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October 2009



Infinity Ward posted a promotional video for Modern Warfare 2 on YouTube last night. The ad features an in-game version of Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels delivering a faux public service announcement for a faux organization called Fight Against Grenade Spam (FAGS, get it?) urging players to "be cool, and avoid random grenades. They’re for pussies."

It didn't take long for justifiably outraged folks to register their displeasure.

Publicity campaigns like this - and EA's "Sin to Win" contest and SEGA's "Can You Be Bayonetta?" contest co-sponsored by Maxim - suggest the game industry is aggressively targeting a core audience they believe will embrace edgy ads because they're purposely offensive, not in spite of the fact.

Spend a few minutes plowing through the comments on that YouTube video (1700+ as of this writing), and you'll see what I mean. The response can best be described as gleeful. Those who figured out the FAGS acronym seem especially delighted by their cleverness.

Nobody at Activision fumbled the ball here. Nobody's going to be fired for bad judgment. Infinity Ward (owned by Activision) is plugging into a real and widespread cultural pushback occurring among young American men. It's cool at the moment to be an insensitive jerk. Empathy and understanding are out. Tough guys with smirks on their faces are in. Infinity Ward knows this because it's their business to know. 

Like every major developer, Infinity Ward has reams of data on who buys and plays their games. Now, it seems, they've decided to eliminate the PR middle man and target their core audience directly with ads tailored specifically to them. Community manager Robert Bowling puts it this way:

Not only do we know the game but we know the gamer. We know what to expect from them and what they expect from us. So it helps us guide design decisions and decisions overall, including with PR. ... I think it is essential for developers to have that power. ... We are responsible for what we say and what we do, and we can be held accountable for our successes and failures.[1]

The marketing strategy for MW2 reflects the realities of the marketplace and a set of assumptions about the culture of gamers who play the Call of Duty series. I may not like what those assumptions imply, and I may object to a hegemonic characterization of "gamer" - but do I think that ugly little video reached its target? Bullseye.

If we want to teach boys why compassion and civility are essential to their development as men, we must do it one lesson at a time. We can disapprove of EA and Activision's despicable choices, but we shouldn't presume our outrage will impact the underlying reality. It's not about the games or the ad campaigns; it's about how we raise and teach our kids. We have created this callous consumer, and we should expect marketers to target him accordingly. Are companies who sell games and music and body spray complicit in all this? Of course. Are they to blame? No.           

The day your son gets a load of "Sin to Win" and decides he'd rather spend his money on another game is the day we begin to turn this around. And the marketing will follow suit. Those PR types know how to hit a moving target.

Addendum: Infinity Ward has pulled the video from YouTube (via community manager Robert Bowling's Twitter post).


Metsu-sick-child I've been home taking care of a sick toddler for last couple of days, so I'm afraid I haven't been able to finish my mini-series of Uncharted 2 posts. Grandma arrives on a childcare relief mission this weekend, so I hope to find some good writing time then.

In the meantime, Zoe is perfecting her snot bubbles, and we're logging some serious play time with Animal Crossing and SimAnimals Africa. For what it's worth, she believes one of these games is significantly better than the other, and I agree. Two years old, and already a critic.

Sorry for the delay. More soon.

Uncharted 2: The little things


When the menu screen appears in Uncharted 2, composer Greg Edmonson greets you with "Nate's Theme," the signature song for this game and the original Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. At first hearing, they sound identical, but they're not. Listen carefully to the first few bars of each:

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune 

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Notice how Edmonson and arranger Alan Steinberger have moved the dholak drums to the front of the mix, making them more prominent in the score. They've also intensified the attack of the horns at their entrance in bar 5, pushing the melody harder than in the original.

Subtle changes, but they reflect the evolution of this game from its source material, and they indicate a more systematic approach by developer Naughty Dog to focus on a myriad of little things and get them right. They suggest an iterative approach to design that prioritized nuance and detail, succeeding a very good game with a truly great sequel.

Uncharted 2 is full of wonderful little things. Taken individually, they may seem insignificant, but considered collectively they convey Naughty Dog's commitment to big production values and small enhancements; spectacular action sequences and subtle visual/sonic moments. All combine to elevate the game and make the player feel part of something special.

