The Year With No New Games-Part 7: “You are still a good person.”

[ANOTHER SPOILER WARNING NOW FOR SPEC OPS: THE LINE. We’ll be dealing with the game’s themes and philosophy, which will require detailed discussions of what happens in the game. I urge again that you play Spec Ops: The Line.]

For weeks after I finished playing Spec Ops: The Line, I would scribble down snippets of thoughts about the game that I would explore at a later date. Maybe it’s because I couldn’t complete the game on “FUBAR,” which prevented me from claiming 100% completion and mentally archiving the game. Let’s take a moment to examine some of my takeaways from the game, some parts of the game where execution didn’t meet intent, and the concepts explored in the game that I’d like to see explored further. 

I. David Hume Would Be Proud

The fundamental idea behind David Hume’s explorations of epistemology is the problem of how people make inductive inferences, or extending conclusions made from observed behavior of objects to their behavior when they are unobserved. In short, his work critiqued the tendency to assume that just because we have seen a ball fall to the earth when dropped, the ball will always fall to the earth when dropped. One of the building blocks our mind uses to make these inductive inferences is continuity in time and space, or how we link thoughts of disparate events to other events that happened at the same time. Extending it further, the mind associates events that were experienced at around the same time or ideas that seem similar.
This is how my brain came to tie Spec Ops: The Line to Silent Hill 2 and The Dark Tower series of books.
While I was playing Spec Ops: The Line, I was also revisiting Silent Hill 2 through a video Let’s Play and re-reading The Dark Tower. This proximity of contact blended them all into one associated idea.
At the end of Spec Ops: The Line, the player is presented with a choice. I could have chosen on my avatar’s behalf to commit suicide because of the weight of my actions was unbearable or to deny reality, kill the nagging voice in my head, and ask to be rescued by the US Army. Once I requested evacuation, I have one more choice to make. In one possible ending to Spec Ops: The Line, the player’s avatar, Delta Force operative Captain Martin Walker, and I could choose to surrender peacefully or to kill the soldiers sent to save me and wander back into Dubai ready to repeat the cycle. That image of walking back into the hell of our creation to repeat the cycle reminded me of what Roland found at the top of the Dark Tower. Once Roland’s journey reached its end, he was stripped of his belongings and lessons and sent back into the desert to chase the man in black. His only hope is that he’ll one day learn the right lessons during a cycle so he can escape it. At the end of The Dark Tower, Roland and the reader are told that perhaps the next journey may end differently. For the player of Spec Ops: The Line, we can try to play again (perhaps even on “FUBAR”), and we can choose to end the game differently. 
Of course, the hell that we created in Dubai is, as the game points out in loading screens, all our fault. We chose to continue to play after we burned those civilians with white phosphorus. We chose to reload and respawn if we fall. We chose to pull the trigger to kill those soldiers who opposed us. At one point, Walker and I encountered an armored heavy assault soldier who bore the likeness of Sergeant John Lugo, One of Walker’s squadmates who perished in our quest for redemption. I was too stunned to shoot back, so I was felled by the enemy’s bullets only to respawn to realize that it was a hallucination. In the next attempt, a regular armored heavy assault soldier appeared. This time, I had no problems gunning him down. 
If you’ve played Silent Hill 2, you may remember Laura, the eight-year-old girl who sees no monsters in Silent Hill because she is innocent. When I first played Silent Hill 2, the realization that James Sunderland only saw monsters in Silent Hill because he was not innocent and that the monsters that he saw reflected reflected his sins shook me. To think that these were all hallucinations of a guilt-wracked mind made James an unreliable narrator deepened Silent Hill 2 much as Walker’s hallucination of the armored heavy assault soldier deepened Spec Ops: The Line‘s exploration of Walker’s post-traumatic stress syndrome. 
II. Moral force at the end of a barrel
I can think of no single player narrative that places the player in the position of wrong or evil party. In Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, I played as the American or British soldiers, never the insurgent or terrorist. In Gears of War 3, outside of the downloadable “RAAM’s Shadow” campaign, I played as Marcus Fenix and his group of loyal, strong, heroic soldiers, never the invading Locust or the parasitic Lambent Locust. Even games like Dungeon Keeper or Overlord, I’m either rightfully resisting invasion or I’m secretly the force of good (or at least less evil) than my antagonist. So, it’s only in multiplayer modes of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Gears of War 3 where I can assume the role of the other, the enemy, and it’s only there where I’m ostensibly on equal footing with the heroic protagonist. 
Video games have consistently taught us that might makes right. I am a COG in Gears of War 3, so I am right to mow down the Locust, who are trying to escape from an infection for which COG were possibly responsible. I am an American soldier in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, so I am right to kill faceless, nameless people re-classified as enemy combatants who may only resist what they believe to be needless and senseless violation of their block/neighborhood/country. 
