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March 2008

The thrill endures

Samus_070718el I picked up Super Smash Bros. Brawl today. I brought it home, turned on my Wii, inserted the disc, and loaded up the game. The opening cinematic began and suddenly, without warning, they appeared: cutis anserina.

Def. - Cutis anserina are created when tiny muscles at the base of each hair, known as arrectores pilorum, contract and pull the hair erect. The reflex is started by the sympathetic nervous system, which is in general responsible for many fight-or-flight responses. This involuntary physical response is better known by its common name: goose bumps. [1]

Am I hopeless, or what?

Here I am: an adult man no longer prone to giddy exuberance (or so I thought), gleefully reveling in every little bit of Nintendo nostalgia referenced in that opening movie. The brief shot of Peach and Zelda standing next to each other - charming. Mario and Link running side by side dodging airfire - thrilling. Of course none of it makes any sense. Applying logic to the question of how Mario could ever appear in Hyrule is a silly and unnecessary use of your cerebrum. It's fan service. It's Smash Bros.

You have to hand it to Nintendo. More than any other game maker, they have amassed a deep and rich gallery of iconic characters, locales, and music - and they know exactly what to do with it. I've only played for a couple of hours, and I'm thoroughly enchanted.  Tomorrow my wife and I begin "Subspace Emissary" adventure mode together on co-op...and I'll probably get those little bumps again. Like I said. Hopeless.

Anybody else get them too?

Grand Theft Childhood

Grandtheftchildhood_2 I've been reading excerpts from a new book called "Grand Theft Childhood," to be published next month by Simon & Schuster. Drs. Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson, co-founders of the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media, co-wrote the book, which is the result of a $1.5 million study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice on the effects of video games on young teenagers.

The Harvard Center project is a multidisciplinary study:

Project activities include a review of existing data and trends across disciplines to identify strengths and weaknesses and develop testable hypotheses; surveys of adolescents and their parents; multinational reviews of game ratings systems and regulations; qualitative studies; and experimental studies.[1]

According to the publisher, Kutner and Olson came to the project with "no agenda except to conduct sound, responsible research," and their findings "conform neither to the views of the alarmists nor of the video game industry."[2]

Kutner and Olson's findings dispel several widely-held assumptions about teenage gamers and the impact of games on their behavior. Among these is the notion that girls don't play games like Grand Theft Auto (according to the study, they do in rather large numbers); and that school shooters "tend to fit a profile that includes a fascination with violent media, especially violent video games" (which, according to the study, cannot be supported by statistics or longitudinal studies of such attacks).

Among the excerpts I found most interesting was an analysis of how video games affect friendships among kids:

Academic research on video games and kids has typically focused on games played in isolation. Yet for many young teens in our surveys and focus groups, friendship was a major factor in their video game play. Forty percent of middle-school boys and almost a third of girls agreed that one attraction of video games is that "my friends like to play." Roughly one-third of both boys and girls said that they enjoyed teaching others how to play video games. 

According to Bill, another parent, "Most of the interaction my son has with his buddies is about solving situations within a game. It's all about how do you go from this place to that place, or collect the certain things that you need, and combine them in ways that are going to help you to succeed."

Wendy saw a similar pattern with her son: "Jody and Alex talk constantly in the car and everywhere else about the games and the characters, so it’s part of their friendship, part of what they do and what they like to play…. And they give each other help sometimes when they get to different levels."

If you're interested in the ongoing debate about the impact of video games on kids, you may find this project and its forthcoming report useful. "Grand Theft Childhood" is scheduled for publication on April 15. You can read an interview with co-author Olson about her work on the project here, courtesy of Game Couch.

The Brainy Flamer

Tippedflames This afternoon I closed down the reader comment section on my post Lost Odyssey - fixing a hole. This is the first time I've had to do such a thing since starting the blog, and I hope I never have to do it again. I value the spirited conversation and thoughtful discourse so many of you have brought to this blog, and I assure you the last thing I want to do is squelch that in any way. Here's what happened.

