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3:22 PM on 05.03.2009

I <3 Destructoid (shortblog)

It's been awhile since I posted last, but that doesn't mean that I haven't been here. I've been following posts from others here and keeping up with the gaming world. I haven't felt inspired enough to write about anything this month, I didn't write random BS just to write something, but I faithfully visited every day. Destructoid is great not because I have the freedom to spout any inane, but because being a reader is just as rewarding as being a writer. The latest Jim Sterling troll-baiting opinion piece and Chad's poigniant post about Valkyria Chronicles are representative of the quality and range of writing found on the site. I also commend all those who take time out of their days to contribute to the C-blogs. From thoughtful reviews and hilarious satires to failblogs and flame wars, there is something to read for any mood. The forums deserve recognition as well, for while they may not be as visible as the front page, they provide a casual place for everyone to speak their minds. There really is something here for everyone.

In short: Dtoid, keep doin' whatcha doin'--it is greatly appreciated.   read

5:01 PM on 03.22.2009

Expanded Universes: Master Chief Always Rings Twice

Everyone who was paying attention knew that the sequel to Halo would be big. But Bungie was not content to just let the game disseminate itself to the masses through traditional means. They turned to a company called 42 Entertainment to craft an immersive, viral ad campaign that helped bring Halo into people’s houses by getting gamers out of the house. Thus was spawned the first alternate reality game (ARG) based on a blockbuster video game, ilovebees.

If you’ve never heard of this before now, this Wikipedia article should get you up to speed. Essentially, an ARG is an interactive marketing device used by media producers to build up hype for their products. Participants must collectively collect clues and solve puzzles to advance a story that relates to the game/movie/show. Here is where the “alternate reality” comes in. People participate in ways that go beyond conventional gaming. Or more accurately, they must participate in a variety of older genres of games in support of electronic media. Activities include decryption, pattern detection, deduction, mathematical reasoning, and hide-and-seek. After solving puzzles, players had to find the right pay phone, enter a code, and listen to the next segment of the Ilovebees’s radio drama. The recording would then be made available to all participants via audio files on the main web site.

This application of mixed media marketing to the Halo franchise expands the game’s universe by introducing supplementary story, and it seduces fans by giving them a feeling of agency as they explore an ancillary aspect of the game’s world. People don’t have to access Halo through the Master Chief avatar; they can contribute directly, collectively, by solving puzzles and unlocking backstory. Traditional forms of expanded canon like novelizations and fanfiction may tell compelling stories sometimes, but they don’t integrate the video game’s sense of interactivity. In that way, ARGs introduce different elements that go beyond the source material’s parameters.

However, I can’t decide how I feel about the success of ARGs. At their core, they exist to promote a product. It’s like edutainment except the message is provided by a marketing team instead of a school board. I’m spending my time and effort to invest myself in a product that someone wants me to buy. And another thing: the structure of the game reeks of casual gaming: work with other people at your own pace, do what you enjoy doing and let someone else do the stuff you don’t like. After all, there has to be someone out there who enjoys combing through lines of code to find an irregular five-digit string, right? Is a game worth playing if I have to wait weeks for updates, only to find out that I am either not interested in, not capable of doing, or not skilled at the next puzzle?

But I have to critique those reactions, because I know that there’s some bullshit there. If I have the time to troll around the Internet, read through countless wiki entries and forum posts, and work on a puzzle that would make Professor Layton’s testes shrivel, how much is my time really worth? Not much. And I can’t really muster much ire about a marketing company making money on an ARG. They provide nominally cheap entertainment, just like the companies that contract them to run the campaign. If the game is entertaining, they did a good job, and I may feel more inclined to purchase the related product. Hell, I was probably going to buy the product anyway, and the ARG only helped keep me interested. I would rather not use this post to set forth a definitive judgment on alternate reality gaming. I’m more interested in examining the reasons people play (or refrain from playing) and how this example of Web 2.0 advertising attempts to redefine advertising, gaming, and the consumer’s role in the development of media. It would be nice to think of ARGs as revolutionary means of breaking the old mode of passive absorption, but I’m afraid the reality falls short of the ideal. What are your thoughts, Dtoiders? Have you joined any ARGs? Does the idea sound promising?   read

