Archive | March 2013

Bioshock: Up-Goer Five Edition

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Now that Bioshock Infinite is finally here, I’ve had Bioshock on the brain. Not wanting to spoil anything about Irrational’s latest, I’ll save talking about it for later, but it seemed as good a time as any to do a little reminiscing about the original Bioshock, which is unquestionably one of the best games of all time. It’s been dissected and analyzed in eighty-million different ways, but I thought that I’d try a simpler take on it. Much simpler. To that end, I’ve made an attempt at explaining the plot of the original Bioshock using Randall Munroe’s “Up-Goer Five” linguistic limitation: explaining something complicated using only the “ten hundred” most common words in the English language. This was done with the aid of Theo Sanderson’s “Up-Goer Five Text Editor,” which I highly recommend you play around with. (It’s worth noting that this post spoils the entirety of the plot of Bioshock, albeit in somewhat obfuscated language.) —————————————– In the game, the player takes on the person of a no-name guy who is in a flying sky car that falls into the middle of the big water. In the middle of the big water, the player finds themselves near a light house which offers their only means of getting saved. Inside of the building they find a one-person under water car which takes them to the Best City, a place under the waves. The player learns that the Best City was built by a Man of Ideas who wanted to escape from the up-on-top world. The Best City is amazing and pretty, but dark and something is wrong. It quickly becomes clear that not everything in the Best City is as it should be, and the player almost gets killed at the hands of mean angry guys who are not quite human. The player escapes thanks to a strange voice on the talking help box. Help Box Guy explains to the player that things in the Best City have gone bad and he needs help for his family. Talking Help Box Guy shows the player through different little towns of the Best City, and the player meets and fights many bad things and mean people, none the least of which are the very bad “Big Dads,” tall and big men with lit heads and sometimes guns which follow and help and sometimes fight for “Little Sisters,” small, once-human girls who now act to find and take the thing that allows people to change and make better their own self-making living stuff. When the player finally gets to the under water car that holds the family of Talking Help Box Guy, the bad friends of Idea Man blow it up as the player watches, and a really mad Talking Box Guy explains that the only means left to escape the Best City is through the Man of Ideas. The player sets off to walk quietly into the house of the Idea Man, along the way learning more about the story of the Best City: the Man of Ideas, a business guy, grew mad at the ideas of important people in the up-on-top world who wanted him to always share and give, and so he decided to build the Best City to be his own idea of a perfect world. He asked people who ran businesses, people who thought deep things, and people who made art to share in his perfect city, a place where they would not be told what to do by the big people of the up-on-top world, where they would be free to make better their big thinking until it was as good as it could be. It becomes clear to the player, however, that even in a perfect city, someone has to worry about cleaning work and other hard things to do, and bad and dark thoughts between the people begin to grow in the city. These bad thoughts are made worse by the coming of a man who wants to use other people, who sees the chance to use the people of the Perfect City to his own ends. Soon the business of trying to make a perfect world changes in a bad way into class fighting, fighting against the Idea Man, and in the end, everyone fighting everyone. Most people die. When the player finally reaches the Idea Man, they learn that they are not the free player that they had thought they were, and they have been used by a person they could not see. The Idea Man drives the point home by offering the player a means to kill him and asking them to try and stop listening to the orders of the one who makes them do things. He does this with his now well-known line: “A man picks one thing or another. A person owned by another person does what that other person says.” The player finds that whether they want to or not, they have to kill the Idea Man by beating him to death. Having gotten what he wanted, Talking Help Box Guy shows himself to be none other than the Man Who Uses People, and explains that he has been using the player to get control of the Best City for himself. After thanking the player for their help, the Man Who Uses People orders his friends to kill the player, who is saved, however, by a woman who has been caring for and making better again the Little Sisters that the player has helped. With the help of the Woman Who Saves Little Girls, the player finds a way to break free of the Man Who Uses People’s mind control and fight him. In the end, the player must turn themselves into a Big Dad in order to fight. In a last big fight, the player beats the Man Who Uses People and, with the help of the Little Sisters, escapes the Best City to find a new life in the world above.

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PAX East 2013

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I have always wanted to go to PAX. From the moment the first one was announced, I knew that it would be something spectacular. It’s never really been practical for me to go until this past weekend.

