Friday, November 28, 2008

15 Minutes of Fame

One of my friend's coworkers, who has a PhD in Sci-Fi, (We've been recognized by the academia!) had her own 15 minutes of fame passed my way. Check it out as it's both groovy and cool!


Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Wretched Hive Of Scum And Villainy

"Each film is only as good as its villain. Since the heroes and the gimmicks tend to repeat from film to film, only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph." – Roger Ebert

There’s something about a memorable villain that gets the blood boiling, that pulls you into the story of a game emotionally. It takes a good villain to change the story of a game from being about stopping a meteor from destroying the planet to being about stopping the villain from summoning a meteor to destroy the planet. Those villains, they’re special.

Some villains aren’t all that special though, if y
ou think about the Pac-Man Ghosts, well they’re just friggin’ ghosts. But they make the game, I mean, it could be said they’re more important than Pac-Man. The game would not be enjoyable if all you did was wander through a bunch of hallways eating glowing dots unopposed. Personality-wise the ghosts don’t have a lot going for them though. Their names are Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Clyde, now granted Clyde is obviously some sort of Maverick, but other than that we can only rely on the campfire tales and dream-stories told by mysterious gypsies to learn more about their nefarious purpose and dark history. To the average Pac-Man player however, it’s enough that they just want to eat you because they are ghosts.

Ghost Faced Killer

If ghosts lacking personality can have that much impact then it’s easy to understand how a villain with goals, character, and personality can not only increase the drama of the tale but often single-handedly introduce theme and conflict into the story. They only show up every so often, starting off just like any other villain in that first moment where you see them and go “Oh, that’s the guy ima have to fight” But as you move ever closer to your goals you discover that this isn’t an ordinary villain. This villain has chutzpah.


These villains are not only your adversary and obstacle but also your opposite. All of your weaknesses are their strengths, and so the smaller the hero the bigger the villain which generally makes the victory all the more triumphant. The thing that really drives it home though is when the villains actions seem as though they’re the gratification of some symbolic desire causing you to identify more with the villain than the hero so that in the final confrontation you know you’ve got to save the world, but maybe it’s too bad you have to kill this guy to do it.

All Captain James Hook ever wanted was a mother… and to kill Pan.

One of the major things about games to me is the story, the sense that I’m accomplishing something. The story doesn’t have to be epic, or even particularly good, I just need a reason to be doing what I’m doing. Sometimes I am sneaking into a terrorist base trying to destroy a giant bipedal tank, but other times I am trying to eat a bunch of yellow dots. These things don’t do much for me on their own, its overcoming the obstacles on the way to the completion of the story that’s enjoyable and there’s no obstacle quite like a good villain to make a game memorable.

Until next time may you Omnislash your own one-winged angel,


Jump, man, jump!

At the dank, cryptic arcade I frequented when I was young, there was one machine that towered above the rest: An original Donkey Kong. Set apart from the other games, it loomed monolithically, promising dark portents to any who dared plumb its depths. I’m talking real “hit a monkey with a bone” stuff, folks. Serious business.

"Huh.. it says 'insert quarter.'"

Despite my fascination, I never touched it. There was always a line of dull-eyed teenagers barring my way, menacingly clutching their cans of New Coke. Instead, I would gaze longingly at the art on the side of the machine, where a lumpy Mario-before-he-was-Mario was shown mid-spring. Underneath was a helpful protip, one as curious as a zen koan: “PRESS A TO MAKE JUMP MAN JUMP.”

It seems like we’ve been making Jump Man jump ever since. Since their inception, there have been video games about navigating space. Even pre-graphics classics like Adventure and Zork have a layout and a sense of motion - so much so that the ultimate threat is for your light to be extinguished, giving you no idea of where you are going. But with the platformer came the final ingredient to the recipe.

There is something supremely satisfying about jumping on a goomba. The way it remains squashed down, comic in defeat, while you spring upward and onward. It has a consistency: elastic, spongy, slightly al dente. (I have always suspected that they would be delicious in an omelet.) Though a lowly peon, one to be stomped with impunity, it has substance in a way the soulless blips of previous games never did.

