Red Dead Rejection?

•June 7, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Playing Red Dead Redemption, I’m struck by how well Rockstar does atmosphere and landscape, but still can’t seem to master the finer points of storytelling.

I have to wonder why I often feel hollow playing a Rockstar game, at least ever since Vice City. Their games have gotten bigger, their stories more ambitious, and their graphics superfluous, but as much as I’m enticed by the prospect of wandering around a masterfully crafted world, I’m ultimately disappointed by what I’m actually doing in it.

The feeling could be attributed to Rockstar’s game design, which can be described as anywhere from violent busywork, to tedious play dates. I wasn’t enamored with San Andreas massive city size coupled with a lack of anything worthwhile to pursue, nor did Liberty city offer anything more interesting than going bowling with an annoying cousins and even more repulsive dates. Red Dead circumvents this by offering a surfeit of activities, (at least in comparison to previous Rockstar games), but still I find myself lost and lonely in a Rockstar world, unable to truly enjoy myself, but somehow compelled to wander aimlessly around, hoping that this next activity might fire a few pulses in my cheermometer.

At the very least, it’s leading me to try to understand what sort of game design I truly enjoy and feel bolstered by.

Stray Thoughts.

– Rockstar characters talk too much, thinking themselves savants of sociopolitical commentary. Alright Rockstar, I get it. You have something to say, but if I truly wanted an education in philosophy, I’d read a book.

– A lot of time in Rockstar games is spent travelling. Is travelling fun? That’s debatable. At least I don’t have to work my way up through a series of junk cars before getting a nice ride.

– I felt the same way about Just Cause 2, a game lauded for the amount of chaotic fun it had. I was wondering if it’s just that I don’t enjoy open world games, and yet I enjoyed Red Faction: Guerilla, Fallout 3, Assassin’s Creed 2 and Brutal Legend. I wonder what’s going on there.

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New Friends

•May 31, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Todd VanDerWerff sums up all the reasons why Community is my new favourite show.

I was wondering why Community as a show resonated with me, something that hasn’t happened since the early seasons of Scrubs and How I met your mother, both of which went downhill as the seasons wore on.  A large part of that is that like these two previous shows, and unlike various other hit shows, Community is actually about something. It’s also really funny.

At its heart, Community is about trying to be better than your faults, while realizing just the sort of person you are with those faults. Then it surrounds you with the kind of friends that help; characters with actual personality and backgrounds, not easy shorthand for quirky comedy. It also helps that Alison Brie is insanely hot and Troy and Abed are the sort of buddy best friends you want around all the time.

But back to the whole “better than your worst” theme that Community has got working for it. I’m not going to rehash the majority of the plot when watching the show has got to be the better alternative, but I do have to say that I’ve enjoyed the characters’ growth throughout the series. Not just Jeff’s which was inevitable given the premise of the show, but of everyone around him.

I’m guessing that part of it is that Harmon and his team of writers have actually been working to figure out where these characters are headed. I don’t think they have an idea themselves, but they’re doing their best to make the journey as funny as possible. It’s a far cry from locking your characters into certain traits and twisting stories out from that rote setup.

Community is an ensemble show and there’s nothing that appeals to me more than a sense of family in a show that’s heading its way to a point. It’s in the name itself, just as it was explicitly stated in the hokey pilot. It took its time to work to it, but ultimately, the show sells itself as a family far better than HIMYM is doing these days and so much more than the perpetual drama machine of Glee’s pointless character assassinations.

Favourite things:

  • Troy and Abed in the morning!
  • Gateway Douche.
  • Seriously! Alison Brie! Hot!
  • Harmon’s twitter feed is hilarious.
  • Romantic Expressionism “Sexual Partner” scene. That’s the epitome of great writing, for character and for jokes.
  • Come with me if you don’t want paint on your clothes.
  • Streets ahead is verbal Wildfire.

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time

•May 28, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Pedestrian.

None of the dramatic moments are earned, characters lurched through the overly complicated plot devoid of chemistry or motivation. Directing is sloppy and unclear. There have been plenty of other movies that shoot parkour action well, so why does Newell rely on quick cuts and poor framing when shooting the movement sequences? The plot doesn’t make sense either. They’re trying to cram in far too many elements in the story, as if they aren’t sure what story they want to tell. There’s an invasion, a desert trek, holy temples, a funeral that never happens and a heist. The Hashasin show up late in the film, why? To look cool and menacing, I guess, cos they do nothing else. This happens a lot; Alfred Molina shows up, then he disappears, then he shows up again, then he gets beaten. It’s a shame since he doesn’t stay longer, since he seems to be the only one enjoying the movie.

