Tag Archives: Video game

A bit of game commentary

For valentine’s day, I was gifted with Dead Space 2. It has been a fun trip so far, but I find myself getting tired of the story already. This is something which happens to me when playing video games a lot in the last few years. It’s not because the stories aren’t decently crafted or that the world created for the game doesn’t have depth or history. It’s because I can’t change it. I have no control over it. And given that these sorts of games are of the interactive sort, there is an expectation to have control over it.

That is a large part of why I continue to play traditional games, especially role playing games, in addition to video games. There is a level of input I can’t anywhere else. I may not have complete control over it, there are the GM and my fellow players, but together we are crafting it. Together. There isn’t any of that in video games these days despite the technological horsepower to do so.

Dead Space 2 has a wonderful atmosphere, a huge environment to explore and plenty to make you jump and shiver. Set in a orbiting space station cum megalopolis the designers went out of their way to make sure many details of humanity’s occupation are present in the game. The detritus and triumphs of life are everywhere. This was a vital place, something that was alive at one point. And that’s half of the horror. That world is now dying. The dead are littered everywhere and what is alive is attempting to kill you.

Which brings up my frustration with the game. Despite this expansive environment to explore, there is only one path through it. The avatar you’re given on this journey is wearing a space suit. It has rockets located in the legs. He is supposed to be an engineer. Yet your options for travel are severely constrained. See those boxes in your path? Forget about climbing over them! Go through this apartment that you can’t see anything in. Oh, your target is at the top floor of this open space? Forget about scaling the walls or using those rockets to get you up there. Follow this convoluted maze of elevators, rooms, and crawlspaces through the walls instead. Think there might be some way in from the outside? Think again! Blasting out the windows and letting the decompression take you away just ends the game.

Don’t think is argued from ignorance. I know that some of those elevators are stand-ins for load screens. That there is only so much RAM for textures and whatnot to be stuffed in. I know these things. This does not forgive the designers for having planned so singular a story experience that giving the player the ability to find their own way to the objective didn’t seem to have been considered. Part of the exploration of the game must also be the exploration of the possibilities of the game. Having only one path means you have only one possibility. And that is boring.

Speaking of which, I ended playing last night not because I was satisfied with my progress but because I got bored with it. Having traversed my way from a hospital to space-train to hypermall and finally into the belly of a corrupt church I found myself forced into set piece after set piece — achieving nothing and progressing neither the story nor the path. My avatar finally killed by yet another new monstrosity I had no taste to continue. I didn’t care to because there was nothing left to care for and no other path to explore.

I think video game designers need to go back and get some remedial GM training or pick up some of Robin Laws‘ work. If pick-a-path books can give me different ways of reaching the ending, why can’t video games?

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Gaming Needs a Critical Langauge

In the most general sense, Gaming needs to have a Critical Language. Not just for board games, but some theory to encompass all of it. RPGs, Video Games, and everything in between. Gaming has become complex, intricate, and more and more reliant on psychology that simple analysis is no longer sufficient. Genre categorization has become less useful thanks to the blending and mutations that have happened in the last few years. Classic and iconic forms have become so deeply embedded into games as to become unrecognizable to most eyes.

Gaming and Games deserve more. A deeper understanding of the whole. A way to communicate to both the player and designer where what part went right or wrong and how. In saying this, you confront the central problem of any such endeavor; Where does one begin?

Gaming is a complex social activity which stands directly next to story-telling and like it, is probably one of the most basic forms of human interaction. Through games friends and families bond. Through games societies and cultures are expressed and challenged. In board games we find depths of strategy and maps of imaginary worlds to explore. Through RPGs we find the ability to explore our own psychologies and the safety to see if there’s not something else we’d like to be. But mostly we do such things because they’re supposed to be fun. We want some entertainment and respite from our everyday lives.

In this, I think we hit upon the first question that has to be satisfied in any analysis of a game: Was it fun to play?

That’s only the beginning. There is so much more to explore.

Part of having a good critical framework is that it gives you different ways to look at the subject. This means having meaningful categories which help in clarifying and inform about said subject. With games and gaming there are a thousand ways to examine them.  There are games which which rely on cards, ones which rely on dice, some that do both, and many which use neither. Games can use no random elements, games can use only random elements. What is meaningful in all of those differences? Which ones are useful?

And that’s only for a small subset of gaming. Video games are a different sort of game. Those games don’t always necessitate the same sort of interactions and have an entirely different basis of control. Likewise, RPGs have their own conventions and genres which require a separate analysis. None of this gets us any closer to the goal, however.

