Thursday, December 3, 2009

Nolan North, You Are Not Samuel L. Jackson

I write this not because I think Nolan North has a misconception about the existence of a country called 'What,' but because I'm concerned that Mr. North doesn't quite have the same ubiquitous appeal as Jackson, despite the recent casting decisions made by many developers.

I like Nolan North. I think he does great voice work, especially wielding the dry wit of Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series, but I'm starting to wonder if he might not be getting a tad over exposed. I mean, he's already typecast as the Lovable Rogue--which, as far as typecasting goes, is pretty good--but it sometimes feels like the man is in
every game I play. Assassin's Creed 2 is the latest in a long list that has got me thinking about it.

As Desmond, North's character in AC2, was opening the game, I immediately recognized North's voice and couldn't dissociate it from Nathan Drake's. Did he voice Desmond in the first game too? Curious, I looked up the voice credits for AC1 and, lo-and-behold he had done the voice work for the original as well, before he exploded as the voice of Drake back in 2007.

This past summer North also starred as the voice of Jason Fleming in the biggest-selling Xbox Live title to date, Shadow Complex. Jason so much resembled Nathan Drake that many people took to calling the game Uncharted Complex.

In 2008, North starred as the re-imagined Prince in the newest Prince of Persia. Again, north seemed to play Nathan Drake, adapted to a mythical ancient Persia-type setting.

So, North has starred in two Assassin's Creed games, two Uncharted games, Shadow Complex and Prince of Persia, for a total of six mega-selling triple-A titles all released within the past two years.

Aside from this already exorbitant amount of exposure, North has done videogame voice work for Dragon Age: Origins, Halo 3, Halo ODST, Transformers 2, inFamous, Madworld, Gears of War 2, Metal Gear Solid 4, Dark Sector, Lost Odyssey, Unreal Tournament III, Spider-Man 3, TMNT, Rachet and Clank: Size Matters, Lost Planet, Resistance: Fall of Man, SOCOM, Marvel Ultimate Alliance, Saints Row, Call of Duty 2, God of War, Everquest II and, in addition, only about a hundred cartoons and television shows. He's also already slated for what seems to be a major supporting role in Obsidian's upcoming RPG/FPS, Alpha Protocol.

Again, I do enjoy North's work. However, the fact that I now recognize his voice in most games I play, even if it's just as Red Shirt #1, is really starting to hurt my sense of immersion and investment. Not so much when North is playing backup, but when the leads from three of my favorite series start to become some strange amalgamation of Assassin/Prince/Fortune Hunter, it really does make me stop, think "North has his fingers in this one
too?" and wonder why it is that so many developers see him as a buoy for character development and likability.

He's good. He's not so good to keep from being instantly recognizable and slightly grating as when he (too often) plays only slight variations of Drake's character. There are lots of videogame voice actors that also seem to be in every game, but, to their credit, their characters are more diverse in disposition.

I guess I'm worried that North is commanding too much of a monopoly on the male-lead parts in the videogame casting world. I like his work, but I don't want to hear him in everything I play and, if I must, I really want him to start trying harder and not just settle into channeling Nathan Drake for every character.

Is it just me? What do you guys think? Do you notice him too, or is his mile-long list of credits a surprise to you? If you have noticed him, has it bothered you?

Edit: Also, does it bother anyone else that the characters he plays the same all look similar to each other (and to him!) to boot?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Print: Life After Death in Killscreen Magazine

It seems strange to me that a magazine that intends to discuss the finer points of digital interactivity is taking the print route, but nevertheless it has piqued my interest. Killscreen, reports Wired Magazine, intends to deliver "literary minded games writing," and help debunk the stereotype (that I don't exactly agree exists) that gamers don't read.

To its credit,
Killscreen looks to have a fairly glamorous line-up of writers, boasting contributors from The New Yorker, GQ, The Daily Show, Christian Science Monitor, LA Times, The Colbert Report, The Onion and Paste. Their focus will be to discuss and dissect what games mean culturally and what it means individually to be a gamer; Killscreen aims to be "what early Rolling Stone was to rock n' roll or Wired was to tech" for the ongoing entertainment shift towards gaming today.

Not to detract from the noble ambitions of the project, but it does seem rather presumptuous to ask gamers to drop $20 on this star-studded think-tank when videogame analysis is in no short supply uh,
everywhere, on the internet. Gamasutra's servers seem powered on insight and debate alone, and they're just one outlet. Killscreen's writers are, however, writing to address the exact kinds of questions I'd like to see answered, so I'm rooting for them to do well.

