Looking Down from Heaven: How Simulation Perspective Encourages Cruelty

On Friday, December 14, 2012 1 comments

Last time we talked about how perspective influences the player’s relationship with the main character. This time, let’s look at how view point changes how the player feels about other characters in the game. Let’s talk about god.

Okay, god perspective (I had you worried for a second, didn't I?). God-perspective is a top-down view used in simulation and strategy games. The player views things from high up and far away, as if they were a spiteful god. Oftentimes they act like one, too. See, the god-perspective puts a lot of distance between the player and the miniscule figures onscreen. It allows the player to observe humanity impartially. It also allows them to be an enormous jerk. No game demonstrates this better than The Sims.

Look at those snide little jerks. They're begging for a thunderbolt. 

In The Sims, while the player does create and control characters, none of the individual characters are integral to the game. The player can delete and create new characters at any time. This, combined with the looking-down-from-heaven view, makes the Sims dispensable. The player is free to do whatever the heck they want without feeling responsible. While the ambiguous goal of the game is to earn money and build a merchandise-filled house, many players choose to make their Sim’s life miserable. In an online chatboard, players brainstormed fun things they could do with their Sims. Responses ranged from “make a huge family and kill them all and make a new family move in ... in the same house” to “refuse to use the bathroom” to even “Make your Sim cheat on their husband/wife and see how long it takes them to get caught.”1 Players feel no guilt about what they force the Sims to do, because the remote perspective reduces the Sims to mere playthings.

Likewise, in the strategy game Civilization, the player is a ruler of a country, and the goal is to build the best empire (or as an albino mouse might put it, try to take over the world). This involves sending troops to war. When the player is at war, their forces are referred to as “units.” Their soldiers and people are not given an identity or any individuality. There is no reward for keeping them alive, other than the fact that they can be reused as more cannon fodder. Once again, the top-down perspective gives the player a sense of being above the action, both literally and figuratively. Because of this, the player is detached from the struggles of the NPCs.

Apparently Civilization is about a society of giants.

Contrast this with Valkyria Chronicles, a war game that uses the same perspective. At the beginning of every turn, the player views a map showing the position of their soldiers and the opposing forces on the field. However, when the player selects a soldier to move, the game switches to 3rd person perspective, and the player controls that unit directly. Not surprisingly, the soldiers all have an individual identity, complete with a unique character model, names, and even personal likes and dislikes that influence the way they perform in battle. By knowing the strengths and weaknesses of their soldiers on an individual basis, the player can use them more efficiently. This play style reinforces the plot, which is also heavily character driven.

The Pokemon series uses a similar technique to spotlight the fantastical freaks of the franchise. Every new “generation” of games has a new, silent protagonist. This protagonist never speaks or shows any personality. Again, the top-down perspective of the games detaches the player from the onscreen character, making the human avatar seem disposable and unimportant. When a Pokemon battle starts, the perspective switches. Suddenly the player views the battlefield from ground level, from a perspective that may or may not be the player character. When Pokemon are sent out to battle, the player views them up close and personal. You could argue that this is to better show off the violence, but the joke’s on you because Pokemon is about as non-violent as animal fighting gets.  Instead, this makes the player more likely to care about their Pokemon, whom they see first-hand fail and succeed, than the player character, whom they see only from a distant view. 

This is at least twice as violent as the average Pokemon battle.
So there you have it. Perspective is a crucial part of making a game fun or a flop, and it's something developers should never ignore. By controlling how the player sees the game, developers can control how players interact with their environment and the characters. Next time, we'll look at another critical aspect of making games succeed: goals. Until then, curb your craving for nerd by checking out the rest of my blog!

1.                  "1000 Fun Things to Do in Sims 3." Jan 2009. NeoForum Community, Online Posting to Neoseeker. Web. 28 Mar. 2012.

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Seeing is Believing: How Camera Placement Can Make or Break Video Games

On Thursday, December 13, 2012 0 comments

Last post we talked about how viewpoint influences how responsible players feel for their actions. Viewpoint also changes how the player feels about a character. For example, Ultimate Spiderman shows two perspectives. The player alternately controls Spiderman and Venom. Because the player also controls Venom, he cannot be the antagonist. Unlike other mediums, where a villain can share a large portion of screen time and parts of the story can be told from their perspective, in video games the player sees their avatar as an extension of themselves, and thus as a protagonist. Most players don’t mind doing villainous deeds for shits and giggles, but there is a difference between villainy and being the villain..

This framing gives the story more emotional depth. When the final battle comes and it’s time for Spiderman to beat Venom, it’s not clear who the player should root for. Yeah, Venom’s a sick abomination who would eat your Granny, but he is also an extension of the player. Players want to succeed in games, so when they controlled Venom their goal was to help him achieve whatever the heck he wanted. Then they are put in a position where one side has to lose. This creates a bittersweet victory.

Hipster Venom had tentacles coming out of his back
before Slenderman made it cool.
The same thing happens in Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn. By allowing the character to control both sides of a war, the player cannot see either side as a villain. What’s more, much of your time in the game is spent trying to keep your troops from dying. Once a character dies they are gone for good, so you will spend many a battle resetting over and over. And then you are put in a fight against yourself, where the goal is to defeat your other team. All of a sudden all that frustration spent keeping characters alive is fruitless. Kind of like war itself. This dynamic allows the designers to build a compelling picture of war as a two-sided issue where neither faction thinks they are wrong.

This son of a bitch cost me several hours of my life
trying to keep his sorry ass alive.

Perspective can also serve as a cosmetic tool. In games like World of Warcraft, where the primary goal is raising and developing a character, the game uses 3rd person perspective. Players are drawn to these games because they want a chance to create an alternate persona. The character that the player designs is a “’vacuum into which [their] identity and awareness are pulled,’” allowing them to step out of their real-world self.1 If you want to be some sort of ninja cat person, you be that ninja cat person. Because so much emphasis is placed on creating a new identity through a fictional character, being able to see the character is paramount. Also, the 3rd person perspective allows the players to see their avatar within a fantasy realm.

You have the ability to become ANYTHING, and you choose a half-naked elf chick. Way to flaunt that imagination. 

