Previous month:
December 2009
Next month:
February 2010

January 2010

Wrap it up


Sometimes video games embarrass me. I get an uneasy feeling that I'm a grown man lurking around the "Young Readers" section of a bookstore. I don't belong there. Those books aren't meant for me. But I consume them because the other shelves in the store are barren.

Oddly, I don't get that feeling playing Animal Crossing or Paper Mario. It hits me when I play a 'mature' game like Gears of War or Modern Warfare 2. I endure the lurching stabs at profundity and empty ruminations on the futility of war - the stuff adolescent teens mistake for insight - hoping they will only briefly interrupt the shooting and cover system that keeps me playing.

If you're like me, you've probably made similar accommodations for countless games over the years. We roll our eyes and plunge ahead, hopeful that whatever save-humanity mission we're assigned this time will be a minor (and possibly skipable) distraction; a disposable wrapper around the real gaming goodness inside.

Lots of talented designers are working hard to eliminate that wrapper. They want to integrate game/story/visuals/controls and leverage the power of games to reposition the player as creator and interpreter of his own experience. It's hard to find the seams in Fallout 3 because all of its pieces fit so tightly together.

Goichi Suda sees things differently. Suda loves the wrapper. He's not interested in eliminating it, nor does he ask us to accommodate it. Suda wants to decorate that wrapper, hang lights on it, set it to music - and then blow it to smithereens in a bloodbath finale.

The wrapper is Suda's cocky 8-bit soft-core sociopath Otaku graffiti, artfully spattered all over his bloody action-brawler, No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle. It evokes and exalts the same adolescent kid most games make me feel embarrassed to acknowledge. Gears of War is pitched at the 15-year-old who thinks he's playing an adult game; No More Heroes targets the adult who's got a hormone-addled 15-year-old lurking inside, farting at a funeral.

Travis Touchdown (even his name sounds like a kid made him up) is 42-year-old Suda's adolescent heterosexual male fantasy hero: a lanky, contemptuous, self-absorbed assassin with a permanent air of disinterested cool. Travis is wrapped in Suda. He plays the NES-era video games Suda played when he was Travis' age; he wears the same clothes; he collects Lucha Libre masks.

Travis is our conduit to Suda, and he's also our avatar. So the player's experience in NMH2 is heavily mediated by Suda's hyper-stylized vision of Santa Destroy, wrapped around a game about a assassin drawn into a game designed to entertain a game-obsessed audience. All held together (wrapped if you will) by a core design that repeatedly delivers high-voltage blasts of naughty, unrestrained, berserk catharsis - the very stuff your inner-adolescent craves.

Miles of style add up to substance in No More Heroes 2, and in my next post I'll try to explain how and why. In the meantime, I strongly encourage you to get your hands on this game. Your inner-adolescent will thank you.

The early exclusive


A modest little indie game called Mass Effect 2 appears tomorrow. You may have heard about it. It's made by an upstart Canadian studio called Bioware, best known for its previous sci-fi opus, Shattered Steel. If Bioware can manage to get the word out about this new game, I have a feeling it may do alright sales-wise. Thousands of copies sold is not outside the realm of possibility. 

But they'll need help to move that many copies, and I'm pleased to report that several outlets are jumping on board with effusive praise and hyperbole. Consensus seems to be forming around two main points: 1) The game is a vast improvement on the the original; 2) It elevates the RPG genre to as-yet-unseen heights.

  • Pretty much everything that anybody took even the slightest issue with in Mass Effect 1 has been axed or rebuilt entirely. -IGN

  • An astonishing RPG...daring, shocking and often awe-inspiring in its use of choice. This is the future of storytelling in videogames. -X360 Magazine

  • A gorgeous experience and a staggering achievement. ... [Characters] are unique. They are individual. They are a pleasure to interact with on every conceivable level. [One of the] top five games of all time. BioWare, we love you. -NowGamer

  • When you've finally completed every last side quest...sadness sets in - until you remember there's at least one more Mass Effect coming. -Official Xbox Magazine

Maybe Mass Effect 2 is exactly the outstanding game these sources claim it to be. I hope so. I'm excited to play it. 

