Previous month:
April 2010
Next month:
June 2010

May 2010

The game in the frame


Red Dead Redemption is a servant of two masters. Its gameplay sticks closely to GTA's familiar sandbox formula, and its narrative leans heavily on anti-hero storytelling tropes borrowed from Western film directors like Anthony Mann, Sam Peckinpah, and Sergio Leone.

The game serves neither of these masters especially well. It is not a mature Western in the vein of aging-reluctant-gunfighter films like Ride the High Country or Unforgiven; nor do its sandbox elements behave as well as they should.

Marsten's inexhaustible willingness to run errands for anyone who asks (including the dumbest, greediest, and shadiest characters imaginable) strains credulity for the sake of giving the player things to do. Assembling the team Marston needs to get inside Fort Mercer feels less like event-driven storytelling than a cobbled together series of fetch quests, rail shooting and racing games.

An endless string of knife-wielding thugs threaten prostitutes on the streets, no matter how many of them I kill. Dead men don't stay dead, and cougars spring out of nowhere to attack, even after I've slayed a dozen of their identical mates. All gang hideouts appear to have shared the same decorator.

And none of this really matters. Not much anyway. It doesn't matter because all the formal narrative stuff in RDR - John Marston, government agents, Bill Williamson, Javier Escuella - it's all just a frame. The good stuff, the important stuff, lives inside that frame, and it's very good stuff.

The GTA template is easily seen in RDR, but Rockstar has filled its new sandbox with rich atmosphere and an iconic landscape rendered with extraordinary attention to detail. GTA IV impressed with its skewed fidelity to New York City, but RDR's take on the American West transcends it and approaches visual poetry. The lighting alone is worth a studious blog post. I've grown so fond of riding my horse at sunrise and sunset that I've timed my sleep/saves to make the most of them.

Landscape is mythos in Westerns. RDR's pictorialism and environmental ambiance convey a sense of place more effectively than any game I've played. Its evocative, understated soundtrack amplifies the visuals, and its score echoes Ennio Morricone without aping him. If I hadn't recently written here about the excesses of hyperbole, I might have tossed in a few superlatives about Bill Elm and Woody Jackson's original music for RDR. I'll just say it's terrific and leave it at that.

Things happen when you ride the range in this game. Sometimes these moments feel meaningful. Other times they feel like jarring inconsistencies. Occasionally it's both.

A cougar attacked near Benedict Point and nearly killed me. I recovered and was quickly attacked by another. Luckily for me, two riders happened by and shot the animal before he attacked me again. Weakened and out of medicine, it occurred to me that I might have a better chance on my horse. No sooner had I mounted up than a cougar attacked. My horse fell, and I tumbled off. I quickly fired several shots killing the cougar, but when I turned around I discovered my horse lying dead on the ground. The honey-colored stallion Bonnie gave me after the round-up. I felt heartbroken.

Nervous about more cougar attacks, I needed to act quickly. I decided, with some reservations, to do what most hunters would probably do: skin the horse and make use of the supplies. So I sadly bent down to get the job done...and the game intruded. "You stink!!" Marston disgustedly exclaimed as blood splattered (yet again) on the virtual camera lens.

No, Mr. Marston, my horse does not stink, and I resent you treating him like the skunk you skinned an hour earlier. The distance between player and avatar in RDR is fluid.

One more story. I rescued a prostitute from a man threatening to kill her (while everyone else ignored her cries for help). Afterward she thanked me. A moment later I unthinkingly drew my gun, and she screamed and ran madly into the wilderness. Hoping to ease her fears, I pursued her on foot for nearly 10 minutes, but could never close the distance between us. As far as I know, she's still running.

Sometimes I see the wizard behind the curtain in RDR. Other times he sees me.

I'm your huckleberry


Blood hath been shed ere now, i' the olden time,
Ay, and since too, murders have been perform'd
Too terrible for the ear. The times have been
That, when the brains were out, the man would die,
And there an end; but now they rise again,
With twenty mortal murders on their crowns,
And push us from our stools: this is more strange
Than such a murder is.

The shopkeeper in Armadillo is an anti-Semite. Was, that is, until I shot him. There's more to the story.