Skyrim, on the other hand, allows players to switch between 1st and 3rd person perspectives. In an online forum, players discussed what viewpoints they preferred. While opinions differed, several players remarked that they used 1st person perspective for battle and 3rd person perspective for exploration. While part of this is due to the interface, where 1st person is better-suited to combat, part of it is also because of the rhetorical effects of the perspectives. As one commenter put it, he enjoys a “mix of both for me. I like combat in first person, but I do a lot of exploration in third. It's nice to be able to see your character and the changes new gear makes, and the models/animations look much better than I expected they would.”2 Players like to experience the triumphs of combat in 1st person, but when it comes to building a character and exploring a world, 3rd person is better-suited.

World exploration is integral to many platforming games, because part of the joy comes from discovering new and imaginative worlds. Psychonauts is a platformer that takes place within the mindscapes of other people. The worlds are as colorful and varied as the characters, and much of the joy comes from seeing the onscreen character interact with the environment. For example, in one level the player is in the subconscious of a giant mutated fish who just so happens to be terrified of people. This manifests as the player-character being a towering colossus rampaging through a surprisingly sophisticated cityscape. The player is suddenly a Godzilla-esque force in a field of buildings that collapse when you stomp on them and denizens that running shrieking from your approach. While this set-up would still be hilarious in 1st person, the ability to see the panorama of destruction the player causes adds to the enjoyment.

Pictured here: Raz destroying Lungfishopolis. And enjoying it. The monster.

Katamari Damacy also allows the player to destroy parts of the environment by combining them into an ever-growing ball. Allowing the player to see the stripped-bare land behind them gives them a satisfaction in knowing that they have the power to change the way the land looks. It also allows them to see the citizens fleeing in panic. You leave a wake of destruction and desolation, like a colorful avenging angel. The 3rd person perspective allows players to see the effects of their actions on the environment, which is why it is useful for platforming games and other genres where the focus is on exploration.

All shall become part of the collective.
But wait! We're not done exploring the joys of perspective yet. Join us next time for an exploration of being a dick in The Sims.

1.                  Wolf, Mark J.P.. "Abstraction in the Video Game." The Video Game Theory Reader. Ed. Mark J.P. Wolf and Ed. Bernard Perron. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.
2.                  "Skyrim: 1st or 3rd person?." 12 Nov 2011. N.p., Online Posting to Gaming Outsiders. Web. 28 Mar. 2012
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The Rhetoric of Video Games

Video games are pretty awesome. That is self-evident. However, why are video games so cool? It’s because video games are a powerful, interactive medium. They engage players in ways that books or movies can only jealously dream about. Because it is interactive, video games employ a different kind of rhetoric than other entertainment. This rhetoric is the why. Over these next few posts, I am going to explore how video games engage players. So come with me, and together we can explore exactly what makes video games so darn awesome.

There are so many areas of rhetoric in video games, it would be TL;DR central if I crammed them into one post. Different topics are in different posts for your reading convenience. Click on whatever topic looks interesting!

Sharing Sight: The use of perspective controls the degree of separation the player has from onscreen events. 

Seeing is believing: Perspective influences how emotionally attached a player will feel to the character, depending on whether or not they view them as an extension of themselves. 

Looking Down from Heaven: An explanation of why torturing Sims is both fun and rhetorically effective.

Winning Terms: What do the goals of a game say about the beliefs of the creators?

Your Objective is Anarchy: Learn how questioning authority and free-thinking can be built into the medium using goals.

Madness in the Method: The developers betray a lot about their own belief system in the way they program their game. 

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Sharing Sight: How Perspective Influences Player Achievement

In video games, the perspective, or view point, is one of the biggest determining factors in play style. It’s crazy to think that something as simple as where the camera is placed could change a game, but it’s true. The way the player sees the game changes how personal events are. Used effectively, view point can make the difference between a compelling drama and an uninteresting conflict.

The two most common perspectives are 1st person, in which the player sees directly out of their controlled character, and 3rd person, in which the camera is placed behind a character. Many competitive shooters, such as Call of Duty and Halo, use a 1st person perspective, hence the label “first-person shooter” (FPS). This view is preferable when the game focuses on precision aiming, because the player can aim directly without an avatar’s body getting in the way.

Except for the hands. Stupid hands, blocking my field of vision.
Perspective determines how the audience relates to the story and the main character. In a 1st person game, players rarely see the character they are controlling. The player can “transfer [themselves] into the video game character, experience the intensity of the challenge, and achieve the sense of mastery and exhilaration of success.”1 This allows the player to feel like they are directly responsible for the victories and achievements in the game. Call of Duty is widely liked for its competitive aspect. Players compete online against one another, trying to outgun and outlast their fellow players. Part of its massive success and popularity might be due to the perspective. The players cannot see their own avatar, thus there is one less constant reminder that they are playing a video game. 1st person perspective allows the player to feel like they are the ones responsible for victory instead of the character they control.

Another popular FPS, Halo, goes so far as to have the character be both faceless (constantly wearing a helmet) and voiceless. Because the character has no distinct personality of its own, players can project themselves into the game. So it’s not the story of how Master Chief saves the world, it’s the story of how you save the world. The player becomes Master Chief. So when they make it through a particularly grueling level, they know it’s the result of their skill as a player and not because of Master Chief.

No glory-hogging for you, Mater Chief.

Sometimes developers may want to limit the amount of responsibility a player feels. In Sucker Punch’s Infamous, the game takes a 3rd person approach. Even though a majority of the combat relies on aiming, the game does not go into 1st person perspective. Instead, the camera zooms in to Cole, just above the shoulder so that players can aim accurately. Infamous also has a lot of platforming elements, and being able to navigate the environment is a must, so the 3rd person camera helps players see their position relative to other objects around them.

Can you imagine how much this would suck in 1st person?
They'd have to rename the game Mirror's Edge.
However, the 3rd person perspective also has the side-effect of providing a constant reminder to the player that they are not physically in the game. Because the main character is always on the screen, there is distance between him and the player. Infamous’s main draw comes from its morality system, where players can choose between “good” and “evil” alignments determined by their actions. “Evil” actions take the form of injuring innocent bystanders, killing police officers and basically being a giant douche. By distancing the player from the character, the player is also distanced from their actions. This allows the player a greater sense of moral freedom, because they do not feel directly responsible for the acts they commit. If they decide it would be funny to blow up a car with a bunch of snotty kids in it, well, it’s not them doing it, it’s Cole.

