Interactive Storytelling

Recently, I was discussing comic books in a group, and the term "graphic novel" was brought up.  We generally agreed that a Graphic Novel just sounds more sofisticated than a comic book.  Jokingly, I brought up the idea that video games aren't games, they are "Interactive Storytelling".  I got a few agreements, though one person said that the term Interactive Storytelling only applies to some games, not all of them.

I disagree.

For games like Mass Effect or Heavy Rain (which calls itself Interactive Storytelling), it's easy to imagine.  After all, these games are telling their own stories, and you get to be a part of them.  Even more cinematic games like Uncharted or Call of Duty get to put the player in an active role, playing out the action scenes just like they're Indiana Jones or Rambo.  But supposedly this terms falls apart when you're talking about less story-driven games.  Tetris may not be "cinematic", so does that mean it doesn't tell a story?

Tetris may not be an emotionally moving game, and at a first glance, it doesn't seem like there's much to the game.  Falling blocks, put them in place.  But when you play Tetris, it works just like any well-paced movie would.  You start the game out, and the pieces are falling slowly.  The player gets used to the controls and the pace of the game, learning the ropes.  As the game continues, the pieces drop faster, increasing the difficulty in the process.  The player is forced to adapt and think on the fly.  Over time the tension of the game increases more and more, up to the point where the player can no longer place pieces on the board in time, and the screen fills up.  Game Over.

Isn't that what we call a story?  It has an introduction, rising action, and a climax.  It still instilled emotion in the player, even if only on a mathematical, problem-solving level.  Besides, to not call games stories, we're excluding all the non-video games in the process.  Watching two top-level chess players go at it is intense.  What about a baseball game between two rivals?  Someone's attempt to break a world record?  Those are all stories, and carry just as much weight as any "serious" novel.

Many gamers have stories to share of things that happened when they were playing online, whether it's their quest to acquire a rare sword in World of Warcraft, or how some guy managed to repeatedly backstab them in Call of Duty.  It seems like these stories may share the same weight as the tale of the fisherman, and the "one that got away".  Sure they weren't expertly crafted by someone well-versed in the literary arts, but they are stories nonetheless.  But the key difference between video games and other forms of media is that it is interactive, which is a whole different kind of storytelling.

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Licensed Games and Episodic Gaming

Recently, Steam had the two Penny Arcade episodes for sale.  Being a longtime fan of the webcomic, and never having played them, I figured it was a no-brainer to grab this deal.  And it turned out to be well worth my time.  The games were funny, clever, with an interesting battle system and fun adventure game-style puzzle solving.  It's a shame that Hothead games decided to ditch episode three in favor of doing their own thing in the form of Deathspank, but I'll live. 
 
However, the game do raise a curious question: how the hell are you supposed to make a video game based off of Penny Arcade?  The comic strips are gag-a-day, with no overarching storyline.  There's no adventure, no combat to speak of.  Most of their jokes are based on licensed material.  Since the Penny Arcade guys really wanted to make a game, they did the wise thing and figured out what their game would need most would be to feel like a Penny Arcade game.  The art, the character design, the dialogue and the rapid-fire jokes...those are all in there.  The gameplay makes callbacks to other video games, while still able to distinguish itself.  While Penny Arcade will occasionally write a serious storyline just for a change of pace, the game is firmly self-aware and does not take itself seriously in the slightest.  You can argue that the comic strip does not feature player characters hitting mimes with a rake, but all in all I think they nailed the experience. 
 
It does make me think about other licensed games I've played an enjoyed, regardless of the source material.  Aside from watching the two Batman movies in the last decade, I've never cared for him.  Yet I played Batman: Arkham Asylum, and thought it was fantastic.  Even for someone unfamiliar with the franchise's lore, I still felt right at home without the need to look up online to see who the characters were, and the gameplay itself was fantastic.  A couple other licensed games come to mind, such as Astro Boy: Omega Factor for the Game Boy Advance.  I have never watched an Astro Boy cartoon in my life, but that game is one of the most unappreciated gems of the GBA library, because it uses the Astro Boy license as a launching point for the gameplay, not just a tacked-on layer of paint.  And of course, back in the day, Goldeneye was one of the greatest games for the N64, because it worked well with the source material. 
 
Of course, there's a clear and obvious problem with licensed games: they're made just for a quick buck.  It's easier to sell something with an established name on it, regardless of quality.  The result is terrible games based off of movies, rushed out because they're the equivalent of action figures to the marketers.  Tie-in merchandise with value only to the brand name.  It'd be nice to just say "Marketers need to learn better so their games will stop sucking!" but that's been the advice for as long as games have been around, so this post isn't going to change anything.  If anything the general public needs to learn better.  I'm still amazed that Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II was so hyped, considering the first wasn't even that good, and the fact that the Star Wars brand has been going downhill for a while now.  It's all about getting the name out, I guess.  That's why Call of Duty has been outselling each installment, because the simple fact that people are playing it means more people want to play it. 
 