12:14 AM on 03.18.2009

New Characters Debut in Warhammer Online

For those tired of the usual fare, Mythic Entertainment offers up a pair of fresh classes (read: recycled RPG archetypes) for the Warhammer crowd. We can now play as the Orc Choppa, which sounds similar to the Barbarian build from Diablo II, and the Dwarf Slayer, some sort of runic warrior. The release of these new classes coincide with Mythic's consolidation of its player base on fewer servers. If you haven't returned to the WoW fold, this mixture of denser realms and different character choices may reignite your interest in this MMO...for awhile, at least. The corporate fluff piece can be found here.   read

12:12 AM on 03.06.2009

The Personal Cost of Economic Crises

In part 2 of 2 of my satirical take on how the media and other institutions are capitalizing on the recession, I look past the corporate logos and political posturing to capture the working person's plight. If my last faux-journalistic post was not to your liking, you'll probably want to move along.

Soldier #3571842 had a promising career in an upwardly-mobile sector of the US Government. He secured a plum job protecting some of the most secure locations in America; their notoriety as impregnable bastions virtually assured that he would never see actual combat. At worst, he would be placed on latrine duty for sleeping on the job—which he did a lot. “It was hard, y’know, staying awake on patrol, with nothing happening,” said #3571842. “But it was steady work that was secure.” Or so he thought. Now, in the midst of the deepest American recession since the 1930s, massive cuts to governmental budgets means that even those sectors once deemed “recession-proof” must terminate positions to stay in the black. During the Cold War, covert operations and secret agencies flourished. Their directors easily justified their expenses with the threat of Communist subversion at home and abroad. But the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the fracturing of military threats, and the creation of Homeland Security have diminished the importance of shadow organizations. Politicians find it harder and harder to support expensive, long-term investments in “super weapons,” genetic soldiers, and mythical artifacts. Low-level workers like #3571842 often bear the brunt of financial hardships to keep priority projects on track. “I understand why they cut me,” #3571842 says, “but what else can I do? It’s not like I can take my resume down to the nearest Home Depot. I mean, I was made to be a soldier. That doesn’t help me get work outside the black ops industry.”

#3571842 considers himself fortunate that he is still young. “Even with the genetic decay that comes with being a clone, I still have time to build my retirement fund. I feel sorry for those older guys who are getting put out to pasture.” As an alternative to firing workers, agencies are urging (or forcing) older workers to retire early. One such agent we spoke with, who called himself “Splinter Cell,” spoke angrily about his treatment: “I put my life on the line countless times for my country, knowing that I would never be recognized for my efforts. I expected to be taken care of by my government, and now that we’re strapped for cash, I’m on the chopping block. Sure, I got a nice pension, but my 401k lost 65% this last year.” Things are bad, he states, but others are even worse off. “One of my friends, Snake, works in a similar field in a different country, and he’s at an age where he can’t afford to lose his income. He has to take a certain amount of money out of his retirement accounts each year. With the markets so low, he’s losing fifty, sixty percent of the money he put towards retirement.” Older civil servants who work in the shadows often miss out on the health care benefits that they need to deal with expensive health complications.

We spoke with one professional who has an excellent perspective on how the economic situation deteriorated so rapidly. Agent 47, famed assassin, said that he saw the breakdown coming based on a lack of business last year. “My clientele come from the upper tax brackets. They demand quality work and expect to pay top Euro. When economies falter, consumers pull back on spending in favor of paying down debt and increasing personal savings. Luxury items, like contract killings, are the first things cut.” Professionals like 47 aren’t completely out of business. However, the drop in revenue forces them to reduce overhead costs that ballooned during better years. “I can count on a certain level of steady business, but it’s nowhere near the boom years of the late nineties. As a result of the decreased work, I spend less on munitions, travel, and accommodations that other people depend on to fuel their local markets. It’s a vicious cycle that erodes everything it touches, which is most of the world now thanks to globalized economics.”