There was a family of four in that car.

The 3rd person perspective lets the character be as big of a jerk as they want without feeling any guilt. After all, it’s only a game. They aren't supposed to be the main character, only control him. So if they want to set the town on fire, they can do it with wild abandon. All the consequences fall on Cole, not them.

Part 2 of perspective is here.

Part 3 of perspective is here.

Main Video Game Rhetoric Directory

Stay tuned for more articles on video game rhetoric!

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How To Get Your Friends Addicted to Anime

On Wednesday, December 12, 2012 10 comments

Anime is awesome. You know what makes anime more awesome? Watching it with friends. What’s that, you say? Your friends think anime is weird and refuse to give it a shot? Well, have I got some good news for you: I’ve created a dandy little guide that will help you help your friends become every bit as anime-obsessed as you are. Read on, and soon you will be able to spread the joy of anime faster and easier than spreading a venereal disease.

Why would your friends think THIS is weird? It's just a rifle-wielding teddy bear.

1. Find stuff that interests them
Admit it, your desire to get your friend addicted to anime is mostly self-interest. You want someone you can laugh with, someone to share your hobby with to make it even more fun. That’s understandable. However, you are far more likely to succeed if you think about what your friend likes first. If they love Disney movies and romantic comedies, starting them out with a psychological meltdown like Evangelion or Serial Experiments Lain probably isn’t going to go over so well. Try something like Fruits Basket instead. And if they’re a sci-fi nut, steer away from Sailor Moon. Introduce them to Ghost in the Shell instead. There’s an anime out there for everyone. However, the uninitiated think Pokemon or Naruto are the norm. If you show something that captures their interest, they’ll be more willing to sit through an episode. After the strangeness of “japanimation” wears off, then they might be more willing to branch out into new territory. Until then, though, your best bet is to show them that anime can be cool be introducing them to genres they already like, just in a different medium.

My friend likes Twilight.  I bet she'd LOVE this show.
Look, it's got a vampire and a werewolf!
2. Control your inner nerd. 
What’s more annoying than a squealing fangirl? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. You know how most people mock Twihards and people who wear Jacob Black shirts? It’s because people don’t like you rubbing your weird obsessions in their face. If they’re a fan too, that’s another story. Then they might just squeal along with you. If they aren’t a fan, though, more than likely they will find your constant blabber about the “godlike sexiness of L” annoying, and it will turn them off to all anime. You can show you like something without looking like an obsessive maniac. As a general rule when talking about shows or characters you love, imagine someone saying the same thing about a subject you are disinterested in. If you don’t like My Little Pony, and someone says, “Man, I love those ponies. That show makes me laugh,” chances are this won’t bother you unless you are really immature. But if someone goes, “Omigosh, I freaking watch My Little Pony seven hours a day! I’m saving all my chewed bubblegum, and I’m gonna make a huge sculpture out of Pinkie Pie with it. You have to see it when it’s done. Anyone who doesn’t like MLP is gay!” …that’s weird. What are the chances you will want to go home and watch MLP after this? Not very likely.
Pop quiz: This guy sits next to you on the bus. What do you do?
Answer for a non-anime fan: Be very uncomfortable.
3. Help explain things they might be confused about
Spolier: anime comes from Japan. This means that anime uses different narrative techniques to express itself. When people first watch anime, they might be totally confused over something as simple as honorifics. If they are, briefly explain what you know. Tell them that when characters go “super-deformed” it is usually for comic relief and not what is literally happening. Let them know that magical-girl transformations usually don’t happen in real-time. This may seem like common sense to you, but it isn’t. You learned it intuitively over a period of time. Your friend can’t help being a stranger to the culture and norms of anime. Don’t make them feel like an idiot, because they aren’t (and making them feel bad will only associate a negative emotional state with watching anime, lowering their future enjoyment). Try not to overwhelm then, and don’t talk so often that they can’t hear what is going on onscreen. But if they are confused, try to explain it to them. They are in unfamiliar territory, and you are their guide.

For example, your friend might have questions like:
What exactly is a host club? And where can I FIND one?

4. Don’t strap them to a chair. 
Here’s a little anecdote a hope you will find enlightening: when I was in middle school, I had a friend who was absolutely insane over Inuyasha. I did not like Inuyasha, but she was certain she could “convert” me. On a sleepover to her house, she forced me to have a non-stop marathon of the show. Before, I had only known enough about the show to think it was bland. After sitting through fifteen episodes, though, I changed my mind. Now I hate it. Forcing me to do something didn’t change my mind. It just made me bitter, and forever sparked a fiery rage against the fur-eared faux-female. The same can happen to your friends if you coerce them into watching anime. Refer to step 1. Find a show you think they will like, and explain that it appeals to their interests. If they don’t want to watch it, then drop the subject for a little bit. Only bring it back up occasionally, extending the invitation but not being pushy. No one likes a pusher.

Behold the subjects of my darkest nightmare.

5. Give it time.
So they watched a few episodes of whatever with you, and they are unimpressed. Fine. Don’t fret. Give it a little while. If you did step 1 properly, then chances are they will want to see what happens eventually. It just might take some time for them to lay aside their pride and admit they actually like an anime. If they don’t come around, then either they are really biased against the medium, or you didn’t do step 1 properly. Try again, choosing another anime that you think they will like. Again, don’t force it. If you introduce them to something that sparks their interest, they’ll come around.
Well, I hope you enjoyed my guide! If you did, feel free to browse some of my other nerdy blog posts. And for the even more nerd, check this sweet puppy out
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Street Knight Squad Chapter 1

