Tag Archives: Call of Duty

Opinion – How to recommend a game

Bring the newbs into the fold.

Anyone who possesses considerable knowledge about an area of general interest will inevitably be asked about it.  When that interest is something like video games, people will ask for recommendations.  As someone who has fielded a hefty number of video game requests (or offered them up), I’ve got a few useful questions for those who want to help others interested in this wonderful medium.

 

What do you play?

Just about everyone plays a video game of some kind these days.  Whether it’s a 100 hour JPRG epic or Sudoku, video games have conquered the world.  The value of asking this question is two fold: First, you can identify what kind of games they like.  Presumably, if a game already draws their interest, than a similar game would do the same thing.  Start thinking of recommendations that do something different or refine a concept that the target audience already likes.  Second, the games they mention give the recommender an idea of the type of gameplay the person is used to.  If they’re primarily sticking to phone games, than recommending Dark Souls or Hearts of Iron is probably a bad idea.  Conversely, a Dark Souls player probably isn’t interested in the generic Match-3 style game that would act as a good introduction for less experienced players.  Knowing what they play also leads to the very revealing next question:

Why do you play X game?

The obvious answer to this question might sound like a typical game review: “I like the story and graphics” or “the gameplay is really fun.”  These are valuable answers in trying to deduce what to recommend, but the best answers get to the heart of why the person plays video games at all.  Of all the available mediums out there, this person chose video games for a specific reason that speaks to their approach to games and what games to recommend.  A player who plays games to waste time while traveling isn’t going to be interested in the latest Call of Duty and nor will the player who uses puzzle games to keep their mind sharp.  Link your game recommendation to why a player picks up a controller in the first place and they’re far more likely to try it out.

What are their other interests?

Particularly for new gamers, associating a game with something they already love is a great way to get them interested.  Taping an existing interest allows the newer gamer to approach a foreign activity (gaming) with something familiar (the associated interest).  I recently recommended a cricket game to a colleague who watched the sport.  While he didn’t really play video games generally, his favorable view of cricket gave him extra incentive to try the game and his existing knowledge made it easier for him to play.  For more experienced players, plumbing their interests is still an excellent source of gaming innovation.  Looking at what they love may help them try games they’ve never thought of and break them out of a rut.  The basic idea is simple: if they like it in the real world, there’s a good chance they’ll like it in a game.

What game machine(s) do they possess?

This is a simple question, but an important one.  One of the biggest hurdles any gamer will face is finding a machine to play their games on.  Smartphones are ubiquitous these days so that’s a good start for any newer gamer.  More experienced gamers may have several gaming machines.  In this case, don’t limit yourself to just the most recent generation.  Plenty of players missed excellent games on their older systems.  Look back and see if you can’t get them to revisit a dusty console in search of gaming gold.

 

These are starter questions, but the real key is to let the other person guide your response.  By tailoring your recommendation to their words, you’ll have a much better chance of recommending something they’ll enjoy playing.  Avoid trying to force your preferences.  For many gamers, if it doesn’t sound like fun to them, they won’t even try it.  In the end, remember the best recommendations focus on what the target audience likes.  Explore their interests, and you’ll find something they’ll enjoy.

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Opinion – GamARTing

Sunset is a game by indie developer Tale of Tales about being a maid in the early days of a revolution…which you never played.  How do I know this?  Easy.  The game sold 4000 copies and the developer complained about it here.  In their blog post, Tale of Tales talked about how it did all the right things, yet the game still failed.  There’s a very real sense of entitlement throughout the entire post which hints at why they failed.  Beyond that, the post almost asks a very pertinent question: What is the role of art in gaming?

