Thursday, January 29, 2009

Top Ten Bosses

TGR's List of Top Ten Bosses just got published. I wrote numbers: 10, 9, 6,4, 2, and half of 1. Enjoy!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Exciting Menu Action!

I have a confession to make; I've never liked Japanese role-playing games. Or any turn-based RPGs for that matter. While I can appreciate the aesthetics, story, characters, and narrative of something like, say Final Fantasy 6, I just couldn't ever get into the game mechanics. They always felt like a strategy board game ungracefully combined with a movie or TV series. You want to see what happens on the next episode of Lost? Grind through a few dozen encounters in a dungeon first. Not exactly a match made in heaven.

Making matters worse, these games tend to be very long and drawn out. I could put up with a bit of turn-based combat in order to drive forward a story, but only if it's done in moderation. A 20-30 hour RPG would be about as much as I could take before things start to feel woefully padded.

Still, I've always appreciated the narratives and aesthetics the genre is known for, and have always wanted to like the genre more. I even bought all the PS2 era Megaten games in the hopes that one day I would get into them, and was worried that by the time that day came, they'd be even rarer and harder to find (though amazingly, unexpectedly, and selfishly disappointing to me, Atlus has reprinted Digital Devil Saga and Nocturne making my collection decrease in value. But hey, I'm just glad this'll give them the availability to start making more, higher budget games). I played all these game for somewhere between 9-18 hours, enjoyed them a bit, then got bored and daunted by how much further I had to go, and lost interest. Persona 3 was the game I got furthest in after 18 hours. I just beat the second month's boss, so I still have a good entry point for if and when I choose to return to it.

In a previous blog entry, I wrote about how games don't necessarily have to be fun all the time. How I didn't enjoy the sailing in Wind Waker until I went back to it year's later and viewed it as it was, a sailing sim, rather than what I wanted it to be; a traditional controllable videogame vehicle. So I decided to was high time I return to my most uninterested in genres and give it another go. This time, with critic's darling, Persona 4.

90 min in...

These impressions are severely limited as I haven't even arrived at my first battle and the game has yet to begin proper. I was disappointed by Persona 3, due to it being such a slow burner (and then later a drawn-out slog), so I went into P4 with much different expectations. I was expecting lots of text, load screens, low-res character models, some mediocre voice-acting, and perhaps my most hated of all RPG staples; the silent protagonist. What I didn't expect would be for it all to be this good.

I still prefer games where I have a little more control of the situation. Where I'm not bogged down by menus and text at nearly all times. But for what it is (i.e. not my usual thing), I can appreciate that almost every single element contained within is done well. (Except for maybe the voice-acting, which is just the right amount of mediocre hit-and-miss that I can never decide if I should turn it off or not. It can be painful at times, but somehow the game just feels lacking without it. Oh, how I long for the return of the original Japanese voice-acting with English subtitles).

The atmosphere and art style are superb, but that was to be expected after Persona 3. What I didn't expect was for the writing to be so strong. From what I played of Persona 3, it felt like a rather generic Buffy/Harry Potter clone. The characters were moderately likable, but too shallow to muster up any sort of real attachment to. The strange thing about Persona 4 is that the characters are all basically recreations of the cast from Persona 3. You still have the silent male protagonist, the spunky female best friend/Hermione type, the insecure wannabe stud who has a crush on said female best friend, and the more traditionally attractive, but less cute and lovable, taller, older, more mature girl. So yeah, it's basically the same cast to a tee, But from the little I've been able to glean so far, they're all far more unique and dynamic than their P3 counterparts. Chie is more immature, tomboyish and aggressive than Yukari from P3, Yosuke is less confident and even more insecure than Junpei, and Yukiko is shyer and less cold than Mitsuru.

The art direction has seen a subtle, yet elegant improvement as well. I like the lonely, rural country setting and the Psychonauts-esque inside-of-character's-heads based dungeon themes looks promising. The first encounter the gang has with this parallel dimension was equal parts creepy and funny, a huge step up from the Giles from Buffy-esque professor from P3 merely explaining to you how it's your destiny to fight shadows. Yawn. I was also quite fond of the dream sequence your characters has on a foggy brick road. Wonderfully surreal stuff!

The plot too, is far more interesting than it has any right to be. The way the gang is slowly pulled into this old fashioned whodunnit involving scandal and murder is expertly told, and I've heard that you have to actually solve the case yourself to get the "good" ending; a gaming conceit that has me very, very, excited.