On Sunday, February 26, 2012 0 comments

This is the first chapter to an ebook I am planning on publishing. If you like my writing, please download my first ebook: Peter Pays Tribute. You can get it free with the following coupon code: YP65T
Zelda could see it a few agonizing steps in front of her. Her new life was waiting for her. Of course, she had to crane her head to see around the fat fan-boy blocking her view, but it was worth it to catch a glimpse of that all powerful, all new hunk of metal.
“So, like, what if the police catch us?” Tiffany asked, standing behind her.
They would be standing side-by-side, but unfortunately the crowd moderators were total Nazis. You had to stand single-file in the line. You could not leave the line. There would be no pushing, shoving or jostling while waiting in the line.
“Look, we’re not the only teenagers out this late. That whole city-curfew thing is mostly a joke,” Zelda responded, refolding her bony arms.
The line moved up one. One more step towards victory. One more step towards Street Knight IV.
“All right, Tif, do you remember what I told you?”
“Umm…” Tiffany cocked her head to the side, like a collie hearing her master’s voice in the distance. She wore more mascara than a collie, and her hair was a more vibrant shade of red, but the resemblance was still striking. “The part about how to register. You’ll probably have to explain the classes again.”
Zelda let out a deep groan. Actually, it was more of a mild snarl.
“Fine. But please try to get through the registration as fast as possible. We only have until one.”
Only until one. Weeks of begging and bargaining, and one was the latest her parents would let her stay out. And then she still had to go to school the next day.
“We have all tomorrow afternoon, don’t we?” Tiffany asked, checking her cell phone. Even at the stroke of midnight, she was still getting texts.
“This is a launch party. You’re supposed to stay up all night, and the day after, and maybe the night after that if you’re really hardcore.”
Zelda was hardcore. As soon as Street Knight IV was announced, she’d started saving her money. Four hundred dollars (and a twelve dollar monthly subscription) was a lot to ask from a fifteen year old girl with no job. But she’d found ways. Recycling cans, mowing lawns, doing extra chores. All for this.
From up front came the blissful call.
Yes! Zelda was next! She was next! This was her turn, her chance to experience the game to end all games.
Breathe. You can’t waste time passing out.
She stepped up to the counter in the dingy little game store and surrendered her hard-earned money. After signing a few papers, rushing through the instructions and registering in the database, the clerk handed her the prize. It was like a medieval gauntlet and an alien remote control had formed a sweet love child together. The Harbor company logo glinted in the store lights. It was hard and cold to the touch, but still much lighter than she expected. Like its own awesomeness buoyed it up.
Zelda forced herself to exit the store calmly. Since this building was Marked, the Bounder would work in here. But booting up inside a building went against everything Street Knight was about. One does not play Street Knight indoors. Such is blasphemy.
So like the rest of the nerds before her, Zelda took her high-tech hunk to the blissful outdoors. She slipped the Bounder over her skin. Instantly, the glove tightened, matching itself to the shape of her hand. A tingle shot through her body. After it was done calibrating, the interface came up. That gorgeous blue screen, floating in midair and awaiting her caress.
“Okay, so what do I do now?” Tiffany asked behind her. She had her Bounder on, and she was staring at it like a Neanderthal would stare at a Christmas tree. So familiar, and yet so strange.
“You are such a noob,” Zelda teased, rolling her eyes.
“I’ve played video games before,” defended Tiffany, holding her head up high. She was still four inches shorter than Zelda.
“Okay, just follow me and do what I do,” Zelda ordered. With her gloved hand, she tapped on the blue interface. To anyone walking by, it would look like she was tapping the air. Only other players could see the interface. The Bounder was the key to a whole new, magical, fantastical world. Right on top of the old one. “You have to choose a username. Don’t pick anything too stupid, okay? Other people will be able to see it.”
“I already did that. I’m not brain dead. I’m just a little confused about the whole classes thing.”
“Noob,” Zelda taunted. Her fingers itched to get registration done with so she could start playing. “Each of the classes has a different fighting style. Warriors are the tanks. They can deal a lot of damage, and they usually have high health, but they also suffer from low magic defense and –”
“I thought you said you wanted to get through this quick,” Tiffany interrupted. There was a smirk stuck to the edges of her lips. No one knew better than Tiffany how much Zelda loved to rant about her favorite video game.
“Just pick the thief. They’re small and pesky, just like you.”
“I am not small,” Tiffany sniffed. However, she took Zelda’s advice. After all, when it came to Street Knight, Zelda was the leading authority.
“I’ll be a warrior. We won’t have a mage, but maybe we can pick up someone to join our party.”
“Maybe I can ask Bruno!” Tiffany squealed, like she’d just had an epiphany. Her hands stopped fluttering across the interface in order to clap together.
“No. And don’t stop. We only have forty-five minutes left.”
“I don’t know why you hate him so much,” Tiffany muttered, returning to her button-pressing. “He’s absolutely adorable. If I didn’t know better, I’d say – oh holy crap, that is awesome!”
Zelda was thinking the same thing. Her own registration complete, the Bounder was creating her avatar. Except avatar wasn’t the right word. She’d be directly playing the game, but she’d be doing it in costume. A costume made from the most amazing holographic technology ever. Light blossomed from her Bounder, spreading over her body and coating it in her game identity. She’d played Street Knight III (and I and II), but they were nothing compared to this. From her feet up, her body was morphing into another person entirely. Layer upon layer of sparks congealed around her, making her transform.
Well, there was no real transformation involved. It was just light and dust and a bunch of other technical stuff. But it looked so real.
“My life is officially complete,” Zelda breathed. Her pale skin was replaced with a dark tan. Over her own scrawny limbs were the limbs of someone who worked out quite a bit. Then there was her face, now completely changed. Since she had picked all the features, she didn’t have to look in a mirror to know what she looked like. Broad nose, fierce eyes, the face of someone who could pummel you. No more too-small nose and dimples.
“Me next!” Tiffany squealed, typing on her interface. In a few moments, her registration was complete, and the transformation took hold of her body, too.
“Why did you make yourself taller?” Zelda asked, cocking an eyebrow.
“I’ve always wanted to be tall,” Tiffany sniffed, putting her now perfect nose in the air.
“You do realize no one is going to be able to make eye contact with you. It’ll always look like they’re staring above your head.”
“A small price to pay.”
Zelda would have pressed the point, but they didn’t have time to waste.
“Come on. I want to level up at least once before I have to go home.”
“And how do we do that?”
“The same way you do it in every game. We go kill something.”
With a mental urging, she pulled up her radar. This wouldn’t help Tiffany, since players couldn’t see each others HUBs. She’d tell her friend how to do it later when they had the time. For now, her eyes absorbed the layout of the city. It was still the city she knew, more or less. The big green block down the street was the marketplace. In real life, it was a Walmart, but they hosted the area’s marketplace in return for a monthly fee. That meant allowing strange people into their store at all hours of the day and night. So pretty much the same thing they did on a day-to-day basis.
Around the large green dot, there was a swarm of tiny blue ones. Other players, all flooding the store to try and stock up on decent items. Waste of time. You couldn’t afford anything good until you’d completed a few quests.
On the other side of the radar, there were scattered red dots. The enemies.
“Looks like we’re in business. Follow me,” Zelda commanded, sprinting off.
With a yelp, her friend ran after. Lucky for Tiffany, she was in good enough shape that she could run and blab at the same time.
“So just for the record, this is pretty much the same as any other game, right?” she asked, bouncing gracefully alongside Zelda. At least, the hologram looked graceful. She couldn’t tell what was going on under the surface.
Street Knight is not like other games,” Zelda sniffed, indignant. “There’s no sitting on your butt here. You actually have to do stuff.”
“Okay, chill girl, it wasn’t a personal attack,” Tiffany replied. “All I want to know is if they play more or less the same.”
“Well, a little bit,” Zelda conceded. On her radar, she could see the red blips drawing closer, so she made her explanation brief. “At this point in the game, you won’t have a lot of special skills. Just go up to a monster and stab it with your knife.”
“Wait, you mean I have to actually touch the thing?” Tiffany whined. Even in the dinky streetlights, Zelda could see the disgust on her face. Or at least, the disgust she showed on her face that was reflected through the hologram. But man, it was hard to tell the difference. The avatar graphics had taken a serious upgrade.
“You won’t feel anything. It’s just a hologram.”
“I know. I have seen people play this game before,” Tiffany said, ever quick to prove herself not a dunce. “I’ve seen plenty of people attack empty air. I just didn’t think you actually had to aim.”
 Zelda rolled her eyes. The more her friend tried to sound experienced, the more she revealed her own ineptitude. Even though Tiffany swore up and down that she was a gamer, her definition of hardcore was Pokemon.
“There won’t be blood, will there?”
“No. If you want blood, you have to unlock your account and prove that you’re over eighteen. Then you can have blood.”
Ahead, through the flickering light of the lamps, they saw their first monster. There was something so blissful about running through these mundane streets and coming across something so fantastical. Especially with the upgraded graphics. This one was a troll, low-level and ugly. But it was such a realistic ugly that it took Zelda’s breath away. The way its pebbly skin matched the lighting in the area perfectly, its primal movements, the soft thud as it took a step. To anyone without a Bounder, it would look like nothing was there at all. But to Zelda and Tiffany, this thing was as real as a hobo.
“Oh wow,” Tiffany breathed. She had stopped a block away, amazement gluing her in her place.
“Pretty cool, huh?”
“What happens if that thing hits me?”
“Then you take damage,” Zelda explained. She wanted to punctuate her sentence with a duh, but resisted the urge. She remembered her first time playing this game. How it had all been so believable it was unbelievable.
“But it won’t…hurt me, will it?”
“Do you think people would play this game if it was excruciatingly painful?” Zelda shot back, unsheathing her sword. Her hologram of a sword. The only thing this baby could hurt was other players in the game. Still, she felt undeniably cool holding it.
“Go time,” she breathed, rushing forward.
Her feet pounding on the asphalt, she cleared the distance between her and the troll. The troll let out a cry of its own and dodged.
It heard me coming. Cool! They didn’t react like that in III.
Fortunately, she’d been playing this game long enough to have razor-sharp reflexes. With a completely unnecessary battle-cry, she lunged forward with her sword. The monster screamed, damage calculation flashed in her vision. She parried a swipe of the monster’s claw with her blade.
“What do I do?” called Tiffany, standing a safe distance away.
“Help!” she shouted back, darting under the monster’s flailing arms.
Back attack, sucker.
A few more swipes and the beast was down, fading out of existence with a showy flash of light. It was the closest you were going to get to a monster in the suburbs.
“Way to lend a hand,” Zelda told Tiffany, sheathing her sword.
“Sorry! I kind of spaced. I had no idea what to do,” Tiffany wheedled, clutching her hands to her chest in a manner that was supposed to be endearing, but came across as wimpy.
Sighing, Zelda checked her watch.
“Well, we still have fifteen minutes. That’s enough time to find a couple of enemies. You can redeem yourself then.”
Taking the lead, Zelda led her friend towards the next red dot on her radar. While the rest of the city slept, they slaughtered forest troll. It was the best night of Zelda’s life.
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Tim Schafer, please take my money

