Tuesday, December 28, 2010

48. decade of the anti-hero

kratos in god of war III (godofwar.com)
so 2010's drawing to a close, and of course most sites are publishing their obligatory "best of" lists.  so i thought we'd do something a little more year-end themed here.  well in this case, decade-end themed.  i know a bunch of you will probably either publicly or privately flame me for what the definition of the end of a decade is, which was actually the end of 2009.  but hey, if gameFAQs can do their "game of the decade" stuff at the end of 2010, then damn it, i can do something too.

we saw a lot of change in the last 10 years of gaming, first and foremost in technology.  in 2000 we were busting 900's in tony hawk's pro skater on the first playstation and reveling in the graphical delights of soul calibur on the dreamcast.  then came a wave of technology - a couple of years after this saw the death of the dreamcast and birth of the ps2, xbox, and gamecube, and ultimately the ps3, xbox 360, and wii.  but in the grand scheme of things, this wasn't really a big deal.  it's a damn decade.  it's expected that new technology is going to be released in a time frame that large.  it's what that technology brought and enabled that shows what has really changed since 2000.

and that change was full immersion into complex, interactive, graphically advanced worlds that required multiple saves and hours upon hours of gameplay.  it allowed the creation of games where players actually felt a connection or some kind of indentity to the characters they were playing, which is a far cry from what was available before in the 80's and 90's.  there wasn't really any backstory to characters or worlds back then, and with games that were easily finished the same day you brought it home from the store, why should there be?  those characters were disposable.  now there were of course exceptions.  i don't lump games like final fantasy or dragon warrior into this group, even though their character design was actually pretty generic.  they were literally still "save the princess" games.

now as i may or may not have asserted before, video games can act as interactive art, in the sense that it can imitate real life and vice versa.  it should come to be expected, as it's the next logical progression from books, movies, and television.  with this new tech the most direct analogy of this concept are war-themed shooters like US army produced america's army and the recent call of duty, in which the protagonists are up against modern day terrorism instead of some vaguely formed antagonistic threat.

dante in devil may cry 4 (devilmaycry.com)
but more than that, what this really has led to is cultivation of the anti-hero as the main character in modern gaming while the concept was being cultivated in society.  the term is thrown around a lot, so what exactly is an anti-hero?  not a villain, as its name suggests, but a hero that lacks some qualities of a traditional hero archetype, like a noble purpose in life, strong morals, courage, a sense of duty, etc.  in a nutshell, think guy gardener versus hal jordan.  jack harkness versus doctor who.  heroes that are willing to cross a line.  that aren't willing to become part of a system.  the same flawed humans as you and me.  so heroes became less and less like superman and establishment - a big blue boy scout representing the ideal, and more like iron man - human with problems, like reality.

anti-heroes have been around since the dawn of time and make up a lot of the television and movies we watch - we all love watching dr. greg house and his skewed sense of morality, clint eastwood's man with no name, and of course guts from the anime series berserk.  but this decade has seen that concept force a wedge into video games.  what kind of game heroes did we have to grow up with before 2000?  mario, megaman, samus aran, link, crono, etc.  these are all characters that carried a sense of nobility in what they do - they the right thing because it's the right thing to do, be it out of a sense of duty or loyalty.  the goals in a lot of these games was equally noble - rescuing the princess, a friend, or simply defending the world from destruction at the hands of evil.  all very "lawful good" for those who think of this in terms of D&D alignment.  sure crono had magus hanging around in an anti-hero role but he was still a side character in chrono trigger, not your main.  but it doesn't quite work that way anymore.  now that we have these complex characters in fully developed worlds that players will spend a significant amount of time with, players are more often looking for flaws in their heroes.  they want to watch and/or play as characters who they can see some of themselves in - someone a little bit more human.  someone a bit more anti-establishment.  someone struggling with themselves.  it's that relatable imperfection that leads to the player being able to identify with something in the character.  and this partially led to how the anti-hero played in gaming.

how did that affect the games of the 2000's?  my last gaming decade includes max payne, devil may cry's dante, god of war's kratos, alta├»r from assassin's creed, and arthas menethil from warcraft III just to name a few for a super-condensed list.  there are dozens more that fit the bill.  these characters aren't driven by some moral code.  in this list they're mostly driven by revenge, and are willing to blur the lines of morality to achieve that end goal.  and that blur not only adds fun but sometimes flexibility in gameplay and interesting story progression.  shadow of the colossus and its main character wander were lauded for this kind of moral ambiguity, where it's ultimately revealed that wander's good intentions to save someone he loved had some very dark side effects.  so there it is, the first 10 years of the 2000's very well could have been the decade of the anti-heroes.  but if this is cyclic, as all things are, in a few years we can expect gaming to re-introduce a throng of classical heroes sometime in the future.  but until then, enjoy the rough-around-the edges heroes and heroines of today's games, because of what that says about us.

