Chungking Espresso

Matt Hazard: Blood, Bath, and Beyond

Posted in Game Analysis by Simon Ferrari on January 25, 2010

When I finished Matt Hazard: Blood, Bath, and Beyond to sit down and write this, I was the 12th ranked Matt Hazard: Blood, Bath, and Beyond player in the world. This does not bode well for Matt Hazard: Blood, Bath, and Beyond. The game begins with a joke about how you can find the first Matt Hazard game in a bargain bin near you. I remember, around a month after that game came out, printing a coupon to purchase it at Best Buy for under ten dollars. The coupon remained on my desk for a week before I threw it away.

Blood, Bath, and Beyond has been out for a few weeks now, and from the leaderboards it looks like less than four hundred people have beaten it. When I was sent a review code for the game, it had already been redeemed by someone else. I’ve talked with another game critic who had the same experience. The PR person distributing these codes is a very nice person. When she sent it, she enthusiastically told me to be sure I checked out that I can steal a partner’s life in co-op and that there is a difficulty setting called “Fuck This Shit.” These are decidedly inconsequential features (what game of its type doesn’t let you steal a partner’s life?). Matt Hazard: Blood, Bath, and Beyond is a game that knows it’s got two feet planted firmly in the grave, shouting this fact from its narrative, to its design, to its publicity.

The only thing strange about all of this is that, for the two hours that it lasts, Matt Hazard: Blood, Bath, and Beyond is a solid run-and-gun shooter. Two summers ago, the XBLA catalogue hadn’t really picked up steam yet. One of the best games available on the service at the time was a crappy port of Super Contra. I played it every day for around a month, even though the amount of fun you’ll have on any given playthrough is determined within the first few seconds: did you grab the scatter shot, or did you miss it? Blood, Bath, and Beyond isn’t nearly as difficult as Super Contra, and it doesn’t have the benefit of nostalgia going for it. But if you’re a fan of Super C with a hankering for the old bird, who remembers that your twitch isn’t quite as honed as it used to be, Blood, Bath, and Beyond might just be the perfect thing to scratch the itch.

You can read the rest of the review at Sleeper Hit here.

Divinity II: Ego Draconis

Posted in Game Analysis by Simon Ferrari on January 20, 2010

2 Corinthians 6:14, Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness?

Divinity II: Ego Draconis
is what happens when two unequally yoked ludic partners get drunk, throw their focus on factions to the ground like so much discarded clothing, and make a baby. From Morrowind we get compelling characters, an impetus toward unlocking the inner divine, and a strikingly vertical level design. And from Two Worldscome the tedious hacking-and-slashing, rambling trajectory through quests, and a bevy of technical issues. It’s a thirty hour-long game that hides its innovations behind fifteen hours of CRPG schlock and loading screens that tease you about the thrilling mechanics you don’t have access to yet, and when everything finally falls into place you may find yourself feeling that the best of the experience came too little, too late.

This game exists within the middle of an unfinished trilogy. Divine Divinity, the first entry in the series, holds a special place in the hearts of some, but I haven’t played it. This didn’t present a major obstruction to my ability to understand what was going on. The creators of this fictional universe were Dragons, and for centuries they enlisted human stewards of their goodwill by passing on a bit of their draconic essence. Somewhere along the line, a rogue organization called the Black Ring corrupted the son of a prominent Dragon Knight. Another organization, called the Dragon Slayers, rose in power to combat what they mistakenly identified as the evil impulse in the world: dragons. You begin the game as a Slayer, but I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that within a few hours you find yourself becoming the last living Dragon Knight.

You can read the rest of this review over at Sleeper Hit here.

300 Word Review – Bayonetta (Normal, Durga/Kilgore & Shuruba/Onyx Rose)

Posted in Game Analysis by Simon Ferrari on January 19, 2010

Bayonetta is a Cent mille milliards de poèmes game. Its innovation is singular: providing a combat system that is not only fluid, which is to be expected, but also combinatory. The titular heroine holds two weapons at a time, one in her hands and one on her feet. There are eight weapons in total, many of which can be wielded on either hand or foot. The peak of her witchy powers is that she can instantly swap between two loadouts in the middle of a combo, moving from one matching of weapons to another. The potential number of combinations is boggling, but I’m innumerate.

Bayonetta is a game that wants to be played repeatedly. Your first playthrough will be rife with thrilling victories swiftly followed by disappointing defeat in the face of a poorly-designed QTE. The backtracking of the first third of the game reminds one of a less obnoxious Devil May Cry 4. Although the enemy variety leaves much to be desired, it follows the same basic principle of the game’s combat: it’s not about how many different kinds of enemies there are, but how they can be arranged within a unique set piece.

Bayonetta is a Cutie Honey game. When Bayonetta summons a demon, her clothes retract into her skin to be replaced by a one-piece bathing-suit of hair. Like the Moon Prism Power Makeup and Honey Flash before it, this transformation reflects a changing cultural role for women in Japan. As in the best anime, the male gaze finds itself embodied in a buffoonish foil. His profession as a journalist chasing folk tales adds to the game’s critique of scopophilia. His lifelong, hopeless pursuit reflects exactly the age-old questions we the players ask: “Does ‘feminine sexual power’ exist? What is it?”

Dedicated to the analytic style of Charles Pratt, who specializes in 300-word reviews on mastery.

My Top Ten Films of the 2000s

Posted in Film by Simon Ferrari on January 7, 2010

These are my favorite films of the 2000s. Please note that I say “favorite” here, because I no longer feel qualified to declare which are the “best” or “most important.” That said, these at least are in rough order by what I discern as their importance (which I’ll try to explain). The only thing I think is really missing is an Iranian film, but in my estimation the best Iranian films were made in the late 90s. Most of my readers probably already know this, but I was a film studies person for five years before transitioning to game studies. I don’t personally think it gets in the way of my understanding games as a unique medium or cultural form, perhaps because I interact daily with Ian. I may be wrong, of course.

