On Mass Effect, Part 2: Collaborative storytelling and the end.

Yes this post contains spoilers for the Mass Effect series. All titles are fair game. You have been warned.

In part one of this reflection on the Mass Effect series, I retold the games' plot as I saw it: an epic love story set against a galaxy's struggle for survival. It's not a prerequisite for reading part 2, but it does serve as the basis for much of my argument presented here.

Let's cut to the chase: there is no possible ending BioWare could have devised for Mass Effect 3 that would have pleased everyone. The beauty of that series -- something that has been reaffirmed by the outrage surrounding the finale -- is the unique narrative each player builds throughout their 90-hour experience. It's all thanks to collaborative storytelling, with both the player and developer working to build each Shepard's story.

But that's only true to a degree. The greatest trick BioWare ever played was making you think you were somehow writing this story. While there are near infinite combinations of story beats and outcomes across the entirety of the series, each momentary decision is just as trivially presented as the final one: you stand at a crossroad with two, three or maybe, if your lucky, four possible paths. Take your pick.

The feeling of attachment and ownership over your Shepard is birthed out of a totality of your decisions. Your story isn't dictated solely by who you left behind on Virmire or whether or not you cheated on Liara during Mass Effect 2. Those individual moments, while some may be very weighty decisions, are just fractions of your Shepard's identity.

But there's a second layer of player driven storytelling that leads to ownership, one that takes place outside the game. Each unique story is informed by which characters, relationships, events and decisions most greatly resonate with the player. This isn't necessarily something we actively decide -- it's based on our own experiences, flaws and aspirations -- but it's at the core of Mass Effect. It's what propels us to save species and romance characters while rejecting others. This is where the player has the most influence on the story. Everything else is just picking and choosing from bits the developers have laid out for you.


Herein lies the problem with ending Mass Effect. Because the specifics of each player's story are so unique and personal, (no, not because you chose to cure the genophage, or let the Quarians wipe out the Geth. BioWare was perfectly capable of taking those things into account, and they did) there was really no way to craft a satisfying ending. The writers did what they could: creating an ending that wrapped up, both in narrative and theme, the events and conflicts that were common touchstones for all players, but many of the specifics that you or I might have identified with were left unresolved.

In my version of the story, Shepard is a hopeless romantic driven by his love for Liara. Sure, saving humanity and everybody else would be nice, but he really just wants to put all this war behind him and settle down on some remote planet. Even his final decision, to destroy the reapers, was driven by this (it's the only choice that gives Shepard a chance of surviving the ending).

With this romance being Shepard's main motivation, it's not surprising that I'd have liked a little more closure on that story thread. I just wanted some sort of acknowledgment that Liara, after stepping out of the downed Normandy, was just as concerned with reuniting as Shepard. Hell, I'd even have taken a knowing glance at the stars! (On second thought, that last one would have been pretty good actually; perhaps a bit cliché, but still subtle and effective.) All I got was a hazy memory of Liara as Shepard bumrushed that reactor thingy. Oh, and it wasn't even the first person he remembered. Admiral Anderson before the woman you want to spend the rest of your life with? Really?

My point is, these narratives we construct for our Shepard take control out of the hands of the developer. They've given us the tools -- the characters, the worlds, the choices -- and guided us along the way, but for many players, myself included, they actually did too good a job of masking that guiding hand. When the ending finally rolls along, it comes back and slaps us right in the face. Despite all the narrative control I was given, I didn't write these games and in the end this is just as much BioWare's story as it is mine.

That's the problem with the ending. We've been under the allure of collaborative storytelling for 90 hours, but an ending is definitive. We can bring all we want into it, but we can't mold it to cap the narrative we've built in a meaningful way. This dissonance and the disappointment it has created is understandable, but this is just something we're going to have to come to terms with.

If players really want games this deep, malleable and personally fulfilling, they're going to have to expect some disappointment. As much as it might seem like it, you're not actually writing this story. You can choose how to behave within it as a sort of digital actor and interpret its themes and characters as much as you want, but you're trapped within a playset the developer has built for you.

Collaborative storytelling is a partnership for sure, but one partner did all the work.


On Mass Effect, Part 1: A hopeless romantic (SPOILERS)

Yes, this post contains spoilers for the Mass Effect series. All titles are fair game. You have been warned.

I've been thinking about Mass Effect a lot; about what the series means to me, why its ending has been so controversial and what separates it from similar games. I've come to a couple of conclusions and this is my attempt to lay them out.

I'm starting with a reflection on my Mass Effect experience. This is the story of Commander Shepard as I saw it. All of that surface level stuff -- the battles with Saren and the Reapers, Cerberus' constant meddling, the siege of Earth -- is ultimately unimportant. This series is great because it allows the player to inject their own humanity into Shepard. You determine which losses are the most painful. You choose Shepard's motivations. The choices you make within the game aren't nearly as interesting or important to crafting your Commander Shepard as those you make outside it.

Mass Effect: A summary

Mass Effect is a love story set against the backdrop of a universe's fight for survival. By the end of the first installment, Shepard had fallen for Liara. It was a love that blossomed slowly and awkwardly, just as you might expect from a romance between a gruff, military-man and a bookish, blue alien. After Shepard's death and resurrection -- the latter achieved with the help of his beloved -- she seemed to be gone for good, toiling away on some sort of vague revenge plot. Shepard was heartbroken.

He had visions of life after wartime: settling down with Liara on a remote planet, one or two little blue Shepards running around. But that was all gone. She couldn't be bothered. All he had left was a photo.

