation, I was pretty low level at first, which was fine. I had a story to write and thatís all that mattered. As time went on though, our leadership started to deteriorate. At first, it was a few odd things, like cutting massive parts of a writerís story with no reason or explanation, or rage quits during meetings, but it eventually began driving away members of the team and after awhile, we knew that our choices were to dissolve the project or do something drastic.

At first, we implemented the aforementioned project hierarchy and allowed each of the groups, Art, Music, Writing and Tech to vote on their own leadership. This almost went as planned, except at the last minute I was voted in for writing lead over the writer Iíd been coaching for the spot. I actually discovered my new truckload of responsibility while I was out of town... about two days after the vote had occurred and been set.

You know the quote.

The individual in question continued to cause problems, however, and eventually the team pulled him aside and booted him. As a last resort, this choice is never, ever going to be easy, but sometimes itís necessary. I imagine the boss that has to fire an employee would feel the same way. In the end, itís about whatís best for the project, and sometimes those choices get ugly.

Youíll Never Work a Day In Your Life, and Other Bullshit

In my opinion, the biggest killer of projects isn't bad leadership or a bad concept, the biggest killer is boredom.

This guy became apathetic about his project. Look what happened to him.

There will be a point in your project when the project starts becoming work. Your passion alone will not carry you through to the end. You need motivation. You need drive. You need people who are as crazy about the project as you are to keep telling you to work. Youíre going to hit slow points, youíre going to question the quality of your work and youíre going to hit snags that you never even considered. Keep going.

Apathy is one of the toughest snags, mostly because for everyone, the answer to it is different. Working on different parts of the project or even having something small on the side to work on to relieve the monotony might help.

Silver Lining

You might be asking yourself a lot of questions by this point. You might be wondering if itís worth pushing onward. You might be getting excited to tell me how full of shit I am. I donít know. But Iíll tell you one thing, that there is nothing in the world like reaching a goal. For me, I donít care if our IP isn't received well. I donít care if it ends up as a joke on the message boards or even fades into obscurity. All I want to do is see it out there, with my name on it, knowing that I made something that I never thought possible. If I get some positive fan mail or see someone cosplaying as a character I made, well... thatís just icing on the cake.

This is how I picture myself when I argue on the internet

Anyway, next time Iíll be talking about the mirror image here... the good sides and what to do to make a project sing. Until then, have any of you started any projects like this? Did they succeed? Did they fail? Why? Iíd love to hear stories from other teams.

UPDATE: Link to page 2 -   read

11:17 PM on 02.01.2013

The Chronic- What? -cles of Valkyria!

So after some confusion with Amazon (and possibly the most amazing customer service experience Iíve ever encountered in my life) I finally got 2008ís critically acclaimed Valkyria Chronicles.

While this game has been reviewed to death, Iíd still like to talk about it, especially for those of you on the fence about playing it.

Very rarely do I get to go so blindly into a major release like this one. I knew that it was an alternate universe World War 2, I knew it was a tactical RPG and I knew that a lot of really different people all want to sex up the disc for a plethora of reasons. That was about it. I had no idea what I was in for.

Starting the game up, youíre treated to the standard demo video, and this is the first time that I truly got to see the game in action... and holy shit. For a game four years old, it looks better than most releases now. The aesthetic, using Segaís CANVAS engine, makes the entire experience look like a living watercolor painting. Paired with the excellently realized anime designs, the developers have made a game that I genuinely canít imagine ever looking dated.

Hardened soldiers? Check. Plucky reporter? Check. Badass tank? Check.

Gameplay is broken into two sections, strategic and combat. In strategic, youíll visit your headquarters, buy upgrades, train troops, select scenes and read through the worldís history. The entire interface is designed to look like a history text, and itís an attractive and functional way to navigate the gameís options.

In combat, the gameplay is turn based tactical combat with slight real-time aspects. You have a limited number of orders per turn, and you can hand them out as you like. If you want to give them all to one soldier, having them shoot the hell out of whateverís nearby, go nuts, though a characterís movement is denoted by a yellow bar that reduces as you move around. Subsequent orders to the same soldier garner less and less movement allowance. Orders that you donít give carry over to the next phase.