that the greatest anti-hero of this decade is on the other side of the controller.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

47. guillermo del toro wants to make you cry

del toro in wired magazine
we're at the point in gaming (particularly console) now where i don't think tech is so much of an issue anymore.  the xbox 360 and ps3 can both generate excellent graphical experiences and the wii... well if the wii's your primary console you probably don't really care.  like motion?  you have your pick of the litter between the wii, the move and kinect.  but either way, giving a player ridiculous graphics is more or less commoditized now.  and since that (in my opinion) doesn't enter too much into user experience anymore, some game makers are trying their best to bring players something unique through the game itself.  the fable series was one of the few games where your character's choices had direct consequences, and you gradually had to choose whether or not your character would be good or evil through action (yes i know, you're thinking chrono trigger and maybe jedi academy, but i'm working from a current graphical platform here).  as RPG's have more and more cinematic elements than they used to, quantic dream tried to mix it up earlier this year with heavy rain - which was really an interactive movie more so than a game.

and now the lines between movies and games are becoming even more blurred.  THQ announced that they are entering into a multi-year deal with guillermo del toro, director of pan's labyrinth and screenplay writer of the upcoming the hobbit movies, for a series of horror games called inSane. he's going to be a creative director, and while THQ has rights to the game series, he has the rights to any and all associated "filmed entertainment."  which less than explicitly says that this is going to be a project with multiple media outlets, the bare minimum of which will be games and movies.  i'm sure there will be some sort of web element to tie the whole thing together, but that's just a guess.

so back to games challenging players with creative play styles.  how is inSane any different than other games of the horror survival genre?  well according to him, "with this new series of video games, i want to take players to a place they have never seen before, where every single action makes them question their own senses of morality and reality" (1up).  and coming from del toro, that's completely believable - he openly comments to the media and press on the topic of video games as art.  passionately.  when he was asked at a book signing in october, he described games as the comic books of our time, and is upset that the medium "gains no respect among the intellegentsia (gamerant).  he goes on to say, "they say, 'oh, video games...' and most people that complain about video games have never ****ing played them." (i know i know, this here's a family show, but that noise was on point)

so needless to say, i'm a fan.

logo from the teaser
and the teaser trailer that is out there right now supports that - which consists of 30 seconds or so of viewer discomfort, followed by 10 seconds of an image that may even make horror buffs twitch a little bit - see for yourself on the game's official website, www.insanegame.com.  according to del toro, we can also expect some sort of lovecraftian tentacled creature.  i'm still waiting for details to slowly drip out from the THQ camp, because there will be a lot more to come.  the first installment of inSane won't be out until 2013.

now i'm trying to treat this film-game union with a healthy bit of skepticism.  there have been a number of partnerships like this that never really panned out to much.  remember the movie hard boiled?  john woo tried to make a direct video game sequel in 2007 with stranglehold, but it never really took off.

but then again, no kind of movie/game crossover/sequel will EVER be the goonies II.

Friday, December 10, 2010

46. when game ratings make sense

back in 1994, there was a lot of concern in the united states about the amount of violence in video games.  granted, this was the age of the super nintendo and sega genesis, where everything still looked like pixelated cartoons ad the concept of what reflected "realism" was primitive and limited.  it was during the high time of mortal kombat and doom, both of which brought a new level of 16-bit gore to consoles and pc's across america.  it was this environment that gave rise to the entertainment software rating board, or ESRB for short.  their job was to look at software and give it an age appropriate rating based on the content of that software.  they came out a few different bands in the ratings spectrum, more or less mirroring the movie rating system that was already in effect: E (everyone, "G" or "PG"), T (teen, "PG-13"), M (mature, "R"), and AO (adults only, "NC-17").  There have been a few additions since then like EC and KA, but the first three are the ones that make up the ratings on most games in the united states.  i've only really seen AO-rated games on certain director's cuts or re-releases, like the PC uncut release of indigo prophecy (fahrenheit, for my outside-of-north-america readers).  and i agree with the system.  i think there's enough distinction between different types of games that it makes sense to parents.  i personally think there's a lot of M-rated games young kids shouldn't be playing.  but that of course is up to the parents' discretion.

