Thursday, December 25, 2008

Another lovely thing is your mom

A lovely thing about Christmas is that it's compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together. - Garrison Keillor

- Rook


As I write this I'm sitting on a large couch, in my pajamas and robe, listening to the crackle of the fire while enjoying some hot mulled cider. Of course the cider has about half a cup of brandy in it, the crackling fire is a 'Fireplace Ambiance' DVD, and the couch is in the home of my good friend Matt but this is Christmas in Toronto and one should expect no less.

Growing up, Ol' Saint Nick and I had our differences, with the primary point of contention being where I would spend Christmas morning, you see there were rarely fewer than 3 options vying for my attention, what with my parents being divorced and I being raised with my Mom and Stepdad, each of my families would request the honour of my presence each year. This is stressful on a young man whose only goals in life are to become a firefighter, become an astronaut, and please everyone all the time.

Eventually I had an epiphany, I would attend none of them. Certainly I would lose the gifts the season would grant me, new books, and video games. But in return I would get an actual holiday. A day to relax, kick back and enjoy life to it's fullest. And so, for the last few years, that's exactly what I've done and now, for the second year running Matt has opened his doors to all wayward christmas celebrants to come by and enjoy a bit of pressure free, straight up 'spirit of' Christmas morning.

Truth be told I can't think of a place I'd rather be.

Happy Holidays everyone.

Until Next Time, Enjoy This Christmas As Though it were the last.


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Pro Choices

So I recently applied to a couple of Universities for business and history studies (What DON’T they have in common!?)at York and Trent. York got back to me about two weeks ago to let me know I had been accepted and all was well because, by dangit, I was going to York.

Today Trent sent me an E-mail to let me know they, also, wanted me to join their ranks as a soldier of academia. Well crap, now what was I going to do? I mean I knew exactly which one I wanted to attend when it was only York yearning for the honour of my presence, but now the Trent faction has made a tempting offer. What’s a man to do?

What is it about being forced to decide something that changes everything about it? A Choose Your Own Adventure story is totally different than a Hardy Boys book. Sure, either way it’s a couple of prepubescent kids uncovering an underground crime ring but whether or not they succeed is now in your hands. That is stressful stuff.

If there are two things prepubescent kids are good at it's
solving mysteries and piloting giant robots

The same holds true in a video game, many gamers have spoken about how they love a good storyline in an RPG yet become paralyzed when playing Grand Theft Auto. All of a sudden there are just too many options, Do I walk over there? Stay here? Get in that car? Buy a Hotdog? Shoot a hooker? Frick if I know.

Video games have had an increasing amount of decision making thrown into the mix. Montreal based Bioware, best known for the Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect games, has focused on it as a primary gaming device, forcing you to make difficult moral decisions that will inevitably lead you to the light or dark side of the force or force analog. In ages past the Fallout games combined the Sandbox style of gameplay with the option to make decisions that change the world itself. The same goes for Peter Molyneux’s Fable series. All of these games have multiple endings and encourage multiple play-throughs to see them all. Don’t even get me start on Star Ocean : The Second Story's 88 different endings.

If you save just before this you can go back and not push him off the roof.
Alternatively you can go back and push him again.

Choices are scary. Well, maybe you’re good at them but I buckle under the pressure. Which movie do I want to see? Well the best one of course. Hopefully somebody else knows which one that is. Which sandwich do I want to eat? The one that looks best of course. And, of course, you can’t keep your finger on the last page or save your game just before you decide which University you’re going to attend, you have to suck it up and hope you’re making the right choice. Unfortunately I haven’t made a choice that I wouldn't discover the outcome of for 4 years, but I imagine I’m making the right decision, I mean it looks better, so how could I go wrong?

Until next time, I sure hope we solve this mystery!


Monday, December 22, 2008

A holiday gift for your soul!

For a limited time only King and Rook is now selling Karma!
That's right folks, pay dollars and get an equivalent amount of karma!
I draw your attention to the widget on the right. Now give!
Give like you've never gived before!

Kingfully yours,


Friday, December 19, 2008

Live Like There's Snow Tomorrow

So I totally missed my post yesterday, and for that I apologize. You no doubt have come to rely on us here at King and Rook for our informative, and timely, work. I am ashamed it was I who let you down.

Greater still was my shame that I probably wouldn't be posting until sometime this weekend maybe not even until Monday, terrible, I know but the holidays have me so damn busy and I don't even celebrate them. Today was to be my last day of work before my holidays began, likely lasting a few weeks before I begin University in January. It was looking like alot of work too, but then something happened. Something profound was in the works.

I always thought the middle-aged Fate was hottest. Rook likes the old one.

I left at my usual 8:15 to take the 20 minute Subway ride to Finch, the northern most of the stations, where I would transfer onto a 45 minute bus to travel the rest of the way to work. The trip to Finch was a hour and 10 minutes alone. What is going on, I pondered as I walked up the stairs from the underground tunnel. Cresting the last of the concrete steps I saw it. A blizzard. Fate had spoken and ushered in a new day, long forgotten.

The Snow Day.

That's right there wasn't much chance of me getting to work today dear readers. I called the boss and let him know my oh so unfortunate plight and then turned around, back to the subway, a spring to my step.

Polar Bear in a Snow Storm

The awesome power of the Snow Day is undeniable. A power that many learn to summon for the great pleasures the snow day can bring. Snowball fights, tobogganing, video games, no homework, writing your blog article. Who doesn't appreciate the snow day, Nature's own time machine with the power to give the world a free day, pulled perhaps from spare reserves in the past or future, filled with limitless possibilities.

There are different kinds of Snow Days too. There is the snow day created when an enterprising individual decides, in advance, that tomorrow will be a snow day. These guys usually aren't meteorologists, but I'm not going to argue with days off especially with someone who is my boss or principal. The problem with these snow days is that they kind of take the magic away, you know they're coming, make plans in advance, and have the day full of activities before you know it.