Fate brought them back together for what seemed to be his final mission. But things were different. She was cold and obsessed with her research, uttering no more than a "Hey, Shepard" when he stopped by for a chat. When they did talk, the word "friend" got thrown around a lot, each time chipping away at his cyborg heart. This unrequited love was starting to fester. It poisoned Shepard, the boy scout.

He started to lose his cool, snapping at crew members and throwing around his galactic clout like a common thug at The Citadel. How, after all this time and devotion, could she think they were only friends?

He became obsessed with past failures, especially the death of Urdnot Wrex. He let that situation on Virmire get out of hand and it ended with the death of a friend. Curing the genophage was his path to redemption. He owed the Krogans that much.

And he found solace in others. Shepard was the savior of entire species. He did so much for so many, but after all this loss, he was breaking down. Luckily, Garrus was always there to lift him up; a true friend. Shepard had no idea what he would do without him.

But it always came back to Liara. For some reason she was hiding her feelings all along. She too had dreams of peacetime, of settling down. It only took embarking on a mission to save an entire galaxy for her to spit it out, but it was enough. He needed to win and he needed to survive. For her.

In the end, Shepard chose the only option that gave him a chance to be reunited with his love. He destroyed the reapers, knowing full well the consequences the galaxy would suffer. He didn't care.

Pieces of me

That probably doesn't sound anything like your Commander Shepard, now does it? And that makes perfect sense. It's reflective of my flaws and tendencies, primarily a romantic vision of lost loves and an obsession with failure.

Shepard is a manifestation of the player. We pour bits and pieces of our personalities and personal histories into this hollow, spaceman (or woman) shell. Not only does it endear the character to us, it builds a much more believable protagonist, one with real human flaws and ambitions. It makes Mass Effectan infinitely better story.

In part 2, I'm going to talk a little more about the two layers of player-storytelling that are at work across Mass Effect and why this meta-layer is what holds back the series from a universally satisfying ending.


Extra Lives: Preserving the history of video games

[I am a student of Stony Brook University, the institution at the center of this article. This is a piece originally written as part of a journalism class, and as such, is written more for a general audience than you fine folks, but I thought some of the ideas were interesting enough to share. Stick around for the ending as Professor Lowood and I start to discuss the difficulties of preserving modern, digitally distributed games.]

William Higinbotham

The oldest book in the Special Collections at Stony Brook University is an illustrated history of the world called “The Nuremberg Chronicle.” Printed in 1493, little more than 50 years after the invention of the printing press, it contains some of the first examples of printed illustrations.

This relic of the print age now lives alongside the William A. Higinbotham Game Studies Collection, a collection of video game cartridges, consoles, book and magazines spanning 20 years of video game history.

The collection, opened in the fall of 2011, joins the growing group of museums, libraries and universities around the United States that have begun to preserve video games and the culture surrounding them.

Similar projects exist at Stanford University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Illinois and the University of Maryland. Even the federal government has participated. The Library of Congress helped to fund the Preserving Virtual Worlds project, which sought to define preservation standards, an issue that is still debated.

Henry Lowood, head of the How They Got Game preservation project at Stanford University, equates video games to books or films as cultural artifacts that need to be preserved. More important than preserving the physical media of games, he said, is documenting their culture.

“They’re becoming a very important part of our contemporary culture,” he said, “and if we don’t have an ability in the future to look at the history of digital games as a medium and the history around them, we really will have an incomplete picture of the culture of the late 20 and early 21 centuries.”

Building the Collection

Stony Brook’s collection takes its name from William A. Higinbotham, a Brookhaven National Laboratories scientist who created “Tennis For Two.” While scholars continue to debate its status as a video game, the tennis simulation, built from lab equipment in 1958, is often credited as the first electronic game to use a graphical display and dedicated controllers, video gaming’s own “Nuremberg Chronicle.”

The process of building the collection began in 2008, when Raiford Guins, a professor of digital cultural studies at Stony Brook, contacted Kristen Nyitray, the head of Special Collections and University Archives.

“We started to talk about how we could document the history of video and computer games, but also talking long term about the preservation aspect of it,” Nyitray said. “I think that’s where we really connected.”

They outlined a plan to create a four-part collection: a game laboratory open to the students of computer science and game-studies classes at Stony Brook, a circulating collection of game-related books, a special collection housing even more games, consoles, rare books and magazines, and a website to serve as a hub for the whole thing.

Guins, who declined to be interviewed, provided the earliest materials from his personal collection and donations from colleagues. The collection now includes approximately 700 games published between 1977 and 1999 and more than 2000 magazines.

Because of financial restrictions, however, the focus of the collection is now on expanding its print offerings. All games and consoles in the collection have been donated, Nyitray said, and they currently have the funds to pursue only books and magazines.

“The library doesn’t have the funds now to do more than buy books,” said Darren Chase, the Stony Brook University Libraries’ subject specialist for game-studies, “but there are plans to, hopefully in the next couple years, expand the Higinbotham Collection and to expand access of students to gaming platforms beyond just game-studies students.”

The Authentic Experience

Collecting, storing and maintaining the physical embodiment of games -- the metal and plastic of cartridges, floppy disks and CDs -- is an expensive prospect. One of the Higinbotham Collection’s goals is to preserve these games and consoles in an effort to reproduce the original experience of playing games. Its game lab, where students can sit down and play the games, even uses old CRT TVs, instead of modern flat-screen TVs, to maintain the original look of its games.

