Completion Log

Feb 11

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood – Completion Log

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood isn’t quite what I’d hoped for, but that seems to be a running theme with this series. It’s hard to say whether or not I would suggest it, because your takeaway is going to depend largely on whether or not you want more of the same. Brotherhood doesn’t stray far from Assassin’s Creed 2, and that’s either a good thing or a bad thing depending on where you’re coming from.

Before I get too deep into my feelings on Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood I want to take a look back at my feelings on the first two games. When I finished Assassin’s Creed 1 I wrote the following at The Gamer’s Quarter:

“It’s not very good, but I’d say it was worth playing… I’m hopeful that the second game can clean up some of the flaws. Part of what I was looking forward to while playing was finally having the present-time main character get access to the abilities he’s learned in the Animus (that’s the thingy that sends him to the past-time world), but this game never did that. I thought for sure that the final sequence would be your character waking up, discovering all of his powers, and then scaling the enormous office building that he’s being experimented in. They did something like this at the end, but it was lame and the majority of your reward comes from checking other people’s e-mails after they leave the room. Oooh boy! Oh well. Since it’s Ubisoft I think I can safely assume that there will be a sequel in early 2009. Here’s hoping it all takes place in the present!”

Scaling the office building never happened in the second Assassin’s Creed either and the game actually had you spend even less time in the present than its predecessor, but it was a much better game. Here’s what I had to say about it:

“It’s an excellent, excellent game, but not perfect. Near the end I started to feel like I was being put through busy work, but 90% of the game was totally engrossing. Polished to an outstanding degree, freeform without sacrificing structure, and a seemingly endless series of unique missions that explore every possible use of a lot of interesting mechanics… I see myself picking up the sequel whenever it comes out. If the leap is as big as the leap between the first and second games let the froth never end.”

Again, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood isn’t quite the sequel I expected. Rather than having a leap as big as the one between the first and the second, it’s basically an expansion pack to the second game with new missions, a different story, and a Farm Ville-like real-time Assassin training mini-game integrated into it. This wouldn’t be so bad, but surprisingly early on Brotherhood begins to feel like busywork. This feeling comes from the lack of a strong story to string you through from location to location, and a near-removal of the leaping between time periods that makes finally completing story chapters so rewarding.

What I’d wished for most in the first game – Desmond finally waking up to his ancestor’s powers in modern times – is the thing Brotherhood gets totally right. He’s finally fully capable of scaling walls, leaping from place to place, and potentially stabbing some dudes in the neck. Too bad there’s never any enemies for him to try his knife out on. Brotherhood gets away with modern day action on-the-cheap by having Desmond travel to the same locations that Ezio goes to in the past. Reusing the assets was certainly done at least partially out of budgetary concerns and laziness, but experiencing an area through both past and future eyes is something I enjoy immensely. It makes the world feel more tangible, even if it is just a series of platforms to re-navigate.

Another surprisingly successful addition to Brotherhood is the aforementioned Farmville-like Assassin rearing mini-game. Although this sounds like a recipe for disaster, the way it’s implemented is rewarding in the same way games like Farmville tend to be – you’re given cool stuff just for hanging out. In Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, only time playing the game is taken into consideration, but the countless optional missions make this time speed by. This is both a blessing and a curse though, as these optional missions and mini-games add to the feeling of busywork that I’ve mentioned above. It’s hard to say whether the payoff is worth it, but the addictive “just one more” feeling is effective nonetheless.

The biggest failure of Brotherhood is the plot itself. It feels like an incidental subplot that might have taken place during Assassin’s Creed 2 that has been stretched out to span an entire game. The first few hours are a confusing mess, and by the time it finally settles into a groove you’re left feeling like a pawn in a war that never mattered. Assassin’s Creed 2 strikes the perfect balance between personal and political, but Brotherhood never gets around to feeling personal and suffers for it.

It’s interesting to go back and look at how Brotherhood measures up to what I wanted from the first few games. Had I not played the second one it might have been amazing, but as is, it was merely good. With my time being split between family, making games, and playing them this isn’t always enough any more. As for what I want from Assassin’s Creed 3, I predict that it won’t be the dramatic improvement in design that I want, you still won’t spend enough time playing as Desmond in modern times, it will continue to take place in a European city that I could care less about, and that whatever it ends up being I’ll play all the way through it, whining at least a bit about what I hoped it would be.