The moment that physics are brought into the equation, the simple acts of running and jumping conjure a experience of the heft of the game: not simply the presence, but the experience of mass. In learning to move, we are not only learning to control a character but experiencing the scope of the world, the tactile sensations of bashing blocks and kicking about turtle shells. In coming to intuit how a character will jump, swim, fly, we encounter one of the first immersive experiences in gaming: the sensation of existing in a internally-consistent world.

Le saut-homme original.

In these cases the physics represent the grammar of these games, relating a language of motion. How Mario moves about the screen is not merely a character trait, but his essence. Compare to other 2D platform figures like Sonic the Hedgehog, Samus Aran, and Kirby: The way that the characters are defined relates directly to how they navigate their respective spaces.

King mentioned Cave Story in an earlier post, in tandem with Metroid. At first glance they seem to have nothing in common, due to their drastically different visual tones. But in beginning the game, the physical parallels are immediate and unmistakable. In both games you don’t so much jump as glide through the air, drifting in a way that is both crisp and surprisingly graceful. The connection is a kinetic one, as is the realization: “I have moved this way before.” They may not resemble each other, but they speak the same language.

So now we have a slew of 3D platformers, whose successes and failures have hinged upon how well they have provided navigable spaces. We have games like Portal, which translate first-person experiences into experiments with movement and space. We have Little Big Planet, which follows through on earlier experiences of tactile physics. We have Braid, which meta-textually examines this whole “jumping about from ledge to ledge” business we’ve busied ourselves with for decades.

So jump on, Jump Men and Jump Women. O’er pit of spikes, o’er lava deep, jump on. Jump on, Jump ever on, into the future. Because the one thing that we haven’t jumped yet?


- Rook

p.s. For an immediate and simple example of what I call heft, consider: Space Invaders don't got none. Asteroids does.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A virtual affair to remember

Recently I’ve been noticing a story about Second Life buzzing about a number of news outlets. For those keeping track of reportage on gaming and virtual interactions, it represents more of the same: A “Tales From the Wired” parable that serves up online misbehavior at its most titillating. Broken down simply, this tragic tale of lust and betrayal plays out as follows:

- A man and woman met virtually on Second Life. They began a virtual relationship (This may have been in virtual spring, when a young man’s eFancy turns lightly to iLove).

- The virtual couple met in real life, and got Honest-to-God actually married.

- One day, the woman caught her actually husband virtually canoodling with some hussy. (That is, an actually hussy, virtually, as opposed to a virtual hussy, actually, which would be one of those inflatable ones).

- Because of the man’s virtual philandering, the couple has gotten Real-Life No-Take-Backsies divorced.

All clear? Virtually?

I read the story originally at The Times, where the story was headlined with “Second Life affair leads to Real Life divorce…” In skimming the dozen or so other news outlets that have taken up this story, the telling has generally been the same, focusing on the ‘real life’ consequences of this gent’s ‘virtual affair.’

Like so many of these types of tech culture reports, the tone is one of restrained incredulity. “Can you imagine… Two people who took a game so seriously that they got married? Gosh, you couldn’t do that in ‘Frogger! And then, because of some play-pretend affair, now they've called it quits. Maybe instead of their ‘Second Lives,’ they should have focused on their normal ones like the rest of us!”

What fascinates me of how the story is reported is the wide divide maintained between the virtual and the actual. In the articles detailing the behavior of the two, the point is driven home that in this case, the result of something purely virtual has spilled out, messily into the ‘real world’. Some headlines carry the terms in quotations, as if picking up something odious with a pair of tongs. The Telegraph claims that “Woman divorces husband over ‘virtual’ affair..”, where the Sydney Morning Herald states that “Couple divorce after virtual-world ‘affair’”.

All told, does a ‘virtual’ affair differ from a virtual ‘affair’? The former suggests that for all its virtuality, something tangible did in fact occur… where in the latter case, it isn’t an affair at all, but the ghostly semblance of one, meted out in some pixilated Candyland. The result of all this ambiguity is a real mess, one hinging upon conflated meanings of the virtual.

Yes, the virtual is unreal, but in a different way than unicorns and leprechauns. When it comes to the already-messy world of human interaction, a rose is a rose is a rose, even if it happens to be a cyber-rose plucked fresh from the inter-dirts.

This rose is The Matrix.

If there is a semantic point to be made here, it’s that in these cases 'virtual' is not equal. What was one once a fanciful term relating to the specific realm of simulation (i.e. the vaguely paradoxical ‘virtual reality’), the term has come to be a catch-all phrase for action and interaction on the internet.