According to Henry Lowood, a video game archivist at Stanford University, this model of preservation is important for the study of games and their creation but is ultimately limited by the passage of time.

Vintage video game consoles are no longer in production and the number on the market will only continue to shrink.

“If you have an Atari 2600 and you want to start a museum around it and it breaks today, you can get another, that’s no problem, and that will probably be true for decades,” Lowood said. “But at some point, it won’t be true.”

He points to the example of “Spacewar!” another one of the first digital computer games. Developed approximately 50 years ago at MIT, there is currently only one place where it can be played in its original form: the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

However, the plastic and metal of a video game’s body is just a shell, and the key to preservation, according to Lowood, lies in yanking out a game’s soul -- the actual computer code that gives it life.

Migration: "The Way to Go"

There are two major forms of video game preservation besides hardware preservation: migration and emulation.

Migration is the movement of the game from one physical medium, like a cartridge or floppy disk, to another, such as a computer hard drive. It creates a new place for the data to live, removing the possibility of loss due to damage or obsolescence of its original home. At that point work needs to be done to make sure the data can be installed and run on a modern platform, like a computer. This can be done through a process called porting, in which programmers edit the code of the original data to make it playable on a modern computer.

Emulation involves creating a computer program that simulates the way an old computer works, allowing migrated data to be played without having to dive in and change it.

“I think it’s pretty clear that most digital preservationists you talk to will say that migration is the way to go,” Lowood said. “I don’t think there are very many adherents, outside of museums, for hardware preservation, and emulation is seen now as something that goes hand-in-hand with migration.”

Migration and emulation, however, require computer programmers to go hands-on with code, and besides being time-consuming and costly, these methods require changing the original data.

Intricacies in the way computer systems work make it nearly impossible to perfectly replicate a game in a new environment. Even when modern video games go from a PlayStation 3 to an Xbox 360, for example, the way those two systems run the data and create graphics is different, and the game data need to be modified to work.

Preservationists need to decide, Lowood said, which changes are acceptable and which are not.

“What falls in the not acceptable category would most likely be changes that alter the experience of the game in some way,” he said, “changes that affect the game mechanics or significantly change the look and feel of a game so that you really don’t feel like you’re playing the same game any more.”

Nyitray has no plans to expand the Higinbotham Collection into migration and emulation.

“We’re going to try to keep our hardware in workable condition,” she said, “but we’re going to leave the code-work to other universities.”

Problems Ahead

While the problem of preserving these sometimes more than 30-year-old games seems to have been solved by modern technology, ensuring that contemporary games receive the same treatment is proving to be more difficult.

Video games are increasingly moving to a download-only format, forgoing DVDs and cartridges altogether and becoming available strictly from the web as files downloaded to an Xbox, computer or smartphone. Because of the strict ownership rules set in place by the various digital-only retail services, such as Valve Corporation’s Steam for computer games and Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade on the Xbox 360, preservationists have very few legal options when it comes to duplicating and distributing modern games for research purposes.

Download-only distribution, copyright law and end-user license agreements – those lengthy contracts users agree to but seldom read when installing a new computer program – are the biggest hurdles facing video game preservation at the moment, Lowood said.

“We as a library don’t have a legal right to just grab all that content from Steam,” he said. “The problem with these forms of distribution and the legal situation, at least in the United States, means that it’s next to impossible at the moment to think about archiving a lot of these games. That’s kind of the big elephant in the room for preservationists.”

Games played in a web browser also present a problem. Facebook games, like Zynga’s Farmville, are an important development in the way video games are designed, shared and played, but preservationists have no idea how to archive these kinds of titles that live only on servers and can have their content modified daily.

“We don’t have a stable artifact like we do with a boxed game,” he said. “It becomes pretty difficult to define what exactly the game is.”

The solution lies in the hands of game developers and publishers – the copyright holders. They need to start thinking about their games as historical artifacts and working with preservationists to document them, Lowood said. Otherwise, preservationists will need to continue to skirt copyright law for what they see as the greater good.

“Sometimes people in this area just have to do something,” he said, “and, hopefully, you can ask for forgiveness later.”

[Photo credits: Higinbotham image -- Brookaven National Labs; Spacewar! -- Flickr user Joi]


Game of the year 2011, part 3 -- Numbers 5-1

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

5. Bulletstorm -- People Can Fly

Bulletstorm doesn’t tell a great story. It doesn’t have charming visuals or music. It doesn’t explore challenging themes.

Bulletstorm does, however, make shooting fun again.

It gives the player enough tools to turn each firefight into a unique ballet of violence. I really can’t overstate how fun Bulletstorm is once everything is moving in tandem. Here’s an example: enemies enter an arena; you reel one in with your energy leash, sprint to him and give him a nice boot to the face; as he’s flying toward his friends, you lasso a bomb to him and detonate it just in time blow up two others baddies. This and endless variations on the formula are common occurrences in Bulletstorm.

People Can Fly did a great job of incentivizing experimentation with these sorts of improvised death routines. Its ingenious “Skill Shot” system rewards players for deploying new tactics and choreographing the most elaborate chains of destruction they can imagine.

On the production side, the game does look great, deviating from modern shooter conventions with lots of lush green environments. The script is dumb as rocks, but occasionally funny and builds some surprisingly compelling relationships.

But that’s not what you’re here for. Bulletstorm is a breath of fresh air for a genre that has become mired in rehashes. You won’t be shooting realistic guns at realistic brown people in realistic Fakeistan in search of some hokey self-serious plot. You’ll just be having fun.

