The “Always Online” Debacle

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If you’re a dedicated gamer and you have a Twitter account, chances are you’ve heard about the Adam Orth controversy. For those of you just joining us now, Kotaku posted an inflammatory article about Microsoft’s plans to have their next Xbox require a constant Internet connection in order to play games (yes, even single-player ones). Given the article’s total lack of credible (or even named) sources, it seemed like the usual Gawker clickbait, but then Orth, a creative director at Microsoft, weighed in on the controversy with some inflammatory commentary of his own. He claimed he wished every device was “always on,” then told people complaining of unreliable Internet connections to “deal with it” while offering two of the most puzzling analogies I’ve ever heard. If my cell phone has a spotty connection, I don’t not buy a cell phone; I switch providers so I get the service I want. Are you picking up on that analogy, Orth?

I was actually browsing Orth’s tweets the minute his account was locked; one minute, I’m seeing misguided aggression toward a consumer base, and the next, a corporate muzzling. Sure, you’ve got guys like Cliff Bleszinski (who has a natural talent for missing the point of every major video game controversy) suggesting that Orth was a pussy for protecting his profile, but I think there’s very little doubt that one of Orth’s bosses at Microsoft told Orth, in no uncertain terms, to shut the hell up. Bleszinski has also been defending Orth by asking detractors, “Have you never said anything stupid on Twitter?” Well, sure I have, but I’m not a creative director at Microsoft spewing aggressive rhetoric regarding potential company secrets in a highly public forum. Context is everything, Cliffy B.

The last two blow-ups over always-online DRM were the Diablo III and SimCity incidents. I have to admit that at the time, I found the public outcry more amusing than anything else; neither game was really on my radar at launch, and to this day, I still don’t own either of them. I felt kind of bad for the fans who had bought these games out of loyalty or interest and were punished at launch because of an uncompromising authentication requirement and a melted server, but the sheer ridiculousness of the situation still tickled me. But even as I thought that the lengths to which a company would go to protect their sales were kind of hilarious, I could still recognize that, some day, this kind of draconian DRM could infect a game I’m actually interested in, especially given that all that hate over the DRM did little to slow sales. Imagine my surprise when it was suggested that Microsoft was planning to do this to an entire console that I was interested in.

Like pretty much everyone on the planet, I am vigorously opposed to an always-online console. I live in Canada, where our Internet is apparently both expensive and slow compared to the rest of the world. The way my living arrangements are set up, my bedroom (where my 360 is currently located) does not get Wi-Fi, and there is no ethernet port within range of the Xbox. Because of this, I’m pretty much forced to stay offline (no great sacrifice, since I don’t have Live Gold and I’m not a big fan of online multiplayer games). However, if I want to download some DLC, I have to physically move my Xbox and my bulky TV (always a two-person operation) into the basement so I can get a wireless connection. Keeping my setup in the basement for extended periods of time is not an option, so I have to move everything back upstairs if I actually want to play said DLC.

Before you ask, yes, my computer is continuously connected. But it’s in my den, where there is still no Wi-Fi, and my only Internet option is a single ethernet port. So the “you’re always online with your computer, so you can be always online with your console” argument is neither applicable nor feasible. And even though I’m supposed to have a “constant” Internet connection, it drops out periodically, even via ethernet. Have you ever seen me sign in and out on Steam a bunch of times in a row? Really annoying, right? That’s my Internet cutting out. And if you want a really good picture of how terrible Canadian Internet is, I’ve been getting 70 kbps download speeds lately via ethernet on the fastest available network. We’ve had countless service technicians come and go, all of them puzzled at how none of their quick fixes ever seem to patch our Internet. So I’ve done my part to fix my terrible Internet, but ultimately, I’m at the mercy of the service providers. An environment like this is not conducive to having an always-online console. Adam Orth’s suggestion of “move to the city” doesn’t fly, since I live in the damn city.

If my Internet cuts out (which it surely will from time to time), I’m suddenly unable to play my Durango games, even the single-player ones. If I lose the Internet and want to play a single-player game on Steam, I simply start it in offline mode and it works like a charm (those who put forth the incorrect notion that even Steam has always-on DRM seem to conveniently forget this little fact). But what happens when my Internet is fine and dandy, and it’s the Xbox Live servers that go down? Come on, it’s not like this has never happened before. If the authentication servers crash, no one will be able to play any of their Durango games. That would be a public relations disaster of the highest caliber. And the best Internet connection in the world couldn’t save you from this travesty, since the issue is on Microsoft’s end.