There is also the Suspected Snow Day. Where you are so damn sure it is going to snow tomorrow that you just assume that's what's going down. You stay up late, skip homework, and prepare for adventure, all the while teetering with anticipation and hope. Sometimes this kind of Snow Day will screw you though and you'll wake up to some weird pre-spring weather.

Finally there is the best of all. The Sneak Attack Snow Day. You went to bed early, you got all your business done and are prepared for another day of the same old. You wake up, go about your morning ritual and then notice, sweet baby jesus, there is 4 feet of snow outside. These are the best, the truly free days.

The look of pure, Snow Day, joy

All of these days come less and less frequently. The glory years are during the elementary school years of course, and hold strong through high school, but once you've joined the work force they evaporate quite quickly. Business is business and the phrase 'business as usual' holds true in inclement weather. But when you can't get into work you simply can't.

So next time you have a snow day, have yourself a cup of hot chocolate, grab your laptop and open up your favourite blog. Play some video games, eat some junk food and maybe, just maybe, catch up on something you meant to do yesterday.

Until Next Time, Toboggan in style.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Game-space: The Final FUNtier

Fun fact: Our universe is expanding, and has been for Quite Some Time. This limits our ability to perceive it in sum, since the outer regions are literally traveling too fact to allow light to ever reach us. If things continue in this vein, more and more stellar objects will disappear from the sky altogether, as entropy begins to render the universe unfit for life of any sort. Scientists, helpfully, have dubbed this "The Big Freeze", presumably because it sounded that much more terrifying than "The Big Chill."

But don't worry! You'll be long dead before then.

(Hmm. That's sort of heavy stuff for a Thursday, isn't it? I had just wanted to rhetorically consider the idea of breath in a finite space, before segueing into talking about video games. Let's give it a do-over. )

Fun fact: Our universe is awesome, and has been since I got over dinosaurs. Do you think there are aliens because if we went and visited them, we would be the aliens. So how about that. Soon everyone will be having adventures in the cosmos, flying through Saturn's rings and chasing comets and fighting the Borg, and it will be exactly like a video game. And speaking of video games...

(Okay, much better.)

In the design behind many original video games played in the arcade, play time was directly related to a player's skill, multiplied by their wallet. In these cases as a players skill increased, their individual play sessions would proportionately lengthen in relation, rewarding their play with the opportunity to play more. As players got better and better, play time could be prolonged indefinitely.. at least, until the machines themselves gave up.

Enter the Kill Screen, the result of 8-bit limitations on an otherwise endless play time. Using 8-bit memory, values from 0 to 255 can be recorded properly, but anything past that value causes an integer overflow, wherein the value 'spills over', causing all manner of computational hilarity. In arcade classics such as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, the game comes to a screeching halt at level 256, rewarding you with a scrambled, unplayable screen.

"What the? I must've eaten some bad fruit."

What should be noted about these games is that though technology presents an ostensible limit on play time, the games themselves don't consist of unlimited content, but rather unlimited iterations of the same content. It's ultimately up to the player to decide how many iterations will be played. It's like a paddle ball or a yoyo: You get your fill, you move on with your life.

On the other hand we have games that present linear play narratives, in which the goal, expressly, is to get from point A to point B. This goal can be as simple as "save the princess", but it's enough to shift the onus from playing to survive to playing to complete. In these content-based "games with endings", play experience begins to resemble something closer to media such as film and literature, involving movement through a concrete work that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. (Or just a beginning and an end, if you used a warp pipe.)

But while these self-contained games can be played through and revisited up to a point of mastery, they are ultimately contained experiences. However, we've reached a point in which many game environments represent neither the iterable arcade experiences of the medium's inception, or the closed-model design inherent to earlier games. Largely, what has changed is how we approach and produce content.

First there is user-generated content, ranging from using internal tools or outright modding. Consider the history of Team Fortress, which originated as a mod of first-person shooter Quake and has now produced a sequel that can be a considered a game in its own right. And then there is Warcraft 3's Defense of the Ancients, a custom map strategy scenario which has become much more popular than the 'actual' game itself. Then there are games that deliberately capitalize on the groupthink of user-generated environments, such as Spore and Little Big Planet: Rather than simply open themselves up to community creativity, these games are designed to rely upon it.

Thank-you, game community, for this umpteenth penis man.

But even in these cases, while user input changes a game's permutations and dimensions, what is occurring is not so much growth, outright, as change. In some cases, games may be changed enough to represent separate iterations entirely, removed from earlier incarnations. The same can't be said for MMOs such as World of Warcraft, where through the process of frequent patches and expansions, changes to game design, and to content, occur right beneath a player's feet.

Entire continents may be plunked down, level caps lifted, entire new tiers of content coming to rest upon a strata of well-worn environment. In the case of Warcraft especially, where this continuous accretion has earned it a gaming-base in the millions, the two play drives - that is, the narrative navigation of linear games and the repetitive compulsion of open-style arcade games - balance each other like a delicate yin and yang.

A game like World of Warcraft cannot be 'mastered' in any meaningful way - the possibility of change, or further iterations, means the best a gamer can hope for is an understanding of its present state. In an environment where a game-world may expand faster than it is played, there exists a limit to one's experiences: An observable universe within a context of future, hypothetical incarnations.

In sum: We have killed the Kill Screen.

But no problem, right? We can always walk away. I mean, it's not like we'll just continue to whir in place like hamsters in a treadmill, until we finally game ourselves to death. Right?

(Hmm. There I go again, being a downer. I've got to end this on a more upbeat note. Think.. think..)


(Mission accomplished.)

- Rook

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

When life gives you oats...