4. Saints Row: The Third -- Volition Inc

Some games aren’t looking for anything artistic. They can’t be bothered with narrative or emotional resonance. Some games just want to see the world burn.

Okay yeah, so I borrowed that from The Dark Knight, but it’s the perfect characterization of Saints Row: The Third. This is a game in which you fend off helicopters while hanging from a bank vault suspended thousands of feet in the air…in the first mission. This is a game in which you’re free falling, shoot out a plane’s windshield, fly through it and grab a parachute on your way out…in the second mission.

Volition understands something that many developers do not: the player’s time is king. Instead of having a single, drawn out animation for hijacking a car, you have the option to sprint at a car and just jump through the windshield. Instead of spending minutes swimming back to shore if you happen to fall in the water, they included a warp to shore option – no punishment attached.

The game doesn’t lock all the fun and crazy away either. From the very beginning you have the ability to jump off a roof and pull a parachute. From the very begging you can sprint down the street and jumpkick random pedestrians. This puts the onus on Volition to make the tools they dole out to you even crazier as the game progresses and they succeed.

What’s most impressive about Saints Row: The Third is that its absurd violence and vulgarity isn’t grating. It feels appropriate in the hyperbolically debaucherous world Volition has created (as shallow as that world may be). Further, the game is flawlessly written, striking a nice balance between self-seriousness and self-parody.

Saints Row: The Third is video game maximalism of the highest order. Talented developers can make pretty much anything, so why not build a mission that tasks you with driving around an angry tiger? Why not build a series of ­Tron-esque cyberspaces and let you take the light cycle back into the real world? Just make sure you’ve built a reality within your game to back it up, something Volition pulled off perfectly here.

It might not be the classiest game on the block, but it’s definitely one of the most fun.

3. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim -- Bethesda Softworks

Skyrim is a massive achievement, impressive in both the scope of the experience and ambition of the developer. Just thinking about the amount of variables that are being tracked at any given time is pretty scary. But it all amounts to what feels like a real, living world for you to muck up.

Skyrim is also a game of magical, fleeting moments: the instant dread brought on by the roar of an approaching dragon; leading a small army of soldiers, ghosts, your angry horse and a friendly dragon into battle; being propelled thousands of feet above the ground by an ancient god.

Everything on the periphery is spectacularly executed. The score ranges from intimate and delicate during quiet exploration to bombastic, Viking choirs that pump up dragon fights. The user interface is slick, intuitive and pretty. The leveling system just works -- turning “role-playing” into an integral part of character development and giving plenty of leeway to change course at any time.

But of course it’s the world that really shines. Skyrim is the most well-crafted world yet in a video game: her people have lives; they work, eat and sleep; they notice when you pick something up or drop an item from your inventory; they’ll question why you’re sneaking around a town in broad daylight. You’re there with them -- a mysterious voyeur, intruding on their lives.

The landscapes are vast and often beautiful. Waterfalls flow off mountaintops and pour through caves, giving life to what little vegetation has managed to grow. Nothing in this world feels like it has been crafted superfluously. Everything has a purpose and a place.

Skyrim is the game Bethesda has been trying to make for a very long time. It’s brimming with wonder and mystery. It’s the realization of Oblivion’s promise and the deserving champion of modern role-playing games. No one else is making games like this and I don’t think anyone else can.

[Screenshot courtesy of Dead End Thrills]

2. Portal 2 -- Valve Software

Portal was an experiment in video game form and narrative – a puzzle game that asked you to defy the puzzle-maker and escape the game itself.

With all the basics established – meticulously crafted learning curve, mind-bending and intensely rewarding puzzles, an ever-present yet disembodied AI baddy – all Valve needed to do was iterate. But how do you improve on something so groundbreaking, definitive and iconic?

The answer seems to be: just do it again, but bigger.

Portal 2 doesn’t add much to the Portal formula. Sure, there are a few new pieces of Aperture Science technology to play with, but in the end Valve didn’t deviate from what makes Portal, Portal.

And yet, Portal 2 is so much more.

The writing and performances are phenomenal -- more intelligent, more thoughtful and funnier than any game I’ve ever played. It feels like the script has travelled through time, from a future where games have finally become what we all want them to be: smart, complicated and engaging.

Wheatley, the AI core voiced brilliantly by Steven Merchant, is incredibly charming, even after his betrayal. The care that went into crafting the character is obvious and not just in the writing and acting. His meticulously animated eye is a thing to behold, perfectly capturing his manic, bumbling persona in a tiny mechanical sphere.

More impressively Valve managed to impart this same kind of detailed characterization into just about every inanimate object in the Aperture facility. Each bit of mad science you interact with – bouncy goo, light bridges, laser sensors, spring pads – has a personality and a voice. It may not be represented as directly as Wheatley or GladOS, but you can hear it when you interact with them: the harsh, industrial rasp of the Faith Plates; the comforting warmth of the laser sensors; the syrupy, infinitesimal drones of the Excursion Funnel.

And in what I consider its greatest achievement, Portal 2 is incredibly human and yet, its only human character remains the protagonist Chell. In fact, Chell is the least human thing in all of Aperture: a mute, emotionless lab-rat acting only on the command of others.

Portal 2 is some seriously next-level stuff. It’s miles ahead of almost every other game when it comes to wit, intelligence and sophistication. Even on the occasions that it drops the pretenses and becomes a thrill ride, it doesn’t disappoint, proving that these portal mechanics can work in an action setting just as well as in slow-paced puzzles.

