Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Don't Copy that Floppy 2

In case you don't remember the anti-piracy video "Don't Copy that Floppy" from 1992, now you can watch the hilarious new update above, complete with an ode to itself at the beginning. I can't figure this new one out. It seems to take itself somewhat seriously, despite some of the goofiness and cheesiness. But then there's the Klingons. And what's with the high-pitched "convicted felon" at the end - are they pulling my leg here or what?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Full Beatles: Rock Band Setlist Revealed

While not wholly confirmed yet, here's the leaked setlist for all songs that will be included in the upcoming The Beatles: Rock Band game. It was already announced previously that several whole albums will be released later as pay-for DLC including Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper's and Abbey Road. I propose a Cosmic American get together when it drops September 9th.

I Want To Hold Your Hand
I Feel Fine
Day Tripper
Paperback Writer
Don't Let Me Down

Please Please Me (1963)
I Saw Her Standing There
Do You Want To Know A Secret
Twist and Shout

With the Beatles (1963)
I Wanna Be Your Man

A Hard Day's Night (1964)
A Hard Day's Night
Can't Buy Me Love

Beatles For Sale (1964)
Eight Days a Week

Help! (1965)
Ticket To Ride

Rubber Soul (1965)
Drive My Car
I'm Looking Through You
If I Needed Someone

Revolver (1966)
Yellow Submarine
And Your Bird Can Sing

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band/With a Little Help From My Friends
Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
Getting Better
Good Morning Good Morning

Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
I Am The Walrus
Hello Goodbye

The Beatles (White Album) (1968)
Dear Prudence
Back In the U.S.S.R.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Helter Skelter

Yellow Submarine (1969)
Hey Bulldog

Abbey Road (1969)
Come Together
Octopus's Garden
I Want You (She's So Heavy)
Here Comes the Sun

Let It Be (1970)
Dig a Pony
I Me Mine
I Got a Feeling
Get Back

Love (2006)
Within You Without You/ Tomorrow Never Knows

Monday, August 3, 2009

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (Kojima, 2008)

Last year in 2008 Hideo Kojima unleashed the final iteration of the Metal Gear Solid series onto the world. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots was met with both critical and commercial success, with some reviewers naming it the best videogame of all time. The editors at Gamespot awarded the game a rare perfect 10 saying "It's difficult not to sound hyperbolic when discussing MGS4 because every part of its design seemingly fulfills its vision, without compromise. There is no halfway." This statement could not be more true. Over the course of the past year I decided to see what all the fuss was about with this game series. During that time I've written several pieces detailing my thoughts on each iteration, examining their messages, themes, and purpose. I've finally finished my goal of playing through all four games, and just like those Gamespot editors, it's difficult not to sound hyperbolic when discussing Solid Snake's final mission.

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is a contradiction of sorts. At times it represents the height of what the medium has to offer. The story is larger than life, filled with grand themes and notions, bleeding edge game design, masterful production, memorable characters, and contains a sense of purpose like no other game. At the same time it is an overwrought, overblown mess, struggling to keep up with itself, and contains the most complex, complicated, most difficult to follow story in the history of videogames. There are moments where MGS4 is a colossal triumph, and moments where it reeks with overblown ambition.

I'd rather not go into the details of the story itself, as that would require it's own separate post (or several). Let's begin with the characters. In short, Kojima managed to include nearly every single character from every Metal Gear game into this game. And I mean everyone. Remember the poor soldier in the first game who was using the restroom? Yeah, he's in this game. It's like the War & Peace of videogames in terms of cast (the MGS database lists over 130 characters). But what's amazing about this is that Kojima actually manages to tie all these characters together into a (somewhat) cohesive story. The plot had been moving slowly until I reached the end of Act 3 (of five acts total) when suddenly Kojima managed to tie in the entire cast of characters, including those from the previous game which took place in the 1960s, in a move that showed just how deep his ambition was to tie all these threads together. It was like Kojima, instead of trying to corral this giant beast of a story into some pen, decided a better way to take control was to just grab the story by the balls and squeeze as hard as he could to force his will upon it.

