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Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

I’ve been critical of President Obama’s attitude toward the industry in the past, so I have a responsibility to point out that the administration seems to be getting it.  Last week, he announced the National STEM Video Game Challenge.  It’s the latest in a line of very worthy programs that challenge young students with designing an educational video game.

With some brilliant minds behind it and an excellent group of sponsors, it’s a great program with national scale.  I just hope there’s more where that came from. It kills me to hear about the plummeting interest level in math and science among school-age children, and then hear “these darn video games” blamed for it in the same breath.  Game development is not only the most sought-after career for young people in this country, it’s also a very demanding pursuit of math and science based disciplines.  Harnessing the passion for this industry should be a no-brainer for educators.

My own alma mater, Michigan State, launched an ambitious game design program only a few years after I graduated.  Of course, I’m envious of the lucky Spartans that came after me. Many, many other universities are currently offering or exploring a similar program. We still haven’t seen a University establish itself as THE game design school in the US, so there is certainly some work to do in marketing these degree programs to prospective students.  And it’s up to high school and middle school administrators (throw in K-8 while you’re at it) to make sure their pupils are prepared for them.

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In case you’ve been under a rock, today is the 25ht anniversary of Super Mario Brothers original Japanese release.  As I write this, “Mario Bros” is the #5 trending topic on Twitter.  In addition to the usual suspects, a ton of mainstream press covered it.  I even saw a headline about the anniversary on that screen in the elevator in my office building.  Y’know, the one that everyone awkwardly stares at, so they don’t need to make conversation.

It’s appropriate that the anniversary happens to fall on the release date for the latest Halo game, Reach. These two properties couldn’t be further apart.

Halo is the very essence of what drives the industry today – a multiplayer-focused shooter fueled by competition, favored by angsty teens (and ghastly teens-at-heart), where it’s not uncommon to count more epithets than bodies. I’ll admit it – I’ve never played much Halo.  It just never appealed to me.

Mario games look downright quaint by comparison, with bright colors, squeaky clean character design, and all those side adventures in cart racers, puzzlers, brawlers, RPG’s…

Just take a look at their flagship characters.  Halo’s Master Chief is a faceless cipher under that impenetrable helmet. He and his space marine buddies have now starred in 5 games, but are still mostly marketed around (and purchased for) the multiplayer experience.  Besides, he just wouldn’t fit in a fun, happy-go-lucky cart racer.

Mario doesn’t speak either, outside of the occasional “it’s-a-meeee!’ or “let’s-a-go!”  But his charisma and charm have moved 240 million games – just among the character-focused core series.

Mario has been a constant through some remarkable personal benchmarks.  For those of you just joining us, some highlights: One of my first published reviews was on Mario 64.  I broke the news to readers (and in turn, some of my friends) about my wife’s pregnancy via a post about New Super Mario Bros. Wii.  And when it came time to take the baby announcement photos, my daughter had on a Princess Peach onesie.  Mario was even mentioned twice in speeches at my wedding – one of those during the actual ceremony.

Playing a Mario game evokes much of the same feeling for me as watching my daughter play on the floor does now.  There is an innocence, and a simplicity to it that will always be endearing.  I can’t help but smile when it’s just me, and the jumping, and the coins.

Happy birthday, buddy.

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I had a long, solo train ride from Boston to NYC on a quiet Sunday morning last weekend, so naturally it was the perfect time to enjoy a full, uninterrupted listen to both of the released albums from the Protomen’s 3-act rock opera exploring the Mega Man universe.  I’m happy to report it’s as awesome as you would imagine a rock opera about Mega Man being.  Seriously.

I’m late to the party when it comes to the Protomen – but you’re not exactly reading Pitchfork right now, so sorry if they’re already passe below 14th Street, or something.  They’ve already been hat tipped by the likes of WIRED and Joystick Division, and I first heard of them years ago from Penny Arcade.  So don’t make the same mistake I did!  You could be listening to Act I: The Protomen while you read this!

About halfway through act 2, I got to thinking about how… just plain good these records are.  Where countless movies, TV shows and books failed miserably, a band of indie rockers from Murfreesboro, TN got it so very right.  Why?

Perhaps most importantly, the Protomen’s music builds on the already solid fiction of the Mega Man games that so many of us have such fond memories for.  They don’t needlessly pile on forced backstory and violently change the mood, like the creators of Super Mario Brothers: The Movie.  Or invent a whole different story out of whole cloth, and shoehorn in Mega Man characters, like some OTHER Capcom franchise’s ill-thought sliver screen debut.