Which kind of leads into my next point, which is Episodic Gaming.  Going back to Penny Arcade Adventures, Episode 3 was cancelled pretty much because the second game sold like crap.  In hindsight, it makes perfect sense.  The first episode was just that: the first installment.  The idea of a webcomic making a video game was pretty cool, and everyone wanted to see how it would turn out.  Episode 2 wound up just as good as episode 1, but sold only a third as many copies.  It's an ongoing storyline, and there were supposed to be two more episodes after this one, so Episode 2 just kind of fell by the wayside due to a lack of hype.  The gameplay was different, but not radically altered in any way. 
 
This isn't the first time this has happened.  Xenosaga was meant to be a six-part series, but after episode 2 bombed, the developers quickly skipped to episode 6 just so they could "conclude" the series properly, which was probably a wise idea on their part.  In the same time period, I've got to hand it to the developers of the .Hack series.  I've never played the games, but they brought out each new installment on a timely schedule and finished the series the way they intended.  Valve managed to avert this problem by distributing Half-Life 2: Episode 1 digitally; it was available to pretty much everyone who played Half-Life 2.  Additionally, they packaged a bunch of games in The Orange Box, just so people could play the first games before Episode 2, the latest in the series.  Though I have no idea where Episode 3 went... 
 
A novel idea is the way Telltale games have been handling their adventure games lately: offer the entire season for a base price, and put out the games as needed.  It worked well for Tales of Monkey Island, and a couple more episodes down the line, I might look into the Back to the Future games they're releasing.  It's still too early to say out well this will work, but it's an interesting idea, at least. 
 
Anyone have any ideas of how they would like to see episodic gaming implemented?

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How I loved 999, or "How Multi-Ending games should be made"

Don't worry, this entry is spoiler-free. 
 
If you own a DS and you have not played 999, it is now your civic duty to go buy it.  It's one of the best-written games I've ever played, with an excellent cast, a suspenseful atmosphere, and gameplay that really respects the intelligence of the person playing it.  The game's little-known, but it's easily worth the $35 price tag.  If you've played Ace Attorney, Professor Layton, or Hotel Dusk, you'll have a good idea what you're getting into.  It's point-and-click adventure, with lots of dialogue and puzzles to solve.  While I was initially skeptical, it earns its 'M' rating, a rarity for the DS.  Off the top of my head, the only other M-rated DS game is Grand Theft Auto, which has nothing in common with 999.  The story is a little tough and hard to follow, and some of the math in the game really requires that the player know how to think, but I still feel this is a game that everyone who considers themselves gamers should pick up. 
 
That said, it's difficult to discuss the game without blowing all the major plot points.  Everything in the story just fits together so damn well.  However, there is one aspect of the game that I haven't seen done in a game before, and that's the way 999 handles multiple game endings.  They aren't that uncommon in games...Heavy Rain comes to mind first, and I know the Shin Megami Tensei series loves to do it.  But in Heavy Rain, I still felt that one ending was enough for me.  I beat the game, and it was my own personal experience.  Sure, it's interesting to see what happens to other people, and it's fun to read up on how all the different choices you make effect the game...but in the end it's still the same experience for me.  In SMT, multiple endings are more of a gimmick.  You play the game this way, it ends a certain way.  That's all there is to it. 
 
However, the multiple paths in 999 serve a very different purpose.  Instead of each ending being a definite stopping point for the player, they serve instead as instruction.  The different paths you take reveal different facts about the characters, and depending on what conversations you've had previously, your next encounter may go a lot differently.  There are really only two substantial endings, and one only serves as a bridge to the final, true ending (which I somehow managed to get through on my first playthrough, but I lacked the necessary information to actually finish the game).  The other endings are basically glorified "game overs", though one in particular is genuinely creepy and unnerving, and worth playing through just to see it for yourself. 
 
It really says a lot that breaking up the narrative structure like this can have such an impact on the game's experience.  I felt bored with games like Red Dead Redemption or Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood thanks to that simple "seen it all before" feeling, even if the game is in the wild west.  But when was the last time that getting multiple endings told you more about the world?  Shadow the Hedgehog?  (not recommended you play that one)  My biggest complaint with games like Ace Attorney or Hotel Dusk is that they're ridiculously linear, but 999 tells a compelling story despite, and because of its branching paths.  Otherwise it'd just be a well-written, but unremarkable adventure game.  Pursuing multiple scenarios as if they were all equally important as the last just strengthened my bond with the characters, including seeing what would happen if I decided to just screw everybody over. 
 
