Category Archives: misc.

How I Miss Those Electronic Dens of Iniquity

When I cast memory’s hazy eye over my earliest gaming experiences, I recall grand halls bathed in a seductive neon glow, resplendent with their monolithic cabinets of gaming pleasure. How I marveled at their grandeur, the sounds of coins being fed into eager, hungry slots inviting you to ‘insert credits’ caressing my ears like beautiful music. Time stood still in these entertainment palaces, and many days fell by the wayside in lieu of perfecting Sub Zero’s decapitation finishing move in Mortal Kombat, desperately trying to beat that other kid’s gargantuan high score on Super Spacefortress Macross or merely complete the first level of The Punisher, which as I remember was insanely difficult without a second player.

Of course, such visits to the arcades were largely necessitated by the fact that home computer game systems were significantly less impressive than their coin-operated counterparts, and many arcade titles would never be ported to home consoles. Imagine our excitement when Burning Fight was released on the Neo-Geo! Take that, Capcom! However, games with better graphics and endangering our health through passive smoking were not the only draws to the arcades – it was a social scene.

Every arcade had its rogue’s gallery of (usually older) kids with greater manual dexterity that attained some queer celebrity status with the rest of us. I vividly remember watching, awestruck, as some older kid casually defeated Mortal Kombat II in a single credit, morphing effortlessly between characters with Shang Tsung and performing combos that would take me weeks of revision to master. He eventually imparted some of the trickier moves to me after many weeks of building up the nerve to ask him, and I came back time and again to practice those moves when the arcade was quieter in the hope that one day I’d be able to best him and bathe in the glory of my victory. Never happened, though – I presume he went off and discovered masturbation, leaving behind the childish things of boyhood forever. I could totally beat him now, though. At Mortal Kombat II.

Sadly, though, it seems that as home gaming systems have improved, such visits to the arcade have become less frequent. Gamers’ desires, now sated by more impressive graphics and online multiplayer, have rendered arcades testaments to a once-glorious past now departed. Long gone are the days of lining up, coins gripped tightly in your fist, anxiously waiting for your turn in the spotlight. Where once-great gaming halls stood proudly, now we see rows of abandoned buildings and boarded-up windows. Truly it is a sad day, and I mourn the loss of these shrines to gaming as I would an old friend. Some still linger, defiant of the fate that awaits them, but the machines’ destiny to be relegated to rest-stops on major highways is inevitable.

Unless you visit Japan, that is. Arcade gaming is still big business in Japan, with game centers still proving incredibly popular – perhaps too popular for some. So why the disparity? Obvious cultural differences aside, the Japanese have always seemed more willing to embrace different ways to play and the gaming culture of Japan is much more open-minded than here in the West – you only have to examine Gundam Card Builder games to see the extent of gaming’s integration into other aspects of popular culture, and it’s this integration that could go some way to explaining the Japanese enthusiasm for arcade gaming, all issues of otaku culture aside.

We can’t ignore the social aspect of arcades, though. Arcades offered us a place to congregate and share our passion for gaming, and also afforded us an opportunity to put our skills to the test against each other. These days, we ‘see’ less of each other as gamers and I can’t help but wonder if we’d enjoy gaming more if we took the time to venture outside and meet other like-minded people. Of course, XBL and other online games still let us compete, but without the much-needed human interaction. It’s rare that I agree with proponents of the ‘technology equals isolation’ argument, but in this instance they’ve got a point.

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Why Game Acting Sucks So Badly

I was already thinking of the legitimacy of games as art following on from yesterday’s post, when I came across this video preview for BioWare’s highly-anticipated sci-fi RPG Mass Effect for the XBox 360. It’s quite clear that developers are really pushing not only the boundaries of the hardware, but also the skills of their artists as this video and also the recent footage from E3 showcasing Ninja Theory’s Heavenly Sword will testify.

However, whilst it’s evident that the artists at BioWare have been staying late after school to hone their skills in order to produce the stunning visuals that we can expect to enjoy in November, it would appear that the writers in charge of dialog and the voice actors themselves have been skipping school to hang out in food courts, menacing passers by with their upturned collars and long hair. The interaction between Shepherd and the lonely researcher alien and the opening voice-over are two of my ‘favorite’ examples of the truly terrible acting that seems to be prevalent in Mass Effect; “Sounds dangerous…..and lonely.” Come on…..

As we all know, this is far from unusual in many games; from Capcom’s legendary voice-acting in the Resident Evil series that dragged acting in games down to Ed Wood standards (without the strangely-endearing cardboard gravestones we all know and love from Plan 9…), to Solid Snake’s painfully-deliberate line of questioning used as a plot-advancement tool in the Metal Gear Solid franchise, game acting has never been up to much – but why?