In any case, you’ll notice that these skew toward the beginning of the decade. That’s because I started studying games in 2007 and stopped keeping up with what was winning at film festivals. During my five years of study, I purchased over 300 DVDs (mostly contemporary) and watched between 2-4 films a day. My specialization was in East Asian genre film, but I also spent a summer researching at the Irish Film Archive and familiarized myself with the classics of most historical eras and movements. My problem with most such lists by other Americans is that they’re Anglo-centric. I’m obviously biased here, but I hope I’ve presented a decent mix. I’d like to give special thanks for my years of study to Professor Richard Neupert of UGA, an expert on French New Wave and animation—one of the best mentors I’ve had the privilege to study under.

Film of the Decade: Yi Yi

This one, I believe, belongs in most “ten greatest films of all time” lists, knocking one of the Kurosawas, Ozus, or Kubricks out of contention if you’ve got two on there (typically, Rashomon and/or Seven Samurai appear in the second half of most of those lists… Rashomon obviously stays). If you look at Cannes winners, it quickly becomes obvious that the 2000s were the decade of international social realism cinema. Yi Yi, by the late Taiwanese director Edward Yang, certainly falls into this trend. The reason that it emerges on the top of the heap is that it also engages with the clash in East Asia between tradition and westernization, morality and technology, youth and age. About the disintegration and reconciliation of a sprawling family, Yi Yi is one of the few films I’ve seen that takes videogames seriously—maybe because Yang was a brilliant computer engineer before becoming a director. Its cinematography is finely-tuned, with entire conversations caught in reflections on glass surfaces, long takes, and incredible depth of field. It is funny, heartbreaking, perfect.

In the Mood for Love

Wong Kar Wai is the reason I started studying asian film, and In the Mood for Love is the reason I was exclusively attracted to Chinese females for a period of three years. It’s a period piece about the 50s and 60s in Hong Kong, so popular (despite being an art film) that it spawned a craze for cheongsams throughout China. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung play neighbors whose spouses are cheating on them with each other. The conceit is simple: “we’ll roleplay to figure out how this happened.” Neither the faces of the spouses nor any possible sexual interaction between the protagonists are ever caught on camera. There are more slow pans across alleys while rain is falling than you would ever want to see in real life, all edited to the same melancholy string instrumental. I have a tattoo of Maggie Cheung from this film on my left arm.

Dancer in the Dark

I don’t like Lars von Trier. I don’t mind that he made a trilogy about the United States without ever visiting it, because that’s not important. What I do mind is that he calls this trilogy the “America trilogy” when it would be more accurately named the “People trilogy.” The main lesson of all these films is that people, especially when they’ve got no money, do horrible things to each other. Bjork plays an immigrant working in a factory in Nowhere, USA. She’s going blind, but she’s been saving up money so that her son might have a chance at a better life. Everything goes wrong. This is a musical about factories and trainyards. Some scenes are captured by one hundred handheld video cameras shooting simultaneously, an example of kinonarrative dissonance with a purpose. Within the same moment, it both exemplifies and defies everything set forth in the Dogme 95 manifesto. Vinterberg’s Festen is the better Dogme film, but this is the superior film.

Head-On

When I was in high school, we had a German exchange student. One night, while we were driving around shooting off fireworks, he said this: “In Germany, we don’t have Mexicans. We’ve got Turks. They’re like rats.” Fatih Akin, the director of Head-On, was born of Turkish decent in Germany. Many of his films are about the cultural and economic struggles of Turks living in Germany. Head-On is the story of an aging Turkish man with no love for his culture who marries a beautiful, young woman so that she can leave her family home to sleep with non-Turkish men. They fall in love. Did I mention that they meet in a suicide ward? Everything goes wrong. Main sequences of the film are segmented by these strange interludes with a traditional Turkish musical performance. The pacing is incredibly good, which is something I can’t say about his later Edge of Heaven.

American Splendor

I know all the better hipsters in the audience were reading graphic novels before this film came out. Well I wasn’t, because I was busy watching movies all day. Directed by two documentarians, Shari Berman and Robert Pulcini, American Splendor mixes interview footage, traditional non-fiction narrative, and animated segments to great effect. The star of the show is comics writer Harvey Pekar, played alternately by himself and Paul Giamatii (before that Sideways crapfest and villain roles in bad action films). Pekar’s life story and gradual development into an indie comics icon is totally blue-collar and totally real. Hope Davis and Judah Friedlander also crafted memorable depictions of rather cartoonish human beings. It deals with cancer survival, artistic inspiration, child-rearing, and Dave Letterman—what more could you ask for?

Joint Security Area

I like Park Chan-wook’s “Vengeance trilogy.” There were a couple years when Oldboy was my favorite film. I’d watch it twice a week and force all of my friends to sit through it when they came over for a beer. Kind of like when I watched Fight Club every day when I was fourteen. You get over it eventually. JSA came out before the vengeance trilogy, and it’s about a clandestine friendship that develops between North and South Korean soldiers stationed on the border between the two countries. When I visited South Korea, I was astounded by the naive optimism of many that the North would capitulate “any day now” and accept the marvels of capitalism. JSA takes this naivete and twists it, making the conflict about people rather than ideology. The ensuing tragedy is handled in a much less melodramatic way than any other film on the subject (I’m lookin’ at you, Taeguki). Fairly brutal critique of UN peacekeeping, too, I might add. Honorable mention: Kim Ki Duk’s 3 Iron.

Spirited Away

Miyazaki is good; you don’t need me to tell you that. Along with a few other anime directors and one or two from France (Michel Ocelot), he pretty much makes western animation completely obsolete for me: he uses computers to enhance cel-filmography rather than replace it. His colors are vibrant, his environments dynamic. I don’t know if Spirited Away is better than Princess Mononoke, but I think it strikes the perfect balance between engaging both adults and children without insulting or boring either. In a country whose animation is dominated by male power fantasies (sometimes subverted) and demon sex, Miyazaki makes coming-of-age films about young women warriors. They’re sensitive, funny, and immersed in that same struggle between tradition and modernity that I loved in Yi Yi. Honorable mention: Ocelot’s Kirikou and the Sorceress.

