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Archive for November, 2012

by Harold Goldberg

Not that we care about the intricacies of marketing that much here at the Critics Circle, but we do care about cross-cultural concinnity, a kind of beautiful harmony between gaming and other pop culture entities.

Recently, what we’ve seen with the gaming industry are co-promotions that lack creativity. Halo and Mountain Dew is an example. Beyond Halo, co-promoting energy drinks with any other generic shooter is another banal exercise, akin to a journalist getting a pizza in the mail to entice us to review a product. It’s old.

So when I saw “The Life of Pi” and “Anna Karenina” with their own Republic of Tea teas, we took notice. One can of Mountain Dew is here and then it’s gone. But a can of 50 teas, well, that stays around for a month or two, constantly promoting whenever it’s placed on the table. For example, wouldn’t the recent Kickstarted game, Sir, You Are Being Hunted, which features tea, benefit from some branded tea?

Certainly, Assassin’s Creed III, which takes place around the time of the Boston Tea Party and offers Tea Party game play
, could have used some leaves to get the word out about this historically accurate yet fantastical game.

You might say, “Well, a lot of this is rubbish. Halo and its marketers are just targeting its proper demographic by using Mountain Dew. You’re not going to see Master Chief drinking tea.” But the gaming demographic is expanding and getting older. Wouldn’t a thinking person’s game like Assassin’s Creed III benefit some tea branding?

More, how about Irrational Games’ upcoming game? BioShock Infinite Earl Grey, anyone?

But the larger point is this: currently, branding for the bigger games can be as boring as the main story in Halo 4 (which is not a knock against its game play). The powers that are need to think harder to bring gamers into their franchises. That means offering a better experience all around – from design to narrative to, yes. marketing.

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By Harold Goldberg

Last week, I traveled up to the DreamYard Prep School in the Bronx. Once at the building at 172nd Street, I passed through a metal detector and was escorted up to the school’s top floor and into a comfortable library. The room was so inviting that I thought of Andrew Carnegie’s quote, “A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.”

At the library, the school’s seniors had gathered to be mentored by various members of the community, including college professors and former DreamYard students. At a long oak table, I talked a bit about videogames. But mainly, I helped a quietly inquisitive student from Ghana work on his personal essay for college.

He asked if he needed to get into a private school like Harvard to make it in life. “I heard I do,” he said.

“Not necessarily. I went to a state school, and I’m doing fine. It’s not so much about the school. It’s about you. It’s about hard work.” I mentioned that just before the Olympics, I interviewed Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant.

His ears perked up.

Durant said to me (and also later to the New York Times) that he is compelled to work harder than the rest. I thought, Really? Even though he’s clearly head and shoulders above almost every NBA player in the talent and skills department? Durant said that when the very talented slack off, he’s ready to step up because he goes the extra mile.

The young man’s essay was a first draft that was written by hand in a spiral bound notebook. It showed promise. I told him about the lead paragraph in journalism, and that he might think about telling the whole story about himself in that first sentence or two. And then, he could expand upon it.

Every senior at the DreamYard public school is the first from his family to head off to college. And I’m told that most of them have had some tough times, which I heard about from the young Ghanaian. But I’ll not go into specifics.

During the afternoon, I met the affable Tim Lord, one of the co-directors of the school. I told him, This is exactly the kind of outreach the New York Videogame Critics Circle wants to be involved with. Lord seemed interested as I mentioned that we could bring some critics and game developers up to the school to talk about getting jobs in the game industry and to talk videogame history. I certainly hope this happens soon. Going up to the DreamYard was an early holiday gift, one that certainly got me in the spirit of the season that’s just about here.

-Harold Goldberg, Founder

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Last night, Nintendo’s Wii U, its newest game console, went on sale throughout North America. Many of our critics took the trek to Rockefeller Center to check out the event at Rockefeller Center. Without any fanboyism or favoritism, here are 10 things you’ll like and dislike about the Wii U.

1) Short battery life on GamePad is the worst of any console or handheld. Two hours was my minimum and three was my maximum.

2) The GamePad controller is too complex with buttons galore.

3) Not all apps are available on launch day. Where’s the promised TVii service, Netflix, Amazon and YouTube, for instance?

4) The GamePad is too heavy. It will affect your game play over time.

5) The GamePad takes a long time to recharge.