On Saturday, February 25, 2012 2 comments

Tim Schafer is a cool guy. He’s created a handful of absolutely wonderful video games, every one of them reeking of non-conventional fun. Yet for some reason, publishers don’t want to fund his games. Psychonauts almost didn’t get made because Microsoft pulled their financial support.

This game was amazing. No one will fund a sequel.
Why? Because publishers are in the industry to make money. The same goes for film producers, record companies and publishing houses. They aren’t gonna pony-up money if they don’t think a product will sell. As I discussed in a previous post, this is only logical. They want to make money, so they only invest in projects they think will sell.

What happens when publishers are wrong, though? Tim Schafer is best known for his witty adventure games. You know, the kind where you point-and-click? Unfortunately, pointing and clicking has fallen out of favor with mainstream gamers. The majority of people would rather waggle with a stick than click with a mouse.

Ironically, most Wii games amount to pointing the remote and  clicking  a button.
So where does this leave Tim Schafer and adventure fans? Up the creek without a paddle. Without any publishers willing to invest in a low-return genre, there is no way to get the required funding. At least, that’s what most people thought. Fortunately, Mr. Schafer’s brain does not operate like the average Joe’s. He decided he wasn’t going to let “the man” get him down. He decided he wasn’t going to give up on a genre he loved. He decided he was going to get funding from fans.