As I said before, the game is full of contradictions. It speaks a message of peace and non-violence while simultaneously hyper-romanticizing the role of the warrior. At times the game strives to be ultra-realistic. Characters will go into painstaking detail about how a certain firearm works, or how a certain computer program functions. At other times the game gives way to guilty fantasy. This is most notable with the antagonists. The villians in the Metal Gear series have always been a bit over the top. This game is no exception. The main bosses in this game take place in the form of the Beauty and the Beast Corp., four lovely young women traumatized by war who've gone mad and are now instruments of war themselves. Each one has taken on a certain emotion, e.g. Raging Raven, Screaming Wolf. It's easy to laugh at the silliness of some of these characters. But if you look at it differently these characters are almost Jungian archetypes. Are they even meant to be real? Does Snake actually fight them, or could it be seen as Snake “fighting his demons”? There's a certain metaphoric quality to these characters. The way arch-villian Liquid Ocelot bristles with lightning, just as Volgin did in the previous game, could be seen not as an actual ability of his to wield lightning but as a metaphor for his power. It must be noted that the fantasy doesn't get in the way of the plot or is ever used as as Deus ex machinima. This quote from the Daniel Primed blog says it best: “While fantasy based elements are a rarely discussed staple of the series, these games use it only for metaphoric purposes and never to conclude storyline plot holes.” This leads me to my next point, these fantasy elements aren't really fantasy at all, but rather they should be seen as extended metaphors.

In essence that's what the whole game, the whole series even, is - metaphors embodied in characters. The whole series is just one big morality play, with each character taking on their part. This also means that nearly everything contains some sort of symbolism. Oh, is there ever so much symbolism in this game! One character could be seen as a stand-in for Christ, another the Virgin Mary (and simultaneously Mary Magdalene). A new character, Drebin, is the embodiment of the entire arms industry, even of capitalism itself, who also functions as a sort of Greek chorus/Cheshire cat, appearing to our hero in times of need to prod him along the path. There's even a bit of a Faust/Devil relationship between him and Snake. It's like an English major's dream manifested in game form.

The dichotomy of symbolism goes even farther. At times the drama is very Western (Shakespearian) at other times very Japanese. When I say Shakespearian I mean that in every sense of the word. Yes it contains those elements of great literature such as comedy, love, death, and tragedy, but it also appeals to the masses with it's occassionaly crude humor (lots of fart/poop jokes) and underdressed females. At the same time the game is very Japanese. The action sequences are straight out of a Hong Kong action flick (ok, not Japanese, but it has its roots in the martial arts). The females can occasionally act in a way Westerners might find old fashioned (like when one bride-to-be gets excited at the prospect of dutifully serving her husband). Occasionally there's that feeling that there's something you're not quite getting, like some cultural cue we're not familiar with. All together, it's this strange mix of Western drama and Japanese weirdness.

It's like the War & Peace of videogames in terms of cast.

To say the game can be melodramatic is an understatement. Since the whole game is essentially a vehicle for Kojima's message it can be nauseating at times when a character goes into an extended dialogue on the dangers of war or what have you. Like with the other games in the series, Kojima wants to make absolute certain that you get the message, so he'll have the characters speak these grand verbiose statements that go on and on and on. Kojima can be so blinded by his ambition that he doesn't know when to stop. Michael Abbott at the Brainy Gamer has an interesting piece on this aspect of Metal Gear and melodrama if you're interested in reading further.

I've spoken previously about Kojima's use of cinematic cutscenes in the series. It's an oft leveled criticism of Metal Gear that the cutscenes can be too lengthy, where it becomes less like you're playing a game and more like watching a film. This game is no exception. Before the game came out there were rumors about extraordinarily long cinematic sequences, so much that when publisher Konami let reviewers get an early version of the game for review purposes they were forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement saying they wouldn't comment on the length of those cutscenes.

Oh, folks, are they ever long. Usually they run from a few minutes to 15 minutes, with a few clocking in around 45 minutes. But then Kojima really outdoes himself when after the final confrontation the game goes into an epilogue that technically qualifies as a full-length feature according to the Screen Actors Guild. All in all there are over 10 hours of cinematics.

Which brings me to the next point: Kojima needs an editor. It's not that the game or the cinematics are too long, or even the story itself. It's his obsession over the nitty gritty details of the characters' motivations. We don't need an hour long explanation of how and exactly why the villian plans on using some computer program to accomplish his evil deeds, you can just tell us "The bad guy has item X, and that gives him power, so therefore we need to stop him!". Yes, it's cliched, but it's more effective than overly long explanations that barely hold up logically and which are ultimately inconsequential. Once again, our friend at the Brainy Gamer has an excellent piece on Kojima and his over-the-top ambitions. At the same time I have to confess that I somewhat enjoy these long, drawn-out explanations as it's what gives the series some of it's charm. Yes it's tiresome, but at the same time, have you ever played another videogame, or even seen a movie, that went into such detail over the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty? I'm sure you haven't. So it's at times frustrating to have to wade through all of this talk just to experience the game, but at the same time, it's all part of the adventure. It's like going to a Tarantino film, part of the thrill is just watching the characters and their discussions on Big Macs and Like a Virgin.