Oddly enough, my only complaint about 999 is that I wanted to see even more of it.  It doesn't end on a cliffhanger, but the potential for a sequel is there, and the director is fully ready to make another one, possibly for the 3DS.  I read a long interview with him, and it pleases me to know that there are people like him who take video game writing seriously.  He openly discusses his thought process and discussions, which make me all the more excited to become a writer myself.  The thing is, he'll only make a sequel depending on how well-received this game is.  So go purchase Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors right now!

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Anyone else feel burned out on open-world games?

Since Christmastime, I've had the chance to catch up on some of the big games from last year.  Of course, there's Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, an open-world game set in Rome.  Time to time I also played Just Cause 2, an open-world game set in Southeast Asia in the present day.  And finally I finished with Red Dead Redemption, an open-world game set in the wild west. 
 
It's hard to criticize these games for "ripping off" one another (or at least ripping off of what Grand Theft Auto III did a decade ago), since despite their open-world-ness, they're all actually quite different.  Assassin's Creed is all about city building and stealth, RDR is about exploring vast deserts of the southern US, and in Just Cause, you blow things up.  Yet despite the drastic difference in gameplay styles, art styles, and general design, I still felt a constant feeling of deja vu going through each of these games one after the other.  Go to the dot on the map, talk to the guy.  Go somewhere else.  Kill somebody.  Repeat.   But they're all well-designed games with various objectives, great sense of progress and motivation for the player, and intriguing stories (Just Cause has a stupid story, that doesn't make it any less fun). 
 
So why am I so bothered by this?  It would be so much less fulfilling to play a bland shooter where you constantly run down hallways shooting guys, following a linear path until you get to the ending, with nothing else to find except to do it all again on a harder difficulty.  Open-world games tend to offer a great world to explore, more of a playground than a strict "game".  But it's weird to complain about a dearth of this kind of game, because it's hardly the kind of thing a small developer would be able to crank out to capitalize on a fad.  Big game worlds are hard to make, and even reusing art assets from Assassin's Creed II, or running the game off of GTAIV's engine is still troublesome.  Then again, it's much easier to make the game a second time around.  Fallout: New Vegas also falls into the category, and it's superficially identical to Fallout 3. 
 
It's less that I want open-world games to stop, and more that they should be spaced out a bit.  Everyone wants to make that next big hit video game, and an impressive looking world is a great way to get a bunch of Game of the Year nominations.  But even though Red Dead Redemption looked beautiful, had a great storyline, and is the first wild west game to impress people, it still just felt like I was playing Grand Theft Horse.  I found myself a lot more impressed with Super Meat Boy, or even Heavy Rain, as flawed as it was.  They gave me experiences I didn't know I wanted from games, while RDR just made me feel dull at times.  
 
In summary, smaller = better.  Find a way to innovate other than sticking GTA in the future.  Or the caveman age.  Though I might change my mind for an open-world Pokemon game...

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Heavy Rain displays tension in a way that few games do.

I recently finished Heavy Rain for the first time, and I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  The game isn't perfect; the movement controls are some of the worst in gaming, and there's a glaring plot thread that goes unexplained, but looking past its flaws, I found that Heavy Rain made me feel tense.  Normally when a story unfolds in a game, you're just watching it.  Even a game like Mass Effect, with its constant dialogue choices still gave me the security that its choices really wouldn't matter, because I know there's another game on the way, and it's impossible for my every decision to have a huge impact on what's coming next.  As a result, responses to my past decisions are less shocking, and more "Oh hey, I remember doing that". 
 
Heavy Rain changed all that. 
 
Simply knowing that my each and every decision could have serious consequences left me questioning what I should and shouldn't do.  I left several scenes wondering "what if", but I'm almost too scared to go back through the game again and see.  I almost feel like I want the game to be my own experience, one that replaying would diminish the effect.  Knowing that I can screw up and the game can go on regardless added much more tension to a scene than expecting a game over screen and trying again.  In Mass Effect, you are given as much time as you want to choose any given dialogue option, but in Heavy Rain, many decisions are timed.  You have a limited time to decide the best course of action, and not only that, but sometimes your options are intentionally difficult to read and follow, because that's just how freaking tense the situation is. 
 
Some spoilers for Heavy Rain follow.  Nothing too major, but be warned.
 
Alright? Good.  For all the negative gamer stereotypes out there, where all we play are constant gore-filled shooters, there is a definite truth to it.  We can all accept that games like Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, Mass Effect 2, and Red Dead Redemption are well-designed games with mature stories, but you can't shake the fact that all three of those games have killing as a common gameplay mechanic.  These are nameless, faceless enemies we're gunning down, with no emotional attachment or remorse whatsoever.  But Heavy Rain takes death very, very seriously.  Right from the start, Jason's death kicks off the game, and Shawn's kidnapping soon after.  We're given the options to kill a crazy religious extremist and a shotgun-wielding drug dealer, but in both cases, it's a very serious offense, one the player is encouraged to ponder, even if the people in question aren't what you would call "innocent". 
 
