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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.

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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.

Completionism has its limits

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I’ve been spreading my attention far too thin lately among many games, at a time when my day job means my gaming hours pitiably thin. I’ve had to make do with an hour or two of Snake Eater here, a handful of random battles in Final Fantasy V there (though I did manage one of those elusive pleasures–a four-person session of Gears of War 3 with my bros. Scheduling, right?). Rather than buckling down and trying to finish a project, I went ahead and started fooling around with Alan Wake’s American Nightmare (which I highly recommend for anyone who, unlike me, has a couple hours to kill).

There have been one or two games that I’ve put a fair number of hours into this month. Before the deluge of media that is March (Tomb Raider, Bioshock Infinite, Game of Thrones–and did I mention I mean to squeeze PAX East in there, too?), I thought I would try and knock out a couple of entries in series I love but hadn’t gotten around to for one reason or another. I plowed through Professor Layton and the Last Specter probably more quickly than is healthy, and I meant to continue my streak by getting through Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, which is eminently more affordable now than it was at release (I got it off Amazon for fifteen bucks!).

Birth By Sleep has a narrative frame that I like a great deal–you get to play through three separate-yet-intertwining stories one at a time, leading up to a conclusion that sees them all brought together in the final climax. It’s something of a rare choice, as far as videogame storytelling goes (though it’s used to excellent effect in Suikoden III, if you’d like another good example).

Only I hit a roadblock. One of the persistent quirks of the Kingdom Hearts series is the ability to unlock secret epilogues–something akin to what’s known in cinema as a “stinger“–by beating the game on harder difficulties or by racking up 100% completion in most aspects of the game on normal difficulty.

So, foolishly avoiding researching the matter before setting out on my quest, I started up the game on normal difficulty as Terra, the brooding anti-hero, and set about enjoying my romp through delightful (yet still weirdly empty) Disney worlds. It wasn’t until my tenth hour of the game, when I was finally ready to clean up the loose ends before moving on to the final encounters, that I realized what a huge number of bullshit, trivial objectives the game expected me to accomplish in order to earn that secret epilogue.

It was a truly monumental amount of bullshit.

Here’s the thing–I love the Kingdom Hearts series. As much as I feel a little weird saying it, I’m very invested in its goofy, tangled, abstract melodrama. The core gameplay of the series, too, has never had any difficulty getting its hooks in me. I love whacking monsters with a sword! Birth By Sleep does some awesome things with that formula, too, with abilities that level up individually and a weird magic-fusing system that Squeenix salvaged from Crisis Core.

The rational thing would be to go ahead and beat the campaign I’ve started, play the other two, and then go ahead and watch the epilogue on YouTube. And I could do that. But deep down inside, I would know I haven’t earned it. How messed up is that? I’ve been so bred by JRPGs throughout my youth that the perception of “narrative as reward for slogging through repetitive gameplay” is THAT ingrained.

Oh well! With my schedule the way it is, my indecision means that Birth By Sleep is most likely going to end up on the shelf until another dry spell hits. I’ll have Lara Croft to pal around with in a week, and when Bioshock Infinite hits, well… I don’t imagine I’ll be emerging from Columbia anytime soon.

Suikoden Syndrome, or how a PSX JRPG changed the way I think about friendship

I have a tendency to try and get people to move to the city in which I live.

It’s not that I don’t respect the busy, rich, satisfying lives they must lead in their current cities–far from it. Many of my friends amaze me with their exploits on a near-daily basis. This desire to convince my friends to move near me isn’t borne entirely of selfishness, either: it’s not simply that I miss my friends but I am too stubborn to move myself. Instead, I blame this tendency to “recruit” my friends to come live with me on Suikoden II.

I first came to Suikoden on a whim: waiting desperately for the release of the next game from Square (a game which, if memory serves, was SaGa Frontier II, which is unique and worthwhile in its own right), I found myself at the mall with some money in my hands outside the door to “Electronics Boutique.” Recalling that my gaming magazine of choice (the long-defunct “Next Generation“) had given the recently-released Suikoden II four out of five stars, I decided to give it a go.

I confess to being a tad disoriented and underwhelmed at first. Flush after the cinematic overstimulation of Final Fantasy VII, adjusting to a game that was entirely two-dimensional, in which you couldn’t move diagonally, was a bit of a challenge. The fast-paced battles and charming characters went a long way to sell me on it, but I think that I probably got less than ten hours in before SaGa Frontier dropped and I got distracted.