Attacking with a soldier pops you into either third person view or, if youíre commanding a sniper, first person view to target wherever you like on an enemy target. Play goes back and forth until either your team is wiped out, your main battle tank is destroyed or you complete your objectives.

The story is deep and vivid and full of fantastic social, historical and political details and itís easy to get lost just reading up on the world. At itís heart, all this aside, is the story of two soldiers, Welkin and Alicia, caught up in defending their small nation and just wanting to go home.

Emotionally, the gameís all over the place, one minute having the characters watching a delirious enemy soldier die before them, begging for his mom, and the next, playing volleyball with their squad and a winged pig. Itís heartwarming, poignant, funny and exciting.

Jesus Christ Iím tripping balls.

All this though fails to convey the flat-out absurd level of detail this game has. I can say how you can read about the histories of the various nations, but until you open the glossary and find pages on native plant life, you wonít realize just how batshit crazy this game gets with itís own world. Perhaps the most impressive feature is the fact that every single character you can enlist has their own voice actors, histories, mannerisms and personality traits that change how they function on the battlefield. Some of these are positive (ĎSadistí is a favorite of mine, the character gets bonuses when shooting people to death.) and some of these are negative (such as being racist or being allergic to, of all things, biomes).

Argh, you make me so racist I canít shoot straight!

Itís a testament to the game that about ten hours in Iíve already started thinking of my soldiers in terms of who and what they like, rather than their stats. And you have to, because theyíre all practically the same besides those traits. A good commander will use this knowledge.

Another thing is the permadeath. Iím not sure how I feel about it in this game. In X-COM, I only play in Ironman, so when someone dies, theyíre gone and thereís fuckall I can do about it. I feel it adds a serious sense of urgency to the game. In VC, you can save all the goddamned time (and you really, really should) so most of the time, losing a trooper is pretty hard to do. The only time I ever considered letting a downed soldier stay dead, it was a 15 year old girl who was drafted into the war. As she lay on the ground, an enemy soldier came up and put his gun to her head. She looks at the camera and says ďI hope I can find my way to Heaven... Iíve never been good with directions...Ē

BANG. ĎSO-AND-SO has been killed in action.í

Fuck that. I reloaded.

Besides this, the game isnít without itís issues. The hit percentages feel wildly stacked against you at times (I swear my anti-tank soldiers graduated from the Helen Keller School of Combat), your troops will waste movement points and get killed because of badly designed geometry or invisible walls and the controls are absurdly touchy for the precision needed at times. Also, sometimes youíll start a mission and due to random mortar targeting will lose either a good chunk of your team or all of your available cover in the first phase.

Tis only a flesh wound!

These are all buried under the sheer brilliance of this title though. If you have even the slightest chance to play this (hell, I donít even own a PS3... Iím just stealing my roommateís) get it. You can likely pick it up for under $20 now and trust me when I say that itís possibly the most stunningly designed and fully realized work on the system. Besides the detail, the lovable characters and the solid gameplay, it also boasts not only a fantastic soundtrack, but the ability to switch between English and Japanese voiceovers.

One word of note though, the translation is probably one of the most interesting, if distracting, parts of the game. The localization teams took a lot of liberties with the text and if youíre using the Japanese voices, what they say isnít always what youíre reading. Not that this is a bad thing, mind you, as most people try to translate Japanese directly into English and it usually ends up sounding like the audible equivalent of a gaping stomach wound, but if you speak Japanese, youíll definitely get a different picture of some of the characters than presented by the text.

Has anyone here played it? What are your thoughts on it?   read

1:47 AM on 01.30.2013

A Payneful Experience

I am nearly finished with Max Payne 3, and have finally come to admit to myself a difficult truth.

I donít like this game.

This was a shocker to me, as MP 1 & 2 are games that I consider to be some of the best that the third person shooter genre has to offer. When MP3 was announced, I was initially turned off by the redesign and changes, but I refused to let that stop me from trying it. Rockstar had not hurt me with this series yet and I trusted them.

It was about halfway through the game that the nagging voice in my head (the one that convinces me that three cookies would be better than one, and that those jeans looked like ass on me anyway) started up. I took a break and complained to a friend, but he advised me: push on.

So I did, and what I found was severely lacking.

Screw working as a temp. I'm going back to bodyguarding.