Dec 10

2010 Year in Review

2010 has seen a lot of changes both big and little that culminated so subtly that I didn’t notice how different things are until this reflection.

My job has changed drastically this year as I’ve moved from being a developer on a team of developers to being the sole technical member of a more free-form R&D team. I’m working for the same company I’ve been at since 2003, but now I’m working at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, which has increased my drive a bit. I assumed this would be a huge change, but at the end of the day it’s still just going to work every day. I’m certainly thankful to have a job in the current environment, so it’s hard to complain.

My family’s relationships have shifted around a lot this year as well. I won’t get into it here, but it’s made me thankful to have a wife who is so down-to-earth, intelligent, and supportive. I don’t think I’d be able to handle things so well without her.

And finally, I swear the amount that babies sleep decreases so gradually that you barely notice your free time deteriorates to almost nothing as they get older. I’m thankful for the slow change though, because otherwise I’d be really pissed. I’ve had enough time to experience quite a bit of entertainment though, so here are my _____s of the Year.

Game of the Year – Halo Reach

Years with Halo games released have the unfair advantage of basically automatically winning GOTY (Game of the Year) from me. It’s not that Halo games are so much better than everything else, it’s just that I’m in a very unique position where I work (worked?) in an environment where we have four system linked Xbox 360s and play 16-player networked Halo at lunchtime. It’s an environment that would turn most-anyone into an avid Halo fan.

Given my situation, it’s not a big deal that Halo Reach is generally more of the same. The class-like loadouts and the ability to use jetpacks is great, but my favorite addition is the updated Forge. I spent hours making maps in Halo 3’s Forge and those maps usually didn’t go over so well with my Halo crew because the lack of precision in the tool meant that people always seemed to catch on walls or fall through floors. The Halo Reach version of Forge lets you float environment items in space, overlap their positions, and explicity enter coordinate positions, letting you choose exactly where you want things. It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough that people at work aren’t diametrially opposed to trying out new custom maps.

Halo Reach is Game of the Year for the way it acts as an outlet for my game design creativity.

Movie of the Year – Scott Pilgrim vs the World

I made a post on the forums (secret hidden area, sorry guys) that Scott Pilgrim vs the World would be the best movie of all time shortly after I saw the first trailer. I was joking at the time, playing on the fact that it focused on everything I love, from cheesy love stories, to Street Fighter, to a story that’s grounded in reality, but overexaggerated by its narrator’s overactive imagination. But then the movie came out and it was literally a non-stop bombardment of all of those things for the entire duration, with little references to everything I love, from Zelda to Seinfeld, sprinkled in. I don’t care that it’s not a perfect movie. I’m sure lots of people will hate it, but I can say for certain that it feels like it was made for an audience of me and me alone, and I don’t see another movie with its finger on my pulse happening again ever.

Best movie of all time.

TV Show of the Year – Vampire Diaries

This year we’ve started watching more TV than my wife would like to admit, making this a hard call. Community, Parenthood, and Modern Family were all great, but my favorite show of the past year (or two) has been Vampire Diaries. It’s sooooo good

When it first came out we started watching it ironically, to make fun of how bad a show that so blatantly rips off Twilight could be, but it turned out to be really addicting. It is a bit like Twilight, but the main character responds to her boyfriend being a vampire a lot more realistically. Instead of silly high school unconditional puppy love, Elena responds to her family being constantly put into danger by trying to stay the hell away. It makes a lot more sense!

But the real draw, sadly, is the whole soap opera draw of watching a love triangle. There are currently around 5 of them going on, and it’s keeping me on the edge of my seat. Sometimes I’m quite simple.

Album of the Year – Forgetters s/t

It’s only 4 songs and it’s only available on record or digital download, but the first release by Forgetters, Blake from Jawbreaker’s new band, is really outstanding. It took a few listens before it really clicked, but the disc hasn’t left my car’s CD player since my wife bought and burned it for me on my birthday in late September. I still pick up on subtle lyrical gems nearly every time I listen to it. I can’t wait for a full album!

Group of the Year – The St. Louis Game Developer Meetup Group

The St. Louis Game Dev Meetup Group was reinstated and reinvigorated with the help of a small company named WorldKi. Our monthly meetings have been extremely fun and I’ve been an active participant, helping to organize the STL GameJam, putting on presentations, getting my friends and coworkers to come check it out, and starting a collaborative game project with everyone who comes to the group.

I really hope this community can continue to grow and St. Louis can blossom into a game development hot spot. We’ll see!