One thing I'm still not too thrilled about is the silent protagonist. I understand that they want the player to identify with him by leaving him a blank slate, but I feel like it has the opposite effect as I wouldn't be that quiet given the situation. it's not that bad, as he is given some choice to speak up, even if it's never recorded. Still, I find myself caring far more for the other characters. I guess that's okay too, but having a little more attachment to the person I'm supposed to be embodying would only enhance the experience, I find.

The worst thing I can say abut Persona 4 at this juncture is that I've probably spent nearly as long writing this article as I have playing it, which leads me to believe that it's more fun to think about than it is to play. But so be it. I'm getting some form of enjoyment from it, and that's more than I expected. Now, to play it some more and see where it leads...

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Gravity Bone

Everyone need to check out this game now! It's only about 20 minutes long, but contains the music from Brazil, and is amazing.

It runs off the Quake 2 engine, but it's not a first-person shooter. It's more of an adventure/platformer, though there's hardly room for any of that. It's mostly running fetch-quests through a series of hilarious setpieces. That may not sound very appealing, and admittedly, the core game design is rather pedestrian, but it's so short that you're not likely to get bored of it for the scant few minutes that it lasts.

It's basically a spy/noir/sci-fi kinda thing, but the jazzy style and colorful aesthetic give is a life of its own. The way it makes fun of the spy genre and action movies is a joy to behold and the ending, in particular, is single-handedly the funniest game ending I've seen since Portal. Enjoy!

Moon Review is Up!

Go check it out at

Saturday, January 17, 2009

I Don't Care if You're the Harbinger of Destruction, I Still Love Ya.

Battlestar Galactica came back today, launching the first of the final 10 episodes after a six months hiatus. All I can say is that right now, all I want to do is hibernate until the next episode airs.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Top 10 New IPs for 2009

My new article on the Top 10 New IPs for 2009 got published at TGR. Seems to be quite a big hit at n4G. Go check it out here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Is Self-Indulgence Necessarily Detrimental to a Piece of Art and/or Entertainment?

The following is a conversation I had with a good friend of mine regarding the merits of self-indulgence in art. I think we both brought up some good points, and thought I'd share it with the rest of the world.