6) Games take a longer time to load than on the Wii.

7) Not all game music and audio comes through the GamePad when you use it without your TV.

8) It’s harder to set up and get going than was the Wii.

9) Software update takes soooooo long to download, well over an hour.

10) What an arduous process it is to move your old game profile and info – from the Wii to the Wii U.

-Harold Goldberg, Founder

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Last night, the Wii U, Nintendo’s newest game console, went on sale throughout North America. Many of our critics took the trek to Rockefeller Center to check out the event at Rockefeller Center. Without any fanboyism or favoritism, here are 10 things you’ll like and dislike about the Wii U.

1) Games are presented in high definition graphics, a fine step forward.

2) The GamePad functions as a TV remote control and your cable guide appears on it. Its touchscreen can be pretty effective, too.

3) You can play your old Wii games on it. Super Mario Galaxy, baby.

4) Nintendo Land is better than expected because it explains an essential thing: how to use the GamePad. The single player mini games aren’t bad, either.

5) MiiVerse lets you share screenshots from games with friends.

6) You can play games on the GamePad without turning the TV on.

7) It connects to the Web.

8) You could probably stream a webcast via the GamePad camera and WiFi, if Nintendo ever sets that up.

9) It’s a powerful machine that rivals the workhorses PS3 and Xbox 360, something Nintendo needed to do.

10) There are creditable games for adults as well as kids, from ZombiU to Scribblenauts Unlimited.

-Harold Goldberg, Founder

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In the summer of 2012, Kyle Moody was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus. This is the story of how gaming helped him to cope with his new condition.

By Kyle Moody

Every two hours I prick my finger, scrape the blood off with a test strip, and then record a number in a book. I compare the number to what’s come before and see how I’m working on the disease inside me. Once I’ve adjusted the number, I take a pen filled with fluid out of my refrigerator, place a needle on its tap, and inject myself. I write down how many units of fluid I put inside my body, and set my alarm to repeat this process again in two hours.

I’m not a character in a video game monitoring my health. This isn’t Far Cry 2 or Metal Gear Solid 3. All of these games involve injecting yourself to continue playing, at least as a way to stave off the in-game poisons that attack you without any choice. Gaming usually allows its characters to ingest a “power up,” at which point they return to blowing up LibertyCity or restoring the MushroomKingdom from the tyranny of a fire-breathing lizard.

There are no mushrooms in sight for me. Instead, this is my daily routine. I’m not Leon Kennedy, Bayonetta, or Naked Snake. I’m a diabetic.

I found out about my diabetes when I lost 20 pounds in the span of two months. Much as I wish it was diet and exercise that was taking away the weight, a problem called diabetic ketoacidosis did the job for me. When my pancreas stopped producing insulin to process sugar (glucose) as a source of energy, my fat became the fuel that powered me through my day. In fact, as my blood sugar kept climbing and my body consumed my fat reserves, I became unable to keep food in my system. Finally, I had to go to the hospital a week before my wedding, where the doctor told me that my blood sugar measured 621 mg/dl. A healthy person is supposed to have a blood sugar level of 70 to 130 mg/dl. I’ll never forget the urgent look in his eyes as he rushed an IV of insulin over and jabbed the needle into my arm.

When the doctors told me that I had diabetes, I sat in the hospital bed. Not blinking, not moving, barely breathing. I was a mute character in a world that I didn’t understand. Events occurred to me that changed me irrevocably, yet life went on. Even when they ran to inject my body with insulin and made me call my now-wife to tell her that I wouldn’t be able to come home until I no longer displayed symptoms of hypoglycemia, I didn’t know what was truly going on.

What I didn’t recognize at the time was that I was being presented with a new set of limits on myself. The worst thing about being a diabetic is learning to accept those limitations. It’s even worse if you’re a twenty-something who has been remarkably healthy your whole life.

Being diabetic taught me one thing: I’m not invincible. I never will be. No matter how many miles I travel while training for my first marathon, or ride across the state of Iowa on my bicycle during RAGBRAI (look it up!), I will never outrun this disease. Instead, I can only live with it and make changes where it counts.

According to the American Diabetes Association, in 2011 there were eighteen million Americans who were diagnosed as diabetic. Of that remarkable number, over 95% could be categorized as Type 2 diabetics. The rest fall into a category of Type 1 diabetes mellitus.

