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November 2008

Tell me a story


I recently assigned Fable II a score of "10" in my review over at PopMatters. Since it was posted, I've received an unusually strong response here and via email, most of it negative. The reactions have mostly focused on two main issues: 1) Fable II is full of flaws, nowhere near perfect, and thus undeserving of a "perfect score." 2) Fable II is a closed narrative experience. The player cannot impact the main story, and all the side quests have been completely scripted by the designers.

In my view, each of these arguments relies on problematic presumptions.

If a game reviewer is working with a 10-point scale, he or she must be willing to use the entire scale. Some reviewers hold onto the number 10 as if they were protecting it from being sullied. Only the rarest of rare games are deemed worthy of the highest of high scores. Readers fairly translate such a policy to mean "10" is a "perfect score," reserved for perfect or near-perfect games, and they similarly translate a "5" to signify an utter failure because reviewers so rarely assign numbers at the bottom of the scale.

Essentially, the game review game is played with three numbers: 7, 8, and 9. Most high-profile games fall into this restricted range. I think I understand why this is so, and I've fallen prey to it myself. I suppose it's unlikely to change. But none of this makes it a defensible practice. At the risk of leaping into a cauldron of boiling water, I would be inclined to assign a derivative cliché-ridden game like Tales of Vesperia a "3." Such a score, however, would put me far outside the critical mean for this game, and my assessment would be seen as an aberration. Even if a game like Tales disappoints, it is still seen as a solid, reasonably well-made game. We reserve the "3" scores for games like My Aquarium, which, ironically, does what it does better than Tales, in my view.

I gave Fable II a "10" because my experience with it was so tremendously positive. I realize it's not a perfect game, and I've even criticized it here and in my review for the ways it falls short. But I see no disconnect between a game's flaws and a game's brilliance. For me, they're all wrapped up together. I'm delighted when games like Bioshock and GTA IV rack up scores of "10" from all over the review space, especially when reviewers write passionately about their experiences playing these games. Both games fail to fully deliver on their aspirations, but it's their aspirations that make them so interesting in the first place. They make good on enough of those aspirations to be worthy of such high scores.

Which brings me to my second point: aspiration. I find myself growing increasingly concerned that in our rush to embrace open-world, emergent narrative games like Fallout 3 (which I greatly admire), we have deemed creative authorship, linear narrative, and artist-driven storytelling as less praiseworthy, less ambitious, or less valid game design choices. I'm troubled by the notion that a game like Fable II receives demerits for its failure to be more like Fallout 3. Why should my ability to alter the narrative be seen as a de facto game design necessity? Is there no room left for tales well-told? Is it suddenly no longer possible for me to be fully engaged by an author who isn't me?

I realize interactivity lies at the heart of what video games do best - and I'm the guy that wrote enthusiastically about the emerging "narrative manifesto" issued by many of the best designers in the industry. I'm no less excited now than I was then, but it never occured to me that some people would see this as a zero-sum game. I never thought these advances would be seen as invalidating traditional (whatever that means) narrative games.

Fable II succeeds because of clever writing that permeates the player's experience - triggered scenes, incidental dialogue, interstitial loading screens, books and diaries - all demonstrate a flair for witty, frequently self-aware, and occasionally moving writing seldom found in video games. Fetishistic demon doors, insult-spewing gargoyles, bickering summoners, and dozens of similar discoverable moments greet the player who is willing to explore and devote time to enjoying them.

Spoilers ahead.

If you decide, for example, to return the Stone of Myr'Bregothil (the game contains numerous riffs on hard to pronounce Tolkien-esque chestnuts) back to the hollow men, you will be treated to a rendition of the Hollow Dance of Ur'Cyrandorandor. You won't see it; you will only hear the decrepit skeletons lavishly preparing it as you leave their cavern. It's hilarious and a terrific example of Fable II's wry take on RPG fantasy worlds...and itself.

Despite the fact that you cannot alter the main narrative, the game otherwise affords the player a terrific amount of freedom, and using this freedom nearly always results in interesting or surprising outcomes. Should you choose to sacrifice your wife, for example, at the Temple of Shadows, a giddy evil monk named Alastair will greet you with "Your very own spouse! I bow to your superior evilness. Of course, you might have saved that one for the Rite of Unhallowed Wickedness, but bravo all the same." The voice acting here and elsewhere in the game elevates the dialogue well beyond what we typically hear in video games.

I was particularly taken by the hulk-like monk Hannah. Her transformation after the death of her father moved me, as did her rejection of the code she had previously chosen to live by. Her nervous chatter suggests something fearful brewing beneath her swagger and bravado. Her forceful challenge at the end of the game - should you choose to preserve your family - came as quite a surprise to me. I felt judged and fairly so. She was disappointed in me, and that felt painful. Hannah is a sidekick character. She isn't fully fleshed-out, and she disappears for a significant portion of the story. But I personally found her among the most intriguing women I've come across in a video game, and I was grateful for her gentle but sardonic presence.

