Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Their Picks, My Picks

What critics chose for their GotY awards:

Sure Undertale might squeeze in their somewhere because of its quirkiness, or something like Axiom Verge for the nostalgia, but the joke is none of the games I've mentioned thus far were the slightest bit engaging to me.  Instead I spent most of my time playing:

And right now I'm having fun with Galak-Z and Telltale's Game of Thrones.  You see...the problem I have with Triple-A gaming is that it's all real-time action/adventure titles with firefights and melee combat from the first person, or over the shoulder third person, perspective.  Greater amounts of variety aside, indie gaming is a lot cheaper too.  Add up the cost of all the games I was into this year (in the bottom list) and it comes out to less than half the total price of the six titles in the top list.  I hope this is a trend that changes in 2016, but I it doubt will.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Of Biographies and Video Games

Two years ago to the day a movie came out in theaters called American Sniper.  I have never watched it, but I have read the autobiographical book it was based on.  Honestly, I don't see what the big deal is.  The author, Chris Kyle, did some things the were good, some things that were bad, and some thing that were downright stupid(ly hilarious).  People who call him "hero" or "coward" either didn't actually read the book or are cherry-picking it for bits that support the way they already think. It's one man's life story told in economy-of-language style that is indicative to those who have served in the armed forces, concise descriptions of events with little-to-no extraneous detail.  Personally, I found it a refreshing change of pace after just finishing several books heavily steeped in academia...but each his own.  I don't want to turn this into a left-vs-right debate mostly because there's already plenty of those going on in the video game industry right now as is.  Instead I want to talk about autobiographies.

Normally they're told in a book or movie format.  The former makes a lot of sense, but the latter feels a bit constrained to me.  Trying to cram a person's life into two hours of video footage fells kind of constraining, especially if a lot of interesting stuff happened to said person.  A video game, on the other hand, has a lot more time to work within.  The problem is video games are by their nature interactive experiences.  Trying to impose rigid linearity doesn't go over very well unless you happen to be one of those rare few who really like QTEs...

I once heard a quote from the screenplay writer of Braveheart that went something like, "Don't let facts get in the way of the truth."  Sounds like a dumb thing to say, I know, but there is a tiny kernel of wisdom in there.  It's easy to get so hung up on minutia that we miss the big picture.  With that in mind, it becomes a lot easier to make a biographical video game.  Developers don't have to agonize over exact dates, names and numbers so long as they capture the spirit of events.  In truth, some autobiographical memoirs such as those dictated by Napoleon Bonaparte and Otto von Bismark don't exactly jive with historical facts so there's that point to consider as well.  Before moving on I'd like to state for the record that my first pick for a biography-themed video game would be Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, or if it had to be an American, George Washinton.  For the sake of continuity though I'm going to use Chris Kyle for my hypothetical example.

Your basic gameplay is going be somewhere between Sniper Elite and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (possibly with a bit of Papers Please sprinkled in).  The player will also have to avoid a number of different fail states in order to progress.  The most obvious one is becoming a casualty in places like Fallujah, Ramadi and Sadr City while on deployment.  On top of that they have to consider the ROEs (Rules of Engagement).  Shoot an innocent, or fail to fill out the paperwork properly after killing someone and it could lead to a court martial for war crimes.  Aside from those big two, there's the life of a Navy SEAL which ranges from BUD/S and hazing rituals to bar fights and trouble with the police.  On top of that the player has to keep their family life from becoming dysfunctional (via dialogue trees) and find ways to keep PTSD from driving them insane.

Sounds rough, I know, but such was the life of America's most prolific military sniper.  Walk a mile in his shoes, or in this case play a video game about him for a couple of hours, and you'll get a better understanding of the life he lived.  Would it be a 100 percent authentic experience?  Of course not.  In fact it might drift into "what if..." territory.  Since movies and TV don't shy away from using artistic licenses though I don't see why video games have to avoid them.  An "inspired by true events" label somewhere in the opening segment is all that's necessary, IMO.  

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that a lot of folks who grew up playing video games probably don't remember the first game they ever owned.  I sure don't (to the best of my memory it was probably Combat for the Atari 2600), but I do remember my first computer game.  It was a little sci-fi flight-sim called Skyfox.