At about 10pm last night I began seeing a large spike in traffic to the blog. By midnight I was receiving roughly 300-500 hits per hour. Nearly all this traffic was directed from N4G, which had linked to my post and featured it among the "hot" stories at the top of its page. In case you're unfamiliar with it, N4G is a social networking site devoted to games, ala Digg, where members can post news stories and participate in discussions. My story was submitted to N4G by a colleague who often links to my posts on Digg and elsewhere.

A war of angry words over the merits of Lost Odyssey soon erupted on N4G among Sony and Microsoft devotees - yes, I know we call them fanboys, but I'm making a strong effort to stay above the fray here as much as possible - followed by a flurry of comments and email posted on my blog and sent to my inbox.

With a few notable exceptions, which you can still read, these comments were abusive, profanity-laden tirades attacking me, my family, my readers, and my blog (not to mention my sexuality, my ethics, my profession - you name it). My first thought was to leave them posted so everyone could read them. But I changed my mind for a couple of reasons.

First, it quickly became clear that I was being "sock-puppeted," a term I learned from my friend and devoted reader Ben that describes a person who posts comments under a variety of pseudonyms. In this case, one person wrote four separate comments under four different names. Each comment posted to my blog contains an IP address, so I was easily able to sort this out. Second, the sheer volume of vile hatefulness made me feel very uncomfortable. I want an open forum, but none of these respondents were contributing ideas or opinions...aside from hating me and everything I stand for.

So that's the story. Now to respond to some of the comments. I feel sort of silly doing this, but I also don't believe it's wise to walk away from false accusations when they're publicly made. I'm not interested in restating my objections to Lost Odyssey. My original post contains everything I have to say about that game.

  1. I did in fact play the game, and my observations all stem from hands-on experience. I cannot claim to have finished it, however. I bailed out after approximately 12 hours of play time. I consider this a sufficient amount of time to support the observations I made in my essay.
  2. I don't work for Sony - heck, I can't even afford to buy a PS3 yet, despite my deep personal yearning to play MLB 08: The Show and get my Cubbies to the World Series.
  3. Writing negatively about an Xbox 360 game does not make me a Playstation fanboy, and vice versa. How in the world did this nonsense get started?
  4. I do not hate JRPG games. On the contrary, I have promoted them enthusiastically both here and on my podcast. The problem with Lost Odyssey isn't that it's a JRPG. The problem is that it's a bloated and trite JRPG. If you disagree, state your reasons and help me see how I'm wrong. That's what we do here. I'm happy to discuss your views, but threatening to burn down my house does not qualify as a view.

None of this has been much fun, but it has provoked me to think about why people feel compelled to engage in these hostile, take-no-prisoners flame wars. I believe it has to do with identity and a perception that when "my" console, my game, my religion, my candidate, etc. is seen as under attack, then I myself am under attack and must respond aggressively. How else to understand the intense hostility and venom directed at the perceived enemy? Perhaps what's at stake in these situations isn't just a silly video game, but a profound sense of self - however misplaced - one's very identity.

Maybe I'm crazy for trying to figure it out. Or maybe you have a better idea. If so, I'd certainly like to hear it. What makes a person--who in all likelihood is a relatively good human being--behave like a nasty fanboy?

Lost Odyssey - fixing a hole

Losto_c Lost Odyssey makes me mad. I shouldn't let it get to me, but I can't help it. I was provoked. 4 discs and 50 hours of hackneyed storytelling punctuated by ponderous cutscenes, fatuous characters, insipid dialogue, and derivative gameplay. The game is worse than bad. It's bad dressed up as portentous. It's a place you've already been, with deeds you've already done, accompanied by music you've already heard - all "made possible only by the power of Xbox 360®."[1]

Why did it have to be this way?

