Monthly Archives: November 2015

Opinion – The Kotaku Story Isn’t What It Seems

Assassin’s Snub

About a week and a half ago, Kotaku published an article revealing that publishers Ubisoft and Bethesda Softworks blacklisted Kotaku from information and content shared with other websites.  You can find the article here.  In it, Kotaku notes that it believes that the blacklisting is retribution for potentially embarrassing reporting done by the website.  The publishers’ revenge is part of a deliberate attempt to penalize Kotaku for their reporting.  Kotaku claims it has been wronged.  The (silent) publishers presumably believe they’re the wronged party.  What’s going on?

Let’s start by looking at this from the Kotaku perspective.  Kotaku is a website that prides itself on its independence and its unwillingness to walk the careful line between reporting what it knows and staying in publishers’ good graces.  When it gets a scoop, it runs the story.  Seen from Kotaku’s desire to “print the truth”, the decision by Ubisoft and Bethesda to blacklist the website is a power play designed to control an uncooperative media outlet.  Kotaku casts itself in the role of the noble rebel titling their article “The Price of Games Journalism” and claiming “We serve our readers, not game companies, and will always do so to the best of our ability, no matter who in the gaming world is or isn’t angry with us at the moment.”  This is a David v. Goliath story where games journalists are fighting back against the evil corporations.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that stories like these help Kotaku’s bottom line.  In telling the world that they’re blacklisted, Kotaku is also bolstering its reputation as an independent outlet beholden to no one.  The website built a business on printing scandals and writing independent reviews so publically burning a bridge, particularly since the bridge is ashes in private, is a net boon.  The fact that Kotaku presents itself as a champion of the customer is a nice little bonus.

In some ways, Kotaku is on the side of the customer.  People go to Kotaku and games websites to learn more about games.  Scoops and inside information are things that the audience wants to know.  As such, it’s generally in the customer’s favor to pry information from companies in order to be better informed.  In grabbing the popular standard, Kotaku is undoubtedly right that it’s acting on reader interest.

Let’s not forget that corporate interest is a thing too.  Ubisoft and Bethesda are not just purveyors of the wonderful games we all love; they’re also businesses.  They make games because they want money.  When Kotaku publishes an embarrassing article, it inevitably loses the publishers some of the money they’re hoping to make or makes an internal problem even worse.  In blacklisting the website, the publishers are trying to discourage articles that cost them.  In a publisher’s ideal world, all websites would report nothing but favorable things about their games.  Sounds evil, doesn’t it?

So Kotaku’s right, right?

Nope, they’re wrong.

…and right.  It’s complicated.

Kotaku’s claim that they’re standing up against the evil corporations has no merit.  The example articles they cite in “The Price of Games Journalism” aren’t life changing issues that the people need to know, they’re reports of trouble in a game studio or confirmation of development of a new game.  With the exception of something like the EA spouses story (look it up), Kotaku is just reporting stuff people want to know, not need to know.  There is no overriding public interest and the publishers don’t owe Kotaku or gamers any of the information they have.  Furthermore, the claim of bullying doesn’t really work in this context.  Yes, companies are trying to control the media, but they lack the means to do so.  Kotaku will still see early versions of the games at trade shows and will be able to write reviews when the games drop.  Publisher capacity to control the media is limited by the fact that they have a public product.  Kotaku’s independence is not threatened.

This is a situation where Kotaku, the publishers, and gamers are all pursuing their self-interest.  Kotaku wants access to information or, barring that, to establish itself as an independent outlet.  The publishers want to discourage negative reporting of their games in order to bolster their bottom line (and not make internal problems even worse with public exposure).  Gamers just want to know.  Nobody has a strong moral claim.  No party can really say it’s more deserving of its position than any other.  Everybody is doing what is best for them.

 

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Review – Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void – PC

Writing this for a second time. Thanks Word!

Blizzard is an evolutionary developer. Occasionally they take great leaps forward, but those are rare when compared to their measured steps towards something better. Even with their long history, rarely has Blizzard made a series of games clearly heading to something specific. The Starcraft series is different. The story, gameplay, and infrastructure all lead to one point: Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void. The game is still recognizable from the Wings of Liberty days (or even Starcraft 1), but Blizzard learned so much from its past that this feels like the definitive experience.

Well, most of it does. While much of the game stands above its predecessors, the story is still clearly shackled to an unevolved version of the model set out at the beginning. The player takes control of the Protoss hero Artanis as he attempts to retake his homeworld of Aiur. The attack falters when the evil god Amon takes control of the Protoss army and Artanis is forced to collect the remaining independent forces of the Protoss to beat back Amon. The characters and plot of the Protoss story are compelling enough and even manage to evoke the occasional moment of awe at the epic scale of the conflict, but it’s hard not to feel like the single race model of the expansion packs works poorly here. Legacy of the Void should tie the disparate story lines together, but the Terran and Zerg characters only get a fraction of the screen time. It’s enough to convince the player that there is a broader conflict, but not enough to draw the player in. Amon, the link between all three games, is the flat evil god of evil stereotype and does not sufficiently tie the experience together. Blizzard understandably felt obligated to give Protoss players their due, but dedicating the final game in the series to one race undermined the overarching, multi-race narrative. If Blizzard had incorporated the other plotlines, the story would have been all the better for it.