As someone rightly pointed out on Twitter, we should be asking why Microsoft wants us to be continuously connected to the Internet. They can hide behind fluffy smoke and mirrors like cloud computing (???), helpful push notifications, and silent, automatic updates, but I don’t think there’s a person alive that doesn’t believe this is really about DRM and putting the kibosh on the hordes of modded, pirate-commandeered consoles out there. If your console is not online and connected to Microsoft’s official servers, your game will not be authenticated, and you will be unable to play it. Gamers were already vehemently opposed to DRM even before 2012, but Diablo III and SimCity have whipped them into a frenzy. I’m not at all shocked that Twitter blew up the way it did in the wake of the Kotaku article; a decision like this, if it turns out to be true, could easily be a console-killer. I think it’s even worse than the Diablo and SimCity situations because it affects every single game released on the console, not just a select few titles (read: Ubisoft games in previous years) that can be safely ignored if you don’t want to deal with the DRM. If you want to buy any game for Durango, you will have to deal with its always-online DRM every single time. Historically, many games released on Microsoft’s consoles have also been ported to Sony’s; I can imagine tons of people picking up the PS4 version instead of the Durango version simply because it means no wacky DRM.

I’m not a boycott kind of guy, mainly because I know that I’ll eventually cave and buy something if I want it enough, despite the fact that some things about it might piss me off. However, if Microsoft goes through with this always-online plan for Durango, I will not buy it. I can’t! With my Internet environment, it would be like buying a $400 brick that sits on my bedroom counter, taunting me with error codes about not being able to find a Wi-Fi signal. I was already thinking about the PS4 after the fantastic specs dropped, but now I’m strongly considering making the switch next generation.

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Hideo Kojima’s Wacky Marketing

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Now that all of the shine and sparkle of PAX East has given way to the stateliness of the Game Developers Conference, the gaming world’s next big announcement will likely occur on March 27, 2013, the date of Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima’s GDC keynote address. GDC isn’t typically the go-to event for big game announcements (and neither is PAX, for that matter), but the last few years have seen the conference slowly evolving into a mini-E3, largely thanks to the fact that up-to-the-minute reporting has become so fastidious that even a relatively low-key, peer-to-peer event like GDC gets tons of media scrutiny. Some devs have chosen to take advantage of GDC’s growing exposure to do some promotion that borders on the level of E3 overtures, and it appears that Kojima, Fox Engine in hand, is the latest to pick up on this trend.

When the teaser trailer for Moby Dick Studios’ The Phantom Pain was revealed at the Spike VGAs, I was initially apathetic. The protagonist was silent and almost completely obscured by bandages, preventing any kind of immediate human connection with the viewer. The major action of the trailer involved said protagonist crawling around a hospital while faceless soldiers gunned down the rest of the patients, a scene that I’m sure was intended to be brutal but just came across as heavy-handed. The dramatic text that interrupted the FMV every few seconds seemed to indicate that the game’s writer was in dire need of either an editor or a translator. And then the final few seconds of the trailer promptly nosedived into weird horror/psychological thriller territory. The game was off my radar just as quickly as it had appeared.

However, within hours of the game’s announcement, those intrepid Internet sleuths over at NeoGAF had cracked the code: The Phantom Pain could very likely be a facade for a new Metal Gear Solid game. There was a mountain of evidence: a fiery silhouette appeared to be MGS3‘s Colonel Volgin, while a shadowy silhouette appeared to be MGS1‘s Psycho Mantis; the badly bandaged protagonist possessed the trademark beard of series mainstays Big Boss and Solid Snake; the soldiers wore identical garb to the XOF troops of the upcoming Ground Zeroes; the doctor who awakens the protagonist from his coma is a dead-ringer for Metal Gear 2‘s Dr. Kio Marv; the game’s logo appeared to be hiding the words “METAL GEAR SOLID V” in its negative space. On the business side of things, there was absolutely no record of Swedish Moby Dick CEO “Joakim Mogren” before the Phantom Pain reveal (“Joakim,” of course, is an anagram for “Kojima”), despite his claim that he had worked for a large American developer before starting up Moby Dick. The game’s website didn’t list a publisher either; how likely could it be that a Swedish start-up with no established pedigree and no publisher managed to snag an expensive promotional slot during the VGAs, an event that showcased trailers from heavyweight publishers like Epic, Namco Bandai, 2K Games, and THQ (God rest their souls)? If The Phantom Pain was truly a Metal Gear Solid game, it would be published by Konami, and sure enough, Konami personnel were caught wearing The Phantom Pain t-shirts at a VGAs afterparty. Given Kojima’s history of being something of a bizarre marketer, it all seemed just crazy enough to make sense.

