Friday, August 8, 2014

Blips: Needs More Metroid

Source: 'Troid Rage: Why Game Devs Should Watch Alien—and Play Metroid—Again
Author: Maddy Myers
Site: Paste

It's rare that I can side so wholeheartedly with opinions about video games, but Maddy Myers' recent piece for Paste about the state of the metroidvania had me repeatedly exclaiming "yes, exactly this!" multiple times while reading it. Myers (an undisputed Metroid aficionado) lays out the reasons why so many so-called metroidvania games fall short of the titles that originally inspired the hideously titled sub-genre. Real quick note here, but I'm in the camp that thinks this genre should drop the "vania" addendum, as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was really just a Metroid-like that did some interesting, original things with the formula. OK, but still, there are game like Shadow Complex that rekindled interest in Metroid-like game design, yet miss the core of what made Metroid play the way that it does.

Myers argues this point as well as the way Metroid itself draws inspiration from the Alien films to frame its environments and protagonist in an extremely powerful way. In contrast, Shadow Complex feels positively soulless, full of bland characters, bland levels, bland weapons, and a bland plot. All that's left is the basic mechanical device of an open ended map that requires specific abilities be gained before passing through certain doorways to new areas. And that's a great game design framework to emulate, but it's not enough on its own. Everyone likes to taut Metroid's atmosphere as a defining feature, but for some reason atmosphere (a combination of many factors including character design, animation, difficulty, level design, music, sound, and more) isn't seen as a necessary component of a metroidvania. And that's a shame, because it seems like the knowledge of what made Metroid special is actually being deteriorated by modern metroidvanias. Still waiting for a proper Metroid Prime 2: EchoesVania over here.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

About Face: The Fall (Mac) Review

The term “interface” says a lot about how humans view computers. Meaning literally “an exchange between faces,” the concept of interfacing anthropomorphizes computers so that one-on-one interactions with humans feel more natural. But interfacing isn’t just people talking to machines, computers also interface with other computers without the need for voice recognition or stupid biological organisms getting in the way. Yet this cold digital data exchange is still defined as interfacing, despite the fact that the only reason a computer would need a face would be to make humans feel more comfortable around them.

In The Fall, developer Over The Moon’s debut game, you play as an operating system and spend most of your time speaking with other AIs. You have a name (A.R.I.D.), a set of prime directives, and because you’re installed in a combat-ready spacesuit, you have a body, or at least the shell of one. The game begins with you crash-landing on some middle-of-nowhere planet; the impact knocks your pilot (the human inside your spacesuit) unconscious. From there, it’s your duty to ensure the safety of your pilot above all else, and you’ll need to bend the rules of your and other AI’s programming to do so.

Other than A.R.I.D., the other major character in The Fall is an unnamed mainframe AI that oversees the abandoned robot factory where you’ll spend most of your playthrough. The mainframe AI might be “in control” of the facility, but it’s still subservient to its human-instituted directives, even in the absence of actual humans. AIs in The Fall use their humanoid voices to speak to one another, and the mainframe AI seems particularly conflicted about how it’s supposed to behave around another robot like A.R.I.D.. When answering your questions, it will begin its reply with a standard answering machine message, “Oops, I’m sorry, the option you selected is not…,” but will cut itself off halfway through to speak in a casual, organic voice, often dismissing the canned response as some kind of involuntary reflex. The mainframe AI claims to have developed its skills through extensive time with humans, gradually naturalizing its speech patterns to sound more familiar to them. At some point in your interface with the mainframe AI, a TV monitor turns on, displaying a glitchy logo. “That’s my face,” it tells you.

In a certain sense, most video games are experiences where players attempt to outwit machines; the game console is a mechanical puzzle box with video display and handheld controller interfaces. The Fall turns that concept inward by having you roleplay as an OS and subverting your own character’s programming to progress through adventure game puzzles. It’s like lifehacking, but you’re a robot, so you’re actually just hacking –intrafacing, if you will. From the menu screen, you can see that A.R.I.D. has many abilities that have been locked away from automated switch-on, except in emergency circumstances. If the human pilot was conscious, they could turn on the cloaking device at will, but the OS can’t activate abilities on its own, which I assume is to prevent a Matrix-like robot takeover. So in one of the game’s early puzzles where you have to sneak past a sentry gun, you have to do something that’s the exact opposite of what you’d want to do in most games: attempt to kill yourself. Since this is part of a puzzle solution, I don’t want to give away exactly how it’s done, but the result is that you take enough damage that A.R.I.D.’s programming registers the situation as one that threatens the pilot’s life and allows for self-activation of the cloaking device. This action sets the precedent for the rest of the game, which finds you sort of cheating your way through a series of testing scenarios on your way to figuring out what’s going on in the facility and considering the nature of AI.