It is unfortunate to see that most artists and art minded critics feel that the role of art is to criticize people who don’t appreciate art.  Tale of Tales’ blog post, with the adjoining Kotaku article, lament the popular crowd and its failure to understand the brilliance of the indie scene.  From this view, the general games buying public is a mindless mass that gobbles up cheap Call of Duty fare, but lacks the capacity to appreciate the genius of the small, auteur creator.  Should the general gaming crowd point out a problem, the indie minded critic cries “but its art!” to explain away all manner of gaming sin, assuming the developer is sufficiently avant-garde and the audience is suitably popular.  By the end of this kind of article, art in gaming feels like an elitist club designed to make the complainers feel better about themselves by denigrating the greater masses.  The critics are wrong to do so.

The problem with the above argument is that it stems from a limited understand of why people play games and so imposes the motivations of the arguer on to the public.  For the vast majority of people, video games are a fun way with to relax and socialize with friends and that’s totally legitimate.  The average player of GTA V isn’t looking for deeper meaning, but rather would like blow to stuff up in an entertaining manner.  Our hypothetical GTA V player might look to something else for greater meaning, or not, but their failure to do so within the context of games does not suggest there is something wrong with them.  Gaming need not be a major source of artistic value like it is for some passionate followers of the medium.  It’s also important to recognize that appreciating an artistic game often means understanding the long history of gaming.  A new player can’t pickup up an artistic game and appreciate the high level of meaning any more than a consumer of just a few cheap romance novels will grasp Kant.  Many of the ideas analyzed in these games rely on a mental infrastructure that artistic gamers, developers, and critics have developed over years of play.  Art complainers are effectively criticizing people for not spending the considerable time and money needed to reach this understanding.

The real insidious nature of this kind of argument is how it warps the potential role of art in video games (I got here…eventually).  The devoted art gamer often hones in on the most expressive and least accessible examples of the medium, while ignoring the very real potential for meaning within its most popular expressions.  One of the greatest artistic achievements in games is the original Bioshock for its ability to marry gaming’s popular appeal with a deep critique of Ayn Rand.  The role that art can and should play is to use the relevance of the medium to impart messages in a way that gaming’s audience can appreciate.  The more art gaming breaks away from the basic appeal of video games, the more it isolates itself from the broader public who might benefit from art gaming’s message.

There is a role for developers who want to push the boundaries of meaning.  They investigate new ways to express ideas through games that may make their way into the popular scene.  While we applaud their efforts, we should recognize that their work is necessarily limited by the small, devoted audience the players their games.  These developers aren’t better for their niche pursuits.  Instead, they fill a necessary role within gaming that should be appreciated alongside the triple A developer who takes a less nuanced approach to a broader audience.

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Opinion – Your Graphics Don’t Impress Me

Selling an old sweater with amazing lens flare.

I’m walking through a dungeon of shadows in Paper Sorcerer.  Every line, every detail is a reflection of an unseen light.  The ambient noise creates a feeling of background dread while the claustrophobic space both pushes me forward and draws me back.  The mood is haunting and strange, yet it draws me in to its mystery.  The biggest question:  Why the hell does a game with four colors and designed by one guy feel and look better than blockbusters like Destiny or Call of Duty?

Game graphics can be broken down into two major categories: technical capacity and aesthetic.  Technical capacity is the raw resources available to the developers to create the visuals for a game.  Not only does that include the processing power of the console or PC on which the game is played, but it also includes the number of programmers, time available, and money devoted to graphics.  With the appropriate amount of technical capacity, developers can create ultra-detailed worlds with photo-realistic visuals.  Destiny or Call of Duty are perfect examples of games with high technical capacity.  Aesthetic, on the other hand, is the overarching design strategy of the visuals.  Aesthetic is less concerned about what things could look like and more concerned about what they should look like.  The aesthetic is the overarching visual strategy that makes the graphics look cohesive.  As an example of this, look at the Borderlands series or the aforementioned Paper Sorcerer.  In an ideal world, a clever aesthetic is backed by a sufficient amount of technical capacity to realize the strategy.