Gemma Arterton looks exotic and beautiful, and she’s trying her best to sell spunk, but then actually has to say the lines in the script. Gyllenhaal does worse, it’s like he didn’t even bother with a script, culling his lines from an action hero cliché handbook. I suppose that’s the case when he spends too much time working out to actually come up with witty repartee. Kingsley has been phoning in performance for a long time, this is no different. Why are the brothers even needed in the story?

If there’s anything that saves this movie, it’s that it looks great, most the time. The cinematography is uniformly excellent and really presents Persia as the setting the game should be set in. Unfortunately, pretty landscapes do not a movie make; a family travel slideshow maybe, and even that will have more drama and comedy than this film. I really am disappointed. PoP: SoT is one of my favourite stories in games or otherwise. The writers seem to have recycled the key point of SoT’s story but then surrounded it with a bunch of needless crap and have it all played out by wooden actors. At this point, I wouldn’t have mind a last generation model of the Prince as the main star, as long as he’s voiced by Yuri Lowenthal, or Nolan North.

In fact, I think I’ll play the game again.

The sword with Mo’ Tears.

•March 20, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Empress Myeongseong is a revolutionary figure in Korean History, central to the changing Korean politics of the 19th century and her story is ripe for dramatic interpretation. A cursory glance at a history book, not written by the Japanese, will easily spoil the ending of her story, as is the case for any historical figure. It”s a fascination story that gaining popularity within Korean Media.

The Empress features largely in the Korean Epic, the Sword with no Name, though the film relegates the political intrigue to the backdrop and focuses on a fictional romance between the Empress and a ragged rogue turned devoted protector. It’s an interesting decision. It allows actress Su Ae to balance the already complex character of Myeongseong with a more intimate touch regarding her personal relationships and she does a radiant job. As the centerpiece of the film, Su Ae holds a quiet captivating confidence that only hints at the sort of person the real Empress Myeongseong is, and we easily understand why the titular character falls headlong into love with her.

It’s a shame that rest of film teeters its balance of political intrigue, martial arts and romance into melodramatic territory often. The romance, although well acted, often falls to cliche to progress its story, leaving the more interesting beats of family feuding and foreign involvement to play fragmentarily in the background. The rest of film has its fair share of odd moments, the least of which is the CGI sheen to the fight sequences and a carelessly dropped anachronism. The film works well for an epic otherwise, more so for bringing Empress Myeongseong to cinematic life than for the melodrama surrounding her fictional affair. You might find yourself falling in love with her as much as the Koreans and foreigners did.

There’s something in the Sea.

•February 17, 2010 • Leave a Comment

There’s a moment in Bioshock 2 where you wander under a leaking ceiling and stop. The water pitter patters against your brass helmet and you hear the tic toc of water echo through your headphones.*  More droplets drip down across the screen; water running down the window you’re looking through. It’s no secret that Bioshock 2 starts you out playing as the Big Daddy, so you’ve got the giant Brass Helmet from the get-go and the game makes full use of it as immersion.

Bioshock 2 is filled with moments like this. Vignettes of quiet distress juxtaposed against pulse pounding combat. It’s a game that tells its story through the way it allows the player to explore the world, through the nook and crannies of the underwater metropolis, the scattered audio logs of long dead citizens and the careful placement of architecture and art through the level. It is raining in Rapture, and you simply have to notice.

Bioshock 2 is in almost every way what Bioshock 1 should have been.

The biggest flaw of Bioshock 2 is that it is a sequel. The shock and wonderment of discovering a city build by Objectivism and its eventual downfall has already been explored. The Art Deco juxtaposition of Steampunk and Dystopia is no longer as unique as it once was. Yet, because it is a sequel, it doesn’t spend a lot of exposition on several of Rapture’s core concept. You should already know what a Big Daddy is, why Little Sisters are so important, Who Andrew Ryan is and the significance of project WYK. Bioshock 2 reintroduces a lot of these concepts, often with deeper insight. It’s a pleasure to once again partake in philosophical discussions, with guns.

Freed from the shackles of having to explain Rapture’s Origin, Bioshock 2 fully explores the underlying themes that build and eventually destroyed Rapture. Sofia Lamb is an altruist, the perfect antithesis to Ryan’s original Randian philosophy. Hers is the philosophy extreme you must combat, yet the game doesn’t stop there. It even takes the concept that Fontaine espouses and gives it polish. Rare is the game that allows capitalism to be the driving force of “good” against the extreme failures of “altruism”. It explores the concept of Rapture as well. What does it mean to have a city under the sea in disrepair? The game imagines this, and puts you squarely in that city. It’s more open than the first, its arenas more plausible, more lived in. It’s hard to explain with words how much better Rapture feels in Bioshock 2. You simply have to go there.