It was a hoot! It was not, exactly, the be-all-and-end-all of conventions that, back in the day, I dreamed it might be, but it was an overwhelmingly positive experience.

Here are some personal highlights:

–I got to converse, briefly, with some of the big names of games journalism. I had conversations with Ben Kuchera of the Penny Arcade Report, Brian Crecente from Polygon, and Dale North, Editor-in-Chief of Destructoid (and OC Remixer!). They were all exceptionally friendly guys, and it was a pleasure to chat with them about the state of games journalism and some of the new and exciting trends in the industry.

–I got to shake the hands of the Vlambeer guys, who are responsible for Ridiculous Fishing. If you haven’t played Ridiculous Fishing yet, your wallet is three dollars too heavy and you’ve been wasting the last two weeks of your life. I’m just saying.

–Everyone in the Indie Megabooth is just wonderful. Really. It’s a privilege to walk through there, play their games, and talk face-to-face with people who are so passionate about their craft.

–I finally, finally got to play Johan Sebastian Joust. It is every bit as glorious as I had been led to believe. I don’t know that there’s any place you can play a 12-player game of it outside of a convention, but it’s… just… every game ought to be so pure, so quick, so FUN. I miss it already, and I only played three rounds.

–I didn’t take the time to play Supergiant’s Transistor, but I don’t need to. They made Bastion. I have every confidence that Transistor is going to be worth playing, and I’m 90% sure it’s going to be a moving and engaging experience, even if it doesn’t end up reaching the same level of refinement as their freshman effort. I DID have an excellent moment at the Supergiant booth: I asked one of the team members what the current wait was to play the game, and he checked with one of his colleagues and ruefully reported that it was at least an hour and forty-five minutes. (The line was never shorter than this throughout the entire weekend.) Deciding that I wouldn’t wait, I asked the guy from Supergiant if he knew, at least, if Darren Korb was once more going to be doing the soundtrack. The eagerness must have been evident in my voice, because he looked at me funny for a moment before replying, “Well, yes, I am.” I was talking to the man himself! Needless to say, I shook his hand earnestly and expressed my boundless appreciation.

–The Protomen. You guys. The Protomen. I cannot say enough good things about how hard the Protomen rock. There was no concert stage left at the end of the set, just a smoking crater where the force of their jams had destroyed the convention center. Or at least, that’s what happened in my mind.

Like at any convention, there were a dozen or more tiny moments that made the experience a pleasant one. Walking past Ken Levine in the expo hall, being handed free hats by PopCap Games, the Shaq-Fu tournament at the OC Remix panel–it was a very full weekend, and an enormously fulfilling one at that. I thoroughly enjoyed my first PAX–and I’ve resolved not to let it be my last.

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon — Awake

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Utl5udium0Q]

I’ve been listening to a lot of Castlevania music lately. Specifically, I’m catching up on back episodes of Brett Elston’s superb video game music podcase, VGMpire. He did a thing about six months ago where he took his listeners on a grand tour of the entire Castlevania musical oeuvre, and even as someone who is a die-hard fan of the franchise, I learned a thing or two (apparently Order of Ecclesia has some fabulous music! Who knew?).

Still, the thing that most struck me as I listened to track after track of awesome chiptune goodness was how much I really, really like the opening track from Circle of the Moon, titled “Awake.” I may or may not have stopped cleaning the house to do a little rocking out when one of the episodes opened with it.

The GBA doesn’t have great sound quality, and even the cleanest recordings sound like you’re hearing them broadcast from space through a battery-powered transmitter, but some of the compositions on the system were superb regardless (I point out here Advance Wars, in particular, along with the score to Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga), and Circle of the Moon, as a launch title, is particularly impressive.

Through the fog of memory, I can’t recall whether I purchased my GBA because I desperately needed to play Circle of the Moon or, as is more likely, that I had a good bit of pizza-delivery money burning a hole in my pocket and was anxious to be an early adopter of a system, but Circle of the Moon was unquestionably the only title available for the system at launch that was worth a damn. Even now, I have an inordinate fondness for the game, despite the fact that on the original GBA, the game was so dark that it was often impossible to see unless you were sitting directly underneath a bank of florescent lights. It was hard, sometimes brutally hard, and it was the first game after Symphony of the Night to ape the “Metroidvania” method of level design.