Here's hoping the first issue (no release date yet) is a success, and we can be privy to the birth of a lovely little literary gaming magazine.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Fistful of Dollars...Thousands and Thousands of Dollars

As those who watch my gamerscore on the left there over there <--- may know, I've been playing Assassin's Creed II lately. A lot has been said about the game, mostly good (though there's a certain truth to this Destructoid review of AC2 that almost made me want to toss my copy in the garbage. I didn't. The quibbles addressed exist, but they're not game-ruining), mostly touching on how AC2 is more ambitious and better executed that its predecessor. This is all true, in my assessment, but one new mechanic that was added, a fairly hefty one, isn't getting the praise it deserves. The economy in AC2 is something that more game developers need to pay attention to.

Plenty of games out there use money. Gil, rupees, coins, rings, bottlecaps and plain old dollars get tossed around in videogames like they don't even matter. And that's the problem: they don't. Too many games out there suffer from broken economies in which the player, usually no further than midgame, is richer than God and looks better than him too because of all the sweet armor he's bought. Money might mean the difference between a better gun, sword or shield in the first few hours of the game, but by the time the player has handled a few quests the money is their pocket is reduced to free whatever-you-want vouchers.

Two recent-ish games whose economies have disappointed me sorely: Grand Theft Auto IV and Fallout 3. Both games attempt, and largely succeed, at creating intricate, believable worlds inhabited by (somewhat) believable characters that interact in a believable way. The only glaring fault, for me, is that my interaction with them is different because I can buy and sell their assess just as fast as I can snap my fingers. In GTAIV: The Ballad of Gay Tony, the most recent GTA experience I've had, I was swimming in money like Scrooge McDuck within the first hour of my game. I could have cars delivered to me for free, I could take weapons from my enemies, buy discount weapons from my friends and every mission gave me enough money to wallpaper my apartment with. I was being given too much money, and I didn't even need to spend it to begin with. My megabucks became an empty number; I didn't feel empowered by the growth of my in-game bank account because it had no value to my character.

Similarly, in Fallout 3, I left the vault with maybe fifty caps looted from the vault guards I had downed. After an hour or two wandering the wasteland, shooting and looting raiders and prying open every metal box and locker I could find I had just enough money to get myself comfortably outfitted at Megaton's weapons shop. I was impressed. I felt like my money had been hard-fought and earned, and the classy new armor and death-deliverers it translated into were worth the time and effort I put into getting them. Looking for money wasn't easy, but it was worth it, I thought. This wasteland is tough, but I like it, and I'm going to get out there and conquer it, I thought. Jump just a few hours ahead and I had already killed for some of the better weapons in the game and received a free suit of the (almost) best armor in the game from one of the fallen brotherhood soldiers. Jump ahead a few more hours, when I no longer needed to barter for caps, when I simply started to round up what the merchant owed me in Stimpaks (of which I now no longer dipped below a reservoir of 200 in my inventory) and I'm starting to feel like I am the one-man second coming of capitalism in the wasteland. Sadly, none of the golden eggs of the game, the unique weapons and armor, we purchasable, only findable. What if one or two of them could have only been bought? Where was my motivation to accrue money and spend it wisely? Why did Fallout and GTAIV's economies drop the ball and leave me feeling like my money was only for show?

It's because neither game gave me enough appropriate reasons and places to spend my money. Sure, both games technically have hundred of places to buy stuff, but they all sold the same things: just stuff, stuff I could find in the world just as easily as I could pay for it. Both games lacked imagination in offering me ways to spend cash. The options were spend money on one-off things that don't matter, like going out to eat or paying off a slave-trader (when I could have just as easily killed or persuaded him) or use it to buy items I would encounter piles of out in the game world. In this respect, AC2 really does rise above.

In AC2 there are the usual things like armor, weapons and healing to spend your money on. Where AC2 diversifies is in your ability to invest your money, and gain through spending. AC2 encourages the player to spend money to increase the value of their hub area, a small Villa in the Italian countryside. Everything the player buys, from armor to weapons to local art increases the return they get on the Villa. The Villa pays out a certain sum every twenty minutes, and this sum increases with the assets (armor, weapons, art, lots of collectibles) acquired by the player. This sum also has a cap, so the player must withdraw the money frequently in order to earn more. This isn't always possible, since the player must actually return to the Villa to get it (sometimes annoying, but I'm making a point about the intelligently controlled flow of money), so the money is your Villa is safe, but it doesn't grow infinitely. The Villa's return also increases for every full set of armor or weapons bought, and also for every building the player chooses to renovate in the Villa, so you end up buying a lot of things you might otherwise ignore, because maybe a mace isn't part of your playstyle, and giving them a try. None of this stuff comes cheap, either. Just one sword can easily wipe out what Ezio, the main character, is carrying on him and this means doing more missions or heading back to the Villa. Even paying for new clothes comes with a clever caveat: you're paying to dye your clothes, not get new ones, so you never amass a wardrobe. Every time you feel like flashing some new colors it's going to cost you, and every new city you visit has about five new dye schemes.