There is a new game that my wife and I play. It is a delicious bit of decadence, made all the more special that we've made it up ourselves. Late at night, while the world is sleeping, we are busy getting things in place, making sure everything is just so. It is our last thought as we go to sleep, and is the first thing that springs to mind when we awake.

Our game is called "Free Oatmeal." And here is how it woiks.

Right before we go to bed, we prepare oatmeal in our slow cooker. We have a patented recipe that produces perfect oatmeal every single time, which goes as follows:

Step one: Add oats.

Step two: Add water.

Step three: Thunderbirds are GO.

With everything set up, we go to sleep. And the next day?


The oatmeal does not care that we are groggy and semi-coherent. The oatmeal does not judge. Like manna from the gods, it appears from nothing, a salvation to those faithful. Like the loaves and the fishes, it is an abundance: somehow a splash of water and a cup of oats produces a metric frickstack of oatmeal. We eat, and eat, and are replenished. This is no mere breakfast. This is a Christmas Miracle.

Though the rational part of me understands how this process works, my lizard brain is bamboozled into thinking this bounty is conjured up from nothing. I prefer to think of my slow cooker not as an appliance that simply 'slow cooks' something, but as a time capsule, sent rocketing off into space from my dying planet to give hope and succor to a Brand New Day.

"And these raisins! And this cinnamon!"

Though this is a game in the simplest sense (that is, it has rules, and it is fun), it draws its pleasure from an odd place - the experience of contiguity, or "sense of sequence". When we go to sleep, I remove myself, temporarily, from a causal chain. Sequence breaks down, and must be reassembled tomorrow while we reboot. So in the morning while I lie in bed, I begin making a mental list of my daily itinerary.. suddenly, it hits me: There is oatmeal. Waiting. Suddenly, I am a really hoopy frood who knows where his towel is.

At each end, there's a small pleasure in the process. In the morning, it's pleasant to remember. At night, it's pleasant to know you will forget. Have you ever played peek-a-boo with a baby? It never gets old to them - you can do it over, and over, until the kid is worn exhausted from surprise and delight. Their ability to link events in a sequence, their contiguous understanding of the world, hasn't fully formed yet. In transitory terms, it isn't that you "go away and then come back." It's that you're gone, and then you're there. Magic!

In more sophisticated cases, contiguity can involve you directly, rather than remove you from a sense of sequence. Consider a game like Will Wright's "Sim City", where the titular "city" is never stamped upon the earth outright, but rather assembled from a box of actions. First you make a place for people to live, and work, and shop. Then you build a road or two. Then they need electricity, and a plant to produce it. Oh, and don't forget water lines. All right, now let's go over there.. oh, I guess you need a bridge. Let's put some waterfront here, and hey! There's a sailboat! Now let's fix the taxes, and, oh neat, you can build a statue now.

Though every task relates directly to the other micro-managerial decisions you make as you progress, it isn't until you scroll the map right back, to look at your handiwork: the squares zoned, the trees cleared, the ground paved and developed, and: Peek-a-boo! It's a city! Suddenly you're God on the Seventh Day, looking down upon creation.
Then you summon a robotic monster to destroy it with lasers, but you see what I'm getting at here.

In the beginning, Will Wright created the heavens and the earth.

In every case where our sense of causality is disrupted, in our fragmented experience of the scope of things, there is something profoundly anti-Pavlovian at work. When so much of gaming is written off as mere pleasure-pursuit, "ring and bell and salivate" type stuff, the notion of pleasure-deferral - or, in these cases, pleasure displacement - tends to be the exceptions that prove the rule. It's a small proof that there is something in the nature of games, at a fundamental level, that is transformative. Through the familiar and unfamiliar, in seeing things in part and in whole, when we realign and reconfigure, we don't simply change: We create. It's here that we find myth, and miracle.

Also... and I can't stress this enough:

Free. Freaking. Oatmeal.

- Rook

Apocalypse Nao

So I recently read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, while my girlfriend was prepping for the upcoming Watchmen film by reading its source material. The latter involves the nature of superheroes set against the alternate history backdrop of a world where political tensions between the US and the Soviets are edging closer to nuclear war, While the former is the harrowing tale of a man and his son traveling to the coast across the U.S. 10 years after an unexplained cataclysm. Tales of this sort have been told since Mary Shelly’s 1826 The Last Man or, technically speaking, much, much, earlier.

But what’s the point of all of this? Why is humanity so enthralled by the depiction, fantasy and, in games, participation in apocalypse? I mean, clearly popular culture is rife with the apocalypse in a variety of forms, we’ve been destroying it in stories and prophecy pretty much it since it began. The stories go from war and acts of terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction, to religious, sci-fi, horror and fantasy representations of the end of the world, depicted in a wide range of media including novels, comics, film, television and video games. Considering how old the idea of the apocalypse is it’s certainly created some of the most imaginative and terrifying imagery I’ve seen.

The Large Hadron Collider still freaks me out abit

While Apocalyptic Fiction has a long pedigree there has also, for quite some time, been a similar genre in the gaming world. As far as games themselves are concerned it pretty much started with Wasteland, probably the first Post Apocalyptic Video Game and the undisputed Granddaddy of the genre, directly inspiring The Fallout Series with the most recent entry being 2008’s Fallout 3.

I don't want the future to look like this

Then of course we have film. Starting with Wells’ Things to Come, going the B-movie route through the 50’s and 60’s and then regaining prominence with Mad Max in the late 70’s and soon becoming mainstream with the Terminator series and Kevin Costners hard-on for Post-Cataclysmic adventure, capping off with The Matrix before moving away from Wars and bombs and towards zombies and plagues through the likes of Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, and I Am Legend. It seems people are fascinated with the end of the world.

In recent years of course Environmental Apocalypse has taken the stage. The Day After Tomorrow, Japan Sinks, the upcoming 2012, the adapation of The Road, The Happening, and even Wall-E. These films are all moneymakers on account of the growing concerns regarding our environment…well except The Happening.

