Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Top 100ish albums

Look, I'm not gonna pull that "Oh I've been neglecting the blog woe is me" nonsense. I get paid to write at other places, so the blog's obviously not gonna be a priority. But. I am going to try to link to more of those things.

Here, have my "People's List" for Pitchfork's Best Albums of 1996-2011. I got to 71 as of this writing!

Monday, March 12, 2012

My GDC in short, part 1

A few thoughts on the GDC sessions I attended....

Knowing the Past: Game Education Needs Game History

Three academics who'd taught intro courses on game history described what methods had worked, and what methods hadn't, for teaching game history. Which made the title something of a disappointing bait-and-switch. Not that I'm opposed to the idea, but the discussion of the need was more interesting to me. It was also somewhat limited, in that none of the teachers had gone beyond Intro-level courses on the subject. That said, it was still pretty fascinating to see evidence of the things that did work, or not, in teaching potentially interested students, and the presenters were consistently intelligent and occasionally entertaining.

Game Educators Rant!  

I was slightly disappointed with these rants, in large part because I'm somewhat outside the target audience. I'm academically sympathetic (aca-curious?), probably far more than the average GDC attendee, so I'm somewhat familiar with many of the ideas. Ian Bogost's rant was either aimed too far or too close to home for me to really engage with. On the other hand, one about the tyranny of pixelated platformers as innovation was pitch-perfect, and I really needed to hear another, going up against games as spectacle in the face of climate change.

The Gamification of Death: How the Hardest Game Design Challenge Ever Demonstrates the Limits of Gaming

I'd heard good things about the presenter, Margaret Robertson, and when Sid Meier's presentation was too full, I headed to this one. She did not disappoint, explaining with good humor and intelligence all the different ways that she tried, and failed, to create a game based on the tragic death of a missing person. Something stopped me from really feeling totally engaged, though, possibly that I missed the first 15 minutes, or possibly that her conclusions led to far more questions than the bulk of the presentation.

Civilization V: Gods & Kings preview

A twitter follower/PR person sent me an email inviting me to this, at a hotel across from the convention center. I went, met some PR people, then got a demo of the new features from the lead producer and designer on the game, followed by a 10-minute interview with the designer. I've talked some shit about preview culture in my day, but as a Civilization fan more than a reporter (though I took notes in case someone wanted a preview) it was actually pretty fun - and I'm looking forward to the expansion, as it may fix many of my issues with the original. Fingers crossed.

The Emotional Puppeteer: Uncovering the Musical Strings that Tie Our Hearts to Games 

A presentation by one of Bungie's composers and a user researcher/musician who worked with him to try to decipher exactly what kinds of feelings people had when they heard various forms of music. Apparently male choruses make everyone think "ancient" which makes sense. But it went a little deeper than that. By trying out different combinations of music and videos, they could instigate different reactions in their subjects. I think what I enjoyed the most was that there was no final lesson to be learned -- it was more "hey, this is cool!" And it really was cool, especially seeing what combinations of songs and videos created completely different reactions than the pieces did individually.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Is Mass Effect's Setting An All-Time Great?

Mass Effect's greatest strength is its setting. It presents a universe of staggering diversity and complexity. It is well-populated, presenting your Commander Shepard with a wide range of different situations to respond to and to shape your character, which is integral to Mass Effect's character development and entire narrative system. But that's not the only way that the Mass Effect universe makes the game better. It also connects Mass Effect by connecting it to many of the great science fiction universes in the history of the genre, and it does so by moving outside the normal SF setting used by video games.

Most science fiction games use this as a premise: humanity is starting to explore beyond their normal boundaries. They come across something alien, totally unexpected, frightening, and most of all, dangerous. For example, Gears Of War does not take place on Earth specifically, but it is humanity's push towards the frontiers of their domain that leads to the disaster of Emergence Day. In Halo, initial exploration into space becomes an all-out war with the Covenant followed quickly by the Flood. Or, in the Half-Life series, experiments in dimensional travel lead to war with an alien invasion force.