Event of the Year – Watching my daughter begin to learn new things and become a real person

As of this week Elliott will be 19 months old. In the span of just one year she’s learned to walk, talk, eat food with a spoon and fork, play by herself, tell us “no”, and intentionally harass the dog. She’s become a real person!

I was told that it was cool, but until you experience it yourself you’ll never really understand. The best part of my day is getting home from work and hearing her yell, “Da Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa,” and demand, “Up, up!”

Resolution of the Year – Keep this Website going

I’ve really enjoyed getting this site running again, and I want to keep it up. So that’s my resolution I guess. I resolve to post at least one post every month in 2011. We’ll see how it goes! Keep reading and start commenting!


Dec 10

Infinity Blade – Completion Log

This is on a Phone?!

That’s one of the Game Center achievements you can get in Chair’s Infinity Blade for the iPhone. The task it’s attached to is playing through the game 20 times, but the sentiment behind it comes from the game’s outstanding beauty. Infinity Blade is the showpiece for the Unreal Engine III on the iPhone, and, to put it succinctly, that means developers can make iPhone games that look about as good as high-end console games. Infinity Blade is certainly notable for its graphics, but for me it’s just as notable for how Chair understands the nature of gaming on a non-gaming device.

Infinity Blade is, in essence, Punch-Out!! the RPG. The fighting consists of watching your opponent for how they are going to attack, dodging, blocking, or parrying in the right direction, and counterattacking to do some damage. Instead of rounds, there are short cutscenes, and instead of doc riding his bike behind you, there are navigation sections with hidden bags of gold and health potions that allow you to upgrade your character.

One cycle of the game lasts between 15 and 30 minutes and culminates in a boss fight that sends you back to the beginning if you lose. The next cycle allows you to retain your equipment and stat upgrades, and makes all of the opponents more difficult, but also more lucrative to defeat. It’s this short time frame that makes the game perfect for the road. You can fight through a single enemy in the bathroom or play through a quick cycle before bed.

The entire interface consists of tapping or holding to dodge, block, or stab, and swiping to attack. Overall the controls are very tight and intuitive. This is where Infinity Blade gets things right. Other games that try to bring the console game experience to the phone begin by deciding where to place the virtual controller and/or how to emulate the analog stick using the accelerometer. In my experience these things just don’t work.

Take, for example, the “other” showpiece for iPhone graphics that came out last week. It’s a toned down version of Rage, the next big FPS by the creators of Doom. Rage attempts to simplify things by removing the ability to move, leaving only aiming and shooting. In this game, aiming is done by either swiping your finger across the screen or by tilting the phone using the accelerometers. Because precision aiming is at the core of this design, neither of these methods work very well at all. Fighting for precision with imprecise controls becomes the game, and actually making and executing decisions takes a back seat.

What gives a game depth isn’t a high button count or requiring precision aiming, but the feeling that there’s still more to learn. That’s where Infinity Blade excels. When an opponent attacks, you are given three ways to avoid those attacks. Near the bottom of the screen is a block button. This button will block almost any attack, but you’re given a limited number of uses. This is the “easy” option. The “normal” option is the dodge. Dodging allows you to avoid taking damage, but most attacks require that you dodge in the correct direction, making it essential that you watch your opponent closely. The “hard” option is to parry. Parrying requires that you swipe in the opposite direction of your opponent’s attack. Parrying is very hard, but will dizzy your opponent, allowing you to get in several hits.

I spent most of my time in the early part of the game trying to perfect the parry. It was so hard that I eventually reverted to dodging. This is now how I handle most attacks. When I did finally defeat the final boss I did so by dodging attacks until the final round, then taking the easy way out and blocking everything I could for the victory. It’s juggling these three mechanisms where the depth comes into play and the design really shows its strength and versatility.

I’ve played through the game 8 times now, one of those was immediately after beating the final boss, and I’m sure I’ll continue to come back to the game to perfect my parry and level up my equipment. Maybe some day I’ll get that achievement for playing through it 20 times. And this is on a phone!

Dec 10

Fable III – Completion Log

WARNING: The following contains spoilers that will ruin Fable III for you.

I became King in Fable III for the Xbox 360 on Nov 1, 2010. This was the day before the midterm elections, and I remember that fact vividly. The first half of Fable III is basically the same as Fable II. You play through a story and eventually become king. The difference here is that once you become King you are tasked with making the same sort of difficult decisions a King would have to make. Err, let me correct that – it’s not quite the same type of decisions, it’s more the weight of the decisions.