I could go on, but I fear I've extended this post too long as it is. I welcome your thoughts on Fable II or any of the issues I've raised here. I realize I've lingered on this game longer than usual, but I think it's been worth doing. I'll be moving onto other games next week, and I have another podcast coming very soon. As always, thanks for reading and, especially, for the conversation

Fable II - review

Fable2_Artwork6 My review of Fable II has been posted over at PopMatters. I've been rather devoted to Mr. Molyneux's playable tale of late, and I've enjoyed pausing to consider a game more carefully than I typically do. I'll return with one more Fable II essay after Thanksgiving before moving on to other ludonarrative adventures. In the meantime, here's a snippet from the review:

We often call games “stylish” because of their distinctive visuals or offbeat approach, but Fable II‘s charismatic personality permeates the entire gameplay experience. From its storybook narrator (voiced by the inimitable Zoe Wanamaker) to its lush anachronistic blend of medieval, renaissance, and 18th-century environments, the game weaves together its disparate locations, characters, and stories more effectively than any game I have ever played.

You can read the full review here. And, yes, I gave it my first "10." Happy gaming!

Fable (disambiguation)

AesopsFables Every video game requires an imaginative leap. No matter how or where they send us - ominous dark descents, or chimerical flights of fancy - games insist that we surrender ourselves to their seductions. And, for at least as far back as the ancient Greeks, we've known something very important about this willing suspension of disbelief. It works wonders on the human psyche.

It encourages us to stretch our imaginations, examine our beliefs, and find empathy or recognition in another person's story. If Aristotle is to be believed, active engagement with the very best of these stories can even make us better human beings and more responsible citizens.

I begin with this reflection on the meaningfulness of storytelling because I've been thinking a lot about my experience playing Fable II. It strikes me that most of the essays and reviews of the game I've read have largely ignored a defining strand of its DNA. Above all else, Fable II is...a fable; and its designer Peter Molyneux is a fabulist, a word that would seem to have been coined especially for him.

Fables are folk literature, handed down stories, improbable accounts of men and women and their foibles and follies. These tales are often delivered orally, recounting the adventures of characters who make unwise or selfish choices. Fables almost always impart lessons, but contrary to popular assumption, these lessons are not always unambiguous. Nearly all of Aesop's Fables can easily be turned around and re-examined from another point of view. Sure, the plodding tortoise wins the race, but the hare knows how to kick back and enjoy life, doesn't he?

Considered in this light and taken precisely for what it clams to be, Fable II is an extraordinarily successful game. Molyneux and company have created a fabulous world populated by an eccentric gallery of fabulous characters, all in service of immersing the player inside an explorable fable within which he or she can do exactly what fable heroes do: embark on adventures requiring actions and self-revealing choices.

The icing on the fabulous cake is that these actions and choices have affecting consequences and promote the very kind of reflection fables are meant to provoke. No, Albion is not an open-world sandbox; nor is it an environment for self-directed emergent narrative (although I would argue it contains useful aspects of these). Fable II is a remarkably ambitious but accessible RPG that exudes the charm of a lovingly crafted, single-author storybook. It isn't GTA. It isn't Fallout. It is a fable.

I suppose I should also point out that Fable II isn't Fable the original either. Molyneux's first attempt failed to hold my interest, and I bailed out after an hour or two of boredom and frustration. Perhaps part of my enchantment with Fable II is due to the rather low expectations I had going into it.

I promised in my previous post to focus on the writing and characters of Fable II, but I got momentarily sidetracked thinking about genre. I decided it might be useful to establish a bit of context before moving onto those other subjects. Having done that (I hope), I'll return next time with some thoughts on the game's writing and characters.

Genius jilted


Fallout 3 is probably the best game of 2008. Judged purely on its scope and the level of its ambition, the game is an extraordinary achievement that delivers far more often than it falls short. As an RPG, it succeeds as an open world game without surrendering its narrative center, and it delivers the kind of individualized player-driven experience we say we expect, but rarely find in modern games.

Bethesda quieted most of its naysayers with a surprisingly bleak and uncompromising game. Fallout 3 has its moments of old-school Fallout humor, but its unrelentingly gray, rubble-strewn wasteland is a bold choice in a genre typically characterized by colorful fantasy-inspired environments. Without question, Fallout 3 is a big, ambitious, and gutsy game that deserves our respect.

