Thursday, September 8, 2011

Ken Levine: a Genius Game Designer

There are few people in the video game industry that I respect more than Ken Levine.  As the creative director at Irrational games (the company behind the lauded video game series Bioshock) he has continually pushed the envelope of what games can be.  While most developers look to push a games limits in the physical sense (better graphics, improved AI behaviors, better gameplay etc.) Levine's ideas are largely conceptual.  Above all else, his efforts focus heavily on innovations in video game storytelling, which in my opinion, are some of the hardest things to achieve in the medium.

It wouldn't be possible for me to talk about someone like Ken Levine without delving into the Bioshock series currently available for this generation of consoles.  Levine was the creative director for Bioshock 1 and also the upcoming Bioshock Infinite set to release in February next year (somehow 2k studios thought they didn't need him for Bioshock 2 and the game subsequently wasn't nearly as good).  In Bioshock 1 the story is set in the late 50's early 60's and revolves around a character named Jack (who you play as) who's plane has crash landed over the Atlantic ocean.  Jack survives this ordeal and quickly swims to a nearby lighthouse.  Eventually he finds his way to a bathysphere that takes him to a supposed underwater utopian city called Rapture.

This is where the game's sheer storytelling power is showcased.  Rapture itself is a dystopia.  It was one man's singular effort to create an underwater city "free of God's and Kings...only Man".  A place where the "hands off" approach of government was met with a new extreme.  Science is not held down by "petty morality" according to Andrew Ryan (the aforementioned founder and antagonist of the game).  This extreme objectivism encourages citizens of rapture to alter their DNA and allow them to do crazy things like shoot fire from their hands or use incredible powers such as telekinesis.  It also leads to death and destruction.  The citizens (with no limits or laws protecting anyone because of this extreme principle Rapture was founded upon) have abused these DNA alterations (called plasmids) and have resorted to killing each other to gain more ADAM (the compound used to create and use plasmids).

To say Rapture has become as dangerous as the lawless wild west would be a vast understatement.  The entire city is collapsing with leaks springing up everywhere.  Much of the power is out and Raptures citizens (called splicers now because they have been "splicing" their DNA to shreds) are extremely dangerous.  On top of all this danger, there is something even worse prowling the halls of Rapture: the Big Daddy's.  These genetically engineered, mind controlled monsters, donning heavily armored diving suits protect individuals known as little sisters.  Little Sisters are demonic looking little girls who go around stealing ADAM from dead bodies in Rapture and maintain Andrew Ryan's control over the city by making sure this is stockpiled for him and his followers.  As Jack you are tasked with fighting Andrew Ryan's vise like grip on the city and somehow escaping to the surface while overcoming these seemingly insurmountable dangers.

The first thing that Bioshock does is to blow your mind to a degree.  Here you are on the bottom of the ocean, in a huge city, with crazy looking and acting people running around,  and 50's art deco and music all over the place.  Talk about imagination.  Just coming up with this idea makes my head hurt.  I also can't overstate just how intelligent, and how literary at times, Bioshock can be.

Levine is heavily criticizing polarizing figures such as Ayn Rand in this game (by the way Andrew Ryan is actually a play on her name).  He uses a videogame to make social commentary and critiques a political outlook.  In many academic circles this didn't appear possible for videogames.  In fact I can imagine countless people who don't play videogames staring me in the face and saying "only books, photographs and film can do that effectively".  Levine also manages to work in moral depth to Bioshock by introducing a fascinating decision mechanic.  In the game you can fight a Big Daddy (if you choose to) and when he's dead you can decide whether or not to kill the little sister and harvest all of her ADAM (which you need as much as you can get to power up and survive) or spare her (which will give you a fraction of the ADAM you would get by harvesting her).  This morality makes a player feel something deeply.  This is yet another convention of great art that many people have declared just isn't possible in a game.

Levine's thinking "outside the box" technique is stunning.  In my opinion Bioshock is the best videogame series currently available and I can't wait for Bioshock Infinite.  If you have the opportunity to play any of the Bioshock games please do.  These are can't miss experiences that Levine has crafted conceptually and you won't find anywhere else in any medium.  Videogames offer true immersion in a world and apparently, through the efforts of people like Ken Levine, they can tell one hell of a story too.
P.S. Please watch the video I posted along with the entry.  It's one of the best openings I've ever seen in videogames or movies.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Forwarded Letter From A Disciple of Al Bundy

 It is a little after midnight and I had a piece written about innovative features this generation. But I wanna scrap that, and go on a rant.
It's Saturday night and I am home. My only night to go out is tonight, and I've spent it here. In front of my laptop, TV, and 360. The majority of my friends are unreliable idiots, which is where my love for gaming may have spawned. Games have always been there for me when I have nothing to do. Tonight I sit alone with my gaming machine. My best friend.