Basil: I am envious of people who use the thing they are good at to do other things they have no business with.
Basil: Such as the Penny Arcade guys getting to make a video game.
Jeffrey: I've heard that their game isn't half bad.
Basil: I tried the demo.
Basil: The gameplay was not awful.
Basil: But the writing definitely was.
Jeffrey: And that's supposedly their biggest strong point; writing.
Basil: Well, they didn't design the gameplay.
Basil: Just wrote the story, or whatever.
Jeffrey: Right. And you'd think they would have been good at that part.
Jeffrey: But maybe not so much. I don't know. I've never played it.
Basil: You can download the demo.
Basil: Wooo.
Jeffrey: I'm too lazy to.
Basil: You might not hate it as much as I do.
Jeffrey: I don't like RPGs much to begin with.
Basil: Since you don't have as much against phony romanticizing of the '20s-'40s.
Jeffrey: Yeah. The setting sounded appealing to me.
Jeffrey: I mean what's wrong with phony romanticizing about times past?
Basil: It's tired, and a little pointless -- maybe it'd bother me less if they didn't cast themselves in it.
Basil: Or at least their invented avatars that are much better looking than themselves.
Jeffrey: A lot of my fave works of art are phony notions of settings. like Indiana Jones, or Sin City, and other things of that ilk.
Jeffrey: Most genre work doesn't strive for a realistic setting.
Basil: Maybe so.
Basil: But a lot of it used to take place the same time it was being made.
Jeffrey: Not the two I just mentioned.
Jeffrey: Or The Iron Giant.
Basil: Raymond Chandler didn't write any civil war detective stories.
Jeffrey: So? He's just one guy.
Jeffrey: I just said Indiana Jones, The Iron Giant, and Sin City, all great works of art (OK, maybe not Sin City), are romanticized pulpy period pieces.
Jeffrey: It's a good genre.
Basil: Well, ignoring sin city.
Basil: Those two take place in that time period for a reason.
Basil: Penny Arcade? I mean I guess it does.
Basil: If "we think it would be cool" is a reason.
Jeffrey: As long as there are funny jokes regarding the setting, then that's as good a reason as any.
Basil: As good a reason as thematically it couldn't take place any other time period and make sense?
Jeffrey: No. But it doesn't hurt to place it in this time period.
Jeffrey: Even if it doesn't add to the story, how does it in any way detract?
Basil: Because it's trying too hard and is distracting? How is it a good thing to make any decision based solely on the fact that you, the writer, wants to?
Jeffrey: I don't understand why that's a bad thing. I don't get this argument about "trying to hard."
Basil: Self-indulgence is always a bad thing.
Jeffrey: How so?
Basil: Uh, by its very definition?
Jeffrey: That's circular logic.
Jeffrey: Why is self-indulgence bad?
Basil: Not really, the definition of self-indulgence is that it is doing for yourself without regard to its effect on others? It implies a lack of self-control and self-awareness, which is detrimental to any work of entertainment or art.
Jeffrey: I don't think it's necessarily detrimental to make something personal.
Basil: Personal does not equal self-indulgent.
Jeffrey: I recall you talking about how all art is an expression of the artist.
Jeffrey: So all art is self-indulgent. I don't think there's anything wrong with that.
Basil: Personal does not equal self-indulgent.
Basil: Art without self-critique is not art.
Jeffrey: I don't understand the difference. I mean all artist put things in their art that they like. Like Guillermo Del Toro with things in jars and creatures with sharp teeth.
Basil: Yeah, but it's not the same to do something just to do it.
Jeffrey: I really don't understand the difference. The Penny Arcade guys love the 20s time period, so they wanted to express that by making their game take place in such a setting. I don't see anything wrong with that.
Basil: You're biased because you like 20s time period stuff.
Jeffrey: Maybe. But I also just don't understand what's wrong with them doing it this way.
Basil: Because it adds nothing to the story -- it's the same as if all the girls in the game were inexplicably naked and no one ever mentioned it or called attention to it -- they were just naked because the Penny Arcade guys like naked cel-shaded ladies.
Basil: Or everybody had giant erect penises for noses.
Basil: Sure it might be funny, but so what?
Jeffrey: What you just described might just be the coolest game ever.
Basil: You're just stubborn.
Jeffrey: I could say the same of you.
Basil: Cheap laughs are cheap laughs.
Basil: Worthless in the scheme of things.
Jeffrey: How do you measure worth in art?
Basil: Well, if you're talking art, then it should give you a stronger appreciation/understanding/feeling about whatever it's trying to do.
Basil: If you're talking entertainment, then it shouldn't suck.
Jeffrey: Art is pretty much subjective by definition.
Basil: And cheap laughs suck -- and just throwing shit in there cause you feel like it sucks.
Jeffrey: I disagree.
Jeffrey: Hideo Kojima was famous for just throwing in all kinds of weird shit in his games. Like that guard in MGS2 who's taking a leak while you scale the ledge beneath him.
Jeffrey: You may not like the joke, but I don't think it detracts at all.
Jeffrey: I just think your definition of art sounds too clinical. .
Jeffrey: Art is about expression, which is very personal and very subjective. You could make something that maybe reaches a wider audience by restricting whatever personal flourishes you choose to imbue upon your work, but then you're just holding back and it might not express what you really want it to.
Basil: By that definition art would like 99% of the time be worthless to anyone but the artist.
Basil: How is that art?
Jeffrey: Guys like Hideo Kojima and Spike Lee tend to throw everything at the wall in order to see what sticks. I'd say their stuff would be better with some tighter editing, but then it would no longer be a Hideo Kojima or Spike Lee joint.
Jeffrey: I think that often when an artist is honest enough, it will find an audience of like-minded individuals.
Basil: Well, I think you're lying to yourself if you think that Hideo Kojima and Spike Lee do not do any self-editing.
Jeffrey: Oh, they do some, I'm sure. But their stuff is still very indulgent, and I don't feel like that's a bad thing in any way.
Basil: And I don't understand why.
Basil: 25th Hour is by far the best Spike Lee movie I've seen.
Basil: And it is the most focused.
Jeffrey: Focus can be good. But just because something is unfocused doesn't mean it's necessarily terrible.
Basil: Yeah, but it often means it's not as good as it could be.
Jeffrey: Sometimes these little flaws and personal tangents can be endearing.
Basil: I agree that messy can sometimes be great, and leave you with more to think about -- but I completely disagree that this means we should encourage self-indulgence... or accept it when it is detrimental, which i think is very often.
Basil: I think there are about 45 minutes of scenes that you could cut out of Magnolia, and it would be a way better movie.
Jeffrey: I haven't played the Penny Arcade game, so I can't say how related or unrelated the setting is to the rest of the game, but setting creates atmosphere, and from what I gather, it's some kind of cartoony HP Lovecraft spoof/noir kinda thing. That seems to fit the 20s era just fine.
Jeffrey: Probably even better than when they placed Reanimator in modern times.
Jeffrey: I liked Reanimator, but felt like the setting was at odds with the grand guignol gallows humor of the tale. A 30s era Bride of Frankenstein setting seems like it would have been more appropriate
Basil: I don't know, I definitely feel like then stuff like the head going down on the girl would've felt at odds... and eye-brow raising.
Jeffrey: It's been awhile since I've seen Reanimator, so maybe that's not the best example.
Jeffrey: But wasn't the Penny Arcade game pretty much what i just described, and thus fitting with the setting?
Basil: The choice was still made via, "okay I wanna do this cause it'll be cool" -- like how what's it called, that Japanese movie with zombies and samurai swords and explosions in the woods -- sounded way cooler than it ended up being.
Basil: And why Army of Darkness is the worst of the evil dead movies.
Jeffrey: But still awesome!
Basil: I've only seen it once.
Basil: But I remember it being pretty boring.
Jeffrey: and Versus is the film you're talking about.
Basil: Yes
Jeffrey: Versus was pretty boring.
Jeffrey: But not due to the idea. Someday, someone will make a great zombie and samurai swords in the woods movie.
Basil: It's doubtful.