Spec Ops: The Line confronts the idea in video games that the player derives moral force through violence and condemns it primarily through my massacre of civilians. But it also forces the player to reflect on this through smaller but no less dramatic scenes that I mentioned last time. The game, through Walker, lectures the player about how I am only a passive observer while the soldiers do the real work. But what work are we really seeing them do? I can try to save a CIA operative instead of three civilians, but he dies anyway, so it was ultimately pointless. I can try to save a civilian, but he was killed in the crossfire between my soldiers and the enemies. I can try to ally myself with a CIA-led insurgency, but I ended up dooming anyone left alive to death by dehydration. I can reach the top of my personal dark tower, but I just found that I was the villain all along. 
The game’s dialogue with the player extends to something that we, by inductive reasoning, assume to be useless. Just because most loading screens offer useless advice doesn’t mean that all loading screens can be safely ignored. As I progressed through the game, the game began to communicate with me through messages in the loading screens.
At at first the game condemned me: 
-“This is all your fault.” 
-“Can you even remember why you came here?” 
-“Do you feel like a hero yet?” 
-“If you were a better person, you wouldn’t be here.”.
Then, the game tried to provoke me to think:
-“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” 
-“Cognitive dissonance is a feeling caused by holding two conflicting beliefs simultaneously.”
-“To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless.”
-“The US military does not condone the killing of unarmed combatants. But this isn’t real, so why would you care?”
Finally, the game tried to console me:
-“You are still a good person.”
As I did in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, I killed countless enemies in Spec Ops: The Line. Not only was I a survivor, but I was the victor. I was the unstoppable force capable of feats that no other character in the game could achieve. (That is I appreciated the Grunts’ exclamations when I was spotted in Halo 3: I had become, in their minds, more than just an enemy soldier. I was a force of nature, a god who was able to deal death to them and resurrect. And that is why I appreciated the enemies’ panicked shouts when my squadmates or I were spotted in Spec Ops: The Line.) Because I was special and because all who opposed me fell to the wayside, there was no alternative. I was right because I was mighty. 
Through in-game events and the loading screen messages, Spec Ops: The Line forces the player to reflect on how far the idea in video games that the player, because the player’s avatar is usually the protagonist of the story, is not necessarily the hero or moral force of the story. 
III. Please Learn from This
The deterioration of Walker and his men, particularly in their chatter, needs to be copied in future games. There is no reason, in the next Gears of War game for example, that I should hear Marcus and Cole banter as though what they were doing didn’t affect them. The characters should react to what’s happening in their world as much as producers ask us to react to what we’re seeing on screen.
I hope that other producers see the reaction that Spec Ops: The Line has received as incentive to take chances. We don’t need another dumb blockbuster action shooter. We need more games to explore the wider spectrum of emotions beyond “excitement” and “fear” and to treat what we do on screen in their game worlds with gravitas. The unreliable narrator who may be reliving experiences on his deathbed might be a popular trope, but it’s not one that’s commonly used in video games. We can accept more interesting framing devices in our stories.
IV. What Could Have Been
For all the right decisions that the producers of Spec Ops: The Line made, there are some decisions that should be critiqued. 
With an unreliable narrator comes a set of problems about what can be interpreted as “real” and what should be dismissed. The game’s producers have posited that Walker may have died in the helicopter crash (which is why Walker asked out loud when we played the helicopter sequence the second time whether they had done this before) and that everything after was just Walker’s dying hallucination. But ambiguity enters the picture at that moment. Are we to interpret that everything we played was Walker’s hallucination, and that the only moment where we actually see Walker is the helicopter sequence? How seriously can we take the game’s critique of “might makes right” if that’s the case? 
Within the game’s world, we are meant to take the revelation that Konrad has been dead as a breaking point. But it also raises questions about the chain of command if Konrad and his high ranking officers are all dead. It’s possible that the conflict between the Damned 33rd and Walker’s men is the result of a misunderstanding (you fight them for the first time when you see them chase civilians in the mall by firing guns into the air, which Walker and his men interpret as intent to collect them and possibly kill them). Even so, why wouldn’t what remained of the 33rd make an effort to reach out to Walker and his men, especially when the 33rd controls the airwaves? 
There are points where the game gets in its own way. The edged weapons expert strain credulity, but the armored heavy assault soldiers (the game’s mini-bosses, though there really isn’t an end-game boss in the traditional sense) bend it to the breaking point. The fact that enemies spawn and react pretty much the same way from load to load feeds the idea that this is Walker’s deathbed hallucination, but the fact that executing enemies creates more ammo, various turret sequences and the infinite grenade launcher sequence go past cognitive dissonance to almost ludonarrative dissonance. The worst example might be the random placement of collectibles that unlock more background information about what happened to Dubai. But then that opens the door to a conspiracy in Dubai that seems ludicrous at face value.
And that brings us back to association. Conspiracy theories are comforting because they create causal associations between random events, giving order to chaos. It can’t be my fault because larger events have guided us to this moment, and I cannot be held responsible for my actions. And then game emphatically says otherwise and insists that we evaluate how responsible we are for what we do, even if it is in as harmless a form as a video game.