I will probably play NHL 11. I'll put it in, load up a ranked match, get connected with some asshole who just so happens to use the Boston Bruins. He'll score 5 goals and I'll keep pausing the game to annoy him as a final defense to get him to quit instead of myself. But I'd rather spend a night with this asshole than my ex girlfriend.

There is no point to this rant. It's Saturday night and I'm playing video games. This should be acceptable. I can stay in and watch a movie, but staying in to play video games is just outrageous to some. I'll go into work Monday morning and tell people I just "relaxed" over the weekend. Because I can't tell them how I went 16 and 5 in Gears of War 2. Although, I'm fine with my coworker telling me about some "hilarious" movie they watched over the weekend starring Rob Schneider as a red stapler.

Just some thoughts for the mind.

But check this out:


Friday, July 29, 2011

The Top 5 Most Underrated Games For Xbox 360

In my humble opinion we currently find ourselves in a golden age of video gaming.  There are hundreds of titles available on the xbox 360 and the games with the biggest budgets usually wind up getting the most notoriety.  Who isn't eagerly anticipating the next Halo or Madden installment?  The fact is there are more than a few quality titles, with significantly less press and hype, that deserve your hard earned money.  For this list I'm sticking with titles available on the 360 mostly due to the fact that its the system I play the most and it features games that appeal to the hardcore, true gamer crowd.  I also have to note that this list weigh's two important factors against each other: the games overall notoriety (sales, critical acclaim etc.) versus just how good I feel the game is, so expect some controversy. Enjoy!

5.) Borderlands: 
Borderlands was released in a year that included titles such as Bioshock 2, Assassins creed 2 and Batman Arkham Asylum and yet it is the best of that group.  Built from the ground up with hardcore gamers in mind Borderlands is the first perfect mix of RPG and first person shooter I've ever personally come across.  When I think about this game its hard to understand why it doesn't get more love.  With over 13 million guns to choose from, hundreds of missions to tackle solo or with a friend (the co-op in this game is truly a transcendent experience), areas that are downright huge, legitimate character customization and blazing action, who wouldn't want to play this game?  Borderlands has slowly turned itself into a hit (if the sales were any higher I wouldn't include it in this list and if they were any lower it would be much higher on this list) but it took much longer than it deserves.

4.) Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas 2: 
As far as next generation shooters go Rainbow Six Vegas 2 is probably the least remembered and least appreciated.  Everyone is going to remember how Gears of War brought you in-depth cover systems or how Call of Duty rewarded you with new equipment, but Rainbow Six Vegas 2 was a game that got both of those things remarkably right at the same time and never really got its due praise.  The game prized taking cover and being tactical in your approach, not jumping all over and strafing left to right.  It also had a fantastic system of rewarding players for their efforts with new weapons and body armor.  A blast to play cooperatively as well, RSV2 was a great game and sadly I do not think we will see a sequel.

3.) Condemned: Criminal Origins
If theres one word to describe the first condemned game ,other than underrated, it's visceral.  The combat in condemned is very well done but it is absolutely brutal.  This launch title ignored first person shooter traditions and made most of the game an up close and personal combat experience.  Whether you armed yourself with a ripped off pipe, 2 by 4, or fire axe, every fight was going to feel desperate, tense and shocking.  What else could you expect from a game that notes its biggest influences were the movies Seven and Silence of the Lambs?   Condemned: Criminal Origins let you take control of a detective hunting down a serial killer and scared the hell out of you along the way.  It is truly a classic that deserves more accolades and admiration than it ever has (or will) obtain.  

2.) Alan Wake
Ever wonder what it would be like if Stephen King made a video game?  Alan Wake is the answer.  Inspired heavily from his storytelling techniques Alan Wake puts most of its emphasis on the story itself.  Told in "episodes" Alan Wake is a one player experience that is truly cinematic and unique.  Alan is a writer who has a severe case of writers block and moves to a remote town in a forest (looks an awful lot like the maine settings from King novels) named bright falls, with his wife Alice.  Suddenly Alice goes missing and all sorts of spooky, supernatural, and crazy twists start happening.  On top of all of that the sequences (episodes) are told out of order so you want to replay the game even after its over to try and decipher the story as a whole.  Alan Wake has ,for some strange reason, flown under everyones collective radar.  A sequel may be in the works but the demand for it does not seem as high as it really should be for a game this special.

