Sunday, May 20, 2012

Innovation is a backseat driver

Check that out. That's what we can expect from gaming by 2014. Cool shit.

But during the time these screens released, a game portraying 8-bit graphics broke record sales in the indie market, an ever expanding genre as of late. Minecraft is a simple, albeit deep, game about building and mining and all the exploration in between. A friend of mine commented to me about how the beauty of the game rivaled Skyrim, a rather remarkable game graphically.

How can something so ugly be so beautiful?

I've played a lot of games this generation. Some were gorgeous, others were not while trying to be. Every console generation has had hype built around it by what the graphical capabilities will be. I have nothing against it, and I get excited to see new screens like the ones that were recently released by Epic. But we're coming from a generation of games that not only spiked graphically, but also spiked in innovation. Portal, Minecraft, Braid, Bioshock, Mass Effect, among other games all toted innovations in the gaming world. Why is it that innovation still takes a backseat to graphics then?

While we get graphics that peak with almost every other game release, the juggernauts carrying the industry turn away from innovation and make appearance the selling point. It is no coincidence that the majority of creative games this generation come from the independent genre. But as long as the independent genre has a place to voice itself, I cannot complain as much.

As with any medium as it grows, segregation is expanding within the genre. But innovative games do not deserve to become gaming's underground scene.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

My Long Winded Search for the Game that Marks the Current Console Generation

Like most of my entries I have to start this one with a disclaimer: I have not played every game this console generation, nor have I owned every system for an extended period of time (although I do currently own a PS3, 360, and Wii).  This entry is going to focus on the Xbox 360, the system I put the most time into by far. 

Mr. P and myself had a conversation on live not too long ago trying to figure out what our quintessential game of this past console generation would be.  It's hard to pick just one. 

My gut reaction was to go with a game that advanced storytelling first as I personally feel that's something much harder to do in a medium that changes dramatically all the time.  Bioshock is such an accomplishment to me in this sense.  I know full well that there are some amazing indie games that have really pushed the notions of video games as an art form, or focused on abstract emotions (LIMBO comes to mind) and storytelling, but Bioshock  is one of the rarest titles to come out in the past 8 or 9 years.  The very fact that it's a AAA title making political commentary extremely effectively garners major points from me.  And it isn't that the game makes the political commentary just on the screen but in the gameplay itself.  This is the leap that most other games haven't made yet in my opinion: using the very format of a video game (particularly game play) to produce great storytelling and emotions for the player.  I see so many games using primarily cinematic cut-scenes to achieve this.  I don't have a specific problem with cut-scenes in games (hell I love cut-scenes most of the time), but any game that is exploring and perfecting game play to convey a story is simply fascinating to me because it's so complex a task.  Bioshock is just a tremendous achievement in my eyes.

The more P and I talked, the more I realized Bioshock was a mind blowing experience, but it didn't "mark this console generation".  I think there's a specific difference there.  It's not my favorite game, or the game that I personally have the fondest memories of, or appreciation for.  It's more about the game that said "hey the next generation of gaming is here."  I had to eliminate Bioshock on the grounds that it didn't say that exactly.  It said a whole shitload of other important things but not that.

The next game that came into my mind was Halo 3.  I can't look at stats to see how much time I spent with P playing doubles and big team in that game, but let me tell you I spent the better part of 3 years completely obsessed with killing the red or blue team.  Pinellas and I basically explored every facet of that game.  I remember watching back film with him to actually pinpoint our weaknesses in matches we played.  I remember looking at heat maps (highlighting where we died most in a given level) from bungie to show areas to avoid.  Most of all I remember developing an insane chemistry with the only person who I think is as good as I am (actually I think P is better) at Halo.  This game is definitely a hallmark of my time on this console generation but I still don't think it answers my question.  It certainly innovated don't get me wrong.  I love Halo 3 and spent more time playing it over any other game this generation.  It just didn't announce next gen games had arrived.

It's kind of amazing that Halo 3 didn't fit the bill for me considering I spent the most time with that game.  It did however, bring something important up as P and I discussed the question.  What type of game really marks this console generation for us?  Is it a single player experience like Bioshock?  Could it be considering the amount of time you inherently put into a multiplayer game versus a single player game?  Does that matter with our question?

The short answer for me was that looking at multiplayer focused games versus single player games is important.  I don't think that the overwhelming amount of time put into a multiplayer game matters in relation to our central question though.