Beyond the story, the campaign shines. Campaign missions drop the timing heavy levels of Heart of the Swarm in favor of the greater mission variety of Wings of Liberty. The upgrade system also receives an overhaul by injecting substantial flexibility. Rather than select a specific form of a unit, Legacy of the Void allows the player to switch between three forms, each with their own unique power set. The forms combine to create an impressive number of strategies and should complement whatever approach the player wants. On top of the unit forms, Blizzard included universal upgrades and powers that effect the whole level. Old standbys like automated vespane harvesters return with new friends such as teleporting in a pylon. The player can reallocate a new resource, solarite, to change the universal buffs based on their strategy. The new flexibility of the upgrade systems allow for numerous adaptations…and confusion. Legacy of the Void never explains the virtue of any one upgrade and leaves it to the player to fill in the gaps. Fortunately, this only means the player will miss out on the potential of their builds, not be confused.

The game really shines in the multiplayer. The biggest change is the addition of six extra harvester units at the beginning of each match. The additional units increase resource production and prevent the often slow beginning of most competitive Starcraft 2 matches. They also allow for a number of new strategies by getting players to the resources they need quicker. Of course, Blizzard also adds the requisite new units of which the Terran Liberator and the Zerg Ravager stand out. All the new units promote smart play by being incredibly powerful, but only when used correctly. This produces more dynamic games where even the strongest army compositions can fail if mishandled.

Legacy of the Void also adds two new modes. Archon mode lets two players control one race. Designed as a trainer mode for new players, the real fun of Archon mode is letting two friends split up the substantial control burden of the game. There’s substantial professional competitive potential in Archon mode, though there haven’t been any major tournaments yet. The other option is cooperative where players ally to take on 7 missions based on campaign missions across Starcraft 2. Players choose heroes with limited access to their race’s units and buildings, but who have special powers which expand and improve as the hero gains levels. There isn’t a lot of depth to this mode, but it’s hard to deny the fun of playing with a friend.

Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void is the finest expression of the RTS genre in a long time. If you have any interest in this kind of game, you owe it to yourself to buy this game.

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Opinion – Welcome to the Jungle

Introductions are in order.

Fallout 4 doesn’t care if you know how to play it.  Really, it’s just not interested in telling you what’s going on.  Sure, there are half-hearted attempts to give some information, but they aren’t serious.  Like the uncaring fast food cashier who vaguely recalls the item you’re ordering “might have peanuts in it”, Fallout 4 only puts up a semblance of a tutorial because it kinda feels like it has to.  Joining the Food Court of the Unhelpful are several games I’ve recently played including Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void, Sonic: Lost World, and Bloodborne.  What gives?

For one thing, tutorials suck.  They are the antithesis of gaming and practically impossible to pull off well.  The whole purpose of a tutorial is to tell the player how to play the game that they want to already be playing while they’re being told.  At their best, tutorial’s take advantage of gaming’s inherent learning capacity to work in concepts organically.  They present challenges that are overcome by previously taught skills which are combined in new ways or joined by a similar, but new, skill.  Sadly, these kinds of tutorial are rare.  More common are their unwanted brethren that throttle the player’s abilities and then explain all the wonderful game mechanics while the frustrated player watches the game play itself.  Too many games spend their opening hour by telling the player how to play rather than letting them actually do it.  In an all too often occurrence, games will completely forget about interactivity and literally type out what needs to be done.  For the impatient player who booted up a game with the hopes of actually playing it, they are unlikely to expend the necessary time and focus to grok the giant wall of text in front of them.  They are far more likely to click through and get stumped.

Let’s compare and contrast.  Consider the first level in Super Mario Brothers.  The player is present with Mario, a floor, a controller, and a pipe.  The game gives the player plenty of time to press buttons to discover that Mario moves and can jump over pipes.  After they surmount the pipe, the player meets enemies which are defeated by the previously taught jump mechanic.  The player’s skill set builds from there.  Super Mario Brothers is a classic example of a game teaching the player through playing the game.  The player jumps (teehee) right into the action and probably never realizes that they’re in Shigeru Miyamoto’s classroom.

If Super Mario Brothers is an example of a good tutorial, Bloodborne is the opposite.  The player starts off in a room.  They’re quickly massacred and sent to a hub world where all the instructions are written in ghostly images on the floor.  The instructions don’t appear to have any particular order and they’re often snippets of larger explanations.  In short, the developers decided to replace the written manual with an in game version that lacked cohesion or a table of contents.  To use the tutorial, the player must voluntarily stop playing to approach each instruction which won’t make any sense without understanding the game.  If they player decides they want to go back to an instruction, they must test each one until they find the information they’re looking for.  Gud jorbs!