1.)  Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
What can I really say about Castlevania: Lords of Shadow other than it surprised me more than any game I've ever played?  After Castlevania 64 I had pretty much given up hope that any game from this famous 2 dimensional franchise would be able to transition well to 3D and the current console generation.  This game changed all of that however.  It should really be a rule that any time Hideo Kojima has anything to do with a video game that game should be given the benefit of the doubt. With 50 levels on two discs, incredibly complex and enjoyable combat, great platforming, mind bending puzzles and one hell of a story, Castlevania: LoS is a serious contender for the God of War action/platforming crown (I know, I know, some will say Castlevania ripped off GoW but honestly that series did it to Castlevania first if you really think about it).  In addition to all of those features the voice over work in this game is really special featuring Patrick Stewart, Robert Carlyle, and Natasha McElhone as main characters.  Oh and when you finally beat the game after about 25 hours of solid gameplay you will be treated to the best post credit scene I've ever come across in a game.  If you have the money any of these games would be a great pickup (by the way condemned and rainbow six are probably very, very cheap right now) but I think Castlevania LoS would have to be my number one recommendation.  It's a great game.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Top 5 Sequels That Raped My Childhood

Nostalgia. No one wants it to be tainted. All the games enjoyed as a child are losing their grace. Overdone sequels, unnecessary remakes, and unsuccessful reiterations. This is a list of great franchises sodomized by terrible ideas, that in turn sodomized my memories. 

Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat

While this game was well received by critics and is amongst the top titles for the Gamecube, this game took everything that was great to the fans and threw it out. After seeing how well Donkey Kong 64 fared coming into the 3D world, the series took an awkward turn when you had to use bongos to control Donkey Kong. Not to mention the absence of virtually all past characters in the series. Even the 3rd entry into the series on SNES, with the absence of DK, wasn't this awkward. 

After seeing how well done Donkey Kong Country Returns was on the Wii, this game stands out even more on what is otherwise a great series.         


 Sonic Adventures

Where to begin on this one. For the past decade many developers have found ways to rape the memories left from the days of the Sega Genesis. It began with some fondling, introducing Sonic Adventure to the series. Which wasn't overall a terrible game, but no one wanted to see Sonic jogging around a city and getting into comic book themed boss battles on street corners with cops surrounding the vicinity. Then there was a snowboard added in on Sonic Adventure 2. Then there was Sonic Unleashed, where you get to see Sonic as a werewolf. A werewolf. I at least have to give credit to Sega for trying to give back to old faithful fans with Sonic The Hedgehog 4.


Rapist  (multiple)

Perfect Dark: Zero

The multiplayer. The multiplayer in Perfect Dark during the N64 days. It brings games like Golden Eye to mind. One of the most great looking games at the time and one of the most addicting multiplayer games to play with friends on the couch. Rare never gave us another sequel until two generations later, where they delivered the steaming pile of shit that was Perfect Dark: Zero. Who knew steaming piles of shit could rape you? From a sophisticated and mature game, to cartoon visuals and terrible gameplay. I still don't know why everything looked wet in this game. The only thing the game did do is make me want to have sex with Joanna Dark a bit more.



Blitz: The League

The great thing about Blitz was the simple and over the top gameplay. Nailing a guy going for the catch, carrying 3 defenders on your back while on fire, and 90 yard field goals all became possible in a rather bleak market for football video games. Over saturated with football sims at the time, Blitz came along and made it possible for the small me to have fun and not be confused by the Madden iterations. 

For several years the Blitz entries entertained. Then a rapist infiltrated my beloved series and spawned Blitz: The League. Now, this series' downfall does deserve one glaring excuse: EA buying the rights to the NFL license. We were left with bland, made up characters and teams. While people normally complain about a game's lack of depth, this is one series' that didn't need depth. Now we've gotten to the point where you choose whether or not to shoot up your character with painkillers. 



