Monday, June 21, 2010

Immersion 2.0, Green Day & The Good Ole Days

"Immersion 2.0 (A Bug Report)" (6/16/10) - I remember when I first saw a clip of the Wii's motion controller in action. One of Nintendo's first Japanese television commercials for the Wii had gone viral on the internet. And even though I couldn't understand what was being said, I remember being wowed by the audacity of the technology. I recall thinking something like: 'Finally, virtual reality without the silly '90s headgear!'

That was a few years ago. With Microsoft and Sony now having jumped into the motion-control bandwagon (bandwaggling?), I'm feeling increasingly dubious about the whole idea of pantomime hour in front of the television, at least in games that offer lengthy, narrative-based, single-player experiences. There seems to be a misguided underlying assumption that acting out a game protagonist's movements in front of the television creates a greater sense of immersion in the game world. I find the idea silly, especially given my countless experiences with the absolute immersion offered by good literary fiction, which involves no more physical movement than sliding into the couch with a book cracked open in your hands.

Green Day: Rock Band Review (6/18/10) - It's always exciting, as a writer, to have an opportunity to share your work with new audiences. A couple of weeks ago I began writing a review of Green Day: Rock Band for Electronic Gaming Monthly. I was bummed when they abruptly shifted the assignment to an in-house writer in order to expedite the piece's layout before the start of E3, but I decided to finish the review anyway and find an adoptive home for it. Jeremy Zoss, the intrepid editor over at Joystick Division, kindly agreed to publish it as a "reader review."

I had some enjoyable moments with the game, but overall the experience felt strangely undercooked, especially in light of the obvious care invested in The Beatles: Rock Band installment that arrived last September. When you offer just three venues for a band that's been kicking around nearly a quarter of a century, it makes the band's career feel accordingly truncated and diminishes the sense of experiencing their full career arc. Not to mention the visual under-stimulation that comes from shipping a game with only three levels. Can you imagine Gears of War 3 shipping with three levels? Fans would mob Epic's office complex in North Carolina and messily rip out Cliff Bleszinski's belly-button ring.

"Pining Is Evergreen" (6/9/10) - I've been wanting to write a piece about the nostalgia of retro games for a while and Retro Games Challenge for the Nintendo DS offered me a softball pitch of an excuse. I remember my dad being obsessed with the oldies radio station K-Earth 101 in Southern California for several years during my childhood. I never particularly loved the music they played, but I did love the effect that it had on my dad. We'd be driving down the road and he'd be grinning from ear to ear, reminiscing on college memories, drumming on the steering wheel like a man possessed. There's just something about the way art crystallizes the moment in which you first experience it.

I get the same euphoric buzz when I play 8-bit videogames, especially the old NES classics. Picking up my NES gamepad retrofitted with USB and firing up the Nestopia emulator on my MacBook Air, I might as well be merging with the avatar of my childhood self. Regardless of where I happen to be playing—on the couch, on an airplane, outside—I feel like I'm at a grade-school sleepover. Just now while writing, I had this memory of playing Rampage with a neighborhood buddy, pretending that the damsel in the skyscraper that you punch out of the building and toss into your mouth like a peanut M&M was Aimee, the blonde girl in my fourth-grade class I had a crush on at the time. Pathetic, I know, but I cherish the memory all the same.

My childhood was one long pixellated fever dream.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Matter of Perspective

"The Floating Gun Barrel" (6/2/10) - Recently I've been catching up on Robert Ashley's terrific videogame podcast A Life Well Wasted.

In one particularly illuminating segment, Ashley conducted 'man on the street'-style interviews at the 2009 Game Developers Conference, asking random plebeians, "why do you play videogames?" A simple question, it would seem. Yet these respondents—some of them journalists, I'm guessing—couldn't staple-gun together a coherent rationale. They either just blurted out, "Uh, because it's fun" and then lost the power of speech entirely. Or they resorted to sarcastic jesting about escaping the senseless hell of the real world. I was struck by the dearth of genuine self-refection.

We like things. We don't care why we like them. We just like them.

How much can we learn by reflecting on why we find certain things attractive, or repellant? Is this particular navel-gazing exercise productive? For ages I had no time for any videogame that employed a first-person perspective. I wanted to see my character doing his or her thing onscreen. I was a spectator first, participant second. I'd never really examined what turned me off about first-person games until BioShock converted me. Following my visit to Rapture, I couldn't even conjure the memory of what it felt like to not enjoy the absolute character immersion of first-person gaming.

In my Start Press column earlier this week, I explore that evolution of my gaming taste palate. And I wonder what hating first-person gaming conveyed about me as a human being. I can understand why self-reflection isn't particularly popular. When you start questioning why you dislike something, you might also discover character traits within yourself that you dislike. I certainly did.

We'd all agree that empathy is important, and what medium better than videogames to let you walk a mile in somebody's high-poly boots. Even though Hollywood has experimented with first-person perspective in films such as Being John Malkovich and The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, games italicize the fantasy in thrilling ways.

When will game developers take the first-person perspective out of the fantastical and transport us into the bodies of people whose conflicts are terrestrial, relatable? Can you imagine playing a first-person game from the perspective of someone whose body is slowly losing motor function to the creeping debilitation of terminal illness? Who's going to create the first-person equivalent of Jason Rohrer's Passage? Would any publisher operating under the yoke of commercial imperative go near a game like this in a thousand years? Will the videogame industry ever have its equivalent of a Lion's Gate or Focus Features?

Please discuss. Talk amongst yourselves.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Skate 3 & Demon's Souls

Skate 3 Review (5/31/10) - While I don't expect to revisit Skate 3 much at all, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it. The fluid progression of your skater through the fictional Port Carverton is pretty damn zen, rolling along without a care in the world, grinding the rim of a wall here, ollieying (ollying? ölluéying?) over a dumpster there, and so on, and so on. Also my character looks and dresses cooler than I can ever hope/afford to. Also tattoo removal is cheaper and easier and faster and less laser-requiring than in real life. I must admit, my character wears his ink well.

"Groundhobbit Day" (5/26/10) - I finished playing through Demon's Souls this past week, logging nearly 50 hours of play time. That's quite something, considering I tweeted the following after my first several hours effectively butting my head into the stout wall of stage 1's Boletaria Castle: "Five and a half hours invested in Demon's Souls thus far. And by invested, I mean raked into a pile and burned." My friend Michael offered some consoling words in response—something to the effect of "Become one with the pain. You'll end up falling in love with the game...or shoot yourself in the face." He was right, and thankfully it was the former. Demon's Souls reminded me that even the gaming equivalent of a dismal, argumentative honeymoon can segue into a lifetime of wedded bliss.

I've tried to pivot into a handful of new games since tying a bow on Demon's Souls. They're really good games, critically acclaimed, top of their Metacritic class—Batman Arkham Asylum, Mass Effect 2, etc. But I'm having a hard time bonding with these new suitors. I miss the atmosphere of Demon's Souls. I miss how alive I felt while playing it, which seems grossly counterintuitive given how much of my early experience of the game involved dangling limp from my enemies' piercing arsenal. I even miss the soothing, unplaceable accent of the Nexus Lady who assured me at least a billion times over the course of those ~50 hours "that the world might be mended, that the world might be mended." She's still cooing that morsel of dialogue ad nauseam in the back of my brain somewhere. I miss my +8 Claymore blade, its heft, the way it felt part of my arm, the command I felt over its brutal swish.

I'll move on eventually. I'll fall in love with a new game. But I don't want to.

Not just yet.