But I don't love Fallout 3, and I've been thinking about why. My early impressions of the game were refracted through my personal memories of Washington, D.C., and I found myself almost misty-eyed at the devastating vistas that appeared when I emerged from buildings or turned certain corners. The starkness of the physical space in Fallout 3 can be overwhelming. Coupled with a constant sense of peril out in the open - raiders and mutants can appear quite suddenly, and the game excels at making you feel vulnerable and exposed - the geography of the game was immediately appealing to me, and I spent most of my time exploring, taking it all in, and getting killed a lot.

Sadly, when it came time for the storytelling to begin, Fallout 3 sent me back to Oblivion. Bethesda has made great strides with many of Fallout's design elements: combat, leveling system, new perks, Pip-Boy, VATS - all address problems or enhance features found in Oblivion. Unfortunately, it's difficult to find such improvements in Fallout 3's story mechanisms.

To be sure, Fallout 3 spins a better, less cliched, more coherent set of tales than Oblivion, but the old bugaboos remain: weak writing, animatronic characters with detached voices, and primitive interactions. With the exception of more variety among the voice actors, it's hard to see how Fallout 3 improves on Oblivion's most fundamental flaw: you're a 3-dimensional person in a high-stakes survival adventure...with a bunch of robots. I realize these things are highly subjective, but every time I engage a character in Fallout 3 - an essential aspect of playing the game - it feels like a tiny bit of air leaks out of the Fallout balloon.

Too often, the characters of Fallout 3 function as human-esque information kiosks. Hit the play button for a brief personality blurb on who I am and what I'm like. Hit the play button again to hear more about this town. Etc. I'm purposely avoiding the dialogue-tree debate here because it's been so thoroughly discussed elsewhere. Instead, I want to focus on the more basic issue of quality writing. Dialogue can be presented in a cutscene, a triggered interaction, or a dialogue tree - I'm not stuck on one way or another; I simply want that dialogue to be conveyed believably by a character who owns those words, and I want those words to be more than functional. If we are to have talking characters, then they must have interesting things to say and they must feel alive, at least within the context of the game.

Given their lack of facial expression, limited exchanges are the best these rubber-faced characters can manage. When they are asked to convey emotion, things go even further awry. We hear an actor's voice crying, but we see a blank-faced robot staring at us on screen. These sorts of disconnects wouldn't be so jarring if Bethesda didn't insist on positioning these faces front and center in every single interaction. The game says these are real people, but our experience with them says otherwise. Contrast this disconnect with the palpably real sense of occupying the vivid environments of Fallout 3, or the way the game communicates the experience of launching a missile.

If you're looking for quality writing in a modern RPG - genuinely clever dialogue and interstitials with terrific voice-acting to boot - you need look no further than Fable 2. In fact, that's exactly what I intend to do in my next post. ;-) For now, I'll tip my hand (and bring on the Furies, perhaps) by noting that, all things considered, I prefer Fable 2 to Fallout 3; even though I concede the latter may be the better game. Thesis preview: one should never underestimate the seductiveness of charm. And good writing. And spirited characters. More tomorrow.

Check out my new threads!

Photo-comment If you're a regular visitor to my site, you may have noticed that I've upgraded my commenting system to make it easier to navigate and, I hope, more pleasant to look at. I'm using TypePad Connect, and the main new features are:

  • Threaded commenting: Now we can respond directly to each other's comments. No more "@Ben:" or "@L.B.:" prefixes from me. Yay!
  • Profile pictures: Your lovely mug can accompany each comment.
  • TypePad profiles: If you choose to register with TypePad Connect, you can maintain a consistent ID that aggregates your comment activity across TypePad Connect enabled blogs. The system also integrates with OpenID.
  • Improved spam protection: An ugly fact of life, unfortunately. I'm hoping this new system will enable me to spend less time sorting out the bad stuff.

You can register, upload a photo or avatar, and make full use of this system for free. If you prefer not to sign up, you can still post your comments just as you have in the past and make use of the new threading system. Whatever works for you.

FYI, this system is free and also available to bloggers who use other services like Movable Type, Wordpress, Blogger, and Tumblr.

I want to thank my friend Brinstar at Acid for Blood who implemented TypePad Connect on her blog awhile back, tested it, and gave it a thumbs up. I'm always a bit hesitant to implement new features here until I'm sure they won't break things. I appreciate Brinstar kicking the tires for all of us on this one.

Give it a try and let me know what you think.

Games to play with your kids that won't drive you crazy - 2.0

As the holidays approach I thought it might be useful to compile another list of new games you can play with your kids without going out of your mind. These games will appeal to kids because they're fun and accessible, but unlike most child-focused titles they offer plenty of inviting gameplay for adults too. This is a remarkably difficult balance to strike, but the games I've included here seem to get it just right. Most of these titles aren't kids games at all; just solid, well-designed games everyone can enjoy. FYI, you can find last year's list here.

