Sunday, January 24, 2010


First, I'd like to apologize to everyone for using "good" five times in the first seven lines of my last entry. I will refrain from posting at 3 AM from now on.

Fallout: New Vegas

I've already given Obsidian a blowjob in the last entry, so I'll keep it down here. I like Bethesda well enough, I didn't mind them getting the Fallout license, and I enjoyed Fallout 3. They do atmosphere very well; all of their games are immersive and fun. Their weak point is writing. In Morrowind it was terrible, in Oblivion it was slightly less terrible, and in Fallout 3 it had upgraded all the way to serviceable with moments of okayness. Perhaps some day they will hire a couple of writers. A man can dream.

However, Obsidian is the opposite. Of the three surviving major RPG companies, they have by far the best writers. They take risks, they expect a certain level of engagement from the audience, and they're willing to overreach. They often don't quite make it, but I respect the attempt. Knights of the Old Republic 2 was the best thing Star Wars has ever produced (yes, including the movies), and if they'd had more than a four-day weekend to complete the game I think it might've even knocked Planescape: Torment off its throne as the greatest RPG of all time.

The other thing Obsidian has going for it is the team. Many of their people came from Black Isle, who made... Fallout! And Fallout 2. And the original Fallout 3, which was sadly killed when Interplay went bankrupt and got rid of Black Isle. Fallout: New Vegas is being designed by JE Sawyer, the man in charge of that original Fallout 3, and Chris Avellone is writing for it. He did New Reno, the most fun part of Fallout 2, and the Fallout Bible.

So the announcement that Obsidian was doing a full, honest to god Fallout game, with complete freedom and Bethesda's blessing... well, it was something I never expected to see and it made me unreasonably giddy. We have no information about the game yet, but I believe the first article is due next month. I'm very impressed that Bethesda would do this, especially since New Vegas will likely outclass Fallout 3 in every way; it's a big risk to let a better company into your toy box. Perhaps it'll force Bethesda to step it up on Fallout 4. And the possibility of getting a new Fallout every couple of years, going back and forth between Bethesda and Obsidian...

Starcraft 2

For most people, Starcraft is still the pinnacle of the RTS genre. It had an epic storyline (less impressive than it was in ninth grade, but well-presented), great single-player, and multiplayer that became a phenomenon no one had ever seen before. It introduced us to the twelve-year-old South Korean kid who shouts KEKEKEKE FAGGORT ^_^_^ while schooling you in your game of choice. And it's gone twelve years without a sequel.

The decision to break it into three games sent people screaming. I don't mind it. I love single-player, and the idea of each race having a campaign as extensive as the entire original Starcraft excites me. And it's Blizzard—when have they steered you wrong? I don't like World of Warcraft, but that doesn't make it bad. The rest of their games sit on my shelf, and most of them are still installed.

What else is there to say? It's Starcraft 2. About fucking time.

Deus Ex 3

Oh, boy.

As you have probably gathered, I love Deus Ex. It is, to me, the greatest game ever made. Planescape: Torment tops it in the story department, but as a whole experience Deus Ex is unmatched. No one's even come close.

Like every successful game, it got a sequel. Deus Ex: Invisible War took the Deus Ex formula, removed all the good parts, then shit in a box and charged $50 for it.

Okay, I'm being unfair—my real opinion is Invisible War wasn't that terrible. If it had been its own game, with no Deus Ex connection, it would've been a solid seven and people would've forgotten about it within a year. And I sympathize with the creators. Making a sequel to the best game of all time is a tall order; I wouldn't expect them to top or even equal it. Something reasonably close would have been fine. It's hard to pull a Terminator 2. However the fact is that it was a massive step down. This was the beginning of the era of simplification, where a game being complex and having a learning curve suddenly became a bad thing. Simplifcation isn't all bad—Civilization 4 was simplified yet deeper and better than any of the prior games—but bad simplification is, and that's what Invisible War did.

