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by Jill Scharr

We’ll probably never know what exactly possessed a 20 year old Newtown resident with access to guns to take them to a local elementary school and murder 20 children and six adults. But that won’t stop us from trying to understand why.

In the wake of the tragedy, most people have been calling for stronger gun regulations, pointing out that if the killer hadn’t had such extraordinarily powerful weapons he couldn’t have broken into the school so quickly or killed so easily. But others, most notably gun rights activists and the National Rifle Association (NRA), want to lay the blame outside their own purview.

In a speech on Friday, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre blamed “the national media machine that rewards [violence].” Videogames in particular carried a heavy burden of guilt:

“And here’s another dirty little truth that the media try their best to conceal,” he said. “There exists in this country, sadly, a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people. Through vicious, violent video games with names like ‘Bullet Storm,’ ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ ‘Mortal Kombat’ and ‘Splatterhouse.’ And here’s one, it’s called “Kindergarten Killers.” It’s been online for 10 years. How come my research staff can find it, and all of yours couldn’t? Or didn’t want anyone to know you had found it?

The latter game, it turns out, is a simple FlashPlayer game hosted by Newgrounds, a website where amateur animators and game designers could share their work. Among scores of better work, “Kindergarden Killers” probably received all the attention it deserved and then quickly faded into the backlogs of internet obscurity. Holding up a single FlashPlayer game as evidence against an entire medium is like condemning YouTube on the basis of a single video with less than one hundred hits.

But nevertheless LaPierre and the NRA argue that pervasive depictions of violence in American media are largely, if not entirely, to blame for all gun-related crime. The solution he called for, to stop tragedies like Newtown from happening again,  was to place armed guards in every public school in America. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” LaPierre said.

Other political groups were quick to counter the NRA’s position. “Media violence has long been a target of lawmakers seeking a cheap and politically cost-free way to address crimes committed by young people,” wrote Gabe Rottman of the ACLU:

Calls for studies, hearings, self-censorship, or even actual censorship are easy. Most folks aren’t going to go out of their way to defend stuff that panders to the baser instincts, and lawmakers look like they’re doing something proactive to get at the problem. This is the story that’s played itself out now for decades, all the way back to the 1920s, when movie censorship sought to protect kids by limiting depictions of, for instance, any “inference of sex perversion” and miscegenation.

Rottman points to Justice Scalia’s ruling in the case of the State of California v. the Entertainment Merchants’ Association in 2011, in which a group of California lawmakers tried to make it illegal to sell violent videogames to children. The Supreme court decided 7-2 in favor of the videogame industry, saying that the proposed restriction would not comport with the First Amendment. Justice Scalia elaborated that there is no longstanding tradition of protecting children from violent stories–Grimm’s Fairy Tales (all 210 of them) and the novel The Lord of the Flies are particularly brutal examples that are considered worthy and important parts of children’s education. Rottman concludes, “ We should not let the understandable reaction to the horrific events in Newtown grease the skids toward government restrictions.”

But the NRA and the ACLU only occupy a small corner of the political battlefield that videogames and the entertainment industry at large have become. The Washington Post has featured several stories about the role, or lack thereof, that videogames played in the Newtown shooting, from Alexandra Petri’s almost derisive dissection of Wayne LaPierre’s speech (“The speech the National Rifle Association vice president gave Friday was like being yelled at down a long tunnel from 1987.”) to Max Fisher’s pointing out the lack of correlation between videogame sales and mass violence across ten different countries. Even the National Review, a notedly conservative magazine, rejected blaming videogames for violence.  On CNN, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper also pointed to videogames and a “culture of violence” as responsible parties in the violence at Newtown and in his own state at the Aurora shootings earlier this year. Others, like David Sirota at Salon and Katie J.M. Baker at Jezebel,  point to mass shootings as a race and gender issue, arguing that such crimes are encouraged by a subculture of white males who feel the need to reclaim their shrinking social entitlement in an increasingly diverse world. Elsewhere, studies continue to show that playing videogames does improve hand-eye coordination and other functional real-world skills.

