Wednesday, October 22

I'm a choker!

And no, that has nothing to do with sexual activity. Get your mind out of that place, now!

What it refers to is when watching a TV show recently-ish some character in that show was referred to as a choker. They experienced great success to get them into the finals of a sporting competition but every time they made it to the finals they would "choke" and perform poorly. This moment in that show was something of a gotcha moment for me as it helped me to name my experiences playing games in a competitive environment. Wipeout HD is my most recent foray into this world of "choking".

I've made no secret of my personal distaste for competitive gaming and my preference for cooperative play. I hate winning and I hate losing to bad winners. The very idea of someone tea-bagging my online avatar in a game such as Halo generates nausea. That kind of idiotic male posturing helps me understand why people walk into a public place with fully loaded sub machine guns and let loose. It's not something I expect to ever do, it's just that sometimes I am ashamed of my species and can understand why some reckless individuals would lash out. That said, I've had many positive competitive experiences that are about learning, particularly while practicing martial arts many aeons ago.

This trait that I've recently managed to name has manifest itself to me through Wipeout HD where I'd been setting goals for myself to work through. Three "perfect" laps in a row on a difficult track. I realise that most of you won't know precisely what this goal is in practical terms. Assume it means something like I've set a high standard for myself that I must work very hard at to achieve. When I succeed (I'm comfortable with practice after learning piano and violin in my childhood) I cannot ever manage to take it to four laps in a row. Well not yet anyway. I choke. Some switch inside of me flicks on and I experience a form of elated surprise at my success after hours of practice followed by a grim determination to better the result "this time". All this is set upon a foundation of dread because on some level inside me I know that I will fail. I fulfill my prophecy.

I am interested in this because, now that I can name it, I have begun to explore my response to success and pressure through games such as Wipeout HD. Suddenly competitive play can be internalised into an exploration of my psyche in the light of success. I can "win" and remain comfortable with myself should I acclimatise myself to the new sensation and reject the feelings of low self-worth borne of my youth. Discovering that I can work through the four perfects barrier onto a new level of competence. Each step that I make is a leaden one. Heavily burdened with emotional baggage I'd long forgotten. Gaming in such environments offers me a chance to explore my psyche and its response to such stimuli in a manner that is far more harmless that those used by the reckless individuals of my earlier example. After reading Michael Abbot's self conscious exploration of his desire to apologise for his gaming interests, I am glad to say that gaming helps make me a better man.

Tuesday, October 14

Nothing if not conventional

I may have already mentioned that I like table top role-playing games. Bugger that! I love them. While I enjoy the dross billed as RPGs on computers and consoles, they are little more than derivative stories that provide context for tactical war games, a pale comparison to the greater diversity of participation found in the humble pencil and paper RPG.

Mental note: I'm not talking about DnD in any incarnation.

Thus my love of such should translate into a love of conventions where similarly attributed nobodies gather to gesticulate wildly with raised voices about the exploits of fictional characters, that one time, at band camp (or similar) did something to someone. On the contrary, role playing conventions leave me decidedly cold.

This is significant because a couple of weeks ago some of my pencil and paper RP friends ran into a spot of bother. They're convention organisers. One of their "game designers" dropped out suddenly due to unexpected work commitments and they were left with a bunch of players, a possibility of no game and probably no-one to run it for them. I value my friends deep in my heart, anyone who tolerates me enough to spend any more than a few minutes in my extremely testing presence deserves more than I can ever possibly give them. They knew of a mild distaste for the RPG Convention scene, so it was with some trepidation that I was approached to "help out".

I tried and, in my interpretation of events, failed to assist. This isn't particularly important though. What is important is that I was reminded of why I don't really like conventions. They lack intimacy.

What I enjoy about playing with my friends is the open and honest sharing of potentially controversial material in the knowledge that we all understand that this is fiction. We can take risks. We can explore elements of ourselves and each other that would generate irrational responses in "real" situations. The fears still exist, they still prey upon us, our hopes, dreams and desires still colour our decisions and shape our characters but we can explore our natures in a way that doesn't threaten to undermine them or qualitatively analyse our worthiness. These people who I play with share revelations about their very natures with me by virtue of playing with me regularly. I cannot help but poke, prod, experiment and peer a little too keenly at the bits revealed. I stay my tongue and try to incorporate my observations into crafting a more compelling experience. Sometimes I step too far and cross some unseen boundary between fiction and reality. Sometimes there are emotions that aren't easily distinguished between fictional characters and their players. It is fiddling with this delicate balance that becomes a beacon, a hypnotic siren's call that entrances me and will not let me go. It is my fervent hope those I play with feel some sense of my passion and interest and that this enhances their enjoyment.