First off, the game play. I donít know how this ended up so clunky, especially since Rockstar lives and breathes third person shooters. The fourth or fifth time I died because the targeting reticle vanished behind Maxís head I let out a grunt of frustration. How did no one else see this? It happens all the time to me, and I canít be the only one. Did they simply think that his shaven head was just too damn pretty to move out of the playerís view? (It IS pretty though)

The animations were another point. Standing up, crouching and entering/leaving cover are performed too slowly. The number of times I got shot because Max took too long to move away from a wall was obnoxious.

Not having any visual feedback when youíre being shot was also baffling. How the hell did that happen? I know Max is a bad ass, but I would finish a gunfight and think I had just completely danced through the fight unharmed only to realize my lungs were scattered across the wall behind me.

If only Brazilian Air had pulled Die Hard from their in-flight movie list.

These are small fries though compared to my biggest gripe... how rushed everything felt. I feel that the game design process went something like this:

Visionary - ĎWeíre going to make this game so detailed, so beautiful, so jam-packed with hidden items, clues and interactive environments that youíll need like 30 GB of hard drive space.í

Former EA Employee - ĎThat sounds amazing, but youíre forgetting one crucial detail - 80% of the game should have you paired up with a useless NPC who constantly shouts at you to hurry up. Also, it should be utterly inconsistent as to what scenes you need to rush through and which ones will fail you after an unclear amount of time.í

Visionary - ĎYouíre an asshole.í

Former EA Employee - ĎOh, but the other 20% of the time, there should be near constant inner monologue where Max is yelling at the player to keep going.í

Pictured: Max's newest ally. All of them.

Seriously. Itís infuriating. Why would they make a game so detailed and interactive and then constantly force the player to keep moving? Besides the NPCs, just approaching the next scene will trigger a cut scene without warning, throwing you ahead into another fight and stopping you from exploring the previous area. It feels more like Lethal Enforcers than Max Payne.

Also, what is up with the story? Max gets bored, decides to work a shitty bodyguard detail in a violent hell hole, working for clearly evil people. There are no likable or memorable characters either. Everyone is a walking stereotype of one form or another and they all do their very best to annoy the shit out of the player.

This isn't what I picture when I hear Max Payne. When I hear Max Payne, I picture distinctive visual style. I picture Neo-Noir and John Wooís lovechild. I picture a man torn by the deaths of his family and seeking revenge. I see the deep, intelligent juxtaposition of a New York mob war and Norse mythology. I see a unique graphic novel storytelling style. I see grim humor and self-awareness. I see disturbing, surreal horror. I picture some goddamned color. Not a game that looks like a generic modern warfare shooter with an HD upgrade.


I mean, who looked at the graphic novel portions from MP1 & 2 and said ĎYou know what we need instead? Generic cut scenes.í

Maybe Iím jaded and cynical, but this canít be the best Rockstar can do. This canít be the same game that garnered such strong critical praise. It feels too much like a run-of-the-mill, generic shoot-em-up. It has only the barest connections to anything prior and the whole game I wondered why they even used Max as their main character. The previous two games weren't afraid to be a little out of the box. Itís sad to see this one use that same box as a comfort blanket.   read

6:02 PM on 01.27.2013

Mass Arcade Overview - Xbox Live Five

I find myself in a position Iím becoming rather familiar with (no, not reverse cowgirl)... owning all of the games in an upcoming pack. So now that Iím finally doing this crazy blog thing, I figured Iíd spread some of that knowledge for those of you on the fence about buying this absurdly awesome pack.

Without further ado...

1. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet

ITSP is a game in the Metroidvania style, where you pilot a UFO and explore an alien world while collecting items, weapons and upgrades that allow you to backtrack and progress further. The best part of this game, hands down, is the art. Itís almost worth picking this up for that alone. The game is gorgeous, and runs like a dream. Itís stylized, acid-trip-like visuals make you feel like youíre in a lost episode of some crazy cartoon.

