Monday, November 1, 2010

Super Meat Boy: The Novel

Super Meat Boy: The Novel is one of the best books ever written.  In the modern literature industry, where virtually anyone can finish a book, Super Meat Boy: The Novel is a throw back to an earlier, better time.  Super Meat Boy: The Novel is available in only the bound hardcover format, a retro touch that all hardcore literature lovers who grew up reading books printed on the Gutenberg Entertainment System will appreciate.  If you're used to modern books, with their page numbers and other in-book tutorials, or even worse, used to Kindles that perpetually save your progress and allow you to restart wherever you stop (even mid-sentence!), Super Meat Boy: The Novel might not be for you.  But if you're a hardcore reader that misses the simple pleasures of the retro-reading experience--carrying large heavy books, using bookmarks, having bookmarks fall out your book and then needing to re-read several pages of the book until you can remember where you left off--then Super Meat Boy: The Novel will satisfy your hardcore retro reading desires. 
Super Meat Boy: The Novel starts off slow, the first 12 pages or so primarily consist of simple three to five word sentences to familiarize you with the idea that you'll be reading a book, and the types of words that will appear in this book.  This is nothing like an in-book tutorial.  However, mixed in with those sentences are famous lines from other books and stories!  These lines come out of nowhere and have nothing to do with anything but it's really neat to remember one book while you're reading another! You'll have to be a really dedicated hardcore reader to get all the references though.
Once you get past those first few pages the real action starts.  Super Meat Boy: The Novel is hard, so expect to fail often.  None of it feels cheap, though, because the font is so nice, and the words are all there in the book, so when you fail it's just because you didn't try hard enough to figure out that page's trick.  On some pages the words are in a completely random order and you'll be forced to experment until you find just the right order to read them.  One page was written almost entirely in homophones so you had to say it out loud for it to make any sense.  Another page was written in Sumerian!  And I know this is sort of a spoiler, but reading "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore FART thou, Romeo" in Sumerian is hilarious, and really hardcore retro readers will know that this is a sweet meta joke about the localization errors that often plagued Gutenberg Entertainment System releases. 
So the hilarious references to other books continue throughout even the challenging hardcore sections of Super Meat Boy: The Novel, which is good becasue it means that the book never strays from its central theme:  literature was somewhat different and less accessible twenty years ago, and only the truly hardcore and retro can remember that time and appreciate how the inaccessibility made literature more awesome.  This litearture enthusiast and self-proclaimed Gutenberg fanboy gives Super Meat Boy: The Novel a perfect review score of 10.  It's even better than Helen of Troy's tits!
*I actually thought Super Meat Boy was pretty fun, but good lord the reviews were frustrating.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Releasing My Ire

Duke Nukem Forever is "the joke Jay Leno told that made someone under the age of 72 laugh" of video games.  You know, because neither exists.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Part II of This Post Is Available For 400 Microsoft Points

Nothing brings out comment section fallacies like Downloadable Content! Bioware announced this week that there would be Mass Effect 2 DLC available on the game's release day. The content is free if you buy the game new but will cost extra if you buy the game used. And so began the handwringing.

The complaints are always hilarious and generally rely on two strange claims. The first claim is that the standard video game price points are magical and perfectly capture the costs of making a video game. Then there's the claim that content producers have no right to dictate the shape of their content. From these claims spring theories ranging from "consumers are so powerful that they will inevitably smite publishers employing odiuos DLC practices by never ever buying any of their products ever again," to "consumers are so subjugated that they have no choice but to submit those same publishers' offers of bonus content and $1,000,000 horse armor with open wallets."

The first claim is the silliest. The standard, American, current generation (including PC), $50-$60 price point is based on nothing more than the inertia of a 20-year-old idea that video games should cost about $50. If you are going to argue that the Xbox/PS3 $60.00 price point has any more than the most tenuous connection to publisher or developer costs (i.e. something stronger than "publishers don't charge $1 because they would definitely lose money") then you have a lot of things to explain. For example, why are the Xbox and PC versions of Mass Effect 2 different prices? Why will their respective console versions of Final Fantasy XIII and MLB 2k10 all cost $60 when they're released this March despite the two games' drastically different budgets and development costs? Gaming price points have almost nothing to do with costs. Sixty dollars is just a price that game publishers are comfortable will bring them sufficient revenue, and consumers are comfortable represents a reasonable price for "a video game." Unless it's on PC, then it's $50.

