September 6th, 2009
Insult Swordfighting points to two posts questioning the portrayal of mental illness in Batman: Arkham Asylum. I can’t fully agree with these complaints, with one important caveat. It seems to me that the Batman universe actually gives rise to their cause, and if you accept that universe then I think you also have to accept its implications.
Justin Keverne feels that the image of “those patients who are contextualised as being mentally ill” is problematic, as those patients are manic and charge Batman on sight. It’s hard not to sympathize, as these patients are so far gone as to be depicted as almost sub-human; unlike the other characters in the game, these patients are incapable of speech or reasoned action and don’t interact with Batman so much as act as human obstacles in the Asylum’s exterior. Travis Megill goes a bit further: he complains that because the patients are generically classed as “lunatics,” rather than being specifically diagnosed, they are stigmatized by the lack of context.
The issue, I think, is that the world which Batman inhabits is one that posits mental illness as an extricable catalyst for criminality. Although I suspect the idea that a relationship exists between the two isn’t a particularly surprising one for most people, Batman takes it a step further: every villain in his world turned to a life of crime after some traumatic event that spurred a break with reality. In most cases (the Joker, Two-Face, Bane, Clayface, and Poison Ivy, among others) became criminals after they were disfigured by some other individual. Others, like Killer Croc, the Riddler, or The Penguin , were victimized by others and retaliated against their rejection by society through a life of crime. A final category (consider Mr. Freeze or Dr. Strange) are depicted as seeking valuable goals in a criminal way through a psychosis-like disregard for the rules of the modern world. In every case, however, the criminal is absolved of agency for his actions with the understanding that others - whether “society” or a specific person - caused them to go insane. In the Batman universe, It’s inconceivable that someone could simply be “evil.”
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Posted in Commentary, Geoff | 7 Comments »
August 23rd, 2009
I’ve been following the semi-debate about Orson Scott Card’s involvement in scripting Shadow Complex with some amusement for the past week or two. For the uninitiated, Card has expressed strongly conservative political views on a whole range of subjects, including homosexuality (he’s not a fan); Card is a Mormon and is opposed on religious grounds. As a result, some gamers have expressed the view that SC should not be purchased as a form of protest against the involvement of someone they view as morally unsupportable.
Leaving the actual merits of those positions aside - I don’t think they’re relevant to the discussion - I have to come down on the side of those opposed to the boycott, for both practical and philosophical reasons. First, boycotts tend to work only when they can clearly target a specific individual: regardless of whether or not you agree with Card, he was hardly the only person involved in Shadow Complex and boycotting the game hurts a ton of people who probably don’t share his views.
Similarly, it’s difficult to conclude that boycotts on political grounds make a ton of sense for a game that isn’t political: the world in which Shadow Complex takes place is apparently based on a politically-tinged series that Card has authored, but as far as I can tell, the game itself avoids inserting itself into the debate. As a result, it’s tough to see where you would draw this line: if you start boycotting products with any connection to people whose ideological views you find objectionable - even if those products don’t reflect those ideological positions - you begin to stifle free debate rather than protect it.
I should be clear that there’s nothing wrong with freely expressing one’s personal views on any range of subjects, and this one should be no exception, no matter in which direction those views tend. However, I don’t see a game boycott being a useful or appropriate outlet for the expression of those views.
Posted in Commentary, Geoff, Personalities | 10 Comments »
June 11th, 2009
I’m always struck by convention season, because it seems like a time in which we’re provided with enormous quantities of data but not much in the way of information. E3 is a good time to reflect on this for me because it’s perhaps the oldest quintessential example. We’ve been treated to days of end-to-end, wall-to-wall coverage of new games, ideas, and consoles. And yet, all we’re really getting are glorified press releases - previews with some basic impressions and, if you’re lucky enough to be at the conference, a minute or two of hands-on experience.
Perhaps just as significantly, we’re being shown the product of a great deal of effort rather than the creative process that generates that change. In fact, it seems like the events that really move the industry are the small, incremental changes and concepts that occur throughout the year, while the release of a new game that sparks chatter online is rarely concentrated at the same time. This is as much a function of the structure of E3 and related shows as anything else. And yet, we’re pumped every time the latest show comes around. Ironic.
Posted in Commentary, Geoff, Industry | 4 Comments »
June 2nd, 2009
Michael Abbott of Brainy Gamer is disappointed with E3 because he views it as a “retrenchment” of “male power fantasies” where a lone male hero is sent out to wreak retribution and/or vengeance. The message he concludes this sends to gamers:
‘We’re bringing you bigger, edgier, and more visually arresting versions of the games we brought you last year, and the year before that. Sure, we’ve got casual games too, and a new slate of appalling games for girls; but we know you know where the action is.’