Invisible War had a lot of good elements (I still love the Templars) that it combined with stunning ineptitude. It removed most of the side content, like books and datacubes and extra areas. There weren't as many branches, nor as much content. Deus Ex is so massive and complex that I've always found new things on each playthrough, despite the fact that I've done at least ten. One run through Invisible War gets you most of the game. It's also a bad sign when the side-plot involving the coffee shops is as or more interesting than the main story.

Hell, just compare the box art.

So, now there's a Deus Ex 3. I'm expecting nothing from it; I can only handle so much heartbreak. Plus, the messages so far are mixed. Originally the lead developer sounded good. He talked about how the original game worked and seemed to get the concept, and endeared himself to the community by saying that they were using Invisible War as a blueprint of what not to do. Sounds good so far.

Then he said the original game had no memorable moments. What. Stepping out of the MJ12 prison for the first time is one of the greatest mindfucks in gaming. He discussed the need for more action. Some of the augmentations came out, such as the FIST OF DOOM THAT PUNCHES THROUGH WALLS or whatever in the fuck. And then there's this guy:

I like the mech-aug thing, I like some of the stylistic choices despite them not making any sense. I know I'll play it, and I'll probably hate myself for it. But why must you do these things? Presumably, you're doing a Deus Ex 3 instead of a new cyberpunk game because of a love of Deus Ex. Because you recognize its greatness, because it's a great setting and the design was amazing and it gave people something they'd never seen before. Why do you then decide to make a sequel and start tearing parts of the original out? Wouldn't you understand that people love the original for a reason and keep the sequel as close to it as possible?

I'm not encouraged. I hope I'm wrong about it.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Zapocalypse Now

I may be putting my foot in my mouth, but I think the recent surge in movies and games in an apocalyptic setting, as well as the zombie craze, is representative of a larger whole. Back in the day, the Western genre was huge. It had everything the aspiring American boomer could want: the lone, gunslinging hero, the absence of law, the stretching frontier, the founding of new settlements and all the freedom, exploration and exploitation that comes with it.

But the Western definitely petered out in our generation; rare is it that movies like 3:10 to Yuma or games like Red Dead Revolver (though that may change if they live up to the promises of the sequel) get much press or attention. We, as an audience, have moved elsewhere, and probably because there's not much left to exploring this genre.

I think that the current surge in apocalyptic movies and games is the second coming of the Western genre, and this accounts for this recent popularity. These games and movies share similar characteristics, they establish a frontier, they create a lawless world and they present the player/viewer with main characters who must create their own law and rules in a world gone half crazy.

The Frontier

The frontier, in the literature world, is a really big deal. It is representative of the American Dream; with the frontier, there's always room for expanding success. There's always room to make one's own path in life, and strike out from the world with just one's wits. The frontier represents a mentality in the American mind.

With satellites, population booms and other technological and economic growth, the American frontier, as we know it, has been effectively eliminated. We made it to the other side of the country, and we've settled in every place in between. There's nowhere new to explore. But the American mind still needs a frontier; it is important to our way of life and thought. So we continuously establish a new frontier. The oceans. The Internet. Space...the final frontier.

And, I believe, apocalypse settings. Suddenly the world, which has been fully explored, fully realized gets wiped clean. Now we have a clean slate, a fresh world to explore and conquer; a new place to settle and establish. Sure there are remnants of the old world, but a majority of them lose their meaning. There's little time for libraries and books, more basic needs must be met. Survival, mainly. You need a gun, both to get food and to not become food. You need a means of travel, and you need shelter. That's it.

Any of this sound familiar? Look at Fallout 3. Look at books and movies The Road. Zombieland. Dawn of the Dead. Borderlands. Left for Dead is more about immediate survival in a world that is currently losing its frontier, but imagine the Left for Dead world in another ten years. The Zombie Survival Guide. The Book of Eli. I am Legend. Bioshock too. I even googled "dead frontier" and the first thing that popped up was an MMORPG zombie apocalypse game named the same thing. All of these are lands that require a new frontier, and carry all the traditional themes of a good Western.

A Lawless World

Lawlessness represents freedom and autonomy. For the Western genre, this is critical. It allows a place where individuality has the most value, and internal morality rules the land, nothing else. It places the most emphasis on you, and whether or not you have the means to succeed and advance in a world where you have only your own moral compass to rely on.

Lawlessness also invites the possibility to impose order, and to take charge where no one else previously could. Imposing order, even over a few individuals, means power, and power is everything in the Western. Power can mean having a bunch of lackeys, having the biggest, baddest gun, or having the most attitude. With power brings advantages, and it is critical for survival in a lawless world.

A Lone Hero

The lone hero in the Western allows us to place ourselves in his position. This is always a guy that has the knowledge of the land and the way things work. He's, essentially, a badass. Think Clint Eastwood. John Wayne. Will Smith in I am Legend. Denzel in The Book of Eli. Woody Harrelson in Zombieland. You in Fallout. Borderlands. Left for Dead.

The hero gives us a means to establish order, or at least a way to traverse the lawlessness, and a means to explore the frontier. The hero needs to be hardened and unshakeable in his moral stance, regardless of what it is.

I think the parallels in these apocalyptic settings --and I include zombie games as a subset of this great apocalypse theme--and traditional Western genre games are all too glaring to ignore, and I think (at least for the time being) we have found an effective way to replicate a new frontier to be explored, filling our need for such thoughts.

And while something can also be said that the rise in apocalypse movies/settings can be attributed to a problematic economy and a nation stressed by healthcare and war, I'm convinced it goes beyond this. There are too many parallels to the Western. I think, until this "new frontier" has been really explored, we're going to see a lot more apocalypse movies now more than ever.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Gaming is in a good place right now.

I don't know if it's a new golden age—the games of the late 90's are still unsurpassed in so many ways—but it's damn good right now. Much like TV, there's a whole lot of shit out there, but once you sift through the refuse the quantity and quality of good games are up, too. 2010's looking like another good year for me, for the following reasons (in roughly chronological order).

Mass Effect 2

Bioware frustrates me. They're good at what they do, they make reliably good games, but they could be so much more. I feel like a parent with a brilliant kid who won't apply himself. No one does the bog-standard RPG better than Bioware, but they've been mired in that bog-standard part for a decade now. Every Bioware RPG is fun, solid, and utterly devoid of risk (note: I never played Jade Empire). Their refusal to innovate in any way is almost a signature of their style at this point.

Mass Effect was no exception. I loved it, but it did not attempt to go beyond. Occasionally the game would run up to the line, put a toe over, and just when you thought Bioware was going to outdo themselves, it would step back. The biggest example of this was at the end, when you confront Saren on the Citadel. One way to deal with it is to convince him of his error, and he kills himself.

This stunned me. Not because it was new—Black Isle did it in 1997 with Fallout—but because Bioware had never done anything like this before. Being able to skip a final battle through dialogue is fantastic design for an RPG and went well beyond what I was expecting. I was impressed.

Then Saren got resurrected and you had a boss battle. Thank you for jacking off in my eye, Bioware.

But, in the end, I still had fun. And what I've seen of Mass Effect 2 makes me think that maybe, just maybe, they've decided to stretch themselves and try something new. We'll see; I've been burned before.

Bioshock 2

When I first heard there was going to be a Bioshock sequel, I was devastated. Bioshock was near perfect, the story resolved fully (such a rarity in games), why the hell were they raping it with a sequel? Stay away from my Art Deco, goddamnit. Then when it came out that Ken Levine wasn't in charge, I decided to just forget it.

Then it turned out the new designer was the man responsible for the Shalebridge Cradle in Thief 3, the most terrifying experience in the history of gaming. Okay, you have my attention—especially since Bioshock was supposed to be scary, and it fell short of that mark. As information has come out, they've won me over. I'm not convinced it's going to be good, or that Bioshock needed a sequel, but I'm willing to look.

And I get to drill people in the face, so it can't be all bad.

Alpha Protocol

Now this is what I'm looking forward to, more than anything else.

First, it's Obsidian Entertainment. I love these people. Obsidian is the surviving part of a family of gaming companies; first Black Isle, which then budded off into the wonderful and sadly departed Troika, then when Black Isle got shitcanned and Interplay went under, most of them ended up forming Obsidian. On my list of top ten RPGs, six come from these three companies. So, you give me a new Obsidian RPG and I'm in.

Then stack on the heavy Deus Ex feel. The unique setting—there aren't many spy games at all, and no RPGs that I'm aware of. It's strange to call the real world a unique setting, but for this genre it is. Chris Avellone and Brian Mitsoda were the main writers. The variable paths, from psychopath to never killing anybody. The fact that it's impossible to see more than half the game on a single playthrough. Relationships that go beyond "save box of kittens/set box of kittens on fire".

If Alpha Protocol isn't my personal game of the year, I'll be surprised. Is it unwise to anticipate that much? Probably, but Obsidian's never let me down before.

I'm going to break this post in two here, because the remaining games may or may not be out this year: Fallout: New Vegas, Starcraft 2, and Deus Ex 3. And oh do I have thoughts about Deus Ex 3.

Friday, January 15, 2010

"Avatar" pulls heartstrings

I was pretty blown away by a recent CNN story on James Cameron's movie "Avatar." It seems thousands of people are feeling depressed and even suicidal after watching the movie, both as a result of not being able to live on the beautiful world of Pandora and lamenting what we, as a race, has done to the earth.

This is escapism at its finest. People get so immersed in a world that they'd rather live there? You can draw the lines to video games yourself.

I'm surprised; I didn't think the first major push for a 3D movie would have this sort of effect. This is the sort of thing science fiction writers write about virtual reality and true and complete sensory immersion.

I've seen the movie, and the 3D really does make you feel much closer to the scene, almost as if you are a part of it. But a world is a world, no matter how pretty. I get into movies for the characters and the story, and Avatar didn't cut it for me. Maybe I'm just a cynic.

Point is, I'm guessing few people saw this sort of fallout from a movie like Avatar. And as I'm guessing that we're going to see a major 3D push in the next 5 - 10 years, this sort of thing is only going to get worse as the technology gets better.

How can we cope with these newfound feelings of wanting to leave our real lives behind? "Within the fan community, suggestions for battling feelings of depression after seeing the movie include things like playing "Avatar" video games or downloading the movie soundtrack, in addition to encouraging members to relate to other people outside the virtual realm and to seek out positive and constructive activities."

So you can stop feeling so depressed by keeping inside the world as much as possible. Or you can, you know, go outside.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Deus Ex Retrospective Part 3

The common theme of all these articles is the depth that Deus Ex had, a depth that few other games have even attempted. Maybe nothing better represents this than the political philosophy and literary connections made throughout the story and world.

The game uses paranoia to encourage the player to think about what's going on. It doesn't just hand you a world, expecting you to accept it and move on. The game forces you to confront and think about every aspect of it, really think. Bioshock did something similar, for a more recent example. What's the difference between a conspiracy and a government? Do you know? What about between a freedom fighter, a soldier, and a terrorist? When does security destroy freedom? Is democracy a good thing? How much evil can you accept if, in the end, it's for the greater good? Can humans rule themselves, or do they require external authority? Is mass communication a good thing? When do we stop being human?

I could wax on, but instead, I'm going to quote the game at you. This is just a small sample, but illustrative of the quality of writing (and the thought behind it) that we're dealing with in Deus Ex.

"When government surveillance and intimidation is called 'freedom from terrorism' or 'liberation from crime', freedom and liberty have become words without meanings."

"When due process fails us, we really do live in a world of terror."

"Every war is the result of a difference of opinion. Maybe the biggest questions can only be answered by the greatest of conflicts."

"What good's an honest soldier if he can be ordered to behave like a terrorist?"

"Somehow the notion of unalienable liberty got lost. It's really become a question of what liberties will the state assign to individuals, or rather, what liberties we will have the strength to cling to."

"Being a soldier isn't just following orders, it's following those orders in the service of a higher cause. When that cause is betrayed, we're not soldiers anymore, just pieces on a chess board dying for the wrong reason."

"I guess it's not surprising to find a few crooks in a place protected by security procedures. The shadow of secrecy... it protects indiscriminately."

"There's a time and a place for security, but the legislature has to stay vigilant, or there will be abuses."

"The checks and balances of democratic governments were invented because humans themselves realized how unfit they were to govern themselves. They needed a system, yes. An industrial age machine."

"Without the use of computing machines they had to arrange themselves in crude structures that formalized decision-making. A highly imperfect and unstable solution."

"The human being created civilization not because of willingness but of a need to be assimilated into higher orders of structure and meaning."

"God was a dream of good government."

"The individual may be remembered, but the organization persists and thrives. A single artist, a single general, a single hero or a single villain may all die, but it is impossible to kill a people, a nation, an idea - except when that idea has grown weak and is overpowered by one that is stronger."

"Listen to me. This is real freedom, freedom to own property, make a profit, make your life. The West, so afraid of strong government, now has no government. Only financial power."

"A system organized around the weakest qualities of individuals will produce these same qualities in its leaders."

"You can't fight ideas with bullets."

"Ever wonder why big car corporations pay two percent tax and the guys on the assembly line pay forty?"

"Corporations are so big, you don't even know who you're working for. That's terror. Terror built into the system."

It's a game, not Plato, but the fact that they were even willing to try to add real depth and thought to it deserves respect. Modern developers should pick up the torch.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Power of Place

In addition to replaying Deus Ex, I've been working my way through Grand Theft Auto IV. I think it's the best of the series, and I think that's because Liberty City is perfect.

The previous games had this too, from what I've read. I've played them all, but I wasn't in Miami in the 80s or Los Angeles in the early 90s. They feel like a caricature of those places—which they are, of course. Liberty City is as well, but it's also the best re-creation of New York City in any game I've played.

By best I don't mean most accurate. Liberty City isn't a perfect copy of New York by any means. The layout is generally the same, but the city's too small, one entire borough is missing, and the geography is similar but not accurate. But I think GTA4 proves that kind of exact copying is unnecessary.

The first thing I noticed when I was wandering around Broker (GTA4's Brooklyn) was that I immediately recognized it. The geography is wrong, the streets are wrong, the names are wrong, but they re-created every neighborhood's feel. The culture, the kinds of buildings you see, the languages you hear, the food, the architecture. Hove Beach is Brighton Beach the second you walk out and see the lines of shops and Cyrillic signs. Outlook is Prospect Park once you see the park itself, the slopes of the streets, the old rowhouses. Lancaster feels uptight just like the Upper East Side. South Bohan is the concrete block that so embodies the Bronx, complete with memorial murals spray-painted on the walls.

When you play GTA4, you are stepping into New York. It's a fictionalized version, still a caricature, with every aspect of the real New York stretched to the extreme. It's the crime-ridden, broken down, seedy version of New York that ended fifteen years ago but still persists in fiction because, while you might not want to live there, the tough as nails New York that challenges and threatens you on every corner makes for better drama than the safer than Provo, Utah New York of today. Yet it still feels just right.

This makes the game. As far as gameplay goes, GTA4 isn't much different than the previous entries. The driving system has been modified, for the better in my opinion; the previous games fucked this up royally. You would think a game based on thieving autos would bother to have a decent driving mechanic from the beginning. There are still plenty of dumb design decisions. Which brings me to an aside—there is no excuse to release a game on the PC that does not have the ability to save anywhere, at any time, in as many slots as I want. If you think that ruins the experience, you're dumb and you're welcome to not take advantage of it, but for the love of all that is holy, STOP LIMITING SAVES. We finally got rid of jumping puzzles, this is the next relic of the 80s that needs to die a horrible, horrible death. Especially when your missions are as unforgiving as the ones in GTA. Stop. It.

Anyway. As I was saying, GTA4 isn't a massive departure from the previous games. It's so much better than them because of Liberty City. The city has personality and is a character in its own right, just like the real New York. Setting is one of those things that can take a game from good to classic. As an example, Total Annihilation and Starcraft came out around the same time, reached a similar audience, and both were exceptional games. Total Annihilation was as good or better than Starcraft, had (and still has) a strong cult following, but never gained the kind of success Starcraft did. One big distinction between them was that Starcraft had a strong setting and a storyline that captivated its audience, while the setting and story of Total Annihilation was incidental at best. Few people can remember anything of it beyond the names of the factions. It had to survive purely on gameplay strength, and while it had that in spades, it just wasn't enough to grab players the way Starcraft did.

GTA4 is one of those games that combines strong gameplay with a truly memorable setting, and I don't think it will be forgotten.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Ganked IRL

This story hit the news a few days ago. Police tracked a criminal across the Canadian border with the help of Blizzard providing the guy's WoW account information.

I always get an itchy feeling when I read about games in the news. It's always this weird pseudo-news, where a game and "those people" who play them briefly interact with the real world. The whole article is structured just as any crime-report would be, but there are little disconnects from the norm that lets you know everyone is a little uncomfortable with the whole process.

The "two worlds" really are portrayed as two different places. The writer, Patrick Munsey, sets up the dichotomy: "Indeed, World of Warcraft is among the most popular online pastimes today, boasting more than 14 million players in dozens of countries — including Canada. But this is the Internet, and Blizzard is in California." But this is the internet, indeed. Beware those who enter not knowing the rules of this strange realm.

The media struggles in bringing these two worlds together. There is a clear standoff between the two sides of the line. There is a simultaneous acknowledgement that the two are different and a push to shove the two together. Look at the uses of the word "subpoena:"

"...putting everything we had together gave me enough evidence to send a subpoena to Blizzard Entertainment," said the deputy. The problem here is that he didn't actually subpoena Blizzard in the real legal sense, his subpoena was "nothing more than a politely worded request, considering the limits of his law enforcement jurisdiction and the ambiguity of the online world."

The point of a subpoena, from what I understand, is to require a certain kind of compliance by an individual (by it appearance by a witness, or to divulge information) under threat of punishment. It is not a politely worded request that Roberson was "under the assumption that they wouldn't [respond to his request]." Roberson, straddling the line as someone who as both played WoW and works as a cop, seems to be twisting in the wind, buffeted by the obscure internet forces who seem to be impervious to real legal action. I grant that this isn't actually the case, but it's hard to read this article and not feel that way.

Roberson's use of the word subpoena shows how no one really understands how to handle when the real world and the internet clash. The article portrays the real world, and Roberson, as continuing to bow down to the internet and its rules. Roberson used the IP address to get a home address and "I got a longitude and latitude. Then I went to Google Earth. It works wonders. It uses longitude and latitude. Boom! I had an address." Surreal.

Don't get me wrong, I applaud Roberson for using creative means to nail this criminal. The fact that law professionals are considering games and the internet to use toward their advantage is interesting and appropriate for these times. But in reading an article like this, it's hard not to look at Roberson and think of just how subservient he was to this internet culture (or, at least, how subservient he was portrayed).

It was like reading an article where an undercover guy had to know all the right gang handshakes and passwords to take the kingpin down. If I "subpoenaed" a gang I'd predict they wouldn't respond, too. It feels like he just got lucky that Blizzard threw him a bone.

I'm aware that there are legal issues and otherwise involved in asking Blizzard to provide account information. My point is that the way this story was covered really illustrates the startling disparity in the way the world actually views the internet and its subculture(s) of gaming. People don't know how to talk about it, and the media doesn't know exactly how to cover it. People pull familiar words and concepts and ideas to fit games into the mold, but a next step needs to be taken where gaming has its own definition and associated culture.