There are other games that handle in-game economy quite well (Valkyria Chronicles comes to mind), but few games in the action genre really know what to do with it. AC2 doesn't have the developed economy of a Sid Meier game, but the economy also isn't a central feature in AC2. The game is primarily about climbing and killing. The economy is there for players that want to get everything in the game--and not just have it handed to them, but to earn it. Do you want to be a rich assassin or a poor assassin? It's just a small question in a thoroughly satisfying game.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Disappointing, Predictable Sales for DJ Hero & Brütal Legend

Brütal Legend and DJ Hero, which launched last month to (mostly) positive reviews, are tanking in sales. According to Kotaku, Tim Schafer's metal-fest Brütal Legend moved a meager 215, 000 copies and Activision's first non-guitar hero musical outing, DJ Hero, sold an even smaller 122, 330 units last month.

These numbers aren't exactly surprising: Schafer's games have a thing for doing well by critics and awful at the register, and to most, DJ Hero just looks like more living room clutter. Both games are also getting buried under the pre-Christmas triple-A avalanche of Modern Warfare 2, Assassin's Creed 2, New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Dragon Age: Origins (maybe not as high caliber as the others, but hey,
I worked on it so it's got to be good, right?). DJ Hero also has the added impairment of starting at $120.

What's unfortunate is that both of these games are highly original and totally optimistic from a design standpoint. Brütal Legend has been accused of trying to do too much and not doing anything perfectly as a result, but everything it does (driving, strategy, exploration, combat), it does with such metal-headed zeal that it's hard not to keep playing. To be fair, it's a short game and, for most, probably doesn't warrant a purchase. That doesn't mean that it isn't ambitious or important though. It's a unique game that deserves your time, if not your money. Give it a rent and tell me you didn't have fun with it.

DJ Hero is kind of in the same boat. People don't exactly aspire to be DJs the same way they do rockstars. Most people also don't aspire to drop $120 on one game that has more than one Rihanna track on it. Sadly for them, they're missing out on some fresh magic, the kind that came innocuously bundled with Guitar Hero 1, before anyone knew how the franchise would blow up. DJ Hero is fresh in terms of gameplay, style and, above all, music. The mixes in this game easily warrant the sale of a stand-alone soundtrack as they range from hilariously novel (MC Hammer vs. Vanilla Ice), eerily moving (Gorillaz vs. Marvin Gaye) to completely awesome (Eminem vs. Beck).

I bought both games. I don't know it if it was smart to have purchased either, but I do know that I've enjoyed my time with both enough to encourage others to go out, play them, and hopefully breathe some life into the franchises. For the love of gaming, give 'em a shot.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Burn the Reel: Why Kane Doesn’t Belong in Games

I’ve discussed the incongruity of comparing videogames to movies here before, but the discussion about when gaming will receive its “Citizen Kane” has reached new heights, and they are ridiculous. It seems the King, or in this case Queen, has been crowned: Metroid Prime is, apparently, the Citizen Kane of games.

Michael Thomsen of went on national television to let everyone know. Thanks, Mike.

To take a quick stab at this: is the comparison between Citizen Kane and Metroid Prime really apt? The Metroid experience has been iterated several times over the years. Citizen Kane was the first and last film to feature Kane, and it seems many critics agreed it did so perfectly. Samus has had plenty of adventures before she appeared in the Prime series, and she’s had plenty since, with more to come. What if, down the road, there appears a more definitive version of Metroid than Prime? Whoops.

I could go on about why I don’t think Metroid Prime is a genre-defining candidate capable of speaking for the industry, but it would only belay my point that the comparison doesn’t matter in the first place.