With strangers all my hopes and efforts are for nought. They do not know me and I do not know them. When seeking to evoke an emotional response in a fellow convention goer who I have never met before today I fail. Every time. In my mind's eye, my imagination I can see what I aspire to achieve and my various attempts to communicate this message invariably result in a flat, lifeless imitation. There is no flattery. It is a struggle. It is a test of endurance. It is painful and unpleasant. It is because I am my own worst critic and have expectations of what could be that fail to match what is.

I find that except in the rarest of circumstances telling a meaningful story that resonates strongly with its participants isn't possible in such an environment. There are just too many taboos, foibles and scruples getting in the way. And it is this that got me wondering whether the reason almost all stories in games lack any tangible qualities is because they lack intimacy. I saw a You Tube video of a marriage proposal using LittleBigPlanet's level creator today. I wonder if there is a way to appeal to the great unwashed masses and the individual within the throng simultaneously. If a thing can be both universal and intimate at the same time. I also wonder whether this species that I am a member of is "ready" to be one among many without restrain, fear or hostility.

I found I still dislike conventions. We're still not ready to share ourselves with complete strangers, even in a fictional world, even if they don't exist. I believe this is shaping our interactive experience. Yet others appear satisfied with superficial interactions of little longevity. They thrive on it. I am confused, please enlighten me.

Monday, October 13

Stuffs

Okay. So I haven't posted for a while and this isn't going to be a "real" post. My "old" computer is experiencing some kind of Alzheimer's and is slowly degenerating. I have a replacement that is much better all in all, but requires some degree of effort to bring up to speed. A few mistakes and I'd lost all of my bookmarks, most of my emails and a few other things too. Trying to reconcile this mess has entertained me for the better part of two weeks. Yes. I'm not really dealing with it effectively, it's not very interesting.

My intent is to get back to posting now that it's almost resolved.

See you tomorrow for more fruitless explorations with little meaning.

Monday, September 29

Gender Horrors

I'm acclimatising to a new life schedule so my posts will be either brief, sporadic or both.

If you ever thought that western developed games lacked gender bias then maybe you should read this article. It explores the feminista's response to the game Cunt. I just want to add my voice to those voices already condemning this travesty of wisdom and sense.

Friday, September 26

What I discovered on my way to tearing a new one for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.

A copy of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (sW:TFu) fell into my lap at the beginning of the week and with this sudden and unexpected opportunity I felt I could try my hand at offering a "current" review of this game. Its visit would be limited so I resolved to focus all my attentions on it to the scorn of all else (including this blog if you hadn't noticed). I finished the "normal" difficulty setting on day one and pondered whether to endure the game again, on a harder difficulty to get the alternative ending that taunted me with its "locked" status. I wrestled with my completionist impulses and while I did so I went and read a few blogs.

Versus CluClu Land is a blog I've mentioned a few times. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interesting in thoughtful discourse about gaming and the world, there's a link to it in the links section. While visiting in this impromptu interlude I was greeted by Pliskin's evil, evil words as he explored the meaning and relevance of game reviews. For a time his honeyed words messed with my substandard issue brain and had me convinced that it would be worthwhile to follow his sage advice. You've probably already guessed that I was going to play through sW:TFu for that last piece of story - the gaming press had promised it was good! - and I had a blog post that was delayed due to my inexplicable fortune so there would be a delay in getting the review out.

Then, before I try his ideas out for myself, he goes and posts a review himself. Somehow this turgid piece of steaming advertising copy (aka turd) only served to undermine those ideas that had formed in my head prompted by his musings earlier. Let me declare my undying hatred for this person I do not know, largely born of synonyms for envy. Why? Apparently there's a thin line in there somewhere. Fortunately he doesn't read this blog, and if he were to read it, I'm a complete nobody who's opinion is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. So I need not fear hurting his feelings. I questioned my own slavish devotion to his twisted mental manipulations and began to realise something about what I want from a review. Probably the point, but no matter.

Criticism can mean many things. It can be the analysis of something with the intent to provide feedback to the creator of that thing so that they may improve. Rather than the whiney complaining or listless fawning that is the staple these days. Critics criticise. The content of their criticisms lie within their "review". Those critics I respect most explore their feelings, established knowledge, the ideas the creator wished to express and the response of the viewer in light of all these things. It's personal, opinionated and typically includes a discussion about what was lacking and how it could be done better. No point in telling someone what they're doing wrong without telling them what they need to do to fix it.