Now that we’ve finally met the amusingly bandaged “Joakim Mogren” via interview with Geoff Keighley (who is, apparently, the only member of the media in on the joke), and now that Mogren has promised that “all your questions will be answered” at GDC (after he “accidentally” revealed that The Phantom Pain runs on Kojima’s Fox Engine), all we can do is wait until tomorrow. While we’re waiting, let’s reflect on how great Kojima is at promoting his games. Whether you love Metal Gear Solid or hate it, the reality is that the series has a rabid fanbase, sells by the truckload, and is a darling of the critics. Kojima has surely realized that he can actually do whatever the hell he wants when promoting a new MGS game, since Konami appears to have given him full creative control of the series (likely due to all of the Kojima-directed MGS titles being bestsellers), and no matter what he says or does, the game’s gonna sell like naked hotcakes anyway. He can play with the fans’ emotions; he can be whimsically cryptic; he can outright lie to his audience and they’ll gobble it up wholesale, and they’ll even thank him for the ride when he finally drops the curtain.

Kojima is, of course, no stranger to sly marketing methods. His original plan for MGS2 was to name it MGS3 and have it consist of the “Plant” portion; as the player proceeded through the game as Raiden, he would undoubtedly be wondering what the hell happened to MGS2 and, by extension, Snake. Then boom, you beat Solidus, the credits roll, and all of a sudden the Tanker portion (starring Snake, titled “MGS2,” and chronologically a prequel to the Plant segment) is unlocked. Ultimately, the Tanker portion was unlocked first so as not to confuse the slower gamers among us, and both segments were collectively titled “MGS2,” but vestiges of Kojima’s original plan can be seen in the awkward placement of the game’s tutorial (Tanker, which comes first in the final build but was planned to be second, has no tutorial; several hours of gameplay later, players are finally treated to a long-past-overdue tutorial at the beginning of Plant, since it was originally supposed to be the game’s first segment). However, all of MGS2‘s promotional material indicated that Snake would be the game’s main character, and fans naturally assumed that MGS2 was a continuation of Snake’s story; upon learning that Snake was permanently replaced with sissy-boy Raiden about 1/5th of the way through the game, the fans were furious. Thank God the Internet circa 2001 wasn’t the acidic fanboy-filled cesspool that it is today. The MGS2 bait-and-switch remains of the greatest non-malicious, developer-controlled deceptions in video game history.

Then there’s MGS4‘s infamous gameplay trailer which strongly suggested that the game was a military-style first-person shooter, a genre that was just entering the height of its popularity when the trailer was released in 2005. I can only imagine how many faces paled upon seeing two minutes of yawn-worthy stop-and-cover action from behind the stock of an assault rifle. Of course, the twist was that the FPS camera was simply a random grunt’s point of view, which we realize when Snake suddenly appears within the soldier’s field of vision and stealthily kills him. The rest of the gameplay shown is standard MGS “tactical espionage action” in third-person, and its seven long minutes likely gave attendees ample opportunity to breathe several sighs of relief. Kojima had harmlessly screwed with everyone once again. He correctly guessed it was okay to mislead everyone and make them mad at first, because he knew that he would quickly win them back after the twist was revealed.

I’ve watched the reactions to The Phantom Pain over the past few months and found them increasingly intriguing. First nobody cared about the game, because it quite honestly looked boring as hell. Then when people discovered the MGS connection, everyone smiled knowingly and proclaimed Kojima to be a clever, crazy sonofagun. Of course, there were plenty of contrarian coolsters who said that The Phantom Pain looked cool until it turned out to be an MGS game, that Kojima’s schtick is getting old, that misleading your audience is a cardinal sin, that whole thing was dumb, and so on. Fun police, indeed. People continued to talk passionately about the game for a few weeks, then interest died down when it became clear Kojima wasn’t ready to pull back the curtain just yet (even though the whole Internet now knows that The Phantom Pain is somehow related to MGS). The game has only recently started to receive an enormous amount of attention again in the wake of Mogren’s interview and his promises of a full reveal at GDC (and a cryptic tweet from Kojima that revealed he was working on a GDC trailer with the filename “TPP”). Again, Kojima’s marketing at its finest. The game’s hype level is at a fever pitch as we enter GDC.