This leaves me with the impression that whatever happens, creating a critical theory, language, and framework is going to take a good amount of time and no small amount of effort. It is not a small thing, this.

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The Experience of PAX

Went to PAX with the wife last week. There’s more to talk about than when I first started writing this.

I spent most of the first day walking the show floor. As cool as some of the games presented were I am not of the mind to stand in line for hours on end to get a hands on experience. Demos will be soon available for a less guided and more intimate examination of how things work. This is not to suggest that I didn’t find the opportunity to check out a few choice games. The highlight of which was Civ V. 2k made it easy, allowing one to sign up for a slot at some point in the day and show up at that time. Overall I found myself very happy at the prospect of this new game. I also caught a few minutes with Torchlight 2. More of the same game, but better. There’s not much more to ask for from that series. The story stays out of my way, the graphics are good without being too real or too cartoony. It has a very satisfactory way of playing for me. I am glad to see it continue to be a going concern.

Late in the afternoon I met back up with my wife and her friends to have dinner and retire for the day. My legs and back ached with the amount of walking done. I need to get in better shape.

The next day I went to a couple of panels at the urging of my wife. The first was writing for the videogame industry. It was entertaining and interesting. The five people doing the talking seemed to be as frustrated as I am with the way story is handled in games, and for much the same reason, but stemming from a different source. This is one of their creations. Of course they want to see it better handled. They would rather see players reactions be more natural thanks to the story rather than limit them to whatever text gets stuffed into a menu choice. They’ve put out a great effort to get that story written and then cut down enough to fit on the game disk(s) with everything else that must go on. I, on the other hand, simply want to play. I could care less about the story because I’ve become used to the fact that the story will simply be whatever the producer and director has willed it to be and not what the player crafts with their effort.

It is an interesting conundrum that that gaming industry currently finds itself in because of these forces. I will be watching to see how events turn out. Who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll have the chance to experience both sorts of frustration at the same time.

The second panel was supposed to be about the cross-pollination of ideas between MMOs and Pen and Paper RPGs. It tried to go in that direction but it quickly turned into a session on bashing MMOs. Which, as it turns out, is not a very deep discussion. Pen and Paper quickly won out as the preferred sort for many reasons with MMOs being given some props for their “always on” nature. There was some noise around the idea of the simplification MMOs give players by hiding away much of their mechanics but the crowd, and I must include myself in this group, did not seem to blink at the complexity that traditional RPGs offer their players.

Before and after I wandered around the halls again. I’m guessing that it is purely the nature of PAX but the lack of organization of events started to bother me at this point. There is very little planning one can do for getting into the panels or concerts save for showing up hours early and hoping that you got in the right line. I endeavored to drop by the open play areas but found my efforts to get involved stymied by the lack of structure. Showing up and playing can be fun when all by ones self, but you don’t go to a convention like PAX to play with yourself. There wasn’t a whiteboard or poster to organize games in either the videogame or boardgame areas. I assume, however wrongly or right, that one is supposed to arrive with a group of friends or somehow rely on the better nature[1] of their fellow gamer to include them. There were several Twitter feeds set up to facilitate forbearance of the lines but the chaotic nature of that beast strikes me as ill-suited to keeping abreast of the local patterns of play.

The same can be said when it comes to the concerts. Just having a line is not my idea of making sure that those who want to attend a given event are able to do so. Even with them giving out guaranteed spots to the first thousand or two in line, the lines remain as long and as stagnant and as unfair as ever. I never thought I’d long for a ticketing system as GenCon has, but here I am, wishing that there was something, anything better than standing in line for hours to get into events.

Despite this, I had a good time. Seattle is a beautiful place to visit and I would be happy to go again next year just for that. But I would be going to give PAX a second chance. I know that it can take some effort to understand how a convention works. After attending GenCon for the first time in 2007, I felt much the same frustration. Going again in 2009 helped me to work out exactly how to do it as well as shaping my expectations to better fit the actual happenings. And this year’s GenCon was the best ever. It may very well take me a second or third time going to PAX to get it figured out in the same way.

[1] I did not have a single rude experience the entire time I was at PAX. In fact, most of the time, I found myself easily conversing with fellow gamers. I had the same general feeling of people as I get when at GenCon. Easy going, friendly, happy to have so many others of the same hobby surrounding them. So it may very well be that it is as simple as walking up and asking to join and being able to do so. I did not stick around to find out.

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Cub Scout cave, create awards for playing video games

A little behind the times on this but I did want to comment.