Assassin’s Creed, Why Am I Just Not That Into You?

I’m trying here–really trying. Since 2007, I’ve been trying to get into the critically-acclaimed franchise that has sold almost 40 million units. I want to love Assassin’s Creed, but I don’t. And much like everyone else, I think the trailers for ACIII look amazing, and ta game set during the American Revolution is something I absolutely want to play. I just wish it wasn’t an Assassin’s Creed game.

My main issue with the series has always been the controls. For a series with such richly developed worlds, intricate storylines and beautiful visuals, it surprised me that the basic mechanics are so clunky. I’ve never spent time with an Assassin’s Creed game where I did not feel like I was fighting the controls the entire time.

When I play a game like inFamous, traversing the open world feels fluid. Climbing and jumping are responsive, and if it looks like I can grab onto something or jump to a certain spot, chances are I can. Even Crackdown, a game that came out nine months before the original Assassin’s Creed, had great traversal mechanics.

But Assassin’s Creed has never felt fluid to me. Whether it’s jumping off a side of a building when I didn’t mean to, or failing to connect during combat, I rarely feel like the game is doing what I want it to, so i can never become fully immersed in the world or the storyline.

And yes, maybe the solution is that I just need to suck less at playing Assassin’s Creed games, but I don’t think that’s it. Even so, since Assassin’s Creed II recently became free for PS Plus users, I am diving back into it to try and get better. Because I am most definitely going to be playing Assassin’s Creed III. I just hope that the series takes a big leap forward in terms of mechanics, or I fear my journey into the world of ACIII will end similarly to those of the previous games–far too soon.


ZombiU Might Make Me Buy a WiiU

If there is one game that has me contemplating an investment in Nintendo’s new console, it’s ZombiU. From the setting, to the plot, to the story, to some of the promising gameplay features, I think this game could prove to be the launch title everyone will be talking about.

The game takes place in London, and the idea of battling zombies throughout Buckingham Palace and along the banks of the River Thames already makes it more exciting than most run of the mill zombie games. London is a character in and of itself, and the story of ZombiU involves one of the more colorful characters in British history, John Dee. Dee was an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, an astrologer, and a spy who is one of the main inspirations for James Bond, as he used to sign his letters to the Queen with the numbers “007.”

In ZombiU, John Dee is associated with two apocalyptic predictions, the Great Plague of 1665, and a second plague that is supposed to hit London in 2012. Hence the zombie outbreak. Here’s a great dev diary about the game’s story, featuring our buddy Antony Johnston, who is the co-writer on the game:

As far as the gameplay, I like what I’ve seen so far in terms of the GamePad implementation. Using the GamePad as a scanner, sniper scope and inventory management tool all seem logical to me, and seem to compliment the core gameplay rather than get in the way of it. The thing I’m most excited about however, is the note system, which feels very much like the system in Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. You can leave messages in the world for other players to find when they scan areas with the GamePad. It may not sound like much, but if you’ve played any of the Souls games, you know how much atmosphere that adds to the experience.

The more I hear and see about ZombiU, the more I’m considering picking up a WiiU. Stay tuned in the coming weeks, as I’ll be speaking with Antony Johnston at New York Comic Con about the game, in an interview that will air on Secret Identity.


CSR Racing Gets Freemium Right

CSR Racing is a drag racing freemium game that features licensed vehicles that you can customize an upgrade. The game’s story and world have a Fast and the Furious meets Saints Row vibe to them, as you compete in a variety of race modes and try to take down racing gangs in a progressively more challenging series of levels.

I downloaded the game when it first debuted on the iTunes Store back in June mostly because a friend of mine was the game’s writer. Boss Alien, the studio behind the game, also had some pedigree, as some of its members worked on the underrated Split/Second at Black Rock Studio before it closed in 2011. But while I spend less than an hour total with most freemium games, I’ve put at least ten or twelve hours into CSR Racing, and I’ve kept coming back to it as my default iOS game over the past few months.