Getting back to the original question, the reason a small game like Paper Sorcerer has better visuals than Destiny is that Paper Sorcerer had both a strong aesthetic and the technical capacity to achieve it whereas Destiny had uses its nearly unlimited technical capacity but no without aesthetic direction.  Consider Destiny’s levels: the game has washed out deserts, futuristic temples, and alien landscapes; however, nothing unites these disparate images and nothing makes them stand out.  They are the blandest versions of these concepts and lack any originality of their own.  Take an image from Paper Sorcerer and you know it’s from that game.  Take an image from Destiny and it could serve any other big budget shooter with little modification.  Now, Destiny is certainly one of the most technically capable depictions of these environments.  Plants fluttering in the breeze, wrecked cars dotting the landscape, and the massive draw distance (the area the player can see before the game stops showing graphics) are all testaments to the considerable resources that Destiny developer Bungie and the publisher Activision put into the game.  The contrast between the great technical detail and poor aesthetic means these examples are also monuments to poor graphics design.

Though not as much as it once did, the big budget parts of the games industry remains tied to the notion that better graphics requires technically strong graphics.  This is because big developers: (1) have the resources to invest and (2) the notion helps cover up their own weaknesses in innovation.  When a publisher wants a new game every year, it’s easier to add more detail and optimize the graphics engine than go through the difficult process of developing new ideas.  We also see this thinking in the release of new consoles that tout amazing graphics as a selling point as if the technical capacity of their older system were outdated.  In the end, great graphics don’t come from accurately modeling mustache hairs or lovingly crafting bland landscapes, but from a well-executed and exciting new view of a world. They create a feeling of wonder through concepts and only with details that serve those concepts.  When the big developers marry aesthetic with their considerable technical capacity, I think we’ll see the best of both worlds.

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Review – Steam’s Update

If only it stopped me from overspending on sales too.

If you’ve dropped by Steam lately, you’ve no doubt noticed a rather significant change. In addition to the lovely light blue streak across the background (it brings such light and warmth!), Steam has totally revamped how it curates the presentation of the games it sells.  From the first sales window to the recommendations, Steam has taken a page from other digital relators and used user preferences to guide what it does and does not sell you.  Which is good, because, damn, did Steam need it.

Somewhere in the past couple of years, publishers figured out Steam’s game. In an effort to combat endless waves of dreck, Valve established the Greenlight Games feature which allowed users to vote on games that looked interesting to them and therefore, they would like to see in their Steam store.  Publishers, on the other hand, could put forward whatever games they liked.  While this system prevented the tiny developers from flooding the market with their digitized hopes and dreams, it did nothing to stopped publishers from buying up terrible games and releasing them to realize whatever profit could be found.  Perhaps more frustrating was that Steam could not handle the glut of games it inspired.  The advent of the digital store front allowed for a renaissance of PC game development as developers no longer had to fight for physical storage space.  When the number of these games was relatively small, they were given top status and granted a larger audience.  As more and more piled on, they crowded each other out.  Steam, being unable to prioritize games well, slapped them on the front page with little regard for whose front page it was.  Advertising Call of Duty to someone like myself made no sense, yet I was made aware of all of its new content and updates thanks to good old Steam.

The new system appears to be an improvement on that. Steam has shifted its underlying philosophy from an undecipherable mess to sourcing user opinions to inform what should and should not be shown.  The first change is finally using all the information that users provided about themselves.  Steam logs both the games people buy and the time they spend with them.  This alone is enough to give the service some idea about what kind of games people want to play.  Why show me the latest basketball title when I haven’t played a single sports game across thousands of hours and well over 100 games purchased?  The games I’m seeing match my tastes far more closely than what I saw before based on that principle alone.  With new customization options that allow me tailor my viewing even more, Steam finally looks like it’s looking at me as an individual rather than as a giant, amorphous game buying blob.

In addition to evaluating individual user data, Valve has boosted Steam’s capacity to analyze and use the broader community’s information. A summation of user reviews is now at the top of the page.  Users can become curators and offer lists of recommended games that others may follow.  Trust a particular user or game site?  Follow their list and get their recommendations while you shop.  Steam is kicking the review process back to the users, and the results are clearly an improvement.