The idea that $60 can or even should accurately capture and reflect input costs (even including things like theoretical resale value? Really?), is bizarre. The only way the Magic Price Point makes any sense at all is if you assume that every video game publisher/developer can predict exactly how much time and effort they should expend on a game in order to make it "worth" $60/copy to them. This, I think, is closer to the truth. Compaines don't always get the calculus right, of course, but it's pretty much the idea behind budgeting. But that undermines claim number two.

Content producers get to decide what content they produce. The counterarguments are all facially absurd, but they persist nonetheless. A common complaint about Mass Effect 2's day-one DLC is "it should just be part of the game if it already exists." First, in this case at least, it is part of the game. Every copy of Mass Effect 2 includes a copy of the dreaded, already extant DLC in the game's standard $60 purchase price. But, even if that were not the case, several problems surface. Is timing really that important? All three Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies were filmed simultaneously. Were New Line Cinema just being dicks when they released them seperately? Why or why not? Does this complaint only apply on the release date? Mass Effect released two DLC packages subsequent to it's 2007 release. Must every new copy of Mass Effect sold now include those two DLC packages for free? If not, how is that any different than releasing a game and a DLC package simultaneously? If so, must every copy of Mass Effect 2 also include a free copy of Mass Effect? How is that different? Bioware and EA produced something that they called "Mass Effect 2". They are charging $60 for it. They also produced other stuff related to Mass Effect, like novels, comic books, and downloadable content for Mass Effect 2. They are charging various prices for these things. You can buy these things if you want to, or you can leave them on their shelves.

Underlying all these claims is a weird theory of supply and demand. The analysis takes as a given that the consumer will purchase a product, but seeks to extract concessions from the producer anyway, either as a reward for the consumer's purchase or to make it "fair." I guess a reasonable transaction plays out like this:

Consumer: Hello developer. I am definitely going to buy one of your games when it becomes available. I am so exicted that nothing will stop me from buying it.

Producer: Great! You're going to love this game. You may want to buy some of the other products we're releasing along with the main game. We think they'll be great for people who want to expeirence more of the game's world!

Consumer: Sorry, I need all of your associated products for free. Otherwise, I will perceive this purchase as a karmic injustice. And I'm definitely going to make this purchase no matter what you do, so you have a large incentive to comply with my demands.

Producer: You're right.

There's a really simple remedy available to you, the consumer, if you feel a product is unfairly priced: don't buy it. But it's up to you to determine whether something is fairly priced. And you can't buy things that don't exist. Again, Bioware has put out a "Mass Effect 2" that they think is reasonably valued at $60. If you agree, you can give Bioware $60 and they will give you one Mass Effect 2. If you buy it used instead of new, the value exchange is a little different. If you buy a used copy for $50, Bioware receives nothing, your used game dealer receives approximately $30-35 ($50 minus whatever it bought the used copy for) and you receive $10 in savings. That's great. Now Bioware charges you $10 for something that is included in new copies of the game. If you buy the content, you're back where you started, paying $60 for game plus extra content. The other parties shares will be different but that's not your problem. You get something else by waiting though. What if you hate the game? Then you come out ahead. Instead of paying $60 for a game you don't like and extra content you won't use, you've paid $50 for a game you don't want and kept $10 for yourself.
You've essentially bought insurance. If the DLC ends up costing more than the savings, and you want the DLC, you've over insured.  Sorry, welcome to life.

The same calculation applies to preorder bonuses. If you are 100% positive you are going to buy a game, there is no downside to preordering it the month before and getting an extra gun. If you unsure whether you want a game, you can wait until reviews come out, or rent it first. You won't get the extra gun, but you are hedging against the chance of wasting $60. I can't imagine there are many people who are sure they want Mass Effect 2's Terminus armor, but unsure whether they'll like the actual game.

