26 October 2010

Hay Kidz! It's the Busy Season!

It's that time of year. Time when I see the Fed Ex delivery man more than I see my imaginary girlfriend. Time when I am literally buried beneath a gamevalanche--that's an avalanche of games, people--and the rescue team won't be deployed until December at the earliest. Time when my wrists are sore, my thumbs ache, and my right eye twitches involuntarily--it's doing it now, even as I type this--because I have stared at my television for a thoroughly unhealthy number of hours in a row.

That time.

Fact: It is not uncommon for me to require an eye exam each January because of all the high-definition damage I do to my retinas in October and November.

Some numbers: I have spent at least 40 of the last 48 hours gaming. Here's a fly-by of what I've seen: Fable 3, Vanquish, the new God Of War on the PSP, Rock Band 3, Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, Divergent Shift and X-Scape on the DS, Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1, Costume Quest, Def Jam Rap Star, random iPhone games like Naughty Bear and Angry Birds Halloween, and, inexplicably, just because I had a strange hankering for it, a few rounds of Star Fox 64 on the Virtual Console. While you've been eating, sleeping, or playing with your kids or pets, while you've been talking to your Uncle Bill on the phone--hi, Uncle Bill--or re-reading a Nicholas Sparks novel, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, I have been gaming.

I now pronounce you Man and Game. You may kiss the Game.

My couch has retained a lawyer in the name of taking out a restraining order against me. Sample of the courtroom proceedings in Jones Vs. Couch: "Mr. Jones, my client claims that you routinely farted into him, with the number of farts often exceeding 20 farts per day. Do you deny this, Mr. Jones? And remember, you are under oath."

Me: [I shoot a how-could-you-betray-me look across the courtroom at Couch.]

That photo up above? That's a shot of the coffee table in my living room. Whenever I run out of square footage on the table, my only option is to go vertical. So what rises up before me is a kind of relief map of the holiday gaming season. It literally becomes a mountain range of discs and game boxes, instruction booklets and peripherals. Like strata in a geological dig, good games tend to stay near the top of the mountains (Vanquish, Dead Rising 2, Kirby's Epic Yarn) while the bad games (Medal Of Honor, The Force Unleashed 2) sink to the bottom, never to be seen again until I get the chance to clean up this godforsaken mess at the end of the year.

It's no wonder that my girlfriend is "imaginary." (Which is only slightly less terrible than "inflatable.")

Vic and I have an acronym that we use during this season. It's A.B.G.: Always Be Gaming. No matter where we are, no matter what we're doing, this time of year it's essential that we constantly game. A.B.G. means making sure that your portables--DS, PSP, iPhone, iPad--are charged and ready to go if you're going to be away from your consoles for a few hours. A.B.G. means starting a download via PSN before getting into the shower, so the download will be completed by the time you've finished washing. It means waking up in the morning and turning on the 360 before you've had your coffee, while it's still dark outside--these days the sun doesn't come up in Vancouver until 7:30 or so--just to squeeze in a few more levels, another boss, another power-up, or more experience points.

Always Be Gaming.

Always.

I can't believe this is my fucking life. Man!

See what happens when you stay in school, don't do drugs (well, except for that one time) (and that one other time), and eat your vegetables, kids? You get to have an insane job.

Cue the "Don't Stop Believing" song.

You know the one.

Confessions of GameStop Employee

A few short days before Crispy Gamer suddenly stroked out, pooped itself, and went to website heaven--R.I.P., old girl--I met a man who had recently done a stint behind the counter at a New York City-area GameStop. As he told me his tales of woe, I began to write them down, hoping to turn the stories into a much larger piece for CG.

Once CG gave up its ghost, I figured there was no reason for this story--which felt important to me--to die along with it. The result: a massive seven thousand-word piece that my friend, writer and editor Susan Arendt, agreed to publish in The Escapist Magazine.

Susan helped trim the story down to a more manageable size, then came up with the idea to split the story into four smaller sections and run it over the course of four weeks. She also urged me to change the pseudonym of the protagonist from "Peppy Hare" to "Ben" (another good call, SA).

Whether Peppy/Ben is dealing with irate moms, learning the fine art of "gutting duty," schooling kids in Super Smash Bros., or putting a stop to budding criminals, his stories consistently offer cool, oddball insights into videogame culture.

A sample:

"Gamers on message boards constantly say - and yes, they typically write the following in caps - 'HOW CAN THEY SELL AN OPEN COPY OF A GAME AS NEW WTFFFFFFF GAMESTOP SUX BALLZ?' The answer from GameStop's corporate perspective is this: Gutting keeps shrink to a minimum. Definition of shrink: Customer theft. Irrefutable fact: If you put an empty box on the shelf, there is no incentive whatsoever for a thief to steal it."