It took me about a month or two to get back to it, and to this day I’m not entirely sure what I could have been thinking at the time. To have tasted the succulent fruit of Suikoden II and then walked away from the table? Unconscionable! Suikoden II is easily one of the ten best games I’ve ever played. It’s the strongest entry in a series that’s filled with compelling narratives about war, family, and destiny.

So how did it change how I think about my friendships? Well, that’s a little more complicated. Have you ever heard of Dunbar’s Number? It’s a concept which signifies the number of significant relationships the human brain can maintain and process at any given time. According to the Wikipedia article, it falls somewhere between a hundred and just over two hundred. So: more than just your housemates and your co-workers, but probably shy of the “Friends” tally you’re currently sporting on the ol’ Facebook.

When I first heard of Dunbar’s Number, the concept seemed curiously familiar to me, and it took me a little while to understand why. A hundred important relationships? A hundred people significant to me? Why did that strike a chord?

As with so many things, Suikoden held the answer. The Suikoden series, you see, revolves around a hero and his friends (or sometimes several heroes and their friends) collecting a mythical assembly known as the 108 Stars of Destiny. These Stars are characters who vary greatly in nature and disposition, from exuberant mercenaries to earnest chefs, brooding vampires, and at least one flying squirrel, and they all serve to aid you in your cause to resist the forces of tyranny, violence, and oppression.

And so, when I learned about Dunbar’s Number, something immediately came into focus for me: I was only going to be able to maintain just over a hundred relationships, and I was going to have to value each and every one of them, because these were going to be the hundred and eight people that were going to help me save the world.

Is that a bit of hyperbole? Of course. I didn’t have to like all of my Stars of Destiny (remember the flying squirrel?). But the beautiful, wonderful thing about the Suikoden games–a thing which I desperately wish was so obviously true about real life–is that everyone you recruit, each Star with whom you have a relationship, is there for a reason.

There’s the chef who runs your kitchens. The ferryman who gives you boat rides to neighboring towns. The man who installs your spa. There are countless warriors who join your party willing to risk their lives for your cause (or, if you want, you could take the chef into battle with you. Suikoden doesn’t care.).

For all of the brilliant plot twists and moments of narrative tension in the series, there is perhaps one instance in each Suikoden game that trumps even the most climactic battle: the moment when you are first given your castle. Far from a simple real estate transaction, the moment in which you are given your castle signifies the beginning of an enormous and epic endeavor–the beginning of your quest to seek out and recruit every useful person in the world and get them to move in with you.

Someone’s got to run your library. Someone’s got to upgrade your weapons. Someone’s got to be your cartographer. Seemingly every person you meet has a talent that they’re enthusiastic about contributing to the cause, even if that talent is changing the sound of your menu cursor into a quacking duck.
And I’m not a hundred percent sure when it happened, but this attitude about collecting all of my allies began to bleed into everyday life, and now I catch myself wondering what criteria I need to fulfill before my librarian friend, my blacksmith friend, my musician friend, my flying squirrel friend, will move into my castle so I can chisel their name on the great stone tablet that chronicles my Stars.

Is this selfish thinking? Perhaps a little bit. But there are few sensations in all of gaming that I find so pleasurable as running through a bustling castle town full of cheerful, productive inhabitants, and knowing that I had a hand in bringing them all together.

New Year’s [Gaming] Resolutions for 2013

pressstartAlright, folks, this is it. New Game Plus.

All your old levels, abilities, and equipment carry over. You get to keep all the modes you unlocked in the last playthrough.  Feel free to take different story branches and shoot for a different ending this time. You usually don’t get the best ending the first time through anyway, right? You beat the year once; you wanna GameFAQs it to fly through this one, that’s your business.

Me, I plan on making this playthrough count. Even wrote me down a couple of aims that I’m shootin’ for.

1. Not gonna feel obliged to collect every achievement in a game, even if it’s a game I love.

Assassin’s Creed III broke me of this one. I’m not going to go back and 100% that buggy, uneven game, even if I did fall in love with its complex narrative, even if I am in awe of its pitch-perfect period setting. Even if one of my buddies did get me an Assassin Tomahawk replica for my birthday.

2. Going to keep revisiting classic games that I missed when I was younger because they were outside my comfort zone as a gamer.