After that we kind of went off topic and started discussing whether Devil May Cry 4 was trying to be taken seriously or not (I thought it was, he didn't), so this seemed like as good a place as any to wrap up the debate. I'm curious what other people think on this matter.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Do Games Need to be Fun at All Times?

Not long ago, a colleague of mine and I were having a discussion on whether or not games could truly be art. He felt like one of the biggest obstacles standing in their way was that there's an unwritten rule that all games must be fun, and that real art should run a wider gamut than that. Whether games are art or not is an entirely different argument altogether, and one that will rage on for eons to come (and mostly just depends on your definition of "art," so I'm not going to go into that here). But this did get me to thinking about how a lot of my favorite moments in videogames had me doing something that would not traditionally be called "fun," or at the very least, was not immediately gratifying.

Row, row, row your boat...

The first example that came to mind was sailing in the The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. The first time I played that game I thought it was a pretty good game that was almost undone by it's horrible, tedious sailing sections. Having to pull out your magical wind baton, play a song, then watch an unskippable cutscene every time you wanted to change direction more then 90 degrees was enough too drive me batty. It would have been okay had the islands been placed closer together, but as is, sitting around doing next to nothing as your boat slowly approaches an oncoming isle was just the opposite of engaging to me.

I later read Rob Fahey's wonderful review of the game at Eurogamer, where he gave it a 10, stating that as someone who happens to enjoy sailing, the sailing in Wind Waker was his favorite part of the game. It wasn't until years later that I went back and played through the game again, this time keeping that thought in the back of my head, and a funny thing happened; I began to really enjoy the sailing too.

In real sailing you don't have a motor, so you need to mind the wind at all times. Once I got into this mindset, that this is more or less what real sailing is like, I began to enjoy it on a whole new level. I found myself appreciating the wide range of weather effects from stormy nights, to the the glorious pink/pale dew of an early morning sunrise, to the changing ebb and flow of the waves. I felt at the mercy of the waters, and it it was a very good feeling. I made sure to explore every square on the map, going so far as to keep a notepad handy so as to record all the hints I could gather from each area's hint giving fish. In short, I felt like a true adventurer.

While I still say using the wind waker itself is a chore, the fact remains that had the boat controlled like most videogame boats, where you have full control of the vessel and don't need to muck about with the winds, the game would have been more conventionally fun. However, it would have lacked the peculiar atmosphere that only this control scheme could muster. Going into it as a conventional game as I did at first, may leave you cold. Buy into its unique systems, however, and the rewards are plentiful.

Giddy up!

Another, similar example involves a unique control scheme for transportation; the horse in Shadow of the Colossus. The horse is a pain to control at first. He doesn't go exactly where you want him to go, runs into walls, and stops in his tracks if you hit a rough patch. But then I realized that if I used minimal controller input, the horse would navigate these obstacles on his own. He has his own AI, and I was only having problems with it because I was fighting it.