CSR Racing gets a lot right about a mobile game experience and a good example of what freemium can mean. The gameplay on a moment to moment basis is designed to be bite-sized, while each session of gaming can go on for about a half hour. Races take under 30 seconds to complete, and each race costs you gas, of which you have a limited supply. Of course, you can pay for more gas with real world money, or you can just wait for your tank to refill naturally, which is what I do. So, I usually spend south a half hour at a time with the game, but I might have two or more sessions with it in a day, and several over the course of a week.

Where the game also shines is in its balancing, and there are two main components to it. First, the game’s leveling and upgrade system is pretty much perfect. When I don’t win a race, it’s either because I made an error in my driving, or my car needs to be upgraded. Each upgrade actually makes a tangible difference in terms of performance, and you see results immediately. So, you can be a lousy driver and progress by making your car better than everyone else’s, or you can drive well and only upgrade when you need to (which is what I do). Secondly, you can truly play this game without paying for anything, and you can make progress on a consistent basis. I did pay a couple of bucks for some in-game currency to purchase a car when I was at the first level, but it was more of a donation to support the game. I haven’t once paid for gas, and I’ve been able to upgrade just by playing through races or challenges. Granted, if I wanted to go all out purchasing cars or upgrades, it would take quite a while. But, I am making my way through the campaign with no problems.

I think freemium still gets a bad rep, as there are still some examples out there of abuse. But overall, freemium has taken a big step forward, and CSR Racing is a shining example of what it can do. It was recently announced that the game was pulling in over $12 million a month under its current model, and yet it remains fully playable for free. The game deserves the success it’s had, as it not only got the business model right, but the model was built on a foundation of excellent gameplay and balance.


The Year With No New Games-Part 6: “This is all your fault”

[SPOILER WARNING NOW FOR SPEC OPS: THE LINE. But you really, really should play the game. Tour the content on the easiest difficulty level if you have to.]

Part of playing to 100% completion and unlocking all achievements in a game often means beating games at the highest difficulty level. Sometimes, my memories of beating games at their respective highest difficulty levels are fond. For example, finishing the last campaign in Left 4 Dead on “Expert” difficulty is still one of my favorite gaming memories, while beating Crysis 2 on “Supersoldier” mode with a fully powered Nanosuit and complete awareness of how to approach the game’s combat puzzles fulfilled my power fantasy. Other times, my memories are less kind, such as the sour aftertaste of using an exploit to progress through Bayonetta on “Non-Stop Climax” mode or how rote the experience felt beating Resident Evil 5 on its highest difficulty level. I like to think that I’ve now played enough games that I can beat most games, no matter how hard. After all, I’m part of the Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare “Mile High Club.” I’ve beaten Halo: Reach on “Legendary” difficulty by myself. No game should be beyond my ability to complete.
Behind my imaginary achievement trophy case is my box of secret shame, the games I abandoned for any number of reasons. I couldn’t beat John Woo Presents Stranglehold on hard difficulty? I couldn’t finish Prince of Persia (2008), SSX, Burnout Revenge, Split/Second at all? But no game should be beyond my ability to complete! 
Over the past month, I’ve immersed myself in Spec Ops: The Line to the exclusion of all other games. Other reviewers have described the game a 4-5 hour affair, and that might be the case if they played it on the easy or normal difficulty level. But on the second highest difficulty level, “Suicide Mission,” I needed about 15-20 hours in total to complete the game and unlocked the gaming feat, morality decision, and collection achievements. Only one achievement awaited me: beating the game on its highest difficulty level, “FUBAR.” And so I thought to myself, “I’ve beaten all three Gears of War games on ‘Insane.’ I’ve beaten Army of Two: The 40th Day on ‘Contractor’ difficulty. I can beat Spec Ops: The Line on ‘FUBAR’ mode, even if it will take me a while.”
Ultimately, I realized that trying to grind my way from checkpoint to checkpoint in Spec Ops: The Line on “FUBAR” might actually eliminate, rather than enhance, my appreciation for the game. So I did something I wished I had done when I passed a climactic moment in the game: I stopped playing, placed the disc back in its case, and moved on.  
Let me explain.
There was a point in Spec Ops: The Line where I didn’t want to play the game any longer. I was sickened by what I had done. I could have blamed the programmers for putting me in this position, but that would ignore my choice to not only pull the trigger but also continue to play. I had to assume responsibility for my virtual actions; anything else would be a lie to myself. I then rationalized my decision to continue to play by telling myself that I had to keep playing because there was no way I could let what I had just done be the last thing I would let my character do in the game. I was playing an American soldier. There had to be a moment of redemption. Other games, movies, and books had taught me that.  
This is where I lay out the spoiler warning again. 
I had encountered moral quandaries in the game before this moment of decision and rationalization. Earlier in the game, I had to choose between saving a CIA operative and two civilians from a group of US soldiers. I chose to save the CIA operative, and then I felt like a fool when he succumbed to his injuries by the next cut scene. Three lives lost over nothing.
Not long after, I came upon an enemy encampment that seemed no different than other enemy encampments that I had already encountered. Since I had a scoped weapon, I tried to snipe some soldiers first to thin them out. But they seemed to keep respawning, which violated the rules of limited enemy spawns that the game had previously established. Then, I was gunned by snipers. All the while, my AI teammates debated the use of a nearby mortar cannon. I couldn’t find a way down to the encampment; unlike other similar positions in the game, I was not given a choice to climb down from my platform. I respawned and tried to snipe the encamped enemies again, marked the snipers for my AI teammate to counter-snipe, and sought refuge in the little cover that platform provided. I was gunned down again. I wanted to solve the combat puzzle without using the extreme measures to which the game was steering me. After all, I was an armed American soldier in a video game. I had already killed scores of enemies. Every time I died, I respawned, and the enemies would appear in the same places as before. Effectively, as I was in other modern military shooters like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, I was a god with the ability to choose who lived and died with a simple finger movement. I was mighty; therefore, I was right. 