The game contains all the usual flair that I've discussed previously in my other analyses. Both the graphics and the score are AAA in quality. In fact, the game has arguably the best graphics and presentation out there, I am convinced that those shots of Sunny cooking eggs are real. The locales and situations Kojima puts Snake in are amazing, from putting Snake on a cloak-and-dagger like mission where he must tail an informant in a foggy Eastern European city that recalls something out of The Third Man, to some extraordinary split-screen sequences that have you controlling Snake on one half while a glorious cinematic plays in the other half, the game does it like no other.

Like the other games in the series, the one seems at times self-aware of it's own existence, toying with the player through fake reboot screens and characters specifically mentioning the gaming hardware. The game also has a certain self-importance about it. Kojima knew he was crafting a huge finale to a wildly popular series, and this is evidenced in his song selection. The opening song is a pathos-filled dirge sung entirely in Hebrew; the closing song a cover of Joan Baez's "Here's to you" from the film Sacco and Vanzetti. It's like Kojima wouldn't settle for anything less than these heavy, burdensome pieces to give his work some sort of gravitas.

I want to say more but I'm not sure what I want to say. There's so many different points of discussion, one could write a dissertation or hold an entire lecture series on this one game alone. Hideo Kojima is perhaps the most gifted auteur in the medium, and the amount of ambition in this game is staggering. I'm just not quite convinced the game lived up to that ambition, though it is still far and beyond anything else in videogaming. This one quote I found online says it best:

“That’s not to say that MGS4 is a failure because it simply isn’t, it is one of the best produced pieces of media of our time which so happens to be under the control of a mad man.”

After playing the entire series all the way through I've come to the conclusion that though this game may have it's flaws, I just might consider it the best narratively-focused videogame of all time (as opposed to something like Tetris, which might qualify for the best non-narrative game of all time), though it's difficult not to take the series as a whole into consideration when making that claim. But this comes with the heavy caveat: for now. No one else has ever come close to what Kojima tries to accomplish in this game; his ambition is extraordinary and the fact that he can pull it off with only a few gripes is equally extraordinary. But as I said, this is just possibly the best videogame series for now. Another game developer with similar ambitions and creativity could probably do better if they could manage to just rope in their ambitions a bit. Well, that's it. If you've made it this far, I thank you for reading this. Till next time.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Steampunk Willie

Mickey's going steampunk. Well, it's not really confirmed, but the concept art for some unannounced game called "Epic Mickey" was found on an artist's webpage recently. Check it out, some of it looks amazing, especially this one of a tin-man like Goofy. The game is expected to arrive on Nintendo's Wii if it ever sees the light of day. Oh, and Yoggoth, if you weren't in the know already, Steampunk is so out, Dieselpunk is where all the cool kids are at.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Ludology Pathfinder

(Doing some house cleaning here, this was posted back in May on sister site Cosmic American, but never made it's way here)

Allow me to gloat for a second here. I just finished up another semester of school yesterday, finally free to run around and enjoy the sun for a couple of months. The final project for one of my classes was to create a guide to a particular subject of our choosing. Known as a pathfinder in the library biz, these guides are designed to serve as an introduction to materials describing a subject, any subject, from Shakespeare to Dada. Naturally, I chose to make mine on videogames. It's got links to websites, the Ebert/Croal debate, and call numbers for those book-things in case you ever found yourself in a real library. Since no one else is ever going to see this thing besides my professor, I thought I'd share it with you here, have fun.

One Year Later...

Apologies for not updating the blog, but I've been short on time this summer. Between helping my parents with their unexpected move, a trip to Portland, and a wedding trip to Las Vegas, I haven't had the chance to blog about my ludological pursuits. After delving back into The Orange Box and playing through Half Life 2: Episode 2 (and witnessing it's out-of-left-field tragic ending) I've finally busted open the one box on my shelf I haven't opened since I got it nearly one year ago.

Last summer I began my journey through the Metal Gear saga. Borrowing a friend's PS2 I played through the original Metal Gear Solid. I had missed out on the entire series when it first debuted, having never owned a Playstation product before. So excited was I to further explore this series, and with some new games on the horizon that I was keen on (I'm looking at you LittleBigPlantet) I did the completely rash and unexpected act of buying a Playstation 3. The Metal Gear Solid 4 bundle to be exact - the last of the PS3s to include some form of backwards-compatability with PS2 games.