The difference between the two is relatively thin, but Type 2 diabetics are persons whose insulin production slows over time, and their bodies become resistant to insulin since they do not use insulin properly. Type 1 diabetics are different in that an autoimmune disorder causes their pancreas to break down, meaning that their bodies can no longer produce the insulin needed to use and store blood glucose. But whatever the difference between the two groups is, there is no such thing as beating diabetes. Instead, there is only the fact that one must accept that they have a chronic disease for the rest of their lives.

Serious complications that can arise from diabetes include heart disease, kidney failure, eye problems and blindness, and the possibility of a stroke. Even greater damage can be caused to the nerves, meaning that pain sensation in hands and feet could degrade over time. While it might seem like that’s exactly how a video game’s “invincibility” works, by taking away pain receptors a person is unable to feel the sensations equated with easily treatable causes. If a person doesn’t check their feet regularly and they lose sensation to their lower parts…well, statistically it’s shown that people with diabetes account for 60 percent of nontraumatic lower-limb amputations in the United States.

Since I am an avid gamer, I decided to see if I could find a game that would help me in dealing with Type 1 diabetes. The results were…interesting, to say the least.

The Nobel Prize website had a game titled Diabetic Dog that allowed users to take care of a playful puppy with Type 1 diabetes. I named my affected digital pup after my own Boston Terrier (“Orson Welles” is his name, for the record) and away we went! Using a simple “point-and-click” control, I was able to feed my dog and provide his necessary insulin shots at the touch of a button. The purpose of the game was to help users monitor blood sugar within dogs while also learning what foods affected their blood sugar levels. While cute, it didn’t exactly teach me what I didn’t already know, but it did come the closest to replicating my experience with diabetes. Even with a segment where my virtual Orson went behind a bush and marked his territory. Good virtual puppy!

Another game in the United Kingdom – called My Life, although it was less “so-called” than expected – gave me the opportunity to recreate my experience by way of Nadeem. This spritely Englishman jumped around and was encouraged to eat all of the healthy foods in a two-dimensional Mario platforming game, at which point a description of those foods came up. Surprisingly, ice cream and fries affected his health, along with falls from great heights.

Many other games followed the similar patterns of My Life. Eating healthy, exercising regularly, and avoiding sugary foods was prominent in many of these games. Yet I couldn’t help but feel that the resource management portion of the game was missing out. Instead, the closest I got to the sensation of putting a needle into my body to assist my decaying pancreas was when I dragged a syringe into my poor virtual puppy. Even at their most engaging, games about diabetes and diabetics have a ways to go when it comes to addressing more intermediate concerns of their subjects.

Don’t think that this my pity party. If diabetics make the necessary changes to their lifestyle, they can live a long and healthy life. Not to be egotistic, but this means I’m going to be okay because I’m pretty damn healthy. I already train for marathons with my wife and live by the food pyramid in my diet. In fact, the biggest surprise for me was being diagnosed as a diabetic while I was in the best shape of my life.

However, this does require a shift, and it means that now I must accept my condition by making changes to my habits. The gaming connection comes here, in that I must disconnect. If games are about immersion and losing oneself inside a simulated world, then I can no longer play games like I once did because I must take control of my disease. Maintaining control of this condition requires those habits of testing blood sugars and taking regular injections. This stops full immersion into any gaming experience because it can be dangerous to ignore diabetic side effects.

When I was diagnosed, I was playing through Half-Life again on my PlayStation 2. Half-Life seems quaint now compared to the visual wonders of Halo and the Call of Duty titles, but when it was originally released on PC in 1998 it changed how players experienced first-person shooters. Instead of playing through singular levels that have no connection to each other, the idiosyncratic developers at Valve gave players a large, interconnected world of a military research facility invaded by aliens. Moreover, it provided a new narrative delivery mechanism by embedding its story in the player actions. As protagonist Gordon Freeman, the user causes the alien invasion by making a science experiment go awry, then watching as the story unfolds while they’re controlling the action.

The best part of playing Half-Life is seeing how it requires the player to pay attention to the gameplay as the story delivery device. There are no cut scenes that take place outside of play, but rather scripted events that occur when Gordon runs into a room or pushes a button. If the player’s don’t immerse themselves in the world, then they will miss the story and a level of meaning for their actions.