Last year I experienced gems like the original Half-Life, Metroid, Tetris Attack, ActRaiser, and Gran Turismo, all of which I’d passed by as a youth for one reason or another, and all of which are well thought of in the gaming canon. It was an eye-opening experience.

3. That said, I’m not going to force myself to play every older game in a series just so I can feel “prepared” for a new installment or reboot. 

I still haven’t played last year’s highly-praised XCOM: Enemy Unknown, despite the fact that I ostensibly love turn-based strategy, because I have been telling myself that I won’t have the “proper context” until I delve deeply into the beloved original (which is sitting in my Steam library as I type this, nearly untouched). I may have also been planning to force myself to play Terror from the Deep.

Sophie Prell’s tantalizing previews of the Tomb Raider reboot have convinced me that the new, Squeenix-published take on Ms. Croft ought to be on my must-play list as well, and I may or may not have bought all nine of the other games when they were on sale for $15 last week. But I’m not going to make myself play them all as a prerequisite for playing the new one! I swear!

4. I’m going to finally play through all of Final Fantasy V, dammit. 

Because I just know that as soon as I do this, Square Enix is going to announce a 3D remake for mobile devices. I just know it.

5. I’m going to keep supporting indie and crowdfunded games, even if some turn out to be duds, because it democratizes the medium.

And that’s good for everybody, in the long run.

6. I’m going to support my local barcade

Because coin-ops are just as cool now as they were in the eighties. So is drinking.

And finally…

7. I’m going to be optimistic about games as a medium.

All evidence points to 2013 being weirder and more exciting than 2012 as we approach the end of one console cycle and the beginning of [????], and I’m electing to espouse the perspective that change is a good thing, and games are only going to keep getting better and more interesting in the year to come.

And so I bid you all a Happy New Game Plus, and encourage you all to quickly and enthusiastically select Continue. I think this year’s going to be a good one.

What worries us about Bioshock Infinite’s cover art, and why we shouldn’t be worried

The offending cover art.A few days ago, 2K and Irrational Games released the official cover art for the upcoming Bioshock Infinite, a game over which I (and a considerable portion of the gaming populace) have been salivating for some time.

The general reaction to the cover has been one of disappointment, with complaints that the cover is “too generic” or “exactly the same as the cover for Uncharted from a different angle.” Many folks have pointed to the fact that the cover seems to be the very embodiment of Mega 64’s “Chin Down Eyes Up” sketch.

These complaints have merit, but I’ve also seen a fair amount of resigned shrugs from my fellow internet denizens. “Of course they’re putting a grizzled white guy with a gun on the cover,” people say. “It’s what sells.” 2K is obviously interested in their bottom line, and if they think they can get an extra couple hundred thousand copies sold by making the game look like Call of Duty or Uncharted, then they’re going to go for it. We recognize this as symptomatic of a systemic problem with the gaming industry and gaming culture in general, and so while we don’t especially like it, we at least understand it. It doesn’t surprise us.

But it might worry us.

The fundamental reason that Bioshock Infinite’s cover causes concern among gamers is that in advance of the game’s release, we cannot say for sure how much this move toward appealing to the broadest possible audience (read: white, male) is purely a shift in marketing tactics, or whether it actually represents a step away from what made the original Bioshock such a unique and compelling experience.

Perhaps the best way to examine this is to take a look at what (and who) we’re looking forward to seeing in the game–and why we’re disappointed they haven’t been given box art status.

Elizabeth.

Most obvious is the absence of Elizabeth, a character who compels many of us based only on what we’ve seen of her in trailers. The moment in this trailer in which Elizabeth takes Booker’s hand and places it around her own throat as she makes him promise not to let the Songbird take her back into captivity is extremely compelling. We haven’t been told very much about her origin, and we’ve gotten a glimpse of her mysterious (and really, if we’re being serious, totally wicked) powers, so we’re ready for her to be a big part of the game.

(As an aside: though Bioshock 2 did little to create much in the way of essential narrative, one of the things it did really well was build a relationship between the player’s character, Subject Delta, and the non-playable Eleanor Lamb. Creating an emotional bond between the player and an NPC is no easy task, and even though the team that created Bioshock 2 isn’t the same one that’s working on Infinite, the chances of us caring deeply about Elizabeth by the end of the game’s narrative seem pretty high. I care about her already. Did you hear her voice faltering in that trailer? Man.)