Mulholland Drive

If this were a list from the 80s or 90s, this position would be in heated contention between Cronenberg and Lynch—that is when both of the dark, postmodern directors created their best work. We are by no means settling with our pick of Mulholland Drive, though. Every hipster you know has his or her “perfect” “solution” to the “puzzle” the film presents (actually my friend Max has the best one). What do you need to know? It’s a critique of Hollywood from someone who’s seen the worst of it. It’s got dream logic, symbolism, Illuminati, and imagery-for-imagery’s-sake. Lynch always uses that stilted, awkward acting… so what happens when he breaks down his personal fourth wall for the scene where Naomi Watts is auditioning for a soap opera? It gets hot. Honorable mention: Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises.

Children of Men

Science fiction is my favorite genre, narrowly beating out gangster film. That said, I can’t think of many innovative science fiction films from the 2000s. They remain, for the most part, neoliberal escapist fantasy. Also, the 2000s were dominated by zombie films—third-rate zombie films. Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men came along just before the recent rash of post-apocalyptic media. First: its cinematography is grainy and frenetic. The long takes during the assault on the car and the escape from the farm house are more tense than most action films. There’s a healthy dose of intrigue, mixed with advocacy for marijuana in a world where half our population is medicated, mixed with a critique of British and American treatment of illegal immigrants. Unlike many notable science fiction films of the decade, it knows how to splice its final, insane glimmer of hope with the tragic loss of its protagonist. Remember, this is the guy who did Y Tu Mama Tambien and a Harry Potter flick (talk about range). Honorable mention: Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris.

Talk to Her

What do you want out of a Pedro Almodovar film? You want a flamboyantly gay, Spanish David Lynch film. My favorite of his is definitely 1999’s All About My Mother. My dad was raised Catholic, so nothing really beats sitting down with him to watch a film about prostitutes, an absent father, and a pregnant nun with AIDS. Talk to Her, on the other hand, is much more restrained. It’s about two women locked in comas and how the men in their lives deal with it. One of them was a female matador, a core icon for the director. It runs a gamut of sexual perversion from rape (with a question mark) to shrinking men who live inside vaginas (with an exclamation point), but this kinkiness is matched with Almodovar’s deep compassion and the pinnacle of his pacing abilities. One of my least favorite films of the decade? Almodovar’s Volver.

———

The takeaway, for my friends who study games, is this: it’s time for social realism to fall out of favor in the cinema, and it’s time for social realism to dominate the videogame industry. Thanks for reading, and I hope I named some good ones you hadn’t heard of to look up on Netflix. Please feel free to engage me in dialogue about the choices or my somewhat vague explanations in the comments—I wanted to keep the main body short for casual readers.

Link Dump & My GOTY

Posted in Game Analysis, Miscellany by Simon Ferrari on January 2, 2010

Hey friends. So the other day my blog hit its highest single-day traffic of all time. Thanks to everyone who has RSS’d me in the past few months and those who linked my AC2 piece for making that happen. I have about 50 regular readers now, which is 25 times what I had at the beginning of the year. My blogroll has ballooned in size, each with a mutual link between another blogger who I’ve made the acquaintance of over course of the past year. It’s kind of hard to remember what life was like without 130 friends on Twitter ready to indulge my every desire to nerd out about one game or another.

I’ve finished my lists for my top ten films and videogames of the past decade, but I’m still polishing up the explanations on those. I would like to note a few things about 2009 in particular first.

GOTY 2009: Shatter

Charles Pratt posted this cute quote a few months ago; one of his friends (maybe his girlfriend?) said of him that, “he’s so hardcore that he only plays casual games now.” In a way, I feel like that sort of describes me as well. This year, I played in excess of fifty “small” games on top of the sixty or so AAA games that I completed. I had, by far, a much more enjoyable time with the smaller titles. They’re singular in their expressive goals, and they tend to represent the efforts of a small group of designers hoping to break into the industry. Of course, I wouldn’t describe my experience with them as “casual”—most I ravenously devoured within a sitting or two. Up there on the list would have to be Panzer General, PixelJunk Shooter, Critter Crunch, and Trine, all of which I had the great honor to review (for free) at my newish gig as associate editor and go-to-guy for downloadable games at Sleeper Hit.

But my game of the year, by a long shot, is Shatter. This game was quietly released one night on PSN at a bargain price, something like seven or eight dollars. It’s an Arkanoid or Brick-Break or Breakout clone, whichever you like to recognize as your first of the kind. Shatter is different. It’s a game about breathing.

Supplementing the somewhat rote action of knocking a Pong-like ball into a wall of individually-breakable blocks is a mechanic for blowing air out and sucking it back in. By calculating your inhalation or exhalation, you can arc the ball in any direction you wish. It’s highly user-friendly, with a little arrow showing you where the ball is currently headed. You don’t even have to use the paddle most of the time if you don’t want to, choosing instead to constantly exhale. On top of this novel mechanic are the added benefits of a shield, special ball-types, and an overpower assault. Each of the ten levels has a unique boss that remind me of R-Type in many ways. I completed the game in the course of three hours, using only one continue, that first night it came out, and I haven’t picked it up since. Yet, it’s stuck with me—one of the only games this year that was perfect from start to finish.

My favorite consumer reviewer of the year: Simon Parkin of Eurogamer.

My favorite unsung videogame blogger of the year: Gatmog of Tales of a Scorched Earth.

My videogame review archnemesis: Brad Gallaway of GameCritics.

Links to my other recent work around the Internets:

The Humble Crickler – Excerpt by Ian from our upcoming book on newsgames, supplemented with some added analysis by me, about the crickler—a form of interactive online crossword puzzle (News Games).

Gotham Gazette’s NYC Election Games – Analysis of a suite of editorial games produced by the Gotham Gazette, funded by the Knight Foundation, to critique the 2004 NYC electoral process. An example of lightly-skinning classic games to great effect. Also, heavy use of the rhetoric of a “broken” game representing a broken real-word system (News Games).

QIXX++ – This Taito remake has nothing to do with Jeff Minter, despite the somewhat neon visuals and “++” epithet. Stay the hell away from it (Sleeper Hit).

Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising – I have no idea how this made its way into my hands. I think our staff is pretty down on the tactical shooter genre, and I was the only person willing to make an honest go at it. In contrast to many games in the genre, this one doesn’t take place in the dusty city streets of Somewhere, The Middle East… so that’s a plus (Sleeper Hit).

LostWinds 2: Winter of the Melodias – Awesome short-form narrative, family game for the WiiWare. My only complaint was that my hand hurt from how jumping works (hold A and swipe the controller). Beautiful art style, cool contrasts between elemental energies that I considered really incredible until I played PJ Shooter the very next week (Sleeper Hit).

Rainbow Islands: Towering Advenure – Another half-assed Taito remake that was actually the first bad game I had to review. I don’t really know what else to say, except that I’m still waiting for someone to tell me whether or not it’s redeemable as camp (Sleeper Hit).

Dragon Age: Origins – My editor made me write this consumer review after I’d already written my NGJ-style post about the relationships in the game. Mostly I complain about how bad the combat system is (Sleeper Hit).

Panzer General XBLA - Chronicling my attempt to learn how tabletop wargaming works and my thrilling online victory over Owen420Canada (Sleeper Hit).

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Assassin’s Creed 2: 0 out of 5 stars

Posted in Game Analysis by Simon Ferrari on December 29, 2009

Assassin’s Creed 2 teaches its player one thing: there is no problem that can’t be solved by throwing hookers at it. Spoilers follow.

Assassin’s Creed had some problems with repetition; however, it remained a fairly competent system for the purposes of climbing and assassinating. In contrast, Assassin’s Creed 2 has a problem with heaviness. The climbing and hidden-blading remain, but they’re weighed down by the choices of a design team who brainstormed for their sequel and literally threw none of their half-formed ideas out.

This heaviness is reflected in the character design differences between Altair and Ezio. The former was lithe and competent, and we bought it when he bowed his head to disguise himself as a passing monk; the latter is a bulky, slovenly mess. One killed swiftly and silently, while the other employs brute force as his primary modus operandi.

There are two things people mention when they need to explain what’s “better” about this game after noting that the problem of repetition remains: Leonardo’s Flying Machine and the Assassin’s Tomb explorations. We’ll get to the tombs later. There are two missions involving new vehicles in this game, both tied to Leonardo. These are the ludic equivalent of McBay explosion scenes: labor wasted on short set pieces rather than on balancing and playtesting core mechanics.

The first is a carriage chase through the Appenines, which I have to admit was the most fun I had with the game. You’ve got three obstacles: soldiers pursuing you on horseback, roadblocks, and archers shooting flaming arrows. The physics on the cart are quite complex, and you’ll spend most of your time sending it careening from side to side in an effort to emulate Andre the Giant’s strategy against Wesley in the Princess Bride: you’ve got to crush these fools against rocks. If the carriage had less health, then the roadblocks and archer flames would be more of a challenge; as it stands, you’ve got to dodge roughly half of them. Still, the experience is thrilling while it lasts.

The flying machine sequence, on the other hand, is patently ridiculous. This takes place in the context of needing to rush into San Marco to save the Doge from being poisoned. Time is of the essence, so, naturally, you waste the entire day climbing towers with your friend Antonio the thief. He shows you how to ascend to the top of the structure via a construction site, which you already knew how to do if you were thorough about clearing the Assassin’s Tombs.

Then… oh no! There’s a fence! Only a flying machine could get over that! You waste even more time killing pockets of guards so your thief friends can build pyres to keep Leonardo’s flying machine in the air. Finally, as night falls, you’re allowed to partake of the set piece that was advertised so heavily in AC2 promotional material. It lasts all of 45 seconds. You hit one hot air pocket, kick a few guards in the face (by double-clicking the left trigger instead of hitting X, which is a breathtaking usability failure), and fly toward San Marco for a cutscene. This raises two new points: cutscenes and the fact that Batman can fly.

I can’t remember whether or not Assassin’s Creed was cutscene-heavy. AC2, on the other hand, is. A new addition to the formula is everybody’s favorite ludic abortion: the quicktime event. Ubisoft’s Anvil engine presumably can’t handle subtle physical expressions, so things like hugging need to take place in cutscenes. Near the beginning of the game, the player pointlessly presses a few buttons to allow Ezio to have casual sex with… drum roll… Amerigo Vespucci’s sister. Amerigo was a pornographer, get it? We never see her again; nor do we see Caterina Sforza, whose family was later tied to the Borgias through marriage, after “saving” her from being somehow stranded on an island and engaging in some extramarital flirting. More about the women in this game later.

Other QTEs cover such things as shaking hands, double-hidden-blading captors in the throat, and the choice to hug Leonardo or not. What’s the idea there? This hug is the only QTE that the player can actually “miss” in the game, and the window of opportunity is quite small. Is this some kind of knock against Leonardo for being a homosexual? You’re in an involved conversation about either the Codex or a new gadget, and all of a sudden the game prompts you to hit the B button. My controller was on the floor, so I missed the opportunity. Leonardo pretends he wasn’t really trying to hug you and says, “Ah well.” Explain this for me, please, because I love Leonardo more than I do Amerigo Vespucci’s sister.

Moving onto combat and Batman now: this game shows how quickly a combat system becomes outdated when competition enters your niche. Freeflow in Arkham Asylum is both fluid and brutal. If you’re good you can rack up combos of over one hundred hits, all the while flinging yourself through the air and pummeling heads into the floor. Batman doesn’t need a QTE to execute a beautiful beatdown. Contrast this with AC2, where there’s always one solution to felling each enemy archetype.

In the first Ninja Gaiden reboot, countering was somewhat overpowered. You could make it through three quarters of the game doing nothing but blocking and counter-killing. Team Ninja fixed this problem with Ninja Gaiden 2, adding enemies fairly early on that can break your blocks, punishing you for sticking to dominant strategies.