The thing that really grinds my gears about this isn’t that it was Metroid Prime that was chosen to represent the entire medium of gaming; it’s more that I am becoming frustrated and disappointed in the games industry doggedly trying to get approval from people who don’t care about the artistic integrity of games because they simply do not care about games to begin with. The ‘other side’ we are trying to convince doesn’t have a stake in whether or not games are artistic. Proving artistic merit won’t convert some invisible group of would-be gamers that are just waiting for a cue from critics to adopt the hobby. It’s like expecting someone to love a painting on the basis that it is legitimate enough to be shown in an art gallery. Even if we prove that games can be art there will still be people that don’t like games. I wonder sometimes if this search for approval is actually just a desperate bid for validation so that gamers will finally have something to shoot back with when someone tells them “games are for kids.” We shouldn’t be striving to stick it to people that clearly don’t care enough about games to think outside of stereotypes.

Simply put, the search for the Citizen Kane of games is embarrassing. The Citizen Kane of games, when it arrives, won’t be known as “The Citizen Kane of Games” because it will be completely valid in its own right. Citizen Kane isn’t known as the Beowulf of film. The definitive game won’t need to be measured against Citizen Kane, or anything else for that matter. If it is truly the definitive realization of the maturation of games, it will be completely unique to gaming and necessarily incomparable to anything from another medium because what it does wouldn’t be possible in any other medium. It wouldn’t mimic the characteristics of an industry-defining movie, precisely because it would be a game and not a movie. The best point I’ve heard all week to this effect:

“Every now and then someone tries to sell a game by claiming it’s cinematic, meaning that it’s an interactive experience that apes a non-interactive medium. It’s the equivalent of a film consisting entirely of text scrolls in order to be more like a book.” – Ben Croshaw, Zero Punctuation

The validation of games will happen when it is no longer sought after. When we stop attempting to measure games against the successes of other mediums, we might be clear-thinking enough to realize that games aren’t justifiably comparable to other media. There is no one-to-one ratio for games to movies, comic books or anything else. That is why the industry has succeeded and failed in its own right, independent of Hollywood or press, and why there are people who enjoy games and people who don’t. In our endless search for the Citizen Kane of videogames we are the self-righteous child in elementary school that holds a grudge against the classmates that won’t be his friends. If we as gamers can resign ourselves to the fact that gaming is not, and shouldn’t seek to be, for everybody, then we will be better for it. It could free our thinking—maybe enough to allow that genre-defining title to be created.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Rape Games Banned in Japan: Sex Sells, But Should Rape Sell Too?

This article, announcing the ban of rape games in Japan, was posted on Kotaku the other day. Rape games are games in which it is the player’s objective to successfully attack or otherwise coerce women in the game into sex without consent.

Brian Ashcraft, Kotaku’s Night Editor located in Japan, has been following the story of the ban for the past few weeks. His posts have detailed his resentment over the fact that rape videogames, as opposed to rape comics and rape pornography, are the only medium under scrutiny. He tells readers to “expect more creative ways of masking rape and rape iconography as well as possibly more ‘amateur’ or unlicensed games” and that “there's always the rape pornography and rape comic books that will most likely continue, business as usual.” He implies that rape games should be left alone, just like other rape related entertainment, to succeed or fail on their own merit. His main argument is that the games are released legally, which most were, and that there should be no further investigation of the genre for this reason.

What really gets me about Ashcraft’s articles is the 'if they can do it, we should be able to too' attitude in his writing. Rather than taking the position of gaming being the pioneer of ending rape-as-entertainment, Ashcraft seem resentful that rape games are being shut down while other rape-related entertainment isn’t also coming under fire. Ashcraft never calls into question the validity of rape as entertainment and immediately jumps to its defense because videogames are part of the equation. This behavior reminds me of the kind of defense gamers provided against the accusations of racist imagery in Resident Evil 5 all over the net. It's all very knee-jerk.

It seems to me that there is more than a hint of paranoia within the gaming community, ingrained in us by the likes of uninformed assailants such as Jack Thompson, and that many gamers will jump in front of a bus to defend any game, under any circumstance, with no thought as whether or not there are actual issues with a game’s content. We are so ready to defend the validity of games that at times we do not check to see if what we’re defending is what we actually believe, or if we are becoming willingly blind to protect our medium. Is it not a little fucked up to be defending rape games solely on the basis that rape exists in other media?

Penn Jillette, of Penn & Teller, felt the need to exacerbate the issue:

"What blaming the video game does is it shows compassion for the rapist. It shows understanding. At some level, in some small amount, it says, 'It's not really the rapist's fault; it's society's fault for putting this stuff out here'." – Penn Jillette, “Penn Jillette Speaks Out on RapeLay,”

Jillette’s interpretation of the situation is not only narrow, but weak. Do laws against murder normalize killing? Jillette assumes that this ban will have the largest affect on rapist and potential rapists, patting them on the head saying “it’s not your fault that you’re a violent sexual assailant.” In reality, the decision for the ban more likely included deliberation on how the trivialization of rape affects victims of the actual crime, and how normalizing sexual violence through adolescent treatment of the subject matter is spreading sexual misinformation. There will be no rapists thanking this ban for ‘curing’ them of their desire to rape.