The only conclusion I’ve been able to reach is that, quite frankly, developers just don’t give a shit. Sounds harsh, but then again so is including sub-standard voice-acting in a game that, in all other regards, seems pretty damn impressive. How so much attention can be lavished on the visuals, sound, design, gameplay and every other aspect of a triple-A title when so little care has gone into how a game’s characters vocally interact with each other, and further engage the player is beyond me.

In the video, Casey Hudson (BioWare’s project director for Mass Effect) says that their aim was to achieve a sense of immersion in a classic science-fiction environment in a cinematic way. If you were deaf or couldn’t otherwise understand English, they would have succeeded – in my opinion, with the kind of dialog and voice-acting taking place in Mass Effect as evidenced by this video, true immersion will be near-impossible to achieve. Which is a damn shame, considering how much love they’ve poured into the other aspects of the game that will no doubt have a more profound financial impact on Mass Effect’s success. When will developers start taking voice-acting and decent scriptwriting seriously?

Or is it me? Am I just expecting too much?

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A Brave New World

Dare to imagine, if you will, a world where affordable haute cuisine is as commonplace as junk food, where every local movie theater is screening intelligent, challenging films and not just movies, and where games are considered art and nothing as low as mere ‘entertainment’.  This seems to be the world that John Lanchester is secretly wishing for every time he happens to glance upwards and observe debris from comets entering the earth’s atmosphere, in this article as reported by the guys at Joystiq.

Whilst I am genuinely trying to limit the numbers of purely reactionary posts that appear here, I felt compelled to comment on the stark contrast between his obvious skill as a writer, and the staggering naivete of the article.

I should probably make it clear at this point that whilst I would dearly like see more games like Okami and Shadow of the Colossus hit the shelves and prove popular with gamers on a scale comparable with titles like GTA, the chances of this transpiring in reality are similar to Uwe Boll’s chances of making a decent video game adaptation.

Lanchester’s article is also marred by questionable research, in that not only does he count each individual direction of the D-Pad on the DualShock controller as a ‘button’, but he also manages to overlook the true perspective of Rockstar title Bully, relying on common media misconceptions rather than any first-hand investigation into the game’s content.  He also succeeds in making sweeping generalizations regarding gamers due to the manual dexterity supposedly required to operate a DualShock controller; “A ‘DualShock’ controller of the type used in the Playstation 2 has 16 buttons and levers, and the game uses all of them, many simultaneously. The old, slow or time-poor need not bother.”  Disappointing, John.

Perhaps the fact that games’ considerable potential as an art form is constantly overshadowed by cold-blooded commercialism has left me bitter and jaded, or perhaps I’m just tired of reading articles like this one – with companies like EA and Microsoft still firmly in control of the market with titles like Madden ’08 and Halo 3, the lofty dreams of high-brow intellectualism in games imagined in Lanchester’s article is, sadly, still a long way away.

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Namco – 2 : Blizzard – 1

Following on from my previous post, after I began flirting with Pacman I began to consider the implications of my new gaming habits on the future of gaming, Nintendo’s seemingly-unstoppable rampage of commercial success and just what you need to develop and nurture a healthy, solid relationship with a good game that you can take home to meet your mom.

It was only whilst watching one of the most recent videos of upcoming PS3 title Lair that it occured to me just how disappointed I’d be if I were a PS3 owner. I mean seriously – this is it? This is the future of interactive entertainment? Whilst I respect the guys at Factor 5 greatly for their hard work on Lair and their older titles (everyone remember Turrican?), and whilst I also appreciate the difficulties in initially succeeding to utilize new hardware to it’s fullest potential (issues of actual game design aside), this just won’t cut it I’m afraid, guys. For the purposes of actually making a point, I’ll be using my original examples of World of Warcraft and Pacman and rest assured – I will get there in the end.

One of the immediate differences between the two that became quickly apparent to me was the differing AI of the enemies. Whilst playing WoW recently, I began to grow impatient with the fact that, despite the huge battle taking place mere feet away from them, the other groups of orcs in Blackrock Spire will casually stand around, no doubt discussing job security in light of Warhammer: Age of Reckoning’s impending release whilst our heroic band of warriors and mages laid waste to their ranks – slowly, methodically and right in front of them. As I mentioned, game mechanics have to be considered – it’s not like I want the whole dungeon to open their collective cans of whoop ass on us simultaneously like some nightmarish kegger populated by fantastic creatures in place of drunken frat boys – yet it merely serves as yet another thing that you can’t help but notice during play, and also serves to bring you out of the immersive game atmosphere Blizzard strive so hard to create.