In the most concrete cases, ‘virtual’ simply means done via a computer: Consider such mundane tasks as virtual banking, or virtual shopping. You aren’t transferring virtual money or buying virtual goods, you are making actual decisions in a virtual context.

On a singularly abstract level, ‘virtual’ denotes relation, dealing in essences and almosts. If you were to log onto a real estate website and receive a virtual tour of a prospective house, you would be getting an approximation of the house’s look and space, represented virtually.

Finally, on the other end of things, we have virtual as the antonym of actual - something that is defined by its illusory or false nature. Thus a ‘virtual’ death in an online game is not death in any actual sense, and does not relate to anything outside of its own context.

These divisions aren’t cut and dry, but they show a real range in what we might consider to be virtual conduct. And its no accident that the most concrete representations of virtuality skew towards the serious business of finances and transactions, where more fully abstract interactions often fall within the realm of play.

So imagine a woman divorces a man because he is addicted to pornography - we can understand that there is something tangible there, something of consequence and weight. Yet catch a man fiddling around with another woman online, a circumstance in which there is an actual other woman on the other end, and suddenly it becomes farcical.

In no other circumstance could the ‘realness’ of this type of infraction could be called into question - say, in the case where a man is caught sneaking calls to 1-900 numbers: “Well, sure, I was having sex with women over the phone… but none of that was real, you see? It happened in the magical realm of my imagination. The $3.50 a minute, on the other hand? Disturbingly real”.

So this isn’t a case of a virtual affair, but rather of a real affair, committed virtually. The infraction is a real one, and it should be no surprise to anyone that its consequences have played out in reality. Of course, anyone still skeptical that this woman had no actual reason to divorce her husband might look no further than their now-well-publicized wedding photo for further proof:

As you can see, dude looks bad in a bow tie.

- Rook

Indie Games and The Raiders of The Lost Art

I’m a hardcore gamer. I’ve tea-bagged Covenant Elite, Saw Manny and Meche all the way to the Ninth Underworld on the Double N, Caught 252 Pokemon on the Red, completed FF7 at level 28 without Materia and be
aten Super Mario Bros 3 in 2 hours and 30 minutes.

Wait…what? Oh I know it can b
e beaten in less than 15 minutes, but why would I want to? Mario 3 is fun times and a speed run cuts out half of an extraordinary game. See I like playing video games, and I play them a lot, new ones and old, but eventually you run out of old. Or at least that was the case. These days some new games are…old? I’m talking Independent games here.

Remember this? Probably not since you skipped it with a flute you goomba.

Now granted not all indie games are of ‘the old-school’, the very excellent Mount and Blade comes to mind immediately, but most indie games seep old school charm from every pixilated pore and a select few do it better than their predecessors. Yes I’m looking at you Cave Story. The most incredible thing is that usually these are one or two man operations. I can barely draw a stick man and coding? I don’t want to talk about it. Most of these guys are doing the whole thing solo.

Bobble-headed robots are way sexier than chicks in robot suits

So where do they come from? How can we find them? Well it can be tough to track them down and you really have to keep your finger on the pulse to find these gems. Personally I read TIGsource and The Indiegames Blog daily. Sometimes though, when the stars align and the portents are auspicious, independent developers get a break. Introversion, the previously mentioned Cave Story by Pixel (Now being ported to the Wii!) Braid by Jonathon Blow and 2D Boy's World of Goo come to mind immediately.

Oh, you’ve heard of those last two? That’s probably because Microsoft and Nintendo put on some rubber boots and jumped into the ocean recently. The industry is finally recognizing that their target demographic grew up with games just like these and we, brace yourself, remember them fondly. So they’ve been putting in an effort to dish out some great Indy games though Xbox Live and WiiWare. This is good! Sort of!

Don’t worry true believers, I’m not going to give all the cred for mainstream indie games to the mega corps, things like Steam and Penny Arcade’s Greenhouse have been doing their part, not to mention organizations like the IGDA So try a couple of these, they’re usually free and the ones that aren’t are worth it. At the very least you’ll be supporting diversity in the market. But I guess WW2 Shooters are good too.

Until next time, may you be a bad enough dude to rescue the president.