I arrived in Armadillo one fine morning and decided to take a look around. After a drink at the saloon and a salty solicitation from a prostitute ("I'm a married man," I told her), I crossed the street and entered the general store.

The kindly shopkeeper welcomed me and mentioned something about torching the train station "if they wouldn't arrest me for it." That seemed a little odd, but I overlooked it and began surveying his inventory. Then he proudly proclaimed, ""I keep foreign and Jewish-made supplies out of my store. Help our American families."

Huh? I quickly changed my mind about buying anything and exited the store. No way was this idiot getting my business. I left town and headed back to the MacFarlane Ranch. The shopkeeper there is stingy, but at least he's not a wannabe-arsonist xenophobe.

The next day, I headed back to Armadillo and, purely out of curiosity, decided to visit the cordial racist shopkeeper again. When I entered the store he was speaking to another customer. "Seems like all the railroad does these days is drop off more and more foreigners." Then he noticed me and offered a warm greeting. "Welcome friend." When I approached the counter to speak to him, he reeled off another nugget of frontier enlightenment. "You won't find anything Jewish-made in this establishment, sir."

And that's when I shot him. I don't recall consciously deciding to do it. I just pulled my gun and plugged him. Then I walked into the street and waited for the sheriff's deputy to arrest me.

After serving my time in jail, I left town and busied myself with all sorts of other things. Exploring. Hunting. Sleeping under the stars. But that shopkeeper never left my mind. I had a nagging suspicion about him, and I needed to find out if I was right. Because, you see, I've played a few video games in my time.

So I returned to Armadillo and headed straight for the general store. I walked through the door...and sure enough there he was. Same bespectacled shopkeeper. Same bile. "I've never lost a single piece of merchandise. I keep mulattoes out of the store." Well, I thought to myself, at least he's spreading the hate around now. Then I shot him again.

This time, however, a message popped up on my screen informing me that, because I had killed the shopkeeper, the store would be closed for five days. To verify this fact, I repeatedly slept/saved to advance the clock and returned to the store at various hours on the following days. Indeed, the shopkeeper was nowhere to be found. I had discovered the opening I needed to dispense my own brand of frontier justice.

Now, the cordial racist shopkeeper and I have a relationship. Every five days I return to Armadillo; he warmly greets me, and I kill him. I've even found ways to avoid tedium. Sometimes a single shot to the head does the trick; other times I lasso and hogtie him before letting him have it. If I've had an especially bad day on the range, I let him tell me about the Jews before plugging him multiple times in the piehole, courtesy of my Dead Eye slo-mo skill. Occasionally I even shoot up the store. I guess you could say I'm a loyal customer.

Last night, however, my plan went strangely awry. I arrived in Armadillo on schedule and killed the shopkeeper. After fleeing the law (I no longer waste time in the hoosegow) and eliminating my bounty with a pardon letter, I decided to head over to the saloon for a little poker. I made my way to the back room, opened the door, and who did I find sitting at the table? You guessed it. The cordial racist shopkeeper, pretty as you please, with a stack of chips in front of him. You may also guess what I did next. Looted his body too.

See you soon, cordial racist shopkeeper. I'm your huckleberry.

Hyperbole of record


In the social media circles I frequent, Seth Schiesel recently unseated Roger Ebert as the punching bag of the moment. It's an interesting displacement when you stop to consider it.

Enthusiasts like me get bent out of shape when Ebert claims games "can never be art" (though, to be fair, his argument is a bit more subtle than that); but we get equally lathered up when the New York Times games critic succumbs to hyperbolic euphoria in his game reviews.

Ebert needs to wake up, and Schiesel needs to calm down, says the Twitterverse.

I mostly agree, but I also think it's possible to consider Schiesel's work in a more positive light. I'll give that my best shot in a moment. First, let's examine Schiesel's case file as a critic prone to gilding the lily. Yes, it bulges. Below are extracts from 11 of his reviews, published in the last 10 months, listed in reverse chronology.

Red Dead Redemption: " sets a new standard for sophistication and ambition in electronic gaming... The leading edge of interactive media has a new face."

Nier: "I cannot think of another single game of recent years that more faithfully represents the sheer intellectual breadth of modern video games."

MLB 10 The Show: "...perhaps the most finely calibrated, lusciously animated, fanatically detailed team sports game yet made."