Jesus Christ

The Protomen opera instead holds up seemingly minor characters to the light and explores periods of time that were glossed over in the narrative of the core (8? 9? Do the new retro ones really count?) Mega Man games.  It’s a lot like the mega-successful Broadway play, Wicked, when it comes to offering a compelling narrative through a shift in perspective.  The second act, The Father of Death, is particularly handy with this, as it presents Dr. Wily as a somewhat sympathetic figure with honest, selfless motivations.

To be fair, there have been more terrible games based on decent movies than vice versa.  But Hollywood, and the publishers of crappy officially-sanctioned-fan-fiction books, could learn a lot about translating games to other media from the Protomen’s labor of love.

They chose a good franchise that already had a fun, compelling story attached, but still enough room for additional stories to texture its world.  Also, I think the fact that they’re working within the fiction of a NES era game really makes the Protomen’s job easier.  We just expected simpler stories from our games back then, and there’s plenty of room for interpretation in those 8-bit visuals and chiptune soundtracks.  Especially when that interpretation itself is in a non-visual medium, like rock opera in this case.

At the very least, if you enjoy Mega Man games, or just being a nerd and the culture that surrounds games in general, I think you’ll like the Protomen.  I can’t wait for the third act, and I wonder if they’ll move on to a different franchise once this saga is complete.  For every terrible Prince of Persia movie that gets produced, someone, somewhere must shelve a gritty, heartbreaking Star Fox script, right?  Right?  *sniffle* do a barrel roll indeed.

It looks like they already made cool Star Fox puppets. Where's Robbie Henson?!

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God of War 3 will have been out for a full week by the time I post this, and I still haven’t bought it.  It’s a big change for me.  I love that series.  I picked up the first one early on the strength of Dave Jaffe’s development chops, and wasn’t disappointed. GoW2 was the perfect franchise second act, and pretty handy swan song for the PlayStation 2.  I even have fond memories of playing the series’ lone portable entry, Chains of Olympus, on my PSP on the way down to my bachelor party.

As I walked past GameStop on my way in to work last Tuesday, I was fully prepared to pick up GoW3.  But I just didn’t go back in that day.  Or the next day.  So many good games have come out recently, and since the birth of my daughter, I’ve barely had time to play the few of those that I could rationalize buying.  I still want to spend a lot more time with this year’s MLB The Show, and I have a few more crew members to recruit and a ton of missions still waiting for me in Mass Effect 2. For now, Kratos has met his match.  And it’s my adorable 4-month-old.

Since I read Stephen Totilo’s  arresting piece last month on how father figures have become central in games, I’ve been turning over in my head just what that story meant for me.  Totilo quite brilliantly eyed how more and more games (Heavy Rain, Bioshock 2, Silent Hill Shattered Memories to name a few)  put us in dad roles, and make fatherhood and fathering core to the game’s story and mechanics.

As a new dad myself, this makes a lot of sense.  Children motivate us to be better.  We learn things, sacrifice things, step outside of our comfort zones and adapt to almost anything as long as it’s for them. So for game designers, a compelling parent/child relationship among characters solves  a universal challenge: motivating the player to stick with your game. And from a purely business perspective, it’s even more of a no-brainer.  The generation that grew up playing Nintendo is right around 30 now, and haven’t put down their controllers en masse.  We’ve got mortgages and marriages and kids now, too.

But what good are all these newly “daddened” video games when we have barely any time to play them?  Did the collective industry miss the boat?

A very timely piece by The Question Block’s Matthew H. Mason (stumbled upon via Bitmob) helped put it all in perspective for me.  I play less often and have to play fewer games now, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy them less.  In Matt’s own words:

I can’t really summarize what video games mean to me; they strike me in both profound and simple ways. That will never change. Where I’ve found my path diverging is how I’ve come to appreciate them.

I’m lucky that I have a job where I need to keep up on this great industry of ours, and occasionally work with video games and the talented people that make them.   I’m lucky to have so many great games to play at home that I can leave Kratos’ latest adventure on the shelf for a few months.  It really speaks to the health of the industry that I can pass up one game with a 90+ Metacritic score for the two other 90+ scorers I have at home.  And I’m lucky to have a beautiful family that keeps me balanced, and helps me to better appreciate the time when I can just sit and play again.

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I can’t get enough of Mass Effect 2.  I’ve spent nearly all of my play time over the last three weeks with it, hardly touching any other games.  Looking at its impressive debut at #2 on January’s NPD rankings after only six days on shelves, I’m not alone. And with all that love comes A LOT of coverage in the enthusiast press in this immediate post-release honeymoon period.