But there's a problem here, and it has to do with print and online outlets granted 'exclusive' rights to publish their reviews before anyone else. Should we be troubled by the fact that these handful of privileged sources have assigned the game a collective average of 97? Does it matter that early exclusive reviews nearly always skew higher than those appearing later? 

When media outlets make deals with publishers to be first out of the shoot, their credibility is instantly compromised. And, oddly, they appear to acknowledge this reality even as they ignore it:

And as if our own misgivings over the revelation of plot points were not enough to throttle the very existence out of this very review, EA has also included a handy list of specifics we’re not even allowed to mention, let alone put into any kind of narrative context. Major characters, enemies, squad members, the list goes on. Instead then, we’ll tell you what we can, and perhaps when you witness for yourself the limits of our remit, you will forgive us this somewhat lethargic preamble. (from NowGamer's review of Mass Effect 2)

I don't mean to pick on NowGamer. I've read and enjoyed their stuff since they set up shop. But when you lead your review with "NowGamer is proud to present the UK's first review of BioWare's epic sci-fi RPG," I can't help questioning why a review outlet claiming to be 'reliable and impartial' should express pride at being first? Are we to assume striking a deal with a publisher - compromised by restrictions imposed by that publisher - is a praiseworthy act?

I'm not operating under any illusions here. I'm aware that game devs and publishers need to generate awareness and excitement for their products, and media outlets were making deals for exclusive coverage long before video games existed. But it seems to me there's a significant difference between an exclusive interview or preview and a final review. Magazine and online editors should refuse them as a matter of principle.

Got any openings?


A few days ago I wrote about the first hour of Bioshock and its shrewd method of establishing a world and delivering exposition. The game may unravel a bit later on, but it does a remarkably effective job of setting its hook in the player during the early stages of the journey through Rapture. 

This prompted a discussion with several of my students about games and their capacity to grab us or leave us cold. Naturally, we began tossing around titles of games with great openings. 

One student cited Halo's intro sequence as especially magnetic, drawing him into a fight. Another mentioned the G-Man's "Rise and shine, Mr. Freeman," and stepping off the train in Half-Life 2's City 17 with no clear objective or destination. One student claimed that Peggle's opening levels possess a mysterious power to lure players, game vets and noobs alike, into its mad can't-stop-playing vortex.

I thought it might be fun to expand the conversation here by including your 2 cents on the question. Can you think of a game you've played that contains an especially effective opening or beginning? If so, why do you think it work so well?

Like my Peggle-addled student, you needn't limit yourself to narrative titles. All games face the same imperative to hook players early on, lest they grow bored or frustrated and move on to the next time-wasting, brain-shrinking, culture-in-decline activity.

So, what do you say? Got any openings?

Deliberately vague


Pop Quiz: Name The Game!

  • Clue 1: It's one of the most enduring video game series of all time.
  • Clue 2: More than 60 iterations have been released since 1994
  • Clue 3: Versions of the game have appeared on nearly every major post-NES gaming system, including SNES, PC, N64, PS1, PS2, Saturn, Dreamcast, Gamecube, Wii, DS, PSP, iPhone, and a card game version.
  • Clue 4: It features big-head characters with no mouths, ears, noses, or legs.

If you guessed Jikkyō Powerful Pro Yakyū (lit. "Live Powerful Pro Baseball"), you win. You peeked at the picture, didn't you?

It's become fashionable for the western games media to roll its collective eyes at the Japanese market and its endless appetite for cute games we wouldn't be caught dead playing. Those silly Japanese consumers are gullible too, mindlessly gobbling up the latest Tales of Super-Robot-Pokémon-Yu-Gi-Oh-Gundam tossed at them by an industry mired in expired ideas. So sad.

If we let go of the arrogance that often clouds our perceptions of Japanese games, a certain patronizing attitude that allows easy dismissal of games that appear childish or cartoony, we may occasionally discover a game that surprises us with its depth and sophistication - a game that employs visual abstraction as a deliberate design ideal, rather than a concession. Power Pros Baseball, as it's known outside of Japan, is such a game.

Why play a sports game that goes out of its way, not only to avoid visual verisimilitude, but defeat it? If graphics hold no interest, why not just play a text sim like the terrific Out of the Park Baseball? In other words, why would an adult gamer (and self-confessed baseball nut) find a big-headed chibi version of Albert Pujols preferable, even superior, to a version that strives to capture his likeness?