take a trip down under and you'll find that in australia the rules are a little bit different.  they established their ratings system back in the 80's, with the most restrictive rating being MA15+, which seemed fairly logical.  back then they didn't really need anything higher, because no reasonable person would make a case that the mario brothers would drive children to violent killing sprees and still be taken seriously for every word that came out of their mouth.  except michael atkinson, south australian attorney general, who was the only australian AG holding out for the addition of a higher rating in their system.  every game that came out after that that were found too harsh for an MA15+ rating were refused a rating outright.  and a game refused a rating is a game banned for sale.  he led this charge for banning games instead of coming up with some sort of 18+ rating for them, and caught a lot of flak from many angles for doing so.  even their movie ratings have R18+ and X18+ ratings.  providing, lets say, questionable reasoning for banning certain games, he even at one point said  that "i feel that my family and i are more at risk from gamers than we are from the outlaw motorcycle gangs who also hate me and are running a candidate against me."  no joke.  gamepolitics has that story from just this past february.  granted, he claims a gamer slipped a threating note under his door at 2AM one morning, but other stuff he's said, like seeing fake people does make me file him on more of the paranoid side, so who really knows.

but now he's gone.  atkinson stepped down as attorney general in march of this year (he's still in parliament though), at which point gamers rejoiced, and looked forward to the day where they wouldn't be restricted to games the rest of the world is enjoying, and that their wishes would be fulfilled at todays meeting of the standing committee of attorneys-general.  but alas, no luck.  the AG for western australia said he needed to consult his cabinet, and another AG had just started his job and didn't think he was in a position to make a decision.  so they wait for a verdict until the next meeting, in 2011.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

45. world of warcraft and fantasy football

there have been two notable time sinks in the past few weeks for me outside of work and actual living - the first is world of warcraft, trying to level a paladin because the guild needs another tank (and cataclysm drops today), and the second is the two fantasy football leagues i play in.  to the outside onlooker the two things have nothing in common - the classic "nerd" and "jock" social archetypes that you all experienced during your childhood still kind of stick with people through the years.  back in high school and college, most people's social choices were clearly made between nerdery (and associated gaming/science/tech) and popularity (and associated drinking/sports/people).  that is, until senior year, when no one really cared anymore and everyone just partied because school was coming to an end.  you know, the whole "no more teachers no more books" thing.  but with beer.  while my cohorts and i did try to somehow pull of both paths of society in college, we all sharply leaned towards the former.  friday and saturday nights for me in sophomore year, for example, either consisted of going to $5 to $10 shows put on by small local bands or playing diablo II with the other guys in my wing on the 4th floor of good ol' forbes hall (sometimes command and conquer: red alert 2 was used as a change of pace).  we didn't even know our own 4-digit on-campus extensions for our phone numbers, but we could sure as hell rattle off our IP addresses for you.

just the network, 3 engineers, a programmer and sometimes some chinese food.  and we owned, if that's at all relevant to anyone.

but there's way more similarity between these two things than one casual observer might think.  look at every major MMO or RPG that has been released in the past two decades.  the basic elements of hit points, mana, damage, defense, evasion, etc., etc., etc. are all modifications to different degrees to old school dungeons and dragons and tabletop RPG's.  these are the same base principles that flowed into other forms of nerd entertainment, like collectible card game magic: the gathering.  everything is driven by numbers.  in warcraft my hunter gains 1 attack power per agility i have, so my choices in weapons and armor will naturally be high in agility, to maximize the amount of damage i can deal.  characters whose role involves tanking, or damage mitigation, would optimize their gear for stamina, dodge or parry to enhance their defenses instead, because more defensive stats mean less damage will be inflicted on them by opponents.  every role has it's own numerical values, and a player will benefit from learning those patterns and trying to optimize those statistics with stat bonuses and augmentation.