Additionally, some gamers are defending rape games under the banner of freedom of speech and creativity, but are failing to see that rape games breach the territory of a kind of hate speech against women. The comments on the latest rape game post on Kotaku are full of opinions (men’s only, from what I can tell) on the validity of rape as entertainment:

“Anyone who looks at this [ban] and say[s] ‘It's a good thing’, yet was up in arms over Jack Thompson, the controversies over Mass Effect, Manhunt, GTA, FPS games in general, and any other game controversy, is not[h]ing more than a hypocrite, pure an[d] simple. If you are going to support freedom of speech, you have to accept it in all its forms.” – WillSerenity, commenting on “Rape Games Officially Banned in Japan,”

If there were a game released under the title of “Fag Hunter,” and it was ostensibly produced as fantasy fulfillment for right-wing conservatives, would anyone defend that game’s right to exist as free speech? Certainly not. So what does exchanging one oft victimized group—gay men— for another—women at large—change as far as acceptability goes? Many people arguing this issue don’t seem to understand that there are clear distinctions between free speech and hate speech.

“People need to come to the realization that speech is not free; there is a very real cost and it is almost always paid by the most vulnerable members of society.” - Renee Martin, “Fox News Provides The Vehicle To Tillers Death,”

In this instance, women. Men may have the right to sexual fantasy, but everyone has the right to feel safe. How safe would a woman feel finding out a man she knew played a game simulating rape? There is no yardstick for what measures ‘acceptable’ rape fantasy, but the profiteering and juvenile treatment of the subject is absolutely not acceptable.

"[T]here are plenty of rape victims around who can quite justifiably be shocked, horrified, further traumatized by the depiction for entertainment of the crime that caused their suffering. And they are deserving of protection. Heaven knows, they weren't protected enough in the first place, least we can do is not make things worse.” – Phisheep, commenting on “Rape Games Officially Banned in Japan,”

In the comments, rape in games is also being compared to murder in games as a defense, but the term “murder” is used very lightly. If two people enter into a gunfight and one dies, as in nearly every existing shooter game, there was a kind of consent within the conflict. One person fires, and the other fires back. Both player and NPC were threats to each other to begin with. There are no ‘victims’ in a willing gun-battle. There is no consent in rape. There are victims. How many games have there been where the player sneaks around killing unsuspecting victims for no reason other than fulfilling their own pathological desires? Those characters are usually the bad guys.

The kink in this issue, however, is that rape fantasy, as a private sexual practice, alone or with a partner, is a perfectly valid sexual stimulant. Many, many people, both men and women, fantasize about raping or being raped, and act on those fantasies in a safe environment with their partners or by themselves. In fantasy, the fantasizer has complete control and can derive pleasure from an imagined situation that they would never enjoy in real life. The difference between a fantasy desire and an actual desire is entirely in the individual’s power to control the situation, and therein lies the stark contrast between fantasy rape and actual rape. Men who fantasize about rape do not secretly want to rape, nor do women who fantasize about being raped actually want to be raped.

More reasonable commentors are addressing the notion of rape as a viable, normal sexual fantasy and are defending rape games as an appropriate outlet. This approach stands on some firmer ground, but all of the difficulties mentioned so far still complicate the issue.

I’m of two minds on this one. I don’t think the current state of rape games passes as responsible sexual fantasy, but I don’t feel that they should be eliminated altogether either, as there are people who do enjoy the games based of their natural inclination towards rape fantasy. Simply, rape games in their current state are so far into the territory of shock porn that it is difficult to condone the lack of morality concerning the physical and mental well-being of women.

Ultimately, this ban isn’t an outrage. It’s just a simple curiosity that has sparked some debate within the gaming community. The ban was voluntary, and was not imposed upon the industry by Japanese law. The ban was decided under a vote. The influences behind the ban are what are generating such interesting discussion. It’s not as though the doomsayers that are crying “this ban means the end of free speech” are going to convince the repeal of a voluntary ban. I think Heliophage said it best:

"It's self-censorship, what is there to get mad about? If I go outside and promise to never say the word ‘fuck’ again, will you attack me with notions of 'free speech' and my right to shout expletives?" - Heliophage, commenting on “Rape Games Officially Banned in Japan,”