A 2009 Retrospective

December 31, 2009

It’s been a busy, exciting year, both for myself personally and for videogames in general. After a few reviews posted in October 2008 kicked off the infinitecontinues blog, it wasn’t until March of this year that I posted again – a review of the hugely impressive Dead Space – but writing and regular posting began in earnest from August, finally giving me a productive reason (and an iron-clad excuse) for playing so many games! Visitors are respectable in number, boosted by the surprising popularity of my Videogame Minimalism designs (which even spawned some imitators!), a venture that I plan to do a lot more with as we enter the new year. I have big plans for infinitecontinues too, and I’m hoping that my 2010 Retrospective will be looking back on a yer of big growth for this blog and a few other ideas I have for the brand, which I’ll keep under wraps for now.

In terms of videogaming, Spring of this year saw the first ever console demise I’ve had to suffer; the now infamous Red Ring Of Death that strikes down so many Xbox 360s. With a possible job opportunity arising at Sony, I traded in the dozens of Xbox 360 games I had gathering dust on my shelves and bought a shiny new PS3. As luck would have it, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe offered me the job of Artist the following day! Spooky, huh? Several months later, with my passion for videogaming growing, and my stack of unplayed games rising, I bought another Xbox 360, so now have all three of the current generation of consoles, much to my girlfriend’s chagrin…

With a clutch of vaunted titles round the corner in the new decade (Heavy Rain, Bayonetta, Bioshock 2, God Of War 3 and Dante’s Inferno amongst them), there are no signs of my love affair with videogaming dying out anytime soon. As our favourite medium begins to mature and learn from the mistakes of its past, we could be entering another golden age of gaming, especially as the technology we use to run the games on improves at such an impressive rate. I’ll be bringing you my personal take on the development of our industry through infinitecontinues, and I’ll hope you’ll choose to stick around and discuss it with me.

Happy New Year to you all!

Normally I’m not a huge fan of Charlie Brooker; I find his overly cynical and acerbic views quite irritating. But this article is spot on. The picture he paints of a typical non-gamer picking up the controller for a quick go is not only laugh-out-loud funny, it’s also so, so true. Although my girlfriend is slowly getting to grips with the operation of videogames (she has to really, doesn’t she) I’ll never forget her first steps in 2-player co-op with Gears Of War – she spent the entire time either looking at her feet, or, overly-compensating, looking at the sky.

Unless you grew up with them, learning their unique language, videogames are different to other forms of entertainment. TV and films only require the use of your eyes, music requires the use of your ears – things that you already possess. Gaming requires something extra – the controller, and a knowledge of gaming conventions that you can only learn by playing them.

Perhaps Microsoft’s Project Natal, where your body becomes the controller, will remove these barriers, and perhaps not. Perhaps mass-market acceptance will only arrive when videogaming has been around as long as film and television.

The newly re-launched website for upcoming FPS Bioshock 2 is exactly the kind of digital experience that a videogame demands – dripping with atmosphere and steeped in the aesthetics of the game. The interactive Flash diorama,  loosely based around a doll’s house, blends seamlessly at certain points with actual gameplay teaser footage, and adds an air of grimy menace with eerie sound effects and unsettling dialogue (click on the doll in the bottom left segment of the house for a chilling example of this).

Everything combines to evoke memories of Rapture, the underwater dystopian city (based on the philosophies of personal favourite Ayn Rand) that comprised the setting for the original game, and returns for the second, albeit 10 years on. As the first title was one of my all-time favourite videogames, the sequel has a lot to live up to; and my expectations are tempered by the fact that the franchise has switched from the hands of developer 2K Boston to those of their colleagues’, 2K Marin. Regardless, if the website is an accurate indicator of the flavour of Bioshock 2, it would appear that all the atmosphere of one of gaming’s most memorable settings has been retained. Roll on February.

Part advertising, part game; Sony’s ‘The Game‘ is a web platform presumably created as a companion piece to Sony’s new TV campaign promoting the launch of the re-designed PlayStation 3, the PS3 Slim, housed under the new umbrella strapline ‘The game is just the start.’ Users sign up to compete for either Team A or Team B and select from a number of micro-games in order to score points to add to the overall tally for your chosen team. The games themselves are short, snappy affairs, but the amazing production values really shine – Flash physics and sound effects are top drawer. The loading times, however, sadly reflect this.

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Collection perfection

December 2, 2009

Game Informer ran an interesting piece recently on the nature of some collection meta-games from both recent and past titles, highlighting whether or not a particular set was ‘worth’ collecting or not. My current squeeze, Assassin’s Creed 2, is chock-full of extra ‘bits’ to collect; running the gamut from 6 Assassin’s Seals, through 20 glyphs to 100 glittering feathers. I already feel I’ll be disappointed with my reward for rounding up all the feathers, but where the debate gets interesting is whether the act of collecting these items is fun in and of itself. The glyphs in Assassin’s Creed 2, for example, present the player with a short puzzle game – sometimes involving logic problems, sometimes simple shape matching exercises – but more often than not, a welcome distraction from the main quest.

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Yesterday, I spent a few hours at the Eurogamer Expo at Old Billingsgate. Comprising of most of the triple AAA games due to be released over the busy Christmas period, and those that have recently hit the shelves, the Expo was a good chance to play some of the eagerly anticipated titles. At least it would have been if it wasn’t absolutely awash with people. It was rare to see a machine free, and the big-hitters that everyone wanted to play were usually surrounded by thick crowds of people. Add in the fact that the temperature was through the roof and that the noise was close to deafening, and you didn’t really have a conducive atmosphere to relax into the various demos on show. Having said that, I did manage to get some playtime with the three games that I had come to check out. My thoughts on them appear after the break.