Lost Odyssey is what happens when the primary objective driving a game's creation is fixing a hole. Microsoft lacks a traditional hardcore RPG for the Xbox 360. Final Fantasy can't be purchased for all the money in Redmond, so Microsoft cherry-picks a few FF all-stars, bankrolls their new studio, and orders up a heaping helping of "epic" customized for their white box.

Next comes the hard sell: (all from Microsoft's Lost Odyssey website)

  • Unparalleled emotional story
  • A new benchmark for the RPG genre
  • Plays as an intense and unsettling blockbuster action film.
  • Innovative RPG gameplay
  • A next-gen RPG masterpiece.

Clearly, empty vessels make the most noise because none of these outrageous statements is true. It's one thing to go the Dragon Quest route and preserve a traditional JRPG design with legions of fans. Square-Enix claims refinement, not revolution, in its DQ games, and they usually deliver exactly that. What I find maddening about Microsoft's marketing is the appalling disconnect between the game they are trumpeting and the game Mistwalker actually made.

Lost Odyssey is a big, visually sumptuous, but utterly conventional console RPG. Certainly, Microsoft isn't the first publisher to over-hype a game, but in the case of Lost Odyssey, I think the gap between hype and reality has more to do with a cynical effort to enter a lucrative market, ape a competitor's product, apply a slick finish and call it innovation. In other words, it's Microsoft being Microsoft. Not surprising, I suppose, but I don't have to like it.

Perhaps if the game had been a glorious failure - an unsuccessful but valiant attempt to overhaul a moribund genre...but no. Lost Odyssey is a compendium of threadbare RPG cliches: amnesiac hero, turn-based combat, random battles, endless cutscenes, elaborate fussy backstory with no bearing on gameplay, sidekicks with "personality," poorly translated dialogue, etc.

Gameplay consists of predictable cycles of activity: explore town, trigger cutscene, head to dungeon, defeat boss. Travel to next town, navigate random unavoidable battles, fight using customary options (attack, skill, item, spell, defend, flee), issue instructions and watch characters battle. Shop to replenish supplies. Rinse and repeat. What part of this was "made possible only by the power of the Xbox 360?"

If Lost Odyssey is a new benchmark in the RPG genre...I think we need a new bench.

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 10

Old_radio2375 Indie games, saving games, and game blog jerks; GDC from the outside; Boss fight advice from Zoe; Listener mail; and an interview with Corvus Elrod of Man Bytes Blog - all in this edition of The Brainy Gamer Podcast!

  • Listen to the podcast directly from this page by clicking the yellow "Listen Now" button on the right.
  • Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes by clicking here.
  • Download the podcast here. (right-click and choose save)

Links mentioned in the show:

Corvus Elrod's Man Bytes Blog
Daniel Primed's Gamer Blog
Manveer Heir's Design Rampage Blog
David Or's Theory Fighter Blog

The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom
Cursor x10
Rod Humble's games (The Marriage and Stars Over Half Moon Bay)
Tale of Tales' The Path

So long, Game Master

Garygygax2 Stop me if you've heard this one. In the fall of '72 a handful of gamers traveled to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, to share with each other the board games they had created. They met in Lake Geneva because that's where Gary Gygax lived, and that's where the gaming convention Gen Con was held, begun by Gygax a few years earlier. Out of that gathering emerged a 150-page rulebook for a new game called Dungeons and Dragons. The impact of that game on the ways we think about, design, and play video games today is incalculable.

Gary Gygax died yesterday on my birthday. I've never been more than a casual D&D player (if there is such a thing), but I've always felt a certain connection to Gygax. I first met him on a family vacation in Green Lake, Wisconsin, briefly introduced by a friend at a restaurant. Later, when I moved from NYC to Milwaukee for my first teaching job, I met him again at Gen Con in the old MECCA center. By then he had essentially been booted out of his own company, TSR, but he greeted fans and graciously signed anything that had a dragon, elf, or orc on it.

