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April 2008

Top of the list


I love talking to gamers about games (duh, right?), and for the last month or so I've been conducting a thoroughly unscientific poll. Somewhere in the conversation I pitch this question: What upcoming game are you most excited about? Without exception, every respondent can name at least one title (usually several) that he or she is genuinely eager to play.

This reaction bodes well for the industry, especially when you consider the befuddlement most people exhibit when asked which upcoming book or movie they're most looking forward to - but that may say more about the people I'm talking to than anything else. Regardless, it's fun to see a gamer's eyes light up when the conversation turns to the pending release of a game he or she has been waiting years to play.

So which games am I hearing about? Here they are in no particular order:

Metal Gear Solid 4
Grand Theft Auto 4
Wrath of the Lich King expansion for WOW
Mario Kart Wii
Gran Turismo 5
Street Fighter 4
Starcraft 2
Resident Evil 5
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
Fallout 3
Final Fantasy XIII
Animal Crossing Wii

No real surprises here, but I do find a couple of things notable about this informal list. First, it's an actual list - 14 titles spanning a variety of genres across all platforms. This sort of variety rarely occurs in other media. If you had asked readers last year to name the book they most wanted, I'll wager 9 out of 10 would have chosen the final Harry Potter. Less than a month away from the release of GTA IV - a game likely to see the biggest launch in video game history - lots of us have plenty of other titles we're equally or even more excited about.

Another notable aspect of the list is that it's full of sequels - 11 of the 14 titles are new iterations or expansions of pre-existing series. For better or worse, video games have clearly succumbed to the same sure-fire-hit market-driven pressures faced by Hollywood - to be expected from an industry that recently surpassed the music business in total worldwide revenues.

But more than anything else, the list grabs my attention not for what's on it...but for what isn't. The game we gamers ought to be trembling in anticipation for is strangely missing. At the risk of hurling myself into the Abyss of Bad Predictions Driven by Wishful Thinking, I say the game that will matter most - the one we'll remember as pivotal in this generation of video games - is Little Big Planet.

Why? Because *if Sony gets it right* Little Big Planet could be the most perfect creative storm ever to hit a game console. It pulls together an incredibly exciting mix of entertaining elements, and it hits the "something for everyone" target squarely in the bullseye.

Unlike GTA, Halo, and Metal Gear games, LBP has the potential to appeal to a much wider demographic. So-called hardcore gamers will be drawn to its classic platforming elements and its fluid integration of Mario 3.0 physics. They will also do everything they can to revise and subvert the game's default charming style by generating their own user-created NSFW levels and environments, and Sony would be wise not to stop them. Casual gamers will find its pick-up-and-play design and real-world visual elements appealing, and even kids will be able to design and build their own worlds *if Sony gets it right.*

Sony's "Play/Create/Share" mantra is compelling and contageous. LBP's integrated content-creation tools are fully available to the player at all times, and players can upload and share their creations with other users. Halo 3 has proved what can happen when you enable players in this way. LBP's toolset dwarfs Halo 3's, and from all appearances it's even easier to use.

LBP was designed from the ground up to enable local or online cooperative play. Developer Media Molecule's take on teamwork and friendly competition to complete levels is positively Nintendo-esque. Gamers are clearly looking for more of this style of gameplay, and the industry has not been listening to them. Is there any other way to explain the sales of Carnival Games? Gears of War in co-op mode is cool, but you can't exactly gather the family around the HDTV at Thanksgiving for a friendly play-together session - at least not at my house. I realize not every game needs to be family-friendly, but LBP clearly provides that option within an incredibly sophisticated and flexible design.

Other possibilities like PSP interoperability and frequent content upgrades boost LBP's potential even higher, in my view, especially if Sony can respond and adapt to how users play the game and how they want to push it forward. They keep saying the right things, promising us that LBP will be a paradigm shifting, community-driven game.

Little Big Planet will be incredible...*if Sony gets it right.* Put it on your list.

RPG syllabus - the big list

Box_128241 I'm creating a syllabus for a college course on the history of role-playing games. You can find out more about this project here, here, and here.