Mass Effect's' story is driven by players' choices - rooting it in the here and now

There’s been some bitching backlash on Twitter about ME2 coverage fatigue this week.  And if you’re suffering from it, well… this is probably not the post for you.  Sorry.  Perhaps a link to this awesome site will make up for it?  Cool.

Aaaanyways, there has also been some really excellent discussion around the game.  Be sure and check out Rebel FM’s full hour of thoughtful banter (with some very minor spoilers) and a particularly good episode from the 1Up guys.

All these very qualified games journos have lauded the way choices the player makes throughout ME2 impact the story.  Sure, BioWare games almost all have some level of this “choose your own adventure” mechanic, but it really sings this time out.  The choices feel natural.  As a result, I found myself making my in-game decisions based more upon what I actually felt was right (or at least justified) given the circumstances, rather than explicitly trying to play either the badass or boy scout role.  And in the end, my character was more believable as a hero with shades of gray.

I wonder if this approach to decision-driving storytelling actually handicaps ME2 it in the nostalgia department.  If it had come out 10 years ago when I was younger and obnoxious less patient, my playthrough (and by extension, my Commander Shepard) would be completely different.  I’d probably go Rogue more often, my character would be kind of a jerk, and the body count would be a lot higher.  If I were to blow the dust off that game today at 28 years old, I’d play it just as I am now, with more balanced choices.

The most elegant example I’ve seen of nostalgia-by-way-of-videogame was in the 1988 CLASSIC (and sick day movie favorite of yours truly) Big. In the movie’s third act, adult Josh is playing through the same adventure game that we see young Josh playing as the film opens:

You are standing in the cavern of the evil wizard. All around you are
the carcasses of slain ice dwarfs….Melt wizard….What do you want to
melt him with? …Throw thermal pod

He makes the same choices in both playthroughs, and that’s what makes Josh remember what it’s like to be kid.  I’m not sure anyone could, or would even want to, play through ME2 the exact same way from different stages in their life.  So does that make it… unnostalgic?  Non-nostalgic?

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Wagging Madden’s dog

Since Mrs. Liquid Architecture got me a Kindle for Christmas, I’ve been on a bit of a magazine article bender renaissance.  In case you missed them, be sure to check out this chilling article on Marvin Harrison’s gun rap from GQ of all places, along with their entertaining take on EA’s Tiger Woods PGA Tour series, post… whatever you want to call Tiger’s whole thing.

Wired’s always a treat to read and Chris Suellentrop dropped a gem in this month’s issue, exploring how gaming’s most successful franchise is also the best selling off-the-shelf  field simulator for a very specific group of employees – NFL players.  Suellentrop calls on a crystal clear illustration from a Bengals/Broncos game earlier this season to show how The Game (Madden) has come to influence the game.

He does a good job showing how EA’s crown jewel series has shaped this generation of NFL players, but I’m surprised Suellentrop didn’t explore how Madden‘s impacted the game itself, and the fan experience of how NFL football is covered.

Digital 1st down lines make the game more accessible to casual fans

For example, every NFL game (and most college football games) I’ve seen since the lat 90’s make use of a digital line to highlight the distance for a first down.  It’s become so commonplace, hardly anyone even talks about it anymore.  When the “virtual line” tech first debuted way back in 1998, I can even recall people saying how it was “just like in a video game.”  Would those handy little markers even exist without Madden?

Skycam apes Madden to show viewers the QB's options

SkyCam (and it’s other branded cousin, CableCam) more recently revolutionized coverage of the game.  It first debuted in the XFL (just like HeHateMe!), giving viewers a floating vantage point above the quarterback.  For the first time in a real live game, we got to clearly see the passing lanes and defensive set at the line of scrimmage, just like in (say it with me now) Madden!  Of course, the makers of SkyCam deserve a lot of credit for their ingenious system of reels, pulleys and cables that make SkyCam work.  But I have to believe the genesis for their entire operation was Madden’s primary camera, and aping that as close as possible in a living, breathing 3D space.

Of course, long time readers (all 3 of you) will remember yours truly covered how ESPN more overtly incorporated Madden into their NFL highlights show.  So Madden imitates life imitates Madden.

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In case you haven’t noticed, I tend to leave day-to-day things like reviews and previews to the big guys – listed conveniently in the blog roll for you.  Servicey!  The fact is, the Kotakus and Joystiqs of the world do a much better job of breaking news and round-the-clock updates than I ever could, and their staffers just plain play more games than me.  A lot more.  I’ve also avoided the “Game of the Year” trope for many of the same reasons.  From a critic’s perspective, when you haven’t played everything (or even everything good) in a given year, how can you really say one game is The Best?