Heavy Rain: " single-player experience has made me as genuinely nervous, unsettled, surprised, emotionally riven and altogether involved as Heavy Rain... Mr. Cage and Quantic Dream have put the world on notice that the future of video games may be closer than we thought."

Bayonetta: "...more alluring and more powerful than any big-budget game to come out of Japan in recent years."

Dragon Age: "...easily sails into the ranks of the best single-player role-playing games ever made... masterly in its overall design and conception... I felt as engrossed and simply swept away as any game has made me feel in recent years."

Assassin's Creed II: "...provides an unparalleled historical adventure along the lines of an interactive Dan Brown or James Clavell novel... conveys the unmistakably buoyant sense of a team of developers maturing as artists and growing into the full flower of their creativity and craft... demonstrate(s) just what wonder this relatively new form of entertainment can evoke."

Uncharted 2: "...a major step forward for gaming... no game yet has provided a more genuinely cinematic entertainment experience... the kind of game that will justifiably drive people to buy new televisions... The designers at Naughty Dog have absorbed the vernacular of film and then built upon create something wondrous."

BrĂ¼tal Legend: "...a deliriously inspired concept... No game so far this year delivers a deeper, more fully realized aesthetic experience."

Beatles Rock Band: "...nothing less than a cultural watershed... it may be the most important video game yet made."

Fight Night Round 4: "...a triumph... the greatest (boxing game) of all time. There has never been a more visceral, precise and natural electronic simulation of hand-to-hand combat."

Like many reviewers, Schiesel tends to evaluate games in comparative, rather than analytical terms. He appears to approach each game with a measuring stick that calculates the degree to which Game X  advances the medium, pitted against other similar games.

Applying this metric, Schiesel sees Beatles Rock Band as the greatest music game ever made; Fight Night Round 4 as the greatest boxing game ever made; Uncharted 2 as the greatest cinematic adventure game ever made, etc. - and maybe he's not far wrong with any of those assertions. Nier is another story, but that's another post.

In a still young, fast-moving, technology-reliant industry like video games, it's easy to perceive iteration as milestone. Compare Uncharted 2 to Tomb Raider and ponder how far we've come in little more than a decade. To long-time gamers like Schiesel (and me) who vividly remember playing such games, Uncharted 2 can feel like a certain kind of miracle. Schiesel conveys that gleeful discovery in his writing, and I admire him for it.

Of course, if too many games are deemed 'important' or 'unparalleled,' those distinctions lose their value, and Schiesel has probably rung his bell too often and too loudly. I wonder, though, how Schiesel's distinctive position influences his coverage of games. Writing about games for the most influential newspaper in the world, I suspect Schiesel may frequently see himself as an advocate for games in a traditionally conservative print media environment.

When I read between the lines of his reviews, I often sense Schiesel pleading with his readers (and perhaps his editors) to pay attention, abandon preconceived notions, and give these ambitious games the respect they deserve. He's an advocate journalist, in this regard, for a medium that could use a few more such people in high visible places.

Maybe the rapturous Red Dead Redemption review that appeared in today's Times is precisely the same one Schiesel might have written for a personal blog, but I suspect not. I don't know. Guessing at someone's intentions is tricky business, and I probably shouldn't be doing it.

The problem with hyperbole as advocacy is that it soon begins to sound like desperation. It's the parent who calls me to brag about his kid who's applied for a scholarship. The more superlatives he waves around, the more I dread meeting his kid.

I think many of us, me included, have occasionally fallen into similar traps when we discuss and write about games. We so want our place at the table. We so want the world to understand why we love games and why they matter to us. We so want this game to help us make that case. Sometimes our effervescence overflows. Leave it to gamers to call us on it.

BG Hunt Club


So, dear reader, you endured my week-long rhapsody on the charms of Monster Hunter Tri, and you wised up and bought the game. Congratulations, Bunky, but now you have a problem. You're eager to slay oversized beasts with others of your kind, but "Wii online multiplayer" are three words you've never seen appear in the same sentence. How can you find a fun group of people to play with?

Well, you can always take your chances, join three other random folks, and probably enjoy a positive experience. Most of the strangers I've played with have been pleasant and helpful.

Or you can play with other lunatics who read Brainy Gamer!