Bloodborne and the other games mentioned above get away with terrible or non-existent tutorials because they are games that don’t care about new players. Each has a longstanding fan base that are expected to know how to play the game and therefore require little additional assistance.  The lack of a solid tutorial is still a shame.  Early game instruction provides new players with an entry point and reminds older players of mechanics.  Tutorials also help introduce new game concepts, something that Fallout 4 fails completely at.  The difficulty of crafting quality tutorials does not mean the developer should ignore them, rather, that they should focus more on them.  Otherwise, it’s the players that must fill in the gap.

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Opinion – Understanding Meaning

Yeah, but what does it all MEAN?

One of the major themes coming from The Beginner’s Guide is the idea of meaning.  The game starts with the narrator explaining that he’ll be talking about the meaning of the games he shows and ends with him facing the ramifications of his own misinterpretations.  Taking the idea of meaning out of the context of The Beginner’s Guide, there is a lot to explore.  What is meaning?  Who defines it?  How does my 11th grade English teacher play into all of this?

By representing one of the approaches to meaning, that’s how.  English teachers of my school system proudly asked their students to evaluate great works of literature based purely on reading the work itself.  This resulted in the students using (randomly) selected quotes from the text (that they probably didn’t read) to defend (asinine) opinions.  This approach stemmed from the belief that the meaning of a text is contained within the text itself, which makes a certain amount of sense.  Meaning derived from not-the-text can hardly be said to have come from the text.  If the book (or game, movie, bottle cap art, etc) is trying to say something, then it presumably is saying it within the confines of the work.  The problem with this approach is that it ignores the context of the statement.  Artists don’t create in a vacuum.  Instead, they are informed, consciously and subconsciously, by the world around them.  One artist may paint a battlefield to show their patriotism towards their country while another artist paints the same picture to show the horrors of war.  By just looking at the painting, the viewer might never know.

Of course, all of this matters only if you approach meaning through the eyes of authorial intent.  According to this school of thought, the author of a work defines its meaning and all analysis should focus on figuring out what they were trying to say.  Again, the logic behind this is simple.  The author of a work presumably crafted it the way they wanted it.  If the author wanted to impart a message, than their art would reflect that.  So, any message contained within a work is a reflection of the author’s views on a particular topic.  Once again, the approach has flaws.  Authorial intent quickly becomes authorial tyranny.  First, by mandating that critics spend their time trying to divine whatever they think the author might be saying.  Sometimes the author is kind enough to explain their ideas, but they often what the player to figure them out.  The second, and possibly most troubling issue, is that by making the artist the sole source of meaning, we ignore the consumer and what conclusions they come to.  The consumer does not just passively receive the information headed their way.  They process a work through their own experiences, world view, and mental state and that forms the basis of what they get from the work.  Their views can, and often do, have more impact than the authors.  Consider Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.  Sinclair hoped to use The Jungle as a way to spotlight the oppression of workers in industrialized America.  His audience viewed the book differently and decided that the terrible food hygiene was the key message.  Instead of a Commission for Worker’s Rights, the US government created the precursor of the Food and Drug Administration to stop unsanitary food preparation.

If the author and the consumer don’t define meaning, then who does?  The answer, frustratingly, is no one.  Meaning with a capital M doesn’t exist as a static concept with stable, defined answers.  It is an intensely personal idea that each person creates for themselves.  With that in mind, meanings often do overlap and the most persuasive conceptions of meaning tend to be the ones that draw from the text and the artist’s thinking.  While any work can mean anything to anyone, the most common meanings are those which draw upon the elements of the work to create an argument that reflects those elements.  Incorporating both the consumer’s view of a work and the artist’s intentions tends to create the most agreed upon, though not the definitive, meaning of a work

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Review – The Beginner’s Guide – PC

There’s a whole lot of feels here.

Short Version:  The Beginner’s Guide is not a game for everyone.  It’s not a game for most people.  In fact, it is a game for a subset of people who both sympathize with its message and can appreciate its form.

Slightly Longer Short Version:  The game starts with a Counterstrike level and the establishment of its narrative form.  The narrator, who is also the developer, explains that he’s cobbled together levels made by the programmer Coda and will describe what he likes about each level in the hopes that the resulting publicity will entice Coda back to developing.  This serves as the foundation of an extraordinarily personal game about the developer and his need for validation.  I’d like to say more, but I really don’t want to ruin it.  Instead, I’ll note that, for people who have looked at the world the way the developer has, The Beginner’s Guide is going to grab you.  As for me, I never really felt the way the developer did (does?), and so I always felt like a bit of an outsider during this game.  This is not a game for me, and it’s may not be a game for you. Fair warning.

As for the rest of the usual bits of game reviewing, they really don’t apply.  The graphics are fine, the controls are WADS standard, and the interaction is nothing the player hasn’t seen in The Stanley Parable or other similar walking simulator games.  The Beginner’s Guide is, more than any game I’ve played, a vehicle for the narrative.  If you’re on board with it, I’m sure it’s a touching experience.  For everyone else, your appreciation of this game diminishes proportionally to how much the message and form means to you.

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