These can all be summarized as "First contact goes horribly wrong" in one sense, but in another, it's even simpler: most science fiction video games take their cues from the Alien film series. In the first Alien, the main character, Ripley, is the member of an exploratory spaceship which uncovers an alien killing machine, forcing her to survive by her wits and whatever is available. The discovery of horrifying, murderous alien life is a staple of games, from Doom to Half-Life to Dead Space

In the sequel, Aliens, Ripley returns to the planet which housed the aliens, with a squad of elite soldiers. For all their bravado, the squad is quickly decimated, forcing the smaller and smaller number of survivors into increasingly desperate measures, ending with Ripley confronting the alien queen by herself. The initially militaristic opening with an increasing focus on individual heroics against an implacable, dominant alien force brings to mind the original Halo and Gears Of War. There are no negotiations, no conversations. The world is filled with violence and desperate attempts to survive.

Mass Effect's universe, on the other hand, is filled with a range of aliens willing to negotiate, converse, and perhaps fight as a last resort. The big enemies of the game, the Reapers, are totally alien in this world, as they exist only to destroy. Commander Shepard great political struggle over the course of two games is convincing the political leaders of the galaxy that these enemies - evil incarnate - actually exist. Everyone else is used to problems with political solutions.

This is what separates Mass Effect from the vast majority of science fiction games, and makes it comparable to some of the best science fiction settings of all time The vibrant universe of Mass Effect may seem initially comparable to the two great science fiction properties, Star Wars and Star Trek. But Mass Effect's setting is different from those two. Most Star Trek stories are built around exploration, with space as "the final frontier". Meanwhile, Star Wars presents a universe that has always been, with humans as the dominant species of the galaxy. Mass Effect portrays humans as late arrivals to the galactic scene - but arrivals which threaten a precarious balance of power.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, a newer style of science fiction epic became commonplace in literature. In David Brin's 1983 novel Startide Rising, humans are a "wolfling" race, which developed intelligence and interstellar travel on its own, causing them to be frowned upon by a conservative galactic order. When a human ship discovers a ancient artifact believed to be related to the "Forerunners", perhaps the original spacefaring race in the galaxy, it triggers a massive galactic conflict, as the humans try desperately to survive, build alliances, and discover what the hell the artifact means. Sound familiar?  Startide Rising seems to wield the same crucial influence on Mass Effect that George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice & Fire is to Bioware's Dragon Age.

Startide Rising isn't the only piece of classic science fiction literature to have echoes in Mass Effect. In Sheri S. Tepper's 1989 novel Grass, a huge, living plant-like organism exerts mental control over the world's colonists, much like Mass Effect's Thorian. And the climactic scene where the Reaper Sovereign reveals the AI plans, motivations, and sheer disdain for life is reminiscent of the Technocore from Dan Simmons' classic novel Hyperion. Finally, the scenes on the Citadel that comprise much of the first portion of the game seem much like the most literary of science fiction television shows, Babylon 5, a show whose humans also upset the galactic balance of power, and started working to make it better. In Mass Effect II, the centrality of the Cerberus organization and the game's darker, more conspiratorial tone aligns it with shifts in the science fiction styles of the 1990s, much like the hopefulness of Star Trek: The Next Generation morphed into the grittier Deep Space 9.

Part of what makes all of these stories so successful is that they have a history, a feeling that this is a wider universe. Mass Effect does better than most games at making its setting feel lived-in. The First Contact War between the humans and turians provides some background, but Mass Effect does best when describing the history of the tough, violent krogan peoples. The krogan history - their uplift (a term taken from Startide Rising), their defeat of the rachni, their rapid and dangerous expansion, and their depressing defeat at the hands of a fertility-suppressing bioweapon - provides many of the best moments in both games, most notably the assault on Saren's breeding pens in the first game and Mordin's loyalty quest in Mass Effect II.

But the Mass Effect games' storylines generally don't flow from the dense, varied history of the universe as well as the krogan-based plots do. None of the three major council races, the asari, salarian, or turian races have anywhere near as complex history as the krogan. This is the main thing preventing Mass Effect's universe from having the strength of the classic SF literature stories. Yet Mass Effect is remarkably successful at evoking those stories even if it doesn't quite match them. Its universe is one of the most successful settings in mainstream game history, but still behind the very best of science fiction settings across different mediums.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