At its heart, Bioshock 2 is a more personal story. It involves you as the Bid Daddy into the story of the Little Sisters much more than the first one. The choices you make in Bioshock 2 are much more meaningful in how the game ends, and when it does, it does so with an explosive climax. Bioshock 2 manages the feat of having a climax be epic and personal all at once. A feat sadly missing in Mass Effect 2**. There’s meaning in the ending of Bioshock 2, because it draws from the entirety of your game. Your choices, your ending. Just perhaps not in the way you might expect.

As a game, it improves much over it’s predecessor as well. The movement and combat feel more solid. Perhaps it’s the heavy pounding of your Big Daddy boots as you stomp around the rubbles, more likely it’s the Drill and your ability to charge forward, smashing into a splicer’s face and spinning it. The combinative use of Plasmids and guns opens up tons of tactical combat decision and the playground concept of the combat arena allows you test them to your liking. The sound design* is just as solid. An upgraded shotgun sounds like a cannon, empty casings echo across the floor after being spat from the machine gun and the shriek of the big sisters will send shivers down your spine. Also, Mmm-Marshmellows!

I’m tempted to end with this old chestnut. If you loved the original Bioshock, then Bioshock 2 is a must play. If, on the other hand, you were ambivalent about it’s predecessor, Bioshock 2 might have a few surprises in store for you. Yet I rather you simply play Bioshock 2 and experience Rapture once again. There really is no place quite like it, and Bioshock 2 does an incredible job of bringing you there.

The story is pretty good too.

Linky Links
Fidgit Interviews Lead Designer.

*You’re playing with headphones right? How can you not play this game with headphones?

** By Contrast, Mass Effect’s ending was stupendous. Mass Effect 2 ending was epic, but depending on how you played the game, lacked the same intimate feel that it’s Prequel and Bioshock 2 has. On the other hand, all these endings are infinitely better than Bioshock’s atrocious final confrontation.

I’m building a consensus.

•February 8, 2010 • Leave a Comment

It’s hard to be disappointed with Mass Effect 2. There are so many things it does well and so many concerns it addresses from its prequel that calling it an unabashed improvement of the first game, and an innovative entry into the science fiction is easy. Mass Effect 2 is an extraordinary game, that makes bold choices that often pay off.

So while everyone is giddily excited about what Mass Effect does right, and they have every reason to be, I thought I’d take a look at where Mass Effect 2 didn’t do so well.

LACK OF COMPELLING STORY STRUCTURE:

The main bulk of the game is spent flying across the galaxy and recruiting teammates for this suicide mission into the great unknown. At first, I though this was just the first act of the game, with the rest of the story and development opening up once you’ve established your team. This was not the case. It turned out to be the whole meat of the game, with the suicide mission as the climatic finale.

Personally, the recruit teammates and do their loyalty quests felt like a first act story development. That it was the whole game felt kinda disappointed as you’re left with the sense that you’re going through the game without half your allies.

Part of the fun of these party based RPGs is that your ragtag group grows together as a family, as a team as they make their way through difficult scenarios. The shared experiences will cement their loyalty and their teamwork. In ME2, you can complete the game right after you recruit everyone, so if you’re aren’t invested into your teammates, you don’t even need to get to know them before you complete the game. It’s almost as if they are slots to be filled up, ammo to be loaded so your big gun can be fired. This wouldn’t be such a disappointment if Bioware didn’t conceptualise these NPCs so well.

I like Tali. I like Garrus, and Legion,  and Samara and Mordin and Joker and the 2 engineers, and Dr Chakwas and EDI. I like them all.* I want to spend more time with all these people. I want to bring them on missions and listen to them banter. I want to come back from a mission, kick back and chat with these people about their feelings and thoughts on whatever the hell we’re doing. I want to build a sense of camaraderie with these people. It’s a shame that the structure of the game doesn’t really allow me to. It’s two major missions with these people, in which they don’t interact with the mission or you much and then BAM!, the end.

The game wants you to invest in these characters, it’s the only way to really make sure the suicide part of the mission will have any resonance. It why the loyalty missions are so well crafted into exploring a character’s motivation and position within the greater fiction of the mass effect universe. Yet, the loyalty missions are so distinct from the main mission that you really don’t have to play them. In fact, if you don’t, the characters are more likely to die in the final mission. It’s an odd catch 22. If I don’t care enough to invest game time into the loyalty mission, will I care enough when they bite it in the final mission?

I was hoping for an act 2, when the team has been pulled together, when you’re off investigating more collector’s perfidy and Reaper’s presence in the world. More opportunities for intra-team bickering or banter. One of my favourite parts of the game was when Garrus was asking Tali if she missed those conversations in the elevators. I don’t miss the loading times, but I do miss those conversations. Those really helped build a connection with your team, make them seem like real people outside of how they relate to Commander Shepard.