Pac-Man World

Who thought it would be a good idea to take a game like Pac-Man and throw into a platforming world? While we're at it, lets give Pong and Frogger a story. Oh what's that? They did that to Frogger too? With Pac-Man Adventures you were given a ridiculous story line and platforming elements. At one point, you have to find a bottle for Pac-Man's child. People play Pac-Man because of what Pac-Man is. I don't fire up Madden in hopes that Josh Freeman will have to rescue his teammates from an exploding building. No, I play it because I want to play some god damn football. I don't need to explain why this series should have never been given any sort of treatment. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Or rape it.



Wednesday, July 13, 2011

God of War 3: A Retrospective Review of a Masterpiece

Since my last post I decided to pick up a copy of Tom Bissell's book on video games aptly titled Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.  The book so far has been great and I highly recommend it (especially since its the only book I've ever come across that lends criticism, usually reserved for books and film, to video games).  Not that I intend to use a Bissell quote for every single entry I do or anything but heres one thats especially applicable to a God of War 3 Retrospective:

"The shock of the new: the sensation of encountering a creative work that knocks loose the familiar critical vocabularies and makes them feel only partially applicable to what stands before you.  It is powerful, powerless feeling of knowing your aesthetic world has been widened" 

This quote comes from a chapter in which Bissell describes playing the very first resident evil for the first time and it hits the nail on the head for certain games, especially God of War 3.

GOW3 knocks you senseless from the get go.  Purely in terms of graphical supremacy GOW3 is king.  I've never seen a video game look that good to the point that it seems so real it ventures into unreal.  Looking at an image like the one below certainly won't do this games graphics justice but remember that the photograph is a screen shot not some elaborate cutscene.  
This picture is a still from actual gameplay
And to be honest GOW3's graphics are only a small part of what makes the game a shock to the senses.  The picture above does give a slight hint that the scale of the game is massive but still doesn't explain just how massive.  There will be moments where you are fighting hordes of enemies at lightning speed and performing incredibly complicated combos but that wont even be the most interesting thing on your screen.  Often there are epic things going on in the background like Gods fighting Titans (doesn't that just sound bad ass to begin with?), huge buildings falling down or harpies flying about.  I do not believe there has ever been a game with this big a scope.  

GOW3 is also a blast to play.  The controls are tight and Kratos' weapons are unique in that they're part sword, part whip.  The combos are seamless and smooth, not to mention lightning quick.  You'll be grabbing an enemy and using him as a shield as you run through countless opponents only to throw a stronger enemy in the air and do insane amounts of damage before they even touch the ground, all in a matter of seconds.  When it comes to boss battles and mini boss battles you'll be introduced to a semi-cutscene where you have to hit certain buttons, in certain sequences, to finish them off.  The action here gets so complex and brutal you almost feel like its unfair for your enemies to be fighting you.  If you want intensity at breakneck speed this is the game.
The fight with Lord Hades is spectacular
The last feature of of GOW3 that makes it an absolutely shocking and incredible game experience is its story, or more accurately its universe or setting.  Don't go into this game expecting Ulysses or Citizen Kane but do expect it to utilize a mythology that is the perfect vehicle for an epic video game: Greek Mythology.  Kratos' story is simple: He wants revenge for the God's mistreating him and only by the death of all of them, will he be satisfied.  This simplicity is incredibly effective for a video game.  All of the tools are already there for the writers to tell this tale.  There are epic characters such as Gods, Titans, and ancient heros that are already deeply rooted in our collective storytelling (whether we know it or not...its a long story) and incredibly interesting settings (who doesn't want to explore Hades, Mount Olympus, and the maze constructed by Daedalus?).  In addition to all of that you're also going to be able to see how Greek Mythology explained every facet of a persons life in ancient times.  Believe it or not, GOW3 is actually pretty informative on the Greek Myths as a whole.  

If you want to play a game that is going to change your perspective on whats actually possible in a video game you need to try God of War 3.  This game will shock you senseless and enlighten you at the same time.  Anything that raises that conceptual bar, that "widens your aesthetic world" is something special.


Sunday, July 10, 2011

Digital Downloading: Good or bad for gamers?

While I was browsing the "Games on Demand" section of Xbox Live the other day, I wanted to purchase a fairly old game. The game in question was The Darkness. I had played it before and had a sudden urge to revisit it. The game was listed at $19.99, pretty pricey for a four year old game that got little buzz and was also a multi-console release. I was skeptical, so I hopped on Amazon and started browsing for cheaper prices. I was able to find it for as cheap as four dollars used, while Microsoft found it appropriate to charge me nearly twenty dollars.