But lets go back to that election. Choosing who to vote for was fairly easy, but also on the ballot were several propositions and amendments. These included whether or not to give Property Tax Exemptions to Disabled Former Prisoners of War, changing the rules regarding earning taxes, prohibiting taxing home sales, and changing the laws regarding puppy mills. The way many of these were worded and attempting to consider all of the potential repercussions made it very difficult to just answer yes or no. These laws seemed pretty clear on the surface, but I didn’t know enough about how things are currently structured or how badly Missouri needs money to take a strong stance. I voted against puppy mills because, you know, puppies are cute, but I left almost all of the other boxes blank.

In Fable III, leaving the boxes blank is almost never an option. You’re forced to decide between things like a brothel and an orphanage, deforestation or a sewage treatment plant, and removing all taxes on liquor or outlawing drinking altogether (full disclosure: on that last one I chose the neutral option and just kept the taxes). These seem pretty cut and dry, but the game makes the decisions harder by forcing you to actually pay for your benefits to society. To give those decisions even more weight, on your first day as King you learn that in exactly one year, a plague will come and wipe out any person that you don’t have the resources (money) to protect. How the money protects people is vague, but it’s clear that you need to have $6,500,000 in the bank a year from becoming king if you want to protect your people.

It’s this balance between short-term happiness and long-term health that gives your decisions weight. Do you save everyone’s life by creating a world that isn’t worth living in, or do you create the perfect world for a bunch of goners? That’s what the game’s big question is and it’s effective.

That is, it’s effective until you start reading up on things. You see, soon after I reached the king section I happened upon a Fable III thread where someone complained that Day 120 was the last full day, and after that day you would no longer be allowed to put money toward saving people. I wanted to pretend like I never read it and play the game the same way I otherwise would have, but I couldn’t lie to myself. I still made all of the decisions the way I believed I would have, but I ended up changing the way I played the actual game with that date at the front of my mind. I bought every single house in the game and lingered through side missions and cultivated pointless in-game relationships while my money grew, so that by the time I hit day 120 I had almost exactly the right amount of money.

I finished my last mission, played through the endgame, got the good ending, and felt empty. Part of this was the unfulfilling endgame, but the majority of it was that I had taken this experience which was designed around making your decisions feel less like binary game options and had reduced it almost entirely to binary game options. When the decisions felt like the same type of decisions I was making in the election I was overjoyed. I cared! This is ultimately the greatest achievement of Fable III. There’s a time when you actually care about your subjects. But all of that goes away when you inevitably begin turning those decisions into a game again.

I believe that the reason the game ends on day 120 might be because the designers want you to rule with your gut instead of your head, and they want you to get the ending your heart would have led you to. I wasn’t given this luxury, and Fable III ended on a sour note as a result.

I’ll never know exactly how I would have felt had I not happened upon that forum post, but if you’re reading this, I apologize for ruining the game for you. Now that you’ve read this, it’s probably not worth playing.

Nov 10

Professor Layton and the Unwound Future – Completion Log

Finished the most recent Professor Layton game last night. Professor Layton and the Unwound Future is the third in a series that I like to describe as “a Sherlock Holmes-like story connecting the types of logic puzzles in e-mails your grandmother would send you.” It’s not a flattering description, but it’s true. Penny Arcade sums it up in a comic about the first game:

Pardon the language.

Anyway, as I played through the game, several random thoughts went through my mind. I thought it might be fun to just list out a few that I can remember and let you come to your own conclusions. So here they are! (very minor spoilers present)