The media responses to the Newtown shootings have been complicated, discordant, and emotional, to say the least. And most of it means nothing to the people who actually lost children, friends and loved ones to a shooter’s bullets. But of the oversized attention that the videogame industry has received, those of us who work in media can probably agree that to blame an entire delivery technology, a medium broad enough to encompass Journey, Mortal Kombat, Final Fantasy X and Solitaire, is entirely ridiculous.

Could we argue that, in a world without videogames, a murderer’s aim would have been worse? Probably. But the Newtown killer had so much ammunition, was firing upon children at such close range with such rapid weapons, that the question of aim or skill becomes functionally moot. You don’t need skill to kill children. You just need a gun, and a thought.

The NRA, in its divisive December 21 speech, was trying to deflect attention from that first requirement because they make their money on the sale and promotion of guns. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at the second requirement, the thought of violence, as well. Many who decried videogames as the cause of the Newtown shooting also included passing references to “this culture of violence” or “violence in the media.” That narrows down the discussion from videogames in general to a certain type of videogame, one which centers around killing as its main mechanic, narrative, and appeal. But even that specification, though too long and complicated for a media news bite, is still too broad. What about games like Spec Ops: The Line or Shadow of the Colossus? Both deal largely with killing, but in a way that drains any ‘glory’ or pleasure from the act. These games, much like the aforementioned The Lord of the Flies, ask questions about the violence they depict, inviting players, readers and watchers to reexamine their assumptions, choices and actions.

We cannot blame videogames in general, nor even violent games. But maybe it is about time we reexamine videogames that present violence as pure, unconsidered entertainment, that compete for the goriest kills and biggest guns to sell their products. These games don’t kill people, nor are the majority of those who play them violent or cruel in real life. But are we willing to deny there’s a culture of violence in videogames, or in American culture at large, when the movies and games that receive the most critical attention are often the shooters, the revenge flicks, the war games and R-rated action movies?

A very strong case can be made, and should be made, for limiting gun access and strengthening the registration process. But there’s also a case for making violence in our media, its repercussions and our perceptions, a conversation that we all need to have. And precisely who should have the conversation first? Is it our game developers before they create narrative and before they create videogame design? Is it parents who need to consider carefully parental controls and the allowable time during which kids can play? Is it our politicians, many of whom have never completed a videogame? One thing is certain: it’s time to think long and hard now, and to continue that discussion, so that we can play freely and peacefully in the future.

Jill Scharr, formerly with The Daily, is the senior associate editor of the New York Videogame Critics Circle. @jillscharr lives near Newtown, Connecticut.

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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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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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I’m taking this time to write about a newly launched project that’s been in the pipeline for quite some time. It has little to do with our Critics Circle, except to say that I always urge our members to be creative and independent-minded and outspoken. Plus, I need to explain to you why this space hasn’t been updated for a bit.

For years, I’ve thought about doing an online screenplay serial. I’m utterly intrigued by games (which almost goes without saying), and horror-based games in particular. In fact, on the occasions that I have Rockstar Games’ Sam Houser’s ear, I suggest that the company make an open world horror game that goes beyond what was done with Undead Nightmare.

At the same time, I often think about why Hollywood screws up movies about games. There’s a complete chapter on their middling-to-horrible film endeavors in my book about games, All Your Base Are Belong to Us. Often, I feel that videogames are their own movies. In fact, because of the hours upon hours we spend with them, they can be more affecting than movies.

As I wrote and re-wrote Playing With Fire, this horror screenplay about games, monsters and disaffected teens, I wanted to see if any other creative types shared my feelings about Hollywood and their failure with game-oriented movies.

It turned out that three talented people cared enough about the script to help me make it into a media-rich online event for the Halloween season. Bill Plympton, the twice Oscar-nominated animator, drew the first monster and got the ball rolling. If you haven’t seen Bill’s Idiots and Angels, it is, in my opinion, his magnum opus.