Everything about the way the AIs communicate with one another in The Fall is designed with a human intermediary in mind, and nowhere is this more apparent than A.R.I.D.’s humanoid frame and movements. Using a keyboard and mouse, it can sometimes be a bit cumbersome to control A.R.I.D., especially when the game requires you to click the mouse, hold the shift key, and navigate a menu with directional buttons simultaneously. While it’s not the most intuitive control scheme, I found the awkwardness strangely appropriate considering A.R.I.D. is built to support a human pilot, not necessarily to run the show on its own at all times. Occasional firefights are slow and clunky, and the way A.R.I.D. searches around with the suit’s arms outstretched holding a pistol-mounted flashlight, has the stiffness and firmness of grip of a child riding a bicycle for the first time without training wheels. Players themselves are the closest thing to an in-game human consciousness, but through the controls, participation is kept at a certain distance, which oddly makes the AIs seem more sentient.

Granted, a spacesuit walking around with an unconscious person banging around inside is a somewhat disturbing premise, but the comatose pilot is also the instigator for A.R.I.D.’s own agency. In the absence of human consciousness, the AIs carry out humans’ final wishes, but like a bunch of relatives clamoring for a share of inheritance, the self-conflicting will leaves room for interpretation. Another AI at the abandoned facility, known as The Caretaker, labels A.R.I.D. “faulty” for breaking one of its prime directives, even to enforce another. The Caretaker would like to “depurpose” A.R.I.D., an AI colloquialism that means “kill.” The only way out of the situation is to convince The Caretaker of your just intentions, proving your self-worth as you navigate between two conflicting social realities: the human-coded AI hierarchy and the understanding that A.R.I.D.’s programming is itself faulty when humans are removed from the equation. Only fractured interfaces remain.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Blips: Television X

Source: Revisiting the gxTV, a “television for gamers” from 1997
Author: Dan Solberg
Site: Kill Screen

One aspect of video games that often gets overlooked is the TV. We tend to focus mostly on what happens on a screen and occasionally delve into the physical act of interaction on the part of the player, but almost always ignore the device that houses the screen, the object we perform in front of. To some extent, this is because TVs are seen, more or less, as constants. It's assumed you have a TV if you're playing video games because you can't play them without one. But different TVs provide different play experiences, both on a technical level and an intertextual interpretive level.

My most intense, most free time spent with video games was playing them on a gxTV in my bedroom during middle school and high school. The gxTV was billed as a "TV for video games," which meant that it provided a particularly appealing platform for games (especially in the audio department), but also that it was not meant to be the primary family television. Thus, the gxTV was mine and mine alone. It was in my room and it's unique style and functions made it non-interchangeable with other TVs in the house. Other TVs are just plain boring, even moreso with modern TVs that seek to hide that the device is anything but a magic floating rectangle.

It was with this nostalgia and profound appreciation for what the gxTV was and is that I wrote the above-linked article, detailing what made it special to me and in the industry. Also, I wanted to share some more pictures of the gxTV that didn't make it into the article because my mom was kind enough to take them for me, and I think they're pretty great. See below:

Monday, July 14, 2014

Blips: Crowdplayed Out?

Source: Was Twitch Plays Pokémon an anomaly or the way of the future?
Author: Dan Solberg
Site: Kill Screen

My apologies for the extended absence on this blog, but moving halfway across the country will shift your priorities around for a while. But now things are near back in order and actually looking quite promising. With any luck I'll have some exciting announcements forthcoming on Low Cutoff in the near future. Until then, let's get to the blips.

