Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How Halo: Reach is not like my new favorite game, Start the Party

There are supposed to be four seasons per year, but in our family there are five. We squeeze an extra season in between Summer and Fall and it's called Birthday season. Birthday season begins September 1st and continues through mid-October with some after effects reaching into November which, incidentally, is when it actually begins to feel like Fall here in Central Florida. Birthday season is a cherished time of year for us Burbanks. We like surprising each other with just the right gifts, fancy cakes, birthday decor, and all manner of celebratory events. September through the first week of October is like one unending birthday party.

I'm sorry, but Halo: Reach entered my life in the middle of Birthday season and, unfortunately, the game was a bit of a party pooper. Ben and I did play one evening. I created my character, which was, of course, the most enjoyable part of my gaming experience. I liked choosing my logo and the teal and white color scheme that donned my spiffy spacesuit. But then the sci-fi jibber-jabber started and I got the glazed eye that Ben knows so well where I'm staring at the screen but no information is actually registering in my brain. He filled me in on the mission and controls, but I think I distracted him because we accidentally lost the rest of our Halo team and it took a while to figure out where they were. We found our team near a dark, empty station which we explored. Then we went back outside and shot at some monsters, though I mostly hit ostriches, my fellow teammates, or nothing at all. Then I'm not sure what happened. Either there was a bug in the game or we couldn't figure out what to do next, so we quit, never to play it together again. I did try Halo on my own once. I repeated everything Ben and I had done the previous evening and then got stuck, again, at the same exact spot. I had far too many birthday plans swirling through my head to spend too much time figuring out how to continue through the game. Also, due to the crazy influx of game launches that somehow always coincides with Birthday season, there were several games that entered Ben's life that were more alluring to him, (Civilization V, Final Fantasy XIV, Dead Rising to name just a few) so he didn't put on the Halo: Reach pressure when I needed it.

Birthday season always brings an influx of video games into our household. Ben starts shopping for his own birthday sometime around March of each year even though his birthday isn't until late September. He is continuously scouring the internet for release dates and if a game happens to have a release date within plus or minus two weeks of his birthday, he sends me a link to it so that I'll know. Subtle.

He is difficult to shop for, mostly because he either gets everything he wants anyway or because I'd have to be a Computer Science major to understand what he needs. I have to import games from Japan or price compare computer parts or bid for obscure toys on Ebay. Birthday shopping for Ben is not for the faint of heart. To make matters worse, all of his friends and family are even more clueless than I am about what to get him for his birthday so they contact me for ideas. I end up giving away all my best birthday gift ideas, which leaves me empty handed.

This year, though, he bought the whole family a present for our collective Birthday season. The present was the PS Eye, a camera hooked to the PS3 with remotes you use as controllers that track your body movements, much like the Wii but with newer technology – improved responsiveness and better graphics. I rolled my own eye at him when he brought this one home, but had to take my eye rolls back when he popped in the demo for a game that was not only fun and silly and cute, but had an appropriate and timely title: Start the Party, my new favorite game.

Start the Party is a party game that involves mini games like in Warioware but less confusing, a bit like Mario Party but way more fun, and it comes complete with an adorable Little Big Planet-like aesthetic. With childlike delight, I whacked moles, swatted at bugs, nudged baby birds into their nests, and disabled advancing robots with my remote control. Ben said he hadn't seen a game make me giggle like that in a long time. Appropriately, he bought me Start the Party for my birthday.

I only experienced about 30 minutes, total, of Halo: Reach, so I don't really have much to offer by way of review. I guess the lack of review IS my review. Still, in an effort not to have Halo: Reach END my online reviewing party, I will conclude this very belated blog post by describing how Halo: Reach is not like Start the Party.

Start the Party: I never stopped smiling. Halo: Reach:I never started.

Start the Party: Offers many possibilities for dick jokes. Halo: Reach: Usually just involves calling your opponents dicks over a headset which I watched my brother do several hours per night throughout his high school career.

Start the Party: On an obscure planet you shoot at cute metal robots. Halo: Reach: On an obscure planet you shoot at ugly running monsters.