Deblob_wallpaper1_1024 de Blob (Wii) - The hidden gem of the holiday season. Appearing amidst a deluge of other big-name releases, few people have heard of this singularly wonderful game. Players control a jello-like blob that picks up paint colors and splashes them across a drab monochromatic city. Combining a mixture of platforming and puzzle-solving elements, the game enables you to liberate the city of Chroma and bring joy back to its citizens. If you've played Katamari Damacy, you will recognize a bit of de Blob's spirit, but this game is its own utterly unique experience.

Boom-blox-490w Boom Blox (Wii) - The Steven Spielberg game that no one knows is a Steven Spielberg game. Released six months ago, Boom Blox isn't quite a new game; but it remains the best and most overlooked multiplayer Wii game since Wii Sports. It's a deft combination of Jenga and Legos with built-in physics-based destruction thanks to a hearty flick of the Wiimote. No game I've played on the Wii brings people together with more fun than Boom Blox. Just be sure to wear your wrist strap. Seriously.

Goo World of Goo (PC, Mac, Linux, Wii) - Another terrific indie game makes good (de Blob is the other). Players use goo balls to assemble various structures like towers or scaffolds to reach an exit pipe where the remaining goo balls are sucked up and sent to the sinister World of Goo Corporation. Impossible to explain, but equally impossible to put down, this game is great fun for a single player, but even more fun for two playing cooperatively. Younger kids may need to play Dad's "helper" for this one.

Mysimsk MySims Kingdom (Wii) - EA wisely executed a design reboot from last year's version of MySims, transforming the game from an Animal Crossing-esque life sim to a simple but fun adventure game. In MySims Kingdom you help King Roland and his subjects revitalize the Kingdom one enchanting theme-based island at a time. Along the way you build various contraptions and structures to help the citizens improve their lives. EA disagrees with me, but this is a game best suited for younger kids. However, it's so stylish, well-paced, and smartly delivered (with a nice sprinkling of genuinely funny dialogue), you'll enjoy playing it too. When I first saw this game at EA a few months ago, I was only mildly impressed. Now that I've played it (admittedly for only a few hours), I like it much more than I thought I would.

I'll also mention a handful of other terrific games, all suitable for family play:

  • Little Big Planet
  • Lego Batman
  • Wii Music
  • Rock Band / Guitar Hero
  • Mario Super Sluggers

I should mention that I include Wii Music based on strong recommendations from friends with kids pre-school to 12 years old. It's the only title on this list I haven't played myself.

If I've omitted a game that belongs on this list, be sure to let me know. Happy gaming!

Second thoughts


I'm standing in front of the gutted-out Washington Monument. I look up with the sun in my eyes, and I can see all the way to the top. I decide to go in. As I near the entrance I hear a radio playing a song by the Ink Spots. As I walk past it, I pause briefly to turn the radio off. Then I think to myself, maybe those two guards at the gate were listening to this radio. So I turn it back on, and I go inside.

I enter an elevator and press a button. It ascends and deposits me at the top of the monument. I see the satellite dish I've been sent to retrieve, but glancing to my right, I notice light streaming through an opening in the wall. I walk over to it, and when I gaze outside I'm frozen by what I see: the National Mall lies in ruins - the blighted earth once a park of green grass; the dilapidated Capitol Building shattered in the distance. I shudder when I envision the Reflecting Pool and the Lincoln Memorial, both out of my view, blasted beyond recognition. I flash to a memory of my 8th-grade school trip to this very spot.

I turn my back to this view and pull up my Pip-Boy to check the map. The screen is washed out and hard to read, and I can't make out the controls. Ah. It's the sun beating down on the screen. I briefly close the Pip-Boy and turn to face the south. When I return to my screen, the glare is gone and I consult my map. I'm tired and need a place to sleep.

I grab the dish and return to the base of the monument. Billie Holiday is singing on the radio. I decide to chat with the guards, but neither will offer more than a cursory sentence, and one of them is decidedly rude to me. So I return to the radio, take out my sledgehammer and smash it to smithereens. That was the plan anyway, but it turns out I can only put a dent in it. So I turn it off instead. If those guards want music, they can turn it back on themselves. Wish I could have smashed it, though. I consider lobbing a grenade at them and running, but I've got other things to do. I need to deliver this dish and find my dad.

Some of our most gifted game designers say they want to get out of our way and let us discover our own stories in their games. Doug Church calls it "abdicating authorship." Patrick Redding and Clint Hocking call it "dynamic story architecture." Steve Gaynor calls the player an "agent of chaos" and observes, "It is not about the other-- the author, the director. It is about you."