Throughout the past year I've blogged on more than one occassion about the series, from it's grand statements on war, to the uniquely Kojima touches, such as funny little conversations you have to go through just to save the game. Now the time has come to finish what I started. The other night I peeled off the plastic of that case I've had staring at me for nearly a year now and popped the Metal Gear Solid 4 disc in and began the final journey of Solid Snake. I'll be sure to include my thoughts on it when I'm done.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

E3 Hype

To get you in the mood for next week's E3 event, may I present to you Sony's 2006 meme-generating press conference, enjoy!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ludology 101

Allow me to gloat for a second here. I just finished up another semester of school yesterday, finally free to run around and enjoy the sun for a couple of months. The final project for one of my classes was to create a guide to a particular subject of our choosing. Known as a pathfinder in the library biz, these guides are designed to serve as an introduction to materials describing a subject, any subject, from Shakespeare to Dada. Naturally, I chose to make mine on videogames. It's got links to websites, the Ebert/Croal debate, and call numbers for those book-things in case you ever found yourself in a real library. Since no one else is ever going to see this thing besides my professor, I thought I'd share it with you here, have fun.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On Ludology

Recently I've been working on my final project for one of my grad school classes this semester. I'm putting together a 'pathfinder', essentially a listing of all materials available (from the San Jose King library) on a given subject. I chose videogames (of course) as my subject. More specifically I chose ludology, those materials pertaining to the academic study of videogames. In my search for relevant sources I've come across many interesting materials. What's fascinating to me about these materials is not just that games are being examined in a critical light, but that the discussion is so new that reading about it makes me feel that I'm taking part in its creation. It's not like most stuff you read in school where the theories being presented are based on well established ideas, and as you're reading it you get the feeling that you're just an observer, barely skimming the surface of what hundreds of academics have thoroughly plowed. This stuff is new, raw, fresh. Just being able to find something on the topic feels like a success.

It's like the boundaries haven't even been set yet. As I read this stuff I get the feeling like this is a new frontier, it's just starting to get mapped out, and that if I'm clever enough I can claim a piece of this land and contribute to the greater whole.

Take for example the name of this new territory. So far there isn't even a real word for it. There seems to be some mass developing behind the word 'ludology', which I've taken and ran with as the name of this blog. Ludology is based on the Latin word 'ludus', meaning either 'sport', 'school', or 'game'. But what does this 'study of games' even mean? It's not the study of the actual coding and creation of these games, though parts of that creation are definitely open to discussion within ludology. Is it about the story or narrative of games? Well, it's not really that either, though narrative lends itself more easily to discussion. Maybe it's about the culture of gaming, i.e. game console wars and fanboys. Hmm, not sure. Thinking about it, while ludology isn't necessarily any one of those things, I think it might be all of those things, but with something more. It's like the old 'sum of the parts are greater than the whole'. Ludology is an attempt to discuss all of these aspects simultaneously while attempting to derive some greater meaning from the whole. It wants to answer the question, 'so what's the meaning behind all of this?' What insights into the human condition do these games give us?

Just like with cinema a century ago, when its moving pictures allowed us to take a look at ourselves away from the context of the action happening immediately before us as it had for centuries upon the stage, asking ourselves how we would react if confronted with the situations those characters face up on the screen, and creating tension, drama, and intrigue though camera angles, dramatic cuts, lighting, and music, videogames not only allow us to examine how we would react when we are faced with those same situations and cinematic devices, but asks us to go a step further and actually physically interact and carry out the actions of those characters.

How does a player react in the game Bioshock when he is given the decision to save or kill the genetically altered, deformed girls known as 'little sisters'? How does the player feel in Metal Gear Solid 3, when near the end of the game, after a lengthy cinematic cutscene in which the main character's mother/mentor figure asks for you to mercy kill her, the game gives control back to the player and demands that they physically press the controller button to carry out the action? These are just some of the questions that ludology asks.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (Kojima, 2004)

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is a commentary on the ever-shifting state of the world's superpowers and on how the wars and grudges these countries hold against one another are ultimately meaningless when history is viewed as a whole. Widely regarded by fans as a return to form for the series, Hideo Kojima not only continues to expand on the mythos of the world he's created, but continues to explore his distinct storytelling style and unique take on the American action-military genre.

Snake Eater is the third game in the Metal Gear Solid series, though it takes place first in the series chronology as it serves as a prequel. Kojima takes us back to the height of the Cold War in 1964. The tale Kojima spins deals with everything from the Cuban Missle Crisis, power struggles between Kruschev and Brezhnev within the U.S.S.R., to discussions about then-current films and ramen noodles.