Once I realized this, not only was the horse easier to control, but it made the game that much more immersive. It wasn't just me playing a game fighting a giant monster, but me and my sentient companion working together towards a common goal. My favorite battles in the game were the ones where you'd have to ride him while shooting arrows. You cannot aim your bow and arrow while steering, so you have to go back and forth between aiming your weapon, then kicking your horse to get him back up to a full gallop, readjusting his course, then going back to shooting. It's more complex than it needs to be, but it also does a better job of putting you in the moment than a more traditional control scheme that gives you more control of the situation.

The Force is with you... always

Another great moment in recent gaming was near the end of Metal Gear Solid 4, where Snake is running down a hallway towards his last stand. As he runs down a near endless corridor, the game plays snippets of dialogue from people he's known throughout his life, ala Obi-Wan's post-mortem declaration that Luke should in fact, use the force. It's a powerful moment, even though you're not actually doing much beyond holding forward on the analogue stick.

The scene following scene is even better where Snake must go through a tunnel full of microwaves that are literally burning him to death. The screen splits horizontally and the top half is comprised of cutcenes of supporting characters in their last stand, while the player controls Snake at the bottom. Again, all you're doing is holding forward on the analogue stick, and later mashing a button, things that shouldn't be fun, but are due to the wonderful production values surrounding the setpiece. This scene is however a little more manipulative than the similar sequence I mentioned above, because it relies half on cutscenes. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I didn't sign up for this...

Survival-horror games are a genre known for gimping their controls in order to make the player feel more vulnerable. Admittedly, the genre generally doesn't appeal to me that much, maybe because I feel the control limitations feel too restrictive in a way that doesn't compliment the situation. Not being able to see very well in the dark or peek around corners just feels false, as I'd be able to do these things in real life. While I may enjoy the games less because of this, and while the control limitations overcompensate for how weak you are, I do feel like they succeed in making you dread enemy encounters. In essence, I don't generally find games like Silent Hill to be fun, but I DO find them to be engaging, tense, and sometimes frightening, which is what they're aiming for.

I guess what I'm driving it is that games can be at their most engaging when they're not exactly "fun." By bucking convention and robbing the player of control, you can build up atmosphere in a way that wouldn't be possible by letting the player have too much freedom. People find entertainment in a variety of offbeat ways, like going to sad movies, for example. So in this regard, I do like my games to be entertaining, but I'm realizing that there are more and more unique ways of achieving this in games than I once thought. I'm curious what other people think on this topic. Agree? Disagree? Thoughts? Opinions?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

New App

You can now leave comments on here using your facebook ID. It will even go on your news feed that you did it, so all your friends can see how brilliant you are and start stalking you.

Edit: Apparently comments don't show up on facebook, which is disappointing. I'd like to hear from others if they still prefer this new format, or if I should go back to the old way.

Death is Not the End

My new article on alternatives to game-overs just got published. It focuses mostly on Bioshock, Fable 2, and Prince of Persia, as well as what the end of game-overs could mean for other genres. Check it out here.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

My Top Ten Games of 2008

While TGR already did its Game of the Year Awards, I felt compelled to make a list of my own personal top 10. So here goes:

10. No More Heroes
9. Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia
8. Professor Layton and the Curious Village
7. Bionic Commando Rearmed
6. Fable 2
5. Devil May Cry 4
4. World of Goo
3. Fallout 3
2. Metal Gear Solid 4
1. Braid

End of the year thoughts:

I'll likely pontificate upon most of these games at a later time, but the one I really want to write about right now is Devil May Cry 4, as it is easily the most controversial of my picks.

The thing about DMC4, is that the first time you play it, it's not especially good. It's not bad exactly, but it feels like a hi-def cover of a 2001 game. The camera and level design are archaic and poor, the story is utter rubbish, and the puzzles are terrible. None of that bothered me too much as it was an action game, and most of my time was spent fighting, but even that felt very last-gen. Worse yet, the game's second half, where you switch playable characters, is significantly easier than the half that proceeded it. In short, it was still a pretty fun action game, but had I stopped to write a review after my initial playthrough, I likely would have barely let it scrape by with an 8.

I was still compelled to go back and try the game again on a harder difficulty, if for no other reason than to get my money's worth and because there were no other games on the horizon for awhile, and a funny thing happened; the game really began to click.

See, on your first playthrough, you're just getting used to the level design. Where to go, what to do, etc. But the second time you play, you already know all that. You can proceed through the levels at blazing speed, skip the cutscenes, and focus far more on the game's excellent combat.

