The Hidden Messages in Video Games: Exergame Achievements


    
Unrelated: why does Ubi consistently have to rely on target-renders like these to sell their games? 
 
I just noticed something. Remember when Your Shape: Fitness Evolved got some buzz around the notion that it had an achievement for burning 10,000 calories in your ingame career? Well, as it turns out, The Biggest Loser: Ultimate Workout has an achievement for 2.5 times that much. Which isn't exactly shocking -- I bet there's going to be a Calorie Genocider achievement in Your Shape 3 next year -- but especially of note is how the two games present their calorie achievements. 
 
Your Shape gives you achievements of escalating value leading up from 100 calories all the way to 10,000. They reward you 20G every 100 calories up to 1,000, then 25G every 200 calories up to 2,000, and from then it's a 50G achievement every 1,000 calories until the coveted 10,000. It gives you a persistent carrot-on-a-stick approach until you come away with 755 achievement points and a quarter-inch off your waistline, after which the game basically trusts you to keep up your personal plan without anything specific to motivate you.
 
Counter to this, Biggest Loser has five calorie-based acheivements: one for 1,000 calories, one for 2,500, one for 5,000, one for 10,000, and one for 25,000. Each of them are 10G -- they serve as milestones, and not rewards. "Yeah, we know; this flag we just popped up signifies that you just got rid of 7.14 pounds of raw fat. You're probably feeling the difference right now -- in fact, we're sure you are, especially if you've been following our nutrition advice -- but don't let that stop you; we're here for as long as is necessary for you to achieve your personal goals. Now COME ON; let's do some fuckin' leg-lifts! STEP IT UP, PEOPLE!" It also has a wider variety of achievements, based on criteria that seems mysterious and almost frightening to me. What the hell is a FIt Score? How do I WIn The Biggest Loser Competition? "Achieve Your Personal Goals"? But nobody has this yet! WHAT THE HELL 
 
It's these traits, alongside the Quick Looks for each game, that make me more excited about Biggest Loser. It's a shame that EA Sports Active 2.0's Kinect version is reviewing poorly. Its achievements go for a hybrid approach -- giving you an achievement payload at 10,000 calories and rewarding you every step of the way on a 9-week program of your choice -- but also rewards you for some crazy stuff, convincing me that these games are all secretly training their players to be Kumite champions. (Maybe I'll pick it up on-discount specifically to get the 1,000 squats achievement over the course of a single day and sell it immediately afterward, just to get whoever's tracking this stuff to scratch their head.)
4 Comments

Rock Band 3's intro, compared to those of other music games:

  

 
This is Rock Band 3's intro. First thing to notice: you're not immediately assaulted by the opening chords of Cheap Trick's "Hello There", but instead some ambient street noise that takes a moment to segue into The Doors' "Break On Through". Meaning if you just want to get to the intro menu, you don't have to furiously hit A to try and avoid the sharp volume spike. Also, kudos for having mellow instrumental tracks in the background of the main menu; it complements the atmosphere set by the intro, and is far less annoying than hearing "Bad Reputation" over and over and over and over while waiting for the Music Store to load.
 
(Not to say Hello There or Bad Reputation are bad songs, of course! But when I'm starting up the game a few times a week for two years straight to play random DLC...) 
 
Second thing: Though it's obvious that it's live-action, the fact that they chose to go with it here implies a thing or two about the way the game perceives itself. Previous Rock Band games had intros that were based on metaphors (your band is like a car that upgrades itself as you make your journey); this one illustrates a rainy night, graffiti, running, streetlights, and rooftops. Its intent seems to be to capture the atmosphere of what it's like to play music late at night -- and the fact that it stars, by all accounts, normal people, makes it easier for the player to insert him or herself into the band-member role.
  
Def Jam Rapstar's intro takes a slightly different tack; it presents music videos from groups like Run-DMC, Snoop Dogg, and the Wu-Tang Clan pasted onto skyscrapers.
  
 
Though more abstract than Rock Band 3's intro, this is totally acceptable; it illustrates that these are all artists that have had their contributed significantly to hip-hop culture, causing it to hit the mainstream in a major way; it also highlights that these artists are some of the biggest names in modern music. The tagline, "'Cause we're taking over one city at a time", draws the player into the game's motif -- which works wonderfully alongside the mechanic of uploading your own original interpretations/freestyles in video form to DJR's user video database. "We're" taking over, and you can be a part of it! Don't be scared, jump in and join us! 
 
Compare these two examples to the way Activision music games have handled their intros. The original DJ Hero, for instance, shows off a series of CG-rendered Gorillaz knockoffs exploding a giant evil monolithic mechanical record needle for the benefit of a weird postapocalyptic highway rave. Grandmaster Flash and a glowy-eyed DJ Shadow make appearances.
  