  • This is a story about traveling ten years into London’s future. In the previous games there’s always a big give-away that culminates in grounding the more extreme fantastic elements in the real world. It’s going to be hard for them to ground time travel in the real world.
  • The action in this game reminds me of The Castle of Cagliostro. What a great movie!
  • The production values in this game are really great. Sure, it has talking heads, but it knows what moments to emphasize and really plays them up by adding voice or fully animating the conversations.
  • Level-5 are the best game developers left in Japan.
  • I can’t tell if this game is just easy or if finishing the first two games in the series has prepared me for the type of critical thinking present in the Laytonverse, but I haven’t spent more than a few minutes on any single puzzle yet. I have to admit they’ve all been enjoyable.
  • Why did they decide to animate the scene when you meet the talking bee for the second time?
  • Why did they introduce the talking bee twice only to kill it off and replace it with another (better) character?
  • These animated cutscenes are really great. I don’t really watch anime any more, but I would watch a Professor Layton anime any day. (Note: There is one in Japan, but it hasn’t been released in America yet)
  • There are way too many people to talk to that don’t actually have puzzles for you. I wish there was a way to tell at a glance if someone has a puzzle for you. It seems to run at about 50/50 at the moment.
  • There’s an interesting moment about mid-way through the game where you run into a statue that looks similar to Layton and his apprentice Luke. I didn’t read it as closely as I should have, but the impression that I got was that the story in the Layton games are being framed at a meta-level as the story a father is telling to his son Luke. It never came back up outside of that one moment, but if the games begin to take this metaphor and make it more pronounced it could add some depth to the stories.
  • According to the clock I’ve put 13 hours into this game. It feels more like half that.
  • This (optional) parrot delivery mini-game is way too hard! It’s a great concept though.
  • The (optional) toy car mini-game is really fun. I feel like it could almost be a standalone game.
  • The (optional) storybook mini-game is outstanding, but I wish there was something that indicated where to find the remaining pieces of the book. I can’t find any more puzzles!
  • This might be my favorite Layton game from a gameplay standpoint and it probably has the best pacing. If I have any complaints it’s simply that we’re on a third game in a world populated by people whose sole mode of interaction is harassing you with puzzles (see the comic above). The first game tried to justify it by setting itself in a “curious village”, the second game touched on it a bit but then kind of brushed it off, and this game just assumes that your suspension of disbelief is worn down by now. I guess what I’m saying is I miss the moments in the first game where you really feel the ridiculousness of the Laytonverse, where someone will ask you to figure out the ages of their daughters in exchange for the location of a building you’re trying to find. Now that it’s gone it’s impossible to get that feeling back, but it’s something I really miss about my introduction to the series.
  • Oh, so that’s how they grounded the time travel in the real world. It’s what I expected, and it’s happily even less believable than actual time travel. I’m glad it allowed for a climax of sufficient grandeur.
  • Oh man, I’m so tired. I keep falling asleep during the ending. I’m going to have to finish this again later to catch what I miss. Elliott needs to stop waking up at 6:30AM.
  • How can a trilogy end by introducing more questions?

So ultimately I loved the game, but it’s more of the same. As long as these things continue to keep me interested long enough to add them to my completion log I guess I’m ok with that.

Oct 10

Game Dev Story – Completion Log

Game Dev Story for the iOS (played on an iPhone 4.0) is one of the most addictive games I’ve played in years. This simulation game arms the player with a single secretary and $100,000 and asks them to – over the course of 20 years – build a videogame empire that creates the most successful game of all time. Unfortunately, when viewed as art instead of entertainment, its message conveys the depressing realities of the business end of the videogame industry.

So let’s pretend the game isn’t art and talk about what the game does well. To create a game within Game Dev Story you must decide on a target platform, give your game a theme and a genre, and decide on an employee to take the lead when it comes time to create the scenario, character design, and music. Once your game is complete, you name it something silly, and put some marketing dollars toward increasing both corporate brand recognition. It doesn’t quite mimic what actually goes into real game development, but it does provide a fun, idealized version of it. It also offers a fun, nostalgic look at game history through its semi-realistic release schedule of trademark-friendly misnamed  game consoles. I released games on the PC, Senga Exodus, Super IES, Game Kid, Sonny PlayStatus, Intendro DM, and the Intendro Whoops. The detailed pixel-art for everything from the game systems themselves, to the employees and how they catch on fire when they’re working hard is incredibly charming – charming enough to forget that you’re clearly playing a half-assed port of a pre-iPhone, non-touch cell phone game.

What makes Game Dev Story fun is the same thing that makes other simulation games like The Sims and SimCity fun. You’re injecting your own personality and decisions into a simulated world that exists with or without your input and witnessing the outcome. It nurtures our instinctual desire to leave our own mark on the world and try to make the biggest impact we can with our short lives. Using real history enhances this feeling, and it allows your own memories and game knowledge to fuel every decision you make. Why blow $10,000 on a licensing agreement to make games for the Virtual Boy when you know it’s going to be off the market in under a year? Why put all of your points toward cuteness when you’re making a War Simulation game? Why make a Puzzle game about the Stock Exchange when War Simulations are the more obvious sell?

And therein lies the problem.