We meet Snake about to be sent off to the swampy jungles of the fictional Russian province of Tselinoyarsk to retrieve a defecting Russian scientist. Upon his retrieval this scientist explains how a certain faction of the Russian army was forcing him to work on a terrible weapon called 'The Shagohod'. It's obvious to us, the player, that this Shagohod is a precursor to the future 'Metal Gears' which we've so lovingly encountered in the previous two games of the series.

As is usual a twist happens in Snake's plans, as just as he's about to escape with the scientist, Snake's mentor shows up - only ever referred by her codename 'The Boss' - and takes the scientist with her, and says she's defecting to the Russian side and joining an elite group of fighters known as 'the Cobras'. She then proceeds to throw Snake off a bridge to what should be his death, with Snake only managing to grab a hold of the bandana the Boss was wearing - the bandana that becomes Snake's familiar signature headpiece.

For the player this sets up the mystery that drives the game - why is the Boss - Snake's mentor and hinted-at possible lover (and even mother) and number one soldier in the U.S. - defecting to the Russian side?

Snake manages to survive falling off the bridge and is rescued, taken home to heal up, and given his new mission - eliminate the Cobras, rescue the scientist, and kill the Boss. This third time through a Metal Gear game this is all somewhat familiar. Kojima enjoys this style of splitting the narrative. Just like in MGS2, first there's an initial sequence of gameplay that lasts no more than an hour, a first act if you will, which functions as a sort of extended prologue. This is then followed by a second act, where the real 'meat and potatoes' of the story occurs.

By this third outing it might be useful to talk more specifically about Kojima's style and his use of certain motifs which carry the story. One such element Kojima likes to employ is what I'll call the "ritual game save". In all three games whenever the player wants to save their progress in the game they have to go through a certain in-game routine. The player must essentially 'phone-in' to headquarters, speak to someone (always a female) to tell them he wants to save. This is always followed by some sort of conversation with the female, usually with a lot of flirting.

In the first game it was Mei Ling, a cute Chinese-American girl who always told Snake these useful proverbs that at first seem somewhat serious but by the end of the game got a little wacky (an example of Kojima toying with the player). These proverbs usually fit with the context of what was happening at the moment. So, for example, if there were a lot of enemy patrols in the vicinity she might give a proverb saying to the effect of "it's better to avoid confrontation and be sneaky rather than fight".

In Metal Gear Solid 2 in the opening 'Tanker' chapter the save is carried out by Snake's scientist buddy Otacon who attempts to emulate Mei Lings proverbs but doesn't quite get them right, functioning as a kind of subversion of Mei Ling's advice (watch here). In the second act these game saves are carried out through conversations between Raiden and communications officer/girlfriend Rose, where they discuss their relationship and what it means to be in a relationship (watch here).

In Snake Eater saving happens with the communications officer codenamed 'Para-medic'. This time instead of proverbs or relationships, Para-medic likes to talk about films and usually tries to relate those films to what Snake is encountering in the game. Here's one discussing Godzilla. Watching this clip clues you in to Kojima's fondness for self-referential jokes, like how Para-medic bets they'll still be making Godzilla movies in 2004. In another conversation Para-medic tells Snake about a new movie she's just seen called From Russia with Love. The Major in charge of the mission is apparently wild about the movie and, with the writers playing completely to the audience, the Major says "007 is the biggest thing to come out of England since the Mayflower. I wouldn't be surprised if they made 20 more of those movies!" The James Bond references are further explored during the opening title sequence, a brilliant send-up to all 007 movie openings.

It cannot be stressed enough that Kojima enjoys borrowing heavily from film. Just watch the opening scene, complete with an initial quote which sets up the theme of the game, the opening shot of the airplane flying through the clouds, and the starring credits fading in and out. It looks like something straight out of the Hunt for Red October. Also in this scene you'll notice Kojima subverting players expectations again. When we first see Snake here he's wearing a mask that makes him look like Raiden from the previous game. He even dons the same breathing apparatus that Raiden wore as he made his initial swim into the Big Shell.

I mentioned in the beginning that most fans of the series considered Snake Eater to be a return to form. What I meant by that is that fans were disappointed with MGS2 because they wanted to play as the hero, Snake, but instead had to play whiny voiced hero-in-training Raiden. I, for one, enjoyed playing as Raiden. I believe those fans who found themselves disappointed with the previous game missed the point that Kojima didn't want us to play as the hero, but instead wanted us to experience the narrative from the perspective of an outsider observing the hero.

When the player initially sees Snake in this opening scene looking like Raiden the initial thought is "Oh no, am I playing as Raiden again?" The answer is of course, no, Kojima is just having his way with you.

