Write Objectively, Or Die Trying

One of the more interesting panel discussions at this year’s Games Convention Developers Conference focused on the press coverage of the Nintendo Wii, and the implications of this on the rest of the industry. Factor 5 president Julian Eggebrecht ventured forth the opinion that, should the Wii continue to grow in popularity to the point where it “takes over the world,”, magazines that specialize in perhaps overly-critical coverage of the console will cease to operate in the market. Certainly a valid point, given the openly-hostile and somewhat gratuitous negativity that plagued the console from it’s launch – however, does this mean that substandard games and blatant gimmickry should be overlooked for fear of reprisal from the rest of the ‘mainstream’ games journalism industry?

Case in point; Ubisoft’s Red Steel. I’m sure that many a gamer had visualized such a title long before it’s announcement – the combination of samurai sword-wielding action and first person shooter with the Wii’s innovative control system should have been a surefire success. However, as anyone that has actually played – nay, endured – the game will testify, it was anything but. Even Ubisoft’s attempts to rectify the less-than optimal control system of the game (where delay between player action and character response was significant enough to prove frustrating) failed to save the game from the beating that it inevitably suffered at the hands of the press. Truly a wasted opportunity, but the vast majority of the reporting on the game was largely accurate and, most importantly, fair.

Whilst negative gameplay experiences should and must be reported in the press, consider the alternative; the magazine in question (say, Arena, for the sake of example) delivers a well-crafted and compelling argument as to why Red Steel is such a disappointment, only to be branded as a whiny bunch of Wii-haters by everyone else so enamored by the Wii that ultimately their position is deemed unjustly harsh and is ultimately detrimental to the circulation figures of the magazine. Whilst truly poor games that fail to contribute anything positive to the console or it’s audience should be outed for the flagrant exploitation they are, we mustn’t ‘progress’ to the point that because of a console’s commercial success and consumer following, substandard products go unpunished in the press. Consumer loyalty and trust are critical in gaming journalism, and fans (read: consumers) should be given impartial, accurate reporting on the products in question, otherwise what’s the point?

Whilst all the examples and situations in this discussion are somewhat extreme, the point remains the same – where does the boundary between needless criticism and genuine difference of opinion lie? With the journalist in question. And, given that if a journalist knows little of what they write about, then surely this lack of due diligence and the poor penmanship that is so prevalent in much of today’s gaming ‘journalism’ will achieve the same result as the needless Wii-bashing mentioned by Eggebrecht in the panel discussion.

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‘Victory’, But At What Cost?

The powers that be – those self-appointed guardians of public morality, the ESRB – have deemed that Manhunt 2 is in fact suitable for release in the United States under the ‘M’ (for Mature) classification. However, whilst this may be good news for fans of the original game (of which I’m reliably informed there are some), this ‘victory’ against censorship of interactive entertainment is a shallow one – as mandated by the ESRB, Rockstar Games had to edit the game’s content to gain the approval of the board and ultimately, secure a commercial release. At this point, it is not clear what elements of the game have been cut but since the Manhunt 2 page on the official ESRB site says that the game still contains strong sexual content, blood and gore, use of drugs, intense violence and strong language, it seems that the content cut (sorry, ‘edited’) from the game would have to be pretty extreme stuff to warrant exclusion.

So, the question remains; is it better to play a censored version of the game, or to never have the chance of playing the game that Rockstar intended? Personally, the choice would be easy for me – I was never impressed by the first title, and as such was not overly concerned when the decision was made to effectively ban the sequel. However, that doesn’t mean I agree with the way that Rockstar / Take-Two have marketed the game as ‘art’, or the way that the ESRB have flexed their muscle in terms of deciding what games are suitable for me – if I wanted to play it, I should have the right to decide what content is suitable for me, and I take any censorship action as an affront to the very notion of freedom of speech.

Excuse the pun, but let’s not play games here – Manhunt 2 is not ‘art’, anymore than ‘I Spit On Your Grave’ is art. However, should that determine whether or not it’s content is suitable for me? Of course not. However, Take-Two themselves have brought the artistic validity of Manhunt 2 into question by even considering an edit. Obviously, with such time and effort having gone into creating the game it’s logical that they would want a commercial release. However, Strauss Zelnick’s statement that “It brings a unique, formerly unheard of cinematic quality to interactive entertainment, and is also a fine piece of art,” is contradictory – were it such a fine piece of art, perhaps they would have argued this point more strenuously before agreeing to alter their ‘vision’ for the sake of a commercial release.

As easy as it is to say, if Take-Two believed in the artistic merit of their product, an edit would never have been considered. Rather, compromising the original content of the game for commercial viability is something that we should have expected – after the hype generated by the ESRB and BBFC’s original decisions had died down. After all, Manhunt 2 is just another obvious media target, and – from what we’ve seen in terms of marketing material and the content of the original game – a rather pedestrian title. You can’t buy this kind of marketing, especially for a game that likely would’ve shifted far fewer units if it weren’t for the high-profile media coverage that the game has enjoyed of late.