In AC2, there’s never a reason not to turtle into a defensive stance: no matter how rapidly you upgrade to the best weapons currently available, direct attacks do nothing. Lightly-armored enemies will always fall to a single counter. Heavy guards can be dispatched with a single disarm move, and their larger weapons can then be used to one-shot counter any other enemy archetype. Oddly, medium soldiers are the most difficult to crack: you’ve got to dodge them and take cheap shots at their sides in order to whittle their health away for a killing blow. The final gambit is a “special move” for each weapon type that you’ve got to pay an arm and a leg for just to learn that their animations take too long to be useful. This is boring, tedious stuff that, once you’ve got the money for it, you’ll probably avoid completely by spamming escape gas.

You know what was fun in Assassin’s Creed? Running along rooftops and dispatching archers with throwing knives. Now I’ve a limited amount of knives on hand and three times the archers shouting at me to get off the roof before I hurt myself. Is everybody in Italy rich enough to hire an archer to stand on top of their goddamn houses? I’m not into immersion, but you can consider it broken at this point. If I do kill the louts, it’s only going to increase my notoriety level. That would mean wasting roughly one minute out of ten tearing posters off the wall. So, parkour is ruined for me.

All of the preceding were minor complaints; on to the fatal flaws.

The Assassin’s Tombs are not “a breath of fresh air.” They’re environmental “puzzles” with poor camera scripting and a single solution. Whenever you pull a lever to start a timed segment, the game refuses to return to your prior camera angle while disengaging your right trigger button (which I hold down almost constantly). So you begin each of these segments spinning around in slow motion, like a drunkard. When you approach key jumps and see what you have to do, the camera will swing to the right or left at the last minute to screw up your aim. I suppose this was designed to help people who were tip-toeing toward the jumps. If that were the case, then they should have added a line of code to disable the camera movement if the player were moving at a given speed when she passed the triggering zone.

If a tomb puzzle is triggered by a pressure plate, then you can reset it in the event of fumbling over the first jump and wasting precious seconds. But if the trigger is a lever, you’ve got to wait for the allotted time to run out before you can restart it. They already had the code and the animations in place to create this allowance, but they ignored it.

The tomb chase sequences, on the other hand, are symptomatic of the core problem with Assassin’s Creed 2: they’re fake. Your prey is designed to always run fast enough to remain within sight yet out of reach. The only way to actually kill him is to gain higher ground through parkour and execute an aerial assassination. What they’ve done here is forced a cathartic climax, the one solution they’ve allowed. Janet Murray calls it “scripting the interactor.” This isn’t ludic; it’s cinematic.

This general fakery adds to the heaviness problem I mentioned earlier. You get a bunch of new weapons, including poison and a gun. You never need to use the gun unless you’re bored, and the poison can only be used in situations where your hidden blade would accomplish the same thing: once you’re spotted by a guard, you can’t even select it for use. The double blade is nice, because you can now kill two oblivious AI at once, but it’s clearly just there to look bad-ass. It actually got me into trouble quite a few times, when I was trying to kill a Borgia courier who was right in front of me and it triggered double kills against innocent bystanders instead.

Platforming also has two new additions: fling jumps and pivots. The fling jump is only useful for reaching the tops of three map synchronization towers and two pointless little parapets in the game’s final chapter. It looks great to grab a pivot and swing around the side of a building, but none of them are in key segments of the map. There’s also never a guard on the other side of the pivot to kick in the face.

One thing Assassin’s Creed had down pat were the main assassination missions. The Assassin’s Guild was scattered throughout the city, and I had to scope everything out in order to earn the right to take the Templar scum out. You didn’t know where they were hiding, because nobody can be everywhere at the same time. There was a nice little ritual involving dipping a feather in some blood. Most of all, the targets had personality. There was a doctor who-may-or-may-not be experimenting on his patients, and a gluttonous merchant who-may-or-may-not be a repressed homosexual. The player was rewarded for killing these men with tact.

In Assassin’s Creed 2, the target is almost always either running from you or waiting in one specific location surrounded by guards. You run up to him and stick a blade in him, then you kill the remaining guards and go home. I know who some of these men are, because I studied European history eight years ago. The player sees history pass by, but she’s unable to engage with it. The Borgias were a brutal family, the Medicis patrons of the arts… and all they could dig from this was some stabbing and poisoning?

I haven’t mentioned how bad the meta-narrative is, because it’s too easy to nitpick. I actually enjoyed the change of pace the Desmond and Lucy story provided in the first game, because it gave me an opportunity to learn about this world Ubisoft was crafting. Here we just get an annoying, mean British guy and some inane rambling about how every major catastrophe in human history was caused by the Templars and the pieces of Eden. Oh, and a bunch of spinning tile puzzles.

If you read reviews and check forums, only children find this stuff compelling: “Dont u get it? The Roman gods knew that 1 day ppl would invent memory machines, so tey left hidden msgs for Desmond!” The only question remaining is, “How much money did they pay Corey May and Dooma Wendschuh to churn out such tripe?” That’s right, Ubisoft has been employing the crack team responsible for Terminator Salvation: The Game for more than five years now.

Generally, I don’t care about a game’s narrative—especially if it’s about Illuminati and the Bible post-Da Vinci Code. All I want it to do is stay the hell out of my way, but Assassin’s Creed 2 insists on rubbing its poor narrative design in my face. There are a number of times when I have the chance to assassinate three or four of my main targets at a time. I’m literally standing ten feet from them. Instead, the game enters a cutscene and the targets inexplicably disappear. There are also pacing problems here, like a bad season of Battlestar Galactica stuffed with filler episodes. I’m approaching a climactic battle, but I’ve got to spend ten minutes dispatching a random thug guilty of cuttin’ up, or otherwise harming, a whore (that’s a Clint Eastwood line).

Now we return to my opening line. It doesn’t take an expert feminist analysis to see that there’s something deeply wrong about how this game treats women. You can flirt with a Sforza and couple with a Vespucci, but they’re never heard from again. Two of the strong female characters are brothel-owners, one with the ridiculous notion that prostitution is a form of religious worship. The third is a thief who Ezio must carry like a baby through the city after she gets wounded by an arrow.