I thought it might be useful to collect names and IDs of players looking for people to add to their MH3  friends list. If you're interested and willing, feel free to share yours below. I'll periodically collect IDs and update this post to save you the trouble of sorting through the comments.

I'll get things started by sharing mine. Look me up, and let's hunt!

ZOE - 89KH2B

Updated list:

Michael Abbott
Nick LaLone           
Steve Amodio
Amanda Cosmos         
Krystian Majewski (Europe)
Krystman 5EKMPQ
Josh Bycer   
Rr0d (Europe)

Preparation (H)unt


I fully intended to write this post yesterday, but I've been too busy playing Monster Hunter Tri to worry about trivial matters like writing, eating, and sleeping. Why engage in such worldly affairs when so many other-worldly monsters are out there waiting to be slain?

What's more, the stakes have lately risen dramatically. It's not just virtual villagers relying on me to bring down these dastardly beasts. Now it's friends and new acquaintances who need me to help them raise their Hunter Ranks, collect sunken treasure, or locate that last item needed to complete a full armor set. As I've been telling my wife for days now, I know the grass is high in the yard, but I'm busy doing important stuff here, and dammit, these people need me! This crick in my neck from sleeping on the sofa is starting to hurt a little, though.

Amidst all this monster hunting I've been paying close attention to my play habits, and I've noticed a curious phenomenon. Approximately 65% of my time (yeah, I've measured it) playing this game is devoted not to hunting, but preparing to hunt. Capcom calls this game Monster Hunter. I say a more apt title would be Preparation (H)unt. Play smartly, with the proper amount of preparation applied, and you will avoid the embarrassment and burning discomfort of persistently painful monster hunts.

Slaying monsters in MH3 (one might say slaying them well), either solo or with others, requires careful planning. Like its predecessors in the series, this game places more emphasis on skillful, deliberative activities like targeted gathering, clever combining, and wise upgrading. It rewards carefully allocating resources and choosing the right equipment. What works well on one creature may not work so well on another. Plus, some of these critters are smart. Use the same trap more than a few times, and they'll learn to avoid it. When you're packing for a hunt in MH3, it isn't just a question of whether to grab an explosive, but which one and for what purpose?

Consequently, grinding in MH3 feels more like a deliberative pursuit than a mindless act. Most of the time, you're building up your inventory to prepare for a specific hunt, not just stocking up on generic health potions. And you always have the option of doing it locally by yourself or online with others. Or, in another instance of the game cleverly rewarding preparation, you can let the local villagers, farmers, and sailors gather and grow materials for you if you're willing to invest the time to get them started and periodically check in with them.

MH3 raises the stakes on preparation by asking you to stop and consider exactly how you plan to accomplish your mission before you embark. Choose the wrong weapon, the wrong armor, the wrong supplies in your pouch, and you may well return home empty-handed, mission failed. Once you exit the safety of town or village, you can't come home until you've won, been defeated, or abandoned your quest. There's nothing quite like the sinking realization, 20 minutes into your quest, that you forgot to pack a few extra tranquilizers.

Of course, you're free to go about things willy-nilly, haphazardly equipping whatever you find and paying no attention to skills, weapon attributes and the like. But if you do, you'll be playing the game poorly, and the cost of such ineptitude is time. In other words, you'll die a lot and proceed very slowly.

Monster Hunter's design ethos encourages and rewards optimal play. Yes, you get to chase, kill, or capture all sorts of crazy, monstrous beasts, and that's loads of fun. But the joy of the hunt correlates directly to the joy of preparation for me. A successful hunt affirms the tactical and organizational work I did ahead of time. If you invest yourself in MH3's systems; if you take the time to pay attention, strategize, and choose your path wisely, your efforts are rewarded in kind. You will progress faster and with far less frustration. And, trust me, the monsters and locales you'll encounter later in the game will make you very happy you adopted such an approach.

Still, I suspect the hunt is the thing for most players, and MH3 tests even the most prepared players to deploy action tactics to get the job done. I'll discuss how the game manages that in my next post.

Apologies to those of you uninterested in this game. I promise to move onto other stuff soon. I hear a famous mustachioed plumber is headed to another galaxy in a few days. No way will I miss that.

Small miracles


A Qurupeco is much easier to kill than capture. I learned this lesson the hard way.

