The summer drought; finally my final impressions on Final Fantasy XIII; and so-called misogyny and misandry

June 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

Well, the summer drought is well and truly here. Just looking at the GiantBomb release schedule for the UK, there looks to be very little in the way of major releases coming out in the next month or so. Got to say, it’s kind-of welcome, since I’ve quite a few games on my shelf I’ve been meaning to play more of. Bayonetta, in particular, is one regret of mine, and its presence on the “To do” pile is a symbol of great personal shame.

I’ve just managed to finish Final Fantasy XIII, and, I’ve got to tell ya, reviewing that game would be an absolute nightmare. Fortunately, someone’s done my job for me. That man is Chris Kohler from Game|Life, Wired’s online gaming publication, and you can read his review here. It’s definitely a weird one, FF XIII. In some areas it makes some rather brave steps forward, but they feel misjudged, yet it’s also a game trapped by its heritage and its conventions; and, not unlike the recent Alan Wake, it also looks like a game that started out as very ambitious in the original design but was then scaled back to fit time and financial constraints. So, a bit of a mixed bag, then.

From the gaming blogosphere, there have been two instances of controversy: one from Hoyden about Town, where they accuse the creators of the Xbox LIVE edutainment title Privates of misogyny; the second, a reaction against the satirical Hey Baby FPS game, in which you, playing as a woman, gun down dozens of men who are catcalling, harassing and chasing you through the streets of some modern day metropolis.

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Steve Jobs: the iPad offers "freedom from porn"

May 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

A little background first. Ryan Tate from recently got into a heated e-mail exchange with Steve Jobs, chairman and CEO of Apple.Inc. Within this back and forth between the two, Ryan criticised the iPad for having too many restrictions for it to be described as a revolutionary device, which Steve and co. are currently advertising it as. Jobs responded back with this:

Yep, freedom from programs that steal your private data. Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom.

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The Problem of Permanence

July 14, 2009 § 1 Comment

Do we need “permanence” for ethical dilemmas in video games to have meaning?

Manveer Heir, game designer at Raven Software, has been busy pondering over how we might somehow improve the impact of ethical dilemmas in games. Along with three other factors – “narrative”, “consequences” and “obstacles” – he talks about the idea of “permanence”. He comments that “all the other elements do not matter if there’s no permanence to the game”. He believes that the possibility of allowing players to save and reload certain parts of a game – to allow them to play out, at will, different choices or alternative endings – robs an ethical decision of its significance. He puts it like this: “a dilemma ceases to be a dilemma if you get a do-over. Save games unfortunately ruin this.” He then goes on to suggest that we should make certain sections of the game unalterable once they’ve been passed through, making the choices you’ve made at those points final.

In one way I can see where Heir is coming from. If you can go back and change a decision you’ve made as many times as you want, then there’s no real risk attached to the decision in the first place. You no longer have to think carefully of the repercussions because they can always be avoided. A more interesting question, though, is what drives players to abandon their original decisions and go with something else.

Curiosity? Maybe.

I, however, have a different theory and it’s this: if players felt an ownership over their decisions, if they felt those decisions properly defined them, then they wouldn’t feel the need to go back and change them. It is because these decisions are never fully embraced by the player in the first place that they are so easily discarded. So, the problem, as I see it, is more of poor writing – of not producing dilemmas which are challenging or interesting enough to engage with – and the idea of imposing a restriction on save/load points misses the issue.

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'The Ethics of Scent of a Woman' Article

January 12, 2009 § 1 Comment

Excellent article here by a guy called Matthew Belinkie. Scent of a Woman is a bit of a joke as a ‘serious film’ about ‘making a stand’ but it is hilarious because of Al Pacino’s ridiculous over-acting and general Pacino-ness that we’ve now come to unfortunately know and hate too well. To be fair to the guy, he did get an oscar for that role; it’s understandable that he let that go to his head and for him to think that from now on he should act like that in every film. Anyway, despite the need for someone to tell to really “CALM THE FUCK DOWN”, it’s difficult not to love the guy in Heat and The Devil’s Advocate. Heat is a good film and although it would have lost an element without Pacino it still would have worked well because everything else in that film was great. The Devil’s Advocate on the other hand, only Al Pacino could save us from Neo’s so-subtle-it’s-almost-undetectable acting style by going the complete other way.

'Fallout 3' Impressions (Unedited)

January 7, 2009 § 1 Comment

I was listening to Ryan Davies recently on the Giant Bomb podcast and heard him mention that he thought that Fallout 3 was a little boring. Now, I’d say the worst thing a game can be, other than frustrating, is boring. Yet this game has won numerous GOTY awards and has a score of approximately just over 90 whatever platform you look at. So why is it that I’m about to echo what Mr Davies mentioned in his podcast?