This post is my attempt to catalog the many such little things I encountered in Uncharted 2. My list is by no means comprehensive, so feel free to supplement it if you like. I'm steering clear of spoilers, but if you prefer to know nothing about a game before playing it, you may wish to stop reading now.

  • After choosing to start or load a game, the menu disappears with an old-school screen wipe. A very little thing, yes. But it's a stylistic tip of the hat to the old serial adventure movie cloth from which the Uncharted games are cut.

  • Facial animations are truly expressive without descending into 'uncanny valley' territory. In particular, the space between the eyebrows (the 'Glabella' - hey, I learned a new word!) is key here. Pay attention to Drake's face the moment he realizes Chloe is holding a grenade. Games rarely succeed at communicating meaning with gestures and facial expressions, but Uncharted 2 manages it throughout the game.

  • The game's dialogue is full of sardonic humor and self-aware moments that fill in the spaces of the narrative, rather than 'explain' the characters or stockpile backstory. Compare voice-actor Nolan North's (the hardest-working man in the VO business) Drake to his work as the Prince in last year's Prince of Persia, where the dialogue bore almost no relationship to the world or the characters presented by the game. Favorite Uncharted 2 aside: "Great. The power's out and a girl's trapped. I swear to god, if there's a zombie around the next corner..."

  • The foley work in this game is astoundingly good. Wear headphones when you play this game, if you can. When Drake's partner is nearby, we hear his voice in the environment; but when he's far away we hear his voice in our right earpiece. Throughout the game, voices emerge from within the environments instead of sounding as if they were recorded separately. Little bits of sonic detail, like handling a book and putting it on a table during a conversation sound perfectly unified and convey a vivid sense of place. Footsteps, breathing, grunts, etc. are all delivered with extraordinary attention to organic detail.

  • I'll talk about the game's use of cutscenes later this week, but for now I'll just mention that the seamless way the game shifts from player control to cutscene and back is admirable; but Uncharted 2 has found a middle ground (triggered actions mixed with player control) that effectively blurs the line between the two. More on that later.

  • Drake's handwritten notebook, complete with scribbles, personal marginalia, and post-it notes is a terrific, funny, and useful touch.

  • Climb to the top of the Hotel Shangri-La and look around. Just do it. And take a dip in the pool.

  • The awkward scene in which Elena encounters Chloe is exactly the kind of nuanced situation video games botch or dumb-down. Not this time.

  • The game subtly reminds you that you're not the center of the universe. Distant traffic and gunfire can be heard at various places, suggesting continuing action beyond your view.

  • Best flashlights ever. Note how you alter the effect of Chloe's flashlight shining from behind you.

  • Chemistry. Actual chemistry - not the forced script-driven kind - between characters. The scene with Elena near the trainyard is a terrific example. She's smart not because the script tells us she's smart via 'clever' quips. She's smart because the game offers her room to think and behave intelligently.

  • The Tibetan village is a wonder. Tapestries, photos, silent interactions with villagers, children giggling at Drake. All completely unnecessary, but all invaluable to the storytelling and pacing, which I'll discuss next time.

I'll stop here and encourage you to play the game and discover other little things for yourself. As I noted in my previous post, Uncharted 2 isn't perfect. It goes to the well too many times with climbable street signs, extensible ladders, and circuit breaker hunts. Locked doors are too inevitable and function as predictable platforming segues. And those ubiquitous white gas tanks must have been on sale worldwide.

I'm also willing to concede that this game's full embrace of the roller-coaster globe-trotting intrigue/romance/adventure genre may not appeal to everyone. It's full of cutscenes; it's decidedly not open-world; and it's linear. Very linear. Sublime authored linearity, you might even say. ;-) More on that soon.

The failed hater


Every time I write enthusiastically about a PS3 game, someone inevitably asks, "But is it worth buying a PS3 for?" Metal Gear Solid 4 was supposed to the The Game, but it wasn't, and I'll spare you a reiteration of why. I loved MLB 09: The Show, but baseball games have a limited appeal.  Flower, Shatter, and the PixelJunk games rank among my favorites, but $499 (pre-price drop) for a $10 game? Little Big Planet hung the moon in my humble opinion, but it's proved to be a love-it or hate-it- affair for most gamers. 