Yet the game is fully aware of that, and a later action sequence has you gunning down nameless, faceless henchmen on the other end of a quick-time event.  I paradoxically enjoyed the scene, but the implications of my doing so eventually became very clear.  You can play a game like Just Cause 2, which gives you all sorts of crazy ways to torture innocent civilians, but then we see just what it's like when the protagonist is forced to cut off a finger.  When I first heard about this scene, I had no idea just how intense it would be.  On paper it sounds bad, but still manageable, story-wise.  But in the scene where you do so, you have the chance to explore a small apartment.  I found a pair of scissors, a hacksaw, and a butcher knife.  Obviously, the knife would be the best choice for cutting off a WHY THE HELL IS THIS EVEN A CHOICE HOLY CRAP.  The mere fact that I have the option to choose how to mutilate myself just makes the scene crazier.  Not only that, but I found a piece of wood to place in my mouth just to have something to grit my teeth again when I actually do the deed.  The attention to detail in this scene is crazy.  The slightly misleading button inputs caused me to screw up the sequence a few times, but it served to enhance my immersion rather than detract from it.  It gave the sense that I was bracing myself for it, only to chicken out at the last moment.  You can't get that kind of tension from any other game. 
 
There are plenty of memorable moments like this in Heavy Rain, but I think it speaks for itself.  The game has a sizeable list of problems, and I've heard many people complain of its quality.  They're justified, but I still feel this is a game you need to play for yourself.  It's gritty and dark, and left a huge impression on me.

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Super Meat Boy: Retro Done Right

Ever since playing the old Sonic the Hedgehog games as a kid, I've been a fan of platformers.  As a kid I endlessly played the various mascot-based platformers, regardless of their quality, because the concept of jumping on things is something I've always found consistently fun.  The various Marios, Metroids, and Mega Mans only further fueled my obsession with the genre, until the 2000s when it suddenly seemed like the industry was shifting away from them.  With characters like Jak and Ratchet, platformers became more obsessed with shooting things.  Viewtiful Joe, as fun as it was, was more of a beat-em-up.  And of course, with my general tastes becoming better, Ty the Tazmanian Tiger wasn't nearly as entertaining as Busby the Bobcat had been a decade before.  It seemed like the platformer genre was dying, and I was ready to move on.  Platformers just weren't as popular as they used to, when you can typically blame the shift to 3D. 
 
However, thanks to the miracle that is digital distribution, it's easier than ever for independent studios to release games, and most of all, we're seeing a ton of quality releases on XBLA and PSN.  I've already talked about Limbo and why you should buy it, but games like Braid, Mega Man 9, and now Super Meat Boy are showing me that platformers are awesome again.  Developers are getting creative, and while some don't really "get it" (I'm looking at you, Sonic 4), Super Meat Boy is an excellent example of how to make a retro-style game, and do it right. 
 
Again, previously I've talked about how retro-style design can be hurtful to the gaming industry.  Games like Scott Pilgrim and Dragon Quest IX stick too close to genre conventions to actually do anything new, and wind up keeping all the poor design issues old games had.  Super Meat Boy takes everything that's great about retro games, and wisely does away with everything holding the genre back.  Point number 1 is lives; a limited number of lives is a far outdated game mechanic that even major studios still have issues with (and one of my few complaints with the Mario Galaxy games).  With a lives system in place, once you die so many times, you're booted back to the main menu, where the player just goes back to the same level and tries again; there's no point to it other than wasting the players' time.  Sadly, the bonus levels in Super Meat Boy have lives, and as a result, being constantly booted out to the level select screen is not your idea of "fun".  Even the super-difficult "I Wanna Be The Guy" is only tolerable thanks to infinite lives, giving you freedom to experiment with different solutions to problems, and lessening the impact of a cheap death.   
 
Still, there are other aspects to Super Meat Boy's design that I love.  When so many games suffer from repetition, it's refreshing to see Meat Boy have consistently new levels that don't often repeat the same tricks you're used to.  New game mechanics are introduced in a way that allows the player to understand before continuing into the really hard parts.  Yet, it's amazing just how many levels there are.  The main storyline is several hours long, but you're still encouraged to speedrun, play the dark world version of levels, and unlock all the hidden characters (as masochistic as The Kid's level was, I loved it).  It's an odd feeling when my only criticism of the game is the annoying stage transition in the main menu. 
 