And that's where the heart of the game lies. The game's combat, which is all too easy on the default setting, really comes into its own on a second playthrough on hard. By that point, you'll have a far more expansive arsenal, but so will your enemies. By which I mean they'll do more damage, and have been remixed to raise the challenge. That's when the game really comes into its own. It's you and the enemies at the top of their game, and it's bloody brilliant. Even the game's second half as Dante, which was so easy the first time around, is at least as hard as Nero's segments on Hard. And then on Dante Must Die difficulty, the Dante segments are by far the hardest part of the game. So yeah, after the initial playthrough, the difficulty smooths out a whole lot.

Also, unlike DMC3, I felt like the regular enemies were a lot of fun to fight here. I remember loving DMC3 at first, but when I went back and played it again I felt like fighting all the regular enemies just dragged on and on, and only the bosses were that great. While the bosses are still the highlight here, each enemy type is well constructed and varied, as are the various combination of different enemy types you'll fight at once.

I ended up playing the game five times in a row after its release, clocking in nearly 70 hours. That's more than I put into Fallout 3! So yeah, while DMC4 isn't especially revolutionary in any way, I found it to be my greatest guilty pleasure of the year and would highly recommend giving it a chance if you're a fan of the genre.

Another game I'd like to write about is LittleBigPlanet, because while it didn't make my list, it made just about everybody else's.

I'm sure I would have liked LBP a lot more had I had lower expectations for it. From an audio/visual standpoint, it is truly a force to be reckoned with. So as a fan of 2D side-scrolling platformers, I was really looking forward to it. The sad truth of the matter, however, is that the controls quite simply aren't very good. And given that the game is a platformer, that's probably the single most important thing it needs to get right. So in that respect, LBP was a terrible disappointment.

There is the argument that that is missing the point entirely; that LBP is about creativity, and playfulness, and fun. On that level, I can agree that LBP is an unqualified success (well mostly unqualified. the copywrite issues that plagued it after launch brought that aspect down some). I do enjoy seeing what other people can create, and I've seen some pretty amazing levels. But I feel like even the best designed levels are still only, "pretty good" due to the awkward controls and floaty physics. The Ico level, for example, is a wonderful tribute to that game and as polished as any LBP level I've played, but lets face it; it's no Ico. I have yet to play any LBP level that I feel is clever enough to stand up as its own game, which is what I was sort of hoping for. I wanted to see some great work of art with a good story and unique presentation, and while I've seen hints of that (The Case of the Crying Sackgirl" comes to mind, except for the awful shallow, "cute" anti-climax, just when things were getting good), I've yet to see a great game transpire within the LBP engine, so it still just feels like a platformer with a level editor. Even if it is the most through, in-depth level editor we've seen.

I also didn't put GTA 4 on there. I reviewed that on an old blog and didn't care for it much. I'll upload that review here soon enough.

Anyway, that's my list. Agree? Disagree? Opinions? Thoughts?

Friday, January 9, 2009

Games as Therapy

There's a lot of reasons I got into gaming. I think they can be fun, beautiful, engaging, and tell rich, complex stories that could not be told in any other medium. Though, rather than wax flowery about how games can be art, allow me to pontificate on another, more personal reason for loving games; they're therapeutic.

We live in stressful times (granted I'm not sure I can name a time that wasn't stressful), and I've found that nothing makes me forget about my problems like a videogame. For example, recently I went through a rather upsetting situation involving a girl that I'd prefer not to get into right now, suffice to say that I found myself constantly worrying about it. I was losing sleep, appetite, the will to shave, etc... I was basically going through the third act of any romantic comedy where some contrived plot point prevents the two lovebirds from getting together. Not fun.

So after god knows how many hours wasted, doing nothing, I summoned the will to turn on my Xbox 360 and queue up Fallout 3, which I hadn't played in at least a couple weeks. And man, oh man, did it provide the solace I needed.

Suddenly, all that mattered anymore was scouring the wasteland, seeking adventure and finding interesting things. In this time, I found a dog, a makeshift raider strip club, the remnants of a fallen Chinese radio tower, an overt H.P. Lovecraft reference, broke into a cannibal's secret basement, launched a payload from a satellite, and stumbled upon a cult worshiping a talking tree. There's more, for sure, but I wouldn't want to give away too much, and fear I may have said too much already. The point is, I was so entranced by my virtual adventure that my meager brain could nary focus on anything else. And when you're trying to wait something out, this can be a very good thing.