Insert obvious joke relating 'Apocalypse'
and 'M. Night Shyamalan's career'

With all of the available post apocalyptic musings, scenarios, games, film and literature I have read or heard about I can safely say I would not like to see one on the real. An apocalypse is a tragedy on a vast, and horrifying scale, but it brings with it the idea of starting new and on a bare slate where everything is destroyed, leaving a scattered few to rebuild from the ruins which seems to be where alot of the...let's say charm

So, as cool as trading some pre-apocalypse artifacts for a clean jug of water, a hunting rifle and a fur hat sounds, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to take part. I mean, it sounds like a really shitty time. Luckily there’s these guys.

Until Next time make a point of going out in style,


Friday, December 12, 2008

Filled with Rage

If I had a single gamma ray in me I would have mutated into a green monstrosity and laid waste to New York twice already. New York is lucky that I am Gamma Free.

This is such bullshit.


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Everyone's a critic

There's an interesting post over at Slate, where Seth Scheisel, video-game critic for the New York Times, talks about how he became a video-game critic for the New York Times. His thoughts, if I might paraphrase, sum up as "Holy snaps I am a video-game critic for the New York Motherflipping Times." And, I suppose, holy snaps, he is.

He talks a bit about making the transition from gaming-reporter to critic, one that essentially boils down to one turning point: Now he is obliged to say what he thinks, even if it isn't nice. The cynics among us might wonder where Mr. Schiesel gets the idea that 'telling the truth' is something that a journalist is absolved of... that, in fact, it's sort of the job description. But it's a point of optimism that he clearly sees criticism as a higher calling, one to which he's done-his-derndest to rise.

A king among men.

Notably, he lists Roger Ebert as his inspiration to video-game criticism. He mentions Ebert's quoting of fellow critic Robert Warshow: "A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man." In other words, whatever you saw, whatever you felt, whatever you did, you must say so. For example, two things that cannot be convincingly faked are laughter and orgasms. If a movie made you laugh, as a critic you have to be honest and report that. Maybe not so much with orgasms."

(For information on the latter, look no further.)

In this case, it isn't just out of admiration or inspiration that Schiesel cites Ebert - his very position as a critic, an orientation that affects his relation to both his medium in question and audience, comes from Ebert's playbook. In doing so, he cuts through a rhetorical Gordian Knot standing between him and the realm of criticism. Video games as a medium remain a cipher in the world of news-media, due to any number of factors: misreportage, underexposure, a lack of cohesion in criticism and coverage. But ultimately, it comes down to the matter of inexperience, and the shock of the new.

This isn't to say that gaming news is at a standstill. Things purr along contentedly enough until they encounter something unprocessable and unparseable, and then everything goes to the dogs. An example: When Danny Ledonne submitted his execrable Super Columbine Massacre RPG to the Guerilla Gaming Competition, it produced what could comfortably be called a kerfuffle: a host of angry calls, contestants dropping out of the content as a matter of solidarity, wailing and rending of garments.

Fig. 1-b: A garment, mid-rend.

But in the midst of this scrum, no one produced an adequate answer to the question of the game, itself. What was it, anyway? Was it art? Exploitation? Was it a comment on or a product of society? How should it be reviewed - as a product of culture, as entertainment, as a statement, as a social experiment?

All this uncertainty, despite Ledonne being nothing more than a disingenuous rabble-rouser. But if something as two-bit as Super Columbine throws sand in the gears, the need for critical clarity becomes all the more pressing. It's here that Seth Schiesel's critical lens becomes a welcome thing, a necessary compass that orients him in a sea of bewildered games-reportage.

Ledonne claims his game is designed to 'implore introspection'...
but all it 'implores' me to do is crack him in his ratty mug.

It's this aspect that may be the most difficult to pin down. Even moving past claims of games-as-art (some hifalutin', some credible), even beyond a continued discussion of games-as-culture, past the physiological and biological stuff, onward beyond hype and hysteria, there is the Bigger Picture. Panning back, and back, one can finally catch light of the arc and dimensions of the entire phenomenon of video-gaming: let's call it the "game-as-medium".

It's in this respect that I'm glad to see folks like Schiesel sounding off on what they intend to do with all of this data, even while he comes off as a greenhorn. He understands the elusive element of his task: to make games make sense. He's doing his best to do his part - as, I suppose, are we all. Because in an uncharted terrain, we are all cartographers.

(That is, unless we have Map Hacks).

- Rook

Let's talk about sex, baby

You've probably heard about Grand Theft Auto's 'Hot Coffee' scandal, even if you don't follow games. It made news shows and headlines for months and still remains the go to poster child for why games are worse than rock and roll. There are two sides to the argument, and about a dozen sub-sides to each. From 'There's nothing wrong with it since the game was rated mature at the time anyway' to 'It wasn't actually part of the game, simply code on a disk', to 'Satan has made his most recent move to devour the souls of our youth'. But as I said, it's already been debated.

More recently 2008's Mass Effect was making the headlines after it converted the Xbox 360 into a 'Sexbox.' What I'm going to rant about today is the generality of sex in video games and how a game with a sex scene takes a much harder hit than a movie. Let's start with Subject A) the Mass Effect scene in question I now follow with Subject B) The love scene from Meet Joe Black. Now Meet Joe Black's scene is quite a bit longer and slightly more explicit, but I think you'll agree that they're fairly comparable.

Sadly, this Salarian doesn't get any play.

Mass Effect received an M rating from the ESRB for Blood, Language, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, and Violence. The ESRB rating of M is defined as follows: "Titles rated M (Mature) have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language." I would say that's fair. Meet Joe Black received a PG-13 rating from the MPAA "for an accident scene, some sexuality and brief strong language." Now the MPAA's description for what PG-13 Means is somewhat bulkier but the gist is that kids 13 and over can see it and kids under 13 can see it if it's cool with their parents. But let's keep in mind that nobody has ever in the history of mankind asked a kid if he's 13 when renting a PG-13 movie or buying a theatre ticket. If it's rated R then they do card you and SWAT teams drop from the ceiling and pistol whip you if you're lying, but that's neither here nor there.