My ongoing adventure in the rubble of Washington D.C. suggests to me that these designers are half right. I'm aware of my main quest, and I track it with interest, but I'm easily distracted by people I meet and places I discover. I'm pursuing my own objectives much of the time and - without really meaning to - my existence in this world has taken on its own storytelling dimension. Call it emergent narrative or some other fancy phrase, but when I'm standing at the top of the Washington Monument and remembering when I was 13 years old, or when I'm trying to figure out how to punish those two surly guards for being rude to me, I'm immersed in things that say more about me and my avatar than about any Fallout 3 quest line. I am, in important ways, authoring my own story.

But it isn't just about me. I'm also thinking about game design. And it's here that I think Church, Hocking, et al understate the meta-experience of playing well-designed games. My first thought at the top of the Washington Monument was personal and reflective. But my second thought, arriving seconds after the first, was "Wow, what a great idea!" This moment is like a Hitchock-Deus Ex cocktail. Give me a vital reason to reach the top of an iconic American landmark and make something important happen there. But Fallout 3 turns the tables. I don't meet the enemy or fight for my life; instead, I face the world as it now exists. I've already seen devastation, but this historic vantage point shows me the vastness and the painful resonance of it. And - crucially - this only happens if I look for it. I could simply grab the dish and run to my next destination. The designers trusted me to take the time to look. "Very cool," I think. "Great idea. Thanks."

I also think about game design when the glare from the sun obscures my Pip-Boy screen. "Are you kidding me," I think. "What a terrific, realistic touch. Amazing. Well done." Then it occurs to me these designers have figured out how to transform a standard menu system interface into a device that exists physically in the world of the game. "Excellent." Then I think about Far Cry 2 and Dead Space doing similar things, and...okay, now I'm just geeking out, but you get the idea. I'm thinking about game design, and loving it.

On the other side of the coin, I also think about game design when I can't smash the radio. Why can't I smash the radio? The moment I discover this, I think about arbitrary environmental interactions and wish I wasn't thinking about them. I'd prefer to think about how to smash that radio.

When game designers surrender authorial control to the player, unexpected and extraordinary things can happen. I'm enjoying Fallout 3 immensely, even though I feel only vaguely connected to the main quest. The game creates a wide space for emergent narrative, even when it stumbles in the presentation and depiction of its characters.

But succeed or fail, my awareness of game design is omnipresent, and I like it that way. It enriches my experience of playing. The in-world experience remains my first thought, but my second thought is nearly always focused on the system, especially when that system demonstrates originality or beautiful execution. I don't think I'm the only gamer who behaves this way.

So, when Gaynor writes about video games in his insightful essay "Being There" and suggests that:

"Unlike a great film or piece of literature, they don't give the audience an admiration for the genius in someone else's work; they instead supply the potential for genuine personal experience..."

I believe it's quite possible - even desirable - to achieve both. The richness of my personal experience in Fallout 3 is undeniable; but so is my respect and admiration for the genius of its designers. In fact, my awareness and appreciation of one naturally enhances the other, all within the same experience. And that, in my view, is a wonderful thing.

Games on radio

Dish Lots of us complain about the mainstream media's shallow, often infantillizing, coverage of video games. It can be discouraging to witness a flourishing art form consistently packed into the same worn-out boxes. Yes, video games make big money; yes, lots of people play them; and yes, some of them are violent.

There's more to the story, of course, and lately it's coming from an unlikely general media outlet: National Public Radio. Over the past year or so, NPR has devoted considerable airtime to reporting on video games as part of its coverage of arts and culture. These pieces vary in length and depth, but the sheer frequency of them suggests that somebody at NPR has decided to take the lead covering video games in the absence of thoughtful coverage from other broadcast outlets.

In recent weeks, NPR has reported on the music game phenomenon with stories on both Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Rather than the standard sales figures and "gee-whiz it's popular" angles, NPR has focused on the social bonding and underlying tech aspects of the games. Liane Hansen spoke to Rolling Stone reporter David Kushner who plays Rock Band with his daughters; she also interviewed Tod Machover whose team at MIT helped to develop Guitar Hero. Morning Edition reported on the Beatles Rock Band deal; and All Things Considered ran a feature piece on the evolution of video game music. And those are just the music game stories.

In the same brief period, NPR has run stories on Indie game developers, Obama ads in video games, libraries using games to woo kids, Microsoft's XNA project for game developers, teachers using games to teach kids science, coverage of Comic-Con, the Championship Gaming Series, a feature on Jonathon Blow's Braid, and three separate stories from different angles on Spore. I could list many more.

Relative to other broadcast media outlets, NPR is lapping the field with its coverage of video games. These stories are nearly always thoughtful and well-reported, if not terribly deep or analytical. Given the network's diverse national audience, this makes sense; but I do hope for more reporting along the lines of Heather Chaplin's stories for NPR on GTA IV and Braid. Chaplin understands games from a gamer's perspective, but she also knows how to convey the experience of playing these games in a clear, jargon-free manner.