So Elizabeth’s not on the cover, and that worries us. It shouldn’t. Why? Elizabeth’s on the back of the box, for starters, which shows that 2K isn’t willing to hide her away entirely. It seems to be common practice in games marketing to de-emphasize female characters, which is kind of despicable but seems to be based on market data, even if it may well be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Does this make keeping Elizabeth off the cover a good idea, or even excusable? Absolutely not–but it makes it explicable, at least. At least they didn’t stuff her in the bottom corner like they did Farah from Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. (She doesn’t quite get the spread that Yuna does in FFX, either, but hey.)

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Another thing that could well be on the cover but isn’t is the city itself: Columbia. Both the original Bioshock and its immediate successor found success in no small part because of the world they built, Rapture, which remains one of the most detailed and haunting virtual environments a player can explore. Journeying through Rapture for the first (and to a lesser extent, the second) time was awesome–in the original sense of the word. It inspired awe in the player. At times, it was downright gut-wrenching.

The city of Columbia is immediately compelling to us because it appears at once wholly different from, and yet at the same time similar to, Rapture. Where Rapture is dark, Columbia is bright and dazzling. Where Rapture is close and confined, Columbia is open and enormous. And yet they are both obviously beautiful experiments that have been plunged into violence and grotesquerie. That’s a part of the Bioshock formula–a part that we, as gamers, are anxious to return to. So why isn’t it on the cover?

Well, it is. Sort of. There’s an airship up in the left corner. It’s kind of hard to see: there’s a grizzled white man with a gun in the way, as well as some J.J. Abrams-style lens flare. Does this convey the sullied beauty and grandeur of Columbia? I don’t think so.

And yet I don’t think we need to worry about this. You could see Rapture in the background of the original Bioshock’s cover, but not very clearly, and certainly not in a way that conveyed the epic scope of the ruined Utopia beneath the waves. It turns out that a setting isn’t a great way to sell a game–and it certainly isn’t the most logical choice for the cover. There’s an argument to be made here for aping the covers of Bioshock and its sequel by making Songbird or one of the Heavy Hitters the center of attention, but I’m under the impression that 2K and Irrational are deliberately trying to separate themselves from that tradition to create a new identity for Infinite, and they’re walking a fine line between trading on the Bioshock name and trying not to rehash too much of the formula that made the original(s) brilliant.

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There’s another part of the formula that’s obviously present in Infinite, and that’s the idea of anchoring the conflict within a particular philosophy–in the original Bioshock, this was Objectivism; in Infinite, it’s American Exceptionalism. This is alluded to on the cover (the bit with the flag burning? Yeah, that’s the allusion).

Is this part of the formula going to work as strongly in this outing? Is it possible to have an analogue to the exploration of player choice, morality, and agency that the first game employed? Are we going to get another “A man chooses; a slave obeys”? Call me naive, but I’m betting probably not. The first Bioshock dealt with matters that were implicitly intertwined with issues of control, freedom, and choice–perfect subjects to explore in an interactive medium like video games. The story, by necessity, required the protagonist to be an extension of the player–a silent protagonist was the obvious choice.

Booker DeWitt isn’t a silent protagonist, and it’s obvious that Irrational knows that if it’s going to have a philosophically complex narrative, it’s going to have to deal with different issues. I don’t think we’ll be able to know whether the narrative is as compelling or evocative as the first game’s until we see the credits roll for ourselves.

And it’s pretty hard to sell a video game by advertising its treatment of American Exceptionalism, anyway.

Booker.

Which leaves us with Booker himself. Yes, he is definitely another grizzled white guy. With a gun.

To a certain extent, it makes sense to plaster his mug on the cover of the game, even if it’s not a likeness that distinguishes him from Mr. Drake, or Mr. McGrath, or even Mr. Bellic or Mr. Miles. As the protagonist of a first-person shooter, we need to be able to envision Mr. DeWitt if we are to care about him as a character separate from us, the player. After all, in most first-person shooters, the character we’re controlling is really more of a disembodied gun. Can a series go from having the protagonist be a non-entity to having them be an integral part of a compelling narrative?

Well, maybe. Jak II had a go at it, and it seemed to go over pretty well.

In my head, I am envisioning a conversation with the developers of the game that I hope (perhaps naively) is the reason we are getting the cover that we are. “We want the player to be familiar with Booker,” says an individual in this hypothetical conversation. “Booker is such an integral part of this narrative, and it’s important that we emphasize that.”