Because approximated history dictates your game’s sales there is very little room for innovation. Sure, when creating a game you can toss a few points in the innovation column, but a major factor in whether or not your game is successful is whether or not the theme and genre combination has proven successful. Make a Dungeon MMO and you’re in the money, but make a Dating Card Game or a Ninja Puzzle game and you’re shooting yourself in the foot. The natural instinct is to make safe decisions based on what you know sells instead of risking your fortunes on potentially strange combinations. To make matters worse, the game assigns a popularity letter grade to each genre and type, encouraging you to base your games on the more popular ones. Eventually you unlock the ability to make sequels, and creating one of these guarantees even higher sales.

I don’t blame the developers for structuring their game like this. They made the right choice. It’s entertaining and very rewarding, but as a window into human instinct it reveals a dark reality. When your fortunes rest on the success of a game, you’re more likely to structure that game around what you already know works. Why take chances when you can stick with what you know will be successful? Is it any wonder that the Activisions and EAs of the world have stuck with this model, only branching out via misguided PR attempts? When your motivation is strictly money you can’t afford to take chances. As you play the game you find all of your decisions will be based on this. In the beginning you may experiment with a few silly things, but as time goes by the game will mold you into this perfect corporate money grubber, stifling innovation every step of the way, firing any employee who under-performs, and outsourcing whenever you think it will benefit the bottom line. You have fun doing it, but the subtext is killer.

Over the span of 20 years I made 47 games. It’s telling that my only game in that entire period to win the Grand Prize at the Global Game Awards was a Motion Fitness sequel named Pandering DS2 for the Intendro Whoops (its predecessor was on the Intendro DM). I guess art imitates life, right?


Oct 10

Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski – Book Review

Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye is a book my mom wouldn’t like. That’s not to say it wasn’t good. It’s the best book I’ve read in years (almost by default), but my mom would hate it. The problem is there’s no plot. That seems to be her argument whenever she finds something she doesn’t like – as if it were somehow an intrinsically damning thing to not be structurally similar to everything else. What Ham on Rye does have though is a character that’s realistic, sincere, depressing, funny, and easy to feel empathetic towards. That ultimately leads to a story that’s well worth reading, even without the backbone of a plot to graft itself around.

The narrative of Ham on Rye follows the life of Henry Chinaski from birth until the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. That doesn’t mean this story is about that event, only that it literally ends on that day. There are clear parallels between the character of Chinaski and that of Bukowski’s real life, but there are also moments that are obviously imbellished. Some chapters outline the events that caused Chinaski to become the person he eventually becomes, and some seem like drawn out dirty jokes. My favorite chapters are the ones that combine the two.

Reading this on the Kindle you’re able to see the passages that other readers have highlighted. I’m not sure if I like this or not. I know I have the ability to turn it off, but there’s a morbid curiosity I have that prevents me from doing so. It sometimes feels like I bought the book used, as I always find myself looking at the passages the person before me underlined and criticizing their reasoning. Sometimes they’ll underline something that’s totally out of context, and I’ll go in and re-underline the part with the context in tact in an effort to toss my own hat into the ring so that the next person who picks up the book might happen upon my used copy. In the case of Ham on Rye, people decided to primarily highlight passages that say something about life. I highlighted the punchlines to the dirty jokes.

My biggest disappointment with the book, honestly, is how it always feels like it’s leading somewhere, but never quite gets around to going places, then Pearl Harbor gets bombed and it just ends. Henry spends the first half of the book curious about women, but the book never gets around to exploring his first sexual encounter. Henry spends an equal amount of time, his teenage years, with his body covered in boils, but there’s never a big, “my boils were finally gone” moment. Maybe this is my mom’s demand for plot seeping into my subconsciousness, but it was disappointing for these themes and events to never find closure. But then, that’s what real life is like. You don’t have that moment when the things that scar you suddenly go away, it happens so gradually that by the time they go away you’re so used to dealing with them that you barely notice. So, despite my disappointment, I’m not sure I would change anything. That’s just the kind of book this is.


Oct 10

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter – Book Review

For my birthday (Sept. 25, mark your calendars) I asked for and received an Amazon Kindle. This was sort of a one-off gift and it’s sort of strange since I haven’t read anything in years and I buy CDs instead of MP3s whenever the option presents itself. But something about the Kindle intrigued me. Maybe it was the hope that the lure of technology would entice me into reading again. I’m not sure, but regardless, the first book I picked up for it was Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell. I had heard about it on NPR, and it sounded very much in line with my feelings on games lately.