So, as a blogger who has done my share of whining and finger-pointing about video game coverage in the mainstream media, I tip my hat to NPR and hope for more to come. If you agree (and you live in the USA), I encourage you to consider making a pledge to your local noncommercial, not-for-profit NPR station. When you make your pledge, tell them you appreciate their coverage of video games. Such feedback, I assure you, can make a difference.

The big ignore

Spongebob Squarepants Globs of Doom Wii Let's say you're interested in finding a good E-rated game (evaluated by the ESRB as appropriate for "Everyone"). Let's say you have kids who want to play video games just like like dear-old-Dad or Mom, but they're not exactly ready for Gears of War 2. Or maybe you're planning a holiday family get-together, and you don't want Uncle Bob getting a load of GTA IV and going Hillary/Lieberman on you. What to do?

Well, you may decide to rely on game reviews to help you sort the wheat from the chaff. If so, you're likely to refer to sites like GameRankings or Metacritic to quickly search through reviews. If you're especially motivated, you might turn up What They Play, a website devoted to helping parents evaluate games their kids want to play.

These are fine resources, but they will only lead you to a small fraction of the games you may wish to consider. Metacritic doesn't offer a search function that includes ESRB ratings; What They Play aims at parents, but its ad-bloated site provides little more than feature-list snapshots of games, focusing most of its coverage on helping parents make informed choices about age-appropriate content.

That leaves you with GameRankings, a helpful and easy to use review aggregator. So, you run a search on E-rated games released in the last 30 days, and you receive a grand total of two titles: Wii Music and Little Big Planet. How can this be? Nearly 50 games were released in the last 30 days for the Wii alone.

A closer look at GameRankings' default search settings reveals the answer: you are seeing only games that have received at least 20 reviews. Cutting this number in half boosts the results a bit, but you soon discover the real problem. E-rated games receive very little coverage in the print and online games media. They are, in fact, routinely ignored. Only by reducing the search criteria to 0 reviews does GameRankings deliver its bounty: 163 E-rated titles across all platforms released in the last 30 days.

Why do these games receive so little coverage? Because they're dreadful, obviously. Because they have titles like Yummy Yummy Cooking Jam, Princess Debut, and National Geographic Panda. We ignore these games because they're shovel-ware; because they're games for kids (or, worse, games for girls). We ignore them because they're bad games. Period.

But are we sure about this? How do we know? If we never really take a close look at any of these games, how can we be certain every single one is a bad game? The Fallouts, Fables, and Far Crys of the gaming world receive hundreds of reviews from a variety of sources big and small. These are eagerly anticipated, high-profile games, so perhaps they require such wide-ranging scrutiny. But the coverage disparity between these games and others that receive virtually no attention whatsoever seems hard to justify.

Would you believe me if I told you that SpongeBob SquarePants featuring Nicktoons: Globs of Doom is actually a pretty solid game? Would my wife be playing Princess Debut if Leigh Alexander hadn't gone out of her way to shine a light on it? Both of these games were almost completely ignored by the games press.

Okay, I get it. Games sites and mags must cater to their readers, and who really cares about another SpongeBob game? I wonder, however, if we ought to scrutinize our assumptions about which games deserve coverage. Do we pay attention to games that carry with them a certain amount of hype, regardless of their quality? Certainly. Do we dismiss games, especially kids games, assuming they are unworthy of our attention, regardless of their quality? Certainly.

Years ago, in my business, we routinely assigned our least capable actors to roles in children's theater. The best actors got the plum roles on the mainstage. But in recent years, we've moved away from those practices. Today, we better understand the importance of offering kids the very best we can do. They are no different from the rest of us. They respond positively to quality, and they quickly grow bored and restless with mediocrity. They are our future patrons. If we expect them to value the arts, then we must offer them something of value.

We might consider a similar approach to video games. If we want our kids - heck, if we want all of us - to enjoy quality games, we must pay attention to and promote those games that deliver quality.

I realize that far too many E-rated games are shoddy, cynical efforts to squeeze money out of the least knowledgeable segment of the game-buying public. If gamers like you and me want developers to create high-quality games for kids and families, we must begin to insist that these games deliver experiences no less compelling than the ones we expect from our T-rated and M-rated games. And when developers deliver these games, we must be sure to give them the attention they deserve.

Plausible post-apocalyptic fairy tale


I've written recently about my students playing through the original Fallout games and reflecting on their experiences. These assignments were intended as preparation for our segue into Fallout 3, the only game in the course we've played together, each of us for the first time. I should note that many of us haven't completed it - me included - and I have a feeling I may never know when my experience with this vast game is "complete." My track record with games like Morrowind, Oblivion, and even GTA IV would suggest the answer may be never.