Yet this immersion was much harder to reconcile now. Every two hours the alarm would go off, and I’m out of Black Mesa to prick, test, record and inject myself.

But there are similarities to gaming amidst the habits of Type 1 diabetics. Diabetics begin to look for ideal target ranges of blood sugar levels. Monitoring blood sugars, testing blood sugars at a regular basis, and counting carbohydrates to calculate blood sugars is honestly no different than a game of Starcraft. The goal is the same in both cases: Equilibrium, balance, and the sense of winning. IT’S ALL ABOUT STRATEGY AND PLANNING.

Only you can’t win with diabetes. You can only control it, or try to control it. Like my virtual denizens of “Moodyville” in SimCity 2000, all I can do is hope that my commands will equate to a stronger control. But sometimes I feel like no matter what I do, there’s always going to be an alien thing that shows up (such an alien ship arrived and destroyed Moodyville during a bathroom break in November 1997. It’s a day that we’ll never forget!). Habits change, the disease changes, and the game changes. Understanding how each one operates helps, but there is no true victory. Most games aim for the short-term stimulus with their goals. Push this button, get this key, make this trade, kill this dude, run down that corridor, and pwn that n00b. All easily compiled and put together.

Controlling diabetes is different, but it’s also haunting when you consider the similarities that exist. I monitor my blood sugar at the beginning of the day, decide what type of food and how much I’m going to eat based on the number of servings I get, the amount of carbohydrates in each serving, and how this relates to a ratio of carbohydrates per unit of insulin I’m allowed at different times per day. Remind anyone of resource management in Civilization, or assigning points in role-playing games like Fallout?

It’s no different, except I don’t win. I never do. I test, record, inject, sleep, reboot, and do it again every day.

Kyle Moody is the groundbreaking educator who teaches the University of Iowa’s very first course in videogame journalism. 

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Should the Wii U have been given a bad rap for seeming too complex? Or should Nintendo’s spin doctors get the blame? Or should journalists themselves be held accountable?

by Harold Goldberg

Yesterday at the Polygon launch party in Tribeca, two threads of conversation manifested themselves throughout the night. The first surrounded the seemingly anthropomorphic incarnation of Hurricane Sandy and the way it sucker punched Manhattan, the rest of New York City and New Jersey. ‘How did it go for you?’ was the question among critics. Much shaking of the head and commiseration occurred.

The other talks centered upon the imminent launch of the Wii U.

Many of our critics were happy to get an early package with the new Nintendo device contained within. Discussion last night ranged from the way it is being marketed to the lack of it being fully functional broadband-wise prior to launch. The lack of certain promised apps and functionality similarly plagued critics who were trying to review the PlayStation Vita before launch. As I recall, it was difficult to sync Kinect, the Xbox add-on controller, prior to launch as well.

My concern about the Wii U has been documented on NPR’s Morning Edition, where I spoke with co-host Renee Montagne. We’ve also dealt with the challenges right here at the Circle site. And yet, when I checked out the machine in the comfort of my own home for the first time a few days ago, my initial impression for the offline experience is that the Wii U comes together nicely via fairly charming tutorials in Nintendo Land, the oft-maligned, upcoming collection of mini games that is packed inside the deluxe version of Nintendo’s successor to the Wii.

That’s just one game. And this is an impression, not a full review. But it speaks to one problem I had: that the Wii U is too busy to understand immediately. Indeed, it may not be so difficult at all. Now seeing what I’ve seen, I believe Nintendo’s marketing machine has made it difficult to understand. All Nintendo representatives had to say to journalists like me is: “If you think the Wii U is too complex as you engage in these demos and see these presentations, wait until you get it home. The tutorials are pretty informative and easy. You’ll get it. We promise.”

They had years to explain this to me and to all of the Circle members in simple, plain language. And they never did. In fact, I don’t believe the commercial below makes the Wii U a breeze to understand. More soon.

Harold Goldberg is the founder and editor in chief of the Circle.

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Illustrator Matthew Nava provides insight into the design behind the truly intuitive game, Journey.

