Art is unique. Almost anything can be considered art, and, as long as the content isn’t illegal, I support the creation of any such art. Offensive works can be art, but I believe there should be precautions. Art viewers should have some idea that what they are about to see might be considered offensive. More than anything, the viewers should not be mislead. A movie about creating pipe bombs should not be portrayed as a children’s film. A Sculpture exhibit shouldn’t be explained as an “active piece.”

Team Ninja broke this rule in their ludicrously sexist game, Dead or Alive Extreme 2. Let’s begins by explaining what the original Dead or Alive game is. DOA was created originally in arcades, but quickly ported to the X-Box. Gameplay consisted of some rather violent, but acceptable characters beating the crap out of each other a la Tekken.

Now take a look at the trailer for DOAX2: http://www.xbox360fanboy.com/2006/10/23/new-doax2-trailer-pushes-the-limits/

What the hell is that?! Promoted as an extreme sports game, this is nothing short of cheap, Fox-style porno. Let’s now consider just how degrading this video is.

Every character has boobs the size of her head, boobs with disproportionate centers of gravity. These imaginary breasts move contrary to every law of physics I can imagine, including but not limited to gravity, kinematics, and the rotational laws. They move opposite each other. They move opposite the characters. Above all, they always move.

Unfortunately, I have no doubt that the ginormous boobs are more intelligent and have a better personality than the complete ditzes they are attached to. With the exception of one moment, all girls were giggling, randomly jumping, and playing with toys. I’ve seen three-year-olds with higher mental capabilities. Almost every girl held her arms at 75-degree angles to her body, most likely to keep from falling over. Ignoring all the sexual positions the characters mysteriously fall into, note the many cat fights that arise for no apparent reason.

Let’s not forget that there is but*one* non-white woman in the entire episode, and then for only a second. Arrrgh!

Do you see how shitty the hair, shadows, textures, and everything-that-isn’t-boob looks? What the hell is wrong with these people? Team ninja has nothing to do with the laziest ninja!

Sigh.

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For those unfamiliar with these terms, they serve as two large camps among game theorists. Narrativists believe that games arise from stories, that the narrative is actually the keystone of game design. Their opponents have criticized this belief, noting that in its extreme form, Narrativists would create a story for each game of Pong or Poker. The largest alternative, Ludology, believes gameplay is at the heart of any game; narrative always comes second, if at all. Some Ludologists go so far as to claim that the “story” of a game serves only as artificial motivation for changing the gameplay (i.e. levels). I believe the true game experience rests somewhere in between.

Narrativism is easy to combat, considering the recent surge in the casual game industry. Very few of these titles have a specific “plot” to explain why the player must match tiles, click colorful shapes, or what have you. No card game has a back-story, nor does any interesting story form during the play of such games. It may be argued, of course, that every series of actions could be considered a “story.” Here, I must point out, we enter the world of semantics rather than useful thought. Personally, I believe a story consists of much more than a “series of events,” but there exist those who see watching paint dry as a plot.

Even if we consider every game to have an associated narrative, whether it be the back-story, or simply the actions the player took to complete the game, narrativists run into another brick wall in believing this story to be the center of the game design. We cannot consider the player’s actions to be the story associated with the game design, because this becomes the definition of Ludology. We also cannot consider the narrative envisioned by the game designers and writers to be the essence of the title because this would produce a “choose your own adventure” movie/game. These are games in the traditional sense, but they obviously do not account for the wide variety of games that really terrible one.

On the other hand, Ludology cannot account for the repetitive nature of today’s industry. If gameplay served as the only reason we played titles, we’d quickly become bored with every genre available. The most obvious example comes in the first-person shooter. Sure, terrain, weapons, and physics produce minor differences in gameplay, but the essence of most FPSs remains the same. Shoot things that move; don’t get shot. The genre has grown significantly in complexity, but if we consider any games from about the same time period, we will see they have an almost identical gameplay. Look at Perfect Dark and Goldeneye, Wolf3d and Corridor 7, Quake and Unreal. What distinguishes these games from each other is their storylines, their settings. Goldeneye and Perfect Dark were made by the same company using basically the same engine, yet the characters created in each left unique, lasting impressions.

