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June 2010

Hiatus...and a milestone


I'm taking some time off to attend a friend's wedding, frolic with my family, and generally unwind. I'll return with a new post on July 5 and a new podcast the following week.

Before I go, I want to express my thanks to you for joining the conversation about games here. On May 10 we passed a milestone: 10,000 comments posted on BG since I began the blog nearly 3 years ago. 

I can't begin to tell you how grateful I am, not just for the milestone, but for the countless times you've helped deepen my understanding of games. I've made many new friends here, and I consider it a tremendous privilege to host a site worthy of your interest and time. Thank you.

Happy gaming!


Deep Fantasy


Those of us who clamor for richer stories and deeper characters in games have a familiar laundry list of requests. We want stories that reflect on the world we live in. We want cleverness, subtlety and ambiguity. We want characters, especially women protagonists, who add up to more than a trait and a motive. We want a game that unfolds its narrative, not merely to extend gameplay, but to explore its themes and characters.

Hey, guess what? Final Fantasy XIII is precisely such a game. Surprised? Me too. Expected a fastball. Got a change-up.

FFXIII is a post-9/11 meditation on fear, loss, and the desperate measures they provoke. It depicts leaders who "don't run from fights," sending innocent citizens to their deaths. It explores the ramifications of demonizing an enemy to build public support for a war machine. It exposes the hollowness of jingoism in the face of profound personal pain.

It's impossible not to see parallels between the 'Purge' - the Sanctum's publicly sanctioned internment of citizens suspected of sympathizing with the enemy - and the WWII 'Yellow Peril' internment of Japanese Americans (or more recent government surveillance of 'suspect' citizens). It's equally impossible to miss FFXIII's indictment of the media's culpability in spreading the administration's message that human rights are dispensable when national security is perceived as threatened.

Snow, FFXIII's beefy male protagonist, delivers most of the familiar heroic platitudes, "We are the heroes, after all! Let's prove it!!" but unlike other FF games, FFXIII often treats him ironically. After exhorting a group of defenseless refugees to join the fight, he arms them, stirs them to battle...and then watches as they die, shot by enemy soldiers, or falling to their deaths in a massive platform collapse. The bloody toll of war is never far from view in this game.

The women of FFXIII are the game's main narrative attraction, driving the action forward and providing most of the game's thematic depth. Throughout FFXIII's long story, it's the women who display the most savvy. They're more decisive, less panic-stricken than their male counterparts. Early in the game, it's a woman - a mother with a frightened son - who courageously saves Snow's life before losing her own. And it's a woman - Lightning's sister - who imparts the story's central mission: save Cocoon, their home.

Lightning is the game's real protagonist, a tormented, woman-with-no-name lone wolf with mad ninja skills and reckless cunning. She instigates the rebellion in the game's opening scene, and as the story progresses, she is nearly always the one pushing it forward. Resisting her authority comes at a cost, as Snow discovers when Lightning lays him out flat with a roundhouse punch.

As you might expect, there's more to Lighting than meets the eye, and FFXIII does an especially good job of slowly unpeeling her layers and breaking through her defenses. Her voice actor, Ali Hillis, is a major discovery, whose only previous game VO was Mass Effect 1&2's Dr. Liara T'Soni. She's also set to appear in Bioware's upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Games rarely depict human suffering. They're much better showing us the circumstances surrounding it. Final Fantasy games have tried, but always as fantasy-tinged youth melodrama. FFXIII doesn't stray far from that path, but it mostly avoids the cloying teen angst of previous games. Repeatedly in my many hours with this game, I've discovered moments of genuine sorrow and compassion. Its fractured, multi-POV storytelling feels fresh and convincing to me, despite the occasional cliche or awkward vocal performance.

It's as if Square-Enix decided to push the game in two opposite directions: ease the complexity of the game's formal systems and increase the complexity of the game's storytelling. As a result, FFXIII feels like it's targeted at grownups eager for a deep, but accessible RPG with a big story. Longtime fans may miss the towns, merchants, and NPCs, but I've found their absence eliminates clutter and streamlines a game formula that's grown bloated and tiresome.

FFXIII is more than its story and characters, of course, and there's much to be said about the game built around them. Simon Ferrari at Chungking Expresso says it far better than I ever could, and I strongly encourage you to read his studious take on "the purity" of FFXIII's gameplay systems.

Final Fantasy XIII admonished me with a helpful reminder. Playing a game yourself is the only way to understand what that game says to you. FF games carry more game culture baggage than any franchise I can think of. We know all about them, so they're easy to dismiss. And sometimes maybe they are (FFX-2?).

FFXIII made me sit up and pay attention. It's a beautiful game of stellar craftsmanship with gorgeous cutscenes. In other words, it's another Final Fantasy game. But if you play it - and you must be patient because the game takes its time - you may find it's much more than that.

Keynote rhetoric


Things that are true and things that are better are, by their nature, always easier to prove and easier to believe in. --Aristotle, Philosopher

What you just saw is another leap forward to the future of entertainment. --Jack Tretton, President of Sony Computer Entertainment of America

If you care about words and how people use them, an E3 keynote will fill your plate. Part sales-pitch, part corporate flag-waving, a typical Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo keynote is a thrill-ride of cheery self-assessment, brash claims, quixotic speculation, and big promises. Stir in a strong dose of visual pageantry, and you've got an event crafted for maximum persuasive impact.

If you listen carefully to the Microsoft and Sony press conferences (I'm ignoring Nintendo's for the moment because I haven't finished watching it), you'll see our old friend Aristotle's modes of persuasion - Ethos, Pathos, and Logos - all present and accounted for. They are not, however, equal partners.

Ethos, a speaker's authority or qualifications to speak on a subject, is generally dispatched easily in E3 keynotes, with designers like Cliff Bleszinski, Hideo Kojima, and the Media Molecule gang presenting their latest creations. On the other hand, designers with a reputation for, shall we say, gilding the lilly may struggle to convey Ethos. I found Peter Molyneux's appearance this year especially notable in this regard, as he was uncharacteristically pithy and restrained in his presentation of Fable 3, perhaps in an effort to repair a damaged Ethos.

Keynote hosts Jack Tretton (Sony) and Don Mattrick (Microsoft) attempted to generate Ethos with a mix of geniality and corporate buzz-speak: "With the PS3, the living room is no longer a physical place, it's a concept." Neither executive fully succeeded because their remarks were so tightly scripted (and their eyes so firmly fixed on teleprompters), that both seemed imprisoned by the event. They possess Ethos because they're powerful industry players, but it's a thin coat at best.

Pathos, an appeal to the audience's emotions or loyalties, is a go-to device at E3. Whenever you hear stirring music accompany a trailer, see a virtual camera fetishistically gliding down the blade of a sword, or spot Kevin Butler shouting "We all serve one master! One King! And his name is Gaming! FOREVER MAY HE REIGN!!!" (met by thunderous cheers) - you're in the emotional domain of Pathos...or maybe in this case faux Pathos. Surprises, like Gabe Newell's sudden appearance announcing Portal 2 for PS3, or Miyamoto springing from behind a screen, are always good for a Pathos boost as well. 

Suits like Kaz Hirai (Sony) and Phil Spencer (Microsoft) fare less well at E3, and that's because they struggle to convey Ethos or Pathos. Vice President of X means nothing to this crowd, and these guys' marketing-mantra personas don't generate much traction in the Pathos department either. But if these two struggle to deliver Ethos and Pathos, they fall down even harder when it comes to bringing the Logos.

Logos is the logical argument. It's the claim supported by facts and data. At E3, Logos is the rabbit in the magician's hat. You see the rabbit appear, but when you take a closer look at the hat, the rabbit's gone. The magician wants you to believe his story, but you know he can't be trusted.

At E3, preposterous statements are presented as self-evident observations. They arrive in a steady pre-scripted stream and, after awhile, begin to sound almost plausible. The skillful huckster knows he can dodge the Logos bullet if he can persuade you to accept his version of reality - and E3 is nothing if not an exhilarating reality distortion field that sucks in all who draw near. 

An E3 keynote is rhetorical cheesecloth, but if you approach it in the right spirit, it's also a lot fun. We know the score. These companies want to sell us stuff, and that's what E3 is all about. Loading up the Ethos/Pathos (and distracting us from applying Logos) has always been an effective marketing strategy. Stir in a little brand loyalty, group-think, and techno-lust, and we're ripe for the picking.

So, in the spirit of fun, but also to shine a little Logos light, here's a categorized compendium of quotes from the Sony and Microsoft E3 2010 press conferences. Enjoy your journey into the future of gaming.

Blue = Microsoft
Red = Sony

Changing the Industry, Changing the World

  • This is a year of transformation. We're transforming the way you play games; transforming the way you enjoy entertainment; and transforming the way you connect to friends and family.
  • ...Dazzling and transformative.
  • As the new decade begins, we are transforming our industry.
  • In the next year, Sony will take its innovation and its content to a whole new level.
  • Nearly a decade ago, one game changed everything. It transcended video games to define a generation of entertainment, and it became a cultural phenomenon. A new chapter of this amazing story is about to be told.
  • PS3 is defining the leading edge of technology. The platform that does everything now does even more.
  • Kinect will completely redefine the kart racing genre.
  • What Avatar did for 3D movies, Killzone 3 will do for 3D games.
  • Xbox Live has changed the way the world plays video games. 

Changing Your Life

  • If you love entertainment, Xbox Live will change the way you watch movies, listen to music, and connect with friends.
  • Another breakthrough. A new product that won't just allow consumers to enjoy the game or be surrounded by the game, but literally to move into the game.
  • Your Shape is a game that will transform forever the way we think about fitness in the living room.
  • Last year we made a promise that Kinect on Xbox would revolutionize the way you have fun. Today we deliver on that promise.
  • It is the closest thing you will ever experience to being physically inside a game itself.
  • When you combine the power of the Xbox 360, the services of Xbox Live, and the magic of Kinect, the result is a revolution, not just for your games, but for all of your entertainment.
  • Playstation Move will revolutionize your sports gaming experience.
  • Transform your living room.

Launching the Future

  • This is your new Xbox 360. Completely redesigned for the future of entertainment. 
  • We are launching a whole new era of entertainment. A new vision for home entertainment. We'd like to share our vision of the future.
  • Ladies and gentlemen, the new era of entertainment has begun.
  • Future-proof and constantly evolving. We're living that vision. 
  • We're delivering the future of entertainment today for every member of the household.
  • A future unlike any in the previous 15 years. 
  • Welcome to the future of racing.
  • It's not just the future of entertainment; it's a future that Sony will lead. 

The New New

  • The most capable and connected platform on the planet.
  • Kinect for Xbox 360. It is unlike anything you've ever experienced before.
  • Playstation Move is unlike anything you've ever seen before.
  • With technology like this, there are no barriers and no learning curves.
  • We've built an ecosystem.

Random philosophy

  • We believe interactive entertainment is the greatest form of all entertainment, and it should be open and approachable to everyone.
  • Playstation Move is not only crazy precise, it's also got what we in the future call "buttons." - which turn out to be pretty important to those handful of millions of people who enjoy playing shooters, platformers, or...well, anything that doesn't involve catching a big red ball. (Kevin Butler)
  • We believe fun is the universal magnet that binds us together.

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 29

Tom-bw This edition of the show features an interview with Tom Bissell, author of the new book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. We discuss why Tom wrote the book; why Mirror's Edge is a better game than you think; why we ought to cut game designers some slack; and many other topics. 

  • 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.

I hope you enjoy the show.

Curious onlookers


Richard Lemarchand, lead designer for both Uncharted games, asked a simple question today: "How many of you have played Uncharted 2?" 

When I heard him ask the same question at GDC a few months ago, nearly every hand in the room shot up. When he posed it again this morning at the Games, Learning, and Society Conference, the response fell somewhere between a handful and a smattering. Such is the difference between GDC and GLS - two conferences devoted, in very different ways, to games.

I've attended all sorts of tribal gatherings for gamers (GLS, Gen Con, GDC, Games for Change, among others), but this get-together is distinctive on several fronts. 

For one thing, it's impossible not to notice all the women. It's a sad, but unavoidable fact that gatherings of gamers tend to be gatherings of men. I have no data to prove it, but I'd say roughly 40% of the attendees and presenters at GLS are women; a marked difference from GDC.

The other thing you notice is the range of ages among attendees. GLS is the one games-related event where I don't feel like the old man in the room. And, let me tell you, that's a refreshing feeling. This conference attracts an eclectic mix of people: academic researchers, game developers (both indie and big studio), government and industry leaders, and, of course, teachers, most of whom work on the front lines of American public education.

"Curious onlookers" hardly characterizes a group that includes people like Lemarchand, Henry Jenkins, Constance Steinkuehler, and Eric Zimmerman (Jim Gee is sadly absent this year). But I think it fairly describes a large number of GLS attendees. Most of the people I've met here don't think of themselves as 'gamers.' In fact, one presenter I spoke to (Hillary Kolos), contends the term 'gamer' suggests an identity that some players, particularly teenage girls, feel uncomfortable with as a descriptor.

There's a lot to be said for a conference that brings together such a diverse assortment of smart people, but it can make for some challenging situations. A few minutes into a talk on guild leadership in World of Warcraft, a person in the audience raised his hand and asked, "Excuse me, can you explain what you mean by 'tank'?" (I should also point out that the presenter has, unquestionably, the coolest name of any games researcher in the world: Moses Wolfenstein.)

Rich Lemarchand and his co-presenter Drew Davidson dealt with their task in a way that I initially found disappointing. They essentially presented a demo of Uncharted 2, with Davidson explaining its narrative and gameplay elements and Lemarchand elucidating Naughty Dog's design goals and process. 

But when I heard people gasp at the game's opening sequence (Drake suspended in air, hanging from the train car), I realized this audience needed to see what playing this game looks and feels like. Lemarchand and Davidson's strategy of playing the game live in front of their audience (always a technological risk) paid off handsomely under these circumstances. And, for what it's worth, kudos to Lemarchand and Naughty Dog for devoting time to such a gathering. Compared to events like PAX, E3, and GDC, GLS is a small room.

The insular community I regularly hang with here and in the Twitter/blogosphere know all about Uncharted 2. Even those of us who've never played the game probably know plenty about the game's train sequence, for example, or its cinematics. With dozens of awards and a cavalcade of essays from folks like yours truly, it's easy to forget that the game sold roughly 3.5 million copies worldwide. A big deal to us; not so big in the vast cultural landscape.

Being here reminds me that we're still basically introducing ourselves to the world. Even among the young teachers I've met here - people who have grown up with games - a surprisingly small percentage of them characterize themselves as 'gamers.' (I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard someone preface a remark here with "I'm just a casual gamer...") The very idea that one might own multiple consoles or, more importantly, have the time to play all those games, staggers many of the folks I've met at GLS.

And yet, here we are. I can't help but feel a surge of pride in my profession. We're here because we want to be more effective, more informed, better equipped teachers. Underneath the flurry of academeze, data, and game studies jargon, one simple imperative overrides all other considerations here. How can we best explore, understand, and harness the unique power of games - and the possibilities we've yet to identify - in our teaching and learning?

I'll return in my next post with some thoughts on what I've learned. If you'd like to peruse the full GLS conference program, you can find it here.

Extra Lives

Extralives Tom Bissell's new book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, hits the shelves today. It's a terrific read - funny, insightful, at times harrowing - and I highly recommend it. 

Tom was kind enough to share a few preliminary drafts with me, and I enjoyed watching the book evolve into its final form. He's a skillful writer who has managed to produce a text that speaks to serious gamers like me (and, I'm guessing, most of you), while remaining accessible to readers curious about the cultural value and appeal of games. 

He pulls no punches. Extra Lives is an open-eyed account from a self-confessed 'obsessed gamer' who loves the art, but laments how games often fall short of their tremendous potential.

In case you're not familiar with Tom's work, he's written for Harper's Magazine, The New Yorker, and The New Republic, and he's published several previous books, including Chasing the Sea, and The Father of All Things. He was a recipient of a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship.

Tom Bissell will be my guest on the next edition of the Brainy Gamer Podcast, which will appear this weekend. I hope you'll enjoy it. 

The waiting game


ModNation Racers belongs in the Seinfeld universe. It would fit in nicely with the "re-gifter," the "close-talker," the "low-talker," and the "anti-dentite." For, you see, Modnation Racers - an otherwise perfectly wonderful kart racer - is a slow-loader. And, like Jerry's beautiful dinner date with "man hands," that single disturbing trait is impossible to ignore.

I wrote about ModNation Racers back in April, having played the beta, and I registered my excitement about the game's powerful content creation tools and their potential to encourage even casual players to build cool stuff. Now that I've played the released version of the game, I can happily report that MNR makes good on those promises. It successfully advances Little Big Planet's "Play, Create, Share" formula with an astonishingly user-friendly toolkit for designing borderline fair-use characters, karts, and tracks.

If you're itching to race through a charming Alpine village as Mr. Peanut driving Batman's 1966 Batmobile, this is your game. Just don't get in a hurry. Here's why.

On the day the game was released, I loaded ModNation Racers from my PS3's XMB and was immediately greeted with a prompt informing me the game required a software update. No big deal. The update was only 30MB and installed in less than 2 minutes

This was followed by a a one-time install to the console's hard drive, which required 7-and-a-half minutes to complete. Again, I thought, no problem. A hard drive install will save time in the long run by cutting load times and limiting reads from the game disc.

By the time the game was installed to the hard drive and the unskippable opening credits finished, I had waited 9 minutes and 54 seconds to play the game. After responding to a "push any button prompt," I waited another 31 seconds before arriving at Modspot, the game's central hub.

Choosing "Career Mode," I was presented with a 2-minute, 43-second cutscene (skippable) with studio announcers and an introductory story scene. Once complete, a loading screen appeared with a 'percentage-loaded' counter. The track required another 52 seconds to load.

At this point, I'd been waiting nearly 12 minutes (and that's if I skipped the story-mode cutscene entirely) to begin racing. After the race ended, the game required another 20 seconds to return me to the main hub. Choosing a single-player race took a bit less time than career-mode: 44 seconds to load the track. Subsequent tracks required between 45 seconds and a minute to load.

Getting to the content creation tools takes less time: 12 seconds - which is still too long, but relative to MNR's other load times, feels positively snappy - but exiting the modding area and returning to the hub requires another 25-30 seconds every time.

I know less than nothing about how games manage what they do under the hood, but it's hard for me to understand how the folks at United Front Games or Sony San Diego could sign off on a game - a racing game for goodness' sake - that repeatedly subjects the player to such fun-killing load times throughout a typical play session. I'm guessing it had something to do with meeting a deadline.

If I didn't hold MNR in such high regard for the many things it does well, I suppose long loads wouldn't get under my skin so much. But I fear that unless UFG optimizes the game, and does it soon, the persistent annoyance of waiting will overshadow all the other joys ModNation Racers brings. 

Hero from a distance

Johnmarston Lately, I've been thinking a lot about John Marston. I've also been thinking about his corporate cousin, Niko Bellic. Both men are murdering thieves. Why, I've been wondering, do I care so much about one and so little about the other?

I enjoyed GTA IV for a few exhilarating hours, exploring the city and letting the game slowly unfold its exposition. Niko earned my empathy: an immigrant trying to make a fresh start. The game reinforced this impression by encouraging me to move freely about the city and enabling me to behave like a good guy or a thug. My choice.