It’s called crowd-sourcing, and it could revolutionize the media industry. Using a website called Kickstarter, Tim Schafer’s company, Double Fine, set up a project where fans could donate money to fund the production of a new adventure game. If you donate as little as $15, you receive the game once it is finished. That means you can essentially preorder the game, and your money goes directly to funding its production.

What’s more impressive than the idea is how highly successful it’s been. Within eight hours, Double Fine reached their funding goal of $400,000. As of this writing, they have amassed over $2 million. While that’s a widdle-biddle budget for a game like Halo or Final Fantasy, it’s enough for an adventure game. Also, by cutting out the middle-man, Double Fine doesn’t have to share their profits with a production company, so they get a higher return on their product.

Every time you donate to Double Fine, the game becomes 20% cooler

Why is this so absolutely amazing? Because it means that money-grubbing corporations no longer control what gets made. People can decide for themselves what they feel is worth investing in. Crazy, oddball ideas that don’t appeal to the masses might still appeal to, say, 100,000 people. And those people can help fund the project.

Of course, big budget games aren’t going anywhere. The average person is too timid to invest in something until they’ve heard a review from critic. However, for people who are sick of mainstream media and willing to try something new, crowd-sourcing is the ultimate boon. It means YOU get to decide what you want, instead of critics and publishing houses deciding for you. So what are you waiting for? Go to Kickstarter, find something interesting, and invest!

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Friendship is Heroic

On Wednesday, February 22, 2012 0 comments

There is a plague on the internet, haunting forums and message boards like an old woman haunting a bingo hall. It is called My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. The over-night internet sensation has bred a fandom that calls itself “bronies,” and they are by and large grown men who should be too old for cartoon unicorns.

Despite the overwhelming reception of MLP, it isn’t all love and tolerance for the ponies. In February 2011, 4chan temporarily banned anyone who posted MLP related material. This is the same site that is infamous for its “no rules” in posting images. This prompted the brony fan base to start their own image board, ponychan. However, apparently that still didn’t put enough cyber-distance between them and 4chan, as members of 4chan later raided the separate imageboard, temporarily causing the servers to crash.

Rebellion never looked so cuddly

What caused such a vehement reaction? The main line of protest is that MLP is a show for little girls, and therefore should not be appealing to guys. If a grown man likes MLP,they are accused of being feminine or a disgrace. However, you can’t judge the worth of a series by its candy-colored wrapping. Just because there are magical talking ponies, and just because a series is aimed at kids, doesn’t mean that a work is immature. In fact, MLP demonstrates protagonists taking on real-life problems in non-hypocritical, meaningful ways. The realistic, relatable heroes of the series are what make the show more than just a “girl cartoon,” and give it such a strong adult following.

Most toddler-friendly cartoons are so saturated with saccharine happiness that too much exposure to them can cause diabetes. Shows like Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Dora the Explorer are devoid of conflicts that transfer to the real world. Problems are watered-down and often solved through illogical or unrealistic means. For example, all Dora has to do to deter Swiper the Fox from thievery is shout “Swiper, no swiping!” three times. There is no relation to real-life conflict. Any adult (or anyone over the age of two) who tried to solve a conflict this way would be laughed at and then promptly robbed beyond all reason.

On the other end of the spectrum, some kid shows like Care Bears have protagonists that spout ideologies of endless love and acceptance, but still use violent means to solve their problems. The “Care Bear Stare” is really just a rainbow-hued death ray. The bears literally zap their opponents into submission. Within the mythology of the series, the “Care Bear Stare” is supposed to represent concentrated care and joy. So why do the Care Bears have to use this ultimate weapon? Why can’t they just use love and kindness to solve their problems?
Remember, kids, brainwashing is an acceptable solution to problems

The answer is that most kid shows are caught between trying to show realistic conflict and keeping themselves kid friendly. Supposedly, many shows aimed at toddlers want to instill good values in their audience. They want to show them how to be peaceful and friendly and a good member of society, etc. However, real life isn’t kind to those ideals. Being nice to other people doesn’t mean they’ll be nice back, and telling someone they are hurting your feelings isn’t going to guarantee a pouring out of forgiveness and kindness. So the writers have to settle for making protagonists who are unrealistically idealistic or unbearably hypocritical. The characters can be like Dora, and solve problems in over-simplified, or they can be like the Care Bears, and preach love while practicing hate.

Except MLP is different. The protagonists may be a bunch of talking ponies, but they respond and react like real people. They aren’t some distorted, unreachable ideal. Instead, they are heroes that an audience can both relate to and emulate. They encounter real-life problems, and they solve them in real-life ways.

 Go ahead, watch an episode. You know you want to.

The characters have distinct personalities, which makes them more interesting and complex enough for an adult audience to enjoy. In the episode “Dragonshy,” timid little Fluttershy has to help her friends calm down a dangerous dragon. Fluttershy was always presented as the sweet, gentle, timid pony of the group. She is good with animals, but has trouble asserting herself. However, when the dragon threatens her friends, Fluttershy becomes a force to be reckoned with. She faces the dragon and commands him to behave. She isn’t just a wilting flower. She has multiple facets to her personality, just like a real person. In many children’s cartoon, even the first series of My Little Pony, the characters were often only distinguishable from one another by one-dimensional traits, like being grumpy or funny. However, Fluttershy is more than just the shy one. She is gentle, but she is also compassionate enough to become protective when her friends are in danger.

Another character who shows unexpected depth is Pinkie Pie in the episode “Party of One.” Pinkie Pie comes across as an extremely eccentric cloud cuckoo lander. She routinely breaks the laws of physics, has non-sequitur moments about oatmeal, and throws parties on a regular basis. However, when the other ponies start avoiding her, she quickly becomes paranoid about people not liking her. Instead of laughing it off (a very standard Pinkie reaction), she broods in her house. She is no longer the bouncy, joy-filled pony of sun shines and smiles, but is instead self-conscious and hurt. She acts completely different than normal. This makes her that much more of a realistic character, because people often act differently under different circumstances. When Pinkie experiences exclusion, she is quick to loose her sense of joy and bounciness. Her hurt helps the audience relate to her, no matter what their age is.