Halo: Reach: Offers me ostriches and Nathan Fillion. Start the Party: Offers me the chance to pretend pick my nose and draw horns and a mustache on Ben's face.

Halo: Reach: I get lost. Start the Party: Ben loses. Ba-da-bum!

I can't blame Birthday season entirely for my lack of game play. I have actually played several video games this past month that I heartily recommend. Chime is everything I want a video game to be, all wrapped into one pretty-sounding package. We've had several fun family game nights with the the PS3's version of Wii Sports, Sports Champions, especially the archery and ping pong games. Turns out I'm as bad at simulated ping pong as I am real life ping pong. Sad. I'm always a sucker for iPhone games like Zynga's Word Scramble Challenge. I fuss about people wasting their life away on WOW, but I could easily rack up hours playing word games on my iPhone.

Birthday season is coming to a close. The days feel crisper and the perfect pumpkin sits on my bookshelf awaiting its imminent carve. My birthday was one of the best ever, even though I turned a truly dreadful number. I was completely spoiled. I look back with very fond memories of my twenties and look forward, with excitement, to the next decade ahead. All our birthday festivities were a success. Ben got his long-awaited Chuck E Cheese birthday, lots of video games and an awesome toy dinosaur transformer that our son wanted so badly he climbed the dresser for it, toppling the dresser, the dinosaur, himself and my favorite vase. (All parties involved are fine). My son enjoyed his own birthday party almost as much as he enjoyed everyone else's. I even pulled off a cute Under the Sea themed birthday cake for his second birthday party despite the near cake-tastrophe of 2010.

Birthday season may have distracted me a bit from my game assignment progress, but I am back now - older, wiser, and ready to Restart the party.

My next game assignment makes me nervous like trying a first hit of cocaine might. I'm being forced to play Frontierville. I may be a bit scared of its addictive properties, but I will try it, sacrificing myself for journalism. If you don't hear from me in two to three week's time, please come drag me out of the frontier. Thanks, and enjoy your Autumn!

Friday, September 17, 2010

50 Cent Blood on the Sand Reminds Me I'm a Dork

The year was 1990. I wore thick glasses, a red polo shirt, long, multi-colored striped shorts and an ill-advised perm. I was seated in front of a jelly-soaked PB&J, a-day-too-old banana that had smelled up my lunch bag and the rest of its contents: the saran wrapped pile of chocolate chip cookies, a bag of Fritos and a carton of chocolate milk, all of which contributed to the thirty pounds of extra chunk around my everything. On my side of the table sat two or three of my white friends. On the other side of the table sat three black kids in my class. Our school was purposely desegregated, but the kids, for the most part, segregated themselves anyway - not for any actual reason - just out of comfort and code. I was ten and I was involved in a minor racial skirmish, though, at the time, I'm not sure I realized that the argument had anything to do with anything other than musical preference. The debate? New Kids on the Block vs. MC Hammer.

I'm not saying that these two groups epitomized the racial divide in the country at the time. Looking back now, they both actually seem to bridge the racial gap more than divide it. But that day, in the school cafeteria, it was NKOTB vs. the MC, dorky pop-loving us vs. way cooler rap-loving them. Racial awkwardness is a different beast when you're ten. It is subtle. Less electric. More innocent, yet distressing because of how ignorant it is. I soon discovered that I should have kept my musical tastes to myself. I learned that day what being a “white girl” was like. I felt like a stereotype. I suddenly wished that I wasn't in love with New Kid Jonathan Knight and that his poster did not grace the ceiling over my bed.

I don't remember what the argument was like or what we were attempting to achieve with the debate. Was our goal simply to recruit more fans to our side of the table? All I know is that I lost that popularity contest. My side did not win.

I have felt awkward, dorky, and “white” since then, but it wasn't until I popped in 50 Cent Blood on the Sand that I felt all three at once and with such potency. Perhaps that is the ultimate superpower of this era's African American rap stars. They have the power to make a middle class southern white girl feel like the lamest person alive.