For all that might, for all the enemies who have died because I pulled the trigger, I chose poorly. Frustrated, I selected to use the mortar and rained fire on my enemies. From a computer display similar to the “Death From Above” sequence on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, I burned my enemies with white phosphorus. As the white dots on my screen stopped moving a pull of the trigger at a time, the camera panned to one more group of white dots that I had to eliminate. They moved differently than the other white dots, and they were penned in what looked like a holding area. The game wouldn’t let me continue until they too fell, so I pulled the trigger until those white dots disappeared too. 

Those particular white dots were civilians, and I had just massacred them. 

Once the cutscene that laid out in gruesome detail what exactly I had done ended, I faced a choice. I could stop playing altogether, accept that I had committed an atrocity in a video game, and move on. Or, I could refuse to take responsibility for what I had done, just as my avatar, Captain Martin Walker, had done. I could shift my blame to someone else, declare that I had no choice because I was forced to do this, designate someone as more evil than me, and focus on killing that person to redeem myself. I could tell myself that I was a mighty armed American soldier, that I had massacred these people for a reason, and that I would be redeemed and shown to be in the right by the game’s end. I might now be a compromised hero, but I’ll finish the game a hero nonetheless. 
So I plowed on, believing that I would find redemption in the game. I tried to save a civilian, but he was killed in the crossfire between my soldiers and the enemies. I tried to ally myself with the CIA-led insurgency,  but that ended up dooming anyone left alive to dying by dehydration. There would be no redemption for my avatar or me. Sometimes, the moral taint is just too great.
Only one challenge remained. I still had to beat the game on “FUBAR” so I could claim 100% completion and physically and mentally archive the game. I paused to wonder if this was psychopathic; why would I play the game again knowing that I had to burn those civilians again to progress? I put the thought aside and tried to solve each combat puzzle with great patience, moving from checkpoint to checkpoint. The game itself tried to deter me by making my avatar and AI teammates much more feeble while increasing my enemies’ might. On the second playthrough, it seemed that I was no longer mighty because I was no longer right. I couldn’t even pretend to be right. 
After a particularly challenging firefight last night, I gave up. Knowing what challenges laid ahead was demoralizing, but not as much as the knowledge that the easiest combat puzzle ahead would be killing those  civilians again. As frustrating as the experience would be, I could have probably broken the game into one combat puzzle a night until I finished them all. I was already skipping cutscenes in my “FUBAR” playthrough; in effect, I had already started reducing the game just to its combat components, which are not the strongest parts of the game. But that would drag Spec Ops: The Line down from an interesting experience to the tedium of play, and I appreciated what the game had tried to do too much to do that. 
I’ve quit on games before, either because I couldn’t grasp the controls of the game (SSX) or the tedium of play took hold, and I couldn’t be bothered to play anymore (Prince of Persia). This was the first time I’ve stopped playing because I appreciated the game too much to reduce it into its component puzzles to be solved.
I’m still reflecting on the game, its themes, and how well the mechanics tied into them. I still need to process how the game drops its verisimilitude and how the lead writer’s comments about the story now tie the game to Silent Hill 2 and The Dark Tower series of books in my head.  

Wii U: The Only Thing That Matters Is the Price

The short version: Nintendo overpriced the Wii U by $100.