And don’t even get me started on the co-op.

1. Bastion -- Supergiant Games

What is perfection? Can any piece of art really be perfect?

In lieu of using that dirty word I’ll say this: there is nothing in Bastion that I would change; nothing I think the seven-man team behind it could have done better.

The world-building in Bastion is just incredible. Every weapon, every environment, every piece of music, every word in every piece of dialogue has been carefully chosen to support this Wild West meets steam-punk setting. It’s not a book or a scroll. It’s a dusty, old tome. It’s not a shotgun, it’s a scrap musket.

It’s more than just setting. It’s tone. Bastion is one of the few games that has a tone that makes it beyond anger or whimsy. It’s dour. Even the game’s cover art features our hero sitting alone on a floating bit of land, chin planted firmly in his hand and looking out at the empty wasteland that used to be his world. There's no hope in his eyes; no vengeful anger.This oppressively bleak world makes the fleeting moments of hope that much more emotionally affecting, spawning not one but two of the year's (and I would argue gaming history's) most memorable moments.

Much of the credit has to go to the game’s writer Greg Kasavin. Supergiant has built a game where his writing is the reward. I would change my weapon combination just to hear what the narrator would say about it. I would dash to him to show off the junk I collected, just to get his little story about it. I even spent my money on more junk to make him talk.

And talk he does – a lot – and it never gets old. The first time you fall off the side of the world and hear “And then the Kid fell to his death…naw, I’m just foolin’” is pure magic.

Thanks to the narrator, Bastion is able to tell a deep story without mounds of dialogue or cut-scenes. It’s about rebuilding. It’s about the oral tradition. It’s about the struggle between the secular and the spiritual. It’s about man’s inhumanity to man and the unpredictability of his predictable aggression.

But most of all it’s a redemption story. That redemption, however, is never guaranteed or provided to the player. Instead we’re left hoping – left hoping that humanity can do something right for a change.

[You can buy Bastion for Xbox 360 here or on Steam here]

Congratulations to Supergiant Games. They created something truly remarkable in Bastion.


Game of the year 2011, part 2: Numbers 10-6

10. To The Moon -- Freebird Games

I was very hesitant to include Kan Gao and Freebird Games’ PC adventure, To The Moon, on this list. After all, these are supposed to be my 10 favorite games of 2011.

To The Moon hardly has any play in it at all. The little it does is dull and repetitive. After finishing it and allowing myself some time to think about the experience, I quickly settled on the opinion it’s a wonderful story, but a bad game. This story could have been told just as effectively in a book or film or TV show. How dare it not take advantage of its medium?

But I was wrong. As the always-insightful Michael Abbott writes, “games aren’t clocks.” They’re not defined by their ability to do one thing well. Video games are multifaceted expressive works, telling stories and resonating with us through more than just play, but also what we see and hear.

It’s not important then that To The Moon’s play segments are little more than pixel hunts and god-awful flipping-tile puzzles. What is important is that Kan Gao has written a beautiful story that had me on the verge of tears on more than one occasion.

To The Moon isn’t so much about experiencing a life in reverse, as it is experiencing a relationship from its heartbreaking end to its innocent beginnings. You’re witness to this couple’s life, love and dreams, but you know how it all ends. It’s a snowball of tragedy, with an emotional resonance that grows as everything unfolds.

The true star is the script. Gao builds likable characters with real, tangible arcs. The old man at the heart of the narrative provides both a compelling a mystery and emotional center. Why is it his dream to go to the moon? What happened to his wife?

The scientists out to make his deathbed wish come true are just as well realized. They toss around truly funny banter and [gasp] grow as people in the end.

It’s no surprise that one of the year’s best game narratives isn’t concerned with saving the world or finding a magic thingy. It’s a personal story about things we can all relate to: love; loss; mortality; memory. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it in a game and regardless of how it actually plays, it’s an intensely moving trip worth celebrating.

You can purchase To The Moon directly from Freebird right here

9. Catherine -- Atlus Persona Team

Adulthood is one of gaming’s greatest taboos. Sure, a lot of games purport to be “mature,” but most fail to deliver subject matter that would challenge even a 10 year-old.

That’s where Atlus’ Catherine comes in. The anime inspired tale explores real problems and moral questions regarding relationships, infidelity, marriage and fatherhood.

Beyond the no frills depictions of sex, drinking and the dread of growing up, Catherine is a challenging and miraculously thrilling puzzle-action game.

The puzzles are constantly evolving, with new types of blocks and challenges being added with each new stage. Even better, our protagonist, Vincent, is often being chased by some sort of monster (each reflecting one of his real world woes, of course). It creates that very special kind of tension. You know, the one where your hands are shaking and you start talking to the TV.

There’s not much more to say about Catherine. It’s a strange and thought-provoking game – worthwhile commentary wrapped around a great puzzle game. At a point its weirdness and supernatural elements start to wear away at the story it’s trying to tell, but we need to give respect where respect is due. I was enthralled by Catherine from start to finish, lusting over its puzzles while I wasn't playing and trying to figure out just where the story was going next.

8. Shadows of the Damned -- Grasshopper Manufacture

Remarkably, Shadows of the Damned, the product of three Japanese game development superstars -- Suda 51, Shinji Mikami and Akira Yamaoka – feels like the cohesive vision of one crazy individual.

The bloody art, perverse writing, sometimes terrifying music and tense shooting all meld together to create a strange new vision of hell: baby heads guard doors only to be satiated by eyeballs or strawberries; demon-goat-redneck merchants eat your gems and spew up merchandise; tiny cyclopse monsters take flaming dumps to mark checkpoints.