I just don't get the consternation.  Can someone explain it to me?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

An Ode To The Reset Button

I remember the exact moment I realized that the things I did "counted."  It was the spring of 1996 and I was sitting in my 8th grade French class.  My teacher was describing my upcoming French final and reminded the class that, due to the peculiarities of New York State's education system, this was a High School Test and my grade would appear on my High School Transcript.  "Shit!" I thought, "If I fuck this up I won't get into college!"  I don't know why it hit me so hard.   For one thing, due to other New York peculiarities, the Math final I had taken the previous year had also been a High School Test and that grade already appeared on my High School Transcript.  That French test seemed important, though (I got a 98, by the way, sufficiently un-fucked up to permit my admission to a State University).  If my life ever became interesting enough to warrant a biography, the above would be a good opening scene.*  It also helps to explain my love of video games and why I hate competitive multiplayer.

My life exists within a cruel, indelible world; when I do something, it's done.  Same for you, of course.  I've enjoyed most of my choices so far.  I love my wife, I like being a lawyer, I've mostly enjoyed the places I've lived. But on my shoulder, someone is whispering "yes, but..."   Do I like my life?   Yes, but what if I was a writer, or a sociology professor?  What if I had gone to a different law school in a new, unfamiliar city?  What if I had tried out for football in 9th grade instead of doing cross county?  I probably would have become a famous Quarterback!  I'm not looking back with regret, but with curiosity.  My primary opportunity cost is lost information.  What could have happened?  That may not sound like a big deal, but I value information very highly.  I regularly go to wikipedia to figure out which year a particular song or movie came out, and then suddenly realize that two hours have passed and I'm looking at the entry for Macho Man Randy Savage.

Video games are great for someone like me.  The "yes, but" opportunities in newer, spawling, "choice-y" games like Fallout 3** or Mass Effect, or games with class or faction choice like Diablo II or Starcraft are pretty clear.  But I was getting the same thrills back when I was nine and playing Final Fantasy first with a balanced party, but then with all Fighters and then with all Mages or playing through Mega Man 2 using only the regular arm cannon. The benefit I got from all that was the opportunity to undo a choice. I get to do the same thing over again with different parameters and see what the new consequences are.  I don't need to play every game twice, but when I do play that second time, I want to be able to compare it to the first.  Repeating events without being able to change them, or being forced to deal with consequences of the actions I took in my last game when I play my next game is too close to real life to enjoy.  That's what prevents me from enjoying competitive multiplayer games.

I'll admit that any true and honest accounting of my disdain for competitive multiplayer would encompass more than just that, though.  First, X-Box Live is a cesspool.  I think the conditions there get slightly exagerated sometimes, but while I didn't hear someone (myself included) get called a black homosexual (I'm paraphrasing) every time I played Gears of War 2, it probably happened most times.  Beyond that, I'm simply not an elite player. I'll occasionally rack up a huge kill count, or something, but I'm never going to be among the best, and I'm often going to get matched with some man or woman I have no hope of competing with unless I practiced and got much better.

Here's the problem: I don't want to get better.  That's not because I don't like the games; I keep playing First Person Shooters and I generally enjoy them.  It's also not because I don't like competition or getting the better of someone; I am a lawyer, remember. No, it's because when I play multiplayer, everything I do counts.  I have a spot on a ladder, or a ranking, or a win-loss record.  To get "good" I'd have to play dozens or hundreds of rounds.  But every death-match, every captured flag, is a playthrough I'll never be able to duplicate and never be able to tinker with. They're coded messages that disappear before I can decipher them.  And I'm stuck the results, and my associated rank, when I load up the next match.  Becoming a headshot master who pwns noobs isn't a big enough reward to overcome all that. I'd still ask myself "what would have happened if only I had picked up the AK instead if the sniper rifle?" I'd never know, but my guess is that I probably would have become a famous Quarterback. 

*The title would be John Fanshawe: A Profile of Risk Aversion.

**Incidentally, what I liked best about the moral choice system in Fallout was how few differences there were between my Asshole and Awesome Guy playthroughs. I hope this subtle Machiavellian ethos was intentional, but, unfortunately, I kind of doubt it was.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


OMG!  Look there's some hot girl who plays video games!  And, like, you can see her boobs on the Internet!  But she's talking about LAN parties!  This is completely contrary to my expectations!  Plus, I love boobs!