Kojima’s marketing is a breath of fresh air in this industry. Although it’s currently more transparent than it’s ever been (you can thank Kickstarter rewards and the vast majority of publisher-less indie devs for that), the game development process is still a relative black box to the consumer. We get an announcement and a trailer at a large trade show, then nothing for months, then a new trailer, then nothing for a few more months, then a flurry of screens, trailers, and previews/reviews just before the game’s launched. Total elapsed time, from announcement to launch: usually about six to eight months. That’s a long, boring time to go with only piecemeal scraps of information to build hype, but there’s little that can be done about the length of the development process. To fill those gaps, Kojima has done something substantially more fun than a trailer and a few screens: he’s got everyone spinning crazy conspiracy theories about whether The Phantom Pain, a seemingly run-of-the-mill action-thriller with a confirmed developer in Moby Dick and a lead designer in Mogren, is in fact not what it seems. His experiment was undoubtedly a huge success; everyone’s talking about this damn game, and it seems like everyone’s got some crackpot theory about how The Phantom Pain ties into the MGS canon or who Joakim Mogren is (Cliff Bleszinski? A CG creation of the apparently photorealistic Fox Engine? God, people are funny sometimes). I appreciate the engaging way Kojima has toyed with the community during this whole ordeal, but that being said, I’m not sure if anyone else could pull this off without the industry boiling over in rage. Shigeru Miyamoto is certainly charming enough to put forth a believable effort, but Nintendo subscribes to the industry standard of opting for silence and secrecy over lies and red herrings, and Shiggy’s just too damned sincere to play devil’s advocate the way Kojima does. In a staid, cagey industry like ours, thank God for Hideo Kojima’s particular brand of delightful chaos.

In Defense of Easy Mode

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I felt a little uneasy upon slipping Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance into my 360 for the first time. I’m a diehard Metal Gear fan, and my studies of the series’ complicated, nonsensical lore border on an obsession, but this wasn’t the plodding, predictably rhythmic stealth gameplay I was used to; Revengeance is a game for the hair-trigger crowd, a game where the best defense (or only defense, due to the lack of a dedicated “block” button) is an unrelenting offense. I hadn’t played any of Platinum’s previous games, nor any of Revengeance‘s spiritual predecessors like Ninja Gaiden or Heavenly Sword, so I began to feel like I was a little bit out of my depth, this being my first lightning-quick melee action game and all. I had heard prerelease rumours about the game’s difficulty being comparable to Platinum’s previous super-hardcore hit Bayonetta, and a friend of mine (who is much, much more skilled at these kinds of games than I am) confirmed the rumours upon release. I became worried whether I’d even be able to beat the damn thing, and I hadn’t even played it yet.

As I began adjusting my menu options upon starting a new game, I paused at the difficulty select screen. I knew that if I picked “normal,” I would undoubtedly kick the bucket more than a few times, and I really, really wasn’t looking forward to trying to take down those infamous Platinum Games bosses. So I struggled with some shame for a few minutes, then decided I really didn’t give a damn whether anyone knew I played Metal Gear Rising on easy mode, and just went ahead and dialed down the difficulty.  It proved to be the right decision; although the game is laughably easy (not once have I ever been in danger of dying), easy mode has allowed me to just power through the repetitive combat and quickly get from cutscene to cutscene, which is admittedly what I’m really playing the game for. In all honesty, I think I’m also enjoying the combat far more than I would’ve playing on a higher difficulty; the absence of any imminent danger has allowed me to get really creative with my combos, allowing me to go for style pointz rather than fall back on the frantic button-mashing that characterized my early acclimation period.

It’s not often that I play through a game on easy mode (in fact, Metal Gear Rising is the first one I can recall), and it’s possible that’s due to that ugly Internet stigma against games these days being too easy (a thinly veiled “uphill both ways in the snow” argument if there ever was one). If there’s anything that a hardcore gamer is more insecure about (other than fake gamer girls), it’s being perceived as a casual. I’ve never considered a punishing level of difficulty to be  a selling point for me, mainly because I get absolutely no pleasure from a masochistic, frustrating gameplay experience. I don’t find replaying a section of a game over and over again very fun; I enjoy quickly making progress and moving on to see the next piece of new content. There becomes a point where the “challenge” quickly boils over into “apathy,” and I can no longer bring myself to keep banging my head against a wall.