Another example of complex characters comes in the episode “Look Before you Sleep.” Applejack, the resident tomboy, and Rarity, the fashion diva, are forced into spending the night at Twilight’s house. At first, their archetypical details mesh about as well as one would expect. Applejack is laid back, and in Rarity’s eyes very sloppy. On the other hand, Applejack sees Rarity’s eye for detail as obnoxious perfectionism. The two are able to come to terms and learn to enjoy each other. However, it isn’t because Applejack learns to be more girly or Rarity learns to be more of a tomboy. Instead, Rarity admires Applejack’s resolve and work ethic despite her tendency to be a slob. In turn, Applejack appreciates Rarity’s sensitivity towards the feelings of others and her attention to detail. Unlike most children’s shows, the characters are given traits beyond being “girly” or “tomboyish.” They have distinct traits that they can admire in each other that are independent of their placement on the sliding scale femininity. Because there is more to them than how deep their wardrobe is, people besides little girls can relate to them.

 The best thing about adult fans is they can do awesome stuff like remixes

Once again Rarity shows that she is more multi-faceted than a diamond in the episode “A Dog and Pony Show.” When Rarity is taken captive by a group of jewel-grubbing dogs, the other ponies fear that she won’t be able to protect herself. When they do finally come to her rescue, though, they see that Rarity was never in need of assistance. She was able to fend for herself against the dogs with some clever verbal parrying. Even though she is girly, Rarity didn’t panic in the face of conflict. She was able to hold her own, proving that there is more to her than an insatiable need for clothes.

The characters also have faults and make mistakes, which makes them more realistic. Like in the episode “Boast Busters,” when Trixie the enormous brag comes to town and starts showing the other ponies up. Twilight is afraid to stand up for her friends because she doesn’t want to be seen as a show-off, either. The conflict doesn’t merely arrive from some character doing bad and the other characters trying to show them the right way. Instead, it comes from the moral dilemma when a character is presented with a conflict where they aren’t sure what the right choice would be. Twilight expresses genuine fear over loosing friends. She is not some moral titan who automatically knows what is right.

The cast may be cute and cuddly, but don't mistake them for shallow

Then, in the episode “Suited for Success,” Rarity, the resident fashion designer, decides to make dresses for all her friends. Unfortunately, her friends’ fashion taste is lacking, and they don’t like the clothes Rarity poured so much effort into. It’s rude; it’s ungrateful; it’s mean. However, Rarity swallows her pride and changes the dresses according to her friend’s suggestions. They turn out hideous looking, but Rarity wants to make her friends happy. Unfortunately, when people see the ugly designs, Rarity’s reputation as a fashion designer is ruined. Her friends realize their mistake, and decide to put on a fashion show with Rarity’s original designs so people can see how talented she really is. This isn’t a glorified depiction of friendship. Sometimes, friends make stupid mistakes and hurt each other. The cast of MLP isn’t perfect. They are occasionally ungrateful or insensitive. However, they learn from their mistakes. Rarity was willing to give her friends the dresses they wanted, even if they hurt her feelings. She does express hurt, but she is willing to put it aside for the sake of her friends. In turn, when her friends realize that they selfishly hurt their friend, they are willing to make amends.

Sweet little Fluttershy also has her faults. In the episode “A Bird in the Hoof,” she abducts Princess Celestia’s pet bird because she feared the bird was not being well taken care of. When Twilight finds out, she panics, and persuades Fluttershy to bring the bird back without letting the princess know what they did. Both characters are guilty of dishonesty, because they do not want to admit their mistake to the Princess, so they sneak around and try to bring the bird back covertly. Fluttershy also thinks that she knows what is best for the bird even though it is out of her jurisdiction. She is prideful and that pride eventually leads to them getting caught. However, after realizing that her actions were selfish and hurtful, she expresses regret and a desire to make amends. Unlike some children’s shows MLP isn’t afraid to show the characters doing misdeeds if the characters are going to grow as a result.

Being a brony. It feels like this.

Another example of the characters not being perfect is in “Bridle Gossip,” when a zebra named Zecora comes to town. The other ponies have never seen anything like her, so they react with fear. Initially, Twilight acts as the moral light. However, after a few misunderstandings, she too misjudges Zecora and gives in to gossip. When she finds out she was wrong, and Zecora really is nice, she feels guilty. All the ponies do, because they were all in the wrong. Because the characters were mean, they were able to learn from their mistakes. If a character is perfect, they can never progress. However, Twilight was fearful enough to make the mistake of labeling and excluding someone. This makes the lesson more powerful, because it gives the show the chance to show the characters correcting their mistakes. After all, if a character never makes mistakes, then there is nothing to learn from.

The third sign of maturity in MLP is the stakes. The conflicts are real, and the characters are at risk of losing. For example, in the episode “The Ticket Master,” Twilight Sparkle is given two tickets to a very high profile party. Unfortunately, she has five friends, and she has to choose which one to take. As each pony-friend tries to bribe and curry favor, Twilight realizes that there is no way to avoid hurting somepony’s feelings. Instead of candy-coating the dilemma in eternal friendship, the show provides a real problem. Twilight is genuinely concerned about loosing a friend, and no magic way out appears. In the end, Twilight decides she wants to give up her tickets, because if she can’t enjoy it with all her friends, then she isn’t going to enjoy it at all. Of course, in the end Princess Celestia gives her enough tickets for all her friends, but Twilight was willing to make a sacrifice for her friends. MLP doesn’t hide the fact that sometimes there is no perfect solution to a problem. Instead of a solution appearing out of thin air, Twilight has to face her problem head on. Her solution is realistic, meaning that the audience can relate to her problem. The viewers don’t feel cheated by the resolution. Instead, they feel like they learned a valuable lesson about friendship that they could use in their own lives.

There are dozens of fan communities dedicated to creating and sharing fanart like this

Then, in the episode “Winter Wrap Up,” the ponies must clean up winter in order to make way for spring. While the concept is clearly fantastical, in pony world Winter Wrap Up is serious business. If the ponies don’t learn how to work together, then they risk being trapped in winter. The show establishes that the actions of the ponies will have an effect on the environment, for either the positive or the negative. What they are doing matters within the context of their world, so the audience is invested in the outcome. A good ending is not assured, because the ponies are doing something where failure will mean extended cold and an inability to grow food. Because there is a real risk of negative consequences, it highlights the struggle against it and makes the lessons learned more meaningful.