Like most school cafeteria fights, the premise of this game is pretty dumb. The rapper 50 Cent is in an unnamed Middle Eastern country where he has played a concert. Afterward, he visits the concert promoter looking for the $10 million he's owed (That much?!?). To 50 Cent's chagrin, the concert promoter no longer has the cash. The concert promoter is “persuaded” to pony up some method of payment which turns out to be a diamond and pearl encrusted skull he happens to have lying around (of course!) However, the moment 50 Cent has the skull in his very large hands, it is promptly stolen by a paramilitary gang. 50 Cent and a buddy then decide to do whatever they have to do to get it back. Tell me that doesn't sound like elementary school. Someone promises to give someone their lunch money, the kid comes to collect and the lunch money has mysteriously disappeared so the kid gives up a Twinkie in payment which a gang of other kids promptly steals. It's silly.

The game is a third-person shooter – my first. I'll have to post a video of me playing this game so you can really get a feel for the hilarity of it. Remember, my playing will be terrible in the video, but nothing like when I first started. Me playing this game today is about 500-diamond encrusted skulls better than my first attempts and that is really sad. You know the feeling you get when you show pictures of yourself as a kid to a friend and you get around to your adolescent stage and remember how completely hideous and awkward you were? And you know how physically and emotionally uncomfortable it is to see those pictures again and remember how it felt to be that person? And you know how you definitely don't ever want your friend to get a glimpse of you looking that way so you hide those pictures real fast....then maybe burn them after? That's how I think both Ben and I felt watching me play this game.

First of all, I couldn't even make 50 Cent walk forward. It was the most ridiculous thing to witness this pit bull-of-a-man walk up a staircase sideways because I can't figure out how to make him look straight ahead. One joystick controls his movement, the other joystick controls the camera, or where he is looking (also what you end up seeing as the player). I could make him move forward and backward just fine, but I couldn't physically get the hang of looking around! I can't describe in words the silliness of me playing this game. Ben inverted the controls for me after a while which helped a little bit. Still, most of my time in the game was spent staring at the ceiling or the floor while Middle Easterners shot and launched hand grenades at me.

Since the third-person bit was difficult to master, the shooting bit was nearly impossible. I aimed my gun based on some nonexistent vantage point I created in my imagination, all the while completely forgetting that the little white x in the middle of the screen was there for a reason. Then, when I actually remembered that I should use the x to aim, I didn't seem to have the dexterity or subtlety of hand movement required to aim the x on my target! It took me a good 30 seconds or more to get the x on my target and, by that time, I was dead. So...I can't look where I'm going, I can't aim, and I didn't know until Ben told me three playing sessions in that I could hide to heal myself and that I could just run at the guys and fight them in hand-to-hand combat to avoid some of the shooting altogether.

If the real 50 Cent could have only seen what a bumbling idiot his likeness had become under my control. He had lost all street cred, that's for sure. (Is that the “whitest” thing I could ever say? I don't even know. How sad is that?)

It is appropriate that this game is a third-person shooter, because that's how I feel when I think about myself at ten years old. I feel like I'm looking at myself as an outsider. When I talk about that girl, I think in third person; I'm an older, wiser narrator telling someone else's story. The way I play this game is completely reminiscent of the way I dealt with those elementary school gangs of kids who bullied or teased or argued with me all those years ago. Avoid eye contact so they don't notice you. Stare at the ceiling or stare at the floor, but whatever you do, don't let your eyes meet theirs. Blend in. Walk along the perimeter of the crowd. Send your braver buddy in first and follow her lead. If you have to cry or heal, hide behind the first wall you see. Run away. Figure out a plan of attack, grit your teeth and run at them head-on when they aren't expecting it.

