Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The Clan Mentality - Thrill of the Kill in UT2k4

New Scientist magazine has published a poorly titled article describing what most of us already knew though we may not have consciously examined it before. It describes how gamers, when playing popular multiplayer action game Unreal Tournament 2004 again first an opposing team of strangers and then against their own friends, display markedly raised testosterone levels after a victory in the first condition but lower levels in the second. Simply put - defeating faceless enemies is more physically exciting than defeating your companions.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Let's Go Fly a House!

Up through the atmosphere, up where the air is clear! Oh, let's go... fly a house!

Higher! is one of the those games that you'll just start playing to see what it's like and when you next look up your clock appears to have jumped an hour or two.

Friday, 18 September 2009

My Influence is Spreading

Shockingly, several days ago I received a pleasant email from Ben Barone-Nugent, editor of the games criticism site Touché Bitches. He invited me to write an article for the site and this is the result: a wall of text on the complexity/simplicity dichotomy of modern games and where the medium is heading in the future.

I invite you all to go give it a read, and while you're at it check out the rest of Touché Bitches. It may be relatively quiet at the moment but I have a sneaking suspicion it will quickly pick up steam.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Alice is Dead (Long Live the Red Queen)

Especially if she's being played by Helena Bonham Carter.

What is it with creatives - games designers, graphic novel artists, film makers - and reinventing the drug fuelled nightmares of one Charles Lutwidge Dodgson? Wikipedia lists a simply ludicrous amount of works adapted from or inspired by Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass and it shows no sign of stopping now.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Kotaku: Race and Games Discussion

No, not the 100 metres at the London Olympics.

Kotaku yesterday (on Monday) posted an intelligent and thoroughly well prepared article on the 'Non-White Gamer's Experience', or more specifically on the lack of non-white protagonists. Author Owen Wood has interviewed a variety of games commentators who feel less then well catered for and come to some well reasoned, if controversial, conclusions on the matter. Best that you go read the article in its entirety. The comments at the bottom are particularly revealing about the attitudes of the wider gaming populace - largely that it doesn't matter ...

And , as I started to read the article, I felt the same way. Race for me has always been something of a non-issue. I'd be lying if I said I hadn't in the past noticed a character or person's race, but after they open their mouth their personality is a far greater factor in my understand and opinion of them. The nearest thing to race that has a major influence from my perspective is culture or possibly sub-culture and, besides, few games characters have felt particularly 'white', whatever that means. (Mostly they're stereotypes of other sorts: the Dennis Nedry-like obese computer genius from FEAR, the insecure man-child obsessed with comic book merchandise from Max Payne 2).

As I read on through the article, however, I came to realise that characters' race does matter but only as part of a greater issue - a need for a wider variety of compelling characters that aren't stereotypes (and not stereotypes of white western males either). Two, maybe three* examples of well written black males in the history of video games and maybe only twice as many women of any race is a pretty awful track record.

But how would I, as a white middle class western male, begin to fairly and believably write and portray in computer graphics anyone from any significantly different background without falling back on stereotypes and cliché? I can only hope to do them justice by carefully studying people around me but it has got to be better when a development team is formed from a wide range of people with different backgrounds, cultural heritages and experiences of people.

This isn't about about implicit prejudice. It isn't even about race or lack of representation. It's about sheer lack of variety and adequate attention to design.

* By my reckoning: Charlie (The Longest Journey and Dreamfall), CJ (GTA: San Andreas) and that guy from Farhrenheit/Indigo Prophecy

Thursday, 10 September 2009

It's Good To Be Bad

But I wanted to be the Big Bad!

Lately - by which I mean over the past several months - I have been increasingly ludologically indulging my more villainous personality traits. I started with Overlord but oppressing a land of gamboling 'sheepies' and peasants who demanded I pop down to the shops for them quickly grew tiresome no matter how awesome the tower the job came with. I considered seeking out a true castle with Neverwinter Nights 2 but I couldn't stand playing through all that again. Mass Effect came and went - when the 'evil' choice equates to 'be a dick' there is little fun to be had.

Finally the penny dropped. What better game to choose but one who's very title is only spitting distance from Anti-Christ: The Game and just a quick jog around the corner from My Year With a Sucubbus.

If you're not familiar with the plot of Dark Messiah the basics are this: you are an orphan born in mysterious circumstances (probably) tasked my your Master to assist in delivering a powerful crystal to a wizard in a distant city. To aide you in your task a spirit - showing rather too much cleavage to be believed - is bound to you, to speak as a voice in your head. It soon becomes clear however that things are a little more complicated than that - you are the Dark Messiah, the son of a great and poweful demon and prophesied to herald the end of the world as we know it. Naturally the spirit is more than exactly what she appears to be and is a sucubbus.