After a brief and bumpy Resident Evil 5 detour, I'm back with an update on my RPG syllabus. Having compiled all your suggestions, I now have a list of 66 games to consider. That's right, sixty-six. Well, I did ask for help, didn't I? ;-)

While it might be fun to teach a 6-semester course on the history of electronic RPGs, in reality I have one semester to get the job done. So it's time to make a cut.

I could approach this in a variety of ways, but the one that makes the most sense to me is to divide the games chronologically, so that's what I've done. A couple of notes:

  • Many of these games were released on multiple platforms. I have listed what I consider to be the main version, which was usually released first.
  • All games were released in North America. I did not include Japan-only titles.
  • I relied on a fairly wide definition of "RPG" in response to suggestions from many of you.
  • The bibliography and reading list will be posted later. I'm working on that separately.
Colossal Cave Adventure - PC 1976
Rogue - PC 1980
Zork - PC 1980
Wizardry - PC 1981
King's Quest - PC 1984
Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy - PC 1984
Ultima IV - PC 1985
A Bard's Tale - PC 1985
A Mind Forevor Voyaging - PC 1985
Space Quest - PC 1986
Shadowgate - Mac/PC 1987
Nethack - PC 1987
Sid Meier's Pirates! - C64/PC 1987
Wasteland - C64/PC 1988
Phantasy Star - Sega Master System 1988
Final Fantasy IV - SNES 1991
Dragon Quest III - NES 1991
Actraiser - SNES 1991
Ultima VII - PC 1992
Secret of Mana - SNES 1993
Betrayal at Krondor - PC 1993
Syndicate - PC/SNES 1993
X-Com - PC 1993
Earthbound - SNES 1995
Chrono Trigger - SNES 1995
Ogre Battle - SNES 1995
Secret of Evermore - SNES 1995
Super Mario RPG - SNES 1996
Quest for Glory - PC 1989
Dragon Warrior - NES 1989
Final Fantasy VII - PS1 1997
Ultima Online - PC 1997
Wild Arms - PS1 1997
Fallout - PC 1997
Harvest Moon - SNES 1997
Tactics Ogre - PS1 1998
Final Fantasy Tactics - PS1 1998
Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time - N64 1998
Baldur's Gate - PC 1998
Legend of Legaia - PS1 1999
Planescape: Torment - PC 1999
Everquest - PC 1999
Fallout 2 - PC 1999
Suikoden II - PS1 1999
Diablo 2 - PC 2000
Deus Ex - PC 2000
Grandia II - Dreamcast 2000
Skies of Arcadia - Dreamcast 2000
Breath of Fire IV - PS1 2000
Dark Cloud - PS2 2001
Neverwinter Nights - PC 2002
Elder Scrolls: Morrowind - PC 2002
Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire - GBA 2003
Knights of the Old Republic - Xbox 2003
Disgaea - PS2 2003
Fire Emblem - GBA 2003
World of Warcraft - PC 2004
Dragon Quest VIII - PS2 2005
Final Fantasy XII - PS2 2006
Elder Scrolls: Oblivion - PC 2006
Mass Effect - Xbox 360 2007
Persona 3 - PS2 2007
Lord of the Rings Online - PC 2007
Etrian Odyssey - DS 2007
Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden PC 2008
Shiren the Wanderer - DS 2008
Grand Theft Auto 4 - PS3 2008
Metal Gear Solid 3 - PS3 2008

Quite a list, eh? Now I'm asking for your help again, hoping you'll bring your experience and opinions to bear on the process of cutting this list down to a manageable number. If you're interested, here's what I'd like you to do:

  • Choose 3 or 4 titles from each group. Post a comment letting me know your choices.
  • Short on time? - choose 1 from each category.  Short on experience? - skip the years you missed.
  • Feel too hemmed in by these categories? - mix and match as you see fit, but try not to choose too many games from one category.

Ultimately, I must reduce this list to a final total of 15 games that provide an historical overview of the RPG genre of electronic games. Your responses will help move me closer to that goal. As before, I'm terribly grateful for your help, and I will continue to update here until the final draft of the syllabus is complete.

Update: You can see the results of all your responses in a more recent post here.

Games and the social conversation

Conversation_6 Lots of people are talking about representations of race in video games, provoked by the recent flare-up over N'Gai Croal's remarks about the Resident Evil 5 trailer. In particular, I'm grateful to Dan Bruno for his essay on the hateful public responses to Croal's comments and Mitch Krpata for his analysis of the RE5 trailer posted way back in August.