You see, the title is very misleading. It’s called Why Video Games Matter, but it’s as much about why they do matter as it is about how they’re capable of mattering so much more. It’s hard not to agree. I spend a lot of time with games, but there’s always this background notion, even with the best games, that they could be so much better.

The core of Bissell’s argument is that games need better writers. I’ve had an issue with this statement when I’ve heard it in the past, because when I hear that I imagine a game where the cutscenes and dialogue boxes take center stage to the action. Bissell thankfully makes it clear that more writing does not equate to better writing. What I believe he wants is a game that captures the emotions that the best books and movies give us. As much as we ding games for trying so hard to emulate movies, there persists an intangible, hard to describe feeling that you get from watching movies and reading books that rarely, if ever, is captured by games. Games have no problem making you think about things logically and feel immersed in their worlds, but they haven’t quite figured out how to make us consider the human condition, or even feel empathy for their characters. Action movies have love stories added in simply because the smallest amount of humanity goes a long way toward endearing a work, but games still have only scratched the surface of attempting even something this shallow, let alone more complex emotions.

The book isn’t entirely critical, as a majority of it consists of highlighting games that move the medium in the right direction. Bissell points out that these games are a stepping stone toward where games need to be in the future. According to Bissell, games “began in a place of minus efficacy in all of the above, and anyone who says otherwise has probably never done anything but play games.” This is hard to disagree with, and I like how straightforward it is.

For the most part Bissell successfully straddles the line between celebrating games and damning them. The nature of that mixed message means that the book is missing a concise message. The first three chapters and the ninth and final one are all superb, but the fourth through eighth chapters – those highlighting specific games – feel overly apologetic and a bit insincere. It doesn’t help that the fourth chapter is a copy and paste of this article Bissell wrote for the New Yorker.  Still, the excellent half of this book makes it well worth it, and the rest is full of enough worthwhile observations to make them worth reading.

Overall I would recommend this book to anyone who cares about games enough to read a Kindle file about them that has 2820 locations (Kindle text can be any size, so they don’t display page numbers, but Amazon claims it has 240 pages). It’s a brisk read, and even if you don’t agree with everything, it will at least get you thinking. More importantly though, it turns out my instincts with the Kindle were correct. It got me reading!


Oct 10

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 – Completion Log

Last night, after 3 short evenings with it, I completed the first episode of Sonic the Hedgehog 4. I’m probably posting this too early because I’m still sort of trying to formulate my opinions on it and pinpoint exactly what went wrong (and right) about the game, but what the hell, I’ll give it a shot. On the one hand, I liked it enough to complete it in three sittings, but on the other, the primary emotions I felt while playing were those of disappointment. If I were cynical I would say that I paid $15 to feel disappointed in several different ways! So to help me work out these feelings I’ll write down my complaints in list format.

  1. Sonic 4 feels like it may have started as an HD remake of Sonic 1
  2. This is obvious from the opening moments in Splash Hill Zone (which is an HD version of Green Hill Zone) to the closing moments in Mad Gear Zone (an HD version of Scrap Brain Zone). While Sonic games have always contained levels that are slight variations on previous games in the series, they have never borrowed to this degree before. Yes, the actual level design may be different, but the art feels exactly like what someone who hasn’t played the game in 15 years would remember it looking like. And it doesn’t help that all of the bosses are lifted directly out of previous games in the series.

    Although Street Fighter IV successfully did much the same thing just last year, Sonic is a very different game with very different priorities. While the draw to Street Fighter is in learning the systems, the draw to Sonic is in progressing forward into new locations. No new locations are present here.

  3. The physics are kind of muffed
  4. The main reason Sonic was able to gain ground on Mario in the 16-bit days was the way it felt to move him around. Yes, he was fast, but the challenge and the draw was learning how to control and manage that speed in an environment full of danger. The controls in Sonic 4 are close to what you remember, but now he immediately slows to a halt the moment you let go of the control pad. Honestly, this took me less time to grow accustomed to than I thought it would, but the initial shock of it makes you feel like the designers didn’t know Sonic very well.

  5. Three acts per zone is too much
  6. They start to drag a bit and the third act always feels a bit draining. Every Sonic game after the first one reduced the number of acts to 2 per Zone, probably because they came to this realization. Sonic 4 doesn’t do this, and as a result I found myself reaching for the power switch after every act 2.

