Tag Archives: video games

Side Quest: 2012 in Review (and Some Long Overdue Thanks)

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If you follow this blog, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that I didn’t play many new games in 2012.

There are plenty of debates and discussions going on in these year-end wrap-ups that I know plenty about, but don’t feel comfortable commenting on in full. I’m sure I’ll have something to say about that Mass Effect 3 ending, but I have three whole games’ worth of aliens to kill and/or bed before that can happen. I won’t know if Assassin’s Creed III (it’s the end of a console generation, so seems like it was mainly safe-bet threequels this year) really pales that much in comparison to the second installment until I skulk around Renaissance Italy for a bit. I’ve played through the intro of Dishonored, and while I enjoy its art style and will surely have a lot of fun in its Thief-aping mission playgrounds, I put it down to concentrate on titles more relevant to this blog.

I did manage to pick up and trek through a handful of this year’s big indie releases, though. Continue reading

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Side Quest: Celine and Julie Go Gaming

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Could Celine and Julie Go Boating — a semi-obscure masterpiece of French cinema — contain the secrets of proper video game storytelling?

Video games need to stop trying to be movies. You’ve heard it here and elsewhere; the tight, thematically coherent structure that reins in your typical two hour film will just never fit the wily, interactive nature of a game that can be fifty times that long. Games are typically better at moment-to-moment plotting and visceral release, waves of emotional catharsis cresting on the backs of set pieces and trial-and-error player accomplishments. These scenarios can move us; at best, they can insert us into an entire world ripe with someone else’s personality. But for any number of reasons — the audience as an active participant; the variations of player experience; the sheer time investment; the, um, general awfulness of most video game narratives — the common consensus is that games can’t do what movies do, and we are hurting our medium and ourselves by still imploring them to. It’s gotten to the point that cutscenes and nakedly cinematic opening credits sequences are greeted with cringes and eyerolls by most discerning gamers. It’s like we want to tell developers, “Stop trying to invite yourselves to the movies’ Grown-Ups’ Table. Just relax. There’s nothing wrong with the Kids’ Table; we can start food fights here!”

For the most part, I agree with this sentiment. Didn’t Wreck-It Ralph just heartwarmingly teach all of us gamers that fostering community is easier when you actually like yourself? (Um, spoilers?) But as someone with no great love of big-budget genre films — from which video games borrow approximately 99.8% of their cinematic ideals  — I sometimes wonder if gaming’s supposed inferiority to movie storytelling is more about misguided inspiration than the true differences between the mediums. Why would games — rambling and easily distracted by nature, or at least since the leap to inhabitable, three-dimensional worlds — try to emulate action and adventure films, easily one of the most tightly scripted and traditionally “plot-driven” movie genres? (The answer, unfortunately, is because man-children like guns and aliens, and usually can’t draw a line between “form” and “content.”) What if there were films out there that could teach us how to deepen and strengthen video game narratives without violating the tenets of the medium? What if we’ve just been watching the wrong movies? Continue reading

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Spacewar! (1962)

The more things change…

Spacewar! was the first video game the way that Little Richard was the first rock star. Both gracefully wrote a fairly complete rulebook for a future worldwide obsession, yet were known to such niche (or, in Richard’s case, unfairly marginalized) audiences that it’s no wonder they now play footnote to the Pongs and Presleys of history. Whether or not Spacewar! was technically the first video game does not particularly interest me; no matter how far back you go in a movement, there will always be people searching for antecedents, trying to stretch a genre back to its very kernel. OXO (a tic-tac-toe simulator) and Tennis for Two (a rarely glimpsed Pong predecessor) have Spacewar! beat chronologically, but if we’re discussing what games are “about” beyond just being graphical representations on a computer screen, then it’s no contest.

Spacewar! still holds up to the modern definition of what a video game looks like, plays like, and who it primarily appeals to, to an extent that we are not just discussing technical influence, but the creation of the mythos and values of an entire medium. It’s possible the last fifty years of video games (which, importantly, are also the first fifty years of video games) have been less about true innovation than refining what Spacewar! achieved, turning a group of early MIT programmers’ brainy off-hours passion project into something accessible enough that at this very moment, your eight year-old nephew is probably playing some rip-off of it on his cell phone. Continue reading

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Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003)

An impressively constructed RPG with some serious storytelling issues.

My favorite moment in any piece of Star Wars media comes early in Return of the Jedi. When Luke Skywalker attempts to rescue Han Solo from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt, he must face a hideous beast called the Rancor. It’s an ugly, unsympathetic monster, the kind that lives in a dank, bone-filled cave and devours innocents for the amusement of its master. Naturally, Luke handily defeats the creature and is soon whisked away to new adventures and trials. But not everyone can part with the dead quite so quickly, and a fat, half-dressed man begins to weep for the fallen Rancor. Whether this man considered the creature a pet or a friend is unclear, and the moment not only hilariously undermines our expectations for the scene, but also achieves something legitimately sweet and sad as we consider a loss that is literally alien to us.

This is the way I think Star Wars works best, in individual moments that achieve something at once bizarre, awe-striking, and unselfconsciously goofy. I’m thinking of things like the cantina scene, the twin sunset, Luke’s first moments with Yoda. So it’s a shame that for all its flights of fancy, Star Wars interprets creativity in the most literal way possible, as in, “making a bunch of shit up”; there is almost no experimentation with form throughout the saga, no interest in the abstract or thematic beyond its much-ballyhooed Joseph Campbell legwork. Continue reading

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Portal (2007)

I told myself I wouldn’t, but screw it: This was a triumph.

What are video games if not the ultimate expression of technology for its own sake? If NASA first got to the moon with the processing ability of an iPhone, how ludicrous is it that we spend so much time and computing power rendering ever-higher-defintion space marines and dragonslayers so we can play make-believe for an afternoon? This is an industry where “new” is often shown off in place of actual content, and sometimes the benefits that innovation will bring to the medium seem like a mystery to even those developing them. Look at the dismal software line-up rushed out for potentially interesting hardware like the Wii U, or go back to past console failures like the Virtual Boy: game creators have an obsession with being first, even when they don’t fully understand what “being first” entails.

The folks at Aperture Science could certainly relate to this problem; it probably even crossed a few of their minds as a killer AI flooded their facility with deadly neurotoxin. (At least when Nintendo falters, they only have to worry about sales dips and snarky blog write-ups.) Continue reading

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