Croal should be commended for pointing at the elephant in the room and doing so in a way that demands critical reflection. What he's really asking, it seems to me, is for designers and players to consider representations of race more thoughtfully and deliberately than they have in the past. We can do better, but we must first want to do better. We can be more sensitive and still make great games people want to play.

Of course, the issue of race connects to the larger issue of diversity in video games, broadly defined. Tracy John's interview with Morgan Gray (this piece follows the N'Gai Croal interview and is part of her series on Black Professionals in Games) discusses several useful ways developers can increase social awareness and diversity, both in game design and in the games industry.

This interview sparked another interesting essay over at Lesbian Gamers that looks at the question of "social narrative" and wonders why Gray's observations about "old stereotypes and run-of-the-mill archetypes" can't also be addressed by depicting gay and lesbian characters. The essay questions whether or not the community that embraces racial diversity will also stand up for sexual diversity.

Anyone who saw or read Barack Obama's recent speech on race in America knows that it's possible to think and speak about social issues in ways that respect differences but insist on justice. Despite the overt racism, xenophobia, and gay-bashing displayed by commenters on Kotaku and other sites, I'm encouraged by the fact that Croal, Gray, and others in the gaming community are confronting these issues and engaging in these difficult conversations within the context of video games.

If we truly believe video games deserve artistic and cultural status in our society, then we cannot exempt ourselves from grappling with the important issues of that society. If we believe games matter, then it's up to us to help make them matter in ways that benefit and enrich all of society.

I'll return on Monday with an update on my RPG syllabus project.

Ask and ye shall receive...big time!

Ultima5map Yesterday I asked you to recommend RPG titles you considered essential for a course devoted to the subject. Today - 30 comments and 11 email responses later - my head is spinning with ideas, and my course outline is overflowing with possibilities, far too many to cover in a single semester. These are the best problems I've had in quite some time! :-)

Thank you very much.

As I noted earlier, I've been teaching for many years, but it never occurred to me to construct a syllabus in this way. As an extension of this blog and a survey of community wisdom and experience, it makes perfect sense to proceed like this, especially given the limits of my own expertise. I've played many RPGs over the years, but I certainly can't claim first-hand experience with every significant title, and my memory of many games has dimmed. Your suggestions regarding the Ultima series were particularly helpful in this regard.

Several useful questions have arisen that I can address here. Some of my responses reflect comments I posted earlier:

  • I will definitely post the final complete version of the syllabus here. It will include a bibliography and an outline of assignments and readings. I will also post a preliminary draft for comments.

  • Wabash College, where I teach, does not offer courses online. Sorry. I am working on a project with other educators that may culminate in such course offerings, but I can't say much more about that now.

  • I do intend to spend time on D&D and its roots in literature and mythology. I will likely assign King and Borland's "Dungeons and Dreamers" and Barton's "Dungeons and Desktops" (thanks, Chris!) which do a nice job of covering the rise of D&D and computer game culture. We'll also read some Tolkien. When I mentioned that I wanted to get to the games as soon as possible, I meant that I didn't want to spend two weeks reading epic poetry and another week studying the D&D Player's Handbook before ever starting a game. That said, in the past I have invited veteran D&D players to class, and my students have observed them playing a session and engaged them in Q&A. If I provide some background and context in advance, this works very well.

  • I agree that students needn't finish every game, but I will require them to complete certain ones in order to comprehend the full experience intended by the designers. I think it will be important to choose at least one or two games that all of us will play in order to have some common experiences to discuss. What I've learned about this kind of teaching is that students are apt to exceed the boundaries of the assignments, often going farther or taking on additional games on their own. This rarely happens when I teach literature...which is a separate subject for vigorous discussion!

  • Providing save files that enable entry at various points is a good idea that never occurred to me. This could come in very handy for extremely long games like Morrowind, for example. Not that I would assign Morrowind. Or maybe I would. ;-)

Finally, several of you wondered about the parameters of a course on the history of role-playing games, and what exactly defines an RPG? Is the Legend of Zelda an RPG? What constituent elements will I use to define what's "in" and what's "out"?