I’m of two minds. On the one side, I’m justifiably thrilled that my hobby of twenty five years is pervasive enough that even the Scouts have to recognize it as a cultural force. On the other, I am disappointed that they did so. Gaming, despite the wonderful social interaction one can experience through it, focuses a great deal on the individual sometimes in an unhealthy way. To me Scouting exists in part, to get boys and young men away from their computers, video games, and other aspects of pop-culture. To expose them to the wider world, to help them develop an appreciation of the natural wonders and of their community. To get them away from themselves.

In my opinion the requirements for the beltloop award and the Academic pin do neither and instead smack of a commercial exploit of the scouts.

The three requirements for the Belt loop include the following:

  1. Explain video game ratings and why they are important
  2. Create a schedule for yourself that includes time to play video games
  3. Play video games

I’ve paraphrased them, if you’re curious, here are the official requirements.

Those seem simple enough, right? The thing is, these aren’t aimed at the scout. They’re being aimed at the parents of scouts. Why does an eight year old even care about ESRB ratings, let alone be able to explain why they are important?

It also dodges a lot of questions about what role video games, and gaming in general, play in our culture as well as being gracious in play. Having fun also seems to have escaped the scouts with the way this has been organized for the Cubs and Webelos.

All in all, this is a step forward in recognizing that gaming is an important part of our culture but lacks important cultural contexts that gaming creates for both the parents and for the kids playing them.

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Gamers Playing United

I am not sure whether it is my getting older or if it is my understanding of the world getting more mature or some combination of both. Of late I have found myself getting tired of seeing my favorite games being mismanaged. I have seen some of the best computer games I ever played get half-ass sequel treatments and then watched as the whole franchise goes down in flames. I have watched the launch of a new iteration of a classic RPG fail to revitalize the aging line while simultaneously the controlling company alienate half of the people and all of the companies who supported it not less than a year ago.

So in attempt to try and correct these mistakes and keep others from happening I propose the following. We gamers of all stripes, need to own part of the companies who make these games. We would form a group, a union of sorts, and pool our monetary resources to start buying the stock of these companies.

In looking back at the last thirty years, very little has been accomplished politically or economically when people protest something or boycott a product. Companies simply rename themselves or find a new brand to use the old product under. Mismanagement is forgiven because it is effectively forgotten. New customers are made because they don’t realize it is the same thing under a different name.

The way I see it, the only way to get their attention, to get them to stop screwing up gaming is to get into us into boardroom.

This will not be an easy thing to accomplish. Most of us gamers really only want to have fun. Running corporations is not fun. Getting involved with a group whose only purpose is to do just that? Probably not very high on any Gamer’s to-do list.

Assuming that this proposed group even gets the money to buy enough shares, there is going to be a fight to exert that influence. Those who are already involved are not going to give up their positions easily, if at all. Communicating to Gamers about these political subtleties will be an investment in a new language. I’m not sure how many FPS or RPG metaphors can be used to describe the politicizing that goes around in such places.

And that is just for the publicly held companies. Those who are in private hands create a different set of complications. It is usually considered to be an aggressive act to buy the banknotes of a company without their permission. It is considered to be less than sporting to buy privately issued shares from former employees to gain a stake. There are a multitude of reason why people keep companies private. Not having to deal with outside influences is one of them.

Why should Gamers own the companies that produce their games?

So we can make sure that all of us continue to look forward to great gaming content. Personally, I am tired of being on the sidelines. I am tired of being looked at as a pocketbook with legs waiting to be exploited. Voting with my dollars is no longer enough with so many others acting like battered spouses or addicts by continually going back to those who cause these problems in the first place.

Look at one of the big dust-ups of 2009, Hasbro pulling all pdf versions of their past and present D&D games without any announcement until it happened. I wonder if it could have been avoided. If there had been anyone in their boardroom saying “This is a bad idea”. Maybe it wouldn’t had happened or had happened with clear warnings going out giving people weeks or months instead of 24 hours to get one last copy of the books they’ve paid for. While there were plenty of howls for the heads who made this asinine decision, it was all hot air and nerd-rage. No one who purchased these materials had any legal recourse.

Hasbro is not the only one to have missteps this year. Activision last week announced that LAN play isn’t going to be included in Starcraft II. Instead they have decided that all multiplayer games are going to go through their portal, Battle.Net. A piece of software that is well known for instability and abounding with cheaters and greifers of all types. Many have wondered, myself included, how well their servers will hold up when the game releases. Or how well the competitive leagues will take to it after the first time the global servers are hit with a DOS attack in the middle of a tournament.

Would a gamer have made a difference if they had a seat at the big table in either of these cases? I don’t know. I like to think that it would.