This method of making the player aware that the game is playing with them is endemic of Kojima and the Metal Gear Solid series. From the British Film Institute's 100 Videogames Screen Guide:

What is most interesting about Metal Gear Solid, however, is that for all its filmic intentions, it is a game that is supremely confident with its game-ness. At various points, characters draw attention to their presence in a videogame, or even to the paraphernalia of videogame hardware and interface. Where intuition might tell us that rendering the interface transparent or even invisible might be the most effective means of creating immersion or presence in the narrative and world of the game, Kojima and his team brazenly remind the player of the constructedness of this experience. This is postmodern media in playable form.

Whereas the theme of the original Metal Gear Solid was genetics, or 'gene', and the that of its sequel being a discussion on the nature of information, or 'meme', Snake Eater's theme is 'scene' - the climate in which events occur and the impact it has upon them. From the Metal Gear Wiki: "Scene deals heavily with Relativism, the idea that concepts such as right and wrong or allies and enemies are not absolute or eternal; but instead are personal and transitive, shaped by our cultures and the times we live in." Unlike past games I was aware of what the theme was going into this game. Funny enough I didn't really catch any major strands of the theme until near the end of the game when the Boss gives her big speech. This speech is typical of Kojima's style in that he wants the player to understand his intention so he tends to lay it down rather heavily when he does.

In this speech the Boss describes a realization she had while on one of the first manned missions into space. Having witnessed the Earth from so high she realized that national boundaries are just a figment of our beliefs, and over the course of time those nation states that define those boundaries slowly change their relationships with those other powers. Examining history as a whole those relationships that define the current political 'scene' are rendered meaningless, as today's enemy is tomorrow's ally, as she makes the point when speaking about Russia (and 'prophesizing' that one day the Cold War will be over when we're fighting a new enemy). From the Wiki: "The Boss is a victim of circumstance. Her "scene" - Cold War Era America - forces her to, ultimately, give her life. Snake is forced to kill his former mentor due to a "scene" he not only has no control over, but has no knowledge of." By realizing she's only playing a part in this Cold War 'scene' she realizes the meaninglessness of defining things in absolutes, in terms of right vs. wrong. She realizes that her actions as a solider are rendered pointless, leading her to accept that the wars she fights are ultimately futile.

The Metal Gear series has always been about the futility of war, each game examining that futility through a different lens. The original game was about how we pass on our culture through our genes. The second game examining how we define our culture through its accumulated knowledge. Now this third game deals with how we define our culture through our relationships with one another and the meaninglessness of defining those relationships as right or wrong.

A few final notes. I should point out how well the game pulls off being a prequel. Whereas other more well known prequels deliver a sense of inevitability - we already know Anakin will turn into Darth Vader for example - Snake Eater managed to completely surprise me. It wasn't until about two-thirds of the way through that I began to realize that I was witnessing the birth of a major character, arguably the most important character in the entire series, and I hadn't seen it coming at all, yet when it finally came together it happened so naturally that I was pleasantly surprised with how well it was pulled off.

I also have to give a nod to Harry Gregson-Williams' score. The Metal Gear series has always had amazing music, but Gregson-Williams manages to outdo himself in this game. From the bluesy take on the Metal Gear theme titled 'Old Metal Gear', to the previously mentioned over-the-top opening song performed by Cynthia Harrell, Gregson-Williams delivers a dramatic and exciting score. Adding an infusion of some Spanish guitar into the stirring Metal Gear Solid theme gives us one of the most memorable music pieces to ever come out of videogaming.

That's it for my look at Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Now that I've completed these three games I can finally play the game that got me interested in starting this series in the first place, the fourth and final part of the series, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Until then, happy gaming.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Why I Hated the 2008 Game of the Year

Last year a small title made it's way onto the Xbox Live marketplace. This small indie game named 'Braid' was developed by Jonathan Blow, a new pioneer in the games-as-art movement. The story behind the making of Braid is a tale all it's own. Blow worked on the game for three years by himself and funded the entire project with his own money. Jonathan Blow is of the new school of game design. From Wikipedia:

In a speech at the Free Play conference in Australia in September 2007, Blow suggested games were approaching the level of societal influence of other forms of art, such as films and novels. One example that Blow cites is World of Warcraft, which he labels "unethical", stating that such games exploit players by using a simple reward-for-suffering scheme to keep them in front of their computer. In his view, developers need to think about what reinforcement the games are providing players when they reward them for performing certain actions. He emphasized that there was a need for developers to design inspiring new games using "innovative, ethical and personal art.
When Braid was released last year it instantly won over nearly every game critic out there. It also found great success with gamers, becoming one of the most downloaded titles through the Xbox marketplace. It eventually won the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences "Casual Game of the Year". Everyone loved it.