Well, that's a very good question, and it's one that will underlie all the work we do in the course. At the risk of dodging the question, I will expect my students to develop their own definitions of what constitutes an RPG by thinking hard about what exists at the core of these games and the experiences they offer. I want to ensure a certain flexibility in the content of the course to allow a student to study, if he wishes to, the RPG elements in a sports game, for example, and how they relate to the role-playing aspects of more traditional RPGs. I have a fairly solid notion of what I think an RPG is, but I expect my students will challenge my preconceptions as vigorously as I will challenge theirs. Well, maybe not quite as much.

I'll return soon with a list of titles and some ideas on how to proceed. Again, many thanks for your ideas and your interest in this work.

The RPG syllabus

Chrono_trigger1_3 As many of you know, I'm on a sabbatical from teaching this year, but I've begun to feel the itch to return to the classroom, and I'm starting to think about my syllabi for this fall. One course in particular has occupied my thoughts of late, and it occurs to me that some of you might have some useful input to offer.

I'm planning a one-semester seminar course devoted to the history of role-playing games. The class will have a limited enrollment of 20 undergraduate students, and it will meet for a total of 15 weeks. I've created a syllabus for a similar course I've offered for a few years, but since I have the luxury of time, I've decided to throw it out and rebuild the syllabus from scratch.

Here are my content criteria for the course:

  1. Historical scope - I want to expose students to the historical arc of RPGs, reflecting their origins and evolution. I realize I could spend weeks on mimesis, Tolkien, PnP Dungeons and Dragons, etc., but I'm keen to get them playing and studying electronic games as soon as possible.

  2. Breadth - It's important that I provide students with a wide range of RPG games encompassing a variety of gameplay and design variations. The syllabus needn't be a "greatest hits" collection. A classic like Chrono Trigger may or may not make the list depending on how many other Square-developed SNES JRPG titles make the list. Having said that, I definitely think Chrono Trigger belongs on the list! :-)

  3. Impact - I want to assign games that have made a notable impact or illustrate important transitions in the evolution of the medium.

Obviously, time restrictions present a special challenge because many RPGs require dozens of hours to complete. I deal with this by assigning asynchronous work. Various games are assigned to small groups of students at different times, and throughout the semester students present their games to the class in an analytical format. In this way, students can share their experiences, and they often elect to play games presented by their peers even when they aren't required to.

So, which RPGs should make the syllabus? Give me a title or a list of titles. I'm hoping to benefit from your collective wisdom, and I'm grateful for your thoughts and suggestions. This is not a rhetorical exercise. I'm working on a real syllabus, and I'm earnestly seeking input.

Thanks in advance for your help.

Link love

Heart_2I want to mention a few posts by other bloggers that extend (and greatly improve) on a few of my recent posts. I enjoy the work of these writers because they encourage critical thinking about video games, and they actively enrich the video game blog community by visiting other sites like mine and contributing comments and encouragement. And for many of us bloggers, it's really all about the conversation, isn't it?

I recently posted an essay on music and sound in the Legend of Zelda games. Dan Bruno over at Cruise Elroy has put his formal music training to good use by writing a terrific essay on Ocarina of Time's score and Koji Kondo's purposeful use of a limited set of tones.

My recent look at Starcraft's narrative made me especially keen to read L.B. Jeffries' satirical and dead-on-target Marxist analysis of Starcraft called The Zerg Through the Eyes of Marx. Very funny and uncomfortably close to home. ;-)

Manveer Heir over at Design Rampage has written a fine piece on the design lessons of No More Heroes. After my recent obsessive-compulsive series of posts on Suda 51's masterpiece, I hesitate to devote too much space this game (as if that were possible), but Manveer's essay says a number of things I wish I had been observant enough to notice myself.

I expressed my affection for Super Smash Bros. Brawl both here and on the podcast, so to demonstrate my broad-mindedness and tolerance for all points of view (Bad Michael: "Aw, do I gotta do this?" Good Michael: "Yes you do!") ;-)  my friend Mitch Krpata has posted an essay that explains why, in specific terms, Brawl is a terrible game. Mitch has some of the best post titles in the business, and this one is no exception: Overdrawn at the memory bank: the power of nostalgia in games.