Now that the fourth and final section has been published in TEM, you can read the whole damn thing, in its entirety, right here.

Also: Peppy/Ben, I promised to split my paycheck for the story 50-50 with you. So please come to the window to collect your much-deserved winnings.

And if anyone else out there has a story that you'd like me to tell, you know where you can find me.

One last: follow Susan on Twitter. She's the best.

20 October 2010

Who Wants To Get Together And Shoot Some Brown People This Weekend?

On a recent brisk Vancouver afternoon, while shooting our review of Medal of Honor for the show, Vic and I got into a heated Crossfire-style debate over the merits of turning real-world conflicts into armchair entertainments.

We hadn't planned on doing this. Our original goal was to have a semi-lucid conversation about the game's multiplayer modes. But suddenly, there we were, doing something neither of us expected to be doing.

It was awkward. It was uncomfortable. But it was real, and necessary. And not completely unenjoyable.

Vic posits that building a virtual experience, as Medal of Honor does, around up-to-the-minute news headlines helps expose gamers to issues that are currently going on in the world, that these virtual experiences can be didactic and enlightening and fortifying, and, finally, that games need to start attempting to work with, or at least wrestle with, this kind of trickier, more mature material if they are ever going to get anywhere. (I think that's a fair approximation of Vic's points. Vic: If it's not a fair approximation, kick me underneath the desk. Yes, we sit across from one another, just like in old-time detective movies.)

I heard Vic. He made some good points. But I don't agree with him.

Not because I enjoy disagreeing with Vic--which I do (oh, how I do)--but because I can't get behind what he's saying. Games, at this point in time, are simply not equipped to offer any sort of mature commentary on, or virtual approximation of, what's happening in Afghanistan.

Now, I'm not going to pretend that I fucking even know what's going on in Afghanistan. Yes, I read the papers and watch the news. From what I can gather from the media, it's an arid pit of death, misery and despair of epic proportions. Awful, nightmarish shit happens there on a moment to moment basis. Your own soldiers, it seems, are far more likely to kill you by mistake than anything else. Sad, complex dramas play out each day--dramas that are throughly unique to this conflict.

What happens in EA's Medal of Honor, I'm 100-percent certain, has absolutely nothing to do with what is actually happening there.

Nothing.

At all.

Let's face it: At this juncture, videogames are unfortunately still only capable of reducing complex, happening-now experiences to one or two-note entertainments. Which is what Medal of Honor is: a tepid one-note reduction of a complex, painful, fucked-up-beyond-belief story that is so base and lowbrow that it's not an honor at all but an insult.

You can't take all of this fucked up shit and turn it into a high-resolution shooting gallery and put a $60 price tag on it.

You can't.

Worse still, if you're in the mood to shoot brown-skinned people wearing turbans--or "towel-heads," as one of our neighbors so affectionately called them when I was growing up--this is the game for you. EA's best customers, I'd imagine, are the people who show up to protest the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero. Hand out some Medal of Honor demos down there, EA. I'm sure those people will find your game thoroughly entertaining.

The bottom line is this: If you've got something serious or important or profound to say, about the war in Afghanistan, or anything else for that matter, a videogame at this moment in time is the absolute last medium you should attempt to say it in.

Re-watch Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker. The locale was different--Iraq, not Afghanistan--but I learned more about the type of horse shit soldiers deal with in the Middle East from that three-minute, claustrophobic barracks fist-fight scene--you know the one--than I did from Medal of Honor in its entirety. I learned more from watching Jeremy Renner's character shop for fucking cereal than I did from Medal of Honor in its entirety.

Look at M.A.S.H. I watched that show religiously when I was kid. I saw how the soldiers lived, in their impossibly flimsy canvas tents. (Which seemed flimsier still whenever bombs would fall on their unit.) Sure, there were plenty of good times between B.J. and Hawkeye and Hot Lips and Colonel Potter, and their never-ending quest to foil nemesis Frank Burns. But there were lots of terrible, shitty, god-awful times, too. Choppers would suddenly arrive in droves at least once per episode carrying the dead and the wounded. Watching doctors exchange quips and barbs and zingers, and flirt and insult one another, all while being elbow-deep inside the chests of dead or dying soldiers tells you volumes about the human condition, and about how people endure and survive these sorts of beyond-hellish circumstances.

Games can't possibly hope to enlighten us in these ways. They will one day--oh, they'll enlighten us in ways that we can't even imagine, trust me--but right now, they can't.

They can't.

How puny Medal Of Honor seems when you hold it up next to Oliver Stone's Platoon, or Coppola's Apocalypse Now, or Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, or HBO's The Pacific, or Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," or Wolff's "In Pharaoh's Army," or Jerzy Kosinski's "The Painted Bird."