I tell myself that this is the conversation that happened, because my initial reaction upon seeing the cover was quite the opposite. “Have you seen the numbers on this stuff?” someone says, in this version of the imaginary brainstorming session. “We’ll sell ten million copies if we put a gruff white guy with a gun on the cover. Have you seen the numbers on Call of Duty?” (The numbers are very high.)

We cynical internet-goers immediately went here as soon as we saw the cover, and this is at the heart of our concern for this game we’re anticipating so intensely. We think back to what we know of 2K Games and the rumors that have swirled around Infinite”s development, and we wonder: “If this cover is a calculated, low-risk stratagem meant to maximize sales… has this philosophy influenced the game design, and if so, to what extent?”

Columbia.

We bite our nails in anxiety because of what we’ve heard about the game’s development: it’s been pushed back several months (from October 2012 to February 2013), it has lost key developers (and gained others) toward the end of its development cycle, and we’ve been in a state of confusion about the game’s multiplayer offering, which was going to exist, maybe, until it wasn’t. A six-month delay and some staff turnover doesn’t equate to “development hell,” exactly, but it has certainly raised some eyebrows. Can a huge, high-profile game with an enormous development staff remain true to a unified vision when pressured by a publisher to appeal to the broadest possible audience and thus sell the maximum number of copies? Are these development hiccups indicative of a team struggling to find that unified vision?

Maybe. Maybe not. From the perspective of someone outside the gaming press, it’s a little difficult to tell.

The multiplayer question, in particular, is tied to the issue of the developer’s (and, more than likely, the publisher’s) perception of its audience. On occasion, a series with a strong single-player offering will introduce a novel and worthwhile multiplayer conceit (as was the case with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, which introduced a kind of cat-and-mouse multiplayer that most players didn’t even know they wanted, and is still pretty unique to the series). More often than not, however, a game with a strong single-player narrative will have multiplayer shoehorned into it in an attempt to boost sales. Sometimes this process is merely inoffensive, as was the case in Bioshock 2, a game whose multiplayer was not particularly compelling–but whose single-player campaign was neither hampered nor contradicted by it.

That wasn’t the case with Spec Ops: The Line, whose multiplayer was not only tacked on but actively degraded the experience of the single-player campaign–and that’s according to the guys who developed it! Spec Ops, a game with a dark, subversive narrative, was undermined by its publisher telling its developers that they needed multiplayer or they wouldn’t sell as many copies. That publisher, by the way, was 2K Games.

So should we worry about this? Ultimately, I don’t think we need to. As of a couple days ago, Ken Levine has confirmed that the game won’t have multiplayer. That says a lot, actually–it says that Irrational Games has convinced 2K that the strength of the single-player experience will be enough to sell units. Levine is confident in his campaign. (Heck, the situation with Spec Ops might have convinced some folks at 2K that a bullet point on the back of the box isn’t worth compromising their developers’ vision–but maybe that’s being a little optimistic.)

It’s not just the willingness to go without multiplayer, however, that suggests that Irrational isn’t compromising its vision. Levine’s insistence on the inclusion of a “1999 Mode” indicates that the game is very much attuned to the kind of players who have been with him and his team since System Shock 2 (or at the very least, my friends who have insisted on playing the new XCOM on “Classic Ironman” mode in their first playthrough).

I don’t know whether Bioshock Infinite is going to live up to the high standard set by its progenitor. I don’t know if it will be able to create that lightning-in-a-bottle magic a second time. I think that, by virtue of the original’s high pedigree, the odds are significant that we might be in for a minor–or even a major–letdown.

But for the moment, I’m not going to judge a game by its cover.

The Beauty of the Barcade

Our culture is obsessed with things returning from the dead. Why not the video arcade? About a month ago, Ars Technica published an article that almost sounded too good to be true–and, reading it, I was somewhat skeptical. I have fond memories of time spent in arcades as a youth, but I was never privy to the true heyday of the video arcade in the ’80s. I wasn’t willing to believe that arcades could make a comeback, for one reason and one reason only: I wanted it to be true, and so of course it was never going to happen.

Then one opened a mile from my house.

Last night, I took a couple of my friends and went to check out the Joystick Gamebar, and after a night of cocktails, quarters, and aching wrists, I’ve changed my tune.