And I repeat: every problem can be solved by throwing hookers at it. Is there a room containing a Codex entry surrounded by guards? Send the courtesans to distract them. How about a festival party filled with guards searching for you? Hire some courtesans and “blend in” with them to hide. Do you need to progress through a heavily-guarded sequence of bridges? Flit from one group of courtesans to another to ensure success. You can also hire thieves and mercenaries, but why would you?

What do you like about this game? Building up your estate? Why don’t you play a Sim game instead? Why should I have to return to my estate constantly to collect my 20-minute tithe? The Borgias have couriers for that sort of thing, don’t they? If Our Creators couldn’t stop a solar flare with the pieces of Eden, why would Desmond be able to? Why would they care about the fate of humans, their traitorous enemies? Why design 22+ weapons when they never provide an advantage, only a way to keep your attacks from being constantly deflected? Why do I need a flashback telling me that Altair made a baby on top of a tower that one time? I’m his ancestor, aren’t I? Why are there only two types of vantage point towers for each city? Why would I ever complete a side mission? Why does the game come to a complete standstill so I can try to win an invitation to the Doge’s Carnivale party? If all the people I help throughout the game are Assassins, why are they all such ineffectual morons? Why do these idiots keep coming outside when they know I’m trying to kill them?

What the hell, Niccolo Machiavelli? Really?

How does a game about killing people, the Old Testament, and the Borgias completely bore an Italian Jew?

Dragon Age: Prelude

Posted in Miscellany by Simon Ferrari on November 12, 2009

morrigan

I finished Dragon Age: Origins last night. I’d told somebody that I would finish it by Sunday, but playing it on Hard led me to waste about eight hours on reloads. I also knew that I wouldn’t have the time to play through it ever again, so I spent a lot of time reloading saves to see what happened on both sides of every decision point. I thought about writing a proper review of the game for Sleeper Hit; instead, I’ll again share an anecdote about the analysis of multilinear RPGs.

Sipping Victory Prima Pilsner at a miserable, empty bar in Savannah, Kirk Battle and I discussed how to best write about something like a BioWare game. We were talking about Mass Effect, which he’d been afraid to touch (later he wrote this). A breakdown of basic mechanics and storytelling techniques, the staples of consumer reviewing, don’t do justice to a branching game. You could cull together a bunch of links to what other people said about their play experiences, but what the hell does that mean to you and those reading? “Ah yes, so many insights in such a small space.” You might even say the word “interesting” aloud; and, as J. Murray says, “‘interesting’ means ‘fuck you.’” You could take the extra time to play through the thing in every way possible, but then you’d simply have a chart to show for your work. Charts, wonderful for showing how something complex has been put together, don’t do any work toward explaining why a BioWare game is compelling. Why?

Because it’s your first playthrough that matters–the choices, friends, and enemies you make in that one pure ludic experience. You don’t need to see what else was possible; it’s the potential for missed opportunity that matters. You play through it again not to see what else happens (nothing ever surprises you or changes much), but because you’re chasing that dragon.

My answer to the question Kirk posed is, admittedly, overtly academic: construct a thesis, cut a chunk out of the game, and make it make sense to you. A while ago I briefly spoke with Michael Abbott about academics and our proclivity toward traditional thesis structures. Maybe it hurt my ability to write a compelling, regularly-updated blog? I’ve certainly failed at maintaining this quiet corner of the web. That said, there were a few months where I was calling it in on keeping up with Michael’s writing: too many games I didn’t want to play, too many disagreements on games we’d both played, too many generalities and what I’d call “NPR style” thoughtful commentary. I read it all, but I didn’t put the extra work into replying or thinking further.

Recently he wrote an extended suite of articles about why Uncharted 2 matters, and it snapped me back into caring. He had a point to prove, and that’s what he did. The only disagreement I might have with the endeavor is that I can’t believe he didn’t save it for proper academic publishing. I suppose the web is changing academia quickly, and I’m too busy learning the ropes to think about the future (I save all my good ideas for papers).

This was meant to be the opening paragraph to a counterpoint article, a reply to the design skewer Michael wrote today about Dragon Age. Instead it became something ungainly and far too general for my own tastes. I hope you didn’t read it. Tomorrow I’m going to post an article about DA:O. Take a look at Michael’s complaints, noting the tension between a desire for realism and the inhuman absurdity created by the bones of old and dead design necessities. Did anything about Dragon Age strike you as particularly true, despite its faults? I’m going to write about something that made sense to me. It’s going to spoilerific.

Sleeper Hit review digest October 12-29

Posted in Game Analysis by Simon Ferrari on November 2, 2009

I’ve been neglecting posting here, because school work is ridiculous and I’m busy writing things non-casually for News Games and Sleeper Hit. I’ve been working at Sleeper Hit for a little under a month now, and I’m finally getting into a groove for product reviewing. I’m still trying to figure out how to mix in personal touches without being too NGJ and how to insert meaningful game studies lessons without coming off as overbearing or tangential. Receiving free games is weird. We’re a pretty small site, but basically all it takes is one or two polite emails to get anything we want sent over. Nobody emails us to ask how the review is going if it’s taking more than a week, and nobody posts angry, anonymous comments if we write a slam piece. I guess, because we don’t have advertising (and a payroll), things are just idyllic. Also, I get a press pass to PAX East, so that’s awesome.

ODST – This is where I got myself a little too into the NGJ mess, with 800 words about what the first Halo and its pistol meant to me.

Trine – One of the best indie games I’ve played on Steam yet. Great contrast between the mage and thief characters, lame level design and reliance on “physics.”

Critter Crunch – This is where I tried to insert a lecture about puzzle games and the power of context… and failed. It feels tacked on; better luck next time. Good game!

Oh and, “Editing. Editing never changes.” Apparently having an MFA in creative writing doesn’t automatically imbue one with the ability to construct complete sentences.

LARP field study: Mafia

Posted in Game Analysis, Projects by Simon Ferrari on October 26, 2009

brokemyheart

For my LARP field study I played a night full of Mafia with Paul, Pauline, and Jenifer from class (along with a number of their friends). Doug Wilson of IT Copenhagen calls Mafia “the most political game ever conceived.” The game is an ideal LARP for non-traditional roleplayers, because there are no combat rules to remember or stats to track. Typically the game is played with between 10 and 20 people, seated in a circle. We had ten for our session, a number which lends itself to a more intimate and competitive experience.