There are drawbacks. The game itself is fairly short, and at times crushingly difficult. Figuring out some of the puzzles can be very hit or miss and you can find yourself lost or way over your head fairly easily. The multiplayer, too, is another shortcoming. Donít be fooled by the 4 player co-op. Co-op involves running from a massive creature down an obstacle filled hall while carrying a light in the manipulator claw of your ship. Each player gets one, and if the enemy hits them, it destroys the light. Itís frustrating, confusing and you will find yourself often screwed by the physics of the game. Thereís also only one map with very little variety in the challenges you face.

Gir, this is the last time Iím letting you pick our vacation spot.

2. Deadlight

In Deadlight, you play a survivor in a zombie-infested, apocalyptic Seattle whoís trying to find his wife and daughter who he assumes are in one of the areaís refugee camp. The gameplay itself is reminiscent of older adventure games Out of this World, Flashback and Blackthorne, and the controls are for the most part, solid and responsive.

Out of all the games in this pack, to me this is the weakest. I managed to play through this game in less than 6 hours, and while it is visually and atmospherically stunning, many of the puzzles can be unfairly cryptic and youíll find yourself getting killed many times in a way that feels a bit cheap at times (Iím looking at you, Rat).

The developers have packed an unbelievable amount of backstory, history, detail and emotion into this game, and while I feel it could have benefitted from a bit longer run time, Iím glad it doesnít overstay its welcome.

His homeless-fu is strong.

3. Toy Soldiers

The only game in the pack that I havenít had a lot of time with. A sort of hybrid tower-defense, RTS... thing... Toy Soldiers sees you fighting off massive swarms of enemy soldiers with gun emplacements, artillery, tanks (which you can control directly), planes (which you can fly directly) and snipers (which you can take over and shoot with directly). Itís a lot of fun, but tends to drift towards the repetitive side after a few missions. Some missions also tend to be a bit longer than they should, and the lack of checkpoints to restart with means losing can be painful at times.

Iíve made it through about a quarter of the main campaign and have no major beef with the game. Some weapons could stand to feel a bit stronger, there might be more reward to personally controlling vehicles but those are mostly nitpicks.

If you enjoy tower defense and wished it could be a bit more hands on, this isnít a bad place to start. Though compared to the next entry, it starts to look a bit pale.

If youíre captured... itís into the microwave for you!

4. Iron Brigade/Trenched

In this World War 1 aesthetic sci-fi masterpiece, you pilot a ĎTrenchí, a big, rickety mech bristling with guns, missiles and mines. Your enemy is the Tube, a cybernetic life form created by an evil science bent on... you know what? I donít know. Probably killing stuff.

Honestly, it doesnít matter. While the writing in this game is good, the gameplay is like having cocaine shot directly into your eyes. This is an arcade-style mech piloting tower defense game with some surprisingly robust customization options.

My advice? Get three friends to shell out for this, get plenty of the drink of your choice and crank through this baby. It was the most fun Iíve had with a video game in years. No surprise there, being a Double Fine production.

Seriously. This features a general who lives in an iron lung (which has an automated cigar cutter/lighter/manipulator built in for him) and lets you play as a posh British soldier in a tuxedo and tiki mask aboard a walking mech painted solid gold. Itís mad fun. Tied for the best title in the bunch with...

Yes, I AM compensating for something.

5. Mark of the Ninja

Talk about dynamic entry. Inked in the oh-so-iconic Penny Arcade style, this sidescrolling stealth title was one of the biggest Ďholy shití moments of last year.

You play a ninja (YES!) who has received a magical tattoo that allows him to stop time whenever he feels like it. The story concerns the old Ďrevenge for my destroyed claní thing that damn near every ninja has going on, but thatís not the reason to play this.

The absolutely eyegasming visuals, the fantastic sound direction, the solid gameplay and the absolutely knife-edge-perfect stealth mechanics are the reasons to play this.

This game stands in the perfect balance of not holding your hand, but never putting you in a situation that you wonít naturally be able to conquer on your own. Itís empowering, itís fast and itís thrilling as hell. Taking out a roomful of guards hasnít felt this amazing since Arkham Asylum, and youíll find yourself grinning ear to ear as you pull off amazing strategies and destroy your foes.

Fans of stealth games will love the system, and people who arenít major stealth fans might still like it for itís solid controls, beautiful presentation and organic mechanics.