It’s tough to recommend Circle of the Moon to a new gamer (or new Castlevania fan) when there are much more accessible games available (like Symphony of the Night, and Aria/Dawn of Sorrow, and Portrait of Ruin)–but for those of us that played it back when it was originally released, Circle of the Moon was really something special.

Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day the traditional way: by beating the crap out of these snake enemies

St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner, and you know what that means: It’s time to beat up on some snakes!

“But Nate,” some of you might say, “aren’t you forgetting about the REAL point of St. Patty’s Day–the drinking?”

Your collective point is well taken, but I am a traditionalist, and (at least if I’m reading my Wikipedia correctly) the most important part of St. Patrick’s legacy is that he was a reptile-rouster, a herpetological herder, a real asp-kicker.Yes, like our friend Samuel L. Jackson, St. Patrick had had it with those monkey-fighting snakes on that Monday-to-Friday plane island.

And so I propose that in the spirit of the holiday, we march forward, controllers in hand, and do a little python-pummeling of our own. Allow me to humbly suggest some select serpents to squash.

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1. Midgar Zolom, Final Fantasy VII.

The “Midgar Zolom” is the obnoxious creature that will chase, slay, and devour you with nary a second thought if you venture out into the swamps near the Mythril Mine–at least, unless you’re astride a chocobo. When you first encounter it, it’s about ten levels higher than you, and you pretty much don’t stand a chance against its absurd, nuclear-explosion-causing magic. To top things off, on the other side of the swamps, you run into one of the creatures impaled upon a tree–the handiwork of your quarry, Sephiroth. Talk about intimidating!

It’s worth it to circle back and seek your revenge once you’re equal in power to the creature, though–you can learn that handy nuclear-explodey-spell for yourself, and besides, you’re not going to let a giant snake get the better of you, are you? On St. Patty’s Day, All Snakes Must Die.

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2. Snake Man, Mega Man 3

By the third Mega Man game, it seems that Dr. Wily had already begun to reach toward the bottom of the robot barrel for ideas. One can understand the usefulness of a robot who is very quick, for instance, or one who throws bombs. One can even imagine the utility of a robot who… has guts. But what plans did Wily have for a robot whose head is a snake, and who also shoots snakes? Was he going to open a reptile farm and finance his evil robot empire that way? Did he anticipate being attacked by Indiana Jones, perhaps?

Regardless, Snake Man deserves to die.

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3. Killer Snake, Dark Cloud

Dark Cloud is a game that seems to have fallen off a lot of people’s radar, which is a shame–it, and to a larger degree its much-improved sequel, offered some pretty compelling dungeon-crawler/town-building gameplay. The second one even let you travel in time! I don’t think it let you beat up a giant snake, though, and so the original is the one that earns a spot on this list. Of snake enemies. That you can beat up.

Fun fact! If memory serves, this snake boss requires you to pass a loathsome Quick Time Event in order to slay it for good. So it totally deserves to die.

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4. Two-Headed Snake Boss, Suikoden II.

Two for the price of one! Suikoden II offers you this unsettling monstrosity, which can be a real pain in the butt to fight if you don’t know it’s coming. You’ve got to kill it, though–you must–if for no other reason than the fact that… can you see? Look really closely. At its mouths.

That’s right. This snake has human-like teeth. If that by itself ain’t enough to give you nightmares, then you’re a braver man than I. I bet St. Patty and his whole army of leprechauns would’ve had a hard time with this sucker. Did St. Patrick have an army of leprechauns? My research for this article was cursory at best.

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5. Matango Snake, Secret of Mana.

Secret of Mana is a game with a lot of delightful bosses, but this snake! This is a pretty sorry snake, if you ask me. Why, it’s just a bunch of orbs that move in tandem! This faux-slitherer is an embarrassment to all of its herpetological brethren. If it were to unhinge its jaw (if it even can, the phony), how would its gruesome meal pass through its digestive tract? Its head isn’t connected to its body, and I find the biological implications of such an anatomy highly suspect. I would rate this snake two out of five, at best. You should probably put it out of its improbably-configured misery.