My Tentative GDC Schedule

Like Herding LOLcats: Managing the Internet's Most Unruly Gaming Communities [SOGS Business] 03/06/2012 11:15 AM 11:40 AM Room 130, North Hall
Knowing the Past: Game Education Needs Game History 03/06/2012 1:45 PM 2:45 PM Room 2004, West Hall, 2nd Fl
Game Educators Rant! 03/06/2012 3:00 PM 4:00 PM Room 2004, West Hall, 2nd Fl
More Than Fun: Designing Games With Purpose 03/06/2012 4:30 PM 4:55 PM Room 2009, West Hall, 2nd Fl
Interesting Decisions 03/07/2012 11:00 AM 12:00 PM Room 3014, West Hall, 3rd Fl
The Emotional Puppeteer: Uncovering the Musical Strings that Tie Our Hearts to Games 03/07/2012 2:00 PM 3:00 PM Room 3010, West Hall, 3rd Fl
Let the Games Be Games: Aesthetics, Instrumentalization & Game Design 03/07/2012 3:30 PM 4:30 PM Room 134, North Hall
Attention, Not Immersion: Making Your Games Better with Psychology and Playtesting, the Uncharted Way 03/07/2012 5:00 PM 6:10 PM Room 134, North Hall
Classic Game Postmortem: Fallout 03/08/2012 10:00 AM 11:00 AM Room 3014, West Hall, 3rd Fl
Build That Wall: Creating the Audio for Bastion 03/08/2012 11:30 AM 12:30 PM Room 3010, West Hall, 3rd Fl
It's Dangerous to Go Alone! Take this Historical Study with You: In-game Objects in Japanese RPGs, 1988-2010 03/08/2012 1:00 PM 1:25 PM Overlook 2, West Hall, 2nd Fl
It's Dangerous to Go Alone! Take this Historical Study with You: In-game Objects in Japanese RPGs, 1988-2010 03/08/2012 1:35 PM 2:00 PM Overlook 2, West Hall, 2nd Fl
The Art of Diablo 3 03/08/2012 2:30 PM 3:30 PM Room 3014, West Hall, 3rd Fl
Enhancing Games with Clothing and Destruction (Presented by NVIDIA) 03/08/2012 4:00 PM 5:00 PM Room 2011, West Hall, 2nd Fl
Art History for Game Devs: In Praise of Abstraction 03/08/2012 5:30 PM 6:30 PM Room 135, North Hall

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Hire me to do game writing!

Dear video game publications,

I am looking for more consistent, paid game writing. I've been freelancing for the last few years, but am specifically looking for work that I can rely on monetarily. I'm available for freelance work, columns, part-time, or even full-time work.


I've done several reviews in different styles. The A.V. Club's Sawbuck Gamer feature focuses on smaller games with shorter reviews, like this one of Bit.Trip.Flux. I also did medium-length reviews for The A.V Club, including bad games like Pirates of Black Cove, as well as good games like Gray Matter, a review I enjoyed writing due to the interesting confluence of adventure game item manipulation and magic sleight-of-hand. There are also a few reviews at Paste Magazine, including this focus on the mechanics and interface of the Bit.Trip series with their Complete collection.

Detailed focus on mechanics is also the heart of one of my favorite features for Gamasutra, on The Gestalt Effect Of Dragon Quest IX and how its combination of different mechanics and styles makes the game incredibly strong. I've also written about the emotional affect of things that aren't mechanics, such as this piece about weather effects in Skyrim and throughout gaming history. Video game history is a passion of mine, and that can be seen in pieces like my ranking of the 60 Most Influential Games for, or an examination of old Ultima games and their lack of antagonists for The Escapist.

One dream of mine is to do a regular series on the best-loved games throughout game history, a video game equivalent to the A.V. Club's "New Cult Canon" series. I've published two prototype pieces on my blog. First is an overall analysis of Dragon Age Origins and what makes it special, including its fantasy tone and use of party members and their relationships instead of ethics. Second, a more meditative piece on Far Cry 2 and how it is both an anti-war game and a glorification of war.

While most of this is criticism, I'm also trained as a journalist, and have done some investigative or profile pieces. I'm especially proud of my Gamasutra feature interviewing and analyzing the career trajectories of the designers of classic games, like John Romero or Jane Jensen. And, since I am located in the Bay Area, I'd be available for local events, interviews, or conferences like GDC.

Finally, while game writing is the goal I'm focused on, here, I also have a more diverse background and set of interests. I regularly review books and television for The A.V. Club, including books like David Mamet's ridiculous The Secret Knowledge or Mat Johnson's fabulous Pym. Television shows include Terra Nova or Misfits

I hope this gives a good idea of what I'm capable of. If you're interested in talking further about work, leave a comment, talk to me on twitter, or email me with my Twitterhandle/firstlast at gmail. Thanks!