Fallout 3 is just one example though, and perhaps not even the best. Take racing games, for example. They're far from my favorite genre, but in a racing game there is one thing, and one thing only that matters; getting to the finish line. A challenging racing game requires such a great level of concentration that your mind cannot process much else. It's rather hypnotic (even if it creates an all new, and in my mind, more fun kind of stress. Hence why lots of people are prone to throwing controllers. I, however, am not one of them).

I should point out that I do not condone poopsocking (which I'm pretty sure is just an urban legend... I hope), or otherwise staying in a game at all times as a means of escaping reality. The non-virtual world is far too awesome for that. Though for the rare times when it is not so awesome, I can't think of a better way to spend the day than in front of the tube, controller in hand.

Note: Has anyone actually done any studies on this? With all the negative media coverage about videogames being violent or otherwise causing people to neglect their biological needs, you'd think someone would look into any potential psychological benefits they provide.

You Must Write At Least This Well...

Here's a somewhat older piece I wrote as a sample when applying at

In retrospect, I don't think it's as good as I once did. I tend to start far too many sentences with "But" (something I still do from time to time). I've learned a lot since writing it, but if anyone is curious how I got a position there, this would be it (along with my Mega Man 9 Review).

Interactivity in Games: Is it Necessary all the Time?

There's been a lot of discussion as to whether games need to be interactive at all times, or if it's an equally valid approach to rip control away from the player in the form of cutscenes, mandatory text, etc... Interactivity is, after all, the one thing that separates gaming from any other art form. But do games need to strive to do this all the time in order to best take advantage of the medium?

In 1996 Half-Life was revolutionary in that it told a complete story without ever breaking interactivity. At no point could you not move around or control the first-person viewpoint. Everything was told in-game through clever level design and subtly scripted sequences. This worked fantastically and proved that you don't need to rip control away from the player in order to spin a good yarn.

Six years later and Half-Life 2 tried the same approach. It still worked well, but I took issue with it a little more the second time. See, in the first Half-Life, Gordon was alone almost the entire game. The games' intro had a few people saying "hello" to him, but that was about it. It was a very lonely game and everything the game had to tell could be told simply by viewing things through Gordon's eyes. But in Half-Life 2, Gordon has friends. People talk to him like he's their buddy. He even has a sort of romantic interest. The fact that Gordon never, ever talks and we never see him (outside the games' box art) makes us wonder what exactly anyone sees in him. In short, it feels false.

For example, there's a moment in Half-Life 2: Episode 1 where Alex hugs Gordon in first-person. It's an interesting moment, and something I haven't seen in a game before, but to me, it highlighted the weaknesses of the medium. I wasn't getting a hug. I was on sitting on my couch. Granted the same would be true in any medium, but by trying to be extra immersive it ended up just looking goofy and thus breaking the immersion. Conversely, had this been handled in third-person and we actually saw two people hugging, we'd strike more of a connection with that (think Ico). We connect with what we can see. We do this all the time when we look at animals and personify them. In Half-Life 2 I can see Alex, and thus I can connect with her. She feels real to me. But Gordon? Even though I'm in his head, seeing through his eyes, he never really feels like a character.

Admittedly, this is only a problem when interacting with other characters. Some of the more epic set pieces like seeing an army of marching soldiers on a bridge up ahead convey a greater sense of power as it's all happening in real-time and you feel more immersed in what's going on. So the first-person/silent-protagonist/never-breaking-the-action thing can work really well sometimes. Just not all the time.

A game that I think does an excellent job at combining non-interactive storytelling with gameplay is Shadow of the Colossus. Shadow of the Colossus does use cutscenes. Very archaic, non-interactive, old school cutscenes. But it uses them sparingly, and it uses them well. Here's why it works: SotC is at once a short story and a massive epic. Its actual plot is very small and vague, but it feels epic because of the scope of the game. You could write a SotC book or make a SotC movie, but it would be extremely boring as there'd be no talking, no other characters, nor any plot developments to speak of for most of the middle 90% of the story. To make it at all interesting, you'd have to cut out most of the middle (by scaling it down to only a few colossi perhaps?). But if you did that, it would no longer feel like an epic and the ending would lose much of its resonance. Thus, the only way to truly experience this simple, yet epic tale is to play it.

And while a vast majority of the game is interactive, the parts where the plot is explained (to some degree) are done through very traditional cutscenes (with the exception of a couple brief, yet poignant interactive scenes at the end). But this works because it's a linear story with a prescribed outcome. You're merely a pawn in Fumito Ueda's story. Giving you extra control would only break this carefully crafted minimalist tale.