(That's not the sucubbus)

Anyhoo, there is... essentially no oppertunity to make a moral decision either way until the very end at which point I became exceedingly confused. Besides a terrible bit of game design where I had to consult a walkthrough just to realise the simplest way through a knot is with a sharp blade (or a few fireballs I had neglected to learn until that point) it was the ending choices and cinematics themselves that left be scrabbling for an explanation amongst the internet.

You see, once you reach the end and defeat the final boss you have a choice to either free your demon sire or keep him locked in his magical prison. Yet I could have sworn blind, and still would if not for evidence to the contrary, that the first time I had completed Dark Messiah I had left my 'father' to rot within his prison or destroyed him outright and taken his place as the great arch demon in charge of the legions of hell itself and, soon, the entire world!

My own early-early-early-onset senility not with standing, this does not seem like how a game should end. If you choose the 'good' ending it makes the potential rise of the Dark Messiah a damp squib. If you choose the 'evil' ending, all the glory is taken by Daddy. Excuse me but when I have just finished a 10-hour slog through legions of the zombies, hordes of goblinoids and taken out half a dozen monstrous beasts including cylocpss and dragons both alive and undead I want to feel on top of the world! I want to feel as if I am the greatest, most powerful and most influential being in the story world. Instead I am forced to stand in the shadow of the one whom it had been heavily hinted I would have the oppertunity to overthrow? NO!

On a more general note, games are missing a trick if they do not explore the experience of being the bad guy or dangerously morally grey. This should not be limited to having evil options in roleplaying games, or campy wallpapering of old ideas like Dungeon Keeper or Overlord - as great as they were. Imagine playing Silence of the Lambs from Lecter's perspective; playing word games with an investigator while dropping enough hints to give them a chance. Imagine playing an action-packed super-budget shooter where you are subtly given more and more extreme and more uncomfortable targets - perhaps you are asked to use a rocket launcher to take out a minaret above a mosque where people may be praying or taking refuge. Your commanding officer doesn't mention it, you have to think for yourself. How far would you go? Would you want to play a game dealing with problems like this?

Friday, 4 September 2009

Run to the (pix)hiiiiills! Run for high sco-or-ores!

Or: An Ode to Running Games

There is a growing sub-genre of game. Is it is a sub-genre of the first-person shooter or of platformers? I guess that depends upon the specific example but in general we can call them runners. A few examples? Most well known would by Mirror's Edge by DICE which was the first - and so far only - mainstream game to be based almost entirely around running (or more accurately motion). In the land of free indie developments there are the much-loved Fancy Pants Adventures by Brad Borne (who EA tapped to produce Mirror's Edge 2D) and AdamAtomic's recently released Canabalt.

Any game involves movement from A to B but in most cases this is just a transition between two moments of action. Where these games excel is the impetus - demanded or implied - to just keep moving. The physicality and the sheer velocity are intoxicating. In the case of Canabalt or Dino Run's forced movement, the action is especially nail biting - if only you had time to lift your fingers from the keyboard to bite them. Or maybe you just bite one hand... whatever.

Can we expect to see more of these games? I certainly hope so - Mirror's Edge in particular brought a whole new set of toys to a genre that has been growing tired and stale. If developers and publishers have any sense, they will be working on implementing free-running into their own products.

The variety allowed by the third dimension, greater level design and extended game experiences means mainstream games could be the place where running, jumping, sliding and all that really makes an impact. With flash games perhaps it is just a limited imagination but I can only see people retreading the same exact mechanics with different coats of paint. Please someone prove me wrong.

Are there any other motion-centric games you thing I should have included? Is there anything you have particular enjoyed?

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Tag: Paint-'em-up Platformer

Huzzah, I have returned (for now at least). Something new and fresh has hauled me out of my listlessness and back into the world of semi-trained quasi-professional games journalism.

Tag: The Power of Paint is a smart little first person platformer which uses colour to adjust the physical properties of surfaces - green to bounce, red to run fast, blue to stick to walls. It is a little confusing at first but, like any new feature, it quickly becomes second nature. The available game itself is short, maybe a leisurely 20 minutes or so, but this is clearly a proof-of-concept more than a fully fledged experience.

Developed by seven games students for DigiPen, Tag has already found critical acclaim with the award for Best Student Game at this year's Independant Games Festival. This puts it in good company with, among a great many other far less famous games, Narbacular Drop - the little DigiPen game that caught the eye of Valve and eventually became Portal.

Comparisons with the gaming world's cake-obsessed idol are invitable. Perhaps sadly, like portal-based platforming, Tag's core gameplay has a severely limited range of uses. If we are lucky, some developer will incorporate elements of it into a quirky or particularly moving and novel free-running game. Alternatively, it could be be forgotten. At least we still have this little rough gem to play with.

We will just have to wait and see.