Apropos of nothing I have written, Duncan over at Hit Self-Destruct has posted a very funny piece in which he demonstrates his newfound method of pitching a game idea to a publisher. It's called The Pitch, and I promise it will make you grin...and squirm in painful recognition of the dangers of PowerPoint in the wrong hands.

Finally, I have come to rely on Matthew at The Quixotic Engineer for gently nudging my musical sensibilities towards the 21st century. His most recent post (part of a series) called The Musical Box has filled my iPod with great new tunes and provided me a thin veneer of hip respectability.

What do simulations simulate?

Railroadtycoon You may not think about it much, but your computer spends most of its processing power trying to be something other than a computer.

From the dawn of the digital age, designers and programmers have devoted themselves to making computers simulate all sorts of real-world activities - from emulating the stock market to shooting a gun; from driving a race car to repairing an aneurysm; from building a city to running a railroad. Computers (including the one inside your game console) are incredibly adept at presenting a simulated version of reality - or fantasy - sufficiently compelling to make us accept the fiction those silicon chips produce.

We know all this, of course, and we've seen the quality and accuracy of these simulations grow exponentially over the years. But I think we're in the midst of a shift in the fundamental design of video game simulations, and I believe it's a shift worth paying attention to.

Games like M.U.L.E., Microsoft Flight Simulator, and Championship Manager helped establish a paradigm for presenting a simulated experience based on doing the thing itself: managing a supply/demand economy, piloting a plane or running a football team. In these games, you act within the world of the simulation itself with almost no mediation between you and the event. You chart your virtual course, monitor your virtual gauges, and fly your virtual airplane. The simulation focuses on these activities, and you inhabit this imaginative world much like you inhabit the real one.

Enter the camera.

If I want to pretend I'm a professional athlete - or if I simply wish to play a realistic game of football, baseball or golf - Madden, MLB 2K and Tiger Woods have me covered. All provide incredibly lifelike simulations, and each is chock-full of features and play modes.

But none of them are actually designed to let me play a simulated game as Peyton, Ichiro, or Tiger. Instead, they all offer me a simulated television broadcast of a game featuring Peyton, Ichiro, or Tiger. I may choose Tiger as my avatar, but the game is more interested in presenting me with helicopter hole fly-bys, incessant play-by-play chatter and commentary, instant replays, and corporate logos on everything but the trees. What is being simulated isn't really golf at all, but instead a golf show in which I'm the celebrity sports star.

And, of course, the biggest-selling sports franchise of all time isn't called NFL Sim-Football. It's called Madden. The cover athlete changes from year to year, but the commentator with the telestrator is the face of the series.

A similar shift in simulation design can be seen in post-Command & Conquer war games like the recent World in Conflict, nearly all of which contain dramatic cutscenes and transitional material that detach the player from the simulation experience in order to render the "Saving Private Ryan" cinematic experience. Call of Duty 4 is a notable exception in this regard, mostly maintaining a first-person perspective even through pre-rendered scenes.

My guess is that most gamers welcome the shift I'm describing. For better or worse, television provides the dominant framework for our understanding of news, sports, and other events such that the camera and presentation are integral parts of the event. This media language has become so embedded in our consciousness that for many of us the event and the coverage are inseparable. They are, in many ways, the same thing. Wars have logos and theme music, just like sports. The camera is boss of us all.

Gamers should have what they want, and I doubt many players would buy a football or baseball game that removed the standard broadcast elements. Nor, I suspect, would they buy an action narrative game that didn't in some way resemble a film. We buy what we know. We say we want variety, but in reality we don't.

Video games have borrowed the language of film for many years, and plenty of people, including me, have written about the need for the medium to develop a visual language of its own. Less has been written about the defining role television plays in the design and presentation of games, especially sports titles. Long-running franchises like the Links series of golf games have gone by the wayside, largely because their simulation of the sport relied more on playing the game than watching it played.

The market is what it is, but I think the CNN-ization and ESPN-ization of video games comes at a cost. It limits game design to the visual and structural framework of television, and it removes the player from a true simulation experience. I want a video game to offer me something more than a simulated sports broadcast. The more Madden talks, the less like Peyton Manning I feel.

Addendum for Kotaku readers:
Thanks for dropping by. Having read the various comments on my piece posted on Kotaku, I just want to clarify the point of my essay.