At least, they look that way. Over the next few weeks, I intend to test this by reviewing the games under the “Recommended for you” section.  I’ll reload the page twice and pick from the six games on offer.  I won’t replay anything either.  While I can’t commit to finishing them (a week isn’t a lot of review time when you have a full time job), I’ll put in at least 10 hours.  Let’s see where this goes.

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Opinion – Status Quo

I’m going to PAX!  Thanks Triforce Quartet!  This is what you get for Sunday’s post.

It seems that every time someone points out that video games have a problem with diversity, vocal members of the community remember fondly of a golden age before all the controversy when men were men and video games were all about fun.  Holders of this view see critics (sometimes called SJWs or Social Justice Warriors) as spoilers of gaming’s Eden-like garden.  Everything was good and fun until SJWs forced the industry to focus on pressing issues of the day rather than making games.  It’s a compelling argument for those who have found their once simple past time polluted with major social and political issues.  Unfortunately, it’s grounded in ignorance.  The issues we’re hearing about were always issues, we just didn’t hear about them.

The stereotypical gamer of the 80s and 90s was a bespectacled nerd whose knowledge of fictional lore was only matched by his inability to connect with others.  Like many stereotypes, there was some truth to this as many social outcasts found their way to the gaming world and drowned their sorrows in magical realms where they could be the hero.  What often gets ignored is that being a social outcast is not confined to white boys.  Many youth from across the spectrum made their way to gaming only to discover that it had been made by and for a very limited audience.  Some moved on to different pursuits and their potential contributions were lost.  For others, the allure of the screen was enough to overcome the fact that they were poorly represented.  They sought out the few games and heroes that they felt best reflected their reality.  They hung on to the few cracks in the wall and accepted what they must because that’s all games were.

Surprise surprise, these people weren’t happy about it.  The commentary we’re seeing now isn’t outsiders who want to ruin our fun, it’s committed gamers who grew up and decided to speak out against the games industry’s singular focus on one type of person.  They aren’t seeking to destroy fun, but rather finally see developers who take them and their needs seriously and who use the medium to explore the realities of the lives of a more diverse set.  These SJWs don’t hate games.  They don’t want to stop Mario.  They just wish that gaming’s leading lights (GTA, inFamous, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, etc) gave them some love (and no, side stories like AC: Liberation or inFamous: First Light don’t count).  They want to see heroes like themselves, which really doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

When someone argues for returning to focusing on fun, what they’re actually asking for is keeping games limited to people like themselves.  They, understandably, see the status quo as preferable because the status quo serves them, but it doesn’t serve everyone.  Should anyone be surprised when the losers of a system seek to make it more equitable?   SJWs aren’t deliberately raining on gaming’s parade, they’re asking to be a part of it.  Not surprisingly, they also want gaming to grow up.  Gamers used to get up in arms about whether games counted as art yet, now that a number of games explore that space, we want to pull back.  Well, tough.  Contra isn’t art.  Nor is Mario.  Art has a meaning that SJWs are infusing into old and new game worlds.  It may not be a meaning you like, but that’s also an aspect of art.   

It’s time to stop living in the past.  The past only worked for a select few while others had to put up with something inferior.  We now have the energy and resources to create an inclusive gaming culture that serves the needs of an increasingly diverse group of individuals and that inclusivity is worth far more than any attempt to recapture the days gone by.

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Opinion – What We’re Gaining

I’m a big boy now!

I noted last week that gaming’s old audience of straight, white, male gamers are losing something to the push by the critical and developing industry to be more inclusive.  Acknowledging this matters because it also acknowledges the feelings of those who are most aggrieved by the change and so most likely to oppose it.  The flip side of this argument, and one that is also typically ignored, is that the diversification of gaming actually benefits the old crowd as well.  There is good in the bad and that’s something that worth talking about and promoting.