To borrow a line from my personal friend Fox Mulder: I want to believe.

Joystick proved to me, in a few short hours, that establishments like this really have a shot at success, and there are a handful of factors that make me believe that we’re going to see more and more barcades pop up in the next couple of years.

First, booze goes a long way toward making an establishment profitable. Let’s face it: a place like Joystick isn’t going to be making its money from quarters, especially when they do the honorable thing and keep the price of a game cheap. (X-Men arcade? 25 cents. Galaga? 25 cents. Street Fighter II? 25 cents. In fact, the only game that cost more than a quarter was Rampage: World Tour, which clocked in at a hefty 50 cents.)

Beer and cocktails, however, can bring in the money at a respectable rate. Joystick has several original cocktails (including one with homemade chai soda!) and a very palatable beer selection (Brooklyn Lager on tap!). By ensuring that an individual could come for the drinks and the friendly atmosphere and have a good time without inserting a single coin, a barcade can ensure that its livelihood isn’t dependent on the games it has to offer, even if those are a big part of attracting its clientele.

Pictured: Profit.

Some of the arcade owners in the Ars Technica article seem to attribute the recent revival of the arcade to the fact that nostalgic gamers are now old enough to be drinking, and that the bar/arcade model is viable now in a way that it didn’t used to be–but I don’t think that nostalgia entirely explains this transition. After all, haven’t huge numbers of gamers been old enough to drink for a decade (or two)? Sure, I’ve got fond memories of my uncle’s Space Invaders cocktail cabinet, but that thing was an artifact even when I was a kid. I’ve got a different theory.

I think that the rise of mobile gaming has created a sea change in the way our culture as a whole (and not just gaming culture, but pop culture in its entirety) views the gaming experience. Over the last three or four years, buying a game for a buck and playing it for twenty minutes or so before letting it sit, forgotten, at the back of your iPhone has become the norm–and this isn’t just something gamers do. It’s something everybody does.

That’s right. I think that you can thank Angry Birds for the resurgence of the arcade.

Arcades died off in droves in the mid-to-late ’90s, when the calculus of price-to-enjoyment-ratio shifted as a result of the increasing complexity of consoles. As prices rose to catch up, gamers started asking themselves: “Do I really want to drop a buck on six minutes of Tekken 2 when I could have an infinite number of minutes for fifty bucks?” If you were going to fool around with Yoshimitsu more than a couple of matches, you started to think that maybe it might be more worth your time to invest in a PSX copy. Eventually, the only way that arcades could entice people to spend was by giving them things they couldn’t possible get in their living room, like motion sensing technology, big dancing mats, or plastic guitar controllers.

Oh. Wait. Hm.

With the rise of smartphones, however, something changed. Games became cheap–woefully cheap–and the touch screen interface immediately suggested to developers a simplistic mode of play. Whether you think Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, and Tilt to Live are simplistic and boring or pure and beautiful, there’s no denying that their gameplay aesthetics harken back much more to the arcade games of old than they do the AAA console titles into which we invest our big bucks.

And it’s not just gamers playing mobile games, as I said–it’s everyone. I teach middle school students that have never picked up an Xbox or Playstation controller in their lives, but they come into class decked out in Angry Birds gear like that flippin’ red avian was Mickey Mouse.

Our whole culture has come to value simple, pure gaming experiences for a very low entry fee. And I know that mathematically, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but there’s a huge difference between the following comparisons in a person’s mind:

$1.00/play vs. $50.00/infinite plays

and

$0.25/play vs. $0.99/infinite plays

You can buy Galaga on your iPhone for $2.99, or, for the same price, you can have twelve plays in the arcade. Which gives you more value? The answer to the question isn’t really the point–the point is that your answer to the question doesn’t automatically paint you as either “gamer” or “uninterested.” When games are simple and cheap, anyone can invest a little time in them, “gamer” or not–especially if they’ve had a couple specialty cocktails.

Hopefully, between the booze and the changes in gaming aesthetic that have occurred over the last couple years, these barcades/gamebars/arcade-taverns that are starting to emerge in cities across the nation are a permanent fixture in the urban landscape–but I, for one, am not willing to leave this to chance. I submit, dear gamers, that we need to get out to our local game bar and give them our quarters!

If anyone wants to meet me at Joystick, I’ll be the guy at the Galaga machine in the corner.