Remember not so long ago, when Gordon Hall was telling us we should rally behind them?

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Out of Body Experiences with Professor Funk

My, what an interesting morning.  Having suffered through several days without a single article examining the relationship of violent video games to real-life violence, imagine my relief when I came across this article.  Like the dry, often sandy areas of extreme temperatures and sparse vegetation miss the water condensed from atmospheric vapor. 

The article focuses on 2K Boston’s current media darling Bioshock, particularly the ‘Little Sisters’ and the moral dilemma that confronts the player when deciding if they should live or die.  There’s nothing worse than a wasted opportunity, and I can’t help but lament the passing of the chance to entitle this article ‘Would You Kill Your Little Sisters?’ for maximum shock value.  Also, the irony of an article discussing video game violence flanked by an ad for another article focusing on the war in Iraq seems to have escaped the folks at the Ledger.

As difficult as it is to disagree with Professor Funk (who, presumably, graduated from the same university as equally-unlikely named peers like Professor X and Doctors Doom, Octopus and Strange),  the results of her ‘research’ are never explained, nor are her methods in obtaining said results – but unless you’re selling conditioner, why complicate things with science?  I’d be most interested in how she determined a ‘pro-violence’ attitude in a child of twelve or less – maybe she asked them if they would kill their little sisters.

Another noteworthy development is this research conducted by University College London and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology into the mechanics of out-of-body experiences, and the potential applications of their findings.  This technology, after some development, could have significant commercial potential for the video game (sorry, interactive entertainment) industry.  Oh yeah, and, like, medicine and shit.  How amusing to see a technology article in the ‘health’ section of the BBC’s website mention video gaming before the medical applications of the technology.

I guess surgeons needing a little extra training will have to make do with this until they can refine the technology – according to this article, apparently “All those years on the couch playing Nintendo and PlayStation appear to be paying off for surgeons,” – do med students even have time to play games?

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Mode 7 Heaven

You may have noticed a distinct lack of words yesterday, and for that I apologize.  I must confess – I was having entirely too much fun reminiscing about times gone by, reacquainting myself with a collection of Super Famicom favorites such as Shadowrun, F-Zero, Dragon Quest V, Axelay, Contra III and other assorted pieces of 16-bit treasure I’d assumed long since lost in the depths of my gaming past.

In my ongoing quest for a ‘truer’ gameplay experience, playing these now-classic titles afforded me the luxury of suspending my usual rant against the lack of innovation in the industry, and focus instead on the simplicity of these titles; a return to innocence, if you will.  The premise of these games is so strikingly basic, almost hasty in their attempts to get straight to what matters – the gameplay – that the result is an immediacy that many of today’s titles cannot offer.  What was that?  There’s only one ship left in Earth’s tired, ailing fleet after years of relentless alien assault?  Then what the hell am I sat here reading introductory text for?  Press start, and prepare for launch.

As for the games themselves, they’ve aged extremely well.  After realizing I’d made the error of mistaking the games’ simplicity as lack of sufficiently challenging gameplay – exacerbated by delusions of my own ‘superior’ hand-eye coordination – I found that I settled right back into old habits, and I was also pleasantly surprised to find that, somewhere way back in a dusty corner of my memories, there was still room for the knowledge of exactly where to ease off the gas to successfully navigate the trickiest hairpin turn on the third track of F-Zero.  How’s that for total recall?

Granted, these days there a few titles that genuinely appeal to me and I’ll certainly be giving them the time and attention that they deserve.  However, for any gamer anxiously looking for the next triple-A title to challenge them, and to offer a genuinely fun gaming experience, I’d wholeheartedly recommend digging out that old 16-bit console, giving your old cartridges a quick blow to clear the sensitive connectors of dust, and settle in for some real video gaming.  Developers these days should spare these classic titles that helped shape the ‘future’ of today’s games a backwards glance from time to time, instead of perpetually looking forwards.

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Guildie Conscience

Last night, I made a decision that will significantly affect my life as a gamer.  Had I been asked a few weeks ago how I would react to such a decision, I would have recoiled in horror at the merest suggestion of the action that I’ve taken.  However, conversely, I feel free – like an alcoholic experiencing the clarity of sobriety, or a drug user finally kicking the junk (perhaps the more fitting analogy), I’m already confident that giving up World of Warcraft is shaping up to be one of the most rewarding decisions I’ve ever made.

Needless to say, my wife is secretly thrilled.  Not because she doesn’t want me to play games – good luck with that – but because of the damage that heavy WoW use did to our relationship, and also how it affected me as a player.  She’s not a gamer herself, but can understand my passion for all things game and commented on the differences she saw in me whilst watching me play different titles.

So, what was it that spurred me on to such extreme action?  Ironically, it’s the same reason many people quit MMO’s – or continue playing, sans the sense of fun; dissatisfaction with their guild, and with the concept of guilds in general.