Abbott is always thoughtful, and I appreciate his sincere pursuit of storytelling exploration in gaming, but I worry he’s blaming the effect here rather than the cause. Yes, it’s true that many of these games are sequels. But the publishers aren’t dictating that people buy them because of some desire to impose their demands on gamers - they’re making these games because the first ones sold well. In effect, gamers told them to do this. The fact that the topics aren’t particularly imaginative is perhaps relevant but a certainly reflection of mass taste rather than publisher obduracy.
This isn’t particularly surprising - elite tastes have rarely comported with those of the masses in any medium. But I would caution thoughtful gamers and commentators not to take this as a personal insult, but rather a reflection of reality. The terrible economic climate is necessarily making companies more risk-averse, certainly, but it’s not changing their priorities. Rather, it’s cutting off the long tails of their production schedules, in which the riskiest and most experimental games tend to reside.
Finally, let’s be careful about blaming the victim. It’s definitely reasonable to lament the lack of a given attribute in gaming today. Yet we should be cautious not to minimize the progress made so far, nor to cast stones at our fellow gamers because we simply don’t agree with them.
Posted in Commentary, Geoff | 2 Comments »
May 12th, 2009
Michael Abbott has an interesting post up positing that sports games are a neglected niche of gaming criticism. Frankly, I think he overestimates the extent to which sports titles change from year to year, and though he argues that the notion that sports games require less imaginative design is a “flawed” premise, I don’t really see much evidence that this is the case.
Gaming critics, in general, are interested in the most creative forms of gaming development (story, art, mechanics, themes). Simulations, when done correctly, simply can’t lend themselves to as much creativity as other genres. This is because simulations must mimic their real-life counterparts as effectively as possible in order to be valuable as simulations themselves. Consider Madden ‘08, which recently came under fire because the results that it presented were simply unrealistic - how much more criticism would it have encountered had its players been cell-shaded and cheered on by Donkey Kong? Although alternative control schemes, like Madden Wii, may add some additional immsersion to the mix, they’re fundamentally covering the same game and mechanics.
Let me suggest a final problem with sports criticism: that no sports game is able to transcend its own boundaries; if you don’t like soccer, you’ll never like FIFA, no matter how well it’s presented. Although challenging, I’d suggest that some games can do this; Braid had plenty of detractors, but many people admired it despite not really liking it, because parts of the experience were so different and new. I suspect the same is not true of MLB ‘XX.
For example: Abbott makes a valiant effort to find something to say about MLB ‘09, and notes a bit about their immersiveness and ability to self-generate a story. Unfortunately, I don’t think these comments are actionable. They can’t be generalized beyond a sports game; several titles have explored the idea of a player-generated story as a concept, but as a whole, the fully-open ended concept is restricted to simulations, where the process and experience are more significant than the goal per se. I have a hard time seeing what the sports angle in particular lends itself to that many other titles do not.
And there’s the rub - there’s no reason to go out of one’s way to write about these games specifically, unless you already have an interest in those games as sports games, because the lessons which can be generalized are readily available elsewhere. I happen to love Madden, FIFA, and various baseball games - but I don’t know that I can write much of substance about them.
Posted in Commentary, Geoff | No Comments »
April 14th, 2009
I wanted to add some of my own thoughts in addition to Geoff’s excellent post on the game 6 Days in Fallujah.
I generally agree with what Geoff has to say, but I think the “controversy” arises from a feeling that maybe you shouldn’t be having “fun” with something that’s actually happening now (or in the past, I suppose), where people are actually dying. In the brief Joystiq impressions they mention the developers seemingly want to emphasize the “realism” and note that buildings are modeled down to the “brick” level, so that when they’re destroyed you can destroy them brick by brick. At the same time, though, they mention that your teammates can seemingly absorb an infinite amount of bullets without flinching, and you will also magically regain your own health if you just wait a few seconds in cover (like most FPS games on the market now). Do these “gamey” enhancements that ultimately make the experience more “fun” disrespect those actually fighting (or who have fought) in the war? And if this doesn’t constitute disrespect, is there a point at which the “gamey enhancements” do?
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Posted in Commentary, Jeff | 3 Comments »
April 9th, 2009
1) Make a movie of it.
Perhaps that’s not exactly fair, but the track record really speaks for itself. It is really depressing that Shadow of the Colossus, a game that was lauded for its serious and emotionally charged tone, is now going to be made into a movie that’s being written by the same guy who wrote “Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li” and produced by the guy who did “The Scorpion King”. This really feels like it sets the whole “Games as art” argument back, as now instead of SOTC being a beautiful, emotional, and, yes, fun experience it is now just another franchise to be milked.
