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A Response to “Why I Can’t Get Behind ‘Dead Island'”

In case you missed it, an enormous buzz practically set the gaming community on fire recently.  Deep Silver released a trailer for the game Dead Island and gamers across the planet sang praises and wrote about how they couldn’t wait to get their hands on the game.  If you’ve seen this trailer, then you might agree the production value is high and the story engaging.  However National Public Radio contributor Omar Gallaga wrote about his issues with the trailer on CNN.com last week. Gallaga writes, in part: “But, increasingly, I’m getting uncomfortable with how comfortable game developers have become with putting children in peril and, often, allowing them to be gruesomely killed.” I have no problem with that statement. After all we should be uncomfortable when children are killed, even if they are virtual children.  More on that later. Let’s wrap up Gallaga’s line of reasoning first.

He concludes that point when he writes: “I wonder if our tolerance for virtual gore and bloodshed in games has numbed us to the mutilation and torture of children because they’re virtual characters…or, more disturbingly, maybe we’ve become so used to hearing about violence directed at kids that its depiction in video games is just another reflection of our culture.” Here he misses the point.  I believe the premise of this conversation should not be that the game narrative reflects culture.  It doesn’t. Games never have.  The point should be that in order for game content to mirror society then game characters must respond to and be held accountable for their actions.  In our society, there are consequences for abusing and killing children.  If real people killed hundreds of zombie children on this island, you can bet they will not emerged unscathed from the event.  Why is it that we accept that game protagonists have no emotions and can wade through untold numbers of zombies/terrorists/alien bad guys and not feel anything? The only game recent game character I can remember having any recriminations is Alan Wake, and then only briefly.

However the scariest part of the article is not Gallaga’s concerns about children, but rather the comments readers posted about his article.  I read through most of them and the reactions of gamers must also be taken into account because they change the nature of the conversation.  There were numerous deriding his views because Dead Island is “just a game” and that means the virtual characters are not real.  Well of course they are not “real” but our reactions to them are very real.  I like to test the “not real” theory by asking if those same players would enjoy a rape game.  I wonder if they would feel the same way if asked to play a Nazi guard in a concentration camp or perhaps the captain on ship full of slaves crossing the middle passage.  After all, you can’t really rape, burn, or enslave anyone, can you?  It’s just a game so the argument goes.

I suspect most of them would answer that they would never play something so distasteful and offensive.  But they are “just games” right?  If that is the case, then why do we draw a line between is acceptable and what is too much? If these characters are not real then why should we make a distinction between “killing” them and “raping” them? Neither scenario is real.  Yet we do and in doing so find justification for tossing zombie children out a window but not raping young virtual women.  How convenient.

We will have to wait and see what Dead Island has to offer.  It may turn out that Mr. Gallaga’s concerns about children find a larger platform with this release.  I find it more likely that the same attitude we find in the comments will mute the conversation or at least relegate it to “it’s just a game.”  That would be sad, though not unexpected.

Achievements Are Evil! Or At The Very Least They Change How You Game

NFS Most Wanted was my first gamer score victim. 1000 points earned.

It’s hard to remember now, but I believe my very first achievement came in November 2005 while playing Madden 06. Or perhaps it was Need For Speed Most Wanted.  2005 was a long time ago.  I do remember the joy of hearing the pop that meant an increase in gamer score.  Even though I have spent more than five years improving that score, I still get a thrill from hearing that sound.

For those who don’t know, achievements are in-game challenges that can be unlocked by reaching certain milestones. Each one is worth so many points and they are directly tied to your Xbox gamer score. Some of these achievements are quite easy while others require gamers to torture themselves as they tried repeatedly to unlock them.

There was time when I would look for games with easy achievements so that I could get a quick fix. Even now I will work long and hard to earn one just to know that I conquered  a challenge.  However five years of looking at my gamer score have reminded me that games are supposed to be about having fun.  Last night a friend of mine saw my status as playing Mass Effect 1 and asked if I had all the achievements.  (I do.  In fact I have unlocked everything for Mass Effect 1 & 2.) I really didn’t want to take the time to tell him that sometimes I play just for fun.  Yes, I worked for all those points in ME1 and 2, and yes I play NCAA Football 11 every day, but that is because I love those games.

And yet somewhere in the back of my mind, I still want to hear that pop.  So I will try out new modes and play games on the hardest difficulty settings to just increase my score.  I will spend weeks or even months trying to pop every achievement on the list.  I will even go so far as to help others unlock them, even if it means spending all night in a game session.