Not me. I pretty much fucking hated it. As you're probably aware if you read this blog I'm a bit of a proponent of games-as-art. Braid was the game that was supposed to cross that magical barrier into art land and make Mr. Blow and all the other gamers feel that their medium had finally reached that magical realm of 'art' next to sculpture and cinema. But I would beg to differ. I thought the story was poorly written, difficult to decipher, and the game itself was just too difficult to derive any meaning from it. There were many oppotunities for Blow to be more open with his narrative by giving the player an understandable and meaningful story, but it seems that at each opportunity to do so he purposefully hides the narrative through an obnoxious and pretentious writing style that only further obfuscates its intention. Why did Blow make this game and write this story if he didn't want anyone to see it? I think he might as well have just written the story in his diary if that's the case.

An annoying aspect about Braid is what's occured outside of the game itself. Because it's received such critical praise, because of the "Indie developer makes it big" story of its creation, and because of Blow's stature as an "Indie darling" most people seem hesitant to critique it. Critics think it's great because it has some sort of "mature" story and gamers think it's neat because it references older games such as Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong, but for all I care Jonathan Blow can just go... blow himself (ok, that one was too easy).

At it's core Braid is a platformer, like Super Mario Bros. You play the character 'Tim'. The one difference is that you have the ability to manipulate time, by pressing a button you can rewind everything in the game world, like hitting the rewind button on a VCR where you get to see everything happen in reverse. This is also where the game derives its story. Tim is looking for 'The Princess', and there's a story told through books at the beginning of each world describing Tim's journey. Each level is basically a puzzle where you're trying to obtain a hard to reach jigsaw puzzle piece to complete a puzzle which reveals some aspect about the story and allows you to move on to the next world. These puzzles become increasingly difficult as you progress. By halfway through the game they're Grade-A Mensa level difficult. I'll admit, the puzzles can be fun and there's a nice rewarding feeling when you get when all of a sudden a puzzle 'clicks' in your head and you're able to solve it. It's akin to figuring out that really tough crossword clue.

This would be fine, but there's many problems. First off, the puzzles can be excrutiatingly hard. I stared at some for hours trying to figure them out. I think Blow went a little overboard with some of them. He's also quite adamant that the player figure out the puzzle with no help. On the official walkthrough there's basically no walkthrough. Blow only says "Figure it out for yourself". Like I said though, the later puzzles are really, really tough. I'll admit watching a few Youtube videos for some of the answers.

What's worse though is that some of the puzzles are just finicky as hell. For example, one puzzle piece is tucked away up high. If you jump off of a ledge there's a cloud that looks like you should be able to land on it and make your way over to the puzzle piece. I tried jumping from this ledge multiple times but was always just a little too far away from the cloud to land on it. I thought, "Well it would be too easy if all I had to do was jump on the cloud to get the piece", I mean, that's not really much of a puzzle. So I tried for hours to find some other method to get that puzzle piece. Finally I gave up and went to Youtube... only to discover that I was right all along, it's just that the game demanded you be standing on the very last pixel of the ledge in order to land on the cloud. Oh come on! That's not a puzzle, that's just overly demanding game design.

Hey it looks like Donkey Kong, it must be brilliant!

But that's not the worst aspect of the game. The worst part is the story. Critics said it was a mature story that really made you think. The story, told through the books, is written in this completely obnoxious prose that sounds like it came out of a high school writing class. Yes, it's trying to be deep, but it comes off as pretentous. Here's a typical passage:

“But to be fully couched within the comfort of a friend is a mode of existence with severe implications. To please you perfectly, she must understand you perfectly. Thus you cannot defy her expectations or escape her reach. Her benevolence has circumscribed you, and your life’s achievements will not reach beyond the map she has drawn.”

And it doesn't get any better. After completing the game I still have no idea what the game was about. Was the Princess even a real person, or did she just represent some sort of ideal? The problem is that Blow leaves the story so open to interpretation that it ceases to have any real inherent meaning. There's really no concrete aspect of the story that you can point to and say "This is what I think the story is about." Is it about the loss of a relationship? Is it about the perils of nuclear weapons? Is it about the loss of innocence? Is it a commentary on the state of the medium? Only Jonathan Blow knows.

There's an interesting disussion over at The Brainy Gamer between the writer of that blog and another about the meaning of Braid. I have to say, I was delighted when I read Mr. Brainy Gamer's response where he too wasn't the biggest fan, and he's a much better writer than I. Check out what he says. Braid comes to the PC on March 31st.