The longer version:

As much as gamers say they’re perfectly content with the consoles that are currently on the marker, the fact is we all get excited for new hardware. Nintendo had a real shot at building a sizable install base of Wii U owners before the next Xbox or PlayStation even hits the shelves, but they are about to blow it.

And the simple reason is price.

Not the launch lineup, not the specs of the hardware, not the crazy control scheme. Price. Because the simple fact is, if the Wii U was launching at $199 and $249 for the basic and deluxe versions, all of us would be getting one. But that’s not going to happen, because $100 is the difference between “I need to have that” and “I can hold out for a price drop.” It’s also a price point that will keep a lot of the causal gamers that bought the Wii (i.e parents and grandparents) from ponying up for the new console.

I have no doubt that the Wii U will come out strong in the first couple of months, but it won’t have anywhere near the success of its predecessor.

The lesson Nintendo is ignoring is the same one that Android (and soon Windows) tablet makers learn every time they launch a product at a price point similar to the iPad–unless you are the industry leader, you’d better have a price point that draws people away from the competition. While Nintendo lead in sales with the Wii, they have lost the goodwill of core gamers and are certainly not looked at as the industry leader right now. Amazon and Google have both had success with their 7” tablets at a very reasonable $199 price point, because even though they are smaller than an iPad, the $200+ difference in price more than makes up for it. Amazon and Google take a loss on the hardware in order to get people in the front door.

The Wii U has yet to prove it’s a substantial improvement over the current XBox 360 and PS3. Both Microsoft and Sony’s upcoming consoles will no doubt be more powerful than the Wii U when they do arrive. All the more reason Nintendo should be trying to build that user base up as quickly as possible. But a $349 price point isn’t going to do that.

I’m a fan of Nintendo, and I know I’ll eventually get a Wii U. But I just don’t see this strategy paying off, and I think a price drop could come as soon as the holiday season is over.


Sound Shapes Gets User-Generated Content Right

I reviewed Sound Shapes over on the Secret Identity site this week. It’s a wonderful game that I think is the Vita’s first “must have” experience. Sound Shapes also falls under the genre of “Play, Create and Share” Sony games that started with Little Big Planet and continued with ModNation Racers. Of those three games however, Sound Shapes is the first one that has really clicked with me in terms of the user-created content. I’ve already spent more time with the community aspects of Sound Shapes than with both Little Big Planet and ModNation Racers combined.

I think there are two main reasons why I keep coming back to Sound Shapes. The first, and most important reason, is that the gameplay mechanics in Sound Shapes are excellent. I mean light years ahead of the Little Big Planet series. I never got used to the floaty controls of LBP, and as a result, never really got into the game. I thought ModNation was very solid mechanically, but it’s a racer, not a platformer, so I’m predisposed to like the gameplay of Sound Shapes more. Sound Shapes pretty much gets everything right–the jumping, the “stickiness” of your little blob to certain surfaces, and the degree of control you have when piloting ships or taking a running leap. The controls are tight, responsive and just a joy to experience.

The second reason I think Sound Shapes get the user-created content right is that it strikes a balance between the amount of options you have, and the ease of creating content. Little Big Planet had a ridiculous amount of content to use in creating levels, and Little Big Planet 2 had a million different ways to use that content. ModNation had less options, but actually creating the levels was fun and easy (laying track, placing objects, etc.) I feel like Sound Shapes strikes the perfect balance between the two. You unlock a sizeable amount of content options for level creation by playing through the campaign. And, creating the levels (especially on the Vita) is very simple and actually fun. Resizing and reorienting objects with the Vita touchscreens is a breeze, and the level editor keeps things simple in terms of creating and sharing levels. The way community content is sorted and featured in Sound Shapes also makes it easy to find and try new levels all the time.

For a $15 downloadable title, it’s really impressive how much Sound Shapes gets right. Whether it’s the mechanics of the game, or the way it approaches user-generated content, there’s a lot here for other developers to use as a blueprint moving forward.

The Year With No New Games-Part 5: “Mastery”

This weekend, I relaxed and didn’t play a game at all. I didn’t load up 10000000 on my iPad. I didn’t play Spec Ops: The Line on my 360. I didn’t charge up the DS Lite in order to play yet another game of Civilization Revolution. Instead, I just sat back and watched as some of the best speedrunners in the world plied their craft for the
Kings of Poverty’s speedrun marathon to raise funds for RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network).