One player takes the role of the narrator (game master) who randomly doles out roles at the beginning of each play experience, tracks the state of the game, and provides a narrative context for every game action. There are two cycles in the game: night and day. The game begins at night, with all heads bowed. Six players were assigned the role of basic townsperson; they have no special abilities or duties. Two players constitute the Mafia, and each night they raise their heads to select one person to kill. One player is the detective, and each night they can point to one person, asking the narrator if that player is in the Mafia. Finally, one player is the doctor, able to select one person per night for protection. Nobody knows what role the other players bear.

During the day stage, the results of the Mafia’s activities are reported. If the marked player was not protected by the doctor, they die. If the detective accurately discerned a Mafia member, she may want to declare the fact. But if she reveals her identity, she becomes an easy target for the Mafia if the doctor is unable or unwilling to protect her. Then the townspeople begin accusing each other of being in the Mafia, stating their (usually tenuous) reasons for believing so. Players can choose not to condemn anyone, but usually the Mafia players will attempt to sway the townspeople toward killing each other (which leads to counter-accusations, etc.). An accused player gives a defense speech, then the players vote on which person to lynch.

When the Mafia murder somebody, the narrator does not reveal what role the dead player bore; however, when the townspeople lynch a player they are told what role the dying player held. The game ends when either all townspeople or all Mafia members are killed.

It took awhile for us to get the game started. During the first round, I forgot which role I had been given and ruined everything. Everybody forgave me when the narrator forgot what was going on during the second round and spoiled that one. The third attempt was a success, especially for me. Because I knew what roles everybody had been assigned during the first two unsuccessful attempts, I used fuzzy math to try to discern which players were the most likely to be Mafia. Basically I went on the false mathematical assumption that the chance of three successive “heads” in a game of coin-flip is 1/8 instead of 1/2 (I still want a look at the theorem that establishes that bit of nonsense).

As it turned out, my fuzzy math worked! I successfully picked the two Mafia even though I was only playing a lowly citizen. The first time I nominated one of the suspect players, nobody believed me and didn’t vote for him to die. So during the next round, I falsely stated that I was the detective and that I knew the second suspect was mafioso. The healer was dead at this point, so I knew I would be killed after the round was over. I gave an impassioned speech about self-sacrifice, everybody bought it, and we lynched the suspect player. I was right about the pick, and I was also right that the remaining Mafia player would off me that night. But the real detective was still alive, and he found out who the second murderer was in time to win the round for the townspeople.

The next round, I was killed straightaway. I assume it was because I had such good hunches during the first game. This is similar to the experiment of iterated prisoner’s dilemma in game theory, where bias from previous plays affects how the players within the dilemma choose in subsequent rounds. I watched the players to figure out if any of them had tells, and I discovered that one of the players giggled whenever he was in the Mafia. During the third game, I heard the distinctive giggle on the first night and outed him to everyone during the day. After I explained my reasoning, a few players believed me and we successfully lynched him. Then I got killed the next round. Playing Mafia too well usually means you’re going to get axed.

By the fifth and final match, I’d consumed a bit too much alcohol for my own good. This resulted in me persuading the townspeople to murder two innocents in a row. I’m glad we stopped after that round. So I’ve played Mafia twice now, and I’ve never actually gotten to be in the Mafia. As a result of this, I can’t speak for how to strategize a defense while playing one of them. The rounds that I was the healer and the detective were the rounds where I died the first day, so I also don’t know how to play as those roles. Mostly I’m good at playing a standard townsperson, and I’ve got a knack for picking at least one of the Mafia off before getting slaughtered the following night (healers tend to be very stupid; they never protect me, their star player).

Is there a difference in embodiment while playing something like Mafia over a videogame? I don’t believe so. Identification with avatars in first- and third-person camera views has been well-documented. There’s a palpable, giddy energy to live action play, but for calculating players such as myself the difference seems negligible. This is probably because of the principle Gee calls the “psychosocial moratorium,” or what Huizinga calls “the magic circle”; this is a protection from real-life consequences and harm that some believe is intrinsic to play (perhaps the only exception would be in what Caillois identifies as Ilinx, or “vertigo,” play… there is a real danger present with things like roller coasters and skydiving).

I have no problem sacrificing myself for the team in Mafia, because I know I’m not dying in real life. The act of taking on a role is always a necessary step away from absolute embodiment and identification. I shun anonymity in online play, so I’m always just playing an accentuated fraction of my real self when I play any game. This appears to hold true in live play: I was sarcastic, calm, and reasonable (except when I became inebriated… which can affect performance in online games as well).

As for the strategic difference between NPCs and real human players, I hold, along with Jason Rohrer, that there isn’t much of one. I didn’t know any of my fellow Mafia players exceedingly well, so I tested and prodded them much as I would an alien computer intelligence. As a material and physical determinist, I think people behave with predictable regularity (except in panic situations). I read the one player’s giggle-tell much as I would a sound cue in a videogame. If I’d been playing with family or close friends, this might have been different–but only because I would know them and their personal rulesets all the better. They could act to upset my predictions, but I would probably be able to counter-predict that if I were playing carefully enough.

One notable exception to this rule was that we had a player named Akido who spoke little English. His defense was always, “Why do you think I’m in the Mafia? I am innocent!” It was impossible to read him, because he wasn’t fluent enough to craft different responses based on his current role and situation. I correctly identified him by luck during the first round, but every time after that (if he were mafioso) nobody was able to nail him. We avoided accusing him, perhaps out of fear that we would be discriminating against him. I wonder how this could be simulated in an NPC?