My real interest is the ways many games have adopted a TV broadcast approach to the overall design of gameplay and player experience. Options can be turned on or off, but at the center of these games is an effort to reproduce the way television presents events to us, not just sports.

I think the TV-style approach to these games is so pervasive that it permeates game design from top to bottom. I appreciate having the first-person mode in games like MLB 08 The Show, but I guess I'm asking for a rethink of the basic assumption that we experience events through the lens of a camera and a self-promotional TV package. That way of seeing is certainly a legitimate choice, but it's also a certain kind of distortion.

Tiger Woods vs. Hot Shots Golf - quién es más macho?

Tiger082  Hsg_oob

Conventional video game wisdom says simulations are more realistic than their so-called arcade counterparts. Racing sims like Gran Turismo are designed to appeal to the hardcore driving fan, while games like Burnout are meant for the casual racer who just wants to go fast without worrying about gear ratios and wheel differentials.

Simulations, by their very nature, are intended to reproduce as closely as possible the experience of driving a car, running a railroad, managing a European football team, or striking a golf ball. While simulations usually outgun their arcade rivals on the realism scale, occasionally a game comes along that beats the sim in the fun department, while also pulling off a surprising upset in the realism race. Such is the case with Sony's Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds.

Before going any further, let me say that I've never played a video game that accurately simulates the game of golf. In the early '90s the Links series for the PC (Access Software) came the closest, but that franchise died after Access was purchased by Microsoft, then later sold to Take-Two who moved development to their 2K Sports division, then promptly killed it with no explanation. The Links games featured a sophisticated course editor (still missing from Tiger Woods) and an environmental ambiance no golf game has captured since.

Ironically, the final Access-developed Links arrived in 1998, the same year two new golf games were introduced: Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf and Hot Shots Golf (known in Japan as Everybody's Golf!). From the beginning, the Tiger Woods franchise was promoted as a simulation featuring actual PGA tour golfers, authentic courses, and an analog swing system meant to emulate the swing of the club. The Hot Shots games, on the other hand, feature cartoonish anime-inspired characters, miniature golf, and a generally more humorous take on the game.

How is it, then, that Hot Shots takes Tiger to the cleaners in '08?

The biggest reason goes back to the issue of simulation. Tiger Woods '08 is less a golf simulation than a simulated broadcast of televised golf. If you look carefully at the experience of playing Tiger Woods - from the sweeping virtual camera shots to the constant chatter of on-air commentators - what you are experiencing has less to do with playing golf than watching golf on TV. Sure, I can play as Tiger Woods. But I'm Tiger from a distance, as if I'm manipulating him from a control tower.

Add to this a wonky, frustrating analog swing mechanic intended, it would seem, to prevent me from hitting a straight shot, and I'm nowhere near the kind of immersive experience a simulation is supposed to provide. GameDaily calls Tiger Woods '08 "the ultimate golf simulation," but I say it's not. If you're looking for a closer approximation of what it actually feels like to play golf - with a great deal more fun thrown in - you ought to be playing Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds.

Hot Shots Golf has no commentators, no racks of logoed clothes or equipment, and no corporate signage. The only voice you hear is that of your caddy helping you line up a putt. She talks to you the golfer, rather than you the golf broadcast viewer. The courses are beautiful, detailed depictions of courses that don't actually exist - which ironically enhances the realism for me. It's fun to see St. Andrews reproduced in Tiger Woods, but I'm always drawn to the flaws and missing parts on such landmark courses, which detracts from the experience for me.

Hot Shots Golf's other edge is its swing mechanic. Golf games have struggled to get this right for years. Everything from meters to mouse gestures have been tried, but nothing I've seen works as well as Hot Shots' visual timing system. Instead of a meter, you watch the swing itself and choose how far back to draw your club. Contact is made by timing your final button press with a circle closing in on your ball. With this system, you focus on making your backswing, then shift your focus to the ball. I find this much more intuitive and "realistic" than anything I've seen in other golf games.

A telling moment occurred as I was playing Tiger Woods last night. I hit my approach shot to the green and after the game loaded the next screen I found Tiger standing next to a big yellow truck with an enormous crane attached. It took me a moment to realize what the game was telling me: I'm playing golf on television, and this big truck is here to capture it all with a fluid camera stationed high above the action. Once again, the video game medium needlessly limits itself to the visual language of another existing medium.