Last time, I discussed briefly the idea of tedium of play that comes with 100% completion. Watching these players break down games by pixel movements with perfect timing, like some of the jumps in cyghfer‘s run of Bucky O’Hare on Hard mode, where the player loses a life with just one hit, or exploit game glitches like dram55‘s use of ceiling sticking in Super Mario World and cyghfer’s use of a glitch that allowed him to enter walls and teleport up a screen in Mega Man 2 showed that mastery of a game inside and out can come with “tedium of play.”

One of my secret sources of gamer pride is the fact that, once upon a time, I could complete Streets of Rage 2 in less than 50 minutes on hard mode using Axel. Because I only owned 4 games for the Sega Genesis (or the Sega Mega Drive, if you’re so inclined), I would say that I mastered Streets of Rage 2. I knew combos for each character, the timing and placement for weapons dropped by enemies or found in the stage, and most importantly, a certain standard for quickly I could finish the game and how high my score should be.

A quick word about Streets of Rage 2, which I will contend was a better game than any of the Final Fight games. I’d go as far as saying that Streets of Rage 2 is the finest side-scrolling brawler of the 16-bit generation. I’d also go as far as saying that beating Streets of Rage 2 with Axel or Max on Mania mode, the highest difficulty level, is a very different experience than beating it with Blaze or Skate. Finally, while Streets of Rage 2 had no in-game achievements (until the re-releases on Xbox Live Arcade and in Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection), beating Streets of Rage 2 with Blaze and Skate on Mania mode would be as close to 100% completion as one could get. It took months of attempts to grinding the game, finding the optimal timing and strategies to handle enemies before I could beat it with Blaze. It took years of off-and-on play until I could beat it with Skate. So why didn’t I consider this tedious?

The easy answer would be that I didn’t find grinding Streets of Rage 2 until I mastered it because I had no other games to play. Another easy explanation would be that tedium looks very different to an adolescent boy with limited responsibilities than to a man with limited leisure time. But I think that the tedium comes with the artificial structure, that the implementation of achievements, trophies, and Gamer Points and my psychological acceptance lays the foundation for me to find the act of play a chore.

Grinding Streets of Rage 2 and grinding for the “Demolition Man” achievement in Battlefield: Bad Company 2 are very different things, even though the same vocabulary is used to describe both. Grinding Streets of Rage 2 until I could beat it with the toughest characters to use on the hardest difficulty mode meant that I was still playing through the game, progressing through different environments, hearing different tracks, and experiencing different stimulation. Grinding for the “Demolition Man” achievement meant, as I mentioned last time, meant that I was herding other willing players into a building on a multiplayer map and blowing the building up with C4, hoping that the game would recognize those kills as mine.  Grinding Streets of Rage 2 meant that I was achieving mastery; grinding for the “Demolition Man” achievement that I was filling up a bar in a game.

Seeing the speedrunners come near world record times for games like Batman (NES) and Bad Street Brawler reminded me of what mastery of a game and pride in your play looked like. Whenever you’re feeling burnt out on gaming, take a look at speedrun archives like Speed Demos Archive, a stream on SpeedRunsLive, or even a playthrough on Let’s Play Archive. Sometimes, seeing someone who really knows what he or she is doing with a game is the cure to gaming burnout.

Also, please check out Team Sp00ky‘s archive of the Kings of Poverty’s speedrun marathon (part 1 and part 2) and donate to RAINN, either through the Kings of Poverty’s collection or directly.


My Long Road to Finishing inFamous (Part 2 of 2)–I’m An Unfocused Gamer

The older I get, the less interested I become in actually reviewing games, and the more interested I become in discussing my experiences with them, and what I learn about myself when I play them.

As I talked about in my last post, it took me three years to finish the first inFamous game. Had I not gotten a copy of inFamous 2, I probably never would have gone back to finish the first game. But I did, and I really liked the game, and that got me thinking. How many other games have I walked away from early on, and missed out on an interesting experience? What does that say about me as a gamer? Is finishing a game the exception rather than the rule for me?

Off the top of my head, here’s a quick list of games that I started but walked away from in the past year or so:

Uncharted: Golden Abyss (Vita)
Resistance: Retribution (Vita)
Section 8: Prejudice (Xbox Live)
MLB ‘12 The Show (Vita)
Mortal Kombat (Vita)
Metal Gear Solid 3D: Snake Eater (3DS)
LEGO Batman 2 (DS)
Bit.Trip Saga (3DS)
Battlefield 3 (XBox 360)
Cthulhu Saves the World (XBox Live)
Dead Island (Xbox 360)
Shank 2 (PSN)
Super Stardust Delta (Vita)
Shadows of the Damned (PS3)
Two Worlds II (Xbox 360)

Here are the games I bought, never started, and traded in for something else:

Gears of War 3 (XBox 360)
Uncharted 3 (PS3)

Here are the games I actually played through to completion, or am actually engrossed in:

inFamous (PS3)–completed
Dark Souls (PS3)–completed 100-hour campaign and am 20 hours into second playthrough
Saints Row: The Third (XBox 360)–completed
Mass Effect 3 (XBox 360)–completed and played the last 3 hours again for the “Extended Cut”
Deus Ex: Human Revolution (PS3)
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (PS3)
The Walking Dead: Episode One–completed, but it was short
Minecraft (XBox Live)–at least 15 hours in and completely addicted
Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational–easily my most-played Vita game
Marvel Pinball (PSN)–I’ve put several hours into this one
Sound Shapes (PS3)–about halfway through and loving it

So, judging from that list, I actually finish very few games. In fact, most of the time, I start a game and play for a few hours, then walk away. That’s my most frequent pattern of behavior as a gamer, which is kind of disturbing to me. Most of those games on the first list I bought brand new at retail for $60 (or $40 for the Vita/3DS games). That’s a whole lot of money I threw away on games I didn’t spend a lot of time with. With Gears 3 and Uncharted 3, I probably got $40-50 in trade for $120 worth of games I didn’t play. Not a good return on my investment.

So what else do these lists tell me? Well, I can see that I certainly like RPGs and games with heavy RPG-like elements. Really, Marvel Pinball and Sound Shapes are the only one on the “finished/engrossed” list that don’t fit that description (yes, even Hot Shots has RPG elements). Many of those games on my “finished/engrossed” list also either have a strong story (Mass Effect, Deus Ex, Enslaved) or let you create one for yourself (Dark Souls, Minecraft). They also have immersive worlds to explore an, in some cases, get lost in (inFamous, Saints Row, Dark Souls, Mass Effect, Deus Ex, Minecraft).

My takeaway from all this is that I tend to enjoy the games I can get lost in, but that I frequently leave a game before giving myself enough time to get lost in it, which is counter-intuitive. One way to fix this is to not get caught up in the idea of needing to get a game when it first comes out, but rather getting it when I actually have time to give it a fair shake. Also, instead of juggling fifteen games at the same time, I can focus in on one or two, and really devote some time into completing them, or at least spending enough time with them to make an informed judgment.

I’ll post in the future about how well I’m actually sticking to this strategy. My first order of business will be to revisit a couple of games on that first list and see if I can get back into them. I think Dead Island will be my first challenge, as I had a lot of fun with it before walking away.


Remembering Sony Liverpool’s Roots–Brataccas

I was pretty bummed to hear about the closure of Sony’s Liverpool Studio this week. While they are primarily known as the studio behind the WipEout franchise nowadays, Sony Liverpool has a long and storied history that dates back to the early days of PC. Before they were rebanded in the early 2000’s, Sony Liverpool was known as Psygnosis, and they made some amazing games.

Of all the games that Psygnosis either developed or published, my favortie is their first one–Brataccas. Brataccas was a science fiction RPG in which you played a genetic engineer named Kyne that has developed a way to create super humans. When the government wants to use the technology to create soldiers, Kyne refuses and is branded as an enemy of the state. In order to clear his name, Kyne has to travel to a mining colony on an asteroid called Brattacus and gather the evidence that will prove he’s been framed.

The project rose from the ashes of the infamous Bandersnatch concept that Imagine Software was planning to release as one of its “Megagames.” When Imagine went under, some of the key people from the studio formed Psygnosis. Brataccas was what became of Bandersnatch.

When Brataccas came out for the Amiga in 1986, it actually got mixed reviews, mostly because the controls were pretty wonky and it was very buggy. But if you could get past those things (and I did), the game was absolutely amazing. It had an oppressive atmosphere that really got across the idea that you were in a remote place with everyone out to get you. The way the game displayed one room at a time on screen (kind of like Xenophobe) had me always worrying what was around the corner. When I did run into an Asteroid Belt Policeman (ABP), the encounters were quick and deadly. There was never a point in the game where I didn’t feel like it was a race against the clock to find the evidence I needed before the bad guys caught up with me.

When I think of games that really nailed a sense of atmosphere, I would put Brataccas in the same group as Out of this World and Flashback. There is a feeling to those games that is rarely captured even in today’s era. In fact, I think the original Dead Space is the only one of the past several years that gave me that sort of experience.

The video below gives a great overview of the game, and if you want to see the actuall manual from back in the day, head over to the site dedicated to Brattacas.

Maybe in the wake of Sony Liverpool’s closure, Psygnosis will someday live again. I wish all the people affected by the closure the best of luck.