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Rage against the machine

October 29, 2009

Xbox 360 - ControllerStraight--screenshot copy

Recently I’ve noticed an upturn in the explosive rage I experience during particularly taxing sections of the games I’ve been playing. My girlfriend asserts that my smashing of the controller into the sofa is as comical a sight as it is disturbing, but I confess that it made me question my motives for gaming. What is it that’s actually causing so much anger? Constant death, instant failures and a general feeling that I know I can do better drive me into fits of fury, but cast into doubt whether I can still consider these particularly stressful experiences as entertainment. No other medium elicits such a range of emotions in me – I view TV with listless apathy, perhaps even contempt, and whilst I enjoy movies – and experience both laughter and sadness whilst watching them – a film has never moved me to slam the remote down repeatedly as I scream profanities that would make even Gordon Ramsey blush; over , and over, and over again.

Perhaps such emotional investment can be apportioned to the inextricable link between videogames and my life. I’ve grown up with a controller in my hand; all the way from a bulky black joystick connected to my brick of a C64, to the smooth ergonomic contours of the Xbox 360 gamepad – over two decades of digital entertainment. As such, perhaps I’m more susceptible to a feeling of being hard done by, of being scorned by poor game design, cheap difficulty, or shoddy controls? Or perhaps increasing time constraints, imposed by a life of work and other commitments, has eroded my tolerance of being forced to replay a challenging section over and over again?

The other, more unpalatable, explanation is that I’ve grown addicted to videogames, and cannot accept that they are simply another entertainment channel, to be given no more emotional investment than a night down the pub, a movie in with the girlfriend or a game of poker with friends.I’d like to think that I’m not suffering addiction, but find it hard to so easily explain away my rage against my favourite hobby. Perhaps I’m not alone in being quick to anger over videogames. Perhaps, as the typical gamer demographic grows up, along with the games industry, it’s time to produce experiences that can be enjoyed as part of a larger entertainment tapestry that factors in the increasing time constraints of a 21st century lifestyle. As attention spans grow shorter, so too do fuses.

Am I the only person to get so angry at videogaming failures?

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I’m going to have to put two different hats on for this post. As a designer who has straddled both advertising and videogaming disciplines, commercials promoting videogames are obviously something of interest to me. I’ve just seen this Uncharted 2: Among Thieves US TV commercial over at Joystiq and at the end of it, I found myself with two contrasting opinions about it.

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After reaching the fantastically creepy morgue section the other night (“When’s it going to stop?” said my girlfriend of the moaning) in Batman: Arkham Asylum, it got me thinking of times when videogames have actually really chilled me.

Two moments come to my mind. One of them is in Condemned 2: Bloodshot (which turned out to be a pretty average experience) where you turn around to see an army of bald, armless mannequins lit up by a flash of lightning and then immediately disappearing, and also the approach to Dr. Steinman in Bioshock where you see him fanatically stabbing a corpse on his operating table as he screams and raves.

Both of these moments actually raised goosebumps on my arms. Has a moment in a videogame had a similar effect on you?

A question of morality?

August 10, 2009

Infamous morality

The very first ‘moral dilemma’ in Sucker Punch’s ‘inFamous’ is to decide whether to share food supplies with other hungry civilians or to kill them with your special abilities to hoard the food for yourself, your friend and your girlfriend. As choices go, it’s pretty black and white, exacerbated by the fact that these are your only two choices, and that the game pulls up a little icon at these flashpoints which clearly dilineates that this is a decision that will effect either a ‘good’ choice, or an ‘evil’ choice.

Anyone that has benefitted from even a modicum of a good upbringing can tell you which choice relates to which end of the moral spectrum here – it’s generally accepted that murder is bad – but one cursory glance at the Trophies list for the game shows that there are achievements for both the good and evil choices at every major ‘moral dilemma’. Despite being a rather crude device to ensure the user plays through the game more than once, it also straitjackets them down the route of one or the other, particularly as moral ambivalence actually works to the detriment of the player – special abilities are unlocked when you are completely evil, or completely virtuous.

But is life really like that? Even the most kind-hearted person cannot claim to have never committed a bad deed, just as a cold-hearted killer has not always been totally evil from the moment he was born. Life is not so black and white. There are many shades of grey – grey that is missing from inFamous at every level. Why not give the player a range of options? Don’t funnel them down one of two pre-determined paths – allow the consequences of every decision to permeate the story. Admittedly, this is more work for the games designers, and the writers – a myriad of different paths throughout a game depending on your actions is a more complex undertaking than two different final cutscenes. Surely a player that frees one captive but accidently kills a hundred innocent civilians by spamming grenades against his enemies is guilty of wasting human life? But the game never recognises this moral infringement, because it’s not part of  a clearly signposted good/evil setpiece.

A game that aspires to replicate the subtle nuance of morality within it’s story has to handle the matter a little more delicately. Shoehorning the choice between acting good or evil into a crudely presented ‘do this or do that’ mechanic at finite points in the game does no justice to what the game is trying to replicate, especially when the entire choice is rendered redundant by Trophy lists that demand that you play the game through twice, once totally good and once totally evil.

Morality isn’t black and white. Games shouldn’t be either.

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