Some years later, I returned to my home state of Indiana to accept my current teaching position at Wabash College. Shortly thereafter, Gen Con moved to Indianapolis, less than an hour away from me. I was fortunate to see and chat with Gygax several times in recent years, and was even able to introduce him to my son. In each of these encounters, he was unfailingly kind and engaging. The last time I saw him, I brought my Player's Handbook with me in my backpack...and forgot to ask him to sign it.

Lots of other gaming sites are paying tribute to Gary Gygax today, and I'm very glad to see that. We owe him a debt of gratitude for helping launch a genre and gameplay system that has defined what gaming means to many gamers. Perhaps his passing helps demarcate the transition away from high fantasy themes and quantized characteristics that have so dominated the industry since the early days of CRPGs. I personally welcome that evolution, but I hope we never forget the man who hoisted the sails and charted the course for all of us who proudly call ourselves gamers.


Podcast 10 incoming

Questionmark_2 I'm preparing the next podcast and would love to include your games-related questions, comments, or feedback. I'll also happily accept blatant self-promotion of your blog, site, or podcast, provided I agree it would be interesting or useful to my listeners.

Send an email or mp3 audio file to me at [email protected], and I'll do my best to work it into the show. Look for the podcast here and on iTunes Thursday.

Thanks very much for listening!

Immersion - is it just me?

Stratomatic1 When I was a kid I used to play Strat-O-Matic Baseball by myself for hours at a time. Decades after they departed for Los Angeles, I ran the 1955 Dodger organization from my imaginary dugout in Brooklyn (I lived in Indiana), managing my roster, arranging trades, and keeping a close eye on my lineup and pitching rotation. I tested theories--could my '55 Dodgers beat the '27 Yankees (no) or '75 Reds (yes)--I replayed seasons and fully immersed myself in a world of player cards, outcome charts, 3 dice...and my imagination.

Those childhood memories came flooding back to me recently while playing Out of the Park Baseball 8, the superb modern baseball sim and spiritual descendant of Strat-O-Matic. Bottom of the 10th at Oakland Coliseum, August 24 1975. Reggie Jackson strides to the plate with one man on, down by a run. He works the count full, then proceeds to foul off 5 consecutive pitches. Finally he sees one he likes and launches it 445 feet over the right field fence. The A's win and clinch the American League West title. It's 3am, and I'm pumping my fist in the air. I'm by myself, and I've been playing this game for hours.Stratomatic3

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about immersion in games. I was provoked by Clint Hocking's talk on the subject at GDC, which was full of insightful ideas and observations, highlighted by examples from a variety of games ranging from chess to Bioshock.

Hocking describes immersion as a binary phenomenon. You're either immersed or you're not, and there's no in-between. If this is so, and I believe it is, then the question for designers would seem to be straightforward - what is required to draw a player into this state? Hocking suggested an answer:

I think there are two primary approaches. For lack of a better way of looking at it, I think we can immerse the player via the left brain, or via the right. Invoking an immersive state via the left brain is essentially drawing the player in using his rational, logical faculties. Drawing him in via the right brain is done by appealing to his sensory or emotional faculties.

As you might expect, Hocking sees the potential for combining these two approaches within the same gaming experience. Doing so would elevate the medium in ways we have only begun to understand.

The evolution of our medium is neither an extrapolation into the future of Sensory Immersion, nor of an extrapolation into the future of Formal Immersion – it is the coming together of these two forms of immersion and the unprecedented potential therein to bring us together.

Hocking may have forgotten more about video games than I will ever know, but it seems to me that immersion can't be pinned down in quite such a formulaic way. There are elusive aspects to engagement and immersion that can't be mapped or fully understood. When I reflect on my attachment to certain baseball games, and not to others, I find it difficult to account for certain very important things.