One of the major problems with the old paradigm is that its conception of its audience is incredibly simplistic.  Gamers are not only seen as a collection of the traits mentioned above, but also as 13 year olds seeking power fantasies.  While that may have been true at one point, the reality is that the player base, even the old player base, has grown and matured far beyond their teenage selves.  Game stories and worlds that once satisfied the pimply crowd no longer have the same impact once they leave those years.  Doom’s “go kill demons” or Ninja Gaiden’s “save the princess” plots can’t compete with the more sophisticated narratives in other mediums.  Yet the Call of Dutys and the Killzones still pedal these mindless tropes like they’re still compelling.  I remember playing Killzone 2 when a character died.  Everyone in the game seemed incredibly distraught but I couldn’t muster an iota of emotion for the mindless muscle mass that just died.  After all, the game had plenty more of him.  Acknowledging that gamers have grown up means that games must grow up as well.  By realizing that gamers are no longer insecure teenagers, developers must now create stories and settings that appeal to a more mature audience.  Every gamer, regardless of how well they were served before, benefits from this.

Along with admitting the audience has matured, developers can now include greater diversity and the avenues that represents.  In an earlier post, I noted that Assassin’s Creed: Liberation protagonist Aveline de Grandpre, while not particularly revolutionary in her character type, still opened up possible gameplay opportunities beyond the traditional AC game.  While appearance certainly mattered for men in AC:Liberation’s colonial setting, the difference between an assassin, a court lady, and a slave were far more different than any man at the time fulfilling similar roles.  Just by having a black, female protagonist, Ubisoft produced an organically new approach to the AC world.  Including other’s perspectives allows developers to think along new lines and with different plots.  The archetypal video game hero is so well worn that it’s hard to break free from the confines that come with.  New characters pulled from diverse worlds can open up new pathways that developers have previously not considered.  Again, pushing the industry beyond its current confines can only benefit all games as new stories, perspectives, gameplay, and worlds develop organically from more diverse views.

In the end, the diversification of gaming shouldn’t be done to benefit the white, male audience.  It should be done so that others can have their stories, dreams, and imaginations explored through the video game space.  People deserve to have characters that they can relate to.  Video games should not be the domain of its old audience.  To my fellow white male gamers I say this: the change will be scary.  Our favorite developers will start projects that don’t target us anymore.  Games will tell new and exciting stories that we cannot relate to or are harder for us to relate to.  Gaming won’t just serve us.  Be excited anyway.  We’ll get new worlds to see through the eyes of new people.  We’ll get new gameplay and stronger characters.  Most importantly, the world will get to experience games the way we did and find stories that have meaning to them.  That can’t be a bad thing.

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Review – Call of Duty: Ghosts – PC

I don’t get it.

Call of Duty: Ghosts (Ghosts) is a tired game from a tired series.  All of the ambition, intelligence, and cleverness that must have been in the earlier games has degraded into this messy slop.  So many aspects of this game are subpar and the base mechanics are a shadow of their predecessors.  Ghosts is a perfect example of a series that has passed its prime.

As I’ve already mentioned, the story is a mess.  The setup is totally contrived, the characters are flat, and the setting is completely drab and uninteresting.  You play Logan Walker, a member of a US special forces unit called the Ghosts, as he attempts to stop the former Ghost Rourke from assisting the Latin-America based Federation from invading the US.  That’s absolutely silly, and Ghosts only gets worse from there.  It never bothers to develop Logan or the other characters and, instead, relies on general positive feelings towards the military to see the plot through.  “We love soldiers” has definitely been abused by the FPS genre, but rarely is a game so totally reliant on it as Ghosts is here.  The hero is a solder, his brother is a solider, all his friends are soldiers, everyone who dies is a solider and, now that I think about it, only soldiers get any mention at all.  The opening cutscene has a few civilians, but that’s it.  Everyone else is a bland bot in a US army uniform.  Unless you burst into tears at the very thought of some generic gunman skinning his knee, Ghosts will hold little emotional heft for you.