I assume that was the reaction Kotaku was going for.  There certainly aren't any new ideas in the article, or even mention of any games released within the last five years.  I don't think "hey, try talking to people," is groundbreaking dating advice, and consider me unimpressed by the timely, salient, in-no-way-awkward Charles Kettering reference.  Maybe I'm a tough audience.

Kotaku is easy to pick on sometimes, but they produce some good stuff.  Totillo is great.  Leigh Alexander is great.  Crecente himself is usually really good.  Tim Rogers rubs some people the wrong way, but at the very least he's a unique voice.  The other writers there put out interesting things too, like the recent article about the obsessive achievement hunter.  Hell, even this celebrity thing they're doing isn't necessarily a terrible idea.  I thought the Chunk one was pretty funny.

That's why shit like Raven Alexis's Guide to Cliched Understanding Of Women and Gamers is so frustrating.  Kotaku gets so many page-views that the editors there have an opportunity to really change the discussion about video games.  A discussion, by the way, that has degraded to the degree that the first hit on a Google image search for "boobs" links you to (seriously, try it).  Kotaku seizes that opportunity sometimes, but then those articles get lost in a sea of rehashed press releases "improved" by the addition of pirate/boob/LOL-of-the-moment jokes, exhaustive outlines each and every instance of cleavage at each and every vaguely game related conference, and OMG LOOK BIKINI COSPLAY!!! 

I have nothing against boobs.  In fact, I think they're great.  But if games are really important, if they really are worth spending time thinking about, and if they're worth talking about, then they're worth talking about seriously.  "Comparing The Boobs and Butts of Bayonetta" is not serious talk.  It's weird and misogynous and ensures that video games will forever be considered the playthings of children.

There are plenty of women who write about video games, just look for them.  Reading Alex Raymond, led me happily to The Border HouseLeigh Alexander writes well about video games for more websites and publications than I can count.  Play Like A Girl is a great blog, and there are many others.  There are new voices straining to be heard everyday.  Most of them will say things that are far more interesting than "people at LAN parties often eat pizza and drink red bull."

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Game Law

Lawyers and judges must rely on precedent when making legal arguments and rendering legal decisions.  Once courts decide a law has a certain meaning, that law will always have the same meaning.  Courts may refine things around the edges as they go along, but there's a core idea that doesn't change.  This, I think, would be welcome news to Michael Abbott.

A while back, Mr. Abbott questioned whether critics pay too little attention to what he called "refined games."  Mr. Abbott suggests that examining a fully realized and refined vision can reveal insights about games and game-making that examining a less perfect game cannot, even if the less perfect game is more innovative or interesting.  This is intuitive and works with many other artistic media.  Hamlet's plot isn't particularly bold or innovative, but Shakespeare's execution is masterful.  Bach's chorales can be beautiful even though they are beholden to a very rigid framework.  Trying to analyze refined video games can be frustrating, though.

Think about Zelda games.  These seem like the kind of refined games that Mr. Abbott would love, and in fact, he has said as much.  Twilight Princess in particular seems like an Abbott special.  It is a triumph of iteration and refinement sports a metacritic score roughly equal to a healthy human's body temperature.  This sounds like a great game to learn lessons from.  But what can I say about it?  That is, what can I say about it that I couldn't have said about all or most other Zelda games?  The series may have added a hook shot, bottles, a horse, and z-targeting, but I still hacked up the same moblins and hunted the same triforce and defeated the same Gannon in Twilight Princess that I did in The Legend of Zelda.  (See also, Final Fantasy, Cid, Chocobo, airship, summons, etc.).  What new insight does the refinement offer us?

Mr. Abbott later talked about iteration.  He related iterartion to rehearsal noting that, "[r]ehearsal is a discovery process wherein doing something again reveals new ideas or information that can be useful in the creation of something we collaboratively build."  This is a very important insight.  It forces us to comprehend each sequel to a game as a draft.  In the first draft, Link has a flute.  Later on, someone realizes that it would be much better if Link could actually play the flute, so that gets added to the 5th draft.  Someone else realizes that while one hook shot is great, two hook shots would be even better, so that gets added to the 8th draft.  Now the similarity between Zeldas makes sense.  They're similar because they're reworkings of the same script.  But the rehearsal analogy does more than that.  It suggests that one way to find the meaning in games is to look at what game-makers are rehearsing.  That, in turn, suggests that video games are not artistically driven.