However, after just two games of Pacman, I was convinced that those colorful little bastards were not only conspiring against me, they were doing so tactfully and they were winning. As ridiculous as it may sound to some, the thrill of the chase and narrowly out-maneuvering one of the ghosts – and the resulting sense of achievement and skill – in Pacman was a rush I’ve rarely felt in World of Warcraft. Whilst Warcraft certainly looks better, and the music can be quite epic in places, I’d trade this for that same quickly accessible sense of achievement in a heartbeat. The fact that I’m actually writing this between games of Pacman merely illustrates my point – I want gaming to be fun, and having to schedule time days in advance just to ensure I keep up with the rest of the players in my guild is more like timetabling a meeting about fax paper waste estimates as opposed to playing. I want games to fit into my life, not vice-versa.

Don’t get me wrong – whilst I still enjoy and continue to play WoW (although not as much, following the aforementioned conversation with my better half, who is also a recent Pacman convert and she doesn’t even like games), I’m merely saying that the detractors of Nintendo’s strategy could learn a thing or two by playing instead of trolling before dismissing the casual games market so quickly, and I’ll certainly be more open-minded to the casual games market than I was previously. I still think that casual games will always have tough competition from larger, deeper games where immersing and engaging the player over longer periods is a key feature of the game’s design and from titles boasting even-better graphics and sound, but let’s remember why we play, and let’s rediscover the fun.

And as a final thought, if Pacman had official forums, would they be like this?

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Namco – 1 : Blizzard – 0

After a frank and brutally honest conversation with my wife recently, I conceded that my World of Warcraft playing habits have been somewhat……indulgent. She bandies around phrases like ‘habitual’ and ‘compulsive’, and this is before I’ve even explored Outland in the Burning Crusade expansion, let alone the new features to look forward to in Wrath of the Lich King…..moving swiftly on.

However, I’m a family man, and such accusations of too much time spent in Azeroth rang true enough with me to motivate me to seek my gaming fix elsewhere less demanding on my already-burdened schedule. So, like an adulterer, I’ve been looking for (and finding) excuses to slink away into the rainy, neon-soaked night and spend more and more time away from Azeroth, so I can experience the forbidden fruit of….games that aren’t World of Warcraft.

Since it feels like I’m new to games again (no, really – it does) I decided to begin my search with something simple. So simple, that it couldn’t possibly lay waste to my time and, potentially, my relationship like WoW did. I didn’t have to wait long before I found what I was seeking – or so I thought.

Previously, I couldn’t fault the logic of my choice – no flashy graphics, no engaging, dramatic musical score and definitely no intensive (yet sweetly rewarding) time investment vital to an adequately-satisfying gaming experience. Oh, how wrong a man can be? My recent experiences have taught me many things that I had not previously given any considerable thought to (not the least of which are the implications of my dangerously-addictive personality), but for the sake of time, space and other continuum issues, we’ll continue this tomorrow – besides, I have to finish my Onyxia attunement quest chain tonight, or I’ll have to miss my guild’s raid night on Thursday……

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Sephiroth Tastes Beautiful….

….according to the folks at Game Watch, who got to sneak a wee sip of the ‘potion’ that Square Enix are giving away as part of the limited-edition 10th anniversary commemorative release of Final Fantasy VII.  Old news I know, but since FFVII was the first Square title I gave more than a passing nod to, I just had to mention it.  The set will also include a book entitled Final Fantasy VII 10th Anniversary Ultimania, as reported by Japan News Review. According to the guys at Game Watch, the ‘potion’ is said to contain some pretty funky ingredients, and is inspired by Cloud’s adversary Sephiroth. Call me a cynic if you will, but this seems a missed opportunity in terms of Square’s choice of items to include in the package; I would have opted for a replica materia orb, or maybe some tokens redeemable at the Golden Saucer, but I guess we’ll have to make do with this rather poor attempt to exploit a previous arrangement with Suntory, manufacturers of the ‘potion’. The vial that the potion comes in does look pretty cool, although I hope it’s made of glass and not plastic. The report doesn’t indicate if the set will be available outside of Japan.

Secondly, I just wanted to throw my two cents in and show my support for Flynn DeMarco and the rest of the folks at gaygamer.net, whose site was taken down over the weekend by hosting company Go Daddy after a DoS (Denial of Service) attack – rather than try and write some wordy, romanticized “gaming should transcend boundaries” kind of post, I’ll just say that I’m glad you guys are back online, and that your attitude towards the whole thing was most commendable – nice one, guys.

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