   
Though it can be interpreted as a celebration of DJ culture, instead it feels more like an original animated feature with little to do with the actual act of turntabling. DJ Hero is a great, great game, but the intro makes it look like its producers want you to turn on the game and go "All right, I'm putting on my DJ hat! Spinnin' rekkids, takin' names! This is Flava Flav! Fix up, look sharp! YEEEEEAAAAAAH, BOYEEEEE!" -- caricaturizing the game's core activity and integrating the player into it only for as long as the game is on. In doing so, it presents a face of DJ culture that's so far removed from the real thing it's laughable. Which is fine; these are videogames and not tutorials (excepting Rock Band 3), after all, but this one illustrates a resoundingly different design philosophy from Harmonix's recent foray into reverence. DJ Hero's wacky dancehall image persists through the ingame menus, selectable characters, and other aesthetics.
 
DJ Hero 2's intro fares better, though only in the sense that it doesn't attempt anything like this. Crazy CG graphics lead from the Activision/FreestyleGames logos into the game's logo, with hip mixed music playing in the background. Nothing spectacular, but at least it seems like it's taking itself a bit more seriously this time.
 
However, I think the most stellar example of the way Activision's music games have presented themselves with weird caricatures is the intro for Guitar Hero: World Tour: 
  
   
Which not only assumes you're willing to take the role of a heavily stylized, stiffly-animated cartoon band -- playing alongside such luminaries as Johnny Napalm and Lars Umlaut -- but also presents the impression, I guess, that clarinet music is heavily sponsored by The Man and that rock-n'-roll symbolizes the spirit of rebellious youth. Never mind that Activision's choices for band-centric games have all been bands that are made up of old fogies by now, of course, or that Guitar Hero is a multimillion dollar product that required the approval of executives and shareholders to get made; it's time to tear up some hotel rooms with hands locked in devil-horn positions, and any other form of music can go piss up a rope! Eat your brussels sprouts, grown-ups -- us kids have our plastic guitars, and are ready to rock! Hell yeah, I'm gonna press start! Where's the Dethklok song on this one?

Guitar Hero 5 and 6 don't have intros nearly as spectacular as this; they're actually depressingly short in comparison. Maybe it's a good thing; these cartoons look pretty cheap. 
 
I cannot wait to see how this facet of these games evolves in the forthcoming years. Will DJ Hero 3 or Guitar Hero 2011 (named simply "Guitar Hero") present themselves differently as a result of Rock Band 3's drastically different approach? I certainly hope so; these are fun to watch!
14 Comments

About "Supporting Original Artists" in the Videogame Industry

So, Double Fine came out with Brutal Legend last year!  It was new, unique, artistically inspired, cleverly written, and ultimately beautiful!  You couldn't describe it in a single sentence, though, unless you decided to fudge a few facts: "Jack Black kicks metal ass in a rock-inspired open world" doesn't begin to describe the proto-RTS enhancements they added onto what was initially sold as a God-of-War-style action-slasher game, and ultimately, it was a wash.  People defended it to the death, though, citing the genius of Tim Schafer, creator of the stylistically perfect Psychonauts, and how he had done the game industry no wrongs up to that point -- and he really hadn't, but this came with an unintended side-effect.  Schafer has unwittingly created for himself a cult of personality, mostly through amazing blog posts and wonderful adventure games; games where the focus is on the writing.  Brutal Legend attempted to nudge the focus over to the game underneath the writing; as a result, a lot of people -- myself included -- were totally baffled and disappointed.  Tim's writing was good, but it wasn't enough to make me want to play a game I didn't sign up for. 
 
Believe it or not, this tragic story has a moral!  People, don't buy games because of the personalities behind them!  Games can be artistic masterpieces, but they're also consumer products that you're expected to interact with!  Wait until the overall "picture" of any given game is complete enough to see if it's fun, first!  If it isn't, you can still feel free to attempt to sway market forces in the direction of an artist, personality, or game development wunderkind, but ultimately, your money is sending the message that you're willing to consume anything a certain person-of-games is willing to throw out onto a disc.  This is bad business from a consumer standpoint; it hardly ever works; it only results in bitter disappointment! 
 
Maybe this is a side-effect of an instinctive behavior of Internet people to dramatize something they're passionate about?  Regardless, here are some words to live by:  Videogames aren't "causes" that need to be "supported".  Brutal Legend sold at least a million copies worldwide, according to the dodgy site VGChartz.  That means it probably turned a profit (especially considering most of its development costs were likely already paid for by Activision), but even if it failed, it wouldn't have been a death knell for the concept of "good writing" in video games.  Plenty of video games are written well -- the Persona series, the Telltale adventures, Banjo-Kazooie, Borderlands, and Prince of Persia are all brilliant examples of games that have excellent and clever dialogue, a few of them have a narrative structure that trumps anything Brutal Legend was capable of, and all but one of those games/franchises have seen moderate success!  You shouldn't feel obligated to buy a game you feel weird about, just because Internet people tell you it's "important!" 
 
And if a game you're looking for focuses all its promotional media on the non-game aspects of it, wait for a review before you buy it!  I've learned my lesson; have you?

2 Comments