Sure, part of the problem is that if you’re going to create a post-apocalyptic wasteland as a setting for a game, the barren and desolate nature of that particular theme is going to be an issue. As such, the landscape isn’t particularly awe-inspiring and travelling from place-to-place on foot gets quite tiresome. Fallout 3 doesn’t have the strength of a good storyline like Mass Effect but this is not a criticism since the game positions itself more as an open-ended sandbox where you sort of mill around picking up quests, exploring the wasteland and meeting new people. This is fine as not all great RPGs require a focused narrative to work well but if you’re going to make an open-ended RPG, you have to make sure the world itself and the people within it are interesting to interact with. As it stands, neither the world, nor the people are. I don’t think I’ve come across one character in Fallout 3 that I actually enjoyed talking to, that I didn’t skip through the dialog while that person was talking. None of these people are particularly interesting, often their motivations and psychology are as simple and flat as a pancake. But then, all these NPCs are really just quest-dispensing machines, just cyphers whose sole purpose to exist is to grant you access to exciting missions which you then have to complete, right?

Well, that would all be true if the missions were exciting or in any way deviated from the ‘go here, retreive/dispense/kill this, come back’ formula. This is essentially all you are doing throughout the whole game, it’s just a big ol’ easter egg hunt. Harsh words but I challenge anyone to really dispute this.

Another issue with the game seems to be that the designers clearly designed most of the quests based on the assumption that you would be a ‘good guy’, that you’d want to help little Timmy find his parents, or act as a messenger between towns, or help out a kooky scientist with his life’s work. Would an evil character be particularly interested in these quests? No, because they involve helping people for very little reward, why bother? Yet, if you want the XP and don’t want to be endless roaming the wasteland shooting overgrown scorpions and ants, you’ll do the quests. Of course there is the option of killing everyone in the game to steal their stuff but if you do that you end up getting very little for the trouble that is bound to cause you. My point is, it pays more to be good than bad and in this sense the game really doesn’t give you much of a choice at all because rationally it would be completely illogical to the player to act in a way which would hinder his progress in the game. Gamers in general I think are a fairly consequentialist bunch, I’m not sure its a criticism or what, but the fact is that games have tought the user of the years to think this way and as a result, I would say a great number of players conceive their choices in terms of rewards, not in terms of morality.

Anyway, my point is that the game doesn’t seem to accomodate the truly evil player, instead it constantly gives little indirect shoves into a morally ‘good’ direction. Personally I think this is a problem for a game in genre which prides itself on giving the player choices. The simple solution to this would be to introduce more ‘immoral’ quests for the player to participate in. But again, this idea of morality, especially in RPGs is so simplistic and subjective that really you end up either looking like Adolf Hitler or Gandhi to the other NPCs in the game. Very is very little room in the game’s moral palette for a gray area and so what you are left with is a rather childish view of morality.

That’s the thing with Fallout 3, it feels very ‘gamey’, almost cartoonish in its approach to a world pre-nuclear armageddon. It’s technically quite an impressive game in terms of the graphics, the scale of the world, the voice work, the amount of ways you can approach the game etc… But ultimately the game most strangle it’s own ambitions to remain playable, hence its short comings in terms of lack complexity in its characters or the simple morality it exhibits.

What isn’t so excusable is the rather awkward combat where they have tried to implement a turn based system over a real-time one. At any point during combat you can ‘pause’ the game to allocate points as to where you will shoot the opponant (targetting the head costs more than the torso for instance) and then stack your attacks and ‘unpause’ the game into real time where you will see your character perform these actions automatically, only then for control to be turned back to the player. It isn’t necessary to use this turn based system during combat but it is advantageous to do so because the computer can aim at the NPCs heads better than you can and the enemy AI often moves in very unpredictable ways due to the jerky animation, making it hard to pull off precise shots. I should mention of course that ‘precise shots’ don’t actually count for much since your aiming is tampered with by your skill (or lack of) in whatever type of weapon you are using. Simply put, the combat is clunky and just poor. If you were to play this as a pure FPS (which you shouldn’t and defeats the point but if you did) then you would be sorely dissapointed.

Coming to the end of this piece it feels like all I’ve been doing is criticise the game for what it’s not, rather than what it does well. Is it a bad game, is there anything it does well? Well, no, Fallout 3 isn’t a bad game, just a rather dull one which on a technical level works really quite well considering its scope and the fact that you can do pretty much anything in the game. It just seems to me that there isn’t much worth doing.

N.B. I did forget to mention one thing and that is that I said that there no characters in the world I liked or was particularly interested in. That’s a small lie, since I did thoroughly enjoy Malcolm McDowell’s voicework for the President who communicates his speeches through little robots dotted around the wasteland. For that I rate the game a little higher than I would normally do since I don’t think there is anything McDowell has been in which hasn’t benefited from his awesome prescence.

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