If we investigate what people enjoy from other media, we will see that although some really enjoy getting the same experience (i.e. romance novels), most prefer a combination of a generic style (i.e. thriller) with a specific, original plot (i.e. Bourne Identity). Games are no different in this respect. Try to think of the greatest games of the past five years. How many include detailed plots? Half Life, Halo, Pokemon, Zelda, and Starcraft all rely heavily on their plots, whether they be integrated into gameplay or cutscenes between levels.

Gameplay is at the heart of almost every title, and certainly of games that expect to sell, and we must not forget this. Plenty of games offer a very intricate plot and level design, but have terrible gameplay (I’m looking at you, Turok). At the same time, for a title to be a real hit, it must spark the emotions and interests of its players, requiring a very well define plot.

So what’s the conclusion? Well, gamers don’t play stories. Good games consist of interesting gameplay that is supported (however heavily) by engaging plotlines. Every media reaches its potential only when it distinguishes itself from the others. Audio told listeners the story; video showed them. Interactive media must allow the user to experience the story. This is only possible with well designed gameplay no matter how interesting the plot.

Women in Games

July 24, 2006

Right off the bat, I’ll say that the role women play in modern games is absolutely deplorable. We want to get more female players, and yet we have such terrible female role-models in game. When was the last time we saw a strong female lead character? Now when was the last time you could play as her? In my mind, we have two specific problems: body image and character role.

Let’s consider body image. We’ll begin with a test. I’ve popped over to IGN’s computer game preview section; I’ll show you the first game I see with a woman on-screen.

http://pc.ign.com/articles/719/719983p1.htmlhttp://pc.ign.com/articles/719/719983p1.html
Anyone see something wrong with this picture? Often, Too often, Almost all computer games with women characters present these women as perfect barbies with whorish revealing clothing. Consider the latest Tomb Raider game’s website, http://www.tombraider.com/ . There’s actually an area of the website devoted to Laura’s clothes. This has been one of the heaviest critiques given to video games, and I have to admit, it is an extremely well-founded argument.

Now let’s consider female character roles. I’m aware of less than four first-person shooters where the player is a woman. More often than not, if a game includes a girl, she is a nurse, mother, or other member of the “supporting cast”. Luckily, a few games do include strong female leads, such as Half Life 2 and Max Payne 2. At the same time, in most of these games, the women quickly become damsels in distress. If I hear that the Bowser has captured Peach one more time… Anyway, women rarely appear as strong as their male counterparts in video games; one of the easiest ways to fix this is to provide more central female leads. Perfect Dark is actually a good example of what we should strive for more often.

Of course there is much more to discuss, so… leave some comments!

Although the title may appear to be metaphoric, I am really not that deep. Instead, I’m actually discussing issues relating to the exploding cost of game development, in terms of both the developers, producers, and consumers. I’ll try to cover some of the criticisms here, but feel free to add thoughts.

Developers: The price of creating a game has skyrocketed faster than any artform in known creation. Players want more interactivity, better graphics, and greater freedom in their games. To keep to schedule, developers must hire more contractors, especially in the fields of art, tool, and physics creation. This outsourcing of talent leads to a wider spread in the original vision of a game. The designers may not work with the programmers or the artists, causing choppy work.

Some may argue that players desire more content sooner, perhaps citing the release of episodic content such as Half Life 2 Episode 1. To satisfy this desire, developers must hire more and more employees, completing the product faster. To this, I must respond that good, memorable games usually aren’t created by throwing “man-hours” at them. Games need a unity of design that can easily become bogged down with larger developers. Consider America’s Army, a hit when the developer was still budding. As more versions were released, the Army decided to change development teams, expanding the developer size considerably. Now ask yourself, when did America’s Army start sucking?

Producer: Producers spend millions of dollars financing developers, choosing games they hope will become hits. Producers, as many have noted, will therefore make safer choices, passing up oddities such as Crazy Taxi to finance the next “Quake” (What are they on? 5?) and creating a sea of the same. Look at PainKiller, Driv3r, and True Crime. None have even the resemblance of a vestigial bone of originality. This doesn’t even mention the endless march of sequels and licensed games. These games don’t sell well because they are more of the same. I don’t think gamers want to play another 20 floors of Wolf3d; I know I don’t.