Itís also very flexible on how it allows you to approach a mission. Want to avoid kills? By all means. Itís a hell of a challenge. Want to kill everybody? Go ahead, the gameíll support you all the way through. The only thing you canít do is get caught. Your ninja knows what his job is, and thatís cutting people like fruit while being invisible, and it cements this by not allowing you to kill people when theyíre aware of your presence.

Easily a contender for my top list of 2012, you canít go wrong with Mark.

More like a non-ja.   read

4:03 PM on 01.27.2013

Daddy Issues - Games With a Parental Theme

Awhile ago, Iíd read an article outlining how games are beginning to target older audiences, in an effort to appeal to the finally-aging fan base of our favorite medium. It was an interesting read, and one that wasnít unexpected, but still struck a chord with me.

Recently though, I was surprised to realize that many of the games Iíd been becoming enraptured with embodied this idea. Now, I have no children, nor am I personally sure Iím ever going to, but I was surprised to see just how strongly these appeal to me.

Iíve never been one to shy away from having an emotional reaction to a good story, so when I say that dad movies always manage to affect me, understand that they usually hit hard. Big Fish, Field of Dreams, etc... these movies always hit home. Strangely enough though, itís the role reversal found in the games Iíve been playing thatís having the same effect.

It started with Red Dead Redemption. Minor spoilers here, nothing too major, but if youíd rather, just skip down after the image. The game took awhile to grip me, but after it did, I was hooked. I really got into Johnís story, his hunt for these men, his desire to protect his family, it became personal. At the end, after all is said and done, the time you get to spend with your son really got to me. It was a fantastic reward, getting to spend time doing mundane things with your child after all the violence and madness.

My dad can bullet-time kill your dad.

Fast forward to a month or two ago, when I finally stumbled into The Walking Dead. Going in, I knew nothing about this game. The first episode was good, mind you, but the real beauty didnít occur to me until sometime a bit later. Iím talking, of course, about Clementine. For what itís worth, Iíve never encountered a child character more compelling or better realized in a game.

I think it was sometime around chapter 3 that it suddenly hit me that I wasnít making decisions that benefitted my character most or that were the usual choices Iíd make in a game... I was making the choices that I felt were best for Clem. Both Lee and Clemís relationship and watching Kenny fight to keep his family safe really impacted me on a personal level. The moment Clem admitted to putting a bug on Duckís pillow with that mischievous grin, I knew I would do anything to make sure she made it through that game.

Out of context, this picture is sketchy as hell.

Dishonored, which Iím currently playing through, is another game which has a strong father theme. It makes the player question his actions, whether he wants to seek out and realize his revenge for the terrible things done to him or whether he can forgive and let go of these grievances in hopes of not destroying the city that his young ward is meant to inherit. While I donít think Dishonored is particularly well written, the idea is there and it is something I canít help but keep in mind as the Ďchoke a foolí and the Ďstab a foolí options pop up on my screen.

Hit-Girl seems to be collecting screwed up father figures.

I like this trend. I never expected I would, but I like games that put me into this protector sort of position. It feels more real and feels far more emotionally gripping than saving the world or a kingdom or just getting revenge. It forces me to think outside the box. In Far Cry 3, my choices are Ďshoot someone with a rifle from far awayí, Ďsic a bear on peopleí or Ďstab people in the throatí. While an absurdly fun game (emphasis on absurdly fun), these are personal, selfish choices. They donít matter in the long run. Being forced to decide whatís best for another, to weigh my actions according to someone elseís standards... that provides a strong, memorable obstacle for me. I will always remember sweating in front of my monitor, hands frozen on the keyboard, as Clementine looked up at me, patiently awaiting my answer to an absolutely gut-wrenching question.

Well thank goodness there arenít any children around to see this.

How about the rest of you? Do you feel the same way? What moments in games do you remember affecting you due to itís effect not on you or your avatar, but another character?   read

5:32 PM on 01.26.2013

Control vs. Power or Stop Helping Me Dammit!

Recently, I got to play through Resident Evil 6 with a friend of mine, who surprised me with the game as a Christmas gift. Now, this game has received a lot of flak and while admittedly itís earned most of it, I still think it does a lot of things right. Mind you, Iíve been a fan of the series since its debut on PS1.