Something is wrong with me.

There was a time when playing a game meant satisfying that need to have fun.  “Fun” could be beating the game or besting another player online. However when Microsoft (and later Sony) added achievements (trophies) to the game space something changed: the objectives.  No longer did I set the difficulty based on how challenging I wanted the game to be.  Now I had to make sure playing on normal or hard or insane or legendary unlocked “chievos” or it was all for nothing. There was now a reason to explore nooks and crannies during single player games because finding all or even half the collectables would bring achievement glory. So I would scour each level to increase my gamer score by ten or fifteen points.  I would find online guides to help secure every piece of intelligence sitting on table or under a tree in Modern Warfare 2.  And once that achievement popped, I could brag to my friends who didn’t have it that I was a master at exploration.

Blast you, Microsoft!

I’m at the point where I have to look at the achievement list before I start to play a game. Worse, I check it often to make sure I am not missing out on any.  And if I do miss some, I will go back and replay a chapter or even an entire game just to get 50 more points.  I’m not strong enough to ignore achievements.  They call to me from the other side of the television screen.

This announcement turned my gaming world upside down.

In doing this Microsoft and Sony not only fill a need in my gaming soul, but they actually create the need that they now seek to fill. Evil. Pure evil. My gaming habits are now forever and irrevocably altered to play the game as they see fit. For the “honor” of bragging to friends and comparing gamer scores, I have molded my game play to make sure I max all the classes in Bad Company 2 (achievement unlocked!), complete Halo Reach on legendary (achievement unlocked!), and find every single novel page in Alan Wake (2 achievements unlocked!).

Brilliant idea Microsoft. Evil, but brilliant.

Categories: Video Game Industry

When Virtual Wars Become Too Real

Atomic Games' military horror shooter died a quick but painful death.

I’ve been a fan of military shooters for a long time.  It might have something to do with my six years of service in the U.S. Army.  Any decent shooter in that genre will catch my eye.  Ghost Recon, Rainbow Six, Call of Duty, and Battlefield Bad Company quickly come to mind but there are others as well.  There was a time I looked forward to playing Atomic Games’ Six Days in Fallujah. For those who are not familiar with this game, it died soon after reports of its controversial content surfaced on the Web. It seems that a game about the Iraq War was not possible while the war still raged. Outrage against the game quickly muffled all news about the potentially positive aspects of the game and that was that. (I really like the way Daniel Floyd covers this controversy as part of his youtube series on games.)

It seems that games about current wars are a no-no.

A year later I began reading about EA’s revival of its franchise Medal of Honor.  EA put the series on a path to the modern era. They would leave World War II behind and join Call of Duty and Battlefield Bad Company in the modern age.  However Medal of Honor‘s setting is the current US war in Afghanistan.

Here we go again, I thought.

Imagine my surprise when I read nothing about an uproar over EA’s shooter. Spring turned to summer and still nothing.  I thought MoH might actually make it to release with little controversy.  Guess I should have known better.  It seems the controversy is finally here.

However if you study the history of video games, you will see that writers and developers often look to outside media for influence and ideas.  Current events are a rich source of game content.  That’s why there are so many military shooters on the market.  While it is true that the enemies in those games are generic terrorists or dictators in fictional countries, the inspiration is today’s war on terror.  And that is the problem.  While World War II and Vietnam make for great war games, using a current conflict is out-of-bounds.  The pain is too fresh and the scars too raw. In ten years, perhaps, Afghanistan will be fertile ground for gaming, but in 2010 any attempt to use this setting must create controversy.

I believe the root of this issue goes back to what Floyd says in his video: games are judged by the name of the medium. When you say “game” you might as well say “enjoyment” and “fun” too.  To many non-gamers, the very act of picking up a controller means you will be having fun and picking up your virtual rifle and heading off to “Afghanistan” should not be fun.  They might not understand that there are times a gaming session is not all that much fun.  When I play NCAA Football 11 I enjoy it unless I lose by a lot of points.  I might say it was no fun at all. But I still played a game.  Last night while playing Dragon Age Origins I had to decide whether or not I should kill a person (I did finally).  That really wasn’t fun either.  However there are times I have so much fun I can’t help but shout and laugh and proclaim to the world how I am the greatest player who ever lived.