Except that many games lack a permanent infrastructure to make such an exercise meaningful. Developers hire staff to make that one big game to end them all and then reward them by firing them once it's "gold". While this is also true of movies, it is also true that movies have a cultural industry that involves criticism with meaningful feedback that is directed at the specific individuals involved in the generation of a product. Directors, cinematographers, actors, writers, editors, sound and lighting staff, even the lowly stuntspersons and gaffers (among others) will get a look in from time to time. The relationship that exists between the critic and the developer (without even considering their relative anonymity) is largely meaningless in games. Critics in the gaming world serve only to promote someone's product, some publisher's product. And don't get me started on quality assurance. What is it with all these online patches for supposedly complete games anyway? Test the damn thing before you release it, fix it and then try to sell it to me.

sW:TFu glitched on me in less than 5 mins. The game froze at the 4 min 32 second mark as Vader was dicing some wookies. I was able to "complete" the holocron subquest(s) simply by changing my outfit once I picked one up. I discovered this quite by accident. The story was lacklustre, weak, insipid garbage with puerile scripting and voice acting that can only be described as "what the fuck"? The people responsible for the in game camera should be shot. Sith Lord difficulty was a joke (Sith Master unlocks once it's completed but I chose not to endure any further punishment), I died twice during the entire playthrough because of my desire to experiment rather than through any actions of the AI or the difficulty of the game. Even the graphics are weird, a cartoony representation of the far, far away galaxy that completely undermines the supposedly sombre atmosphere of doom and gloom the story tries to portray. I suppose I should also mention screen tears, clipping, piss poor controls, the overhyped waste of Euphoria (much more effectively implemented in GTA IV), how there are only two force powers of any worth - telekinesis in four variations, push, throw, repel and sabre throw or electrokinesis in the form of lightning or electrical shield - nothing unleashed here. DMM was nice though (mostly).

Yet there are some who have lowered their standards and expectations so much that they will ignore all the problems of the game, all its shortcomings and play it anyway. I really wonder what is going on at times. Advertising copy billed as a "review", minimal direct or indirect feedback on the quality of titles. Titles released as buggy messes with no respect for the craft, the art or the consumer because they can patch it later presumably. A press that is a simpering sycophant so desperate for an exclusive they won't check sources, will fire those who write risky reviews, or rely on a publisher's press agent for the scoop that would have once come from investigative journalism.

I'll still hate Iriquois Pliskin for all the wrong reasons and Star Wars: the Force Unleashed for all the right ones. What I want from my critical analysis of shit, is critical analysis. And if it's shit, I want someone to call them on it. Don't you?

Edit: You may notice that I've accidentally written the word "interesting" instead of "interested" in paragraph two, sentence two. I'm not going to change it because I suspect it's a Freudian slip of sorts. I apologise for any inconvenience this lack of compulsive grammar tyranny may cause.

Thursday, September 25

Dipping into deMMOs

Free to play MMOs (Massive multiplayer games) were recently a topic of discussion at the Austin Developers Conference. There's a fairly interesting round-table discussion on the nature of the MMO, its business model and its evolution moving forward from that conference. One sentence from that point form summary resonated very strongly with me. "But the only thing you can’t buy is social merit." This is a specific reference to the subscription based MMO, yet I wonder whether it is applicable to all forms of online interaction. Xbox Live, for instance, has had its fair share of social problems leading to a poor perception of its "social merit", whatever that really is.

I've spent a little time with both subscription and free-to-play MMOs and in many ways they're very similar experiences and in many ways entirely different. Their relationship with their player is very different. In a subscription based game players prove their worth to their peers by committing time to the grind and to the "scripted game moments". In a free-to-play game the commitment is more varied and very, very rarely related to time commitment. At its most insidious the free-to-play game is about wealth and the social merit derived from having more stuff than the guy or girl next to you.

The very notion of free-to-play is misleading. The free part is a glorified demo that is designed to lead the user toward the pot of gold at the end of the pixelated rainbow. You don't get the full game as a player, but you are exposed to those who have more of the game than you do (practically anyone who is still there after a week, presumably) and the desire to keep up with them is compelling. I appreciate the notion that I can test the gameplay through a demo but I dislike the idea that I can dip my toes into the wading pool without actually getting to swim around in the waters defined by the game. The pursuit of loot is both an ancient, well known practice and an addictive one that links to our limbic need to feel worthwhile. And while that scares me, it's not why I'm here.

I'm very comfortable with my ability to say no, regardless of how pushy someone may be, or how desperately needy. It's not so much that I wish to be cruel, it's a fundamental belief of mine that I have a responsibility to the universe to make sure that I put my own house in order, before attempting to help, interfere or be the victim of another's. Thus I feel no particular need to extend my demo like (without the full game experience) explorations into the worlds of free-to-play MMOs. My personal adventures are probably not representative, yet I wish to include them as an exploration of the social merit of such games.

My first free-to-play experience was a little awkward, ultimately driving me away from the game. Wandering around relating to the world, poking at things mechanically and thematically I began to meet people and make friends. It was not too long before I had a decent sized roster of opportunities for interaction. At some point I met a lovely, if needy, lesbian couple with a deaf daughter who required supervision because that person over there was a child molester who was hunting their daughter for reasons I'd prefer to know nothing about. The text based interaction environment was ideal for the deaf girl apparently. We chatted. I lamented their plight. The youngster was dumped under my supervision after our third meeting and the couple went off to play while the nominated molester followed my ward and I around with religious zeal. I really wish that I could say this was a form of role-play that was part of the game. It soon became apparent that these new friends of mine had cast me into a role that I would rather not have as part of my participation in this virtual world. I rejected the world and ceased attending.