#3571842 has a lot more time on his hands these days. He sleeps in past noon, wakes up, and flips through the classified ads as he drinks a cup of weak coffee. “The stuff is expensive, so I make it last by using half the recommended amount,” he says. He usually finds two or three jobs he considers himself qualified for. After circling them, he closes the newspaper with a sigh and sits down to watch television. “I’m hoping that something works out soon. I have this dream that some tyrannical warlord or Third World mercenary army calls me back. One of these days, people will need clone soldiers again. I just hope I can afford to wait ‘til then.”   read

1:04 AM on 03.03.2009

RE1&2 Are More Relevant Now Than RE4&5

The Japanese have already been there, done that, and lived to tell the tale. They suffered an economic meltdown similar to the one happening in America today. Credit seized up, housing markets collapsed, consumer spending evaporated, and industries shrunk. In some ways, they had it worse because most of their GDP came from exports. When overseas demand dropped precipitously, the domestic market couldn’t make up the difference, and thus began the “Lost Decade,” also known as the 1990s. Amidst all of this chaos, there arose a legion of unnatural creations most foul: zombie banks.

In essence, banks zombify when they do not have enough capital and assets to maintain the debt ratio necessary to support large-scale mortgages, credit lines, and CDs, among other things. If enough people draw money out/redeem bonds/default on loans, and the institution cannot cover everything, the bank can fail without additional capital. When this happens on a wide enough scale (as seen in America during the early eighties or in Japan during the late eighties), the government takes it upon itself to infuse those banks with enough cash to continue operating. Technically, the bank is dead: any money it makes is doomed to go toward paying private and public creditors. But instead of folding, it is kept alive by a force that intervenes in the free market. These zombies devour large sums of cash to keep moving while creating little profit. That money could go to healthy banks to make them stronger, more capable of buoying the economy as a whole. The problem with zombie banks is that they spring up in crowds, and their sheer number makes a bad situation even worse.

Are you still with me? Good, because this is where the video game angle comes in. I find it not so coincidental that the survival horror genre flourished in Japan during the “Lost Decade.” The elements that made the first two Resident Evil games so evocative seem a propos given the national financial crisis. One of the most genre-defining elements comes from the dearth of resources. I have vivid memories of playing through RE2 for the first time, anxious to cap some zombie asses. Four screens in, I’m stuck in a metro car with one bullet left and the undead getting all up in my business. It took me a couple of bloody attempts to realize that I can’t afford to shoot everything. With each zombie taking two, three shots (at least) to bring down, I figured out that, to succeed, I have to avoid as many as I could and kill only those that pose a significant risk.

Not to draw too close a parallel, but the resource management in early RE games reflects the financial anxieties of an economically distressed person. Ammo represents cash/credit; the player must work to acquire it, and while one can count on the game providing some throughout the levels, the supply is not consistent or excessive. By the same token, zombies and other enemies represent needs, wants, obligations, and obstacles, all of which drain a player’s assets. The tension created by the tentative flow of resources is complemented by the ambiguity in the encounters. How many of the zombies must be killed to get from point A to point B? How many should be killed to avoid taking random damage and using up precious herbs (an even scarcer resource than ammunition)? Which weapon should be used, given the obstacle’s weaknesses and one’s supplies? All of these questions must be answered contextually, based on the game’s parameters and the player’s skills.

The characters involved reflect the perceived scale of events from the populist perspective. Working class folks who only want to do what is right and get along in the world confront faceless corporations with far-reaching, diabolical schemes that appear too malicious to have gotten this far—someone should have seen this coming, someone should have prevented this from getting out of hand. But those with the power to prevent the zombie scourge are either incompetent or corrupt, leaving the young, naïve STARS members to bring down the villains from the ground up. RE conveys the angst of a younger generation frustrated by the moral failings of their predecessors.