The real Gem of the PG-13 rating is "More than brief nudity will require at least a PG-13 rating, but such nudity in a PG-13 rated motion picture generally will not be sexually oriented." Really? Because I'm pretty sure Brad Pitt just had an orgasm in that scene.
King and Rook is now officially PG-13

So why is it that games are held to a much stricter standard than movies? Because kids actually have input? It's not like they're tapping up and down rapidly to get their moves on (Except God of War, but that should have a higher rating than even it's M in my opinion). The only input the player of mass effect has on the sex scene is whether or not to have it. That's right, there is no sex scene unless you make an effort to pursue the romantic subplot. Meet Joe Black doesn't give you much choice. A dude gets bounced off a couple of cars when you're least expecting it and then comes back to life and bangs Claire Forlani. Unless you turn off the movie that stuff is going to happen.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that Mass Effect should have a lower rating. It shouldn't, It does in fact have scenes of violence and brief nudity. My problem is that parents, teachers and Baby Jesus think Mass effect shouldn't exist and that the game designers and publishers are a cult of devil worshipping heathens when any 10 year old can pay 5 bucks to watch Brad Pitt blow his wad (If he can sit through 2 and a half hours of Mr. Pitt being confused by Peanut Butter and Swimming Pools) It's a double standard and it shouldn't be.

While this may appear to be a jpg it's actually an embedded video
streaming 3/4's of the footage from Meet Joe Black

When it comes down to it there are about 30 games (not counting the slews of 18+ adult dating sims the Japanese pound out) that have sex scenes in them, and most of those simply have a screen fade to black to imply the act. Meanwhile, hundreds of movies below the R rating toss that stuff into every other scene.

So maybe before these parents get upset at what they're kids aren't supposed to be playing in the first place they should take a double look at the movies they rent for them. Iron Man, Pirates of the Caribbean, and a good many others.

Until next time, don't be afraid to sit your kids down and talk about sex,


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Would you like a strategy guide with that?

Type “Ebgames Policies” into google and you’ll get a couple hits about their great deals and then a slew of rants and raves from jaded customers decrying the evil nature of EB. The most common slander is along the lines of “ramshackle pawn shop” and I couldn’t agree more. Let me start by explaining how EB rakes in trucks of cash.

Firstly, they don’t stock new games. They generally bring in a number of new titles equal to pre-orders plus half. Six preorders? Three unclaimed ones will hit the shelf. Three preorders and you’ll probably see one in the store. See, EBgames only makes about 5 bucks on each new game they sell.

Gaze ye, into the mouth of darkness.

So how DO they make money? There are a few different things, one is to sell you game warranties. These are generally 2 or 3 dollars and provide you with a full refund should any harm befall your game, like…Well I guess being shot with a rocket launcher? I have NES Cartridges that still work just fine (after a good cartridge blow) and even if a disk gets scratched it only costs 2 bucks to have it repaired anyways. Employee’s have claimed outright that these warranties are useless but that their jobs rely on their selling them.

The other main money maker? Used titles. You see you can buy a game for 70 dollars, than trade it in for $10. EB then puts it back on the shelf with a ‘used’ sticker for $5 less than new. That’s right they pay $10, sell it for $60 and rake in dollah dollah bills. This is the master plan from which EB get’s the pawn shop moniker. The big problem with this is that the Developer and Publishers don’t get a cent from the resold products. This essentially makes EB Games the equivalent of a french fry vendor who sneaks around at night and shits in potato fields. Eventually the potato farmers are going to go out of business because nobody is buying their poo potatoes (heh pootatoes) and where does that leave the french fry vendor? Unfortunately, In the case of EB, sitting on a pile of cash.

Poo Fries. A delicacy somewhere.

This is why I don’t buy used.The employees don't seem to get it either. Several weeks ago I went to pick up a copy of Left 4 Dead and after the clerk had scanned the game he exclaimed “Oh we have a used copy!” And rushed off to another part of the store before I could say anything, he came back about 5 minutes later and exclaimed “I almost gave up looking for it but I found it in the back.” To which I replied “No thanks, I’ll take the new copy” He seemed incredulous and didn’t understand why I wouldn’t want to save 5 dollars. I simply said that I was hoping they’d keep making video games and so I’d rather give the money to the company. He just didn’t get it though.

Sadly I’m not completely immune to their wiles and I do trade in. Frankly I’d probably buy used if there were, in fact, significant savings on used copies. There are alternatives around that are slowly but surely coming into prominence. Direct 2 Drive (D2D) is an online company that allows you to download games directly to your hardrive, though you’re left without a hardcopy unfortunately. Valve’s Steam offers similar and many companies themselves are beginning to offer their games for direct ordering. This insures the company gets the full profit and, occasionally, comes cheaper than buying from a brick and mortar.

Until next time, may you find your own path to profit.


On boys, their toys, and Illinois

When I was a kid, my favourite toy by far was Lego. My younger brother and I would pour buckets and buckets of the stuff out on the carpet, spreading it out to cover the breadth of the room. There we'd sit, surrounded in a sea of blocks, and we'd set to work. But though we played together, often for hours, the way that we played differed greatly.

My brother found, very quickly, that he was the builder between us: He had a knack for construction, and would create elaborate cars, planes and buildings. Though he was years younger than me, he produced work of a complexity that I couldn't rival, even in imitation. When I tried to create the sort of objects he produced so effortlessly, I could only muster cheap knockoffs, mere shadows of The Real Deal, trapped in "No Name Brand" purgatory.