Things get very nerve-wracking very quickly as you’re thrown into a multitasking combat scenario with Yamaoka’s wailing, demon chorus blaring at you in the background.

But it’s not all serious. Actually, most of the game is pretty freaking dumb, but in an endearing way. Protagonist Garcia Hotspur and his floating skull sidekick Johnson are the year’s best new duo, slinging more dick jokes than a Judd Apatow movie. The supporting cast is also memorable, particularly the bosses who are given darkly comic backstories in the form of picture books that our heroes hilariously narrate.

The problem with horror-shooters such as Dead Space is that the feelings they strive for – unnerving, shaky handed tension – can usually only last for so long before the player is just spent. Shadows cuts through that with comedy. It’s a brief respite, but enough to remind you that this hell isn’t so bad. After all, any place where liquor restores health can’t be all bad, right?

Head here for my full review

7. Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP -- Capybara Games

The argument against mobile games is that they’re often too mindless: not much more than single button high-score hunts or laborious time wasters. While this is of course a generality, most of my favorite mobile games could be simplified to fit into one of those two categories.

But not Sword & Sworcery. The audiovisual collaboration from Capybara Games, design outfit Superbrothers and singer-songwriter Jim Guthrie is a mesmerizing experience that, while not legitimizing mobile touch-based games (because they don’t need to be), is a stellar argument for the power they can hold.

The combat and point-and-click adventure mechanics are built perfectly for the iPad. Simple taps and gestures allow you to navigate and interact with the world, but it’s the surprising ways they’re experimented with that really propel S&S.

It’s littered with moments that task you with throwing out what you think the game wants. We infer from the very beginning that interactions should be limited to one finger, but the game never gives us that rule. It then subverts that inference and forces you to realize you’ll need two fingers to pull apart a giant pixel-art tree.

Finding that puzzle’s solution is rewarding, but even better is the feeling of manipulating these gorgeous and detailed environments. Capy leveraged the unique features of their platform – the tangible feeling of interaction and closeness provided by a multitouch-screen – to draw the player in and then capitalizes on it with visuals and sound that come together to give this strange world a very real personality.

Much of the credit has to go to the sound design and soundtrack. It effortlessly shifts from spacey to lilting to menacing. One sound from one track – the cooing of “The Ballad of the Space Babies” -- is enough to flood me with a warming comfort whenever I hear it. In or out of game.

Sword & Sworcery is an endlessly clever use of modern technology, pooling together all the features of Apple’s iOS platform to create a magical sensory and social experience. It at times blocks its own path to genius, stopping the player from proceeding without jumping through a few tedious hoops, but when the pieces are moving together, it’s a stunning experience.

Purchase Sword and Sworcery here

6. Rayman Origins -- Ubisoft Montpellier

“Pixar-quality graphics.”

We’ve heard that phrase a thousand times, thrown around by hardware manufacturers touting the power of new consoles or video cards. We’re obviously not there, and the phrase itself has become is a cliché of dropping-to-your-knees-and-screaming-at-the-heavens proportions.

Rayman Origins offers a spectacular argument against this sort of techno-musclehead pomposity. Instead of striving for the heights of Pixar-quality, Michel Ancel and his team created classic Disney-quality graphics: detailed hand-drawn art that’s full of life and dripping with charm.

There is a specific kind of goofy, thoughtful whimsy that just bleeds from every frame. This is thanks in part to the gorgeous visuals of course, but just about every aspect of the game comes together to help deliver this joyful cartoon experience.

There’s the little things: the noises Rayman makes when he’s defeated and turned into a bubble; the faces each character makes when slapped by a partner; the often comically stilted animation; the Alvin and the Chipmunk-esque theme that throws fairy-like Lums into a dancing fit. They’re all enough to put a smile on my face.

It’s also a thrilling 2D platformer that at times reaches Super Meat Boy levels of speed and devilish difficulty.

The glue that holds everything together is the soundtrack. It marries a gleeful orchestral score fit for any classic cartoon with a menagerie of strange instruments: didgeridoos; mouth harps; kazoos. The opening ukulele strums of the forever imprinted on my brain “The Lum King” contain more personality alone than the entirety of most modern scores. The music glides between styles to fit in with the various worlds: slinky, lounge jazz for the synchronized swimming lums of the Sea of Serendipity; mariachi for the fiery, culinary hell of Gourmand Land; manic, flamenco kazoos to accompany the mosquito shooter stages.

The end product is pure glee. It deftly toes the line of saccharinity, deploying oddball and slapstick humor to dial things back. Rayman Origins is a lesson for the entire video game industry; a magnificent display of pure personality and creativity


Game of the year 2011, part 1: The honorable mentions

It's that time again. This year I've got 14 games to discuss: my 10 favorites of the year and four honorable mentions.

The latter are four experiences that I won't soon be forgetting. There's something about each of them that's unique, effective and intensely admirable, but they don't quite have the meat or holistic superiority to make it on the top 10.

Here we go!

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron -- Ignition Tokyo

El Shaddai is what happens when you give a visual artist free reign over a project. Takeyasu Sawaki, whose previous credits include lead character designer on Okami, and his team at Ignition have created the most visually spectacular game ever made.

The story, adapted from the Dead Sea Scrolls, plays out across several floors of a tower each with its own distinct art style. The true accomplishment of this game, however, is that it’s able to make those various art styles matter -- using color, design and abstraction to influence how you, the player, feel while traversing them.