Games of Our Lives was my more personal attempt at naming a game to define a year.  Those picks have more to do with me, and what was going on in my life when I played each game, than what’s in the box.

This past year might just represent a new low watermark for my time spent playing games.  Getting a puppy and having a baby in the same year will do that to you.  But as a result, I feel like I’ve spent a much higher percentage of my play time enjoying games than ever before.  I didn’t slog through any games “just to stay on top of things” this year.  And I can’t think of any game I stuck it out with this year just so I could feel like whatever time I had already invested was well spent.  Got that, MLB ’09: The Show?!  As such, I think I actually have a better feel for what made this year’s crop of games fun than I’ve had in recent years, and am open to a lot more types of games – casual, hardcore, multiplayer, story-driven, PC, console, iPhone – it was all fair game for me this year.

Of course, this being the end of the 00’s, every big games publication and site spent the last few weeks rounding up the highlights of the  last 10 years.  Having written Games of Our Lives already, and the big guns all poring over a decade’s worth of history, it seemed way less intimidating to focus on the best game of this year.  And considering how the changes in my personal life affected my perspective on games, I may actually have different (perhaps even useful?) reasons for my choice.  So without further ado, the nominees are (in alpha order):

  • Batman, Arkham Asylum – Batman finally got the game he deserved this year, thanks to some ingenious use of the Unreal engine and a superb story from Paul Dini delivered pitch-perfect by quite a few cast members from Batman: The Animated Series. The Metroidvania emphasis on exploration and detective skills was such a natural fit for the Caped Crusader, it’s hard to believe it took this long for someone to make the match.
  • New Super Mario Bros. Wii – Mario’s been to distant galaxies, race tracks, and even his some old  Smash Brothers stomping grounds since the Wii was released, but Nintendo finally put him back where he feels most at home this year.  So much was written about this game’s chaotic 4-player simultaneous free-for-all’s that the sometimes brutal, sometime charming, always well thought-out level design got shoved out of the headlines.
  • Plants vs. Zombies – PopCap is an unapologetically casual studio, but the truth is more hardcore players completely dig their games than would ever admit it to their squadmates.  These guys are just razor sharp when it comes to figuring out where a few bells and whistles can turn a smooth playing, bite-sized game into an all consuming force of addictive wonderment.  PvZ’s sense of humor, learning curve, and seeding of truly awesome minigames coaxed me into installing a game on my PC for the first time since college.  Can’t wait for the iPhone port this year!
  • Uncharted 2: Among Thieves – The secret lovechild of Lara Croft and Han Solo, Nathan Drake, returns in a globetrotting adventure that tweaks and finesses Gears of War’s combat system, then drops the whole thing into a story that you actually WANT TO FOLLOW full of characters that you really do care about.  I know it sounds fundamental and very basic, but the attention to detail and commitment to characters really pulled this game over the top.

…aaand the winner is:

New Super Mario Brothers Wii

At the end of the day, I’m a total sucker for a new Mario game.  I loved Galaxy and Mario 64 as much as anyone else, but everyone’s favorite skilled tradesperson just plain feels better when he’s zipping along at full speed, cracking heads and gobbling up coins in that seminal console genre, the sidescroller.  It’s not just that the big N got Mario and Luigi back into their 2D stomping grounds – the charm of this game is that they put together such an outstanding collection of level designs and worlds to ensure they came back in style.

Considering the audience Nintendo is focused on these days, it’s no surprise that simultaneous multiplayer came first in marketing New SMB Wii.  But throwing 3 more players onto the screen doesn’t just add allies.  It completely changes the pace of the game, and the focus of the players.  The result is a party game that feels much more like a session with Rock Band than a traditional platformer.  It’s a blast to play with more than one player, and I’m honestly a little bit surprised we didn’t see an official hardware bundle this holiday featuring the Wii, the game, and 4 remotes.

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While this year’s Black Friday sales numbers should be trickling in over the next few hours, I just had to point out First Party,  the new clothes-for-professional-nerds venture from the Penny Arcade guys.  They won’t win Cyber Monday or anything (thanks to teenage girls, anything that doesn’t involve vampires is at a huge disadvantage this year), but every well dressed gamer should have the launch polo on their wish list. 

I first heard about the concept for First Party over a year ago in Wired’s piece on Jerry and Mike.  Just like Child’s Play and PAX, it’s a natural fit for the community and it’s a wonder no one stepped up years ago.  I’m excited to see what their line looks like a year from now, once they’ve diversified beyond essential polos.  One of these may just find a home next to the rainbow of Lacoste basics in my closet.  As an added bonus, they’re available for Xbox LIVE avatars too!