Several of you asked me to follow up with a post on my students' reactions to Fallout 3, so that's what I'll do today. I'm working on my own PopMatters review of the game, and I'm sure I'll have more to say about it here too. For now, this post is all about my students' responses to the game.

As you may know, many of these students were skeptical about Fallout 3, worried about the new game tarnishing the Fallout legacy. Zealous in their recent conversion, they essentially went from Fallout-phobic to Protectors of the Fallout Realm in the span of a few weeks. They were curious about the new game, to be sure, but skeptical about Bethesda's ability to deliver a "genuine Fallout" game.

Well, that was then, and this is now. Fallout 3 is a hit. With the exception of a few students who think the game fails to innovate enough from its Oblivion roots (the "Oblivion with guns" critique), nearly all of them ate this game up with great big spoons. When I asked them to elaborate and describe the key design features or experiences that connected them to the game, they responded with some useful observations. These, according to them, are the Fallout 3 essentials:

  • It delivers and sustains a real sense of peril. You never feel quite safe in this world, and the environments accentuate this feeling. Limited resources also heighten the stakes considerably. Facing a mutant with one health bar, two bullets, and no recent save file is perilous gaming at its finest.

  • It encourages the player to reassess. Circumstances change quickly in Fallout 3, and you must respond. Sometimes you must change your mind or your strategies to deal with events or situations, and making the wrong choice usually has consequences. You must think things through.

  • It rewards exploration and spontaneous decision-making. Discoveries in Fallout 3 aren't about finding treasure chests or buried gold (though there are places full of loot). Exploring and discovering in this game can put you way out on the edge of nowhere; and then, suddenly, a small compound appears and it feels like you actually found it. If you hadn't bothered, the game doesn't care. But if you're willing to make the effort, you'll discover all sorts of freaky people, places, and creatures - all who seem to belong in this world, not tacked on for more fetch quests.

  • It's hard, but never too hard. You just have to find the best way for you. The game gives you options to play the way you want and be the kind of character you want. This is one of the reasons it feels like a true Fallout game.

  • It feels unique and nostalgic at the same time. It's a Fallout game at heart, but with a modern sensibility. You can play it like a shooter (okay, it's not a great shooter) and ignore VATS if you hate messing with percentages, but if you want the true "Fallout experience," you will use VATS and turn it to your advantage.

  • "It's a plausible post-apocalyptic fairy tale."

Needless to say, I've had a terrific time exploring the Fallout universe with these students. I'm grateful to them for helping me think about the games, and it's been my privilege to introduce them to these "post-apocalyptic fairy tales." Now it's time to move on. Next stop: Earthbound!

A bit thick

Homer_simpson2 Apparently I'm a bit thick. I've been corresponding with a person who doesn't exist and promoting a blog that's really just a front for an ARG promotional scheme. You can read all about it here.

When I found out about it earlier today, I found myself sorting through a mix of reactions. As a lover of ARGs (I keep hoping somebody will seize the day with an iPhone-based trans-media game), I thought it was a brilliant little ruse. Contact a few bloggers, feign interest in their work, encourage them to check out your new blog. Voila!

I bought it hook, line, and sinker. What's more, I engaged in an exchange of emails with PixelVixen707, discussing voice acting in games, games as toys, Spore - all topics I was writing about at the time. These weren't dashed-off little messages. This was a genuine conversation with a person who told me she was passionate about games. When she mentioned she was just starting to talk up her blog, I read through some of her posts and wrote to offer her some positive feedback.

And the fact is, PixelVixen707 did some solid writing about games over on her pseudo-blog. When I linked to her here, I was in very good company. It turns out my blog pals Mitch Krpata and Chris Dahlen did the same. Regardless of the ruse, you can still find some interesting pieces on a range of topics. Somebody there knows a thing or two about games.

So okay, I got played, and I like games, and it's all in fun. Nobody was malicious or destructive. No harm, no foul. But at the risk of being a killjoy, I can't help but feel a bit peeved about it too. Someone took advantage of my willingness to be responsive and supportive of a new games blog, and I was apparently expected to read between the lines and sniff out the big joke.

Maybe I need to be more cynical, but I took the whole thing at face value and made an earnest effort to lend a hand, just as people like Leigh Alexander, Chris Dahlen, and N'Gai Croal did for me when I got started. Every blogger who maintains a separate full-time job - and that's pretty much all of us - will tell you the same thing. Time is incredibly precious. We have so little of it to spare.

I love writing The Brainy Gamer, reading other games blogs, and doing my share to nurture our burgeoning little community. But I must tell you it requires every bit of non-teaching time I can muster. I'm not complaining, honestly, because I love doing it. But I'm disappointed that PixelVixen707 never bothered to consider just how much that wasted time meant to me, and I'm not exactly thrilled about being tricked into promoting somebody's product either.