Face-to-face confrontation has never gone well for me in or out of the game. To prove just how stereotypically white I am, while studying abroad in England, my friend and I met a British man named Richard and his best friend, Simon (That really was their names. Wow, the stereotypes-come-to-life abound in this post!) Richard was a history buff and a medieval weapons expert, a trained sword-fighter. I remember one day, while visiting Richard in his tiny village somewhere near Nottingham, he took us to the local pub where we drank pints of ale and then headed out behind the pub where we found a pile of metal helmets and swords. Right there in the small, dirt and grass parking lot of this English pub, Richard gave us a sword-fighting lesson. I learned all the moves pretty well and was enjoying myself. But then he said he was going to fight us and we needed to use our defensive moves against him. The moves I had so perfectly learned just minutes before disappeared at the sight of a sword swinging at my head. Not only did I forget the defensive moves, I lost the ability to move my body.

That's exactly what happened to me when playing this game. I practiced aiming. I practiced shooting. I knew I had to go hide behind a particular wall and then run towards the shooting tank. But then enemies started streaming out of the tank and shooting at me and I locked up. I'd forget which button did what. I'd forget to look where I was going. I'd run in circles and lose sight of the tank. I'd run at the guys and forget to hit B in time to complete the Counter-Kills.

I may have had a million reasons for liking the New Kids on the Block better than MC Hammer, but they didn't occur to me at that lunch. I can debate like crazy with you. Just give me two hours and let me write out my arguments that I will then read to you...or let you read...to yourself. Otherwise, I'll just stare at you while my face turns red and I get sick to my stomach. Then I'll remember what I was going to say halfway through math.

Video games and school lunchrooms exist in a strangely similar plane. Entering their hyper reality, you can escape a bit from authority and explore boundaries, your own and other's. In everyday life, it isn't acceptable to demand payment in diamond skulls or mow down gangs of people with a hum-vee or launch grenades at foreign tanks. I'm not a tough, fearless, cussing, gun-wielding rap artist, but this game lets me pretend that I am for a little bit. You have so little freedom in school to figure out what other kids are all about and figure out who you are and how you're going to treat and interact with other people. Places like the bus or the cafeteria were not always the most comfortable, pleasant places, but they were oftentimes the most educational places where you could try out behaviors you might not want your parents to know about or behaviors that were unusual or foreign to you. The result was not often nice. In the lunchroom, kids could get away with calling people mean things, stealing lunch money, creating the grossest possible food combination and then daring their friends to eat it. In 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, you can get away with insane violence, bigotry, foul language, and greed. If parents only knew what you did and what you discussed at lunch, they probably wouldn't let you go to school. And if they saw what you were doing in this game, they probably wouldn't let you play it.

Still, Ben told me I needed to practice playing 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand because I would need to improve my shooting skills and learn how to look where I'm going in order to play my next game, Halo: Reach, a first-person shooter. My perspective is about to shift...or maybe it already has. It's coincidental that I'm moving from a third person shooter to a first person shooter because that's the transformation that occurred for me while playing 50 Cent and thinking about those days back at Orange River Elementary. Most times I look back at that ten-year-old girl and feel like she's someone else, a character in a movie I've watched a thousand times. But when I look inward, shift back to my first-person perspective I know that I am still that intimidated, awkward girl, the “cracker” I was referred to so often by my classmates.

After all, I'd play a Jason Mraz album way before I'd put on 50 Cent.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

What the arcade game Final Fight and other late1980's beat 'em ups taught me about friendship

My Final Fight adventure would have cost me 22 quarters in an arcade. Surprisingly, Ben would have cost us nearly as much! Turns out, Final Fight sucks quarters indiscriminately.

The first time Ben and I sat down to play Final Fight I pepped myself up by talking smack to my husband.

You ready to get beat, loser? You ready for my shirtless fatty Haggar to beat your effeminate, pretty-boy Cody down?”

Hon, this is a co-op game. We're playing together against the bad guys. Not against each other.”

Oh right. Co-op.”

Competitiveness runs through my veins like Carl Lewis. It's my default setting. I can quickly get behind a sports team just to see whether they win or lose. Too many hours of my life have been spent cheering on Casey on Top Chef or the nerdy couple on The Amazing Race or Jeannine on So You Think You Can Dance. I will actually stop to root for Miss Florida in the Miss America pageant. I live for awards shows.