By ANNATRUUS BAKKER

Matthew Nava came to hear about the Journey project in his first job interview with thatgamecompany back when Flower was still a work in progress. Jenova Chen, thatgamecompany’s creative director, asked Nava what he thought “an online multiplayer game in which people could develop meaningful bonds of friendship” would look like.  How do you even answer such an open-ended question like that? Nava’s response sums up the art of what was then just an idea of a game. “I told him that I thought two tiny characters in a harsh setting, something like a giant desert… would only have one option: to become friends.”

It’s well known that the games produced by Chen, Nava and their colleagues have all been more emotive than the average games circulating the shelves at GameStop and Best Buy these days. From reading through “The Art of Journey” it’s clear that, at least for Nava, the game is just as much about the atmospheres one can only create in a digital world as it is about the story. He strove to create a game that was not just cross-cultural, but completely ambiguous in terms of character, architecture, and landscape. The game would be played globally and the team at thatgamecompnay wanted to make sure the game could function the same for everyone from Ohio to Indonesia. Even the music is designed to be familiar but altogether something you cannot place within a certain time-period or culture. The result isn’t entirely new so much as a somewhat ethnic mishmash.

“The Art of Journey” is a way to see deeper into the creation of Journey and get to the core of what Nava strove to create. It is crystal clear just how much time, sweat and love Nava put into this game. As he wrote his game design documents, environment and atmosphere within game play were of paramount importance. Each building, landscape, and even the light was colored so as to evoke an emotive reaction. It’s as if Nava questions what it means to be dust and how it feels to be the color indigo when backlit by the setting sun. It has to be said: the artwork is stunning. The result is not an entirely new landscape but rather a place nostalgic for a lost world. Exploring Journey is comparable to discovering Atlantis or a dreamscape that you always knew existed in your heart but are only just now exploring.

As a companion to the game, “The Art of Journey” tries to assert itself as a coffee table book, large and heavy — with the added bell and whistle of augmented reality to make pages come alive with, say, flying dragons. Unfortunately, the narrative isn’t quite as impressive. Nava repeats himself as he introduces each section (character, architecture, color, etc.). He paints himself as a thorough researcher and overworked artist. Again and again he claims the importance of ethnic ambiguity and his attempt to establish a universal language. No offense Nava, you’ve done an awesome job, but I would rather read about specific influences than broad generalizations. Instead I have to look to the hundreds of illustrations for clues and need a hearty background in art history to examine the overall importance of your research. It is not often we find deftly-created, popular games based on quiet friendship rather than barbarous bloodlust. It’s a trope that’s harder to pull of than the clichés of violence, and hopefully Journey will have a positive impact on the market for games, even hard core games.

As the writing and artwork unfold page by page, it becomes apparent that the avatar is fascinating not simply because his robes flow zen-like in the wind. It’s because the final rendition comes out of a universality we all find in movement. The avatar’s emotions are visible only through the swaying cloth surrounding the vaguely humanoid creature. A word that Nava uses is ‘dynamic cloth” as if the movement of the cloth has a life of its own. The tail that extends down the back of the veiled, dress-wearing, cat-like creature flows with movement and with the wind in the desert. The other creatures your avatar will interact with in the game look like empty cloth wrappings – as if the creature would be invisible if the decorative cloth wrapping it wasn’t there. The ‘dynamic cloth” has a breath to it, bringing life to each creature without assigning the usual hassles like race, sex, or level of evil within them.

Much of the artwork is heavily influenced by Greek, Islamic, and Japanese culture. Nava says that he, “created a set of rules for Journey in which <he> blended elements of these styles with <his> own motifs and designs.” He says the result was something entirely new but as Truman said, “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” Much of his architecture, specifically the tower the players climb in the book’s desert chapter in the book resembles the architectural impossibilities of M.C. Escher’s illustrations. “Procession in crypt,” “Ascending and Descending,” and “Belvedere” all resemble the vaguely European and Arabic influenced architecture used by Escher and Nava alike. That being said, I don’t think Nava or Journey needs an entirely new yet familiar environment to be successful. Those are extremely high standards and I don’t think Nava needed to have put so much emphasis on them. But I am glad he pushed himself and his team to create something that is truly a monumental step forward in the visceral experience of game play. To explore Journey is to explore movement, light, and color. It is truly a singular thing.

Annatruus Bakker is one of the Critics Circle’s talented interns.  She is a recent graduate of the School of Visual Arts where she wrote plenty of art criticism and made a lot of art.

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