I understand arguments that gamers want more realism, leading producers to request larger teams that can handle “photorealism,” but I disagree with this point. I don’t think its essential for a game to be insanely realistic, or even 3D to be a best seller. Consider Viewtiful Joe, a fine game in its own right and a side scroller! How about The Sims, a game where the characters rarely have distinguishable faces? Graphics don’t make the game. Sometimes they even hurt it (think of the steep requirements on Doom 3).

Consumers: Oh how long gamers have complained about buying the latest $60 flop. Heck? They complain about buying the latest $60 triple-A title. Games cost too much money, plain and simple. The industry is screaming to attract new gamers, but how can we if the price of admittance is so high? Many have complained that used game sales are killing developers, but isn’t it possible that the reason games focus so hard on used games is that new games are so expensive? I’m not able to buy any game until several months after its release, when they’ve reduced its price.

Tell me what you think. I dare you.

The Story of Sequels

June 22, 2006

The games industry has a conflict again. This doesn't involve slow hardware, backwards compatibility, or even Microsoft's pig-headedness. No, today's problem involves creativity and the problems it causes.

Scott Miller, my absolute hero, raves on the importance of intellectual property. The only way to have creative freedom, he claims, is to maintain control over brand names. His company, 3D Realms, realizes this concept by allowing most games they produce to remain the intellectual property of the developers 3D Realms financed.

Unfortunately, continuous use of brand names causes another pandemic, the unending march of sequels. In the movie industry, sequels of any quality are expected to make around 2/3 the income of the original. The games industry tends to spout an even higher rate, with many sequels outselling their origins. For example, take almost any realistic sports game. Madden football games began in 1989, and continue to be best sellers today. Each year, a new iteration of the same game outsells the edition from the previous year.

Unlike the Madden games, which serve as revisions of the same, relatively-static concept, the real issue here comes with games that should be using innovative concepts. For example, I love the Mega Man games to death, but this series tends to rehash the same game with only minor changes to art. These sequels serve more as expansions, especially with such a non-existent story (even in the X series) and little redesign of gameplay. Of course, Mega Man is a blatant example of this abuse of a brand name, but this sort of repackaging appears in many other titles.

Pokemon, Rainbow Six, and Deus Ex also serve as examples. The original Pokemon was wonderfully creative; continuing the same fighting mechanics and goals in to three (?) generations of the same game was not. Interestingly, the most innovative game in the series besides the original is Pokemon Snap, which received terrible reviews. Rainbow Six also served very interesting concepts and gameplay in its original design, but served major design issues when the same style missions, planning, and execution appeared in sequels. The truly brilliant Deus Ex was followed by the mediocre Invisible War, which had some innovations in gameplay (though few) but served the same basic story conflicts.

The industry must therefore walk the fine line between making meaningless sequels (let's not become the movie industry) and creating so many universes that none are unique (visible in the world of comics).

With CC&C I originally wanted to all games, comics, etc. to be part of a serial. Slowly I began to realize that I would only make one game in a series and then move to a different series because I wanted to try a different kind of game experience. I only returned to older series to completely revamp the user's experience. For the Maze of the Mastermind series, the original game called for solving trivia puzzles in a series of larger pyramids. In the second game, I completely broke from this concept, making some excuse to how the pyramid was not complete. This game was to also involve logic skills, but not in the form of trivia.

We'll have to see where this goes in the future, but I do believe there have been examples of successful sequels. Consider Duke Nukem 3D, Timesplitters 2, and the original Mega Man Battle Network. Each offered some of the same, whether it be gameplay, characters, or themes, but also alot of something different. The differences do not include changes to the amount or type of enemies or weapons, but rather deal with fundamental alterations to the game design. Duke 3D involved a completely different perspective, original story, and innovative level design. Timesplitters 2 offered a completely new and integrated storyline and level design as well as some new gameplay types. Similarly, a big change to the storyline and a huge alteration to the game mechanics of Mega Man were used in Battle Network to create a new game design.