Part of my decision to play MGR on easy mode also had to do with what I personally wanted out of the game. Like all Metal Gear games, I was really just in it for the story, for the melodramatic monologues to the poetic treatises on the nature of war. The story itself , with major conceits centering around the war economy, electrolytes, and orphan brains, is just the kind of psychotic, nonsensical mess I was hoping for. So by allowing myself to just waltz through the combat, I don’t feel like I was sacrificing a major part of the experience; someone who played Ninja Gaiden for the super-difficult combat sequences might, but I didn’t. There are certain difficult games that I’ve indeed mastered in the past (Fire Emblem and Super Meat Boy come to mind), so it’s not like I can’t handle challenging games, but I ain’t always up for it. I play games for pleasure, not to work myself up into a rage.

Having tried easy mode and actually enjoyed it, I think it’s entirely possible that I might make the switch for other games in the future. When I began playing Fire Emblem: Awakening last month, a game in a series that I’ve always played using self-imposed limitations to artificially make the game harder (why I continue to do so is beyond me, but it’s like tradition now, I guess), I considered turning permadeath off and enabling mid-battle saving, which many diehards would claim is blasphemy. I ended up leaving it on, and I suffered many character deaths and forced restarts over the course of the game.  Awakening is one of those rare games that is so damn good I don’t care if I have to replay an hour of gameplay, but I still wonder if I could have saved myself some time by just disabling permadeath and enabling saving. Let the trolls have my supposed “dignity”; in the future, I’ll just enjoy my games on whatever terms I please, thank you very much.

The Question of Game Previews

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Last week, Gearbox’s highly anticipated and heavily delayed Aliens: Colonial Marines was released to widespread critical disgust, which was a surprise to many because the game had previewed so favourably. It turned out that the demo shown in advance of the game’s release wasn’t actually a part of the game itself; it had been created as a standalone showcase of the game’s best features. Many games journalists found this dishonest and hammered Gearbox for it, and then the community lashed out against these same reviewers for supposedly not calling out preview builds of the game for looking awful (the truth is, they were specifically engineered to not look awful). Then some journalists began turning on each other, claiming they’re everything that’s wrong with honesty in the game industry because previews are inherently dishonest. Then Jim Sterling performed his usual dramatic white-knight Internet King gesture and claimed that Destructoid would no longer write previews of games, and many writers agreed with his stance.

In light of this, I’ve had to ask myself whether game previews truly serve a purpose. Do I actually appreciate a sneak peek at upcoming titles, or do I feel like I’m just being sold something? As someone who was raised on Nintendo Power propaganda, I think my answer is yes to both, and I’m okay with it. The main point of a game preview is unquestionably to drive up hype for the game in question, thereby increasing sales upon release, but buried underneath all that evil corporate darkness is the fact that we still get an impression of what the game is like without having to wait long months until the release date. Hopefully it’s not an exclusive preview so several writers will weigh in on the same demo, and by comparing notes between their write-ups, one can piece together a pretty accurate picture of how the game is coming along. As someone unconnected to the games industry, I appreciate getting that sneak peek, however secondhand it may be.

When a game is coming out that I’m eagerly anticipating, I absorb as much prerelease information as I can. This includes demo previews, since they generally give the best idea of how the overall gameplay is looking (isolated media like screenshots, feature lists, and soundtrack snippets can only do so much). More often than not, it’s not whether the game looks glitchy and rough that prevents me from putting it on my to-buy list; it’s simply whether the style of gameplay is compatible with my own interests and gaming prejudices. Nine times out of ten, the bugs will be hammered out of a preview build before release, but even if a game looks great in a preview, I can still decide against I watched the Sony PlayStation 4 reveal tonight (more on that in a few days, once I’ve had time to collect my thoughts), and even though Watch Dogs looks fantastic, I’m still not sure it’s a game I want to play (still haven’t gotten on the sandbox bandwagon quite yet).