Dave Lowery, the brilliant long-time storyboard artist who collaborates with Steven Spielberg and Sam Raimi, did a number of really scary pieces. Dave did this while working on the set of a brand new blockbuster movie. I literally yelled and fist-pumped when I saw how spot-on his work is. He really got the essence of the script. Dave Lowery really is Hollywood’s best storyboard artist.

Anton Sanko, the thoughtful musician who scored the sometimes terror-filled Big Love for HBO and more recently took on Rabbit Hole with Nicole Kidman, created a number of dark songs for Playing With Fire. This year, Anton was nominated for an Emmy for landmark work he did on a National Geographic special. Anton reads constantly. Perhaps that’s one reason his music is so compelling.

Playing With Fire launched last night at the perfect time, the witching hour. Each day until the screenplay is finished, I’ll put up five scenes for your perusal. I invite you to check it out daily. I hope you find it scary, a little satirical and somehow worthwhile of your time. I also invite you to participate with storyboards and art and comments of your own. Your thoughful participation can only make Playing With Fire better than it is.

–Harold Goldberg

Picture

Bill's Basilisk Lizard

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Despite a deep love for breakthrough technology and videogames, I’m still old school. If I spot a magazine I’ve never before seen, I’ll check it out with an enthusiastic curiosity. So it was as I approached a table far away from the concert at Summerstage in Central Park. I was flying from the visceral excitement of seeing Cults (A new band! One I actually like!). In a giddy almost-Austan-Goolsby-on-Jon-Stewart mood, I saw Moves magazine on the lower left corner on that table. (A new magazine! Maybe the rare one I’ll actually like enough to want to write for!) It turns out that Moves is a New York-based magazine that’s taken inspiration from Complex in that it’s split into two sections. Half is for women and half is for men.

But as I flipped through the glossy pages, I stumbled upon Hannah Simone’s ugly rant on videogames. My heart sank. It was decidedly the rankest, rudest takedown of videogames I had seen from someone without a vested political or corporate interest in slamming the complete industry.

In a nutshell, this very angry woman has been in a three-year relationship with a man who must surely be an addict. He seems not only to play games constantly, according to Simone, he also smokes pot…while he plays games. Simone was livid as she wrote. The vitriol. The cursing. The game playing (and I don’t mean bits and bytes). These partners are immersed in a regrettable cycle from which they can’t break free. She can’t quit him and he can’t quit games. It’s the stuff of which D-grade reality shows are made. She thinks the problem is him, not her. The reader, judging from the many responses from both sexes after I posted a link on Twitter, thinks it’s both of them.

Why do these seemingly dysfunctional folk stay with each other to continue this supposedly videogame-induced, Jersey Shore-type soap opera? Opposites attract, but in this case, opposites detract. Unfortunately, since the argument presented isn’t of the highest quality, we don’t know much about either woman or man, except for a couple of scenes. Simone makes blanket statement after blanket statement about videogames, but she only mentions a couple. She seems to firmly believe that Mature-rated console games are the only kinds of games available. She suggests that all women hide the power cord and threatens to throw the console out the window. “I don’t want to be his mother,” she says. “I want to fuck.”

Simone says that all games are wastes of time. But she hasn’t taken the time to educate herself because she wants to hold onto her beliefs. She just wants and needs to wail and moan, as if she had no choice but to stay with this addicted gamer. So she lets it all out in words, as if writing it out of her body can somehow help her mend this relationship.

Why get so down about this? It’s just one person in a small, quarterly that few have heard of. I guess my problem is less with Simone than with the editors who published the oddly crafted story in a fashion magazine that hits, according to their press kit, 250,000 people each quarter, each with supposedly an average household income of more than $150,000.

If their magazine is geared to both men and women, shouldn’t some guy have responded with his counterpoint? Shouldn’t Simone’s editor have asked her to address the idea that Simone is stereotyping everyone who plays games, men and women, old and young, alike? And who really has the grudge against gaming? Simone? Simone’s editor? The editor in chief who saw fit to make this the magazine’s first story? The publisher? All of them?