And finally…

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6. Liquid Snake, Metal Gear Solid.

Because duh.

I hope that’s a good list to get you started. Let’s all work together to ensure that come St. Patrick’s Day, there are no more snakes left in all of gaming!

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Well. Perhaps we could make one exception.

Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games

So, Kotaku today pointed me to the first of Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games” videos, and a quick viewing proves it to be pretty well put together stuff!

I applaud Ms. Sarkeesian’s critical (and yet blindingly obvious) reading of some of the medium’s most abundant series, and the discomfort I feel at once more being confronted with the pervasiveness of these tropes in the amusements of my youth is exceeded only by my frustration when I think about how much cooler these series would be if their narratives didn’t rely on such simple formulae. Is it that hard to give a princess a shot at heroism (or at least, you know, agency)?

And now, of course, I’m about to hop back to Yamatai to help Ms. Croft fill some cultists full of arrows. I’m not going to think too hard about how much progress that is, and in what direction.

Lara and I

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This can’t be a very long post, because I’m only a few hours into the game, but I wanted to put to paper (figuratively speaking) some of my thoughts about the nature of the player/character relationship, as I see it, and how it manifests in the new Tomb Raider.

I’ve been watching my wife play Mass Effect 2 for the past couple weeks, and she (like me) is playing as a female Commander Shepard. Shepard, of course, is very much an avatar of the player–one can design Shep’s facial features, gender, hair color, and to a large extent, demeanor and personality. The dialogue system in the Mass Effect series offers enough variety that Shepard’s actions are able to mirror the player’s intent to a very large degree, even in cutscenes.

Shepard isn’t a perfect avatar, of course–sometimes you’ll pick a line of dialogue that doesn’t quite come out of the Commander’s mouth in the way you’d like it to–but there is enough control there, enough choice, that I have always associated myself with Shepard whenever I’ve played. I’ve noticed that my wife has been doing the same. Liara isn’t Shepard’s “space girlfriend,” she’s mine. (Same goes for Lt. Alenko and my wife. Space boyfriend.) Playing as a female avatar hasn’t made me feel less associated with Shepard. Gender doesn’t seem to have much to do with this association.

So it felt a little weird to me, playing through the new Tomb Raider, when I realized that I wasn’t thinking of Lara as myself–I was thinking of her as a teammate. Immediately, I checked myself against all the patronizing controversy that I’d read in the run-up to the game’s release: Was I thinking of Lara as a scared little girl that I had to “protect?” Criminy, I hoped not.

And I wasn’t. Not really. But I was thinking of Lara as someone I was working with, rather than as, in order to keep her (us) alive through abominable circumstances. In moments of tension, I found myself talking aloud to my television, telling Lara what a terrible business we were in the middle of and asking her to work with me so we (she) wouldn’t die. Is this cognitive dissonance, or am I being pedantic?

I can tell you that I had the exact same relationship with Leon S. Kennedy when I first played through Resident Evil 4. In fact, some of my friends can attest to my intense frustration anytime I died playing that game, because I felt passionately as though I was failing my virtual partner (and in another sense, breaking the narrative–Leon wasn’t supposed to get his head chainsawed off; the story derailed because of my incompetence, etc.).

These characters are agents, not avatars, meaning they are not meant to be an embodiment of the player in the game’s world. But I find myself wondering, as I play through Lara’s story, how my relationship with her is going to change over the course of the narrative.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 — Chemical Plant Zone

Maybe it’s all the coffee in my system this afternoon, but I’m pretty sure I could listen to this theme on repeat for the rest of the day.

The funny thing about music in the Sonic the Hedgehog games, especially in the early levels, is that they have to hit you hard and fast because–no joke–you’re probably going to blow through Chemical Plant Zone in less than the time that it takes you to watch this YouTube video. Like, including the boss.

Sonic Team sure as hell knew how to make the Genesis’s sound chip sound great, and the music for Chemical Plant Zone is a superb example. Click the video. Have a listen. Give it twenty seconds–if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably think: “Oh, this is no big deal, I know this music inside and out. I’ve played this game a million times. This is nothing special.”

Let it sink in. Stay with it beyond the familiar initial reaction. And now– now it’s got its hooks in you. Now you can’t stop.