Whilst it’s possible to play World of Warcraft without affiliating yourself with a guild, they remain a necessary evil if you wish to experience all the game has to offer, and it’s because of this fact that I doubt very much whether I will be contributing any more funds to Blizzard’s considerable market share of the MMO space.  Perhaps my rogue will dwell in the Blade’s Edge Mountains forever like a solitary survivor of some horrific accident, alone and contemplative, seeking solace from the gold spammers and foul-mouthed children that populate the game – one of which told a now-former guildie that, because he didn’t give him some free silver, he deserved to be killed by Adolf Hitler.  Or maybe he’ll end up on eBay.

As I’m sure many former players could testify, World of Warcraft can seem more like a job than a game, given the time investment required to advance to the better areas and equipment, and this remains a fact even if you’re not in a position of authority in the guild, or even if you’re not in a guild at all.  Add to this the typical power struggles and ego-stroking you’ll find anywhere people are placed in charge of anything, and you’ve got some pretty unpleasant elements to negotiate in order to enjoy the game – kind of like soft-centered chocolates, but replace the chocolate with rampant e-peen posturing and ego tripping, and substitute the soft center with an enjoyable social gaming experience.

Of course, if you’re lucky enough to be in a good guild with people you like (or even better, people you actually know in real life), then these problems will seem as distant to you as the Shadowmoon Valley is from Elwynn Forest.  In which case, you probably won’t be reading this anyway, as you’ll be too busy preparing for tonight’s raid.  The funniest part of all this?  The fact that I gave the matter of quitting my guild such considerable thought that it actually continued to grate on my nerves long after I had finished ‘playing’ – if you can call several hours of pointless, frustrating guild-chat playing.  What can I say?  I care too much sometimes.  

I can’t help but feel a sense of loss – the loss of all the time that World of Warcraft has stolen from me; time that could have been better-spent playing games that are more rewarding, are less demanding on my time and games whose sense of achievement isn’t restricted by the necessitation of involving large numbers of people to achieving all the game has to offer.

I guess I’m just not an MMO kind of guy.

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Between a Mac and a Hard Place

Rejoice! Proud Mac owners are one step closer to almost being considered a serious gaming platform. Almost.

As you may have heard, EA recently announced four titles to be released for OS X; namely Battlefield 2142, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Need for Speed: Carbon and Command & Conquer: Tiberium Wars. However, confirmed release dates have yet to be announced for Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2008 and Madden NFL ’08, as Bing Gordon had originally announced at the WWDC in June that the titles would be released simultaneously across all platforms. ‘What?’, I hear you cry? Bing Gordon lied to us? ‘Fraid so, folks – but don’t be too sad.

id Software’s new IP Rage is also slated for simultaneous multi-platform release – does this mean that developers and publishers are taking Macs seriously as a gaming platform? That depends on your preferred machine. And your definition of ‘seriously’. If you’re a Mac enthusiast – or hater, delete as appropriate – you will have seen the new iMac designs as unveiled earlier this month. If you’re anything like me, you’ll have also been keen to see what lies beneath that polished, sexy exterior. And, if you’ve gotten this far, you know it’s not good news.

As any serious Mac gamer knows, there are two (count ’em, two) major disadvantages to Macs as gaming machines. Firstly, there’s the suffocating inability to customize your rig beyond minor alterations such as memory upgrades. Secondly, there’s Apple’s refusal to capitalize on the Mac’s potential as a decent gaming platform, and it’s the latter that gives me such a headache trying to figure out. Macs are predominantly marketed as consumer-level machines. Consumers like to play games – on their computers! Welcome to the world of tomorrow indeed. Not to mention Apple’s increasingly-strong presence in the consumer software market with their iLife suite. We won’t even mention iPods and iTunes.

So why aren’t Macs better gaming machines? The problem lies with Apple’s insistence on maintaining control over their hardware, and the lack of flexibility in what hardware to choose. Whilst the new iMacs look great, the fact that the best graphics card they offer is a measly Radeon HD 2600 Pro which, as pointed out in this article in Wired using these performance analytics lays waste to any potential Apple had to expand their presence in the gaming market.

So, given the recent ‘industry support’ for Macs as a gaming platform, should we get excited? Not yet. And not for some time, if we’re looking at this realistically. As a gamer that prefers OS X, it grieves me that my only option to combine my computing and gaming preferences is to spend $3,000 on a Mac Pro system, and for what? Madden NFL ’08? I’m a big fan of id Software titles (I still find Doom 3 on ‘insane’ difficulty a refreshing challenge – to run on my Mac above 300fps, at least), but will I shell out that much coin for a handful of titles? Answers on a postcard.

I find it staggering that Apple place so much emphasis on the ‘experience’ of using their machines and the value they place on the consumer market, and yet their (potential) validity as gaming machines is consistently overlooked. Never mind the fact that iTunes would make an excellent distribution channel for gaming content a la Steam. I’m off to play Halo. Yes, the first one – at least my Mac can handle it.

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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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