How puny. How small. How pathetic.

Man, I am all for pushing the envelope, for seeing games do things that they've never done before, for making me feel things that I've never felt before. But when a game set in a fictional post-apocalyptic wasteland--I'm talking about Fallout: New Vegas now--has more nuance and subtext and depth and intelligence than a game about the war in Afghanistan, and can evoke emotions ranging from heartbreak and anger to frustration and exhilaration, that's a grave, grave problem that needs to be addressed, and right quick.

13 October 2010

How Multiplayer Sometimes Does More Harm Than Good

It was Canadian Thanksgiving here last week. Which was strange, because no one really seems to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving. All the shops and restaurants and bars and poutine vendors are open, like any other day. The post office and the banks are closed. But otherwise, it's a day off for people, little more.

I met Thumb-Blaster for breakfast at the White Spot on West Georgia Street. White Spots are the Canadian version of Denny's, only less cheery. They smell vaguely of bleach and depression. Strippers and old people eat here. Everything on the menu is incredibly cheap. Thumb-Blaster and I both got huge piles of cheap, terrible food for less than $10.

The project T.B. is currently working on includes a significant multiplayer component. So he witnesses, in a very tangible way, what building multiplayer does to a development team. At best, it sounds like a nuisance. At worst, it sounds like a time and energy sink-hole, a Kafka-like act of futility and despair for the people working on it.

T.B., despairing a little, asked me why game reviewers inevitably subtract points from a game's review score if multiplayer isn't part of the package. "Faulting a game for not having multiplayer is like faulting a movie for not being in 3-D," Thumb Blaster said. "Imagine a movie reviewer saying, 'This movie was really great, but since it is not in 3-D, I'm docking it a couple of points. Next time, MAKE IT IN 3-D, YOU DOPES."

T.B. had a point. Remember BioShock? (How could you forget? I seem to refer to it in almost every post on this goddamn blog.) Nearly every review across the board fawned over the game, but at some point included some variation on the following disparaging sentence: "There's no multiplayer in the game, which seems like a missed opportunity."

The fact that BioShock 2 included multiplayer--you asked for it, you got it, reviewers!!!!!!!!--is one of those things that will pain me until the end of my days. It is complete and utter shit. No one is playing it. No, not even the reviewers who asked for it apparently can be bothered to play it. And the people who worked on it? They've probably have either hanged themselves, or gone insane, or now manage a Borders in Pittsburgh.

While leafing through the October issue of Game Informer, I found a short interview with Ken Levine, who is given the bulk of the credit for making the original BioShock so terrific. (Note: He had little to nothing to do with BioShock 2.) The question put to him by the writer was this: What is Irrational's approach to multiplayer in BioShock: Infinite?

"Our approach hasn't changed," he says. "Every game we did prior to BioShock had a multiplayer component, and I don't think it mattered. It always came out of a request of a marketing department.

"If you look at multiplayer, either you are going to do something that's profound, or you're wasting your time. Absolutely wasting your time. Because what are people going to do? You're going to have a couple thousand people play it for a few weeks, then they're going to go back to the great multiplayer games [like] Call of Duty, Gears of War, Halo, Left 4 Dead.

"My feeling always has been if there is an idea that is organic to the product and is profound and is going to move people and excite people and really add a dimension to the product that is not just good for the product but stands on its own as a game, then you do it. If you don't have that, you don't do it.

"At this point, we haven't made a determination about whether or not we have something that's profound enough, or what exactly our thinking is here."

I love this sentence so much, that I think anyone who crabbed about the lack of multiplayer in BioShock should be forced to read it once a day for the rest of their lives: If you look at multiplayer, either you are going to do something that's profound, or you're wasting your time.

Go ahead. Read it again. And again.

Thumb-Blaster and I ate our syrup-soaked pancakes in silence. I noticed that there were no windows in the restaurant. It was midday outside, but inside it was gloomy and damp, as if the whole building was submerged at the bottom of the ocean. At a nearby table, an old man let out an overly dramatic, Big Daddy-like yawn...

06 October 2010

What Happens In The Studio Doesn't Always Stay In The Studio

There's a lot of naturally occurring downtime during our Reviews on the Run shoots. Lots of low-brow joking--the lower the brow, the better. Lots of playful insults. Lots of toilet humor. And, apparently, lots of spontaneous dancing.

What I neglect to remember sometimes is that all of this is being filmed.

The editors pieced together this montage--without my permission, of course--which I believe is something of an homage to the closing dance number of the Academy Award winning film, Slumdog Millionaire.

And yes, when I am trying to insert my index finger into my clenched fist, the clenched fist is something of an homage to a butthole.
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