Part of the reason I wrote All Your Base Are Belong to Us was to explain to gamers and non-gamers alike how wonderfully artful games can be, how they fit, sometimes perfectly, into our American culture of entrepreneurs and artists. Then comes Simone, yelling from the balcony like a Juliet/banshee that all games are horrible wastes of time. One could utter the same things about fashion and celebrity lust, the stories that make up the bulk of Moves magazine. But I wouldn’t. Because everything written can have a useful purpose, everything can inform – if it’s well crafted and well conceived.

Yet though it’s not written about very much, addiction to games attacks a minority of gamers, and it attacks them as relentlessly as Zeus in God of War 2. If someone I cared about loved games or pot too much to the point of addiction, I wouldn’t embarrass them in print with haranguing. Instead, I’d suggest and then push for a doctor or a counselor. I’d suggest that I come along, too, if that’s what the significant other wanted.

It’s corny; it’s cliché. But it’s ultimately true: Life is a balance. Everything in moderation can make for an extraordinary compelling life. There’s little logic in Simone’s story and no balance, just the boom-goes-the-dynamite beginning of what appears to be the end. That’s sad, and it has very little to do with videogames.

 

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In a stunningly revealing announcement last week, Nintendo stated that on August 12 it will reduce the price of its 3DS from $250 to $170. Though it was spun as an event as important as the Royal Wedding in a press release, the news reverberated throughout the game industry in a decidedly different way. The price drop was seen as a failure on the part of the Japanese company to sell what originally had been seen by some journalists as the most major of steps forward for video gaming: 3D without glasses.

The reasons for the poor sales of the device are many. Soon after the machine was released in Japan, the terrible earthquake and tsunami hit the country. While I pointed out on NPR’s Morning Edition that manufacture of the 3DS didn’t occur in Japan, people working at Nintendo’s Kyoto HQ were certainly hit by the sad situation, if not directly, then, emotionally.

More, sagging sales of the 3DS had to do with an unreasonably high price. Nintendo had succumbed to the same kind of rampant hubris that had hit many game companies over the years, from the 3DO company in 1993 to, more recently, Sony in 2006 with its overpriced PlayStation 3. Especially in a sluggish world economy with a possible new recession looming in the United States, $250 for a new DS was an outrageous price – even though the 3D on the handheld gaming device was spectacular.

When you could see it. The 3DS has an extraordinarily limited viewing angle. If you don’t look at it straight on, you can’t see depth. Instead, you see a double image. And if you play without moving your neck, your reward is stinging neck pain or a pounding headache. Sony itself had contemplated making a 3D version of its PlayStation Portable, but, according to Sony insiders, decided against it because the technology wasn’t quite there yet. It’s not. That viewing angle is the bugaboo.

And how can you hold to that precise viewing angle when playing shooting games or even platformer games like Mario? Most games are made to be exciting, visceral experiences that take you from the real-life mundanity to a world where everything moves like rides at an amusement park. So holding steady is very difficult, to put it mildly.

The 3DS is best suited to a role playing game like the recently released The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time 3D. In that terrific, artful game, you move at your own pace and talk to townspeople as you level up – until you need to kill an enemy. That’s the time when you turn down the 3D with a small lever and shoot away in more traditional 2D.

Nintendo executives were taken aback by the poor sales of the DS (and the Wii as well) to the point of awed shock. In fact, they agreed to cuts in pay. In addition to getting the 3DS on track, they have a long, hard slog ahead in proselytizing to the world’s gamers that they need the new version of the Wii (which will be coming next year). WiiU is influenced by the iPad. In fact, it looks like an iPad with a console addition. Marketing this will be won’t be as easy as selling the Wii and its wireless, motion controller.

But there’s a zeal for WiiU to succeed because Nintendo’s worldwide president, Satoru Iwata, told audiences at the March Game Developers Conference that games for the iPad and iPhone were being sold too cheaply. Iwata would prefer to keep his $39.99 price for the 3DS games (and $49.99 (or more) for the upcoming version of the Wii).