Well, folks, The Game has arrived, and it's Uncharted 2: Drake's Fortune. I don't presume that everyone is in a position to plunk down $299 for game machine, even if "It Only Does Everything." Ugh. But if you're sitting on the fence waiting for a PS3 game to knock you off it, this is most certainly the one.

I held off playing Uncharted 2 until this past weekend because I've been busy with other games, but I haven't shielded myself from the wildly enthusiastic reviews and online chatter about the game. Say what you will about review aggregators (and there's plenty to say), holding fast to a score of 97 ups the ante for Metacritic's designation of "Universal acclaim." Nearly all my friends who've played it love the game, and they're certain I will too.

So I'll confess something here that I'm not proud of, and I wonder if other game critics and reviewers will cop to similar occasional thoughts: I sort of hoped I wouldn't like Uncharted 2. I sort of hoped it would disappoint me. Yeah. That's a terrible thing, I know, because it jeopardizes my credibility. Shouldn't we all be as coldly objective as possible when we sit down to play a new game?

But disliking Uncharted 2 would have given me an angle, a wide array of foils against which I could have positioned my distinctive view of the game. After all, who needs more enthusiastic verbiage spilled on Uncharted 2? What can I possibly add?

I've been thinking hard about that question, and I've decided to take a stab at answering it, hoping to bring something useful to the table. One post can't possibly do this game justice, so I'll offer three over the next few days in an effort to isolate specific elements of the game I find especially notable:

  1. The little things: an account of the many apparently minor production details that distinguish Uncharted 2 from most other games;
  2. On pace: an examination of pacing and its role in Uncharted 2's success (and occasional stumbles);
  3. "Active Cinematic Experience": an analysis of the game's blend of filmic and game languages - and why this authored, linear, non-emergent game full of cutscenes should not be seen as regressive game design.
I believe a game as ambitious as Uncharted 2 deserves careful scrutiny, and I hope you'll agree. It's not flawless by any means, but it represents the apogee (at least for now) of a particular strand of video game storytelling I find especially compelling. As always, your comments and observations are critical and most welcome. I hope you'll stay tuned.

When games look back


Many of you know I'm a baseball fan, and I've written here about my infatuation with table-top sims like Strat-O-Matic Baseball. These games taught me to love rule-bound systems that provoke strategic critical thinking, and they forever instilled in me an appreciation for the poetry of numbers. To a gawky pimple-faced teenager who felt like the least cool person on the planet, Strat-O was a frequent refuge, and those cards full of numbers provided hours of blissful escape.

American baseball's saddest chapter is the 80-year period when black players were not permitted to join major league teams, and its least-known chapter is the story of the Negro Leagues that emerged in response to segregation, featuring some of the greatest players to ever don a baseball uniform. Josh Gibson, whom many baseball historians consider the best player of all time, never played in the Major Leagues, despite being known as "the black Babe Ruth." Many journalists who saw both men play referred to Babe Ruth as "the white Josh Gibson."[1]

Josh Gibson may never receive his due, but now it's possible to include Gibson - and 103 of the greatest players in Negro League history - in the first baseball sim dedicated to the players Major League Baseball kept out: Strat-O-Matic Negro League All-Stars

Building the cards to accurately reflect the hitting, fielding, and pitching characteristics of each player required ten years of research and stat gathering. Each player's card reflects a combination of information derived from more than 3,000 Negro League boxcores and the most recently published Negro League statistics, much of which has been painstakingly compiled by Scott Simkus.

The results are player cards that reflect each player at the prime of his career in an average season, with credible lefty/righty splits and defensive numbers - information vital to SOM's creation of accurate cards. Fans of Strat-O games expect a sim experience based on reliable data that produces realistic results, and they have never shied from demanding additional data, such as ballpark dimensions, be reflected in the game. SOM has incorporated such data over the years, and if they say they've done everything they can to produce the most accurate Negro League player cards possible, I believe them.

Of course, the most exciting thing about the new Negro League cards is the door it opens to players who wish to virtually right MLB's 80-year wrong. I'm operating under no illusion of justice served here. But I am suggesting that something fascinating is now possible for players like me, curious about the impact players like Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell might have had on Major League Baseball. Was Johnny Bench a better catcher than Gibson? Let's sim a few seasons and see what we might learn.