So I have to agree with Floyd when he says that video games, like comic books before them, suffer from the stigma attached to the name.  He reminds us how comics evolved into graphic novels and he muses that games might also find respect with a name change.  I don’t know about that, but what I do know is this: when I game I look for experiences and not just fun. The first time I saw Platoon I left the theater in awe.  What a profound experience.  Would I call it fun? No. If I use those same measurements, the single player campaign of Medal of Honor could very well be about sharing the horror and intensity of simulated combat.  Probably not too much fun.

Playing as the Taliban means killing American soldiers

On the other hand, the multiplayer portion should be fun and that brings us right back to the problem.  If you have played multi-player matches in EA’s Battlefield Bad Company 2 then you know how intense and overwhelming the experience can be.  It is fun?  Sometimes.  Most times it was a challenge and took all my concentration simply to achieve the goals of the match.  I didn’t see the enemies as Russian or American, they were simply targets to remove or merely players on the other side of the Internet to compete against. In that simulated world, thousands of “Americans” died. Where was the outcry?  In Modern Warfare 2 thousands of “US Rangers” fall everyday.  They are just as “real” as the American Tier One soldiers in Medal of Honor. But because the enemy is the Taliban, the game becomes more “real” than those other titles.  Is MoH bad because you can take the role of a real US enemy?  Or is it bad because you can “kill” American soldiers?

This is certainly a topic worth exploring, but in order to have a meaningful dialogue, we have to move past the narrow point-of-view of FOX News and others and investigate the full range of views on this topic.  We must address what it means to explore war this way as opposed to methods other media such as film, television, and books use.  Games bring their own perspective to the experience and that experience should be acknowledged for what it is: a different way to share the human condition.

The Human Condition

I’ve come across a lot of research that states how games must evolve in order to grow into true entertainment media (read: art).  In writing my dissertation, I cam across a series of videos about game design.  This one speaks about storytelling in games. Note: All the videos in this series are informative, funny, and all are right on point with their messages.

I wrote last time that games are on the cusp of becoming art.  And I do realize that “art” is subjective to say the least.  Well in order to be considered art, a game must effectively address the human condition.  We need to care about the characters and what happens to them.  This applies not only the main character, or the person I play in the game, but also to the non-playable characters (NPCs).  A good example of this concept can be found (almost) in Mass Effect 2.

As many gamers know, in ME 2, you can either import your character from ME1 or you can create your own hero. Your character, Commander Shepard, can be male or female.  You can also select one of three back stories for your hero. As you play through the game, you choose if your character will align with paragon (good) or renegade (evil) actions.  There are benefits to leaning one way and not straddling the middle.  I find I have become quite attached to Karen Shepard thanks to multiple trips through the two games.

In addition, in ME2 you have to recruit a team for a suicide mission.  However each person you add to your team has issues and so you soon find that need to criss-cross the galaxy on “loyalty missions” so that each teammate will not be distracted when final mission starts.

These missions reveal a lot about each character, and depending on what choices you make, can also lead to that character’s death at the end of the game.  Of course one of the purposes of these missions is to get you to care about each character. For example, your first officer, Miranda Lawson, must rescue her younger sister from her estranged father’s agents.  During the mission, we learn a lot about Miranda’s motivation for kidnapping/rescuing her sister years ago and the relationship she has with her father.  However a single loyalty mission is not quite enough to make me really care about her death, if that should happen.

Rather what needs to happen, and what developer BioWare is usually good at, it getting different NPCs to interact with each other during the mission.  The world of Mass Effect is so large that players spend a great deal of time moving from place to place, sometimes in combat, sometimes in exploration. For each mission, you take two team mates along for companionship and to aid in combat.  There are brief periods where your team mates will speak on different subjects.  These however are great places to have extended conversations about things both great and small. The problem with this is that with the different combinations of teammates available, hundreds of lines of dialogue would have to be recorded for the multiple pairings if the writers wanted players to get to know these people better.  That is a difficult, though not impossible task.  BioWare has shown it is willing to go to extra lengths to inserts as many lines of dialogue as possible.  Game developers need to realize that it is in those stolen moments that real characterization emerges.  While ME 2 makes a good effort, more is needed.  Unlike movies, where the viewer can experience everything, the branching nature of the role-playing genre means that players will never encounter some places and scenes.  That’s okay.  There has to be enough there so that I feel like I can’t wait to get to the game to see what happens to Karen, Miranda, and the others.  Once developers can combine that human condition with high production, good voice talent, a superb script and memorable game play, then we researchers and critics will be in a better position to say, yes, this game is art.