The unique thing about videogames is that they're capable of all forms of multimedia. While a cutscene is "just a movie," or text is "just reading;" things that have been covered by film and books long before videogames came along, we've never been able to mix them into one consolidated piece of art until now. Okay, some movies will have a tad bit of reading (like the opening scroll of Star Wars), but that's about it. Just because a comic book is pictures and text working together, does that mean that Alan Moore should not have written the text-only inserts between each chapter of The Watchmen? I felt they added a lot to the story and helped flesh out the world that that story took place in. But that's one of the rare examples outside videogames where different mediums have melded together.

I used to hate videogame cutscenes because I felt like I could just be watching a movie, and I hated reading a lot of text in games because I felt like I could just be reading a book, but lately I've realized that while taken on their own, these things may seem like a misuse of the medium, but taken as one giant multimedia virtual art gallery, gaming can do things other mediums can't, even when they do break away from the idea of being interactive at all times. A game that I feel uses its medium to its full potential is Braid. Braid has no cutscenes, but it does have text. The neat things about the game is that none of the text is mandatory. You never have to hit "A" to skip. It's all there if you want it, but it doesn't get in the way of things at all. But that's just the tip of the iceberg.

The really interesting thing about Braid is that the text, on it's own, doesn't tell a complete story. Neither do the levels. If you just read the text online and don't play the game, it won't make much sense. If you just play the game and don't read the text, it also won't make much sense. (Though in the case of Braid you could likely do both and it still won't make sense. It's not an easy game to grasp). The story and themes of Braid are told through clever level design, well-written text, and paintings, of all things. The background art and music also play a big part in adding to the game in both mood and themes (though that's not something specific to Braid). The point is that Braid combines reading, painting, music, and interactivity to create something completely unique that could not be accomplished by any other single medium.

Not all games do this that well though. While I haven't played Lost Odyssey, I've heard that one of the highlights of the game is a collection of short stories that you find scattered throughout the game describing dreams the protagonist has had. Shane Bettenhausen from criticized these for being a misuse of the medium. While I haven't played the game, I could see his point. It's not that the text was bad (even Shane said they were good stories on their own), but that they didn't blend well at all with the game surrounding it. If the different mediums a game is comprised of gel together well it can be harmonious. If they don't, it can be jarring.

I think cutscenes are often given a bad wrap not because they're bad on their own terms, but because they feel jarring when they feel like they don't belong to the game. In a game like Condemned, for example, you'll be playing in first-person and make it to a checkpoint, at which point you'll sit through a load screen and then start watching a cutscene of your character in third-person now in another location. What you're watching doesn't feel like what you've been playing, and it sticks out like a sore thumb.

The Metal Gear Solid franchise is known for extraordinarily long cutscenes, but at least in MGS4 they transition very well to the parts where you get to play (usually ending with a behind the shoulder shot that syncs with the in-game camera). I feel like there are pacing issues with that game and that some of the cutscenes drag on longer than they need to, but at least the movie I'm watching and the game I'm playing seem cohesive as the tale of Snake's final adventure.

All games strive for something different, so there's no one right way to approach game design. If a game is telling a linear story, it's okay to break from the interactivity for a bit in order to convey a clear message to the audience that you want them to see. But if a game spends too much time with no interaction it may frustrate you or bog down the pacing (especially if it's long narration in something that's otherwise an action game). It's a delicate balance and each designer will handle it differently. But just because videogames can be interactive all of the time, doesn't mean they need to be.

Hello and welcome!

I'm mostly starting this blog to keep all my thoughts in one place, in the event that any potential employers, friends, or possibly fans wish to check out stuff I've written without having to resort to any detective work. Which is not to say that I have anything against detective work. In fact, I love detectives. I hope one day to be one. But the case of where are my articles are scattered around the net is hardly compelling fiction, so alas, I've solved that one for you all.

Anyway, here are some links to articles I've written in the past. There will be plenty of new content on this blog as well, but this is just a sample of the sorts of things I'll be doing:

Super Retroid: Shadow of the Colossus- This is among the pieces I'm most proud of. It's an article on why I love Shadow of the Colossus and a brief explanation of what inspired me to be a games journalist.

Prince of Persia Review

Tomb Raider: Underworld Review

Mirror's Edge Textcast- It's like a podcast, but with text. Because reading is good for your brain, kids.

A-Z of Gaming in 2008- It's topical!

World of Goo Review

Dead Space Review

Midnight Club: Los Angelas Review

Mega Man 9 Review

Bioshock Review

Metal Gear Solid 4 Review