The potential for games to reflect, bend, or even rewrite history suggests a powerful dimension to gaming that we don't often consider. Games like the Civilization series enable us to construct playful scenarios that engage us with endlessly fun gameplay . But Strat-O-Matic's latest effort adds a layer of speculative complexity to the simulation experience that I find fascinating and immensely appealing.

Strat-O-Matic releases the Negro League All-Star cards on November 1. I can't wait for mine to arrive.

Off the path

Path A funny thing happened on my way to the latest AAA game. I wandered off the path.

I'm sitting here with two games on the table next to me, both still in their shrink-wrap: Batman: Arkham Asylum and Uncharted 2. Batman has been out for two months; Uncharted 2 appeared a week ago. I've played neither, and here's the funny thing: it doesn't bother me.

Don't get me wrong. I'm genuinely excited about both of these games. The original Uncharted is one of my favorite games of this generation, and I can't wait to play its sequel. (Well, actually I guess I can.)  And so many of my friends and students have raved about Batman that I feel compelled to play it and see what all the fuss is about.

So every day I wake up and think "today I will finally play Batman," fully intending to wrestle with that shrink-wrap and go toe-to-toe with the Joker. And every day, I change my mind. I play Rock Band instead. Or Demon's Souls. Or A Boy and His Blob. Or just a wee bit more Machinarium. And okay, I'll admit it, I still load up Flower now and then and still love it as much as ever.

Today I committed myself to play Uncharted 2. Absolutely. No question about it. I arrived home, remembered the new LostWinds game came out yesterday, downloaded it and...yeah, no Uncharted tonight.

I think my drive to play games when they're released comes from a desire to be part of the big conversation. My Twitter feed suggests that nearly every game writer and designer I know is playing Uncharted 2 at the moment, and it's fun to feel part of such a collective. I also enjoy writing here about games like Little King's Story before most people have played them. It makes me feel useful, and I guess it's obvious that I enjoy beating the drum for games that don't receive the attention they deserve.

But lately I've begun to realize it's not really important for me to be first on the scene. Legions of other writers have previewed, sneak-peaked, and reviewed Batman: AA and Uncharted 2 - heck, we're already seeing post-mortems on these games - and I don't fancy myself a key figure in that wave. I'm sure I'll have something to say about Uncharted 2 because that game is right up my alley, but it probably won't look much like a review.

So I suppose this meandering fit of self-reflection is to say that I'm learning why I write about games. Being part of a never-ending conversation about the 'game of the moment' is fun, and I enjoy mixing it up with the insatiable roving crowd. But ultimately, it's not very satisfying. We eat a game up in a few days, then we spit it out and order up the next entree.

The other day I found myself micro-reviewing Brutal Legend on Twitter, issuing 140-character soundbytes that purported to encapsulate a 10-hour game dozens of people spent years making. It all happened before I realized what I was doing, and I soon regretted it. Sometimes the people who seem to care most about games are the very ones to most brashly commodify them. In this case, we were ankle-deep in instant analysis on the day of the game's release, before most people even had a chance to play it. I've decided not to do that anymore.

No doubt about it. I'll play Uncharted 2 tomorrow.

Easy does it


Recently, I've sung the praises of meaningful difficulty in games, pointing at Demon's Souls as an example of developers bucking the trend toward "casualization" in game design. Today, I'll contradict myself.

I never played the original A Boy and His Blob (NES 1989). Maybe I was too occupied with DuckTales and Tecmo Bowl at the time (or buried in grad school) to notice when it appeared. So when I saw the fabulous screenshots and trailers for the new Wii version, I thought I should give it a look before diving into the new version. And so I did. Ouch.

The original A Boy and His Blob was a terrific idea for a game, but playing it reminds me how punishing many of those old games could be, and often needlessly so. Demanding sidescrollers like Contra or the Mario games tested us by presenting difficult challenges and teaching us how to succeed via our failures. Applied conditions like timers or scarce resources took a backseat to the gameplay itself. The challenge was largely mechanical, and mastering the system felt great because it felt earned

The NES A Boy and His Blob focuses on puzzle-solving (and some of its puzzles are serious head-scratchers), and it ramps up the difficulty by applying a layer of restrictive elements that stand in your way: limited lives, no saves or continues, limited jellybeans, and frequent precision platforming. My experience was frustrating because I often felt like I was fighting the game - tossing a jellybean at just the right pixel location; unable to experiment because I run out of jellybeans - and battling the controls. The boy doesn't stop moving when you stop running. His momentum slides him forward in a way that seems to contradict the game's insistence on precision.