Recently, three intrepid monster hunters and I set off to bag this feisty beast on a quest called "Tracking the Trickster" - an apt description given this creature's ability to mimic the cries of others monsters, thus summoning them to fight on his behalf. When you battle an evasive Qurupeco, you must also prepare to face any other monsters that happen to be in the vicinity, including the deadly Rathian, a fire-breathing wyvern with poison-filled tail spikes. Did I mention the Qurupeco also spits balls of mucus that lower your defenses?

Capturing a Qurupeco requires careful strategy and a coordinated effort to pursue him (he has a nasty habit of dragging you all over the map). You must wear him down, identify his moment of weakness, stun him in place, and finally trap him. If one of you stumbles or fails to properly spring the trap, he will evade, recover, and force you to start all over again. In my monster hunting party, I was the stumbler.

Twice, over the course of forty frantic minutes, I screwed up and we missed our opportunity. The first time I threw the trap too soon; the second, I threw my last tranquilizer and missed. Both times our limping Qurupeco got away, one or more of us died (having used up our potions), and we failed our mission.

Deposited back at the tavern for the third time, I nervously braced for an assault of "F*&%ING NOOB!" invectives, but our leader - a far more experienced player named Keegan - would have none of it. "This city welcomes beginners, and beginners make mistakes. One more try?" If my wife and I ever have another child, we will surely name him Keegan. [Put down the phone, Mom, we're not having any more kids.]

Monster Hunter Tri is the game I've been waiting for since Phantasy Star Online's star sadly faded with the demise of the Dreamcast. In fact, it's the game I've been waiting for on several fronts: 1) a true successor to PSO's captivating offline/online experience; 2) an accessible, but not dumbed-down Monster Hunter game; 3) a genuinely compelling, lag-free online game for the Wii with a sensible and easy-to-use matchmaking system. Is it just me, or is this game like a small miracle?

When you discover yourself mentally grinding on a game while you should be focused on other things, that's when you know a game has you firmly in its clutches. Returning home from a bike ride yesterday, I suddenly realized I had no memory of where I'd been. My whole time pedaling that bike was spent deliberating on which weapon would give me the best chance of beating the underwater Ludroth that did me in a few hours earlier. Such is life as Moga Village's resident monster hunter. People are depending on me to figure this stuff out.

I have more to say about this game than a single post can contain. In my next post I'll try to explain how this Monster Hunter game builds a bridge to gamers intrigued by the series' phenomenal popularity in Japan, but put off by its high barriers to entry in previous iterations. I'm sure I'll also have more tales to tell and conquests to brag about. That Keegan fellow, he has my back.

(This MH3 commercial is pretty funny, by the way.)

We deal with criticism

Metacritic Some of my gamer pals monitor Metacritic scores like investors tracking a stock ticker. Last October, after writing a positive piece about Demon's Souls, I received a Twitter DM from a reader concerned that the game had "dipped below 90" on Metacritic...soon followed by an alert that the score had risen again to 90 and would likely "remain stable" there.

He was relieved because a 90+ score from Metacritic means "universal acclaim," whereas an 89 translates as "generally favorable reviews." As a player who admired Demon's Souls, he clearly felt invested in its score.

I've long dismissed Metacritic as a distorted metric, and I actively discourage my students from allowing it to influence their choices of games to play. If you're looking for guidance, I tell them, identify a few reviewers or critics whose sensibilities seem to align with your own and carefully read their responses to the games they play. Don't get handcuffed by a number.

Consider, too, that none of us is a jack of all trades. If you're looking for a thoughtful review of a Splinter Cell game, maybe Simon Parkin at Eurogamer is your man. If it's an indie game, maybe Rock, Paper, Shotgun has it covered. For an RPG like Dragon Age, why not let a staff of writers cover it from multiple angles, like they did at The Border House? If it's a sports game, the Operation Sports staff is probably all over it, and the readers there will happily chime in with their opinions too.

It's easy for me to casually discredit Metacritic as a flawed or overrated system, but there's no denying its impact on both the consumer and production sides of the industry. Despite my admonitions, most of my cash-poor students rely on it religiously. When new games cost $60 a pop, Metacritic functions as a vital resource allocation tool for them. On the other side of the ledger, I've been told by several developers that publishers keep a close eye on Metacritic scores, with some incentivizing scores of 80+ with bonuses. A disappointingly low Metacritic score, as one developer put it, "means people lose their jobs."