Two reasons. One is simple, and the other requires more explanation.

The simple answer is that Power Pros Baseball is an incredibly deep and feature-rich game of baseball. Its pick-up-and-play controls connect to a complex and highly-configurable simulation that incorporates deep, stat-driven season and franchise modes; the best create-a-player system I've seen; and two separate RPG modes, each a blast to play. 

So, Power Pros Baseball is a fun, insanely detailed game that succeeds best where it matters most: under the hood. That's the simple part. 

Trickier to explain is why, 15 years after their first appearance on the SNES, the original cartoony player designs still serve the game so beautifully. Tricky, because we're about to take a tumble with aesthetics, and that's where things get a little, well, abstract.

With sheepish nods to Picasso and Pollock, I'm hardly the first to suggest that abstraction can reveal a more truthful truth than realism. Despite their limited features, Power Pros' character models easily convey the players they're meant to depict, and they do so far more expressively than their rubber-faced photographic counterparts in games like MLB 2K9

Massive-polygon-count Albert may appear more human-like than big-head Albert, but I would hardly call his next-gen incarnation more 'believable.' I've seen Pujols play in-person several times, and Power Pros' smiling, playful, glowering, angry mini-Albert comes much closer to the truth of the man than the animation-looped mo-capped version, in my view. 

If we limit our scope to batting stances and swing mechanics, MLB 2K9 has it all over Power Pros. Except when it doesn't. The problem with verisimilitude is its insistence on perfection. Every little inconsistency is a failure. Every blip in the fielding animation a lie. Power Pros' tight controls and smooth animations are meant to enable the player playing the game, not re-enact a particular MLB player's quirks. In this way, Power Pros tells a more useful truth about the game of baseball than MLB 2K9.

Power Pros embraces a visual aesthetic that communicates fun. And, wait a minute, aren't these games supposed to be fun? I've been a devoted console baseball player since RBI Baseball on the NES, and if there's one thing I can say with certainty about the evolution of the genre, it's that realism delivered through graphical muscle has not, in fact, made playing baseball sims more fun. Quite the contrary, actually.

I'm not here to suggest designers stop building sports sims that strive for high degrees of visual realism. MLB 09: The Show was one of my favorite games last year - I love the grass and the sunlight and the sounds of the crowd it conveys. We're getting there. I think. Maybe.

I'm simply suggesting that a fair assessment of the latest Power Pros game will show an equally (but differently) compelling baseball simulation with deeper stats, more customization, more modes of play, and a control system free of the convolution that's overtaken most console sports games. Plus, it's got big-head players with no legs. And that's a good thing.

Build me a world

A stage setting is not a background; it is an environment. Players act in a setting, not against it. We say, in the audience, when we look at what the designer has made, before anyone on the stage has time to move or speak, "Aha, I see! It's going to be like that!" 
--Robert Edmond Jones, "The Dramatic Imagination"

Robert_Edmond_JonesBuilding a world isn't easy. The novelist, the playwright, the filmmaker - all face the same daunting task. Establish a place; communicate a style; commence your story; hook your audience. 

And the clock is ticking. You have roughly 10 minutes. If you haven't conveyed a world that intrigues us by then, you've probably lost your chance.

Narrative video games present no less a challenge. In some ways, the stakes there are even higher. Not only must the world intrigue me, but I must also feel compelled to occupy and explore it...and I've plunked down $60 for the privilege. 

Bioshock succeeds in this regard better than any game I can think of. Revisiting Rapture with the Vintage Game Club has brought into focus how effectively this game establishes a world chock-full of detail, expressiveness, and storytelling punch. As virtual world-building, Bioshock offers some valuable lessons on how to do it right.

Spoilers ahead.

The first hour of Bioshock is essentially a layered set of introductions to the world of Rapture and the game itself. Every narrative game must manage this balancing act of storytelling and teaching, but Bioshock excels by thrusting the player into a series of events and locales loaded with ambience and backstory, trusting the player to learn by exploring. 

The banners, the plaques, the discarded artifacts, the architecture that surrounds me - all converge as individual pieces of a great story puzzle you will piece together. As my friend Roger Travis has suggested, the player behaves similarly to Oedipus in this regard: a well-meaning detective who ultimately tracks down himself.