I'd also like to mention that the game has a great sense of humor that extends far beyond just pop culture references (or in this case, internet memes).  A good story's always nice in the game, but Super Meat Boy does the smart route and gives us entertaining cutscenes that help the story along, while never actually making a big deal of it.  The subtle callbacks to classic games like Mega Man 2, Ninja Gaiden, and Pokemon also give you something to point and laugh at.  And while the game doesn't have the same big name star appeal of games like Smash Bros or Marvel vs. Capcom, Meat Boy is a joy to those hardcore gamers who recognize faces like Tim, Commander Video, Alien Hominid, the Ninja, and of course, the Kid.  It's nice to see a game be legitimately funny for once, rather than the failed attempts at comic relief in games like inFamous or Alan Wake.  The occasional playing with game tropes (such as infinite lives, or the "everything's trying to kill you" design of IWBTG) is handled well, though the game's natural humor in dealing with obstacles is probably all it needs. 
 
All in all, Super Meat Boy's honestly one of the best games I've played all year.  It's consistently fun, funny, charming, and masochistic.  It has a level of difficulty that pleases the hardcore, but a learning curve that understands that not every gamer is the best there ever was.  It's filled with secrets that keep you coming back for more, and it is never, ever boring, but still retains enough content to last you a long time.  The best part?  It's only 10 bucks until November 21.  Go buy it now, dammit.

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Square-Enix might be able to take some cues from Atlus

I haven't played many JRPGs as of late, mainly because most of the genre is derivative and unimaginative at this point.  It seems like every time a new JRPG comes out, I'm interested in it for a bit, before a huge deal breaker shows up and I'm no longer interested (This description brought to you by Arc Rise Fantasia, a game that looked awesome until everyone started talking).  Square-Enix in particular has been very hit-or-miss for me.  The World Ends With You was a fun little game but still too annoying to be recommendable, Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days was fine, aside from the fact that you could just play Kingdom Hearts 2 again and be better off, and Final Fantasy XIII, which started being fun once I turned the game off and started playing 3D Dot Game Heroes instead. 
  
However, it was this summer's release of Dragon Quest IX that set off my cynicism for the company.  Dragon Quest is an insanely popular series in Japan, so you would figure the game must have some merits.  To add to that, I played Dragon Quest VIII several years ago and thought it was pretty damn fun, if a bit slow.  So, I popped DQIX in my DS and was ready to head off on my epic adventure. 
 
Apparently before you can pick up a sword and start saving people, the game designers decided you have to shovel horse crap first.  The first hour is a huge slog through tedious dialogue, monotonous fetch-quests, and a lack of direction to let you go to the parts of the game that are actually fun.  And even once you have a sword and can start killing slimes, you're on your own for a while and have to get to the second town (with a boss fight in the way) before you can actually build a party.  Oh, but you only have the starting classes to choose from.  You're gonna have to play even longer before you unlock any of the fun classes!  Oh, and when you change classes you start all the way back up to level 1 and have to grind your way back to a respectable level before you can continue.  Add in a battle system that takes forever just for a character to walk up and hit something, and dialogue so childishly written that I'm embarassed to even play it, and it wasn't long before I decided this game was a waste of my 35 dollars. 
 
However, now Atlus has released their own turn-based, class-based, dungeon crawler of a grindfest with no story, Etrian Odyssey III.  The two games aren't copies of each other, but they share a lot in common, and differ in a few key areas.  For instance, Atlus actually knows what players want, and don't waste our time with pointless dialogue and walking from Point A to B to advance the plot.  You turn the game on, hit New Game, and you're right at the character creation screen.  There's a ton of classes to pick from, but I found that a healthy setup of Tank/Mage/Healer/Warrior/Utility works quite well.  Until I discovered that the Farmer is useless in battle, but it only took me a level to figure that out and swap him for a Ninja instead.  (why did I pick Farmer over Ninja in the first place?  Oh well, who cares)  Once your team is set up, you're given your first mission: go in the dungeon and scout the place out.  Once you've mapped out the first floor (which is much pickier than I would like), the game pretty much says "Alright, go do whatever now!"  While there really isn't that much to do, you're allowed to venture deeper in the dungeon, pursue some sidequests, go sailing in your ship so you can explore faraway lands, and frankly just goof off. 
 
The much quicker pace at which things get going isn't the only advantage EOIII has over DQIX.  You level up at the same rate in both games (slowly), and both games give you skill points to allow you to customize your character classes.  Problem is, Dragon Quest makes you level up 3 or 4 times in order to gain a new skill or ability, and you really only have the option between upgrading your current weapon choice or a linear class progression.  It feels like classes are only capable of one thing and don't feel very versatile, so you wind up just dumping all your points in the same stat just to get the next skill, which won't matter considering you just mash Attack over and over again.  It's true that EOIII also loves making you mash the attack button, but the random encounters are difficult enough to necessitate the use of your secondary skills.  This is where the game truly shines, because at each level you can make a significant choice that affects your characters.  Should I build my Prince to passively heal my party, or work on his buffing skills?  Should my ninja incapacitate the enemy, or draw attention away from the party?  The possibilities are extremely open-ended, and I haven't even reached the part of the game that assigns a sub-class to your party members, expanding the game even further.  Most classes are unlocked at the start, so I can play around in the early game to figure out what I really want my team to be, unlike Dragon Quest which even encourages change your characters' classes and grinding their skills up from Level 1.  "Grinding so you'll be able to grind" doesn't sound like good game design to me. 
 