However, one thing it did was help me get to the core of my biggest pet peeve in video games. Games have one trait and one trait only that puts them apart from other media. Control. Video games are the only entertainment platform where you are able to make decisions for the protagonist (or army, or whatever) and have those decisions produce unique consequences.

Fe Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of a minimalistic protagonist.

So... we know this. You know this, I know this, why am I telling this to a person with a controller sitting a few feet away? (And likely without charge. Hook that thing up so you wonít be sad later!)

Well, I believe there are two concepts at war here. Control and power. Control is your ability to move your character, to perform actions within the gamespace that have some effect on your character or the world (even if this is just moving around a bit). Power is how in control of the situation you find your character in. I feel these are important distinctions.

Taking away power from a player can be a, well, powerful thing to do in a game. Think of the time you fight Pyramid Head in Silent Hill 2, trapped in a flooded stairwell with him. This is a great example of taking away power, but not control. You could try to attack him with your pipe, shoot at him, run away or bleed on him heroically, but this was Pyramid Head. He was huge and terrifying. He never showed a reaction to your attacks. The game specifically refused to give you feedback in the form of health bars, flinches, flashing red enemies or the like. You felt helpless. It wasnít frustrating, it was terrifying. You were in control and the only one you could blame for your predicament was yourself.

James regrets not taking his pills that morning.

Shadow of the Colossus, without going into too many spoilers, used the gift of control and the denial of power to great effect in its ending to richen and strengthen the experience.

Resident Evil 6, however, flips this on its head, and like a similarly-handled toddler, the result isnít very pretty or functional. There were countless times in the game where the player is forced to look at some item of interest. Occasionally this is an important enemy or clue to a puzzle, but more often the camera is hijacked to show a door or, worse, something the other player is doing. What really makes these events special is that not only can you not skip or avoid them, and not only does this pull your targeting reticle with it (yep, potentially making you miss a shot with your valuable, valuable ammo... or blowing yourself up) but it doesnít pause the game.

At least half a dozen times throughout the experience I would return from a cutscene revealing a door or switch to find myself surrounded by enemies. This is particularly egregious during a forced stealth segment, where you are mostly unarmed and being guided by your ally in a security room. When my ally opened a door, the camera jumped away to show him doing that... opening a door. When I returned to my character, a few seconds later, the alarm had been tripped by a wandering guard that saw me and I was already surrounded by foes.

ďWhy canít I quit you?Ē ďThe cameraís been hijacked.Ē ďOh.Ē

This isnít an occasional thing... this happens all the time. I canít imagine this made it through testing without at least a few broken controllers. Even worse, there are mandatory chase sequences where the camera will switch angles, and will switch your directional input with it. Youíll suddenly find yourself running towards the giant monster.

This is bad game design, and there is no excuse for it. Gears of War implemented this elegantly by allowing you to press Y to optionally look at the important thing the game wanted to show you. If you were too busy chainsawing people, you could ignore it. More recently Journey used the background and level design to naturally bring your attention to points of interest and scenery of note. Resident Evil 6 has no excuse.

Itís like when you see your powerful, experienced hero captured by one guy with a pistol. Your avatar has survived hundreds of bullets and can likely out shoot his captors, but the story demands you submit and a cutscene makes it happen. Itís annoying and breaks the illusion that weíre in control of the character.

Take Spec Ops: The Line. If you have not played this game, you should. Itís an incredible, unique experience that Iíve never seen replicated. In that game, youíre often presented with questionable situations and surprisingly (besides one major exception) the game allows you full freedom to react to those situations however you like with the abilities you have. The best part is? It doesnít tell you that you can do these things. Itís organic and natural... you never feel cheated or like youíre not in control of your character. You just react and the game responds exactly as youíd expect.

David Carradine was a bad example on Dubaiís youth.

Capcom could learn a thing or two.

How about the rest of you? What are some moments in your experience that have removed your power or control, and how effective were they as game elements?   read

2:31 AM on 01.25.2013

Can A Video Game Be Sexy?

Well, I suppose for a debut post, this isnít a bad place to start.

So, sex in video games. This is a topic that has always been on my mind, one Iíve felt gets an awful lot of attention but doesnít actually benefit from this attention in any meaningful way. Iíll avoid the whole Ďitís fucked that you can blow off 36 individual parts of a person in Soldier of Fortune 2 but nipples are SATANí discussion for now though.