  7. When it’s easy it’s ridiculously easy
  8. There’s a level in the Casino Street zone of Sonic 4 where you run past spinning tiles that show up at the bottom of your screen and land on random icons. If you run past a certain number of images that land on coins you get some coins, if you get enough images of Sonic you get an extra life, and images of Dr. Robotnick are worth nothing. If you move quickly enough through the level you can walk away with upwards of 10 or more lives than when you came in. You don’t even have to do any tricks to get these lives, they just sort of randomly come to you. This indicates that maybe there’s something wrong with how easily the game doles out lives.

  9. When it’s hard it feels unfair
  10. This is my primary complaint. There were a few moments where I felt like I was doing everything right but would end up dying regardless. This happened most often in places where platforms and boost pads would appear and disappear on a timer. I’m not sure if the timers were off or something, but I would always try to time my jumps so that I would hit the next platform. Sometimes I would make the jump and sometimes I wouldn’t. On the times when I nailed the jumps I didn’t feel like I was doing anything different, so it felt like their timer logic must have been off or something. This may or may not be the case, but it’s never good to have the player question these things.

  11. Why are all of the stages unlocked from the beginning?
  12. I know there’s a trend for people to complain about having to unlock parts of a game that they’ve already paid for, but with a platformer there’s the subconcious feeling that progressing through the game’s stages tells a story (even when it doesn’t). Unlocking all of the levels immediately from the start only downplays this feeling.

    By the same token, why do you have to push a button during the score tally time to indicate that you want to progress to the next stage? If the player is meant to feel like they’re progressing through a game shouldn’t they have to tell the game that they want to return to the stage select? You’re just given too many chances to quit, and I probably would have finished the game a lot sooner had I not been given all of those chances.

  13. Sonic’s coloring is too light for my tastes
  14. The new HD Sonic sprite is pretty nice looking overall, but they do this weird thing where a faux light source is hitting him, making parts of his body lighter and brighter than the rest. This bright color is just way too light. For some reason it looks off. This is a minor complaint for some, but it really negatively colored (pun intended) my initial impressions of the game, and I never did quite get used to it.

Overall these are mostly minor things, but they add up to an overall feeling of disappointment. There was a lot I liked about the game too, many of which can be summed up using a second numbered list.

  1. The bonus stages
  2. These are quite literally remakes of the game Cameltry. Cameltry is awesome!

  3. The way that nearly every level has its own gimmick
  4. These gimmicks are demonstrated to you early on in each level and they evolve as the levels go on, only actually forcing you to use them at the very end. Every level in the Casino has a different sub-game throughout and every level in the Labyrinth features a different Indiana Jones-like obstacle. It’s good design!

  5. Sonic’s new dash attack
  6. What initially seems like an overpowered gimmick eventually evolves into an integral part of the gameplay. You can now press the jump button in mid-air to cause Sonic to instantly lunge forward. If there’s an enemy nearby you will automatically target them and get the kill. Despite being lifted directly from the 3D Sonic games the implementation in Sonic 4 feels like something that might naturally have been added to the seires if the Saturn had seen its own traditional Sonic sequel. It’s thrilling when the game provides you a series of enemies to fling yourself between in mid-air, and using the dash at times like these brings some of the best moments in the game.

    But like most parts of Sonic 4, I would have liked to have seen it used more often and more effectively. There is a lot of potential for bosses that require you to really master this move, but since all of the bosses are rehashed from prior games, having this additional move only makes their original designs even easier to deal with.

  7. The design encourages and demands constant forward movement
  8. The best part of Sonic 4 is how rarely the game punishes you for aggressively pushing forward. The times you need to go slow are bookended by clearly defined stopping points, encouraging you to go fast whenever you have the opportunity. At times like these the game feels great, and comes very close to capturing the feeling of the older Sonic games.

Sonic 4 has some really great moments, and I don’t want to downplay those, but there is a relentless feeling of disappointment that casts a shadow over the whole thing. I put the disappointments first for a very good reason, and that is that the game never quite rises above them, but being Episode 1 of a potentially lengthy series of games, there’s really only one place to go from here and that’s up. The foundations that this was built on are mostly good, and the brisk level design shows that Sonic Team still has an idea of what they need to do. Now they just need to do it. If the first zone in Episode 2 is another Green Hill Zone though, don’t expect to see another one of these completion logs. After this game I wouldn’t put it past Sonic Team for a second.