The 3DS is generally a fine device beyond the 3D aspect. Among other features, it sports wireless functionality and a store in which you can purchase old school Nintendo games. Yet the success of Infinity Blade and Angry Birds for the iPad proves that many games (certainly not all) for the DS are overpriced. If that’s true, and if the 3DS doesn’t sell well at $170, Nintendo executives will be taking more than a pay cut. They’ll be shown the door. After all, it’s one thing to ride the wave of sales for a device like the Wii, which was so easy to play and understand that it sold itself. It’s another thing entirely to take a company on the downswing and make it the next big thing again.

Nintendo isn’t going anywhere. It’s not dying. Yet it’s wounded. Now’s the time for Sony and Microsoft to make their moves in the ever-evolving console wars. And even if one company does win, the winner may no longer take as much as 80 percent of the market as Atari, Nintendo and Sony have in the past. That’s because Apple is so successful with its little downloadable games. Apple’s not going to put the big three out of business. But they are taking a very healthy slice of the pie.

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It’s all about the narrative. This week, two games, both widely divergent in theme and scope, caught my fancy because of their stories. Neither will likely sell like L.A. Noire here in the U.S., one because it’s too small, and the other, because its nightmarish tale is weird and long-winded. Yet both are fascinating examples of how plot can inform the design of video games.

Catherine (Atlus Games) is a nightmare of a game. It’s rife with long, angst-filled scenes from main character and semi-slacker Vincent Brooks. He spouts words of drunken introspection and contemplation that give way to excellent timed puzzles. These eventually become so difficult, you feel like Sisyphus. You frantically try to climb a high tower to get to freedom from your horrible dreams. You often fail, only to begin again. What causes these dreams of terror is unveiled in the story, but it’s about the guilt that comes when you cheat on your significant other. Less so, it’s about giving up the single life after being pressured into marriage.

Catherine’s story of yearning and worry has been said by critics to be so wonderfully based in real-life situations (which unfold prior to the nightmares) that it’s a must-buy for gamers. But the dialog and drama are uneven. And sometimes they’re banal and predictable. The nightmares are strange, not scary: you converse with the paranoid sheep of your dreams, for instance.

If the game makers had actually been able to pull off constant feelings of terror in addition the tension and oddness that marks real-life dreams, Catherine would have been one of the year’s best games. It’s still very much worth its hours of play, if only to see how the Japanese tell the story of relationships gone ironically awry circa 2011.

Bastion (Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment), on the other hand, offers the kind of people who like Mario games a tightly-written story full of oomph, humor and comic-book-like pizzazz. Bastion feels both like a platformer and a role playing, and game journalists have piled on so much love in the few days of its release that it’s become a critics’ darling. While the hype is somewhat overblown, Bastion is a fine game with a lot of variety in terms of weapons and power ups to use on your journey.

As The Kid, a silent, but ardent and heroic character, you must rid the country of strange beasts that appear after a disaster dubbed only as The Calamity. Yet the primary feature that makes Bastion a cut above the rest is the tight, witty writing. It’s voiced by Logan Cunningham, who has a god-like, strong and booming voice, somewhat like James Earl Jones. Whoever penned this game should be writing dialog in Hollywood. It’s that good. The music is never jarring or weird. In fact, it’s a component that energizes your resolve and helps to drive you forward.

Bastion isn’t a perfect game. Its game design, while varied, doesn’t break much new ground, for instance. Yet there’s that writing. Man, it’s tight, inspired and seemingly live — in that the narrator actually reacts to the moves and decisions you make.  He’s your guide, the person you look up to. As the narrator says, “You ain’t in this alone. That’s a promise.”

 

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Back in the raging 1990s, Oscar-nominated animator Bill Plympton partnered with 7th Level to release a game based on his over-the-top cartoons, many of which had been seen on MTV and in the culty animation festivals that were becoming so prevalent in many cities.

By today’s standards, Take Your Best Shot, Twisted Arcade Games for Twisted Minds, was more a collection of mini games than something you could sink your teeth into and remember.

Fast forward to 2011. Plympton’s feature-length Idiots and Angels is released to wide acclaim. To me, it looks like his masterwork, a film that could become an landmark downloadable game in the hands of a humor-oriented game design genius like Tim Schafer. Or even the noir-inspired Danes at PlayDead, the makers of Limbo.

