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7:08 PM on 10.16.2012

Apathy Towards The Walking Dead, and Why That's Awesome

Fair warning: Spoilers abound concerning Telltale's The Walking Dead game series, particularly Episode 4. If you plan on playing through, I highly suggest you stop reading now and get to that...

Great! Now keep reading.

I climbed the attic steps slowly, the silence building that same feeling of dread you have come to expect from Telltale Games' excellent episodic adventure series. I found myself surprised at the lack of gnashing teeth and flailing limbs attempting to rend Lee Everett's flesh, instead finding a quite sullen Kenny, watching something on the other side of the attic. Getting a better view revealed a rather brittle and broken child-turned-walker – hardly a threat physically to the two men that have faced countless hardship over three episodes. No, this meager figure was meant to instill pain of a different kind to the player. Why was it, then, that I could only think to myself. “Didn't I do this in the last episode?”

The entirety of this scene felt like it was trudging along at a walker's pace, though not in a good way. Spot the kid, realize what has to be done, choose who does it, and that's that. While not exactly to the letter, it felt close enough to the rather excellent Duck scene in Episode 3 that I merely wanted to hurry up and get to the next point. It wasn't until nearly the end of the episode that it finally hit me: I was seriously apathetic to the act of killing and burying a child. What the hell was wrong with me?

Though it may be only a game, I've agonized over decisions and dreaded the consequences, wondering who would be offed next and if group members would still stand by my side. I even got to the point of questioning if Clementine would continue to trust me and stay by my side, and that was in the very same episode where I wasn't moved by having to bury a child that I killed, even if he was infected. It wasn't until later that one line from Vernon, the doctor, made me realize how freaking brilliant it all was:

“You wanna know the worst part?... I don't feel much. I mean, I don't feel enough. Shouldn't I be broken up over what happened...?”

After enough deaths, mishaps, tragedies, and betrayals, it's not unreasonable to think that these characters would eventually become numb to the shock and pain of it all. To think that Telltale managed to cause the exact same effect to me, the player, was a truly astounding feat on their part. The fact that I could still get those tense moments and tough decisions (including, in my opinion, some of the best in the series so far) along with this wild fourth wall-breaking experience was icing on the cake.

So, you wanna know the best part? I feel a lot. I mean, I feel probably too much. Shouldn't I be less enthused considering all that's happened? The answer to that question is not at all. I couldn't be more excited for the finale. I am curious as to how all of you that have made it this far feel, as well as if you're in the same boat as I am.   read

9:42 AM on 12.20.2011

Is There Any hope For Survival-Horror?

We have two major releases for the survival-horror genre on the horizon: Resident Evil Revelations and Silent Hill Downpour. To put it bluntly, I'm worried about the state of these games. Survival-horror has been slowly devolving into a sub-genre for games rather than being the defining aspect of the product put under that umbrella. Sure, these games tout their horror aspects proudly, but how much of that really showcases in the game itself? Is it simply dark environments, vile monsters, and things jumping through windows that combine to make a horror game, or is there something else to the formula that is fading away?

When you think about it, Resident Evil has reluctantly been a survival-horror franchise since its inception. The first few games really nailed some of the aspects down – limited ammo, obscured views, the occasional jump scare, and later on the concept of being hunted (Nemesis comes to mind). Even RE 4 gave a great feeling of helplessness with the iconic village encounter. The problem with every Resident Evil game has been when you get to about the halfway point. The developers then decide that it needs to become an action game with shoddy controls.

I don't care who you are, that dog scared the pants off of you the first time it happened.

It's locations like the Spencer Mansion and the RPD that players fondly remember, not the labs where you're blasting away monsters with a shotgun/grenade launcher. It was the fact that a simple zombie could kill you and you had 15 rounds to ration that put you on the edge of your seat, not the big monster with some kind of enormous claw on its arm that would be killed by the conveniently placed rocket launcher every time. The new titles, in terms of control scheme, have been a natural progression, and I do still enjoy them quite a bit. I hope that Revelations can strike the perfect chord between horror and action, but I'm cautiously looking toward it.

Silent Hill was, and often still is, compared to Resident Evil as one of the biggest survival-horror franchises of all time. Silent Hill really carried the torch for the genre as Capcom's series walked the path toward action over horror. Team Silent used some really clever tools like the static from the radio, the fact that your character wasn't trained with firearms to justify missing targets, and the fear of the unknown, to really get under the player's skin. Some of the scariest moments of a Silent Hill game are the ones where you go into a room with nothing in it. You don't know nothing is there, but the very fact that something could be there is what drives the fear home.

Tormented characters and revealing scenes like the video tape in Silent Hill 2 are hallmarks of the series that are much more difficult to find now.

Silent Hill began to lean toward the action side of the fence as well with Homecoming. I was glad they used a character that could feasibly perform better in combat to justify it, but it really took away some of the charm (if you could call Silent Hill charming) from the series. Shattered Memories took a chance with making clearly defined exploration and survival portions, and in some ways it worked. Eventually the tension from exploring would wear off as you knew without a doubt that you were safe. The newest entry, Downpour, looks to follow the trend of Homecoming, deviating from the subtle aspects that made the series so compelling in favor of bigger set pieces and more action.

So where does that leave the genre as a whole? It's fate, funnily enough, is defined now by its own characteristics. It is largely shadowed by a fear of the unknown from fans; we don't know where the path will lead at this point. We've had games such as Alan Wake, with its well-crafted atmosphere that doesn't rely on blood and gore, and Dead Space, with unique set pieces such as the vacuum of space itself, that have made some memorable experiences, but still rely on the action portion just a little too much.