Well blogging friends, I'm off to Reno to celebrate my 30th birthday with a bunch of friends (LE was too cool for school to come). When I get back on Sunday I'll be 30, so you'll no longer be able to trust me, as I'll now be part of 'The Man' trying to keep those young rapscallions 'down'. If you want to join the party we'll be at the El Dorado in the Player's Spa Suite (sounds awesome, eh?).

Friday, March 6, 2009

One Billion Games Played (not by me!)

According to Bungie studios' website, as of last Saturday over one billion games of Halo 3 have been logged. Here's a brief blurb from Bungie:

"Saturday night, while many of us were stuffing food into our faces, plenty of folks were still playing Halo 3. At precisely 6:36pm PST, in a three minute and nineteen second game of Infection on Foundry, four players participated in Halo 3's one billionth match.

One Billion. It's a giant number, one that's difficult to understand without the proper context. Our first thought was to put it into perspective by comparing Halo 3's total games played with its predecessor, Halo 2, a title that we are still super proud of, and one that's topped the original Xbox LIVE Leaderboards since its launch through to present day - over four years of online gaming.

But there's a problem with that comparison. Halo 2 has yet to achieve one billion games played. As of right now, it's sitting pretty at 798 million total matches played. Surprised? We were."

For the record, as of this writing I've contributed 1,661 games of those billion (see here). That's 1,661 x 5-10 minutes of my life playing this damn game. Funny enough, I still haven't passed the mark on how many Halo 2 games I've participated in - 1,780. Congrats Halo 3, here's to another billion!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Escape from City 17

Here's a short film based on Half Life 2, made by two brothers for 500 bucks. If this were done by a Hollywood studio it would be loaded with unnecessary CG effects plus they'd probably throw Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep in there for name recognition. Give me a full length feature made by these guys and I'd be set (and from the promo at the end it looks like they might just be making a few more).

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Another Contender

In my quest to play through the Metal Gear Solid series I've begun the third chapter of the saga: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (yes, that's the title!). Ladies and gentleman, I think we have another contender for the Best First Levels in Videogames. I am continually impressed with what this series has to offer. Hideo Kojima must be some sort of mad genius, as he is able to expertly take traditional western-fare and infuse it with a distinctly Japanese flavor, and by that I mean, a distinctly strange flavor. It's almost as if Kojima sat around watching western action films his entire youth and then attempted to go make his own in videogame form, but with everything not quite how we've come to expect from such films, and all done in a quirky, somethings-a-little-bit-off kind of way. You could even say he's like the Japanese equivalent of Quentin Tarantino (is that going too far?).

Take for example, the opening to Metal Gear Solid 3. This time Kojima is aiming for the prequel treatment. We find Solid Snake traipsing around the jungles of southeast Asia sometime during the late 60s/early 70s. The first hour of the game opens with Snake dropping into the jungle via parachute, encoutering old foes from the previous two games (or are they new foes since this is in the past?). The gameplay is all done quite expertly. But what really seals the deal here is the opening song which plays once you've finished the cold opening, like, say, a James Bond film! Oh, did I say that? Because the opening song that plays is nearly a shot-by-shot parody/send-up of every James Bond opening music video ever made. And just like Kojima is want to do, there's just something not quite right about it.

Oh sure, it's got the soulful female vocals (man they really need to get Tina Turner to sing this song), they've got the big band sound, they've got the trippy silhouette images (they forgot the naked ladies though), but the lyrics... At first they sound typical, but when they start to get going they're just... Well, here's an example: "Someday you go through the rain/And someday, you feed on a treefrog" Huuuhh?? Please, just watch and enjoy for yourself:

I love it. I can't get the song out of my head. It's just so spot-on. What's even better though? Watching other people sing the song on youtube! Hot Girl, check. Girl in her bedroom, got it. These two guys take the cake though, tell me which one you think is better, the one labeled The Definitive Cover, or the "WTF were they thinking?" Karaoke guy? I could seriously watch these all day.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Metal Gear Solid 2: Now In Bitingly Satirical Webcomic Form!

Did reading my piece on Metal Gear Solid 2 get you interested in experiencing the game but you don't want to go through the motions of playing it? Don't fear! Someone has gone ahead and translated the entire experience into hilarious satirical webcomic form. Live Journal member Hiimdaisy has put up four pieces that go through the entire plot of MGS2, but done in a way that just makes the whole thing funny while staying true to the actual game. I laughed my ass off through all four pieces, though if you haven't played it you might not find it so brilliant. Check out "Let's Destroy Metal Gear Again!" Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four.