The amazing art is also El Shaddai’s greatest downfall. The often abstract environments coupled with a finicky camera means you’ll have a hell of a time judging distance during its numerous platforming segments. The combat, while fun to control, becomes a burden as you slog through fights with the same enemies for hours, most of which are too far removed from the interesting art direction of the environments and feel flat by comparison.

However, El Shaddai is not a game that should be dismissed because of how it plays. It is visually arresting from start to finish, inhabiting the psychedelic, oppressive, abstract and even comforting realms of art.

Tiny Wings -- Andreas Illiger

Video game narratives are driven almost entirely by violent, interpersonal conflict. Most of them boil down to shoot a dude, stab a dude or punch a dude because that dude: has something you want; shot, stabbed or punched you first; or wants to shoot, stab or punch a bunch of innocent dudes.

Andreas Illiger’s Tiny Wings is one of the few examples of a game centered on an internal conflict: that poor little bird wants to fly so damn badly, but his wings are just too tiny small.

You as the player get to make this bird’s dream a reality and there’s just something magical about that. Not many games can produce the kind of joy I felt as I first heard the little “yahoo” he lets out as he flies between vibrant candy-color islands.

The Stanley Parable -- Cakebread

You’ve never played anything quite like “The Stanley Parable.”

The less you know about this brilliant Half-Life 2 mod the better. At its core is a deconstruction of the struggle for narrative control at the heart of the video game medium: player versus creator.

“The Stanley Parable” uses wonderfully voiced narration to illustrate this conflict. You’ll quickly learn that the player merely has the illusion of free will. Your experience is ultimately tailored by the author, and try as you may to change things, without the guiding hand of a creator, well, there is no game to play.

It’s free. It’ll take you about 30 minutes to see all of it and you’ll never forget. So go download it already.

LittleBigPlanet 2 -- Media Molecule

With LBP2, Media Molecule has created the most accessible, robust and fun video game creation tool to date. Seriously, have you seen some of the stuff people have made? First person shooters, arcade-style flight games, fighters, short films. It’s madness.

Say what you will about the controls or physics (I have no problem with them), there’s no denying this is the best available platform for user generated content. Media Molecule took a great idea – the infinite play possibilities of child-like imagination – and perfected it, adding tools that allow creators to produce games and other content across media and genre lines. Then it built a powerful community portal, allowing players to easily find the best levels and even add them to a play queue via a web browser.

And all of it is oozing with the iconic LBP art style, a look that strikes at the heart of Media Molecule’s philosophy: imagination is the most special human tool. It’s why kids might have more fun playing with a toy’s cardboard box than the toy itself and it’s why LittleBigPlanet continues to be a brilliant game.


On Uncharted and characterization through play.

Uncharted 2 and 3 are special games.

While Naughty Dog’s latest pulp adventure might pull a few too many of the same tricks as its predecessor, they are damn fine tricks and no one else in the video game industry has even attempted to replicate them.

Sure, I’m talking about the massive set pieces — running through burning buildings; hanging onto a piece of free falling cargo hundreds of feet above an endless desert – but what really sets Uncharted apart is its characters.

Naughty Dog has done a great job of bringing Nathan Drake and the series’ supporting cast to life. The characters may be simple adventure flick stereotypes, (hey, it’s pulp, not Tolstoy) their relationships feel real and my attachment to them is staggering.

But what is it that makes Uncharted better at this than most other games? There’s the care and attention given to the writing, of course, but I think it’s something simpler; something only a video game could do.

Minor Uncharted 3 spoilers ahead!

I’m going to call it “characterization through play.” While most of the characterization we get in video games is through writing, whether it be in dialogue or narration, the Uncharted games draw you closer to their hero by letting you control him.

I’m talking about controlling Drake as he slowly stumbles through a bar restroom, battered and bloody. I’m talking about controlling a delusional and broken Drake as he hopelessly walks through a massive desert.

It’s moments like these, moments where Naughty Dog puts the player in control while slyly reminding them that Drake is no superman by changing the way they control him. They limit the player’s movement, taking it down from a run to a wobbly, hand-over-probably-broken-ribs walk.

The player is now just as beaten down as Drake. It gives meaning to the brutal fistfight we just won and it brings the player closer to the character. We now have the same limitations, the same probably broken ribs. It creates empathy. It creates an emotional attachment.

This technique is astonishingly simple, but most developers fail to take advantage of it, or do it poorly. It’s not enough to just force the player to slow down. You need to sell this moment. Make the player experience the pain and emotion of the character. Make them one.

Uncharted has a few more tricks up its sleeve that should be part of this conversation. The franchise’s combat is improvisational in nature: grab a gun here, duck behind cover there, dump a few rounds into some enemies, scramble toward new cover and stop to punch a new enemy along the way.

This desperate scramble is an extension of Drake’s personality. While he might be the world’s most prolific murderer, he’s certainly no expert tactician. He’s just lucky. He rolls with whatever happens to fall into his hands. When the bullets run out, he’ll just grab something else off the floor, probably the AK-47 of a pirate who surprised him and was promptly punched in the balls.

This is obviously a technique that only applies to player characters, but Uncharted is really about Drake. Start caring about him and you’ll come to care about his associates.

I’m also not discounting the writing at all. That’s still the real meat of what’s going on in these games, but Uncharted is using interactivity to build a relationship with its hero that no other games in this space are even attempting. That’s a special thing.