Sadly, the gameplay is also heavily flawed.  Ghosts relies on the series staple of set piece battles, but doesn’t seem to know how to execute them properly.  Instead of creating a feeling of drama and excitement, Ghosts feels more like a curated tour of bombed out buildings.  From the very beginning, the game makes it clear that the player’s actions don’t matter.  The AI is constantly winning fights for the player and, when the computer controlled allies not mowing down every enemy in sight, they’re performing all of the quick time events by themselves.  The opening scene has the player and his brother jointly bashing open a door, but ultimately it is the AI controlled brother that completes the task.  This wouldn’t be so bad if there were solid gunfights in between, but Ghosts fails at that too.  From samey feeling guns to brain dead AI, Ghosts can’t conjure a decent shootout.  Fights quickly become gun whack-a-mole with little sense of tactics.  The game attempts to break it up with special game modes, but they are overly simplistic and serve to highlight how little the developers trust the actual gameplay.

The multiplayer improves the situation, but never really grabbed me.  The usual compliment of RPG elements are there to encourage the player to keep playing, but they do little to shore up the base gameplay.  Different loadouts do lead to some variations in play, but I never felt like I cared much about the multitude of guns.  For a casual player like myself, the tiny improvements did little to make me want to play more.  My experience, particularly as a new player, was greatly harmed by the low player base.  Most remaining players have maxed out their gear and memorized the levels.  The low base forces the game to mix newbies and these killers together with disastrous results.  It’s not fun to die repeatedly, even if the metagame RPG elements do add a small sense of progression.  When I found equally skilled matches, I had some fun.  Still, I never felt like Ghosts provided anything special.

It’s easy to see how the elements of Ghosts could have been a better game.  Unfortunately, they are all handled so poorly that it’s hard to eke out any fun.  If this formula is to work, the developers need to polish each piece so that they can all be enjoyed.  Instead, the game just feels like a tired attempt at the same old formula.

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Diary – Dieing is no fun

You should probably avoid it.

My first experience with Ghosts multiplayer was fun. True, I died a lot, but I snuck some kills in, learned some of the game dynamics, and generally improved my skills. Over the course of several matches, I increased my lethality to the point where I wasn’t always last. I was a serious threat for second to last. On rare occasion, I reached third to last, but never by the end of the match. My second attempt did not go so well. In one match, I died about 9 times in under a minute and often without a chance to fire a single shot. I once unload a clip into an enemy who then destroyed me. This was, unsurprisingly, not fun. Let’s see if we can’t get to fun.

The reason for my total failure the second time was fairly simple, I was completely outmatched. The Ghosts PC community has dwindled to the point where only die-hards remain. Those individuals have maxed out their levels, know the maps, and have generally mastered a game and a genre that I have one campaign’s worth of experience with. In a just world, I would be escorted off to my own little corner of the server to play against equally skilled kittens. We would merrily paw each other until the game took pity and declared one of us “the winner”. With server populations down, Ghosts must merge all skill levels to achieve critical mass to start a game. In short, there is no justice. Only pain.

This highlights the importance of good matchmaking. When players of vastly different skill levels play together, the elite players inevitably dominate. This has a number of deleterious effects. First, it clamps down on learning. In the aforementioned bout, I barely had a chance to move, much less begin to understand the intricacies of the map. I never got to try out weapons or tactics and, even if I did, there was a good chance that they may not have worked given the gulf of skill and equipment. It’s hard to learn if you’re totally ineffectual. The second issue is that it slows progression down. Modern multiplayer FPS’s often include a leveling component that increases the player’s abilities as they succeed. If the player isn’t succeeding, then they aren’t accessing the very things that might help them do so. It effectively punishes the player for starting out. Finally, it’s not fun for either the elite players or the new ones. For elite players who have devoted considerable time to improve their skills, mowing down the helpless may hold some entertainment value, but it doesn’t produce the tense matches that great stories are made of. As for the new players, the constant loss is frustrating. Stifling a player’s attempts at enjoying your game is the worst way to start them off.