The latest games in the series have lost that voice, as seen in the fundamental changes made in RE4. I don’t mean that as a value judgment; in fact, I enjoyed RE4 more than the first two games. The shift away from survival horror towards more action-oriented gameplay, however, strikes me as a changing of the guard. World economics picked up around the turn of the millennium, and gamers became increasingly impatient with games that would deprive them of resources. Instead, developers plunged into the joys of excess: space marines who could heal almost anytime; open world environments with real estate and businesses; weapons with unlimited ammunition. When the money is rolling in IRL, it can be harder for mainstream audiences to relate to a game that projects a tight-fisted view of the world. Now, though, the times are a-changing, and we may see games reflect those changes. After all, Resident Evil 5 producer Jun Takeuchi said that “Resident Evil 6 will have to reinvent the series with another full model change or else it won’t be able to keep on going.” We may see a return, even in a small way, to the game philosophy that made RE great in the first place.   read

6:25 PM on 02.22.2009

Umbrella Corporation Folds! Economy Worsens with No Relief in Sight

Last month’s economic indicators revealed that demand for industrial and commercial products will not be reviving any time soon. Market analysts have predicted that many companies will likely succumb to debt in the first quarter of 2009 as large bonds come due. It was no surprise, then, when Umbrella Corporation announced yesterday that it would enter Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Umbrella leveraged its assets hard in the mid-nineties when it acquired several chemical and biotech companies in North American and Europe. It was poised to become the dominant biotech company in the world before the virus scandal in Raccoon City, USA sent its stocks through the floor. In the aftermath, Umbrella refocused its efforts on consumer products, but it could not remove the stigma attached to its name. The company limped along by selling capital and borrowing heavily until last week, when its largest debts matured. Creditors assessed the viability of Umbrella and deemed that “the likelihood of sufficient investment recapture is too low to recommend keeping the company solvent.” A written statement by Albert Wesker, Umbrella’s vice-president of public relations, conveyed the corporation’s disappointment that it could not gain the public’s trust. “We have consistently dedicated ourselves to serving the best interests of humanity. Mistakes were made, and we acknowledged and corrected them. Under better economic circumstances, we would press more vigorously remain solvent. However, our best option now is to liquidate and then resurrect ourselves at an indeterminate point in the future.”

The fall of Umbrella Corporation comes on the heels of a massive bailout package that was given to rival company Abstergo Industries. Abstergo competed with Umbrella in key markets and suffered a similar drop in contracts from reduced consumer spending. Abstergo benefited from a more diversified portfolio, with products ranging from cosmetics and baby products to airline parts and munitions. Last fall, Abstergo CEO Mark Farrier came before Congress and requested government money to keep the company afloat. Not doing so, Farrier warned, “could send ripples throughout the world’s economies. Those ripples would compound the current crisis and threaten the possibility of every developed nation’s recovery.” Lawmakers protested at first, citing that the Troubled Assets Relief Program was designed to prop up the financial sector. Farrier successfully lobbied for an exemption for Abstergo by demonstrating that the company’s fate is intertwined with the world’s economy. Umbrella Corporation sought a similar exemption, but Congress refused. Senator Dominic Greene (D-NY) scoffed, “If we grant Umbrella an exemption, we might as well offer one to Enron while we’re at it. The American government is not in the business of raising businesses from the dead.”

There is no definite word yet about how Umbrella’s collapse will impact the economy at large. Some analysts have suggested that the company’s overall significance is too low to affect things much. “Ten years ago, this would have crippled the biotech market,” says Karen Haversham of Citigroup. “But ever since the Raccoon City incident, other companies have risen to take over Umbrella’s market share. We won’t miss what little competition Umbrella Corporation had to offer.” Others, including CDC researcher Warren Nolin, believe that the company’s financial troubles will create unforeseen problems elsewhere. “Umbrella is still under investigation for possible links to biological weapon development and distribution. If they are liquidated, we’ll have an even harder time tracking their assets and personnel. Any dangerous materials they may possess could easily find their way into the hands of countless foreign entities or terrorist organizations unaccounted for. We are urging the Attorney General to freeze any legal motions until investigators can adequately inventory Umbrella’s holdings.”   read