With all of this in mind I've come to conclusion that the first Gears of War is the game that marks this console generation.  I got my 360 around launch and the first gears was the game that showed me the future of console gaming.  Graphically it was like nothing I'd ever seen.  I remember being in a firefight in the first level while playing Co-Operatively with a friend and I just couldn't believe how the game looked.  The camera got low and shook when you ran!  The lighting of the barrels from the guns were illuminating characters faces!  People were getting blown into chunks from shotgun blasts!  There was blood everywhere!  I was sawing people in half! IN HALF!

From a gameplay perspective gears was a completely new direction for a shooter.  Third person? Cover? Elimination? Winning rounds to win a match?  An incredible focus on teamwork?  Wow.  All of that was new for me. 

Gears also pushed live to a whole new level.  I had played online since halo 2 but this was the first time I was truly part of a gaming community of friends.  My friend STEVE (his name will always appear in caps in this blog...don't ask why) and I met a core group of fellow gamers from around the globe because of the party system and gears promoting interaction with other people.  Pinellas and I first met via gears matches.  The entire party system, private chat and ranked and player matches really became cemented in Xbox live users consciousness because of this game.

When I look back at playing the first Gears of War it has to be the game that announced the next generation of console gaming was here.  It's a classic that shocked me and made me fully realize the direction games were heading.   


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Announcements/The Joys of Co-Op

 A few announcements:
It's been about 8 months since the last post on this blog.  Pinellas and myself have not stopped playing video games by any means, we've just been in school and busy as hell.  Expect a good number of entries (from me at least) before I return to summer graduate classes on May 28th.  Also, if you're a diehard, (lookin' at you C and Monigle) there will be an upcoming video game connection podcast to be released weekly with some in depth discussion between myself, Mr. P, and an unnamed, incredible, mysterious, talented, ambiguous, intelligent, elusive, deep-thinking, magical and special guest.  Stay tuned for the big reveal in the next couple of days!

On to the entry!

When it comes to legitimizing video games as the entertainment medium that should be paid the most attention, it inevitably gets compared to its closest counterpart: movies.  This is not an entry where I laud video games with over the top fanboy dedication, nor is it an entry where I denigrate movies to show how much better video games are.  This is just showing what video games can do by defining the closest "other" it has.

When I hear movie fans rave about a film its normally their love of escapism that catches my attention.  I can remember people raving constantly about the visuals in movies like Titanic or Star Wars for instance because they transported people to different worlds and times that they could physically see and hear.  It enabled them a wholly different experience than what they found in their day to day lives.  One of the things that I find so interesting about video games is the fact that they enable the same things but in a dramatically different way.  When I fire up Skyrim I'm viewing and hearing a new, living, breathing world but I'm also granted agency to experience that world as I choose.  There are a lot of things affecting my choices that are built into the game and that's another thing I love.  It's what makes a game like Skyrim so captivating: that random dragon showing up overhead or walking around and stumbling upon a cave you haven't discovered yet.  Of all the things video games can throw at you unexpectedly though, I love the unexpectedness (not sure if that's a word) of Co-Op the most.

Again this is not meant to cheapen the movie experience at all, but when I watch a movie with someone the moments that significantly alter my immersion in the films elements normally come after the film has ended.  Now that I think about it, it's probably my favorite part of going to the movies.  I love standing outside that theater talking with friends about favorite moments, getting different perspectives about what I just saw, and re-thinking (really re-experiencing) what I witnessed.  With video games that is altered because most of the time a cooperative experience involves constant communication.  Again it's the agency that really gets me with Co-Op.  Mr. P and I bonded over about 3 years of playing Halo 3's competitive multiplayer together.  We played doubles (2v2) constantly and had a different experience every time.  He altered every game I played (mostly in good ways, but there were a few times I wanted to kill him for blowing a lead or shooting me with a rocket launcher).  Those alterations, those shared unique experiences, have brought about incredible memories for both of us.  Just look at this small list of things Pinellas and I have done together that were altered by the very fact we both did them:

P and I have:
Saved the universe or world from impending doom (countless times)
Defeated Wesker
Grown gardens
Grown trees
Built houses
Killed the red team
Killed the blue team
Killed the locust
Killed the COG
Defeated the Locust queen
Survived the apocalypse
Run frantically from the Tank
Shot blue portals
Shot orange portals
Survived Chell's test chambers
Beaten army of two (its true, and that game absolutely sucked)
Dodged rockets
Flown through space
Had epic comebacks
Had epic losses
Won the west
Traversed mountains
Explored canyons
and much, much more.

All these aforementioned experiences are a significant part of what makes video games, and specifically cooperative play, so special for me.  If you can't become better friends with someone after coming back and winning from a 16 kill deficit on blackout in Halo 3 then you're just crazy.  P and I altered each others experiences in all these moments.  I love agency and I love co-op.