So to the folks at Smith and Tinker who perpetrated this alternate reality hoax, I say "Well played. Well played indeed." But next time, you may want to pick on somebody smarter. Jokes are never funny when you have to explain them.

Update: I'm satisfied by the cordial correspondence I've had with Rachael's "handlers" since this all blew up. I think they were trying something different, and they miscalculated a bit regarding how such an approach might affect those of us who invested ourselves in trying to help PixelVixen707. She seemed genuinely interested in some things I was writing about, and we exchanged some very pleasant emails about common interests. In the end, I think whoever wrote those emails and blog posts is for real in the sense of someone who cares about games and thoughtful conversation about them.

It's the meta part of it that got messed up, at least for me, but I'm happy with how we discussed it yesterday, and I bear no resentment or ill will. As I've written before, I like ARGs...but I think they probably work best when they're consensual, especially if I'm being asked to devote my time and energy to them.

Beyond the end of the line

Heavy rain 2

All roads lead to realism. In the arts, it's easy to track the predictable trajectory: artists reject stylization believing they will draw us ever closer to Truth with ever closer facsimiles of reality. Heroic verse gives way to Iambic Pentameter, which surrenders to Neoclassical couplets, which yields to Romantic prose, which succumbs to Realism, followed by Naturalism...just in time for the arrival of the medium that renders all theatrical realism self-defeating: Film. That's a woefully inadequate summary of theater history, but you get the idea.

One can find similar trajectories in the other arts. It's possible, for example, to condense the history of the cinema as an inexorable movement towards verisimilitude, with nearly every technical advancement designed to serve the prime objective: fidelity to real life. The closer we get to making movies indistinguishable from life, the more believable they are. Or so say the realists.

But history is never a straight road. Punctuating all of these movements are innumerable reactions against them. In the 20th century alone, the march toward realism has been met by counter-forces such as Expressionism, Surrealism, Absurdism, the New Wave, and the Third Cinema. While these movements rarely become mainstream, their impact on the dominant modes of theater and film can easily be seen. It's impossible to disconnect a single-camera show like The Wire, for example, from its influences in New Wave, Cinema Vérité, and Italian Neo-Realism.

Narrative video games are rambling down the same road to realism, and I wonder when the inevitable crossroad will appear. Cell-shaded games like Team Fortress 2 and The Wind Waker have notably demonstrated stylistic alternatives. Mirror's Edge has a cool alternative look, and the upcoming Prince of Persia adopts a painterly visual style. But the momentum toward realism among high-profile games is unmistakable, and most major developers continue to focus their efforts and resources at discovering new ways to immerse the player in highly detailed visuals that present realistic, if often improbable, environments.

I wrote recently about the stiff, lifeless character models in Fallout 3 and suggested that they detract from the overall experience of the game. Not surprisingly, several of my astute readers commented that the road to photorealism leads to places we may not want to go, and they reminded me that I expressed such a concern about Mass Effect nearly a year ago. True dat.

But when developers deliberately choose realism as their primary design aesthetic, then we must inevitably insist that they make good on that promise. We might imagine a Fallout 3 with stylized visuals, but the fact is that Bethesda has given us what they've given us, and for most reviewers the realistic visual style of Fallout 3 is one of its assets. It's a smooth ride, for the most part, as we take in the bleak, breathtakingly bombed-out environments. But the character models and canned animations are the potholes in that road. They detract from the otherwise exhilarating ride the game delivers.

As a designer (or a film director, or a painter, or a photographer, etc.), if it's photorealism you're going for, then you must deliver believably realistic subjects. We can object to the aesthetic (and I have many times), but in the end, we meet the game at the place it's delivered to us, and we hold it accountable for the places where it fails to deliver on its own chosen aesthetic.

So where does all of this lead? If I had to venture a guess, I'd say the end of the line for video games may turn out to be Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain, a game that ups the ante on realistic detail to an unprecedented degree. Facial motion capture, minute tracking of eye movements, purposely imperfect skin textures, and shaders that add never-before-seen nuance to the human face - all serve to render characters that look as lifelike as possible on a modern console (in this case, the PS3).

Will Quantic Dream deliver a trip to Uncanny Valley? Will Heavy Rain be a good game? I have no idea, but I'm personally less interested in those questions than I am in how the industry will respond to this new high water mark. Will developer X study the chinks in Heavy Rain's realistic armor in an effort to deliver an even-higher degree of realism? Will developer Y continue to tweak the PhysX engine used by Quantic Dream, squeezing even more natural movement out of it? When do we reach the end of the line?

At what point will a major developer chuck the whole photorealism schtick and build a big-budget ambitious narrative video game based on a completely different visual aesthetic? Not because it's cheaper; not so it will run on older systems; but purely because the designers believe they can do better than realism. This day is coming. History suggests it's inevitable. I say it can't come soon enough.