Music Review: The Rapture - In the Grace of Your Love

Brooklyn-based trio The Rapture perfectly exemplifies the devastating hype cycle of music in the Internet age.

They exploded onto the scene in 2002 with the classic single “House of Jealous Lovers,” a danceable blast of punk rock that descended onto the awkward and thoughtful drama geek that was early aughts indie rock like a manic, wedgie-happy bully.

The Internet hype-machine kicked into high gear, hastily labeling The Rapture’s mixture of angular post-punk guitar and disco beats as “dance-punk” and celebrating the resurrection of legendary sounds from bands like Gang of Four, New Order and The Talking Heads.

But the Internet is a fickle beast. It tore The Rapture down just as quickly as it had hoisted the band into stardom, calling them plagiarists and puppets of the now famed production duo DFA, also known as James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy -- the founders of LCD Soundsystem and owners of DFA Records.

That short taste of success was enough to drive the band to a major label for its laughably inconsequential third album, another all too common story among indie bands. Shortly after its release, the band’s lineup began to crumble, with vocalist Luke Jenner quitting then quickly rejoining and bassist Matt Safer splitting for good. It looked like the end for a band that had, only three years prior, changed the face of independent rock.

Now, five years since its last album, The Rapture is back on DFA Records, the label responsible for its glorious “House of Jealous Lovers” moment, for the release of In The Grace of Your Love. Sadly, it seems those Internet naysayers were right all along.

The album opens strongly with “Sail Away,” a disco-punk power ballad that evokes an unholy lovechild of U2 and The Killers, but quickly devolves into a disjointed mess of poor production, inane lyrics and humdrum melodies.

When it’s bad, it’s really bad. “Blue Bird” is a cloying attempt at the classic glam rock of T. Rex, but it lands somewhere closer to Mott the Hoople cover-band territory. “Children” sounds like an unrelentingly upbeat dronefest built from the scraps of MGMT’s sound collection, but it’s confusingly juxtaposed with Jenner singing about the tragedy of losing children, whether to death or divorce.

Then there’s “Roller Coaster,” what I’m assuming is an apocalyptically bad attempt at a Beatles-esque sing-along. The result is a nauseating lullaby about trying to maintain a romantic relationship amidst a chaotic life, featuring a painfully dumb chorus and possibly the wimpiest guitar solo of all time.

However, there are some great moments sprinkled throughout the album’s 50 minute runtime. The title track features a dramatic breakdown, stripping back layers of guitar, synth and theremin and leaving Jenner to belt out the song’s final lines alone. He sounds beaten and vulnerable. It’s one of the few genuinely emotional moments on the album and definitely Jenner’s best. Meanwhile closing track “It Takes Time to be a Man” is a pleasant Motown number with a wall-of-sound climax and lilting saxophone outro.

In The Grace of Your Love is clearly the work of a band struggling to define itself. The range of styles represented on the tracklist is dizzying, but somehow they all end up sounding like the same song with varying degrees of bad lyrics.

It’s safe to say now that even at the height of its success, The Rapture’s sound was largely defined by the production of Murphy and Goldsworthy, a duo absent during the recording of this latest album. The only track that approaches this DFA produced level of quality is “How Deep is Your Love?” a disco banger with a mercilessly catchy Chicago house piano line and a chorus that sounds strangely like the “Thong Song.”

One problem is Jenner’s voice, a nasally squawk perfect for the angular punk rock of the “Jealous Lovers” days, but unable to mesh with the more melody driven vocals found on Grace. His attempts at the winding, snake charmer melody of “Can You Find a Way,” for example, are just embarrassing.

Lyrically, things aren’t much different. They’re shallow and repetitive, which worked when combined with the band’s past dance music, but the expanded palette of this latest release reduces the musical dynamism and leaves the irritating and distracting writing front and center.

It will be interesting to see if the band can survive a second flop, especially one of this magnitude. “How Deep is Your Love?” is proof that there is some spark left in The Rapture, but it seems without the help of its former producers, the band is stuck wandering around musical limbo, looking for a sound to capture the Internet tastemakers’ attention yet again.


Commander Shepard in the new GI Joe Movie?

New posters for the bound to be terrible GI Joe live action movie are online and the one featuring Duke has an uncanny resemblance to Commander Shepard of Mass Effect fame.

The biggest resemblance if you ask me is in the armor and the biggest difference in the hair.   Even the way he's standing and holding the rifle reminds me of Mass Effect.   I'm sure it's just a coincidence.  What do you guys think?


Shameless List: The Beatles: Rock Band Wish List, Part 3

Part 3! You can find part 1, songs from Please Please Me through Beatles For Sale and a sort of mission statement for the list, here and part 2, songs from Help! through Sgt. Pepper's here. Part 3 includes everything from The White Album to the end of The Beatles' career.

The Beatles (The White Album) (1968)
"Back In The USSR"
"The Glass Onion"
"While My Guitar Gently Weeps"
"Happiness Is A Warm Gun"
"Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except For Me and My Monkey"
"Helter Skelter"

Yellow Submarine (1969)
"Hey Bulldog"

Abbey Road (1969)
"Come Together"
"I Want You (She's So Heavy)"

Let It Be (1970)
"Dig A Pony"
"I Me Mine"
"I've Got  A Feeling"
"Get Back"

Singles (1968-1970)
"Don't Let Me Down"

And that's that! With E3 around the corner we'll see which songs actually turn up in the game. It's been fun. As Always feel free to tell me how much my list sucks and which songs you would have included instead.

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