Refusing to accept that this freak occurrence was representative I endeavoured to initiate a new experience in the same vein. I found that I had soon become embroiled in a serial online dater who sought a sympathetic ear and a new lover. She stalked me beyond the game and sought access to my real life. While flattering, it was more than a little harrowing as I felt that I had done nothing to encourage the belief in her that I was interested in her in that way. I left the game to escape her and soon discovered that this wasn't enough.

These highly personal experiences are echoed through retelling of friends who share their own stories of weirdness and general horror. Social merit indeed. I bear no ill will to those individuals who are mentioned above and in the former case do not know if it was some extremely elaborate joke designed to drive players from a competing product. What concerns me about this sort of thing is that many of these free-to-play models are a form of institution that will encourage players to become something. Precisely what is dependent on how the environment handles itself. If the environment is designed to make a profit for its distributor then its motives may be less than ideal and the social impact of such devices could be very deep indeed. Games influence players at least as much as the players shape the community.

Any tales from the world of MMOs you'd care to share with me?

Sunday, September 21

Dipping into demos

I haven't quite gotten my wish in regards to Braid. I don't mind at all. Life is good with or without Braid or any other critically acclaimed gaming experience such as Castle Crashers.

One of my friends, amazing that I have any really, let me fiddle with the demos of both Braid and Castle Crashers. Thanks. I would prefer to never write about demos as they might be constructed on early builds and offer a limited insight into the actual game. It is unfair and unreasonable to offer impressions of a game from a demo. I enjoyed the Braid demo but found the text elements to be indulgently pretentious. The Castle Crashers demo was vile, I hated it. Please be aware that in no way am I advocating anything about either of these games (positive or negative) from this experience.

Professionally published games aren't the cheapest form of entertainment. iTunes offers free podcasts of many varied professional standards. Music is a little more expensive. Then there are DVDs and shareware style games, some free to play MMOs might be similarly expensive if one is frugal. Blu-Rays, DVDs of TV series seasons, new release Blu-Rays, larger downloadable games represent the next largest price bracket. The most expensive of this kind of media is the major game release. Price is a consideration in the arena of entertainment and games are good value for money when one considers time versus dollars. There's a risk though, the consumer wants to know that the long time will be worthwhile, will be "enjoyable", and most importantly will be worth the investment monetarily. There are definitely times when I'd rather buy two seasons of TV on DVD (or Blu-Ray) for my one video game. Unlike the game I've probably had a chance to preview the series and am buying it because I enjoyed what I've seen and want to fill in the gaps that were generated by my real life commitments. I may also wish to return to whatever place is represented there if it is particularly compelling.

Demos represent this "preview" in the gaming world. It is imperfect. The demos are often created on preview builds, early levels, out of context moments, artificial additions that may taint the pure experience intended by the developer. Demos are a huge risk for the developer and publisher because they put the product out there for gamers to try, to see for themselves and to judge. I've noticed that many companies are turning to a wide array of user participates marketing techniques as a replacement for a demo. Many AAA releases deny access to the great unwashed masses until they fork over the cash, relying on the millions of marketing dollars and rabid fanpersons to generate interest. Such strategies make me wonder if such practices are better or worse. My belief is that they are better in the short term if the product is sub-standard but far worse in the long term as consumers learn that they cannot trust material from that source. Demos are honest, there is very little to hide behind, they give the power to the gamer.

Every once in a while publishers change the rules. Spore's Creature Creator is an excellent example of the delivery of a game demo that doubles as a viral marketing campaign. Penis monsters and fruit fuckers make good press, 3 million created creatures must mean this game is good. It also has follow on benefits for the developer / publisher as much of their game content is created by the users. N'gai Croal's discussion highlights how many artist hours it would take to create a similarly sized creature database, if you consider $20 per hour versus free the difference is significant in dollar terms, particularly when you consider that this structure also generates interest in the game.

The best game demo I've seen in a while is the demo for Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Conspiracy. The reason I make this claim is because the creators of this demo showcased all three kinds of gameplay available (four if you count the quicktime events). The first is a tutorial in hand to hand fighting, each element is introduced in carefully measured doses eschewing the need for a manual and enabling the player to master hand to hand fighting quickly and easily. So too with the fighting and driving sections. The demo even does a passable job of concealing the poor level design and largely uninspired game design choices made in the final product. I bought the game in the end, I wanted to reward the manufacturer of this product with my dollars, to thank them for taking the risks and putting effort into treating me as a valued customer. Oh the irony.