The new Wii version clears out this underbrush and gives the player a much stronger sense of agency. Its marvelous art direction accentuates a feeling that this world must be explored, and you have just the tools you need for the job. No lives, no continues, unlimited jellybeans, and frequent checkpoints. A dumbed-down remake? No. A game that rearranges its priorities; enhancing the fun, but still offering a stiff challenge.

This new version of A Boy and His Blob is less a remake than a re-imagining. Visually, its hand-drawn backgrounds and animations, special parallax effects, and impressive lighting establish a game world that's utterly distinct from the original. But more importantly, the game relies on these luscious environments as the central throughline for its gameplay. This A Boy and His Blob is an environmental puzzle game with platforming elements that support and add variety, rather than arbitrary obstacles, to its gameplay.

I should mention that while navigating the game has gotten easier, the new version includes more enemies (and some terrific bosses) plus more environmental challenges. In this regard, the Wii version adds difficulty but removes frustration. Add it all up, and this new A Boy and His Blob represents a thorough reconceptualization of is source material. Other well-received games are vying for your attention at the moment, but I hope you won't overlook this one. I think you'll enjoy it...even if it is "easy."

Hand-drawn nirvana


Funny how the pendulum swings. A couple of years ago many of us were waxing poetic about the lovely hand-drawn visuals of Odin Sphere, describing it as a visual throwback to games like Beneath a Steel Sky (with Dave Gibbons' remarkable backgrounds) and the hand-drawn animations of the original Broken Sword games. Last year, World of Goo and Braid further demonstrated how a carefully crafted art style can convey a signature visual aesthetic.

Now it appears the hand-drawn floodgates have opened, and we're seeing a mini-renaissance of games with a singular, decidedly non-CG look and feel. Aside from demonstrating the continuing viability of 2D games, these titles suggest that hand-crafted visual artistry is alive and thriving in modern video game design.

Here's a list of my favorites. I'm not suggesting these games are perfect (although I am crazy for A Boy and His Blob at the moment). I chose them because I believe their visual designs do an especially effective job of serving and communicating the spirit of these games. I also think they're beautiful, each in its own way, and that's no small thing. Click on each image for a larger view.


A Boy and His Blob (Wii)
Developer: WayForward
Publisher: Majesco Games
Original designer (NES): David Crane


Machinarium (PC, Mac)
Developer/Publisher: Amanita Design
Distributor: Valve (Steam)
Designer: Jakub Dvorsky


Muramasa: The Demon Blade (Wii)
Developer: Vanillaware
Publisher (NA): Ignition Entertainment
Designers: Yoshifumi Hashimoto (producer), George Kamitani (director)


Trine (PC, PS3)
Developer: Frozenbyte
Publisher: SouthPeak Interactive
Designer: Lauri Hyvärinen


Blueberry Garden (PC)
Publisher: Valve (Steam)
Designer: Erik Svedäng


Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box (DS)
Developer/Publisher: Level-5
Designers: Akihiro Hino (producer), Tatsuya Shinkai (director)


Scribblenauts (DS)
Developer: 5th Cell
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
Designers: Jeremiah Slaczka, Marius Fahlbusch


Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story (DS) **
Developer: AlphaDream
Publisher: Nintendo
Designer: Hiroyuki Kubota (director)

I obviously can't play every game (and I've only just begun Machinarium), so if I've omitted a recent game that deserves to be on this list, please let me know.

**Mario & Luigi: BIS has some of the best-looking 2D sprites and most funkadelic backgrounds I've ever seen, but I can't say for sure if they're hand-drawn or not. I recommend this article by Jeremy Parish for a more educated rumination on the subject.

Garnett glee


If you listen to video game podcasts, chances are you've heard Garnett Lee's voice in your ear. He's been at it longer than nearly all of us, dating back to the deliciously offbeat 1UP Show, which began an eon ago in 2005. Taking over as host of 1UP's flagship podcast in 2006, he began a 205-episode trek (164 1UP Yours and 41 Listen Up shows) that served as a weekly dose of entertaining - sometime raucous and occasionally inebriated - conversation about games.