I'm rapidly losing interest in Square-Enix as a developer, but Atlus just seems to produce quality game after quality game.  Dragon Quest's design seems so stuck in the SNES days when progression was slow and translations were boring, but it hasn't realized that gaming has changed in the last couple of decades.  Atlus changes up each game with every new installment, and knows exactly what its players expect: to have fun.

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Bob delves into the world of online multiplayer.

Game releases that I have interest in have been slow lately (Sorry Halo: Reach), so for the past couple of weeks I've revisited one of my favorite games of 2009, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.  Seeing as how I've already collected every treasure and beaten the game on the hardest difficulty, I decided to do something I don't often get to do with games: play online.  I'll admit that despite owning a 360, I never bothered to get a gold membership for it, for a number of reasons; for one, there are plenty of horror stories about gratuitous swearing, underaged kids playing gory games, and thoroughly having my ass kicked by people who are way better at the game than me.  However, right off the bat Uncharted 2 managed to mitigate a lot of those concerns.  While the 360 comes with a headset packed into the box and expects you to buy the gold membership in order to use the thing, the PS3 just gives you free online, and lets you decide for yourself how much you want to immerse yourself into the community.  It's a much more welcoming system than Xbox Live, yet still gives you the benefit of communicating with other players, unlike Nintendo's online service, which is the equivalent of plugging your ears and pretending there's no mean people in the world. 
 
Once I got past that initial intro, I found that Uncharted 2's online is about as high quality as can possibly get.  I recall when Super Smash Bros. Brawl was announced to have online play, only for the end result to be so bare-bones that they might as well have not even bothered.  Play online in a random match against strangers you can't interact with, or play with your friends after entering tedious game-specific friend codes.  And then the matches wind up being laggy as hell anyway.  Oddly enough, Mario Kart got the far better online experience; too bad the actual "game" bit isn't nearly as fun.  I'll admit that I'm a huge fan of Smash Bros. Melee and Brawl (both among my favorite games ever), and it's probably thanks to those games that I don't shun my eyes at multiplayer in general.  Multiplayer is far more likely to produce emergent properties (for those not in the know, that means the game doesn't something the developers didn't anticipate).  A game like Smash Bros. become endlessly replayable, simply because due to the very nature of the game, the players don't know what to expect.  In fact, emergent properties are one of the main strengths fighting games have over other genres, which is why the genre is still so prevalent despite needing such an overhauling. 
 
However, as fun as Smash Bros. is, in terms of lasting appeal, it still needs something more, which is what other online games have gotten great at.  While the multiplayer deathmatch has been around since the early days, I would like to hand Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare the honor for popularizing the method of "leveling up" your characters for multiplayer, treating what's usually a throwaway mode in most games into a fully-fledged part of the experience.  Feel free to call me wrong in the comments.  I'm unsure how many games have this system in place these days, but I'll admit that I got quite addicted to Blazblue: Calamity Trigger's online during a few of the free Xbox Live weekends.  The simple act of giving the player a rank and rewards for playing multiplayer can add a lot to the experience, even if a game like Blazblue only offers cosmetic rewards such as a personalized gamer card for their preferred character.  Going way back to Uncharted 2, I found that just like a single player game, I kept playing Uncharted 2's multiplayer just to see what will happen next; gaining money to purchase new boosters, character skins, upgrades for co-op levels, and taunts added to the sense of discovery that you would usually only find from a single player game.  Sad to say, sometimes it feels a bit like grinding does in an MMO: killing enemies over and over again just so you can level up and get the next cool thing.  Still, the fact that human players behave differently than AI-controlled enemies drastically changes what would normally be a grind. 
 
I would like to point out that while a game like Modern Warfare, Halo, Gears of War, or Uncharted 2 has very popular and successful multiplayer that can richly enhance the game experience, it should also be noted that most games do not need multiplayer, and devoting resources to it can wind up hurting the game in the long run.  Look at Bioshock 2, released earlier this year.  Whether or not its a worthy sequel is a different question all together, but I think most people can agree that it didn't need multiplayer.  The first Bioshock's strength was its story and setting, not in its gameplay; even if a bunch of fans of Modern Warfare 2 wound up playing Bioshock 2, they wouldn't stick around for the multiplayer; they would just go back to MW2.  The mode is wasted, and the funding going to what's clearly a very diluted multiplayer experience will only hurt the game in the long run.  Halo, CoD, and Gears of War were all designed specifically in mind for multiplayer, and they all succeeded in those fronts.  It may seem strange that a game so single-player focused like Uncharted 2 can still house such strong online play, but part of that reason may be that there's simply no alternative on the PS3.  You could make a case for Resistance or Metal Gear Solid 4, but those have problems of their own.  Uncharted 2 did things just right, and if you'll excuse me, I have much more pulling people off of ledges to do.