I try not to get carried away, though. There was a time when I would unquestioningly buy any new game on Day One if it was in a favourite series (Zelda, Fire Emblem) or developed by a favourite company (Kojima Productions, Bioware). I’ve become more wary in my advanced age, and if there’s a game that I’m harbouring even the remotest of doubts about, I’ll wait for the reviews before pulling the trigger. Reviews, like previews, are flawed and dubious pieces of criticism, but get enough of them together and you form a pretty accurate picture of what the retail build is like; this is why Aliens got crucified last week. I was on the fence about Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, but was relieved to see that it got good reviews, and I imagine I’ll pick it up at some point this year; conversely, I was skeptical of the Wii U as its November launch rolled around, and once reviewers ran afoul of its firmware issues, I decided to wait until the launch bugs had been ironed out (this turned out to be a prudent decision anyway, since, you know, it seems like we won’t get a killer app until 2014).

In the case of Aliens, it’s been said that the Gearbox was dishonest for providing an unrepresentative demo, and the media was lazy for not doing their homework.

Attacking The Backlog

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I’ve built up a sizable backlog over two years of Humble Bundles and Steam Sales, and now that I find my console and handheld options depleting (I’ve been working through a string of good-to-great DS and 3DS titles lately, like Paper Mario: Sticker Star, Pokemon Conquest, and the incredible Fire Emblem: Awakening), I find myself turning to my PC for entertainment. You’d be hard-pressed to find a platform more devoid of quality JRPGs than the PC, and honestly, that’s just what I need right now after playing through a whole string of JRPGs in a row. For my next game, I’m looking for something that’s either not a huge time investment, or something that’s fast and visceral. Here are a few games I’ve been considering, so perhaps anybody that’s played these can help me out:

Atom Zombie Smasher – Picked this up in a Humble Bundle I don’t know how long ago, and I’ve always felt oddly compelled to try it. I only have a vague idea of what the game is about, but the screenshots look fun enough.

Darksiders – I love the heavy metal art style, and by all accounts, this game was a pretty decent Zelda clone. Got it for, like, a buck in that THQ Humble Bundle Fire Sale.

Fallout: New Vegas – I got this mainly because it’s made by Obsidian and written by Chris Avellone. The guy is just a master of morally ambiguous writing. The nuclear wasteland Wild West setting is also appealing. Even better: I’ve never played a Fallout game before, so there isn’t really any bar that I’ve set going into the game. Exciting!

Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD – I got The Oddboxx in a Steam Sale a few years back, and have since received a free upgrade to the HD version of Stranger’s Wrath. Many call it a cult classic, creator Lorne Lanning calls it “sabotaged,” but who knows. It looks quirky and actiony, which could be a good combo for me right now.

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale – I’ve actually beaten this game already, but after playing the addictive Game Dev Story a couple weeks ago, I’ve been bitten once again by the simulation bug. My goal this time would be to collect all the adventurers, since I mostly focused on the store last playthrough.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time – It’s a classic action platformer, right? Surprisingly, I’ve never played it or any of its gritty, Godsmack-filled sequels. I wonder if it still holds up ten years later.

Brutal Legend – This game was very flawed. I’ve beaten it once and really didn’t think I’d ever revisit it, but almost three years later, I feel like I want to just experience that world one more time. For all the awfulness of the RTS segments, it really does have a fantastically stylized world, and I’m a diehard metalhead, so they get bonus points for the best licensed soundtrack since Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Still, surprisingly unfunny for a Tim Schafer game, especially in the second half of the game.

Star Wars: Empire at War – Another game I’ve already beaten countless times, but pummeling Rebel scum with a well-coordinated fleet of Star Destroyers is so damn satisfying.

We Need More Real Games Criticism

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Finishing up Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter the other day left me somewhat hollow and empty, not because the book was bad, but because I was saddened that there were so few pieces of literature like it in existence. Extra Lives is a collection of critical essays penned by a war reporter who just happens to also be a severe video game addict; unlike a lot of games writing, Extra Lives is extremely well-written, thought-provoking, and sincere. Bissell, as wordy and educated as he seems, is just like the average hardcore gamer in the sense that he’s sunk hundreds of hours into a library containing games as diverse as Grand Theft Auto, Mass Effect, Eternal Sonata, and Braid, and he alone seems to be moved to actually dissect these games in a meaningful way and explore what it is about them that is so compelling. I’ve tried reading a lot of books about video games over the last few years, and they seem to be evenly divided between rote histories of the industry’s origins (All Your Base Are Belong To Us by Harold Goldberg) and pseudo-sociopolitical analyses of gamification written by “game designers” who aren’t really game designers (Reality Is Broken by Jane McGonigal; anything by Ian Bogost). Neither is as compelling as the critical-yet-personal essays presented in Extra Lives.