So what exactly is wrong with Metacritic? Other than harboring a general sense that it's flawed, I've never  taken the time to examine why I believe that's so. Would a closer look at Metacritic's system dispel that impression? I decided to examine how Metacritic functions as a review aggregator, focusing on aspects of its system that seem problematic to me. In a nutshell, here's what I find found.

  • Metacritic's method for meta-scoring video games differs substantially from the one it employs for movies, books, and music. Games must score 90 or above to receive a "universal acclaim" rating, but all other media Metacritic aggregates receive that designation at 81 or above. Metacritic claims this is meant to account for the perception that a 3-out-of-5-star movie is considered worth seeing, while a comparable 60 score for a game suggests that game is barely playable.

    Clearly, Metacritic is attempting to account for perceptions, as well as raw numbers, and this leads to some shaky methodology. If we're guided by perceptions of what numbers mean, should we also account for the fact that an Edge Magazine 9 bears almost no relationship to a 9?
  • Metacritic's conversion of all scores to a 100-point system is problematic at best. Here's how they explain it:

When you tell a computer to compute the average of B+, 45, 5, and *****, it just looks at you funny and gives an error message. When you tell a computer to compute the average of 83, 45, 50, and 10, it is much, much happier. Thus, in order to make our computers happy (and calculate the METASCORES), we must convert all critics' scores to a 0-100 scale.

The odd thing here is that sometimes Metacritic cares about perceptions and other times it doesn't. When a B+ is converted to an 83, that conversion simply doesn't work properly. I assign scores to students for a living, and I can tell you that not a single one of them would exchange a B+ for an 83. Metacritic's scale may be effective keeping its computer happy, but it does a poor job of translating the intended value of a letter grade review from a site like the Onion A/V Club.

  • Speaking of perceptions, Metacritic believes it can accurately read the minds of critics who don't assign review scores. Here's how they explain extracting a number from a film review by New York Times' critic Manohla Dargis:

...our staff must assign a numeric score, from 0-100, to each review that is not already scored by the critic. Naturally, there is some discretion involved here, and there will be times when you disagree with the score we assigned. However, our staffers have read a lot of reviews--and we mean a lot--and thus through experience are able to maintain consistency both from film to film and from reviewer to reviewer. When you read over 200 reviews from Manohla Dargis, you begin to develop a decent idea about when she's indicating a 90 and when she's indicating an 80.

Really? You can honestly do this? What methodology are you applying here? Do you count the number of positive adjectives she uses? I must say this one leaves me speechless.

  • Finally, Metacritic casts its net far too widely, and not widely enough, when it aggregates game review sources. 149 game review venues are included in its calculations, 3 times more than the number it includes for movies. Many of these sites seem questionable to me, with far too many poorly written or even ill-conceived reviews included in mix. On the other side of the coin, many fine critics and reviewers from distinguished and widely-read blogs are left out, presumably because they don't work for 'game review sites' or assign numbers.

Maybe that's for the best if such writers are to be given the Manohla Dargis treatment. If the function of Metacritic is to discharge bots, gather data, and crunch them for public consumption, then so be it. But if Metacritic aims to accurately reflect the critical response to games (which is what it claims), it needs a system for doing so that doesn't overalue me-too enthusiast sites and undervalue thoughtful evaluative writing about games that many of us read and produce on a regular basis.

I'm not suggesting Metacritic has no value or useful role to play. I'm simply suggesting that if we rely on it as a tool to guide our game-playing choices, we should know how that tool is built, and we should understand its limitations.

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 28


After a Shakespeare-induced hiatus, the Brainy Gamer podcast is back!

This edition of the show features two interesting conversations. In the first segment I chat with Jamin Brophy-Warren and Chris Dahlen, co-creators of Kill Screen. We discuss their new magazine, writing about games, Roger Ebert's 4-star review of The Phantom Menace, and many other topics.

In Segment 2 I talk with indie designer Jason Rohrer (Sleep is Death, Passage) about his work, his involvement in the art game movement, and the importance of simplicity. 

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

Show links: