Sunday, June 27, 2010

Weekend of Sloth

The wife was away this weekend, which meant NO PANTS. Um, sorry. It meant I could play games all weekend without feeling guilt or shame, and let me tell you - I AM NOT YET SATED.

A quick recap:

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
I rented this a long time ago, hated it, sent it back. Figured that was the end of it. But: my wife is the biggest Star Wars nerd I know, and when she saw an E3 preview of the sequel, she was like: dude, you need to play that. And play the first one again, so we know what happened. So I did. Turns out that it still sucks. Well, no - it's just janky as all fuck. The story is interesting - the ending is pretty gigantic, when you think about the canon - but the actual gameplay is repetitive, the controls are unresponsive, and most of my player deaths felt awfully cheap.

Puzzle Quest 2 (DS)
It took a little while to grow on me, but I'm definitely on board for this sequel. That said, it's awfully sluggish - at least it feels that way for someone who plays a shitload of Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook. The RPG elements are still neat but the menus are hideous - there are far too many button presses to see what you have equipped, for example. There's a few other things that it could steal from Facebook - it would be nice to get credit for linking up corners, the way you can on BB. In any event, it will replace the puzzle void left by the excellent Picross 3D, which I did end up finishing 100%.

My goodness. When I had to choose between S/S and Blur, I chose Blur, and I chose wrong. I've spent the bulk of the weekend finishing the single-player season, and it's amazing. I'm hoping that my friends who have it will continue to play it - it ought to be incredible online.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Games v. Art v. Time

I was hoping to avoid entering the "Games as Art" debate, because I felt that the question was (a) insulting and (b) obvious. Of course games are art. Or, rather, they can be, if that's what they strive for. Film is an art form, but I defy anyone to defend a piece of shit like, say, "Transformers 2" as art. Similarly, Roger Ebert saying that games can never be art is, ultimately, meaningless; no matter how smart he is, or erudite, he has not actually played any games, and therefore his argument - however well-constructed - is irrelevant. My personal opinion is that if you haven't experienced a thing, you are not inherently qualified to have your judgment matter.

But I had an epiphany of sorts last night and I figured I might as well bring it up, especially as I was a bit surprised at what side of the fence I ended up on. Let me set the scene, then, as the prelude has everything to do with the conclusion.

A great deal of my down time yesterday at work was spent reading various Rock Paper Shotgun articles about the 10 year anniversary of Deus Ex; this one is as good a place to start as any. Deus Ex - at least the first one - is still held as a pinnacle of game design; it did the whole "choice" thing long before Peter Molyneux and Bioware started offering it as a bullet point. You could pretty much do anything you wanted to - you could be stealthy, you could be lethal, you could be manipulative, and the game responded in turn. I, like a few of the participants in the RPS article above, played and enjoyed the game when it first game out, but hadn't played it since. And so, by the time I got home last night, Steam had put both Deus Ex 1 and 2 on sale for a ridiculously low price - I think they were $5 combined - and I felt obligated to download them and re-experience a masterpiece.

Let me offer up a quote from the RPS article now, because it's somewhat crucial to my eventual point:
I want to cling to my memories and experience, not have it tainted by age, creakiness and other people’s bluster. Even looking in on it last night, I was horrified by how not-huge the levels seemed now. I didn’t want to destroy their grandeur in my memory, so I couldn’t stay for long.
So while I was downloading the Deus Ex games, my wife and I watched Wipeout (ridiculous TV, not art) and then, because we're in that weird point of our Netflix queue where the movies we have are good, classic movies that we're never in the mood to watch, we decided to watch "Visions of Light," a documentary about the history of cinematography that I'd heard was great.

If you've read this blog with any sort of regularity, you'll know that I am a graphics whore. This also extends to film - my favorite directors (Kubrick, Gilliam, Jeunet, Gondry, the Coens, etc.) are all absolutely brilliant with the camera and use it as much as anything else to tell the story. I am a big big fan of Gordon Willis, Conrad Hall and Roger Deakins; the biggest reason why I liked the most recent Harry Potter movie was that it was shot by the same guy who did Amelie, which is one of my all-time favorites.

Anyway, so this documentary was really, really fascinating. It covered a general history of American cinematography, and showed lots of out-of-context clips which did a terrific job of illustrating the cinematographer's relationship to the art of storytelling. There were a few notable omissions - no mention at all of Eisenstein's influence, which seemed surprising, and only one Hitchcock movie ("Rebecca", which wasn't even identified as a Hitchcock film). And, of course, the film was released in 1993, which was right around the time when CGI really started to become prominent, and the transition from film to digital would seem to be as big a technological leap as the transition from black & white to color. But I digress; the documentary was really just about the evolution of the form through the years, from early silent films to the noir period of the 40s and 50s, and then to the Scorcese films of the 70s, with some specific examples of absolutely fantastic shots and how they were designed and filmed.

And one of the films that was brought up, again and again, was Citizen Kane. Citizen Kane is rightly held up as one of the greatest films ever made, and a great deal of the film's genius is due to the cinematography of Gregg Toland - indeed, Orson Welles placed Toland's name and credit right next to his, as a rightly-deserved tribute to his contributions. Just about every cinematographer interviewed in the movie held up Toland's work as the pinnacle of the profession, and as a deep influence on every film that followed.

Here's the thing: Citizen Kane still holds up. If you watch it now, nearly 70 years after its release, it doesn't seem nearly as stodgy or stiff as a lot of films from that era can, and most of its camera moves and shots are still breathtaking and jaw-dropping. It is, in short, timeless.

And this is where it started to occur to me that this notion of "timelessness" has a lot to do with the games as art debate. Because here's the thing: if you play the original Deus Ex now, as I did last night, it's.... kinda terrible. It's clunky, it's poorly acted, it's ugly. It's relative ugliness is perhaps unfair - 10 years is an eternity these days in terms of technology - but, still, if you took today's Call of Duty-playing teenager and sat him or her down in front of Deus Ex, they would probably say "this sucks" about 5 to 10 minutes in, and move on. And this is important, because Deus Ex wasn't just another first person shooter; it was incredibly ambitious and state-of-the-art for its time, and now, only 10 years later, it feels like an ancient relic.

The thing about "great art", I think, is that it can be appreciated and enjoyed regardless of when one is experiencing it. Shakespeare is still resonant today, even if the language can sound foreign. Mozart and Bach can still stir one's emotions; Michelangelo and Picasso can still inspire awe and wonder.

Gaming, however, is hampered by a multitude of artistic difficulties. One could certainly make the very valid point that the vast majority of games have absolutely no intention to be art. They may be beautiful to look at, but they are ultimately meant to exist as product. But there's more to it than that. 2 points to consider:
  1. The technology used to make (and play) games is evolving at such a rapid pace that there's no real "constant." Simply in terms of graphics, a game that looks fantastic now will eventually look shitty in a few years; but if you just factor in how a game controls, a game that you loved dearly 5 years ago is damn near unplayable now. Your memories of playing Goldeneye in college 10 years ago will not stand up to the reality of playing Goldeneye now, not after Halo and Call of Duty and everything else. Shit, my memories of GTA3 are all that game has going for it now that GTA4 has come and gone, and my experience with Red Dead Redemption has made GTA4 seem archaic in many respects.

  2. Moreover, a game that you loved dearly 5 years ago is probably on a console that doesn't work anymore, or that you no longer have hooked up to your television - or that you are no longer able to hook up to your television. I still have my Dreamcast and a somewhat large library of Dreamcast games, but I'm not sure that I can get them to work with my HDTV without going out and buying cables (not to mention that it's also a near certainty that the VMUs in my Dreamcast controllers are dead). It saddens me to know that I'll probably never get to play Skies of Arcadia again, simply because I can't. But in a way, that's good, because my memories of Skies of Arcadia do not seem to include the relentless frequency of random encounters...
So then. What now?

I was about to predict that within the next 5-10 years, the technology curve will flatten out to the extent that it will not necessarily matter how many trillions of polygons you can render per second; the human brain is only capable of processing so much. 3D may or may not take off; I think it will, eventually, but not next year (which is what Sony seems to think); I personally don't anticipate buying a new 3D HDTV until (a) the price comes way down and (b) there's enough content to support it, and I think that (a) and (b) are still a few years off. But what the hell do I know - I didn't understand the Wii, either, and the whole concept of Natal/Kinect seems more like science fiction than something I'm going to be using in a matter of months. Still, though, at a certain point, there's only so many pixels the human eye can process; games will eventually reach a finite level of graphical fidelity.

Which means that creativity will have to take over. That's what it's always done, in every artistic discipline; the rules are laid out, the forms are given shape, the boundaries are drawn, and that's when the artists can truly shine, because to break the rules will finally mean something. This is not to dismiss the truly outstanding artistic achievements in today's games, of which there are many; it is only to say that once there is a standard form, a form that doesn't require a new television and console and controller and eyewear every year, a form that every designer and artist and programmer can actually work with for more than six months without getting antiquated - it's at that point that I think we can expect truly amazing things to happen. It is at that point that we can finally have our Citizen Kane.

(I apologize if my conclusion is a little rushed; the US just scored against Albania and I'm dreaming of naming my future child Donovan.)

Monday, June 21, 2010


Someday, I will figure out a way to attend an E3 in person. I will behold all there is to behold with my very own personal eyes, ears and hands.

Because when you're not there, and the only way you can learn about things is via hastily written typo-riddled liveblogs, inebriated podcasts and awful, awful G4 television packages, it's just maddening.

That won't stop me from casting ill-informed judgments, however.

In terms of the big 3, the clear winner of this year's E3 is Nintendo, and you have no idea how strange it is for me to admit it. I covet the 3DS like a drug addict, and not just because it's a super-snazzy update to an already super-snazzy handheld; it's got games that look awesome. Epic Mickey looks amazing, and I loathe Disney. I keep hearing that Kirby looks good, but I haven't seen it in motion yet and it's not like I ever cared about Kirby before - but hey, if it's a good game, then we all win. I don't particularly care about Zelda, either, but if it's fun, it's fun.

Microsoft put on a pretty good show, too. I was unsure about Kinect, but I showed my wife Katharine the MS press conference and she was SOLD. And, really, that's the whole point. The Kinect wasn't ever designed or intended for someone like me; it's meant for someone like Kath, who ordinarily doesn't like most videogames. She doesn't like buttons; she doesn't like not knowing how things work. But moving your arms in a certain way and seeing it reflected on the TV - that makes sense. We both were intrigued specifically by Kinect Adventure (which had the river rafting mini-game and some other obstacle course thing), and Ubisoft's Your Shape Fitness program (as we were already familiar with the Xbox's YourSelf Fitness). Kath even was intrigued by Harmonix's Dance game, although you will never in a million years see me playing it. But it's not even just the games that Kath was interested in - the whole UI seemed ingenious. She was especially excited by the video chat feature, which she can get some use out of.

Sony's press conference was kinda depressing. Kevin Butler's appearance made a lot of hay, but when you think about it, what was he even doing there besides being amusing? He didn't announce anything. When one of your press conference's bullet points is a new marketing campaign, especially one devoted to the sad, sad PSP, that's kinda terrible. The biggest coup, really, was that Portal 2 will be on the PS3 - and with SteamWorks support to boot. I already know that I'll be playing Portal 2 on the 360 and my PC; if I have to play it on the PS3, I will.

Portal 2 is my personal game of the show. The 5 minutes of footage that emerged looks, in the words of Will Ferrell as Tony Lipton, SCRUMPTRILLESCENT.

But ultimately, the biggest thing I got out of this year's E3 is that 2011 is going to be amazing. The second half of 2010, on the other hand, looks... I dunno. Kinda average, I guess. 2010 has already been a great year if only for Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption, but that can't be it, right?

Monday, June 14, 2010


My expectations for this year's E3 are muted, I guess. I am underwhelmed by Kinect, at least in terms of the name; but I don't think it was intended for me. (I already have a Wii, and I only play it while seated, if I play it at all. More on that later.) The big reveal I'm looking forward to is the new 3D DS -which, I might add, is also the only 3D-related gaming thing that I care about. I imagine that most of the big surprises this year will be the 3D-ing of big titles - I've already heard about Crysis 2, and it wouldn't surprise me AT ALL if Gears of War 3D was announced.

Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth, I am 27 stars into Super Mario Galaxy 2. Rather than gushing about how inventive and unique the level designs are, let me offer up my biggest pet peeves:

1. Took me a while to figure this out, and it sucks: it doesn't matter how many lives and 1-UPs you may have stockpiled; if you save your game and quit, you're back to 5 the next time you start up. Which is LAME.

2. There have been more than a few times where the controls - which are generally spot-on - get totally wonky and cause a death. There's one Wacky Comet galaxy in particular where I literally could not figure out which way I was supposed to move the controller, which was compounded by the fact that no matter which way I moved, Mario remained still.

There, I said it. SMG2 is not perfect. Deal with it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

the post-vacation rundown

I'm back from vacation and I have a lot to talk about, and I'm not sure I'm going to be able to say it all at this particular moment. So, then, the short versions:

1. Red Dead Redemption was amazing, and among the other superlatives I could throw its way, it has (possibly) the most satisfying ending I've ever seen. I'd have to think about it a little just to make sure, but, I mean, GODDAMN.

2. Alan Wake was good, but not quite as good as it could've been, and its ending was as WTF as any I've seen. Some games take themselves a little too seriously; this game might be near the top of that particular list. Let me also say that for a game that goes out of its way to instill a sense of dread, the beyond-creepy facial animation is a nice (albeit unintentional) touch.

3. Does it mean that I have no soul if I admit that I can't really get into, or care about, Super Mario Galaxy 2? What if I qualify that by mentioning that I never had a Nintendo system as a kid, thus stripping me of any Mario-related nostalgia? I still probably have no soul, right? Figures.

4. Picross 3D is one of the best DS games ever made, and I"ll be a little bummed out when I finish it (which will probably happen by mid-week).