So why is Bissell the only one in the industry (and he’s not even in “our” industry; at the end of the book, Bissell admits he’ll likely never write about games again) attempting to write semi-serious games criticism? I love reading stuff like this, and you can find tons of similar material in the film and music industries, so why is “intellectual” games writing mostly limited to historical accounts of the industry and discussions of the associated culture, neither of which is really about the games themselves? Sadly, Bissell provides the obvious answer in his preface: on the Venn diagram of people who enjoy reading criticism and people who enjoy playing video games, the overlapping section is very small.

I suppose another problem is exactly how to critique video games without relying on traditional methods of criticism more suited to other media. You could talk about how emotional and uncharacteristically soft the music is in the JENOVA fight immediately after Aeris dies, thus ensuring that the boss battle is merely an afterthought, and your attention remains focused on the surprise death of a pivotal character only minutes earlier as you go through the motions of JRPG battle conventions, but that’d be music criticism. You could talk about how stirring the cutscenes are in Metal Gear Solid 4, or even how stirring the lack of cutscenes are in Half-Life 2, but those both require criticism of cinematography. You could talk about how Wind Waker‘s art design is loaded with expression and timeless to the point that the upcoming HD remake really doesn’t look like much of an improvement, but then you’re critiquing the art. How do how argue about how one’s game’s design is superior to another, especially when genres of games typically have far less in common with each other than genres of music or film? 95% of films share common themes of story progression, dialogue, and the actors’ portrayal of characters, while 95% of music is about melody and key. Video games, however, are a bit harder to pin down. Do Super Hexagon, Pokemon, and Uncharted really have that much in common in terms of gameplay? And how can you comparatively critique a bunch of games that are so dissimilar in their design?

About the closest thing we have now to “critical essays” (my preferred form of video game criticism) are the typical game reviews you see on IGN, Gamespot, and the like. As vapid as this type of writing tends to be (often the fault of the writer, not the medium; I find “professional” game reviewers to be far worse writers than film or music reviewers), I’m not totally against it; I think it serves a good purpose in telling the reader whether the product is worth buying. As long as the skeptical reader understands that game reviews are business and marketing tools first and critical literature second, a well-written game review has a welcome place in the pantheon of games writing. But for games writing to transcend the layman’s “review” and become actual intellectual criticism, we’ve got to be able to examine these games beyond whether this year’s iteration is better than the last and, as is becoming increasingly common now that the $60 retail standard is being muddied by the digital marketplace, beyond their price tags and their supposed hour-by-hour “value” to the consumer. We won’t be able to do this until we can write about games the same way top critics have been writing about other forms of media for the better part of a century.

Some say all criticism should be objective, and for the most part I agree. What made Bissell’s book so compelling, though, was that it was equal parts objective analysis and personal anecdote. He would explain why the unique mechanics or presentation of a game made it so fun to play, then go on to recount exactly which emotions said game stirred in him over the next thirty hours of gameplay. This particular style of criticism was a poignant reminder that no review or essay should ever be treated as anything more than one person’s opinion, no matter how far they go to remove all traces of themselves from the argument. Now, if we want games criticism to be at the highest level of pure, “serious” criticism, then we can’t write this personally (Extra Lives doesn’t shoot for the “serious” peak anyhow), but I still consider this objective-anecdotal blend to be a far more real, intellectually stimulating style of writing than any game review from IGN. At the very least, it tempers its philosophical extrapolations with entertaining contextual side-stories, thus expanding the pool of likely readers.

My search for intelligent games commentary is actually what initially led me to WordPress. After a lengthy internal debate about whether I could successfully defend my opinions against the vicious Internet hordes (previous interactions with legendarily savage communities like GameFAQs and Kotaku had soured my outlook on online discussions), I finally decided I just wanted to share my opinions and practice my writing, and if people didn’t like it, I could always turn off the comments and operate in a vacuum (which admittedly defeats the purpose). Fortunately, the community here turned out to be composed of enthusiastic, intelligent, articulate, opinionated people who shared my desire to discuss the games industry in a meaningful way, and it’s become my most positive experience with an online community to date. I’ve found blogs that have delivered both scathing objective criticism and deeply personal accounts of gameplay, both of which were exactly what I was looking for from “real” games writing. Games bloggers seem to write for their brethren; they understand that most of their followers watch the industry as closely as they do, or have played as many games as they have, and their writing skills are good enough to deliver an articulate, thoughtful response. It’s this kind of passionate, well-informed writing that I truly wish would make the jump to professional literature.