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Cover an eye and pretend Metroid Prime never happened.

 This blog post contains spoilers for Metroid: Other M, and the Metroid series in general.  Do not read if you do not want to be spoiled.
 
In 2002, Retro Studios released Metroid Prime, the first 3D Metroid game, for the Gamecube.  Metroid Prime was a huge revolution; the Texas-based developer proved they knew how to make games, successfully turning a popular 2D game into an immersive 3D environment, all from a first-person perspective.  Metroid Prime remains one of my favorite games of all time, due to it being the first game to make me feel as though I was part of a living, breathing environment in a game.  Additionally, I have a soft spot for Metroid Prime 3; in my opinion, MP3 utilizes the Wii's motion controls better than any other game on the platform. 
 
However, let's go back to 2001, and pretend that Metroid Prime never happened.  Instead, give us Metroid: Other M.  The entire time I played through the game, it felt less like "another entry in the series", and more like a complete reinterpretation of how Metroid could be played in 3D.  In some aspects, Other M feels like a 3D remake of Super Metroid, which isn't that surprising.  After all, the game takes place immediately after Super Metroid, and Samus retains all the abilities she had at the end of that game.  While Retro Studios took a look at the Metroid series and tinkered with the mechanics until it worked from a first-person perspective, Team Ninja set out to keep all of Super Metroid's game mechanics intact in a 3D environment.  If you keep that in mind, it could explain parts of the game's unusual control system; holding up on the D-Pad to activate the Speed Booster is probably a lot easier than trying to keep steady using a joystick.  Hell, if the basic Wii Remote had more buttons, it's entirely possible Team Ninja would have scrapped the first-person missile sections all together. 
 
The more you look at Other M, the more it becomes clear that Team Ninja wanted nothing to do with the Metroid Prime series.  There are countless nods to the 2D games (Metroid: Zero Mission, Metroid II, Super Metroid, Metroid Fusion), but not a single game mechanic or lore from Metroid Prime remains.  Several bosses are ones Samus has fought before, only in 3 dimensions now.  The "scan" function from Prime is gone, and now Samus only scans when it's plot-relevant.  However, the biggest departure is in Samus's personality.  Samus barely says anything in Zero Mission, II, and Super Metroid; though she's rather talkative in Fusion (though that's only to an AI computer).  Fusion was released alongside Prime, so I'm not sure that makes a difference concerning Prime's development, but this is where it gets interesting.  Older games in general did not tell the stories that games tell today; Samus didn't talk because she had no reason to.  Is it because she's just a calm soldier who doesn't let her emotions get in the way, or would she be much more willing to open up if there was someone to talk to? 
 
In the Metroid Prime series, Samus is merely silent.  She had no reason to talk in Metroid Prime, but she encounters an entire race who needs her help in Metroid Prime 2, and is working alongside countless soldiers in Metroid Prime 3.  In both games, she doesn't say a word.  After the events of MP2 have concluded, Samus departs with a wave of her hand to say "See ya."  To her, saving the universe is just another day's work.  In the intro to MP3, Samus is nearly a celebrity; she's well-known for her adventures across the galaxy, but Samus isn't one to brag; she just follows orders.  Even after falling down a long shaft struggling with her nemesis Ridley, Samus isn't shaken at all; she's fought Ridley plenty of times, and isn't particularly surprised that he's there.  At the end, Samus does reflect on her adventures a bit, having killed three of her corrupted friends; it's really the only time we see her display emotion since she's wearing her helmet all the time, but after three hard adventures, it's understandable.  Samus is just that much of a badass. 
 
But Team Ninja saw that personality for Samus, and thought it really didn't suit her.  The baby Metroid who sacrificed itself for her at the end of Super Metroid weighs on her soul, and it's the only time that Samus has felt like a mother.  Those lingering feelings carry over into Other M, where Samus is self-doubting, and still shaken over what's happened.  Being reunited with her old mentor, Samus feels like she has to show responsibility, and prove that she's still capable of following orders.  This huge personality shift has left many gamers feeling bitter over Other M; it's a direct contradiction of the personality Samus displays in the Prime games, and especially comes to a halt when Ridley shows up.  Canonically, this is the fifth time Samus has fought Ridley, yet when he appears, Samus breaks down, feeling scared and lonely, screaming when he grabs her.  She still disposes of him in the usual manner (missiles), but that scene was a huge shock to many gamers.  Why would Samus feel so afraid of a foe she's dispatched so many times?  Well, once again, if you ignore Metroid Prime, this is only her third time fighting him.  His abduction of the baby Metroid in SM shows that he has his own agenda, while in Metroid Prime he gives the impression that he has something to prove; he has cybernetic implants to improve his capabilities, seemingly all to show that he's capable of taking down Samus.  In Prime, Samus and Ridley are arch-enemies, while in Other M, it's more the idea that their paths often tangle, so it's possible Ridley was just as confused about Samus being there as she was about him.  Just speculation.
 