The bar in which much of the film takes place evokes a ‘Drinks for my Friends’ Mickey Rourke in Bukowski mood — with a twist.  You feel as you watch the way Hobbes must have felt in medieval England as he contemplated his social contract. Life in the bar seems “nasty, brutish and short.”

So how is that a game? If it were only about a bar, it wouldn’t be. But Plympton’s angry anti-hero has a problem. He sprouts wings and becomes an angel. Every time he slices them off, they come back, stronger and bigger. The thing is, he hates being an angel. It doesn’t suit him.

He hates doing the good things his angel wings make him do.

And in that thought is the germ of a great game. Your goal would be be remain earthbound, to release yourself from the heavy pressure of doing good. But becoming bad again won’t be so easy. Once you do get rid of the wings, you become another character who is forced to become an angel with a different personality.  For different reasons, she doesn’t want to be an angel, either.

The game could be informed by Peter Molyneax’s  Fable series or the upcoming Epic Mickey from Warren Spector, Each time you cut your wings, you’re forced to make moral choices. You could bomb the town you hate, which happens in the movie. Or, you could fly above and save the weak in a deal with the devil to become your old, bad self again.

In other words, the possibilities for Idiots and Angels are endless.

-Harold Goldberg

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It’s cliche to say that most movies turned into games are mediocre, or worse. After all, they’re based upon branding and focus groups and generally are marketing tools more than inventive games that move games forward.

But just imagine what a terrific platformer director Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away would have made.

What a great loss it is — not having a game based on this touching, imaginative, generally haunting film about Sen, a plucky (even loud) girl who loses her parents in a strange spirit world.  Sen is boisterous, independent, heroic, as a adventurous as Link from The Legend of Zelda.

And just contemplate the possibilities of game play:

The pampered, giant baby as a frightening boss.

The mysterious train treading through water and perhaps halting at some new stops along the way for missions.

The mysterious, black-goggled janitor hovering over his furnace with his spider-like minions deep below the town could have a Pikmin feel.

The parents turned into pigs and lost in a pig sty add anything from fighting pigs to puzzle solving.

Riding Haku in his dragon form adds thrills as well.

It’s a movie just begging to be a game.

How did game developers, corporate or indie, miss Spirited Away? It won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, for God’s sake.

It’s a total failure on the part of the industry for critics and game fans a like.

I counted at least 20 scenes that could have been riffed upon for an adventure-based platformer. Here’s the complete 2001 movie via Google Video. Watch it and judge for yourself even as you’re moved.

-Harold Goldberg

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You’re going to have to sue. At some point in your writing life, you’re going to have to sue to get paid.

Thankfully, it doesn’t happen often. It happens to me about once every five years.

The process of suing for payment in New York City’s small claims court is time consuming, but not at all unpleasant. Currently, you can sue for a maximum of $5,000.

It may be that the offending magazine or Web site, especially if it’s a larger one, will settle before your court date. Paying their high-priced lawyer to deal with your small claim often isn’t worth it for them.

Here’s a good example of what might happen if you sue.

Years ago, I wrote a cover story for a hip travel magazine. I profiled two artists who, every few months, would place themselves in dire, dangerous situations in order to paint animals in the wild. In this case, the story took me to South Africa. My assignment was to accompany the artists as we traveled three hours outside Cape Town to dive for great white sharks. As four white sharks circled our vessel (each longer that the small boat), I knew this would be one of my great adventures as a writer.

I billed for both the story and for expenses. The expenses totaled as much as the story itself. After six months of waiting to be paid, I took to the courts to resolve the situation. I sued the editor in chief, who had become less than affable about payment. I had my contract. I had my expense receipts. And I had a blue file folder full of emails that promised pay ‘soon.’ You’ll need this kind of evidence as well.

But what happens when you go to court? Well, you don’t have to bring in ‘magic’ Pay Me Powder as in the graphic below.  I’ll tell you exactly what you can expect in the next post.

-Harold Goldberg

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