Probably the single most striking thing, at least initially, about Skyfox is the packaging.  A single 5.25 inch floppy disk tucked into a sleeve on the inside of a slender folder decorated with a short comic establishing some context for the game.  There was also a several page instruction manual.  Basically, you're a fighter pilot trying to stave off air and ground attacks on your home base by enemy planes and tanks respectively.  Some of the more challenging scenarios have floating motherships capable of deploying additional tanks and airplanes against the player as well.

Actual gamplay takes place in the  surprisingly detailed cockpit of the titular Skyfox fightercraft; complete with time, position, speed, altitude and radar displays along with a fuel gauge and shield strength indicator.  Other than that there's missile counters and a tactical computer.  Encounters happen in either one of two zones: low to the ground or high up in the air.  Transitioning between the two areas is intuitively done by simply climbing or diving.  The difficulty level can be adjusted by selecting one of three campaigns each with its own sequence of scenarios ranging from simple training missions to defending against all out assaults.

Supposedly, a sequel came out that let players take the fight into space, but I never played it.  For me Skyfox was a bit too repetitive for my tastes despite some intriguing gameplay mechanics and eye-catching box art.  About a month after I got Skyfox I picked up The Black Cauldron, an adventure game by Sierra that had a lot more to it in terms of content.  I might have dug Skyfox out a few more times after that and played it for a bit, but for the most part I forgot about it...that is...until now.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Semantic Games

Periodically discussions spring up around the internet regarding the term "video games."  For some the meaning is too broad.  Personally, I don't have a problem with it, and consider "video games" to be synonymous to "literature" with regards to scope.  More concerning to me is the shadow of tribalism showing up in the hobby.

As much as people love to toss statements like "PC master race" and "xbots" this kind of terminology is counterproductive.  It's petty labeling done in an attempt to turn opposing interests into an "us versus them" free-for-all.  The only place this kind of pigeonholing can be potentially useful is in marketing departments when they talk about "core" and "casual" audiences.  Even then it's a problematic practice in that Nintendo might be doing its own thing in relation to Sony and Microsoft, but saying their games are for children doesn't jive with the reality of the situation.  I know more than a few adults who play Nintendo games.  Does that mean they are immature?  Do real men only play violent murder simulators or interactive art experiences?  Absolutely not.  Interests vary and change constantly - one day I might want to play Doom, the next Flower.  Everyone is going to have their own gaming preferences at at any given time and that's fine.  The industry is big enough for all kinds.  New stuff comes out on a daily basis.  Although an important caveat to that statement is the big-budget scene.  Even then though, I tend to feel the fault lies in large part with the publishers who cling to an increasingly unsustainable "largest possible demographic" school-of-game-development rather than making tighter more focused experiences.

One other thing I want to address is the notion that some advocacy groups are causing censorship in the industry.  Maybe...but even if it were true the term "censorship" hardly applies.  To illustrate further let me swap out "censorship" temporarily with the word "injury" and make two statements:

  1. I suffered an injury at work - I got a paper cut while doing some filing.
  2. I suffered an injury at work - I got my arm ripped off by industrial machinery. 

The first statement is the degree to which censorship applies to some recent game releases, while the second is the kind of thing people have to deal with in real-life dictatorships these days.  On top of that fans can still get unfiltered versions of their favorite Japanese titles through importing.  It's not even all that hard considering that the USA and Japan share the same region encoding (Europe is a whole other can o'worms I don't want to get into right now).  Sure the game might not be properly localized, but stuff like fighting games and beach volleyball aren't exactly hard to navigate (heck, players might even learn a bit of Japanese too).

That said, I got agree with what Jeff Gerstmann said on a recent Bombcast, people should really expect better from their games.  The moment I see titillation in a video game it's a sure sign the developers are trying to distract me from some significant design flaws.  Case in point, Golden Axe: Beast Rider tried really hard to advertise how hot Tyris Flare is (pun intended) in an attempt to entice customers into buying the game before they'd notice the absence of a multiplayer component or even other playable characters iconic to the series (such as Gilius Thunderhead or Ax Battler).