Also worth mentioning is the fact that Gore Verbinski of “Pirates of the Carribean” fame is going to direct the Bioshock movie as well. While the game didn’t pack quite the emotional punch that SOTC did, I doubt they’ll be able to, or even care about trying to produce the same level of intellectual discussion as the game did. Just imagine how lame the “big twist” in the game would be as a passive 3rd-person rather than an interactive first-person experience. I don’t think it’d be quite the mindf*ck that the game produced, which is really the reason why it’s a game in the first place, and not a movie.
Posted in Commentary, Etc, Industry, Jeff, WTF | 2 Comments »
March 13th, 2009
Resident Evil 5 has now been released, but as we’ve found out over the past few days there is already DLC in the works that will enable a “Versus Mode”, which gives non-cooperative ways to play the game multiplayer. Unfortunately, unlike the free updates for Left 4 Dead and other Valve games, this DLC will cost $5.
While $5 is not the end of the world, this strikes me as a really poor idea, not just because it seems like a blatant attempt to quickly squeeze a bit more money out of customers for features that should’ve potentially been included with the game, but also because it strikes me as the kind of thing that will substantially reduce the number of people that can play it in this mode, thus possibly making the experience even worse for all of those who actually do purchase it (or at least reducing its longevity and therefore it’s long-term potential).
Separating out an entire multiplayer feature for DLC is much different than just selling new maps for a game. At least if the game ships with the feature I’ll know that I’ll always be able to play with anyone else who bought the game, whether or not they bought the new maps. What Capcom seems to be doing with RE5 seems more akin to if Bungie had decided to charge separately just to play Halo 3 multiplayer, and I think that probably would’ve been a pretty quick way to kill the Halo 3 community. Granted, the demand for competitive RE5 modes is probably less than Halo 3’s, but that shouldn’t really matter.
Capcom may want to think clearly about their DLC strategy going forward. There are certainly some people, many who have no problems paying for all kinds of DLC content, that are unhappy with the way they are treating their fans with their latest games.
Posted in Business, Commentary, DLC, Jeff | 1 Comment »
February 23rd, 2009
I really liked this GameSetWatch piece on managing difficulty, because (with the exception of #6), each of these suggestions provides flexibility, rather than simply ease, which is, I think, the proper goal of designing most games. I hated it in Company of Heroes that when I couldn’t beat one of the final levels, I couldn’t just skip it. But I didn’t want the game to be too easy, either… I just wanted the ability to make some minor tweaks.
This seems to be optimal to me. If I don’t like easy games, give me the chance to make the game as tough as I can; otherwise, let me change things as I see fit. The fundamental GSW insight here is that no individual is going to be able to 1) design a single theoretical difficulty model for all players, nor 2) optimize difficulty in the game to this theoretical level. Therefore, trying to do so is a fool’s game.
Posted in Commentary, Geoff | No Comments »
February 16th, 2009
Steven Totilo has an interesting post up positing that because reviewers don’t play games the same way a normal gamer does (with budget and interest constraints, for example), their views on a given population of titles will necesssarily diverge. I’ll definitely buy that premise. So here’s a modest proposal to try to get back to the sort of empathy that might be lacking here.
In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I’m stealing this from an IGN Comics conceit, which I actually read every so often despite having essentially zero interest in buying or reading comics - simply because I think it’s such a good idea. The idea itself is simple: imagine you have $X each week to spend on something. How would you prioritize your spending on what’s available, until you run out of money? I can see this translating reasonably well to gaming, albeit on a more monthly scale. If you have $120 a month to blow on games (adjust the amount as you see fit), how would you spend it?
I see a few advantages to this approach. First off, it would force reviewers to prioritize their games on a relative scale, not just on an absolute basis. This compensates somewhat for grade inflation, because even if you think five games are 80’s, you can only get one, or two, or three of them in your picks for the period. Second, it’s much more in line with the way the typical player thinks, because they can’t “spend” their money routinely on games which are simply interesting - they need to be truly compelling. Finally, it forces optimization as well: thinking about whether or not they’re better served by getting 3 Arcade titles, or 2 boxed games, or a retail title plus a PSN game plus some DLC. Games which are merely intriguing in their premise will fall off the radar in favor of those which are truly worth the limited time and effort available.
This obviously has some disadvantages as well; the latter sentence can be viewed in a decidedly negative light, and naturally it takes some sensitivity to your audience to see where their price breaks exist. That said, I would propose this approach be taken in addition to a more traditional model, not instead of it. Thoughts? I’ll try to post an example from January to show what I mean.
Posted in Commentary, Geoff, Journalism | 1 Comment »
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