I suppose it’s a testament to the fiction and experience that my main gribe boils down to “I want more” and that it’s possible that they could have had all that act 2 team development planned but no time to actually produce it. Mass Effect 2 was made in 2 years after all, and for the current version we got, that’s an impressive feat.

*Ok, not all. Jacob and Jack can bite it, and Thane was interesting until his story devolved into some “I’m so lonely, I have no friends.” territory. He would have stayed interesting had they explored more of his morality versus his occupation and played his interest into Shepard as a sort of, “I see your will governs what you do. I appreciate that, even if it is not what Drell are meant to do. Will and body are seperate.” Shepard: “Does your will want what your body wants? With me?” Ok that might be a little too unsubtle, but Bioware’s romance options aren’t known for their subtlety.

Lack of Compelling Loot.

Honestly, this did not impact my overall enjoyment of the game by much, other than occasionally wishing that I would find more interesting weapons. As it stands, the weapon variety and effects were interesting, especially combined with the tech and biotic powers. It’s perhaps a holdover from my mindset that an RPGs needs a decent loot system to satisfying the loot whore in us all. ME2 streamlining of weapons and upgrade definitely made the game less of a management hassle than its predecessor and Dragon Age, but it also took away the joy of finding an awesome new weapon and the chance to see it in action. Except the M60 Cain of course. That was awesome, unless your first chance to fire it was in a small crowded room, than it’s slightly less awesome.

Minigames

The mining minigame is strangely compelling. It isn’t fun per se, and I can’t say I enjoyed moving my scanner slowly across the planet, looking for minor spikes in the visual display, but I was compelled to do it. It also doesn’t seem to fit within the fiction of the game. How is it Shepard has the time to run around and probe planets for materials. Can’t she** ask the Illusive man for help? The alliance? Anyone?  Either way, it was a strange edition that didn’t seem to fit the streamline effort of the rest of the game. I suppose it’s a vestigial bit of design from when the game was a more full-fledged RPG, (assuming it was one)

By contrast, the hacking minigames did quite a bit to involve me in the fiction. It isn’t much of a game, but it does look pretty cool and it isn’t tedious enough to mar the flow of the game play. I suppose there are other ways to deal with lock-picking and hacking, but for a game that relies on the forward momentum of the story and shooting, what Mass Effect 2 had was adequate. At the very least, all the minigames were much more interesting that its predecessor and less annoying that checking for a lockpick skill. It behooves me to mention that my favourite hacking/lockpicking minigames are done by Bethesda, though I might alone in that opinion.

**There’s an excellent destructoid article about how playing Mass Effect as a female is a much better experience than playing as a male. I have to agree as I’ve never made it more than 20 minutes playing as a male Shepard. Hale’s excellent voice acting and the quality of the gender neutral writing does it make it seem that it’s more natural that Shepard is female. I can’t imagine half the emotional conversation you have with Garrus, Grunt, or Mordin if you’re male Shep.

Conclusion

If Mass Effect 2 represents the new direction of where RPGs are going, then I hope they find a happy medium between the streamlined momentum of Mass Effect, the exploration of Fallout 3 and the party interaction of Dragon Age. I don’t need a stat heavy game to roleplay my character, nor an immense amount of loot to sift through as I venture into wild unknown missions but I do need the sense of discovery that bound in the fiction and more chances to interact with the world, whether it’s poking around an abandoned vault, or exploring the dialog options of an interesting NPC, or finding a legendary item that’ll lay waste to my enemies.

What I don’t want, is the streamlining of the story and game play and what’s left are just “big” choices and visceral combat.

P.S. Things I do love about Mass Effect 2

– Interesting Unique Sidequests
– The Codex
– Tali
– Joker and Edi’s relationship
– Legion and the reveal of the Geth’s story.
– Mordin singing and his role in the genophage.
– The fact that the Normandy SR2 has toilets.
– That conversation about Newton being the deadliest son of a bitch in the whole galaxy.

Meet Prachett’s Cuddly Death

•February 4, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Terry Prachett argues for assisted suicide.

Honestly, I have no feeling either way about assisted suicide. I do tend to think of meeting death on your own terms to be the more humane solution towards the concept of mortality though. It seems more fitting than letting whatever wasting illness rot away the remnants of your life. I am far away from the consideration of such a situation in my own life, but it is a consideration for love ones around me. I can only pray, that when it is time for them to go, that they leave with as much dignity, and as little anguish for their own lives, as possible. Death will always be hard for the survivors, we can make it much easier for the dying.