Steering through a thicket of personnel departures, layoffs, and the Ziff Davis / Hearst / UGO corporate shuffle, Garnett was the steady hand that held the show together and maintained a semblance of order within each episode. An apparently ego-free host, he was often the butt of jokes and the target of his own self-derision, but one vital thing about Garnett Lee shined through every show. The man loves games, and his passion and joy playing them have never diminished. Pull Garnett's string on a racing game, then sit back and watch him fly. It's a beautiful thing.

I suppose some readers may find my affection and admiration for Garnett Lee a little surprising. My own modest podcast shares little in common with the 1UP shows, and I go about my business here very differently than the gang of journos at the 1UP Network. I'm guessing we target different audiences, but maybe not. I don't know.

But I've always felt a certain kinship with Garnett. We're both guys in our 40s who often find ourselves locked in vigorous and thoughtful conversation with smart-ass kids half our age. We both recall the arcade era as a teenage memory, a social part of our lives growing up in rural America.

But more than anything else, we've both watched games grow up, and we just can't wipe that stupid grin off our faces. By the time you hit 40, you're either a cynical bastard or a hopeless idealist. When you listen to Garnett gleefully describing the 5 minutes he spent playing a game at E3, and the very real possibility that this game could be AWESOME, you know the path he's chosen.

Garnett is leaving 1UP to join GameFly as its editorial director for media properties. He will also oversee GameFly's recently acquired sites, including Shacknews. I wish him all the best, and I thank him for his genial companionship through all the miles in my car between here and everywhere. He says he'll start a new podcast, and that makes me happy. I'll keep listening.

Thank you sir, may I have another?


The word on Demon's Souls is that it's HARD. It's a lot of other things too, such as fabulous fun with genius level design and balanced, deeply satisfying action-RPG gameplay. But the main thing you've probably heard about the game is that it's a punishing old-school experience.

I won't argue the point, even though I can think of other games like Vagrant Story and Shiren the Wanderer (one an RPG, the other a rogue-like) that are tougher nuts to crack. In today's save-anywhere, dynamic help system climate, the arrival of Demon's Souls ("Are you tough enough to face the most brutally challenging action RPG?") appears to function as a declaration of principles.

If a game wears its difficulty on its sleeve, it seems to me we ought to examine how that difficulty serves the game. In other words, if a game goes out of its way to test a player and punish him severely for failure, it's worth asking why. Is it tough for toughness' sake (e.g. last year's Mega Man 9), or is there more to it than that? Can a game's difficulty, if properly designed and implemented, be meaningful?

One early moment in Demon's Souls clearly conveys the game's ethos. After completing a short tutorial sequence and defeating a few lumbering enemies, you suddenly encounter an enormous beast who proceeds to kill you in a single blow. You're sent to the Nexus, where you learn that life and death in Boletaria are dual modes of existence, and you have a role to play in each. Death means clawing your way back to life by reclaiming your soul; life means desperately trying to stay there. Either way, the game imparts an imperative. Death is brutal (you lose all the souls you've collected, and your health bar is reduced), but in death you still have a job to do. And that job is insanely addictive.

Difficulty feels meaningful if it leads to something valuable. Demon's Souls' level design encourages the player's steady progress (punctuated by failure after failure) with shortcuts, secret passages, and the occasional hidden weapons dealer. I can't think of a game I've played that makes such discoveries feel more deliciously rewarding. When you finally succeed in hacking your way through a winding staircase full of enemies, you may come across a handy weapon or health drop, but the environment itself functions as the best compensation.

Difficulty feels meaningful if learning leads to progress. In this regard, Demon's Souls is truly the school of hard knocks, and it brilliantly stitches together pedagogies from three different genres: navigating complex environments (Dungeon crawler); managing resources, upgrades, spells, etc. (RPG) and defeating large numbers of enemies (Beat 'em up). Each must be mastered, and none is the stepchild of the other. Melee and ranged combat both feel viscerally satisfying; the RPG elements are deep and richly customizable; and 20+ hours into the game, I continue to return to environments I've cleared, simply for the joy of being there. I own this place now, and I earned it.