Don't fall for that kind of thing, and don't let semantic games pull the wool over your eyes either.  Video games are for anyone and everyone.  Calling yourself, or someone else, a "gamer" is about as useful as terms like "music-listener," "book-reader," or "sandwich-eater."  Anyone trying to make a bigger deal out of their intense interest in the hobby is just trying to start a fight that nobody is going to win.  Game over!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

2015's Award Winners

Avant-garde Award:
Originally a side project of a five man indie development team based in Italy, this third person medieval combat dungeon crawler has an unconventional control scheme and physics-based combat system that accounts not just for armor and weapons, but also the height and weight of the combatants, along with things like distance, momentum, positioning and the angel of impact all to calculate the effectiveness of each attack.  In practice, fights tend to look like drunken brawls, but underneath all the clumsy swings, dodges and parries there is a rhythm that can be mastered with a little skill and a lot of perseverance.

Backlash Award:
A lot of the post-launch flak Bloodborne suffered was, in part, due to spillover from Bandai-Namco's clumsy handling of Dark Souls 2.  That said, being a single-platform exclusive didn't help either.  Because of these tangential issues, Hidetaka Miyazaki's latest effort (despite being well-made production) ended up the target of some rather intense criticism mostly pertaining to a lack of variety and overtaxing of the PS4's processing power.

Brutality Award:
From Software games have a reputation for being unforgiving and Dark Souls 2 is no exception.  That being the case, the definitive version (subtitled Scholar of the First Sin) received a significant boost to the overall difficulty.  Not only do more powerful enemies appear earlier in the game, but improvements to the AI mean that foes will pursue the player relentlessly, attacking in greater ferocity and numbers than before.

Canvas Award:
Ori and the Blind Forest is one of those rare gems that is made from painstakingly hand drawn sprites, meticulously rendered animation, and richly detailed backgrounds.  On top of all that the use of color to convey moods (ranging from sadness, mystery, fear, anger and joy) is also carefully arranged into a distinctly varied of pallets.  Virtually every location in this game is worthy of a screensaver or desktop wallpaper.

Ecology Award:
Hot off the heels of 2013's award winner, Space Hulk, comes Warhammer Quest.  Another adaptation of a Games Workshop board game that makes no attempt to streamline or improve on the original mechanics, nor does it add anything new in terms of character classes, enemies, spells or treasure.  The entire game is a cut-and-paste job right down to the exact same dungeon tile sets and text-based scenarios.  So basically, it's a slightly cheaper digital version of a two-decade-old board game except without actual dice, figurines or a way to play with friends.  

"Engrish" Award:
Using translation software is, generally speaking, not a good idea.  It goes without saying that video game localization efforts are no exception.  Case in point, Darkness Assault is the result of a direct word-for-word translation from Russian to English.  Iconic examples include patrolling guards who yell, "Here are you!" and a player character that comments, "Batteries in such a hole?  Well...I'll do find a use for them," while scavenging for supplies.

Esoteric Award:
At first glance Axiom Verge seems to bill itself as side-scroller with a pixel art style and retro-themed soundtrack.  This rather obvious nostalgia grab though is actually an illusion which quickly fades once you pick up the controller and start playing.  A number of refinements make the game inconceivable on an 8 or even 16-bit console.  Strangest of all is certain gameplay features which do not adhere to the to the Metroidvania formula, most noticeably the "glitch" gun.  In essence it allows the player to hack various entities in the game to his or her advantage in ways similar to a Game Genie or GameShark.

Lemon Award:
Mortal Kombat X for the PC was divided into no less that twenty separate pieces of DLC so players could enjoy the game without waiting for the entire entire roster of fighters and modes to download.  It pretty much didn't work at launch though, and in fact neither did the online store that handles micro-transactions.  You know a game is truly busted when even the software responsible for taking your money doesn't function properly.

Testosterone Award:
This might seem to be an odd choice given the plethora of violent games to come out this year, but unlike Hotline Miami 2 or The Witcher 3, Apotheon has you literally wading through rivers of blood.  Gory violence aside, the amount of full frontal nudity in this game is also impressive.  Mortals tend to be pretty modest (excluding that one bathhouse area...), but Nymphs and Satyrs let it all hang out.  The gods aren't shy either, especially Zeus - whose rivalry with the player culminates in a sword thrusting duel between hugely enlarged version of the both of them!

Underdog Award:
Grow Home is a Ubisoft production, but you wouldn't know it by playing it.  A Uplay-free side project done by a small research and development team, this quirky little sci-fi platformer takes a simple premise (get to the top of the level) and turns it into a surprisingly fun exploration/adventure title.  Some of the gameplay features feel mildly innovative to boot, such as the procedurally generated movements of the robot.  The climbing mechanic also feels a lot more tactile than anything found in the Assassin's Creed series.