When I emerge from the water gasping for air, the game offers no HUD and no instructions. I'm on my own. When I reach land and look over my shoulder, I watch the plane slowly disappear into the sea. The prediction delivered to me before the crash, "Son, you're special. You were born to do great things" will be tested now.

I notice an open door, and I enter. As Justin Keverne noted on the VGC forum, "You are alone, and ominously, you are expected." The first thing to grab my attention is a giant red banner that reads: "No gods or kings, only man." Bioshock's stark declaration of principles, accompanied by the jaunty strains of "Beyond the Sea." A tonal collision that will be repeated many times in a variety of contexts. 

Proceeding on, visual artifacts fill my head with impressions of this place. Plaques with quotes from Ryan; gold seals commemorating Art, Industry, and Science. I enter into darkness, but doing so triggers lights that flash on as if to welcome me. The place is begging me to explore it, and so I do. It feels worth doing.

A slide show narrated by Ryan continues the ideological indoctrination, but the scratchy audiovisuals and the deserted environment make everything feel disjointed. Something is terribly wrong here. I can see it and feel it, even though the game has yet to offer much beyond clues.

My capsule rises, and Ryan proclaims "I chose Rapture!" followed by the big reveal: a spectacular view of an underwater city surrounded by glowing neon. This is surely one of the greatest opening sequences in all of video games. As my capsule docks (accompanied by more visual propaganda ""All good things of this earth flow to the city"), I'm reminded of my arrival on the train at the beginning of Half-Life 2.

Helplessly watching a man being killed through a glass and hoping this creature won't notice me, the dark suspicions planted in my mind are confirmed. Now Bioshock's world-building turns to aftermath, and everything around me tells a story. 

Discarded protest signs: "Ryan doesn't own us!" and "Rapture is Dead" suggest I'm entering the ruins of a place gone horribly wrong. Abandoned drinks, cigarettes, purses. People left here in a hurry, or were killed in a hurry. More tonal collisions: a huge colorful painting hangs on the wall - a Diego Rivera-esque mural depicting happy smiling mother, worker, and child. It's a failed utopia. Not exactly virgin territory for sci-fi horror, but fertile storytelling territory nonetheless.

The eerie sounds of the place convey even more dreadful impressions. Sloshing water, odd singing in the distance, groaning metal - all terribly ominous and persistent. This place is about to blow, and I need to get out of here.

My first view of a Big Daddy and Little Sister comes in a half-conscious state lying on the floor, my blurred POV view cockeyed. It's like I'm not sure I'm seeing what I'm seeing. Atlas is talking to me, but I'm only half-hearing him. Sensory overload. Keep moving. 

I get up and move forward, and I'm met with a splicer screaming "I'm not a bad person! I'm not a bad person!" The next one screams "I can control myself! I can!" I realize the game is sending me a variety of messages that all suggest one thing: control is the issue here. It's underneath everything. Gaining control, maintaining control, losing control. I've felt it from the moment I walked in.

The shadow of a woman comforting her baby. A married couple's quarrel. The audio diary of a lonely woman named Diane McClintock. All of it lures me in and compels me to act, piecing together what happened here and sometimes killing to survive. 

The audio diaries are exceptionally well-delivered. These would be lazy narrative shortcuts if they were the primary means of delivering story, but they're only one channel. They add texture and detail. Most of what I've learned so far was conveyed through my own exploration and by paying attention to my surroundings.

One hour into the game, I spot a little girl stabbing a corpse with a syringe like it's a toy. The game makes me feel like I'm spying on her. I'm tempted to intervene, but I know the game isn't ready for me to do that yet. This creates an interesting tension between what I want to do and what the game wants me to do. And it's at this moment that I realize I've awakened from the game's narrative spell. I've bumped into a limit, as it were, and I'm briefly derailed. 

Soon enough, I'll be back on board, eager for what's to come. But I know that nothing I'll see or do is likely to surpass that first mesmerizing, world-building hour. It's the game's most notable accomplishment, in my view, and it's why Rapture itself remains Bioshock's greatest achievement.