If you sign onto any of the three major consoles of this generation, you can access a store to purchase games instantly without having to leave your house. Its convenient and its the way of the future. With music and movies moving into the digital phase, games are right behind these other forms of entertainment. And with huge companies like Amazon and Microsoft beginning to utilize cloud storage, it seems inevitable that digital downloading will become the norm.

As consumers, there are some cons to this adjustment that many people are taking for granted. We could be losing many outlets to purchase games. Publishers could decide to only allow consumers to purchase their content through their online store, or through a console's store, resulting in one fixed price and eliminating retailers and competitive pricing. In turn, we are losing the chance to sell our own purchases due to digital content. You buy a game online, beat it, get sick of it, and you can't get anything for it.

There are many ways developers and publishers are beginning to eliminate secondhand purchases by using digital content. EA, for example, has virtually eliminated this by every new game coming with a code to enter their online servers. If you don't have a code, you can purchase one from their online store. A quick, simple, and effective way to steer people away from buying used. Unfortunate for us, great for them. It's not that I think these companies shouldn't get their dues, I just feel that as consumers we should have freedom in shopping.

We still have a ways to go before we do reach a completely digital gaming medium. I'm not against the idea, but it does pose some important questions for both the consumers and publishers. Besides, I can't complain if I can purchase a full 360 game from my room at two in the morning.


Saturday, July 2, 2011

Video Games and Storytelling: A Complex Relationship That is Only Going to Get Better By: PJS

I recently came across an article on Grantland that featured a long winded review by author Tom Bissell of L.A. Noire, the latest release from Rockstar Games.  On top of reviewing the games features Bissell makes several fascinating observations, and arguments, about video games as storytelling devices.  One such observation is this: "How big of a problem is it that players can effectively screw up video game stories?" One of the possible answers to this question ,that Bissell provides, is: "the video game medium is incompatible with authored forms of storytelling".  That particular question and that particular answer (that a significant number of people appear to hold although Bissell himself says it does not satisfy him) is one that needs to be discussed.

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of the this argument I need to tell a quick side story.  In the spring of 2009 I was enrolled at my local university in a 20th century American Novel class (I'm an English Lit major).  We discussed what a novel specifically was, the development of the American canonical Novel and read about one a week.  In the early part of the class my professor made a fascinating point about the Novel saying that eventually it would die out.  At first I could not understand, for the life of me, how this was possible.  How could stories die?  How could we not read books anymore?  Then my professor made this claim a whole lot clearer: it wasn't stories that were going to go out of fashion it was the way we tell them, it was the idea of a novel.  He went on to give epic poems as an example.  Back in the times of ancient Greece the way people primarily told stories was through epic poems like the Iliad and the Odyssey.  These days there aren't many people writing epic poetry.  In terms of literature it appears our most popular storytelling device or format, has become the novel.

Now here's where video games come in.  Video games certainly do not operate like any storytelling device.  They are a far cry from books and differ significantly from film.  Bissell certainly agrees when he writes things like this:

"any writer who is not interested in what we are now calling "video games" is a bystander to one of the most important conceptual shifts between story and storyteller in a hundred years."

I wholeheartedly agree.  They are the latest trend in the development of storytelling.  What we are all collectively seeing these days with video games is an extremely young medium, with incredibly new techniques, tell stories.  Just like my professor stated in class that day, these things come and go with advancements in technology and the passage of time.  Since I believe in this idea my answer to Bissell's question (and really a disagreement to those who agree with that one particular answer he gave) is that it is not video games that need to adapt to storytelling its storytelling that needs to adapt to video games.

Think of the incredible advancement of video games whether its L.A. Noire's new facial recognition technology or RPG games like Fallout 3 where your choices actively determine the storyline of a game.  These are huge advantages to storytelling because they not only dramatically enhance the way you look at characters (L.A. Noire) but they also allow you to become more actively involved in the story as the player (Fallout 3).

It seems true that video games haven't reached the zenith of story telling that film or books have but I can't believe that a medium whose advancements are making huge leaps by the day, cannot achieve the same level of success.  I don't think Bissell should look at players as "screwing up stories" by making free choices.  I think he should be looking at players making free choices as an advantage to telling great stories.  Video game writers have all these shiny new tools to enhance their stories, they just haven't figured out how effectively use them yet.  They will though.  They're too smart not to.