Saying that video games are not artistically driven is different from saying that they are not art (a strange semantic discussion that I have no desire to enter), or that they do not exhibit artistry.  But the best games do not draw their value from aesthetics.  The best games give you new and better things to do and new and better ways to do them.  That's what game designers are rehearsing and perfecting.  Video games are not created as art, they are created as pragmatism. 

Video games are collections of rules.  This, to finally explain my opening sentence, is exactly what written court opinions are.  No one would argue that court opinions are driven by artistry.  This is true even though some opinions contain excellent writing, and would be true even if each opinion were beautifully illustrated.  But a court opinion's meaning can still extend beyond the interpreted statute.  Court opinions can be political touchstones and can reflect beautiful or terrible things about society.  They do this simply by manipulating rules--by telling people what they can and cannot do.  And jurisprudence evolves in the same way games do.

Consider the right to counsel, everyone who's seen Law and Order even once knows about that right.  And, good news, we get explicit wording right in the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence."  First draft.  But in 1942, the Supreme Court decided that that only applied in Federal Courts.  If you're getting tried in a State Court, maybe you get counsel, maybe you don't.  Second draft.  In 1963 the Supreme Court changed it's mind: counsel must be provided in state court after all.  Third draft.  Oh, and once you get lawyer you always have the right to her presence, even in things like informal police questioning.  Fourth draft.  And we have to tell you about your rights to counsel.  Fifth draft.  That's a simplified history, of course, but it tracks the development of a series like Zelda pretty well, right down to a sequel no one really wants to talk about. 

The only prerequisite to this process is a good idea.  More specifically, it starts with an idea about actions people can undertake: explore an open world and smack monsters/defend themselves from accusations of the state.  The rehearsals refine the ways in which actors can accomplish those actions as old mechanisms get tested and replaced by new and better ones.  The goals do not change, I want to kill Gannon and get the Triforce; I want to stay out of jail.  But the tools I have at my disposal, and my access to those tools, changes dramatically.  Considering what I can do makes me compare what I should do to what I actually do.

Games can create meaning.  But they should do so by manipulating agency, not by clinging to narrative conventions of other media.  In a future installment, I'll talk about the lessons video games can take from the law on leveraging authority to create meaning.

* For all you law nerds out there:  Yes, I know that Miranda actually deals with the 5th amendment right to counsel and not the 6th amendment right to counsel considered in Gideon. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Are You Not Entertained?

I know I'm weeks late to the No Russian party. But there's a good reason for it, I don't know where I belong.  Am I in the pro- or anti- camp?  I feel like I would be unwelcome in both.

To eliminate myself from the pro-No Russian camp, I just dont' think the scene was all that effective at accomplishing its overt goals.  Maybe I'm just a cold unfeeling sociopath, but shooting civilians (or watching them get shot) in the context of a video game is not that big a deal to me.  This, likely, is because I do things like that in video games all the time.  In Fallout 3, I blew up Megaton because I had already pissed off people in the town by breaking into the sherriff's house and stealing stuff from the town doctor.  In Red Alert, I mowed down civilians with Yak fire as part of a mission goal.  In Bioshock, I killed little girls because it made me marginally stronger in the short term.  In various GTA games, I did all manner of terrible things for no reason at all.  Then there's all the brutal genocide and ethnic cleansing from my hours and hours of playing Civilization.  The fidelity of the slaughter in MW2 was higher than in most of those examples, but that wasn't enough for me to feel significantly worse about it. 

