A Small Steam Giveaway

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I buy every Humble Bundle on day one regardless of whether I actually need all of the games in the package, which inevitably leads to me getting some duplicates every now and then. Unfortunately, most of the Steam codes are in the form of a single code for all five games, plus a separate single code for the bonus games. This means that any games I already own are lost to the ether and can’t be regifted to someone else. Well, with the latest (seventh) Humble Indie Bundle, that all changed; now, there are separate codes for each game, so giving up my extra codes to a few worthy Pressers (is that what we call overselves?) seems like it makes sense.

Anyway, I have three extra Steam codes from the Humble Indie Bundle 7, and I’m willing to give them up, no strings attached, to anyone who wants them. First come, first serve, obviously. If you’re greedy and want to claim all three then go right ahead, I really don’t mind. I’d rather see someone enjoy these rather than have them sit in limbo on my Humble download page for eternity.

The Binding of Isaac (plus The Wrath of the Lamb DLC) CLAIMED

I’ve yet to actually play this, but I like Edmund McMillen’s twisted art style and nouveau-retro school of game design, so I think I’d like this. It’s critically acclaimed and, since the price is right, has sold like hotcakes to boot. Bought it for like $2.00 (DLC included) in the Summer Sale.

Indie Game: The Movie CLAIMED

Really enjoyed this one. A very rare look into the game industry. Although it has its flaws, this is a kind of movie that we definitely need more of. It’s a documentary on the struggles of the indie industry, a drama following the unlikely releases of Super Meat Boy and FEZ, and a character study of four very different personalities all wrapped up in one.

Cave Story+ CLAIMED

Every so often, a game comes along that makes you sigh in contention and think, “yes, this is a game in its purest form.” Cave Story was just an absolute blast to play, beginning to end. It’s part Mario Bros. 2D platformer, part Contra-like sidescrolling shooter, and yet it feels nothing like those two games that I mentioned. It has a charm and a whimsy all to its own, and it’s an excellent example of a game that’s just good, clean fun.

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A Christmas Tale

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So it’s Christmas, and like every year, I got some games. I challenged my sisters to come up with a game that they would like to watch me play (very rarely do they want to play co-op games; they much prefer having me play through the story mode while they take in the ride passively). I gave them no criteria whatsoever and they came back with Alan Wake, of all things, which I was secretly very proud of them for buying. Of course, they love psychological thrillers, but I have no doubt that this game is going to scare me shitless because I’m a huge pussy when it comes to anything even remotely connected with horror. We’ll be playing this one at two in the afternoon with all the lights on.

The first time I got any games for Christmas was back in 2000. I had received my first console, a Nintendo 64, earlier that summer, and I was more than happy to keep playing Pokemon Snap ad infinitum. I didn’t even ask for any games, so I have no idea how my parents picked these out, but I ended up with Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask that Christmas. I got to beating those games a lot over the next year (and playing a lot of the Kirby minigames with my sisters), and I can honestly say that The Crystal Shards remains my favourite Kirby game to this day, while Majora’s Mask is arguably my favourite game of all time. I beat the latter again only a few months back, and it holds up even better than I remembered. Smart, understated dialogue that does as much within the confines of an imperfect, late ’90s translation as humanly possible, a story that is beyond fucked up, a tried-and-true combat system, an emphasis on sidequests over story missions…it was a weird game, and that’s what made it special. Of course, I didn’t fully appreciate it when I first played it on Christmas 2000, and I certainly wouldn’t have even understood as much as I did without the fancy Player’s Guide my parents also got me. Regardless, I don’t think I could’ve asked for a better first gaming present than Majora’s Mask.

I’m not sure when I’ll stop asking for games for Christmas. Probably when they stop making good ones, which is like never. Anyway, time to pop in Alan Wake and scream loudly because I’m a huge wuss and possibly still afraid of the dark. I still can’t even watch The Shining, for Chrissakes.

Video Game Violence

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Predictably, the dialogue surrounding the Newtown shooting has veered toward the influence of violent video games (Adam Lanza played them, because why wouldn’t he, he’s a murderer, right?). I always feel nervous about tackling the hot-button issues like feminism in games, game violence, and game addiction because it’s tough to stay completely on top of the literature (which is generally flaky anyway, since the world’s top researchers don’t give a shit about games), not to mention picking a side without treading on people’s tightly-clutched biases is always a challenge. This isn’t specifically about Newtown or even about the NRA’s horrifying press conference this afternoon, which named Grand Theft Auto, Splatterhouse (retro cred!), and some obscure Flash game I’ve never heard of (Kindergarten Killer) as greater dangers to American safety than a lack of gun control, but rather my own opinion on a fairly broad and loaded topic that has kind of been simmering since the mid-nineties and has flared up every time there’s a school shooting.

I think the first truly violent game I purchased was Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes in 2004. I had to get my mother to come with me to EB Games because I was too young to even own a piece of identification with my age on it. Of course, I was always a pretty good kid, and I always erred on the side of caution when it came to media ratings (I asked her if she was okay with buying me Super Smash Bros. Melee a few years earlier because I was 11 and it was rated Teen). This was partially because I was afraid of serving life in prison for buying a game while underage (right), but also because I had heard the horror stories about kids “acting out” moves from Mortal Kombat and ripping each others’ hearts out of their chest cavities or something. So when I bought Metal Gear Solid, it was with a feeling of trepidation; I didn’t want to see the Cyborg Ninja slicing soldiers in half and suddenly get brainwashed into going on a killing spree. I was afraid of the effect that excessive gore and violence would have on me. And hell, Snake was a smoker too, wasn’t he? I didn’t want to smuggle cigarettes in my butt and get lung cancer either.

But the violence in The Twin Snakes was almost laughably unrealistic and heavily stylized by Silicon Knights with the intention of looking nice in slow-motion. The famous scene where Gray Fox slices up a bunch of Genome soldiers wasn’t a sickly realistic portrayed of guts and gore, but more like someone had coated that Shadow Moses hallway in a fine red mist. Arterial sprays looked like the soldiers were spritzing red wine vapor from spray bottles hidden somewhere in their throats.

That was eight years ago, of course, but enhanced graphics haven’t really lead to a more realistic portrayal of gore in games. Many people say it’s the realism of the violence depicted combined with a conscious action on the player’s part (pull the trigger!) that makes violent video games influential as regards “killing simulators,” but violence in games remains unrealistic compared to its other media counterparts. The average CSI or Criminal Minds episode is still more disgusting to me than the latest Mortal Kombat, which is less of a serious bastion of controversy today and more of a goofy, over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek nod to those first games that pissed off parents so much in the nineties. If anything, I’d say TV and movies are the worst perpetrators of the “gore in media feeds violence” argument, for me anyway. The most talented art designers in the games industry have yet to match the talents of Hollywood makeup crews responsible for stuff like the Saw series. I can’t even watch that stuff because it’s too realistic for me, and I’ve played with real cadavers and participated in real surgeries.

Of course, gore isn’t always what people mean by “video game violence.” In the amazingly shitty Goldeneye: Rogue Agent, shooting people would result in fucking blue sparks coming out of them. But despite the lack of gore, you’re still killing hundreds of henchmen fairly violently. The argument is that Goldeneye is teaching you to point a gun at another human being and pull the trigger without feeling any remorse, or that Street Fighter is teaching you the same thing about fistfights, or even that Carmageddon is teaching you the same thing about reckless driving. The vast, vast majority of games involve some sort of combat system or game mechanic that involves one character harming another; it’s been that way since Donkey Kong threw barrels at Mario, or since you shot at each others’ ships in Spacewar! It’s always tempting to say that violence is inherently a part of mainstream film as well, but hundreds of super-popular chick flicks say otherwise (of course, those give unrealistic expectations of sex and relationships, but that’s a whole ‘nother story).

Here’s the thing, though; I would be lying if I said that game and other media violence hasn’t desensitized me to real-world violence somewhat. When I see grisly stuff on the news or in the ER, it shocks me less than it did before seeing gallons of blood in Left 4 Dead, although that could also be because I’m older now and I have a more jaded worldview or something. I’ve bought Nerf guns because I thought it would be fun to have Halo-esque shootouts with my friends. Real guns make me incredibly nervous, but if I miraculously found myself in the army during wartime, I imagine I’d feel less remorse about shooting the enemy simply because I’ve done it before in a game, hundreds of times.

So what stops me from shooting up a classroom full of kids? Most certainly my upbringing, which has taught me hurting other people is, in simplest, toddler-understandable terms, “bad.” The law, and the threat of life in prison, is another factor. The guilt, shame, and remorse I’d feel afterward are also strong points against mass murder. Remember, these are the feelings of someone who’s generally all there mentally (most days, anyway), so it makes sense to me that even factors as simple as these would be enough to keep me from massacring children. Perhaps games have desensitized me to violence a little, but proper discipline is more than enough to keep me from “acting out” murderous rampages in games. I imagine it’s the same way for most people, since millions of people play Call of Duty but only one of them shot up a school. So what failed with that one guy? What psychological circuit breaker tripped in his brain that told him it was okay? Desensitization by violent games can only go so far, so whatever the deciding factor was for Lanza, you and I both know it wasn’t video games.

The Spike Video Game Awards Rundown

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Last Friday, I watched the Spike Video Game Awards in their entirety for the first time in their ten-year history. Rather than instinctively killing the feed the first time I see something embarrassing, I decided to soldier through the whole show this year, no matter how painful. While it still reeked of trying too hard (never has Samuel L. Jackson been more unlikeable, and if Zachary Levi and Marlon Wayans left this planet for good, I wouldn’t mind), the general consensus is that this year’s VGAs were less offensive that usual. Aside from a rather classless move in which many disappointed winners received their awards on the red carpet, the VGAs smartly replaced onstage teabagging with a live orchestra, and a yearly championing of dudebro shooters with promotion of non-mainstream fan-favourites like The Walking Dead and Dark Souls. Personally, I thought it was okay, because while I was mostly infuriated any time someone unconnected to the games industry opened their mouth, I still think it legitimately improved upon previous shows.

The red carpet pre-show feed worked well when people like Casey Hudson and Cliff Bleszinski were interviewed, since they could actually deliver knowledgeable and interesting quotes on the industry. I thought Cliffy B was particularly well-spoken; he came across as a guy with a well-grounded, objective view of the industry, and he seemed like someone who knows exactly the kinds of games he wants to make. Compare his insightful thoughts with those of the hired movie celebrities like Samuel L. Jackson (who admitted he doesn’t play video games other than “sports” and was generally an ass to interviewer Justine Ezarik) and the indescribable Marlon Wayans (who also said he doesn’t game, spent 95% of his interview talking about his son’s pubes, and spent the last 5% plugging his new movie about “black people in a haunted house”). The poor Weird Al doppelganger that GameTrailers TV had doing the pre-show tried his best and delivered his scripted questions capably, but the guy is as charismatic as Michael Cera impersonating a dead fish, and it’s clear that his co-host Ezarik doesn’t know a fucking thing about video games. And then, of course, they handed out awards on the red carpet, which generally followed a pattern you could probably predict: GTTV personality calls nominee over for interview, personality tells nominee they won an award and hands it to them without any ceremony, winner visibly undergoes mixed feelings of surprise, embarrassment (ah, I see I didn’t get one of the important awards), and disgust. It was tough to watch, because these people deserve a lot better for their hard work. I know that even at the Grammys some awards are handed out before the show due to time constraints, but not on the red carpet, which is just embarrassing for the recipient and more or less a public shaming in front of their peers. Perhaps the worst one was the Grammy-nominated (!) composer Austin Wintory, who, upon being handed the VGA for Best Score by a journalist on the red carpet, sarcastically quipped, “Oh…what a scoop for you!” Poor guy. At least he’ll have Hans Zimmer, John Williams, and Howard Shore to hang out with at the Grammys instead of fucking Marlon Wayans.

The live orchestra added a touch of class to the evening, and it made me wonder whether event organizer Geoff Keighley is perhaps more in tune with what the hardcore gaming community wants than he lets on. For some reason, gamers go apeshit over orchestral versions of just about any piece of game music, and having the live orchestra provide the soundtrack for the many game trailers shown throughout the evening was a nice touch. Having the lead violinist dress like a dominatrix was puzzling, although not unwelcome.

Another example of Keighley showing that he’s done his homework: the big reveal wasn’t a new dudebro shooter or another superhero game of questionable quality (the nerds would love it, right?), but Dark Souls II. A franchise that’s moderately successful at retail but by no means mainstream, yet critically acclaimed and well-loved by the masochistic side of the community. Among hardcore gamers, it’s cool to claim you like punishingly difficult games, and Dark Souls is one of the hardest in recent years. Everyone got excited by this, and kudos to Keighley for convincing a Japanese developer that a relatively obscure American awards show was the place to reveal their highly anticipated sequel.

And then there’s The Phantom Pain. When I first watched it, I honestly thought it looked like crap. It seemed weird and dark just for the sake of it, and the constant barrage of text was poorly written with a dramatic overuse of punctuation. And then NeoGAF started making all these connections to a hypothetical Metal Gear Solid V, and suddenly I’m staying up ’til 3 AM uncovering a vast MGS conspiracy. Amazingly, I love MGS‘ horribly convoluted story and I love Kojima’s tendency to just get wacky from time to time, so this Phantom Pain nonsense is right up my alley. Call it a guilty pleasure. Whatever this ends up being (it better not be a Vita game, so help me God), colour me thoroughly interested.

Still, the less said about some of the celebrity “guests,” the better. The running theme of the VGAs seemed to be “IT’S SAMUEL L. JACKSON, BITCH,” which ended up being about as juvenile as it sounds. His Tough Black Guy schtick is admittedly timeless, but the overuse of the Samuel L. Jackson “persona” felt like so much pandering to a teen demographic that has only just discovered cuss words. It’s about one step up from having Chuck Norris host the VGAs and tell jokes about himself the whole time. Marlon Wayans then plugged his impending train wreck of a movie again during the actual awards show, which made me sort of wish he would be teabagged. Appearances from the B-list cast of The Walking Dead were somewhat in tune with the target demographic (it’s a popular show among gamers and, well, everybody), but the short guy from the much-maligned Big Bang Theory? Little more than ill-conceived pandering to “nerds.”

Speaking of “nerds,” I cringed every time I heard some out-of-touch celebrity haughtily use that word. Ezarik used it constantly, much like the student council president that pretends to love all the cliques at school, but not-so-secretly thinks herself above the unattractive, the unpopular, and yes, the nerdy. Levi and his “Nerd Machine” cohorts were by far the worst offenders, as I don’t think Levi uttered a single sentence without talking about “nerd culture.” Gorgeous, popular, rich, and famous people like Ezarik and Levi are unquestionably not nerds, since I’d argue the word carries a certain social stigma along with it that no TV or film personality can possibly lay claim to. You can nearly hear the smugness in their voices as they almost jokingly speculate on what nerds like and how many nerds are here in the audience today and Jesus Christ. When Levi comes onstage and shouts “HELLO, NERDS,” I feel like I’m back in high school, getting picked on by the popular kids while they pretend to like me. When he speaks about how he started Nerd Machine because he feels nerd culture deserves to be shared, all I hear are the insincere ramblings of a guy who’s discovered that r/gaming is pretty popular these days and knows gamers are a largely untapped market.

Bottom line, I think there should be some kind of video game awards show because it serves as one barometer for our industry (though by no means a definitive or even remotely objective one), and I like seeing developers recognized for their work. I’m not sure if the VGAs fill that need, but they made a large step toward legitimacy last week. The Oscars are well-respected because they sit at the intersection of objective criticism and popular opinion, while everyone knows the Grammys only go to top-selling artists and are heavily slanted toward vacuous Top 40 music. But at the very least, the 2012 VGAs took a step away from the Grammys and toward the Oscars, as small as it may have been.

I Miss TimeSplitters

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In the summer of 2006, I picked up TimeSplitters: Future Perfect on the cheap (last copy at Future Shop!) on a recommendation from some dude on an Internet forum, of all places. The game turned out to be exactly what I was looking for at the time: a first-person shooter that wasn’t as slow and supa-serious as Halo. I mean, the AI and hit detection are both laughably bad for a game released late into the GameCube/Xbox/PS2 generation, but a close friend and I ended up playing through the game’s co-op campaign probably over ten times, and I’ve probably played through it another ten times solo. As part of a pre-exam ritual, another friend and I co-op’d the game in a marathon 10 hour session fueled by pizza and caffeine. On the multiplayer side, team battles on Training Ground, free-for-alls on Disco, and Flare Gun matches on Mexican Mission were the order of the day. Rest assured, I got my money’s worth out of this game, and it still gets some play time whenever I’ve got four GameCube controllers and an equal number of willing participants.

TimeSplitters 4 was announced at the height of our obsession with the series, so needless to say, my friends and I were thrilled. Moreover, TimeSplitters 4 appeared to promise something that no other game since has really dared to consider since: heavy parodies of other games. The series has always been wacky, and with the expanded story mode in Future Perfect it became legitimately funny and well-written to boot, but when the TimeSplitters 4 hype was at its highest in 2008, I felt like the industry was truly ready for a game that poked fun at other games. By 2008, our hobby had become a legitimate cultural phenomenon, and I felt like there was a lot of tongue-in-cheek crossover appeal in roasting Halo and Gears of War. If you tried doing that even three years earlier, I’d argue that there wasn’t enough source material to draw inspiration from, and not enough people would even understand the references or care about the jokes in the first place.

Then Haze sold like shit, Free Radical went into administration in late 2008, and TimeSplitters 4 was shuttered.

2008, and the economic woes that it wrought upon the world, was a difficult time for smaller developers. A trend originated around this time whereby one poorly received game could effectively kill a smaller studio, regardless of their pedigree, and it’s a trend that sadly continues to this day. Haze was a bland, clunky shooter that no one wanted and failed to make a splash in an increasingly crowded FPS market, and its poor retail performance combined with a Battlefront III deal with LucasArts gone sour was enough to destroy Free Radical. It didn’t matter that Free Radical once made GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark, and had a new installment in the critically-acclaimed TimeSplitters series on the way; enough resources were wasted on Haze and Battlefront III that the company had no hope of survival. Compare Free Radical’s story to that of Factor 5, who produced a bunch of brilliant Rogue Squadron games for LucasArts but went under in 2009 after the poor reception of Lair (which admittedly wasn’t competing for market share in a crowded Sixaxis-controlled dragon flight sim market, but it was still crap and sold like such). Compare it to GRIN, who developed the well-received Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter games but also went bankrupt in 2009 after releasing the horrible Bionic Commando remake and having another project abruptly cancelled by Square Enix. And the list goes on.

What kills me is that had Free Radical survived, they likely wouldn’t have had any problems finding a publisher (unlike Crytek UK’s situation today, but more on that later). In 2008, Electronics Arts was in the middle of a unique time in company history: for the first time in ten years, gamers actually liked them. Activision, with their genuinely unlikeable CEO and yearly exploitation of Guitar Hero and Call Of Duty, had suddenly displaced EA as the Big Bad of the gaming industry, and EA took their new “underdog” role and ran with it. They acquired the then-much-loved Bioware in 2007, shortly after the release of their critical darling Mass Effect, and they published cult hits Mirror’s Edge and Brutal Legend in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Both of those games were highly experimental from a design standpoint and difficult to market (and both received mixed reviews and didn’t end up selling that well, which is probably why EA returned to their old ways by 2010), but they were games the hardcore community claimed to be very interested in, so EA picked them up. Had Free Radical finished TimeSplitters 4 by the end of 2009, I’m willing to bet EA would’ve published it, given that they also published Future Perfect in 2005.

Fast forward to late 2012, where the majority of Free Radical has been absorbed into Crytek UK and the studio’s top designers (Steve Ellis, Dr. David Doak) have long since left. After three years of torturous hints, rumours, and speculation, Crytek CEO Cevat Yerli confirmed earlier this year what I’ve assumed for a long time: TimeSplitters is not a franchise that will make Crytek money, and no publishers are interested in picking up a fourth game. It’s sad but true; I would love a new TimeSplitters game, but I realize I’m one of the very few who would unquestionably pay $60 for it. Of course, Yerli probably understands that TimeSplitters has a sort of cult status among the community, and he’s realized that he can pacify them and remain looking like the good guy whose hands are tied by engaging them in a eternal struggle for attention. He’s repeatedly asked fans to leave comments on his Twitter and blog (the latter of which, obviously, no one cares about), then claims that, based on his little social media experiment, there’s not enough interest. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one, though.

I belong to a sad, desperate Facebook group that has the ultimate goal of forcing Crytek to make either TimeSplitters 4 or an HD collection of the three existing games. They seem to be operating under the delusion that if they somehow recruit 100,000 members, Crytek will be forced to take notice (in reality, I seriously doubt Crytek would make a game with the expectation of selling it to only 100,000 people). It’s been hovering at around 30,000 members for the better part of a year now, and their campaign has recently picked up since Yerli apparently pinpointed a specific Internet petition that would have to succeed for Crytek to “reconsider” TimeSplitters (one requiring ten times the current membership of the Facebook group). They’ve resorted to spamming Reddit and the Facebook pages of gaming personalities like Tobuscus, which is…incredibly difficult to watch, since they’ve had almost no success. I want TimeSplitters 4 as much as the next guy, but I think I’ve accepted that I’m never going to hold that game in my hands. Not with the way the industry is these days. There’s a need for a lighthearted, cheeky, arcadey shooter like TimeSplitters now more than ever, but experimentation among AAA developers like Crytek is at an all-time low, simply because you cannot afford to make any missteps in today’s market. No one wants to be the next Free Radical, for better or for worse.