so that's my quick nerd speech on basic stats in world of warcraft.  so how on earth is fantasy football, a game played traditionally by people into sports, and NOT gaming, related?  it goes back to the numbers-driven play that is present in a lot of gaming.  fantasy football has similar rules.  suppose i wanted to run a successful 10-man raid, let's say icecrown citadel.  i would want my team to be made up of 2 tanks, 2 healers, and 6 dps (damage dealer) players.  on the other hand, i also want a successful team in my fantasy league - so i would need (in our league setup anyway) a quarterback, 2 running backs, 3 wide receivers, a tight end, a kicker, and defense/special teams.  in both situations, a win is only obtained through good performance from a majority of your players, or if a few perform exceptionally well and carry the rest.  bad performance hurts your chances. your raid will be sunk if your tanks can't survive long enough.  and your fantasy head-to-head matchup and playoff dreams could be done for if your quarterback is throwing interceptions.  just as anyone who had mark sanchez this week.  poor jets.  poooooor jets.  that game was a massacre.  but anyway, again, everything is based on points.

so like i said, my warcraft hunter may get a point of attack power per agility, but my running backs get 1 fantasy point per 10 yards rushing (plus bonuses) and 6 for a touchdown.  quarterbacks get a point per 25 yards passing.  defense gets points for sacks and interceptions.  meaning while my hunter was delivering 10k damage points per second in azeroth this past weekend, maurice jones-drew was delivering 24 points for me in tennessee. and those points, even though they came from a great run game and not by stacking agility and level 264 gear,  could easily be considered damage - against my opponent for week 13.

see everyone?  fantasy football.  the nerd shall inherit the earth.  on schedule.  and at least make it to the playoffs.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

44. EA squeezes some fresh truth juice for their boy tiger

and i'm back.  hope everyone's thanksgiving holiday went well.  mine was one of turkey bliss, including 2 varieties of mashed potatoes (regular and cheesy bacon) and made me feel happy in the belly.  anyway, down to business - we'll ease back in with a short one.  this one revisits the whole tiger woods scandal and EA en masse - you remember tiger, right?

now do you like sports games?  sure, who doesn't!  every gamer i know, whether they're spending 80 hours unlocking stuff on an rpg, years on a mmo, or tracking head shots in an fps, can enjoy playing a good sports game, even if the occurrence is no more than few and far between.  and chances are whatever their sport / game of choice is, it's produced by electronic arts.  in my opinion they make some serious stuff in their EA sports line, with team sports hits like madden NFL football and FIFA soccer, which try to deliver something new every year.  with their links to the NFL and FIFA, marketing these to the gaming public was fairly simple.  take madden NFL football for example - since they deal with the actual NFL and use real players and teams (of whose rights are owned by the league), marketing the game was advertising for the NFL, and the same sort of followed in vice versa.  picking a poster boy is easy, and everybody's happy.  it was a little more difficult for EA's electronic version of the PGA tour -  it just wasn't as popular as other sports in the US in the 90's, and on top of that they were being beaten by likes of microsoft golf and links, as well as jack nicklaus' brand of games.

tiger and his old fedex cup (pgatour.com)
enter tiger woods in the late 90's.  tiger was a great addition for golf for multiple reasons, and in my opinion is responsible for the resurgence of the popularity of the game from the late 90's to today.  EA hopped on the tiger train for their golf games after his explosive play and 1997 masters win, added his name to their game, and tiger woods pga tour is what we've gotten ever since.  his endorsement breathed new life into the series, and has grown in popularity as viewership for golf increased, continuing even today.  EA even held on to the tiger woods brand through his highly publicized off-course issues for tiger woods pga tour '11, because their concern is about endorsing "tiger woods the player."

"the player."  no pun intended.  i promise.

but according to reuters, recent statements by EA's head honcho john riccitiello may indicate that this partnership is on the rocks due to his performance post-crisis. "we have no plans to move away from him, but it's a business relationship on the basis of we make the best golf game and he's the best golfer." he went on to say "both of those things need to be true in the long run for the partnership to make sense."  later he seemed to backpedal a little, saying that this statement wasn't a threat to tiger.  but i don't see how it can be taken another way.  while EA is definitely giving a little breathing room to someone who's brought them so much success to bring his game back up instead of just immediately dropping him, there's still a message here:  start winning again, or EA will join the list of tiger's former sponsors.  and it makes complete sense.  if you want to sell these games, for any sport, you need to associate it with someone the fans are excited about.  madden 11 features drew brees - a super bowl champion and MVP.  heisman trophy winner tim tebow is on ncaa football 11.  do you think this year's madden game would sell as well if instead of drew brees, the cover art showed a triumphant tyler palko getting ready to bomb it deep?

the hyundai tournament of champions is in january.  tee it up strong woods, or we could be looking at a rory mcilroy solo cover for pga tour '12.  and while he's working on that, EA, work on those DRM methods.