Extra Lives was an excellent book, but it shouldn’t be the only one of its kind. We need more people who actually understand the ins and outs of the industry to write intelligent, critical essays designed to be read by other people who follow the industry extremely closely. There needs to be a tacit agreement between the author and the reader that they both understand the topic at hand, and thus can they both dive into a dense, difficult critical article headfirst without wasting time explaining game mechanics that are universally understood among hardcore gamers; no more of this condescending “In Super Mario Bros., the goal is to jump and grab coins…” stuff. In fact, one of my favourite parts of Extra Lives is in the appendix of the second edition, where Bissell posts an excerpt from an interview with Leigh Alexander in which she attempts to dissect the metaphors of Metal Gear Solid 4. Recognizing that no book would be long enough to explain MGS4‘s massively convoluted plot, Bissell simply prefaces the interview by warning that the next bit is “for Metal Gear Solid brown belts only.” If you’re writing a book about games criticism for intelligent hardcore gamers, that’s how every essay should be prefaced. The game industry is still young compared to other types of media and its fans are still being dismissed as mindless, antisocial, violence-loving drones, so perhaps once we finally break out of this stereotype (and we’re inching ever closer to it as games continue to permeate mainstream media), we’ll finally have proper, thought-provoking games criticism of an intellectual nature.

I’m Not Dead, I’m Just Playing Fire Emblem

FireEmblem

It’s been a while since I last posted, although that was certainly not my intention. See, a wonderful thing came into my life last week, a true blessing from on high. Nah, it’s not a baby; it’s just Fire Emblem: Awakening, only one of my most-anticipated games ever and possibly the best game I’ve played in the last year.

I’m still young enough to be within that coveted 18-25 year-old male demographic (the one that likes all the violence and the sex, apparently), but as I age, I find I’m getting less excited by new game releases, even ones that I undoubtedly would’ve lost my shit over as a younger man. After buying Skyward Sword and Super Mario 3D Land in November 2011, I didn’t beat the former until late this summer, and I didn’t even play the latter until May. I didn’t feel sick with anticipation in the months leading up to their respective releases, and I wasn’t caught up in the pre-release hype machine that usually resulted in me checking for new screenshots, trailers, anything, several times a day (I couldn’t sleep the night before Pokemon Stadium came out because I was rewatching all the commercials in my head all night).

But then Fire Emblem: Awakening released in Japan last year, and my interest went from cautious curiosity (the last two Fire Emblems, one of which was Japan-only, were both lazy remakes that threw away much of the series’ steady progress) to desperate need once I saw all the features packed into this game. I’m a Fire Emblem diehard and a jaded, fairly negative person to boot, but even I thought the game looked damn impressive. As the game neared its February 5 release date, I wondered last Tuesday how I could ever wait another full week.

Then came the rumours: Canada broke the street date a week early. Fuck Canada. Hey wait, I’m in Canada! Do you think?…nah, I’m never that lucky. Still, I called my local EB Games just to be sure, and the slightly surprised clerk on the other end told me that she hadn’t gotten to calling me about my preorder yet, but yes, they had them in today and were going to be selling them today, street dates be damned. A half-hour later, I couldn’t believe it: my most anticipated game in years, and I had it a week before I was supposed to. I let myself cackle, just because it felt like the thing to do.

Sooo… this is actually what I’ve been doing instead of writing: playing Fire Emblem in some nega-universe where someone fucks up, every EB Games in Canada gets the game shipped a week early, they sell it the next day, then they stop selling it the next day once the hammer comes down (guess the House of Mario wasn’t too happy about it), then they tell everyone who was unlucky enough to not buy it during the Great Street-Date-Breaking that they have to wait ’til the 8th due to “shipping problems.” That fucking sucks, bud.

I hate to gloat, but usually I’m never quick on the draw for things like this. I miss every great Steam or Amazon sale because I don’t find out about it until a day later, and I never get those free game codes that devs sometimes tweet. But finally, my luck came through when it mattered most (to me, anyway).

So here I am, about to beat a game that comes out in a few hours. I’d like to thank whoever got fired in EB Games’ shipping department for allowing this to happen. Your brave sacrifice will be remembered by Canadians for all time; we’ll erect an ice sculpture of you in our parliamentary igloo, right next to the throne from which Celine Dion holds high court.