Ladies: Treat yourselves. I insist.

But while I was a real dead weight when it came to construction, I took a shine to the figures themselves. I busied myself building various Lego-mans, naming them, providing them roles, families, and eventually, dynasties and lineages. While my brother built the world they inhabited, I involved myself in story and role, eventually producing a generational drama of Dickensian dimensions.

In these cases, though we played together, we were involved in very different games. The very different ways we played spoke to our natures: My brother's building spoke to a natural inclination to the mechanisms of things that would lead him to become an Engineer. And my bouts of play-pretend were evidence that, years later, I'd still be
playing with dolls.

This is the simplest difference between toys and games. A toy operates either through intrinsic properties (say, a bouncy ball, a frisbee, a Lego brick) or through direct representation (A toy 'sword', an army figure). Occasionally you'll encounter toys like a Nerf Gun, that combine both. But in every case, a toy 'contains' itself - that is, the means of play relates directly to the toy's properties.

Compare to a game, which relies upon a series of established rules, and moves towards a goal or a desired outcome. It's here that performance and competition come into play. In this sense, a game can be as complex or as simple as its rules - but in every case, the dimensions of a game are applied externally, and require knowledge and consensus in order to operate.

So in the case of video games, where rules-consensus is largely automated, the 'toy' becomes inextricable from the process of play. In a classic "Madden-type" game, there is no ball, in largely the same way that there is no spoon.

Ceci n'est pas une cuillère.

This isn't to say that the operation of the game circumvents the role of these toys in play, but that the intrinsic pleasures (say, hitting or throwing a ball) innate to their respective toys are traded in for the social pleasures of sport. (Performance in a game-environment, victory over opponents).

It is only when games pull away from the well-established symbolic role of these sports that we can see the trees for the forest, so to speak: Consider recent batches of kinetic games on the Wii, which require nothing so complicated as the knowledge of how to swing your arms. If only in their simplicity and tangibility, a sense of 'toy' returns.

In other cases, the nature of toys remain virtually unchanged despite a chance of venue. A gun in a shooter, for example, can still be understood as a 'toy gun', despite it having its role enhanced within a game-environment: The enjoyment of this type of hardware comes in part from the performative pleasure of simply possessing them (A sniper rifle! I'm a sniper!) and in part due to their intrinsic operation in a game-environment. In my case, regardless of the shooter, I will always incline towards a shotgun. Part of this is functional: I'm a lousy shot. But there's something immensely satisfying in blasting someone with a gutful of shot.

So despite a move away from our tactile and immediate understanding of what it is a toy is and does, what we're encountering is nothing so much as new configurations of play: new 'games' that speak of our appetites and our collective character. It's interesting to consider the role that we approach our new toys, both in what they are, in how they are applied.

It may well be that as our appetites for play increase, that virtual settings allow us a convergence of the many conventions of gaming - a "Singularity of Sports", if you will. What would this horrible Ur-Sport, one that combines and mutates our every moment of play, look like? Do we even dare try to fathom its wretched depths?


- Rook

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Been through the desert on a bus with no name

Penny Arcade's yearly toy fundraiser, Child's Play, is purring along for the sixth time. Founded in 2003 by web-comickers Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik as a means of rebutting negative media portrayals of gamers. Since then, over 4 million dollars worth of games, books and toys have been donated to children's hospitals around the world, a remarkable feat of media mobilization and charity. As a symbolic act, it succeeds as a modest claim: that gamers are decent human beings, no better or worse than most. Attention must be paid.

A reassuring proof that we aren't psychotics.

This year, a good bit of attention has been given to a sister-project: Desert Bus for Hope. Organized by LoadingReadyRun, a comedy troupe in Vancouver, B.C., Desert Bus is a curious sort of virtual marathon, raising money to devote to Child's Play. In this instance collected donations relate not to miles ran, but hours spent playing video games. While that might sound like a fun arrangement, the game in question is anything but.

Bundled in the never-released Penn and Teller's Smoke and Mirrors, Desert Bus is one of several parody games. While the others are used to prank your friends by setting up Penn and Teller style magic tricks, Desert Bus was something else: a "simulation" of the most fastidious sort. The object of the game is to drive from Tuscon, Arizona to Las Vegas, a feat that takes 8 hours of real-time play to achieve. The road is empty but for you, and the bus veers slightly right, requiring constant correction. It cannot be paused. Should you veer of the road, you are towed back to the start, also in real-time. If you make it to your destination, you are awarded one point.

Then you turn around, and begin the drive back.

Desert Bus: Putting the "sissy" in "Sisyphus"

Penn Jillette has described "Desert Bus" as the "world's most boring video game", but that isn't quite right. It can better be described as a non-game, an exercise in tedium that serves to make a point in being not played. Where other non-games like You Have to Burn the Rope comically condense everything exciting about platform gaming into 30 seconds of play, Desert Bus pushes in the opposite direction, insisting that you play ad infinitum despite there being no rational reason to do so. Just as Warhol's Sleep is only a film insofar as the artist insists that it is, Desert Bus works as a game only by pretense.

So to actually play Desert Bus - in fact, to play it for days on end, spelling off in shifts, staring at the screen as trips are made to and fro through a digital purgatory - becomes a feat in itself. In drawing attention to their playing of an unplayable game, they have produced precisely the thing that Desert Bus avoids: the significance of event. And in playing on the idea of gamers as listless and inert, devoted to doing nothing for hours on end, they've managed to produce something impressive: a chance to do real, tangible good, precisely by doing nothing for hours on end.

This is the Stone Soup method of charity, where from nothing (in this case, the barren virtual landscape of the desert), a small something is scraped together. Gamers of all types understand the humour in endorsing other gamers to sit around and do nothing, and have given generously, if only to be a part of the event as well. And so it's here that an oddball game like Desert Bus has found its home, not as play but as performance.