That being said, skill matching is incredibly difficult. There isn’t a single metric that denotes player skill. High kill count may suggest a competent player, but if their death rate is similarly high then they might just be a fan of explosions or are feeders of better players. Furthermore, if the players figure out the algorithm used, they will undoubtedly exploit it. High kills get you first place? Prepared for suicide tactics. Low deaths? Watch out for extremely conservative gameplay. It’s impossible to implement a rankings system that doesn’t shape the metagame. This must be handled with care lest the best players adopt boring or frustrating tactics to ensure a high ranking. That’s no fun for anyone.

Other games have done this well. Starcraft 2 stands out for its tiered play system and hidden criteria. It generally matches evenly skilled players and occasionally throws in advanced opponents to see if a player is ready to move up. It maintains a sense of progression the keeps players engaged rather than frustrated. Regardless of how it is done, multiplayer games need to ensure that player’s play against similarly skilled opponents. This ensures they are constantly challenged, but rarely face the game ending feeling that they can never win.

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Diary – Call of Duty: Ghosts is a flaming bag of stupid

Because plausible scenarios are just too hard

 

It’s never good when the setup of your game is just so implausible that I can’t get beyond it.  Call of Duty: Ghosts (Ghosts) is rife with such silliness.  It’s a cornucopia of stupidity that stands as a monument to terrible setting design.  The basic premise is this: Venezuela succeeds in unifying South America under a new entity called the Federation and, faster than you can say “empire consolidation”, attacks the USA.  It overcomes our military might by commandeering a US weapons satellite that is apparently capable of leveling cities.  Gee, I wonder why a state would get nervous about that?  That could be the motivation, but Ghosts never tells us why the evil Mexicans are attacking the US. They’re probably after our women and minimum wage jobs.

I take that back.  They can’t be after our women; we don’t have them!  During some unmentioned catastrophe, all the American women disappeared except for the one that we sent into space.  Ghosts has no other women.  One of the protagonists mentions his mother, but I suspect she died in the Great Female Purge of 2015.  We lost so much.  Including diversity.  California is made entirely of white people.  So far, I have seen exactly two minority characters.  One was an NPC that got a whopping five seconds on screen before disappearing into the ether.  The other was a black guy whose first scene is him dying.  Don’t want to wait on that kind of thing.  He does get a brief scene in a flashback where he at least benefits from the temporal requirement that he not die, but he’s probably well aware that it’s coming.  The knowledge so paralyzes him that he doesn’t speak a word until disappearing sometime later.  Poor token black guy.  I feel for you.

This all results from the need to pander to what developers think their audience wants.  To Activision, players want manly, white protagonists who kick ass in the name of the stars and stripes.  Unfortunately for them, this leaves very little room to build a realistic world or solid characters as they must conform to simplistic, overdone archtypes.  The end result is characters that are uninteresting.  Emotions are rather important components to the development of a narrative arc.  Remove them and you just have meatheads fighting for non-descript “freedom” while, and I’m not kidding, wrestling wolves.  Ghosts relies entirely on reverence for the military and generic machismo to connect to the players and (surprise!) it comes off as flat as you’d expect.  At little character complexity and genuine conflict would go a long way towards making these characters feel human.  Or close to human.  At least part of the same biological family.  Let’s not get too ambitious.

Bland archetypes also force the story down very silly paths.  Consider the conundrum of realistic war games.  They all feel the need to use the United States of America as the protagonist, and must place the country in peril in order to have sufficiently high stakes to keep the player interested.  Small problem: the USA is a military beast.  In the 15 years preceding this game, the US military has successfully invaded and occupied two remote countries with strong insurgencies.  It has the largest Navy of any country and almost double the number of aircraft carriers of the second place country, Britain.  It takes a lot to weaken that kind of force and the ham-fisted theoretical attempts by developers all come off as wildly misinformed.  They require that the US be both vulnerable and strong, and so contort into strange positions and awkward alternate realities to make it happen.  Case and point, requiring the takeover of a satellite superweapon by a collection of countries that don’t have a space program.  Maybe they just got a really good running start.