Can video games be sexy? Of course they can. Hereís the secret folks - no one drew Minerva Mink or designed Blood Rayne so that their character design reflects their deep, well-written character. Someone, somewhere, (probably a few someones, that shit gets expensive to produce) found the traits that they decided to gift these characters with sexy. Some artist discovered that he got tingly in the nethers when he looked at girls in leather and figured that maybe, just maybe, someone else would appreciate this.

Is it exploitative? Sure. Is it degrading? Thatís debatable. Is it arousing? Sure, it could be. Why not? Thereís an absurd idea floating about that people should be ashamed of what theyíre aroused by. I grew up on cartoons and video games, and some of my earlier crushes were Terra Branford, Gadget and Zelda. Why not? They were a part of the things I enjoyed, they were important to me in the context of the hobbies I had and they were designed to appeal in some way to their audiences.

Human beings do not control whom or what theyíre attracted to. Heterosexuals, homosexuals, asexuals, furries, pedophiles, foot fetishists... no one sits down and checks off what they want to find arousing (it would save me a LOT of money and effort if I was sexually fulfilled by Pepperidge Farm Goldfish). No one wakes up one day and says ĎI canít wait to be a social pariah for my personal urgesí. We just make do the best we can. ĎWhatever floats your boatí indeed.

So when we talk about arousing moments in video games, the focus should be less on Ďcan video games be arousingí and more Ďwhat makes a scene arousingí. Itís the same with Hollywood, (and to be fair, in the context of realism, uploading some knuckle children into Cortana and hooking up with Emma Stone are both pretty damn unlikely for pretty much everyone) some sex scenes work really well and some... donít. Two words: Showgirls, pool. To some degree, itíll always be a personal preference thing, but design figures into it too.

So... what makes a good video game sex scene? To be honest, they havenít really nailed that down yet. Personally, I remember Shepard and Taliís love scene from Mass Effect 2 affecting me, but emotionally, not necessarily sexually. It wasnít explicit, but neither was it awkward or poorly animated, likely thanks to the overeager cut-to-black.

On the other hand Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecyís sex scenes were more explicit and didnít feel too shoehorned in, but didnít really rev my motor. Maybe it was the uncanny valley, maybe it was the bad animation, who knows.

More recently, Far Cry 3 received some attention for having one of the first mainstream first person sex sequences, and while it wasnít all that long or graphic, I found it to be more effective in conveying realistic sex than many games have in the past. The characters are climbing the far end of the uncanny valley, and while the scene itself was pretty out there, the sex wasnít over the top.

Itís hard to talk about sex in games without discussing eroge, which for those who donít know means Erotic Game, and originates in Japan. Often in the form of visual novels, these games are only marked as eroge if they feature graphic sexual content... regardless of how much there actually is. Now, these really donít do sex any better than other media, and in fact probably do a far worse job in many cases, but one title Iíll mention briefly is the US produced, free-to-play Katawa Shoujo.

Now, regardless of your thoughts on the subject matter and quality, one thing that really stood out about the experience is how it flat-out nails the first-time sexual experience. Anyone who has had sex will immediately grimace, grin or squirm at (most of) the scenes, and to me, that makes them fantastic. All the poor communication, the lack of satisfaction, the uncertainty... they really captured it well, and I think it goes a long way towards its charm. Its relatable and grounded, not idealized and clean, which sex rarely is.

You often hear the argument that these scenes in games donít need to be as explicit as they are, but Iíd like to put forth the argument that as technology improves, we should be pushing to be more explicit. Why not? In Mass Effect, you watch friends and children die, make decisions that condemn lovers, comrades or entire races to horrific fates, and in the middle of all this madness, we should cut away from the one moment of love? Why?

Human sexuality has always been something of great interest and great importance to me. Itís always shocked me how something so important to life, something that is of such an interest to nearly all of us, has become such a knee-jerk taboo throughout much of the world. Film, literature and music have made strides, for better and for worse, in exploring these important matters for years now... itís about time for gaming to be a bit less shy about doing the same.

What do you all think? Tell me about a scene in a game, sexual in nature, that made you feel something. What was the scene? What did you feel? Arousal? Warmth? Embarrassment?   read

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