- Rook

Where is that masked man?

So there’s a new grocery store across the street from my apartment and it has a motion detector security system. While I’m sure it keeps the various gangsters and ninjas of Toronto at bay it also has it’s sensitivity jacked way up. Like, when someone walks down the sidewalk it goes off. This happens from the hours of 11 pm until 3 or 4 am and while my girlfriend is able to sleep blissfully through it I am not. This happened last weekend and I ended up staying awake until 4 in the morning.

Lacking anything better to do I tossed up the tvlinks and streamed up a couple of movies that I knew my ladyfriend had no intention of watching. Pineapple Express, and Step Brothers. Now these were both funny movies, I laughed at many scenes, but it brought something into perspective. These manchildren are being looked up to by today’s youth. Now, while Rook is 87 years old, I’m only 24 so I don’t think I’m much past ‘youth’ but I can say that I never looked up to guys like this as my personal heroes, but where have all the heroes gone? Or were they ever there to begin with?

Rook, upon discovering the internet.

I grew up with an abundance of ‘heroes’ of course; Spiderman, Captain Planet, The Ninja Turtles. But all the characters of these are young folks, teens and tweens. There isn’t anything to look up to there. There are moral lessons of course, ‘With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility’, ‘Recycle’, and ‘Eat Pizza’. In years past the heroes were Zorro, the Lone Ranger, and the Green Hornet. Who were these masked men? Anyone of them could have taken off their mask and been my favourite teacher, the guy who owns the comic shop down the street, or my father. They’re characters to be sure but they could be real and they seeped justice, responsibility and courage.

That costume is totally not canon.

In modern society though the father figure has become more and more absent (Single mothers are ever on the rise and male teachers account for only 13% of primary school professionals)and is being replaced by the ‘characters’ of actors such as Seth Rogan and Will Ferrell which doesn’t bode well for today’s youngsters. It seems to me that young men have naught but pot smoking, beer guzzling irresponsible 40 year old men living in their parents basement for role models. Young ladies don’t fare much better with the abundance of ‘celebutantes’ and pop singers in and out of rehab on a regular basis. The real joke is that we’re supposed to laugh at these people AND want be like them. What happened to Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne who, in their 40's, were kicking ass and taking names in a way people aspired to.

My actual dad.

In a world where single parents are more and more common and you have to chose between Sports Stars with drug problems, Manchild actors, Celebrities who are only famous for being famous, and faceless soldiers who shoot first and ask questions later, who do you look up to in life?

Until next time, I can be your hero baby.


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Ask not what your games can do for you...

The most depressing notion behind games is the 'timesink' - the extent to which these activities are repetitive, irrelevant, and ultimately wasteful. As a term it is unusually evocative: while a 'pastime' helps the time to pass, a time sink sucks it away, like some wretched Baba Yaga stealing your breath as you sleep. You don't just help time pass, you kill it. Played a nice game of checkers recently? You can't get that back. You're one more nice game of checkers closer to dead.

"Still not as bad as Warcraft"

With such a low poplar opinion of gaming and games, it's fascinating to see those who view these thousand of game-hours spent as something more than a colossal wank. Cast in a different light, this playtime posits an incredible potential, a powerful, invisible current that need only be harnessed. It is this perspective that lead to games like University of Washington's Foldit, which is a charming little way to waste a couple hours, and while you're at it, help cure cancer.

The thought process behind the game is a fairly straightforward one. It begins with a research problem: Proteins of all types can be imagined, offering any number of properties, but due to the massive amount of variation possible, cataloging every possible protein arrangement is an insurmountable task: One that is speculated, in a disquietingly Clarkian way, to require every computer on Earth a century of uninterrupted processing to hash out.

But here's the rub: It's thought that we pitiful hoo-mons, with our pathetic 'feelings' and 'emotions', might do a better job. It's one of those post-industrial tasks that for whatever reason the robots don't have us licked. Amazon's Mechanical Turk operates under the same premise: by breaking a task down into iterable parts to be processed, any number of time-consuming jobs become possible. Communal labour haven't been this promising since Shakespeare got those million monkeys on a million typewriters to produce his oft-overlooked masterwork "Od bhjHd lnjNDnjdbiAD: A tragedy in sixty-three parts".

So for Foldit, the task of crafting optimal protein-formations is left to the player: hydrophilic and hydrophobic side-chains must be bent away from each other, while amino acid coils can be dragged together to form hydrogen bonds. After running a gauntlet of tutorial environments, you are free to begin challenging others at devising new formations, and posting your performances online.


In this case, the play environment takes its cues from modern game-spaces based on collaboration, comparison and mutual play. If anything is surprising, it's how easily this type of forum has been chained to the yoke of Pure Progress. While we've been told that there are personal benefits to gaming, ranging from the mental keening from games like Brain Age, the role of kinetic games like Wii Bowling in nursing homes, and even things like doctors sharpening their surgery skills through gaming-simulation, these are arguments for something intrinsic to gameplay, as opposed to something applied exterally.

Put simply, Foldit is a move away from an inward scrutiny of how games affect us, towards something potentially groundbreaking: How we can affect the world through games. This needn't be something sinister or ominous, an "Ender's Game" blurring of fact and fiction. It can be as simple as twiddling a peptide bond to get a new high score. So much time in games is spent in consideration: thinking, toying with options, evaluating moves. Who says we can't choose what we think about? A twist here, a pull there, and voila: Something new.

Me and my fellow million monkeys, we a-gonna change the world.

- Rook

In Memorium

I swear I was going to write a piece about the lack of strong male role models in today’s society. It was going to be both educational and thought provoking. Seriously, both. Check for that on Thursday.

I started writing the piece Sunday afternoon while waiting for a couple friends to come over. It was our intent to sling cards for awhile that afternoon after which I would dip my quill back into the ink pot and continue penning another chapter of my life’s work. We didn’t play cards that day.