Ultimately, Other M is less of a sequel to the franchise, and more of a reinterpretation of the game mechanics and the characters.  It's not a completely successful experiment (it features some bafflingly bad design features, such as the forced perspective pixel-hunting, and occasionally misleading directions), but it's an interesting game from a narrative point of view.  You can argue all you want over whether the story is any good, or if Samus needs a better voice actor, or whether it would have controlled better with a joystick, but despite all of those flaws, I feel the game is at least worth experiencing.

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Scott Pilgrim vs. The Modern Beat-'Em-Up

After reading through the Scott Pilgrim comic book series and seeing the great movie, I had to play the Scott Pilgrim video game just to complete my indulgence.  I already knew from previews that this wasn't going to just be another movie cash-in, and after playing it a while, I can safely say that it's amusing and creative, and has an excellent soundtrack.  The pixelized character art and unique sense of humor make it a joy to experience. 
 
To -play-, however, is another thing.  I'm very much aware that Scott Pilgrim is a faithful homage to River City Ransom, but my first impressions of the game were "Okay, how is this any different from every other beat-'em-up released in the past few years?"  You steadily walk to the right, beating up foes, gaining money and experience points that get you new abilities and items and...*yawn*.  In the end, all that's setting the game apart is its setting, which is really strong, don't get me wrong, but there are so many fundamental problems with the genre that very quickly turn me off.  I'm only halfway through the game, but I'm already required to grind my ass off in order to progress, which pretty much kills the fun.  It's the same repetition that caused me to give up on Castle Crashers, another XBLA beat-'em-up that's very similar to Scott Pilgrim. 
 
My main problem with these beat-'em-ups is that they reward persistence, rather than strategy or skill.  In a large crowd of enemies, it's difficult to defend yourself.  Most of the abilities you acquire require you to button mash even more, not less, as trying to pull them off as part of a combo is annoying, and it's more effective to just hammer the punch button until everything is dead.  Thanks to the art style, it can also be difficult to tell whether you're actually next to an enemy or on a different plane, so precision moves are left in the dust as the more reliable punches and kicks continue to take precedence.  The block button's nearly useless, and trying to pick up a baseball bat to defend myself is difficult in a large crowd of enemies, considering you have to be pixel-perfect before the game figures out you're trying to find some strategy.  Add to this an annoyingly sluggish Scott, and the basic gameplay is an exercise in tedium. 
 
Of course, the "classic" style beat-'em-up is so etched in our minds that it's hard to imagine what the more modern versions of the genre are.  To be completely honest, they're everywhere.  Batman: Arkham Asylum fits it perfectly.  God of War.  No More Heroes.  Even Kingdom Hearts is a damn Beat-'Em-Up.  You really wouldn't think it looking at them, but don't all of those games require you to run into a bunch of enemies and rapidly mash "attack" until everything around you is dead?  The fighting is a core part of their gameplay, just as it is in Scott Pilgrim or Castle Crashers.  But those games also realize that fighting tons of enemies can't hold the game up on its own.  Batman has stealth elements and a Metroid-esque maze, God of War has plenty of platforming and puzzle solving, Kingdom Hearts has the whole "RPG" aspect down with its character development and boss fights, and No More Heroes...is probably the weakest of the games I just listed.  Not coincidentally, it's also the closest thing to the classic beat-'em-up formula.  Even the core game mechanics offer a level of depth that Scott Pilgrim can't compete with.  Batman throws tons of enemies at you, but it also lets you know when an enemy's about to attack so you can counter, and gives you warning when an enemy picks up a weapon to throw at you.  All of these elements communicate to the player the information he needs to get through the fight.  Comparatively, Scott Pilgrim's battles may as well be obscured by a cartoon dust cloud. 
 
Don't get me wrong; Scott Pilgrim's not a bad game.  At 10 dollars, I don't feel ripped off, and it's certainly got plenty of charm in its art and music.  The problem is that it doesn't want to evolve; it's an homage to old-school gaming, and with it, takes all of the flaws with it as well (I might as well mention Dragon Quest IX here, which also has issues growing up).  As a game to blow off steam, it works well, though the necessity to grind in order to finish the game doesn't help its case.  As a comic book adaptation, it works pretty well, and I really can't see any other ways the series could be adapted to a video game format.  Just remember that "retro" is not synonymous with "quality".

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