Things got ugly fast, however, and before I knew it my well-meaning avatar had become a psychopathic murderer, slaughtering hordes of people mostly for money. It all became too much for me, so I bailed. I haven't picked up the game since.

My decision to exit Liberty City wasn't a moral choice. I've been killing without compunction in video games since Space Invaders. GTA IV drove me away because Rockstar reneged on a contract it forged with me at the beginning of the game. Take control of this immigrant with a troubled past, the game seemed to say, and navigate him through thickets of crime, violence, and corruption. 

This was a GTA game, so I wasn't expecting a branching narrative RPG. But I had hoped to face some difficult choices and a few alterable situations. I expected to play at least some role in Niko's journey, even if I couldn't necessarily determine all the outcomes. Instead, I became a mission-trigger vessel, waiting for Niko's cellphone to ring with instructions on whom to rob or murder next. I grew to despise Niko, and his life meant nothing to me. 

Spoilers ahead.

John Marston is another story. He and his family meant a great deal to me, and I wept when he died. Why? How did that happen?

I can tell you how it didn't happen. It didn't happen because Rockstar gave me more control over Marston and his choices. Just like GTA IV, Red Dead Redemption's formal story unfolds linearly with very little room for player input. I walked away from killing De Santa, but the rebels killed him anyway. I roped and hogtied a few horse thieves instead of shooting them, but such actions have no impact on the game's main story arc.

At times, Marston's actions - and especially his inactions - are no less despicable than Niko's. When the Mexican soldiers tell him to burn down the villagers' houses (a senseless act of violence) I have no option to refuse their order. Each house appears on my mini-map, and I cannot proceed until I've torched each one. Why would a man who has risked his life to rescue complete strangers from bandits do this? Similarly, when Marston witnesses women villagers physically abused by Allende's men (and, clearly, raped off-stage), why does he not utter even a word of protest? Is this the same man who shot a stranger in Armadillo for pulling a knife on a prostitute?

And can anyone explain why Marston wastes even a moment of his precious time helping Professor MacDougal?

So my empathy for Marston does not stem from narrative-altering choices or exercising full control of the character. They come from elsewhere, and if you take a closer look at the paragraph above this one, you'll find a hint. Without meaning to, I alternate between 1st and 3rd-person when referring to Marston. "He" does this, and "I" do that...and therein lies a tale.

Red Dead Redemption illustrates how games can create a unique dialectical relationship between player and avatar; one that emerges from a blend of authored narrative and player-driven emergent gameplay. Sometimes, as I've noted in my previous two posts, that 'blend' feels more like a clumsy collision of player autonomy and game constraints. But other times it feels like an experience no other medium can possibly touch.

I love John Marston because Red Dead Redemption enables me to forge a relationship with him that feels like an intimate conversation (and sometimes like an argument). I choose where he goes, when he sleeps, whom he shoots, and which strangers he helps. He chooses how to respond to the other main characters. He makes the big decisions. Niko's decisions drove me away. Marston's often angered or disappointed me, but I was never tempted to abandon him. Maybe I wanted to see his wife and kid just as much as he did.

But it's more than that. Marston is the Western solitary hero society turns to for help until it feels secure enough to reject him. He's a man at the end of the line, and he knows it. When it becomes clear, near the end of the game, that John is preparing for his own death by teaching his son the skills he will need to survive without him, my respect and affection for him deepens. In those moments, helping him on my end feels like a privilege.

No narrative system is the narrative system for video games. I can imagine a completely open-world version of RDR, sans linear narrative, sans cutscenes, with a story purely constructed from the player's experience in the world. Such a game would likely steer clear of the thorny issues raised here (and in your comments) about RDR. Such a game would offer an experience more about "I" and less about "He."

But I say RDR's "He" is a man worth tracking from a distance. Despite its occasional narrative ineptness and dodgy AI, RDR invites us to ride with/as a man who lives in the grey areas we always say games never explore. We cannot fully walk in his shoes, nor can he complete his journey without us. It's an uneasy friendship that offers a certain perspective on a man with a troubled past and no future.