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ctown fair sign 2Last week, yours truly was called upon to protect the city and county of New York from the forces of evil.  Luckily, jurors get a whopping 2 hours for lunch and my local Hall of Justice is a few shorts blocks away from one of NYC’s truly hidden gems – Chinatown Fair.  Once famous for its dancing, tic-tac-toe playing chicken, Chinatown Fair is the city’s last bastion of the smoke filled, dimly lit arcade scene that bore nerd havens in malls and boardwalks around the country throughout the 80s and mid 90s.

I had last been in a proper arcade sometime in college (Pinball Pete’s represent!), but arcades had begun a quick and steady descent into obsolescence in this country some years before that.  Starting with the earliest consoles, each generation inched closer and closer to delivering a true arcade experience.

The Playstation/Saturn era finally delivered parity, but the home experience still came up short in perhaps the most critical area: competition.  This generation’s online matchmaking took care of that, and now  just about the closest thing you can find to an arcade in the States is some kind “Chuck E. Cheese for adults” nightmare with lots of bad food and fairly lame out-of-home-attraction type games.

SFIV

CF's networked SFIV cabinets - the only ones in NYC?

Chinatown Fair is unapologetic in its lineup and old-school decor.  The place is lined wall-to-wall with Capcom, SNK and Namco fighters.  A few big cabinet driving games, light-gun shooters, shmups and the obligatory Dance Dance Revolution machines round out the collection.

The latest additions to CF are all imports, as the scene’s still vibrant across the Pacific.  It was a good opportunity for me to see how arcade companies are adapting their hardware to suit more casual play styles, just like in console games.

A few driving and rhythm games at CF feature a proprietary card system that tracks players’ progress, much like a players’ club card in a casino.  So after a one-time nominal purchase on the actual game cabinet – for example, a racer based on the anime Initial D – the player can insert their card into any Initial D cabinet they encounter in any arcade in the world, and they’ll be able to use the car they’ve customized on the tracks they’ve unlocked progressing through the game.  It’s like having a savegame file that’s always with you, or an Xbox LIVE account that works in the arcade.

I thoroughly dug my visit to Chinatown Fair.  It feels like one of the divier spots from my time in Japan.   And I mean that as a huge compliment.  I can understand how the arcade business model got phased out, but it’s kind of a shame that there are so few of them left for younger gamers to experience.  If you happen to know of a particular good spot in your town, be sure and leave it in the comments.

I'm such a baller

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We finally got the Batman game we’ve always wanted, with the superb Arkham Asylum from Rocksteady dropping this week.  The reviews are glowing, with some lofty comparisons and even “Game of the Year” buzz surfacing.  Going back to last summer with the The Dark Knight movie, we’ve seen two projects take on the Batman license and absolutely nail it.  Great!  The only hiccup is DC’s completely missing the opportunity for comics sales.

Anyone that picks up and plays Arkham Asylum this week would be completely and hopelessly lost if they were to read any of the flagship Batman books on the shelf of their local comic shop this week.  For the love of God, Bruce Wayne’s not even Batman right now*!

Dick Grayson and... Damian Wayne are Batman and Robin

Dick Grayson and... Damian Wayne are Batman and Robin

I’m not saying they should retcon all the events of Infinite Crisis just for the sake of Rocksteady’s game, but would it have killed DC Comics to align the current story arc in the ongoing monthly bat-books with something that resembled Arkham Asylum’s continuity?  I suppose it’s a bit of the tail wagging the dog, but last time I checked COMICS were facing some serious readership issues, while games have an abundance of players.

Marvel took a lot of flack for a similar issue with the core X-Men books around the release window for the first Bryan Singer X-Men movie in 2000.  Only a few characters from the movie were active in the books at that time, and the ones that were looked nothing like their silver screen counterparts.  The House of M has since learned their lesson, and got Spidey back in black just in time for Spider-Man 3.  They even got the last few occurrences of Free Comic Book Day to coincide with the release date of tentpole summer blockbusters starring a Marvel character.

I can’t wait to see the NPD numbers on Arkham Asylum next month.  I’m willing to bet at least the Xbox 360 SKU charts in the top 3.  Too bad none of those buyers could sustain their Batman fix with a nice, tidy jumping-on point into monthly Batman comics.

*For all the lapsed comic book nerds reading this, Bruce Wayne is dead.  In the comic book sense.  As in ‘nobody every really dies in comics**’.

**The REALLY lapsed comic book nerds will recall that this phrase use to read ‘nobody ever really dies in comics except Bucky.’  But he actually came back in 2008.  So, really, NOBODY dies in comics now.

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