Instead of a crane, I would have preferred to see a tree. In Hot Shots Golf, that's exactly what you'll find. Granted, you'll be standing next to that tree as a hyper-cute cartoon-styled golfer. But all things considered, I can live with that.

In reality, golf isn't the fist-pumping in-your-face rock-and-roll show EA Sports wants you to think it is. It's actually a quiet, solitary experience that can humble you in a hurry. The best players don't grip the club; they hold it lightly in their hands. Hot Shots Golf understands that much better than Tiger Woods.

A decade later, Starcraft speaks louder than ever

Starcraftsarahkerrigan_2 Ten years after its release, Starcraft continues to be enjoyed by multitudes of gamers all over the world. Arguably the greatest RTS ever made, it established a new benchmark for balanced gameplay, tactical resource management, and offensive/defensive combat strategy.

Add to the mix free online play and a vigorous community of modders creating additional functionality for the game - not to mention South Korea's cultural infatuation - and it's easy to see why Starcraft has continued to engage its devoted audience for a decade.

Multiplayer modes and community maps may explain its longevity, but the most underrated of Starcraft's many attributes - and least remembered ten years later - is its ambitious and potent narrative. Unlike nearly every RTS before or since, Starcraft set out to tell a mature story driven primarily by politics and competing ideologies, set in a world populated by complex characters motivated by conflicting goals, sometimes noble, sometimes base. Heroism and sacrifice are possible in Starcraft, but so are duplicity and greed - all within the same character.

In certain ways, Starcraft's narrative is typical of its genre: epic, fast-paced, and full of violence and abrupt plot twists. Punctuated by cutscenes and menued screens with dialogue exchanges, the game's story delivery may feel dated by today's standards, and the RTS gameplay can feel stylistically disconnected from the narrative.

But in many other ways, Starcraft's story feels utterly contemporary, reflecting the complex and fearful post-9/11 world we live in today, where easy answers are hard to find, and the lines between ally and enemy can quickly shift. Consider the world of Starcraft:

Scores of innocent lives are lost waging ideological wars. Citizens are coerced through fear and xenophobia to surrender their civil rights to a supreme leader. Rebels are celebrated as freedom fighters in one land and condemned as terrorists in another. Alliances are formed between unlikely groups united by common enemies. Civil conflicts rage among warring factions. Ethnic cleansing (called "Project Purification") kills countless men, women, and children. Starcraft understood more about the future than its makers could possibly have foreseen.

What's more, the game makes room for characters that can't easily be classified as good or evil. The very forces that drive Mengsk to liberate his people later become the forces that drive him to acts of violent extremism. Kerrigan's war initially exists only within herself, as her neural implants both empower and imprison her. The moral authority she wields to condemn Mengsk's use of the Zerg against the Confederacy echoes loudly when she later turns to deceit and betrayal. Raynor's infatuation with Kerrigan turns to vengeful hate after she kills his friend and betrays the alliance. Blowback is a major force in the world of Starcraft.

It is this refusal to classify men and women, races and nations as inherently good or evil that sets Starcraft apart from so many games, and Blizzard's insistence on this wide view is manifested in the game's narrative/gameplay structure. In episode one you play as a Terran; in episode two you play as a Zerg; and in episode three you play as a Protoss. In the expansion Brood War, the order is reversed. All points of view are presented, and the player is left to draw his own conclusions.

In the world of Starcraft, platitudes like "you're either with us or against us" have no political viability because the realities of confict and the complexities of war make such blanket statements impossible. No game brings this reality home more clearly than Starcraft. Ten years after its release, it still has much to tell us.

My big announcement

Dogobediencetraining_2 April 1 is a big day for the Brainy Gamer. I've been selected by President Bush to head up a blue-ribbon commission charged with studying the effects of video games on dogs.

This is important work, and I'm especially grateful to the President for choosing me to lead it. Special thanks must also go to Microsoft for designing a canine-specific saliva-proof gamepad that does not require the use of opposable thumbs.

In all likelihood this will become my life's work, and I plan to devote my full energies to the task.

You can watch a video of the White House announcement and special Rose Garden ceremony here.