Animation, and cartoons especially, are often accused of being inherently childish. While it is true that most cartoons are marketed at children, that does not mean that they have to be childish. It is the result of lazy writers, not the medium, when a show presents flat characters and minimizes content. However, as studios like Disney and Pixar have shown, kid’s entertainment does not have to be equated with dumb entertainment. It is a matter of the writing staff to choose whether or not they are going to weave a story that is complex or one that is laughably simplistic. In the case of MLP, the producer Lauren Faust decided that she wanted to create a series where the life lessons actually were applicable. Since humanity is the same whether you are age four or forty, a show that realistically relates themes of friendship and dealing with other people can still be a valuable experience.

Ponies can be every bit as heroic as any other American hero

People might still argue that men should not be watching something girly like MLP, but should instead seek hero symbols in more masculine series. This argument is inherently sexist and flawed. First, it assumes that a show that tries to relate to females will somehow be of lesser quality or will not be applicable to men. This is false. Unless the authors reduce femininity to stereotypes like materialism and fashion, the characters should still think and feel. And according to the observations of leading authorities, females are still human. Therefore, their thoughts and feelings should relate to the human experience as a whole. This means that if a series does its job well, by portraying realistic characters and conflict, then people can still find heroes to look up to regardless of gender.

The conflicts in MLP aren’t sanitized versions of reality. Yes, the world is Technicolor, but it isn’t filtered with rose-colored glasses. It presents real problems that aren’t clear-cut and easily solved. This makes room for the heroes to be realistic. They react like actual people would. This is the secret behind MLP’s wild success. The audience can actually relate to the characters. The ponies have attributes that are admirable, but at the same time they are realistic. There’s no guardian who always has the right answers. The characters can’t solve their problems by spouting the word “friendship” three times fast. MLP gives the audience a colorful cast can show them how ideals like friendship and caring can be applied in real-life. That’s something an audience can appreciate, no matter what gender or age they are.
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Simlish: Because sometimes babble is better.

On Thursday, January 5, 2012 1 comments

Voice acting is a novelty. I’m old enough to remember when games didn’t have voices. All you had was a wall of text, and maybe a synthesized laugh to add to the mood. Technology increases by leaps and bounds, and it wasn’t long before there was enough processing power to include actual voices in video games. Voiced dialogue is such a powerful narrative tool that it can make or break a dramatic scene.  Despite how effective voice acting can be, some video games choose to remain silent. Other video games developed a method of having characters spout nonsense syllables to simulate talking, without actually speaking intelligible words. I refer to this as “simlish."

Clover Studio’s game Okami has a distinctive sumi-e art style, with the characters looking like they stepped out of a Japanese ink painting. One side-effect of this is that the mouths are barely more than ink splotches, making actually lip-syncing impractical. Instead, the character’s mouths wiggle and contract like an ant caught in hot molasses, and they spout a bunch of nonsense syllables that sound vaguely like archaic Japanese. More than giving the game a sense of style, the dialogue choice is purposely used to foreshadow events without completely giving away the plot.

You can tell just from looking that Okami isn't your standard video game.

Waka is the game’s loose cannon. He shows up everywhere, always one step ahead of the player, but his motives are more shadowy than the lighting in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. At least, you think they are. However, the game cleverly uses your beetle-buddy Issun to turn you against the flute-playing foreigner. Many of Waka’s lines can be read as either condescending or genuinely worried. It all depends on the tone. Since Issun suffers a major inferiority complex towards Waka, he infers the tone for you, assuming that every sentence is laced with threats. For example, look at some of Issun’s dialogue about Waka:
Issun: This guy gives me the creeps. Better keep your eye on him!
Issun: Why you...! Were you behind that near disaster?
Doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, does it? In fact, Issun’s sour attitude biases players against Waka, making them suspect his every move. However, when you view the lines by themselves, it’s easy to see that there is no malice in them:

Waka: I just had a fleeting glimpse of your future. You see, I have the power to see that which is yet to come. Even if it were something you'd rather not know...
This isn’t a threat. It’s Waka warning Amaterasu about difficult things to come, and showing concern about her ability. And then there’s lines that come across as incredibly threatening, like this one:
Issun: Quick and easy...? Wait a sec... Don't tell me you're behind this funky mist? Is this part of a plan to conquer the city and take over the world!?
You're always up to no good, so I wouldn't be surprised...
Waka: The world? Not bad, my little bouncing friend. You're only half wrong...I seek the other world... I desire a path to the heavens.
 In this scene, Issun is quick to judge Waka without a whole lot of substantial evidence against him.

This sounds like some master plot, until you beat the game and find out that Waka isn’t up to anything bad; he just wants to go home. However, without an actual voice actor reading the lines, it’s up to the player to guess inflection. Since so much of communication relies on how people say things,  toneless dialogue forces players to make their own interpretation. Clover Studios takes advantage of this, using misdirection and manipulative musical scores to add suspense. So in some cases, speaking Simlish adds more to the experience than actual voice acting can.

Of course, having the characters babble in the next Call of Duty might be a bit out of place, but there’s no reason more fairy-tale like games can’t take advantage of it. The Legend of Zelda is infamous for choosing not to use voice acting. Presumably, Nintendo wants people to use their imagination to supply the voices. However, spare text accompanied by the occasional visceral grunt doesn’t make an immersive gaming experience. In recent Zelda games, like Skyward Sword, the groans and squawks aren’t enough to carry the story.

She may occasionally sound like a babbling child, but it's still ten times better than silence.

Midna, the feisty little imp from Twilight Princess, spoke in Simlish. The trend continues with Fi. Both of these characters have voices without speaking discernible words. Now imagine a Zelda game where all characters had voices. If Nintendo used Simlish, then the games could still be immersive without taking away from player interpretation. As Okami shows, even the most harmless sentences can sound sinister (and vice versa) without tone, meaning that it still lets players use their imaginations to fill the gaps. Simlish provides that middle-ground between imagining your own version of a character and long, awkward silences. And, honestly Nintendo, isn’t it about time to let your games have a voice?

Quotes from the game found from: http://www.gamefaqs.com/ps2/920500-okami/faqs/50772
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