Finally, difficulty feels meaningful if failure feels just. Demon's Souls can be brutal, but the target of my frustration is nearly always myself. Have you ever noted what you exclaim when you fail in a video game? When I die in a game like Ikaruga, I scream at the screen and hurl my controller in frustration. But when I die at the hands of an enemy, or accidentally fall off the edge of a cliff in Demon's Souls..."Agh!!! I'm such an IDIOT!!!" I've discovered that if I'm patient and avoid boxing outside my weight, this game will teach me what I must do to succeed, and I will learn through my failures. Many, many failures.

Demon's Souls may be one of the finest games I've ever played. I'm not certain yet. Too much I haven't yet seen or done. But one thing seems clear. This game's difficulty is in service of something core to its mission. Demon's Souls is hard because the world it presents and the experience it offers are conveyed through trial and tribulation, discovery and learning. This game will hand you your head, and you will like it.

Hot for teacher


I've long been interested in how games teach us to play. Maybe it's the educator in me, always on the look out for ideas I can steal borrow for the classroom. Teachers and game designers share an abiding appreciation of a simple fact: humans crave learning. Whatever we may say about the ludic/narrative dimension of games, part of the itch that games scratch for us is an urge to understand how things work.

The best games communicate their systems to us in ways that feel satisfying, and the quality of this dialogue between player and game often determines the success or failure of the game. When Alyx introduces Dog to Gordon in Half-Life 2, the player learns how to use the gravity gun, a vital skill required by the game, by playing fetch with Dog.

Embedded in this game-within-a-game tutorial - and without resorting to an expositional cutscene - is an interaction with Alyx's wherein her affectionate personality emerges. We see evidence of her remarkable engineering skills, and we discover the perilous life she's led and the lengths to which her father has gone to protect her and provide her with companionship. And we learn how to use the gravity gun by playing with it.

I mention this because I've been playing Demon's Souls like a man possessed for the last few days, and I'm intrigued by how it functions as a teacher. In this case, the designers have built a pedagogical system into the game that ingeniously melds single-player discovery and multiplayer cooperative problem-solving. As I noted a few days ago, this game was designed to be HARD, so teaching the player how to meet its challenges becomes a design imperative in Demon's Souls.

In this regard, Demon's Souls is like a gifted and promising first-year teacher, full of terrific ideas and big ambitions - but a little rough around the edges. You can't help feeling inspired by such a dazzling upstart, even when she forgets some of the basics.

Demon's Souls manages to strike just the right balance between failure-as-frustration and failure-as-tutelage. Dying results in harsh punishment (though not as harsh as, say, a rogue-like), but the impulse to try just one more time never seems to diminish because failure feels like your fault. You know you can get past that guard. You just haven't found the right strategy yet. When fatigue begins to stand in your way, you're playing a game with a firm grip.

Of course, it's possible you're simply not ready to fight that guard, and here's where Demon's Souls brilliantly identifies a teaching moment. Other players can leave notes in the environment to help you. Advice like "Don't bother until you're level 20" or "Just run and don't stop" can get you past a tough spot - or it can function as another layer of challenge. "Oh, really?" you think to yourself, "Well, we'll see about that." The game also offers more familiar multiplayer co-op in the form of summoning helpers for especially difficult areas.

And here's where the first-year teacher shows signs of inexperience. Demon's Souls sometimes fails to properly indicate or explain how its systems work. A visit to the official wiki or a plaintive tweet can get you over the hump, but going outside the game for such assistance contradicts the self-contained in-game co-op (hey, a hyphenated trifecta!) design goal Demon's Souls establishes for itself. The inventory interface is cumbersome and difficult to decipher, and it's often hard to tell which weapons are true upgrades, what potions do and when to use them, etc.

Apparently the designers assumed this course has prerequisites, and prior experience with RPGs will certainly give the player a leg-up. But as a gamer with plenty of RPG miles on my tires, I wish Demon's Souls did a better job explaining its core mechanics and signaling condition changes. As Jesper Juul observed in Half-Real, "To play a game is to interact with its Game State," and Demon's Souls makes this harder than it should be, with no apparent payoff. Most of the time, difficulty in Demon's Souls is meaningful difficulty, but that's fodder for another post. :-)

Don't let my quibbles with this game's pedagogy trouble you too much. Demon's Souls is one of the best - and easily the most addictive - games I've played this year. So, yeah. I'm hot for teacher. If you're thinking of squealing to my wife, don't bother. She already knows about it. ;-)