A good place to die


I'm delighted to report that I'm writing a new monthly column for GameSetWatch called "Abbott's Habit," and I hope you'll check it out. My first piece contrasts the game worlds of Demon's Souls and Assassin's Creed II. Sometimes artist-conceived environments can be more effective than those drawn from real life, and I try to explain why these two games illustrate that point.

Here's a snippet:

Imaginative artist-conceived game worlds can draw players in and entice them to explore the unknown, accentuating discovery of a landscape unbound by the limits of verisimilitude. Demon's Souls' crumbling derelict world visually reinforces the sense of despair and moral decay that defines the player's experience in Boletaria. The world itself feels alive and unfixed, a hostile force to overcome. 

Assassin's Creed II seems to want to deliver an open-world experience to the player, but for the most part that world is look, but don't touch. The game offers two awkwardly implemented city tours (the first carrying a box through Florence for Leonardo Da Vinci; the second a walking tour of Venice courtesy of Alvise da Vilandino), but these introductions serve little meaningful purpose since the only real rewards for exploring are locating hidden chests, feathers, glyphs, and other collection-oriented gameplay add-ons. Despite their extraordinary visual presentation, these great Italian cities usually function as little more than labyrinths for acrobatic chase sequences.

You can read the entire article here. Many thanks to editor Simon Carless for the opportunity to write for a site I've long admired.

The wrong game

Somewhere between its preview at E3 last June and its release last month, a subtle change was made to the warning screen that appears at the beginning of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.

Here's the original, from a developer walkthrough shown at Konami's E3 press conference:


And here's the screen that appears in the released version of the game:


As writing goes, the original works better than the revision. It's punchier, and it grabs the reader more boldly than the grammatically improved version. If I had my way, I'd keep the red background and fonts from the revision and replace its text with the original.

Why the sudden obsession with an opening screen? Because it's a metaphor for something more pervasive about this game and its curious construction. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories aspires to immerse its player in a nightmarish experience. It means to do so by leveraging the interactive mechanics of the hardware it relies on to deliver that experience. And it very nearly succeeds. 

But clinging to genre tropes and gameplay formulas - in other words, making the game less messy, more structured and familiar - separates the game from its defining vision and diminishes what could have been a deeply evocative first-person experience. 

Shattered Memories is a game with too much "game." Just when it begins to gather momentum, plunging the player into an eerily deserted environment full of shadows and ghostly residue from painful events, suddenly you find yourself stuck in a room forced to solve a gumball machine puzzle. Or you enter an abandoned card shop, piecing together clues that suggest your lost daughter may have been here, when you realize the door has locked, and you must decipher clues inside greeting cards to extract a key code to get out.

The jarring incongruity between the disturbing experience Shattered Memories can be, and the puzzle-solving Silent Hill game its developer insists it must be, repeatedly destoys a state of mind that few games induce. When you shine your flashlight on a child's swing and catch a glimpse of a ghostly figure there seeming to beckon you forward; when you slowly approach and are abruptly accosted by a sharp noise and flash of light, followed by a child's voice emanating from the cellphone in your hand, you may forget you're playing a video game. Soon enough, unfortunately, the game will remind you.

And that's a real shame, because this is the first game I've played which fully exploits that white thing with the strap we normally call a Wiimote. In Shattered Memories it functions as a flashlight (your primary means of navigating most of the game's envronments), cellphone, camera, notebook, and GPS. Each of these tools are smartly integrated into the game as helpful and necessary devices, rather than gimmicky tricks for the Wiimote.

I'm not suggesting Shattered Memories shouldn't function as a game. The nightmare sequences, which essentially work like survival missions requiring you to flee an assortment of demons until Harry Mason wakes up, integrate a form of gameplay that deepen and reinforce the narrative. Unlike hunting down yet another key (usually "hidden" in plain sight), these ludic sequences plug directly into Harry's desperate need to escape a nightmare of his own making. 

As a "re-imagined Silent HIll," I wish Shattered Memories had further departed from the Silent Hill formula by channeling its gameplay into the activities this version enables so remarkably well. It should have trusted the player to explore its loaded environments and piece together what happened unimpeded by arbitrary puzzles that feel forced and uninspired.