One developer that really seems to have a grasp on the horror game is Frictional Games, creators of the excellent Penumbra, and more recently Amnesia, games. While these titles are not without flaws, big name developers can look at these games to see how making the player feel helpless and having a constant looming of the unknown can be just as, if not more, engaging than empowering the player with a big gun. Combat has a place in the world of survival-horror, but that place is not as the star of the show.

There is nothing dangerous in this room at all actually. I still wanted to run away like a frightened child and turn the game off. That is a sign of a good horror game.

I haven't lost hope completely with the genre, as I know there are many games within it that are still excellent despite the direction they lean toward. I can't help but worry though, when the titles that are often considered the crown of survival-horror have been deviating so much from what made them so engrossing in the first place. Following the genre has become a survival-horror game in and of itself – I don't know what will be coming next, I feel helpless watching it grow, and I'm cautiously moving forward in hopes that there will eventually be some light at the end of the tunnel.   read

3:01 PM on 12.02.2011

Multiplayer: Why the Couch Won't Fit Through the Ethernet Cable

“Hey, I uncovered my old Dreamcast and Bust-a-Move. It's too bad no one's willing to challenge me. Alas, the loneliness of being a Bust-a-Move demigod.”

“Challenge accepted.”

With those two words, I led both myself and a friend of mine into a three-hour Bust-a-Move battle royal. Sweat dripping from our brows, calling out one another's crappy shots, drinking beer in hopes that it would make our shots more accurate (it didn't), the battle came to its climax, and after the dust settled, I arose the victor over the self-proclaimed demigod.

While it may have not been that dramatic, we had a ton of laughs, tense moments, and plenty of insults thrown about, making for a great evening. As I left to go home, it got me to start thinking about multiplayer gaming as a whole.

We are able to cooperate and compete with people from around the globe in real time in ways we could never had imagined. With all these great advancements, you would think the average gamer's experience is at an all-time high. Why is it then, that we have a seemingly gaping hole in multiplayer today? I found some insight on the subject within some old memories of mine.

As a child, one of my first forays into multiplayer games was with one of my cousins. I was staying over his house a few days a week one summer, and in between tree-climbing, bike riding, and checking out the new PlayStation he just got, we stumbled upon an old Super Nintendo cartridge whilst sword-fighting in the basement. He still had the console hooked up down there, so we sat down and popped it in.

After a couple of tries blowing into the cartridge and turning the console on, we were greeted with a haunting howling while the Squaresoft logo appeared on the screen. The game was Secret of Mana. I still don't remember how, but after playing for a while and finding the Sprite, we figured out that we could play the game with two players. That was when the magic truly began.

Every day we would go down to the basement and transport ourselves into the world of Square's action-RPG, really connecting with the characters and having our imaginations run wild with it. When we got to a boss, the music would start, and the two of us would develop a battle plan. Tensions would mount when one of our characters, one of us, came close to death, and the resulting joy of coming back and finally besting our foe was unparalleled.

I still remember my aunt asking us why we weren't playing the PlayStation, instead opting for the old console. We simply just looked at each other, smiled, and said “This is more fun.”

Fast forward about six or seven years, and my friends and I were playing unhealthy amounts of Halo 2. We would all gather at one house, bring over two other Xboxes and televisions, hook them all together with a hub, and have LAN parties in the basement, often accompanied by mini cheeseburgers and liters of Mountain Lightning or Grapeade (yes, we were far too cheap for name brand soda; you couldn't beat 68 cents for a 2-liter bottle!). The resulting chaos culminated in some of my favorite memories as a teenager.

Between trash talking, screen peeking, flying controllers, and flying cheeseburgers, we found a common ground that brought us together in ways we couldn't imagine. We all look back on it fondly and would kill for both the time and the chance to do it again.

I could go on, but anything else I would recall would reveal to me the same thing: the social interaction that is missing from the online sphere. Yes, we do have great features like in-game voice chat and friends lists that allow us to reach a wide variety of people at virtually any time, but at what cost? The personal connection between players is often lost in transmission, cultivating a much colder atmosphere. Even now, when I play games online with a friend, I'll find myself going over to his house and setting up my laptop to play there.

When you put a game console, a group of people who love games, and a couch together, it creates an environment that just can't be emulated with an internet connection.

Trash talking and gloating is far more satisfying when you're six inches from the person's face.

When you beat your buddy at a game, you get the satisfaction of watching him toss his controller, cursing your name as he challenges you to one more round (as long as the aforementioned controller is still working).

When you see that massive boss monster appear on-screen, you are able to look over at your ally, nod your head as he nods back, and triumph, sometimes without even a single word to one another.

It's these kinds of experiences that I look forward to when I see multiplayer in a game, and unfortunately, it seems like they're marred by the absence of the above and other elements that just can't be squeezed through an Ethernet cable, no matter how hard we try.

Don't get me wrong, I love the ability to play games like Left 4 Dead, Borderlands, and Counter-Strike online with friends. Some people I wouldn't be able to keep in contact with if it weren't for that. I'm grateful for all the advancements that have been made, but there's just this inexplicable dynamic created when I'm with people who love games as much as I do and we can share in that -- not only with words and empathy, but with action as well.

Even if that action is swearing and drinking beer because I just beat you at Bust-a-Move... again!   read

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