There is a solution to this.  It involves introducing realistic scenarios, complex characters, and adding a bit of diversity to a stupidly white world.  It means giving your audience credit for having read the occasional news article and being able to appreciate that the world is not just lava guzzling super men without more emotions than revenge and indigestion.  It means growing up as story tellers and speaking about the actual realities of war instead of the eighties action movie version.  But that would be hard, and stupid is so easy.

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Opinion – I am not defending video games as a hobby

I am explaining why they need no defense

I periodically see articles about falling away from video games (most recent examples: here and here) and they largely harp on the same themes.  Player was once fully engaged with the medium, but life happened and now games are less important.  Usually, the articles are tinged with nostalgia and a little regret, but ultimately conclude with the idea that video games were a cherished past time of a misspent youth that should now be focused on serious business like kids and jobs.  There is often a subtext of how games represent immaturity.  What I don’t see are similar articles about movies, books, or television.  No one waxes nostalgically about the time they could watch House of Cards and then go to a theater to watch a play.  This is suggests that their remains a stigma that video games are a youthful pastime.  This is wrong.  Video games can, and do, fulfill the same role as other mediums with the same level of respectability.

For a fair number of gamers and former gamers, the medium begins and ends with the likes of Call of Duty, Madden, and Mario.  These are either games they played as a youth and abandoned or continue to play sparingly in between life.  Their image of gaming is one of poor stories, minimal messaging, and a lack of anything identifiable as “art”.  I could respond by reviewing the many artistic advancements video games have made in the past decade, but then I’d be missing the point.  The issue isn’t that games lack artistic vision, but rather that people don’t recognize that they engage with games the same way they engage with TV or movies.  Call of Duty fulfills the same role as the hit TV de jure.  Consider Breaking Bad.  The final season caused waves through office water coolers as people joined together to discuss plot points and predict the future.  As a listener of the conversations, I can say that while many of the participants were very passionate and interested, very few of them were approaching the show for its deeper meaning.  There was little discussion of subtext or imagery, and a great deal of discussion of “I CAN’T BELIEVE THEY DID THAT.”  For a show with a great deal of cultural respectability, I’m hard pressed to recall a single discussion focused on the show as art.

The show is clearly enjoyable without narrative parsing.  People were watching because it was entertaining.  For all the artistic merits of the show, the vast majority of its viewers were engaging with it on the same level that they might engage Halo on.  They liked it, so they kept watching.  In that gaming’s flagship titles aren’t earthshattering only goes to show that video games have the equivalent of a Transformers or James Bond.  Playing Call of Duty is no more embarrassing than listening to the latest pop princess belt out a tune.  The only difference is that many still associate video games with their youth.  Take that away and they look very similar to the rest of the cultural landscape.  I see no reason why a game of Mass Effect need be embarrassing whereas Orange is the New Black is mindblowing.

The immaturity argument is also a failure to understand why people play video games in the first place.  For some, their play is inextricably linked to needs they had as children be it alone time, a safe place, or just a way to stave off boredom.  When that need no longer exists, many assume they have simply grown out of video games rather than grown out of whatever need was driving the playing of video games.  The issue isn’t that playing video games are inherently immature, it’s that they are associated with youthful need in the person’s mind and that need is no longer present.  There are a number of perfectly acceptable reasons for an adult to play video games even if previous gamers no long have theirs.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what others think about this hobby.  Gamers can continue to game without the permission of their workplace or social circle.  It’s just that I’ve run across so many people who have willfully denied themselves the benefits of video games for no greater reason than a gut feeling that they are not worth their time.  That’s a shame, because they’re missing out. 

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