Clearly, many Silent Hill fans enjoy puzzles, and one can argue they're a signature part of the Silent Hill franchise. But this game repositions Harry as a man with no weapons or ability to fight, and it redefines the player's relationship to the game's environments. We often toss around the word "immersive" when we discuss video games, but few games are built to go there as well as this one. It's too bad the re-imagining left some things off the table.

Shattered Memories could have been a game that charged the player to find his own way, grappling with the puzzling problems of life, instead of arranging gumballs by their colors. Given the aspirations of its creators and the great possibilities it conveys, Shattered Memories sadly feels like the wrong game.

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Favorites of '09 pt.4

Singin in rain This edition of the Brainy Gamer Podcast features a holiday extravaganza of Gamers Confab goodness: a 4-volume confection featuring a gaggle of bloggers, journalists, and designers all discussing our favorite games of 2009.

This final segment includes Matthew Gallant from The Quixotic Engineer; Alex Raymond from The Border House; and Denis Farr from Gay Gamer and Vorpal Bunny Ranch. (Guests pictured on right.)

  • Download the podcast directly here.

  • Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.
  • Subscribe to the podcast feed here.

  • Listen to any episode of the podcast directly from this page by clicking the yellow "Listen Now" button on the right.

Show links:

Clicking on the links below will ruin the surprise, but if you feel you must...

Rapture reconsidered


Bioshock is one of the defining games of its generation. In preparation for the release of its sequel on Feb. 9, the Vintage Game Club is playing through the original. If you'd like to revisit Rapture (or if you're visiting for the first time), you're welcome to join us as we play and discuss the game together.

Then, beginning on Feb. 9, we'll play Bioshock 2 together.

When Bioshock 2 appears, we'll open a new forum to offer VGCers a place to continue the discussion, informed, we hope, by our playthrough of the original.

In case you're not familiar with the VGC, it's for people who may have missed some of the classic titles gamers often refer to. It's also for people who enjoy revisiting older games they've enjoyed in the past. Anyone who loves playing and discussing games is welcome to join in.

As I've mentioned before, we use the term "vintage" purposely because its primary definition: "characterized by excellence, maturity, and enduring appeal" strikes us as just the right way to describe the games we play together. As far as we're concerned a vintage game can be 20 years old or 2 years old. For our purposes, it doesn't really matter.

We all have busy lives, so the VGC is a no-pressure environment. If you decide to start a game with us, but can't continue it, or if you post a comment but can't return to follow up, no big deal. The club is just a framework for bringing us together. Join in, drop out, come back...whatever. We're here to have fun and broaden our knowledge and awareness of important games.

The Vintage Game Club

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Favorites of '09 pt.3

3stoogesdrink This edition of the Brainy Gamer Podcast features a holiday extravaganza of Gamers Confab goodness: a 4-volume confection featuring a gaggle of bloggers, journalists, and designers all discussing our favorite games of 2009.

Part 3 includes writer Tom Bissell, whose work has appeared in Harper's Magazine and The New Yorker; Manveer Heir, lead designer at Raven Software and author of the Design Rampage blog; and Mitch Krpata, who reviews games for The Phoenix and Paste Magazine and writes the Insult Swordfighting blog. (Guests pictured on right.)

Segment 4 will arrive in a couple of days. I hope you enjoy!

  • Download the podcast directly here.

  • Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.
  • Subscribe to the podcast feed here.

  • Listen to any episode of the podcast directly from this page by clicking the yellow "Listen Now" button on the right.

Show links:

Clicking on the links below will ruin the surprise, but if you feel you must...

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Favorites of '09 pt.2

Philadelphiastory This edition of the Brainy Gamer Podcast features a holiday extravaganza of Gamers Confab goodness: a 4-volume confection featuring a gaggle of bloggers, journalists, and designers all discussing our favorite games of 2009.

Part 2 includes Leigh Alexander, news director at GamasutraCorvus Elrod from Zakelro Studio; and Nels Anderson from Hothead Games and his blog Above 49. (Guests pictured on right.)

Segments 3 and 4 will arrive in the coming days. I hope you enjoy!

  • Download the podcast directly here.
  • Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.
  • Subscribe to the podcast feed here.
  • Listen to any episode of the podcast directly from this page by clicking the yellow"Listen Now" button on the right.

Show links:

  • Clicking on the links below will ruin the surprise, but if you feel you must...