Earlweaverbaseball_amiga Sensually immersive baseball games have been with us for years, and two more are on the way this week: 2K Sports' Major League Baseball 2K8 and Sony's MLB '08: The Show. I've played iterations of these and previous games dating back to Earl Weaver Baseball (EA, 1987). Year after year these games try to get us closer to the *feel* of real baseball with increasingly faithful renditions of ballparks, player models, crowd behavior, and player AI. This year, 2K Sports unveils a new analog stick pitching mechanic that simulates the way a pitcher releases the ball out of his hand.

These improvements have enhanced gameplay immeasurably. I'm not romantic about Earl Weaver Baseball or Tony LaRussa Baseball - they were fun in their day, but I have no desire to play them anymore. It's hard to beat the widescreen HD view behind the plate in the newest games, and it's fun to hear the personalized, context-specific taunts coming from the crowd when you're playing as Derek Jeter in Fenway Park. These games are chock-full of atmosphere and realism.

But they don't immerse me.

Depthchart_2 Put me in front of my computer running Out of the Park Baseball, fill my screen with columns of text detailing my rosters, depth charts, and transaction reports, and I'm transported - immersed in a sea of big decisions that will affect the future of my players, my team, my organization, and my career. Let me play as any team in the history of modern baseball. No analog stick required.

Don't get me wrong. I love console baseball games--I may finally purchase a PS3 to play MLB '08--and I enjoy controlling the players. But, paradoxically, the more control I have over the physical action, the less immersed I feel in the world of the game. As pitching, hitting, and fielding mechanics grow more complex (and "realistic"), my focus narrows to accomplishing a series of small tasks required to properly execute a pitch or a swing. It can be fun when I get my 3-stage delivery coordinated with my target point and am rewarded with a hard breaking ball that strikes out Albert Pujols. But my mind is not on the situation, as it was with Reggie Jackson. It's on mechanics.

Ironically, being the player detaches me from the player.

What Hocking doesn't account for is my imagination and its power to accommodate all sorts of limitations. By his definition, whatever immersion I experience playing Out of the Park Baseball should come from my rational, logical left brain. By itself, the game provides almost nothing for my right brain. In fact, if you look at the screenshots I've provided, you might say it goes out of its way to steer clear of my aesthetic hemisphere. Some people can see beauty in a spreadsheet. I can't. And the game's play-by-play text is...well, let's just say Vin Scully has nothing to worry about.

Ootpscreen_2 How is it, then, that my right brain engages so thoroughly? It can only be because my imagination bridges that gap and enables me to vividly see and powerfully feel things that aren't there, not even in pixelated form. Here, for me, is where the mystery arises that can't be diagrammed or charted. This immersion is clearly enabled and stimulated by the game, but how much of what I'm experiencing is the game, and how much is me?

Hocking's talk was far more extensive and wide-ranging than I have indicated here. He has graciously provided the text and slides of his GDC presentation. I encourage you to read them - heck, read everything on his site. If you care about video games, you owe it to yourself.

No more censorship for No More Heroes

Travis99_2 I don't make a habit of promoting products, but this bit of news is too good to pass up. Codejunkies has released Freeloader for the Wii, a cool utility that enables your Wii to play games from any region. So now Europeans can play USA region games, Americans can play Japanese region games, and we can all live in blissful harmonious unified peace whenever we play with our Wiis. There's still no way to avoid that joke, is there?

Freeloader022908After my last podcast I received many disgruntled (OK, some of you were furious) emails from European listeners reacting to the fact that their version of No More Heroes would be censored to remove the bloody visuals from the game. Instead of Suda's gloriously over-the-top fountains of hemoglobin, Europeans (and Japanese) players are treated to an odd mix of spewing coins and black specks. As far as I know, coins aren't prone to spewing, but such are the nuances of censored gameplay.

To see what I mean, check out this comparison of the censored and uncensored versions of the game:

Now you can play No More Heroes in all its stylish gore-fest splendor, no matter where you live. Freeloader also unlocks imported Gamecube discs played on the Wii. You can find out more here.