Jenifer made two videos of the experience, but I can’t speak to their quality because I don’t want to download them:

http://jenifervandagriff.com/mafia/VID00001.MP4
http://jenifervandagriff.com/mafia/VID00002.MP4
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End of Life IF

Posted in Newsgames, Projects, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on October 19, 2009

eol

End of Life is an interactive fiction about family life and decision-making. It started as an idea in Ian Bogost’s newsgame project studio. One of the branches of newsgames we have identified for our book is the documentary game. Typically these have a medium-length (20 minutes to two hours) playthrough time and are built as a mod for a 3D engine. There are three major types: spatial, procedural, and personal. Personal documentary games mix spatial and system-based models in order to tell share a story from a unique, subjective point-of-view. End of Life is a text-based adaptation of the documentary game form, addressing the real-world issue of “end of life counseling” or the decision whether to pull life support from a dying loved one.

The high concept pitch for EoL would sound something like, “It’s Ruben & Lullaby meets The Sound and The Fury.” Point-of-view switching is a powerful literary device, but in static texts this typically implies a forced perspective. In EoL, the player can switch back and forth between five family members at any moment and in any order. If they don’t like a character, they can ignore her for the course of the playthrough. The invalid family patriarch is our Benjy Compson (the mentally handicapped member of Faulkner’s fictional family), providing commentary that the active family members do not have access to. Some characters always do the same things in every playthrough; most have branching choices based on their moods at certain points in the day. When there is no choice in action, mood will instead dictate how the character mentally reacts to her situation.

Ruben & Lullaby provides the inspiration for the interaction model: the player controls a wisp that can nudge the emotions of one family member per hour. I see this as a direct contradiction of the interaction model of The Sims, where players are cued to a desire or feeling in the Sim that they can rectify or not by dictating action. Players of R&L and Facade are often frustrated when their commands don’t lead to tangible results in game, and I wanted to capture a similar frustration in EoL. Each family member begins the playthrough in a randomized mood. Each is variably susceptible to particular mood swings, leading to healthy dose of guesswork and replay value. The player can also choose to abstain from influencing the characters, letting the drama play out based on the beginning values.

At the end of the game, the family convenes to decide the fate of the patriarch; some will vote to keep him alive if they are in a good mood, some if they are in a bad mood. This decision takes place offscreen, much as in the violent sections of Greek tragedy (mostly because I wasn’t good enough to code it dramatically). The player has gleaned parts of their personalities in the playthrough, but he doesn’t know everything about each family member. Most importantly, their ethics aren’t considered. The game argues that people make decisions based on who they are and the mood they are in. Ethics certainly make up who we are, but they tend to be remarkably malleable under duress. Decisions are also relational; some people, under some circumstances, will take radical action to counteract what they see as the controlling influence of others.

In discussing digital media, we often fall back on an essentialist logic that says that an artifact is aesthetically legitimate if it maximizes the affordances of the medium; however, there is a slightly older aesthetic criterion, coming from Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School, which states that aesthetic legitimacy arises not from essentialist qualities but from the reflection of the work’s means of production–it has to reify the cultural milieu of a time and place, adopting a suitable form for conveying it. End of Life draws from the latter school of thought, directly confronting a relevant public issue and encapsulating how one specific family deals with it.

The suggestion that a digital artifact should provide always immersion, embodiment, and agency is perverse. It only makes sense if one views digital media as escapism, created to fully engage the user in the place of the real world around them. A brute fact of human life is that we don’t have control over much of our lives or the lives of others. Aarseth argues that games become more “gamelike” if they are configurative, that the player should be able to see the meaningful influence her actions have on a virtual world. I would argue that agency and embodiment mean more in configurative work when they are directly contradicted in non-configurative work. By taking these essential qualities away sometimes, we make them more cherished. Such qualities should be selected from to suit the work, not the other way around. Defaulting to what is important to us robs it of importance. This is an educational opportunity, an antidote to the intoxicating sense of power that most digital artifacts provide. Some things simply aren’t configurative in the real world; families are a good example.

A week before finishing this project, I finally found published theoretical grounding for my position. In their early work on augmented reality games, Jay Bolter and Blair MacIntyre argue that point-of-view switching provides adequate embodiment in lieu of actual agency in a digital environment.2 I actually don’t find their particular example of this principle compelling; basically they simplified Twelve Angry Jurors to Three Jurors, strapped a backpack computer and a virtual reality visor to a player, and then allowed the player to switch between inhabiting the mindset of one of the three characters as a static drama played out. I think EoL takes point-of-view switching one step further and provides a better proof-of-concept for their argument.

I consider End of Life no small success. My writing is admittedly the weakest element; mentally I finished the piece the moment I finished coding the framework girding the story. This project combines everything I’ve learned how to do in Flash thus far (excepting animation), and it constitutes the first true state machine I’ve ever made completely by myself in the platform. Even though the writing is somewhat trite, pulling from every cliche of everyday family life I’m familiar with, it becomes true in that I pulled it from one specific, real-world family (my own).

There is some room for future development here, both graphically and procedurally. Right now there are two variations for every character in every round based on there mood. Given the way the structure is set up, I could add mood variations to the branching story sections or add a third mood variation (neutral) given enough time and literary inspiration. I would also love to try to remake this project as a true documentary game, in a 3D engine, with unique art assets and dialogue. The current iteration of this project represents the utmost level of my design and programming abilities given the time constraints and the specifications of the assignment.

I should note that this situation didn’t actually happen to my family, and the personalities have been a bit blown own to be more compelling. My grandfather died five years ago from Alzheimer’s disease, asleep in his bed, in the room that I grew up in. This isn’t meant to be a universal story, though it can be generalized to the extent that families are, after all, families; it is a directed experience featuring characters with largely determinate personalities. This is the way I wanted it, and I hope the player enjoys what I crafted for them. A big thank you goes out to Graham Jans for teaching me how to randomize variables in Flash. I’m also indebted to my family for providing me with the strong personalities embedded in the family members of this fiction. Thank you to my father, who used to work as an intensive care nurse, for describing the hour-by-hour care of a comatose patient.

———————-

Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 16-45.

MacIntrye, Blair and Jay Bolter. “Single-narrative, multiple point-of-view dramatic experiences in augmented reality” in Virtual Reality 7 (London: Springer-Verlag, 2003), 10-16.

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