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Archive for April, 2011

It didn’t take long for the moment to make itself known. Portal 2 hooked me immediately. And I imagine it does that for players who haven’t indulged in the first game.

Why’s that so? By ‘immediately,’ I mean within the first minute or two. It’s not done with a lengthy opening movie, which sometimes works (actually, it always does in the Final Fantasy games).

In the case of Portal 2, it’s done with humor, a kind of canny, nervous humor that’s also biting but never degrading or demeaning. If Portal 2 didn’t have the humor of Wheatley, the round, little, somewhat obsequious robot voiced by Stephen Merchant, I’d venture to say I might not have played as much as I already have.

Humor is hard to pull of in any medium. In the case of Portal 2, it’s not only like the humor of The Office (appropriate since The Office co-creator Merchant is the voice of Wheatley). It’s also like Tina Fey’s 30 Rock. You won’t laugh out loud uncontrollably as you did with, say, Cat Vs. Printer. But you’ll chuckle inwardly and be attracted to Wheatley’s neurotic charm.

And for Portal 2 to sell beyond the core crowd (which it will in spades), it really needs that charm. Without the well-conceived comic narrative, the brain-mashing puzzles might become tiresome or painful or vertigo-inducing.

Like BioShock and Red Dead, Portal 2 is another case in which narrative enhances gameplay. Well-written, well-acted story and dialog is the last great grail for game makers.

In Portal 2, the narrative is close to perfection. It makes you want to play, and not only to solve the puzzles and win. It also makes you want to play to get that next nugget of humor and story. That’s what makes Portal 2 a game of the year contender. In other words, all hail Wheatley.

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Mike Snider at USA Today did a fine profile of my new book on Tuesday.

I was asked to do a piece for their website. That did not make it in to the package. So here it is now, light and breezy in that USA Today style.

Five Things You Don’t Know About All Your Base Are Belong to Us

A Cast of Thousands (Er, Hundreds)

Over 200 people were interviewed for All Your Base Are Belong to Us. That’s why it took over three years to write. The lengthy book proposal itself took a year to complete. For a while, no one wanted to take a chance on publishing the book. Thankfully, Crown/Three Rivers did. It’s not an encyclopedia of every game. It’s not all about high technology and cool consoles. It’s about the thrilling highs and tragic lows of people with brilliant minds who have an abiding passion for making games.

The Name Game

I wanted a title that gamers like me would like. I also wanted folks who haven’t played since Pong to enjoy the book (hence, the subtitle, How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture). All Your Base Are Belong to Us is a bad English translation of dialog from a 1991 game called Zero Wing. Around the year 2001, it became an internet meme, a huge trend where everyone online seemed to be saying the weird sentence, kind of like trash talk. To me, All your base are belong to us means, “Watch out movie, TV and music industries. Videogames are powerful. They’re not going away. And they just might take over.”

One Night in Bangkok

When I finished the first draft, I treated myself to a two-week trip to Thailand — with my Nintendo DSi and Sony PSP, of course. Once off the plane, I popped into a convenience store for snacks. The first thing I saw was a Pokemon drink featuring Pikachu on a small paper box. The contents tasted awful, though, a combination of thick milk and honey. I sat on the porch next the ocean a lot – and just for fun, started an adventure novel and a horror screenplay about, you guessed it, videogames. I also worried a lot about getting one particular interview.

Rockstar Rocked My World

It took the better part of a year to get into Rockstar Games (Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption) to speak to the notoriously press averse studio co-founder, Sam Houser. But when I did sit down with Houser, he was gracious, insightful and talkative. He answered every imaginable question, even the tough ones. We spoke for about many hours about the intricate magic of making games, and about some very difficult subjects, like the infamous Hot Coffee incident. No writer has ever been given that kind of access before. It was completely worth the effort and the wait.

I Worked at Sony in Games

As editor in chief at Sony Online Entertainment around the year 2000, I was lucky enough to craft the words for a lot of online games. I even helped out with EverQuest, the legendary massively multiplayer online role playing game. What people don’t know is that my team at Sony created on an online magazine called Motherboard. We had great contributors like director Gus Van Zant, actress Michelle Williams, animator Bill Plympton, and authors Michael Crichton, John Saul and Steven Kent. Sony ended up axing the project. It was too edgy for them. But I like being edgy and taking chances. There’s a lot of that in All Your Base Are Belong to Us, which I hope you enjoy.

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