I'm treading dangerously close to the "it's just a game" argument, but that's not my point.  It's not that Video Games cannot affect me emotionally because they're video games.  It's just that killing civilians is too close to what I do in every video game (killing stuff) to be titillating of it's own accord in a specific video game.  The No Russian scene was a particularly condensed dosage of amorality, but I felt like I had just read a book that stopped mid-sentence to repeat the word "rape" for 50 pages.  It's weird and unsettling to the extent that I don't like rape or slaughtering innocents and thinking about those things is unpleasant, but it's not affecting in any meaningful way. The problem is that there was little context and little sense of consequence.  No Russian's context is mitigated by both the pre-mission blather explaining it's all for the greater good and by the general weakness of MW2's story.  Narrative consequence is neutered entirely by the immediate death of your character, ensuring that we never see him struggle with or even consider the meaning of his actions.  And, because Russia launches a retaliatory war, which is not only well within the range of expected and just responses to a foreign national turning an airport into Hogan's Alley, but also a somewhat predictable event in a game that's about a war with Russia, the literal, if-A-then-B consequences we see are only the broadest, least nuanced, most boring ones possible.

This sounds a lot like I'm in the anti-No Russian camp.  But I don't think I am.  Saying a scene is ineffective is different that saying it's a bad idea.  I think the scene was a great idea.  The critical community that has sprung up around video games is always on the lookout for new twists on old formulas and games that do or try to do interesting things (I know that's an uncited "some say" type of argument so this would probably be the best place to start your counter argument).  And, wow, Infinity Ward did a risky and new thing here.   Modern Warfare 2 is a super-high exposure game that would have sold millions of copies had they taken no risks at all.  Further, we have a cultural environment that includes people who flipped out about the naked shoulders and implied sex of Mass Effect and municipalities that won't run bus ads for GTA IV.  The risk/reward balance does not favor provocative choices.  Nevertheless, Infinity Ward has the player actively engage in admittedly heinous terrorist actions, without coating him in the Noble Guerrilla trappings of a game like Red Faction.  They did so to establish an interesting scenario: Modern Warfare 2 is a game about a war where the player causes the war.  That's a pretty neat trick, especially for a medium that aspires to create meaning through action.  Every subsequent event is a result, if not always a direct result, of that one No Russian mission the Player did, that one mission that felt kind of dirty and wrong.  The bombed out Totally-Not-T.G.I.Fridays, wasted D.C., and hilarious, non sequitur dead astronaut are all your fault.  That's why the poor use of the scene is so frustrating.

I think that is where the failure ends, though.  So my opinion differs from Anthony Burch in that I think the mission could have been effective exactly as presented if the context around it changed.  Burch argues that the scene failed because it prevented him from shooting Makarov and his buddies, that Infinity Ward forced Burch into their narrative.  I think this is a non-starter, largely for reasons that Anthony himself cites in his piece.  Not every game is a sandbox and, as Burch mentions, Modern Warfare 2 is unabashedly linear.  But nor does every game strive to let players extensively role-define the playable character.  I've never heard anyone say that the time-limits in Super Mario 3, for example, were poor design choices "because my Mario is an explorer."  The playable characters in Modern Warfare are soldiers, actors within a framework where following orders is paramount.  That your specially selected, highly skilled, elite soldier follows his General's orders, even when those orders are unambiguously atrocious, enhances the verisimilitude.  No Russian's orders might make you uncomfortable.  I think they were supposed to.  Burch bemoans the lack of choice, but forcing the player to do something can be just as strong a tool for the interactive storyteller as letting the player do something.  The problem is that Infinity Ward did nothing to leverage their forced action.

With proper context, Infinity Ward could have raised some very interesting questions about rule-following, either in a general Milgrim/Bioshock way, or in a specific War/International Relations way.  What if  instead of shooting the player, Makarov dumps an impostor American body, the discovery of which leads to the same Russian-American war?  The player character, still alive, would be forced to deal with watching this consequence, knowing he helped cause it, hearing what the world was saying about his impostor stand-in, and still needing to work with Makarov and keep his cover.  What if Makarov shoots you, but you survive and end up in an international prison, struggling with whether to betray your mission and your commander, or to risk going down in history as the terrorist who caused World War III?  Maybe that wouldn't be feasible in Modern Warfare's bare-boned storytelling format.  But if that's the case, why did Infinity Ward knowingly include a scene like No Russian, which clearly needs nuanced development to be worth anything?

So, I guess, I come to bury No Russian, not to praise it.  For Infinity Ward was ambitious.  Too ambitious says Fox News, and Fox News is full of honorable men.