11:13 PM on 02.18.2009

Back from the dead...and not the good kind of dead, either

Wow, it has been awhile since I've logged in here. It's been a hectic month, and I miss Dtoid something fierce. Work has been anxiety-inducing with the threat of downsizing hanging overhead; I had to fly home to visit my grandmother's grave; and, on top of it all, my PS3 up and died on me in the middle of an episode of Angel. That sent me off the edge. I owned that ebony obelisk for barely over a year (less time than my still-functioning 360), and it fizzled while playing a DVD. It could have at least had the dignity to keel over while playing a BD. To top it off, the warranty has expired, and I conveniently lost my receipt, so there's no way I could send it in, expecting a free repair, without being suspected of being a con artist/burgler. Looks like that tax return will be arriving just in time.

Anyways, after getting caught up on all the news I missed (the site got hacked?), I'll reenter the collective tide pool and participate again. I'm liking the semi-new look already. It's great to see you all again, and I hope things haven't changed too radically.   read

2:44 AM on 01.08.2009

Game I Hate to Love: Mirror's Edge

I was looking through my games collection the other day, seeing which one would strike my fancy, when my hand drew back from the copy of Mirror’s Edge sitting next to my cabinet. It wasn’t a dramatic gesture—it was more of a slight, backward motion, as if my fingers balked at the idea of touching the case. I own plenty of games that I don’t give the time of day most of the time (sorry, Dead Space, I’m just not that into you). But DICE’s latest brings out that faint sense of revulsion that comes from leaving something organic in the back of the car for a few months.

I’m hesitant to label my feelings as “dislike” and be done with it. When I was playing Mirror’s Edge, I felt two alternating emotions, both of which I felt intensely. The first was the sensation of pure momentum heightened by the game’s ability to make me feel clever. Every mission had a section or two that I flew through without interruption. Each mission also had several sections that demanded either an obtuse sequence of movements discernable after brutal trial-and-error; exact timing that I am not sure I could ever replicate again; or a gauntlet of soldiers who, unlike most first-person games, can shoot accurately. The schizophrenic result was enough to make me reach for the lithium.

Maybe I’m just feeling some sort of Stockholm syndrome to cover the painful psychic scars. I sunk $60 and ten hours into the dream of EA releasing a good, new IP, and in return, I received a hand-job followed by a kick in the balls. That had better been a good handy.

Another part of me wants to believe that I’ve become a better person after forcing myself to finish Mirror’s Edge. Too many narrative-based games like Mass Effect and Fable II have made me soft. Those games want me to finish them, want me to soak in their honeyed plots and praise them for their storytelling prowess. Mirror’s Edge doesn’t care if I’m invested in the plot or not. It never reveals exactly what turned the country into the glaring, inorganic monstrosity as it appears in the game; we must content ourselves with Faith’s sparse background information, which says that the government wanted to control everything, and although some people fought it for awhile, eventually they quit and accepted the tyrannical yoke. Overall, I would have preferred something akin to the Metal Gear VR Missions game—no real story motivates the player, only a desire to complete the scenarios.

Come to think of it, Mirror’s Edge almost seems like it doesn’t care if I’m enjoying the game at all. The squint-inducing color palette, the sickening crunch at the end of a fall, the frustrating accuracy of soldiers, the capricious “Runner Vision”—all of the elements conspire to evoke antipathy and rage. So I suffered through a vanilla story and questionable level design, and instead of returning the game after the first hour, I persevered. I gritted my teeth, took my lumps, and threw Faith off buildings until I got it right. This must be how those arcade junkies feel after topping the high score in Frogger. Or perhaps it’s more akin to an old-time Puritan’s self-flagellation, paying for my sins by indulging in a little masochism. Either way, I’m afraid I’m stuck with Mirror’s Edge until I die. It’s not so bad—it lets me wear the gimp mask.   read

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