What happened you might ask? Left 4 Dead happened. Left 4 frikkin’ Dead. It was alright though, I could finish writing on Monday. Nope, Monday night came along and with it, Left 4 Dead. I awoke late for work today, but scrawled on the bedroom wall in the orange dust from a Kraft Dinner package was an arcane formula, Multiplayer +Zombies = Fun.

My girlfriend was unimpressed.

Now, in case you haven’t noticed, I enjoy video games. Trickily, I also enjoy my social life. When I have the opportunity to blend the two it’s like making a peanut butter sandwich. Bread and peanut butter is delicious! Why doesn’t everyone eat this ALL THE TIME!? The same goes for multiplayer video games. I find it difficult to understand why every single person I know doesn’t play video games. I mean every single person I know owns a computer, likewise for “enjoys board games”.

That said, on Sunday night a good friend of mine who doesn’t play video games decided to go ahead and give Left 4 Dead a try. It started not unlike a childs first time in a pool. Except also he’s swimming the relay. “I don’t know about this guys. I don’t think I’ll be able to help and I’ll probably just hold you back.”

“It’s cool”, said Joel and I, experienced gamers,” We’ll watch your back.” The three of us stood atop a greenhouse. I contented myself to shoot the zombies below with my hunting rifle while Joel explained some of the basics to Matt. A few tentative shots at potted plants and even a zombie and he felt ready to give it a go. So down from the roof we climbed. Clamb? Climbed.

Things went well, we trekked through the large greenhouse into the warehouse it was attached to and took out our first horde of zombies before we proceeded through a small town towards an airstrip where we saw a plane land at the beginning. Now I’m going to take a moment and explain what the deal is with these zombies. We’re not talking the slow shambling zombies we all know and love. I speak of the sprinting, climbing, blood curdling scream kind. (I initially wrote blurdling by accident. I thought you should know)There are also super zombies. First there is the Smoker. This guy has a 635 foot long tongue which he lashes at you with like a vicious octopus. It will wrap you up in this tongue and drag you, helpless in its grasp, towards it, usually across a field and up the side of a building. Seriously the tongue is long. Then there’s the Hunter, a feral thing that leaps tall buildings in a single bound and crawls around on all fours. This fucker will jump on you and then he will eat your face. Both of these guys render you helpless and your only chance is to scream into your mic “helpmehelpmehelpmehelpme” and hope one of your friends has a spare moment to shoot the thing off you. The game is intense and really requires an unparalleled degree of teamwork in a video game.

I told you it was a long tongue.

Anyway Matt only shot me once during our journey, which was not great. We made it to a safehouse anyways where we patched up before heading onto the airstrip. There we found the plane beside a fuel truck. The pilot had locked himself in the cockpit and informed us, via the co-pilots radio, that they had tried to refuel and as soon as the co-pilot had turned on the fuel truck the zombie horde converged. Okay, so we began the planning stages. I stood atop the fuel truck with my sniper rifle while Joel walked around with propane tanks and set them in visible locations at the entrances to the various choke points leading to our last stand. Matt found a chaingun turret, we’re not sure why it was there but we didn’t question it. We informed Matt to hold onto the trigger of that thing right up until it overheated and caught on fire. At the last minute a friend of Joel’s jumped into the game to take control of the AI that had been accompanying us and so we were 4.

Things got out of hand quickly after that. I had killed scores of zombies with well placed shots on the propane tanks from atop the fuel truck while Joel kept others off my back with his shotgun. Matt was cutting a swath through the hordes with the mini-gun when a 10 foot chunk of concrete came flying out of the distance and smashed into the sandbags he was behind knocking him to the ground and destroying the turret. The Tank had arrived. The monstrosity was half-Incredible Hulk half-Zombie and came barreling down the runway tossing airplane fuselages left and right. Joel threw a molitov cocktail at it englufing the beast in flames. We now had a flaming tank rushing towards us. I fired off a few rounds as Joel, in a moment of pure cinematic badassery walked calmly towards charging beast unloading round after round of shotgun ammo at it. With a groundshaking roar the Tank stumbled and slide forward stopping at Joel’s feet. There was a moment of triumph before we saw the teeming mass of Zombies coming down the runway.

If Rook were a zombie I wouldn’t even feel bad when I shot him.

I wasn’t even sure if we were going to have enough bullets to take out that many. I helped Matt to his feet and clambered to the top of the fuel truck and that’s when I saw an equally large horde coming from behind. We were fucked. I pulled out my pistols, yes two, and began to open fire blindly in all directions, John Woo style. The hordes converged on the truck and began climbing up the sides. Joel and I stood atop it kicking them off the sides as the made their ascent and rifle butting when necessary. I looked to my left and saw the cargo bay of the plane opening and called to my comrades to run for it. Joel and I leapt from atop the truck, soaring majestically over the heads of the zombies, and landed in a full run towards the plane. I saw Matt fall to the ground in front of me and raced towards him. His hand reached out to clasp mine as I leapt over him and made for the hanger. Don’t look at me like that, the guy shot me that one time remember? I clambered into the plane’s cargo hold and pulled out my rifle to cover our backs as Joel ran in beside me. We fired madly to keep the zombies from entering the hold while we waited for Joel’s friend to get in.

What happened next is debated. I claim a hunter jumped on the guy’s back. Everyone else claimed I shot Joel’s friend in the head. Either way Joel’s friend and Matt were dead so it was my word against Joel’s in the end as we flew to safety. Credits actually rolled as the joke of the game is that it’s actually a movie. It displayed our user names as the actors and proceeded to dedicate the film to Matt and Lunchbox, Joel’s friend, who didn’t make it. In the end it’s not important who shot who, what matters is that we all had fun, and someone who doesn’t play video games gave it a shot.

Until next time remember, blades don’t need reloading