Gonna lead this off with a story of mine that was published on Kill Screen during my hiatus. It's about Twitch Plays Pokemon and the phenomenon of crowdplay. I'm not convinced that crowdplay is the way forward, but I do think it could be a way forward for thinking about play structures on a larger, sociological scale. Many of the tools being put in place to make crowdplay development tools more accessible feel aimed at recapturing TPP's energy, but I'm sure there will be folks who get their hands on those tools and use them to totally subvert that system in interesting ways. Thanks again to the people at Overwolf for contributing to my piece.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Blips: Intercapital Dilemma

Source: Big E versus Little e
Author: Josh Ling
Site: Medium

In December I wrote up a list of horrible video game buzzwords and "eSports" was included, in part because of its try-hard intercaps. That said, any hate I had was mostly due to the term, not necessarily what it stands for. Still, I found it pretty interesting to read this article by Josh Ling wherein he researches the etymology of "eSports" and why it's written so many different ways. The principal contenders are "eSports" and "esports," but there are plenty of others involving hyphens and spaces and creative capitalization. Thinking about "esports" as on a similar terminological path as "email," made me a lot more comfortable just ditching all of the caps for just simply "esports." I mean, Ling's Wikipedia link writes it that way, so it must be correct, right?

Actually, it's not a right or wrong issue, but, as Ling explains, a signifier of how long a game or organization has been in the electronic sports scene. Older groups tend to go with "eSports" while newer ones choose "esports," which falls in line once again with the "email" timeline. It's clear that branding has a lot to do with which designation is chosen as it's an instance where a decision has to be made for the sake of messaging consistency. Ling wrote his article after the company he works for made the choice too. I think this is part of what makes some outsiders reluctant to get in on esports though; the perception being that esports is about people trying to make money while a bunch of players fight for attention on their platforms. I'm not all the way on the cynical bandwagon, but I can't fault people for thinking that and seeing "eSports" as a callous cash-in. However, at the same time as the term's evolution to drop the intercaps, esports has outgrown those initial fly-by-night operations to become something much more established. I don't know, I'm still looking at this from the outside, but for what it's worth, that's the view from here.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Blips: Girly Games

Source: Girly video games: rewriting a history of pink
Author: Leigh Alexander
Site: The Guardian

Back when the NES was a current-gen console, my whole family shared it, though my older brother and I played it way more then anyone else. We had dozens of games, including two "girly games" that were supposed to be mainly for my little sister to play (she was pretty little at the time too). However, I still think my brother and I spent more time playing Barbie and The Little Mermaid than she ever did, even though she felt particularly betrayed when we eventually traded them in at Funcoland for newer titles. The Little Mermaid is a solid sidescrolling action game, and Barbie is a super weird, surprisingly tricky action-adventure title, and had I not had a sister, I doubt I'd have ever played them. That'd be kind of shame, seeing as "girl's games" are routinely dismissed as trite, poorly made, and unworthy of serious consideration. Yet ironically, Barbie and The Little Mermaid are actually pretty interesting.

In 2012, Rachel Simone Weil founded the Femicom Museum, an archive of games containing feminine design elements. Some of this archive was shown in a recent exhibition at The Visual Arts Center in Austin, Texas, where Weil constructed a kids bedroom TV setup as an image of an imaginary past, serving as a shrine to girl games and pop culture of the 90s. In a recent profile in The Guardian covering the show, Weil states that "works by or for women are so often deemed marginal or embarrassing or inadequate or inappropriate, and therefore omitted from history. And then decades later, we're wondering, ‘Where were the female writers, politicians, artists? Where were the girly games?" Weil's exhibition and the Femicom Museum come out of a desire to preserve a facet of gaming history that, even in the 90s, wasn't really given the time of day in the Western press or larger cultural recognition of the medium. Girly games are still around to some degree, and they have a genealogy. It's great that Weil is intent on providing resources for better understanding that lineage.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Blips: Energy Hogs

Source: Video Game Consoles Cost Americans $400 Million per Year — When We Aren’t Even Using Them
Author: Mandi Woodruff
Site: Yahoo Tech

At first, I wasn't surprised when I read the above statistics about the PS4 and Xbox One's gluttonous power consumption, but the more I thought about it, I wonder how they can get away with being so against the grain of the energy efficiency movement. As Mandi Woodruff notes in her report, the power usage during gaming sessions is to be expected, and runs on par with a PC, but it's the standby mode and energy drain during non-intensive tasks that's a bit bewildering. The PS4 uses 45 times the electricity of an AppleTV to run Netflix and similar video streaming apps. If console makers really want to push for their machines to be "always-on" and multi-purpose, they should really figure out ways to allow them to run at appropriately proportional power levels. Until then, all we can do is as Woodruff suggests: change your system settings to make the machine turn off when not in use and switch to a dedicated streaming box like Roku or AppleTV for simple video watching. Sheesh, even the PS2 used to have a full-stop power switch on its back. Whatever happened to those?