But unlike the characters on Final Fight, I'm multi-dimensional. While I am competitive, I also really want to make other people happy. I remember when I was about five or six and my family was on a boat trip.I was bored and my Dad said he'd play a game of Memory with me. I placed all the red and white marbled cards face-down on the table in the boat cabin. The whole time we were playing, the boat lightly rocking in the river's chop, I was feeling a bit tortured by a dilemma. I didn't know who I wanted to win the game. Of course I wanted to win because winning feels good and winning would make my Dad proud of me. But I also adored my father. I didn't want him to ever feel disappointed or sad about anything. I didn't want him to have to lose, either. I wanted us both to win! Towards the end of the game I started purposely picking up mismatches so I'd lose. I remember my Dad asking me if I was letting him win and I said yes. He told me he didn't want me to do that. He wanted me to try as hard as I could because having fun and challenging yourself was what really mattered, not who won.

I've struggled with competitiveness my entire life. It has affected my friendships, my schooling, my hobbies, and my business decisions – sometimes in positive, and sometimes in negative ways.

I've been making things lately. Inspired by a few very creative, productive, inventive, and brave people I know, I decided it was time to focus on creating, showing, and possibly selling the things I make. I have to stave off the jealous twinges I get when I see other people's work in stores or at festivals or hanging on museum walls. I have to force myself to stop comparing my work against anyone else's and just enjoy the process of making things and sharing those creative moments with my son and husband. But that can be difficult for me....either because of competitiveness or insecurity.

The video game community has really brought this to my attention. I recently played several independent games suggested to me by a friend and reader of CoaGW. I'll speak about those games in depth another time, but what struck me while playing the indie games and what often impresses me most about the independent gaming community of developers, artists, programmers, writers, and designers is their willingness to support each other, share with each other, and advise each other in order to further the art and craft of video game development. I so deeply want to emulate their behavior, to embrace other creators and artists, share with them, learn from them, and support them rather than compete with them.

At the same time, I know the competitive nature of business and video games are a big business. Video game developers must share my struggle. I've seen it in the recent iPhone development gold rush. Two developers have the same idea for a game. One gets the game out more quickly than the other. One receives accolades and millions of dollars, the other quits or tries to somehow find a way of improving upon the original. I saw it in my own small business. I felt the constant pressure to be the best, the feeling that one mistake with a customer could affect your business's ultimate success or failure. Competition can lead you to be the best you've ever been and can make you feel like you could crash to your death at any moment should you make one wrong move.

Final Fight, one of the first of these arcade beat 'em up games of the late 80's, early 90's was one of those originals that set off a chain reaction of a dozen copy cat versions: X-Men, Spiderman, Ninja Turtles, etc. For anyone who has never played Final Fight, the game is a side-scrolling beat 'em up in which the mayor of the city, Haggar, a former professional wrestler, his daughter's boyfriend, Cody, a martial arts master, and Cody's sparring partner, Guy, tear through the big city fighting a street gang who has kidnapped Haggar's daughter, Jessica (THE perfect name for a game made in the 1980's...I can vouch for that!). The goal is to fight your way through Metro City's many districts to retrieve Jessica and hopefully bring an end to the city's crime problem.

Ben and I played on arcade sticks and I pretty quickly learned Haggar's fighting moves, although I didn't master the jump-kick until the end which is a shame, because that move is essential! Ben refers to these games as bro-op, and I can see why. It really does seem like an adolescent boy's ideal way to spend a roll of quarters. Pretend for a while that you're the toughest guy in the city, beating up bigger hairier men to save the blonde damsel in distress with your best friend by your side. You pick up whole turkeys and giant hamburgers for your vigilante characters to consume to restore their health. I can see the appeal. Plus, for being so old, the game's graphics are big and pretty impressive, the controls easy to master.

After about an hour of A and B button mashing while watching my muscle man punch and kick people of all shapes and sizes, I started to glaze over a bit. The game doesn't present much variety. But I hung in there and we beat the game and returned Jessica to the muscular arms of her father and her boyfriend.

One thing that separates Final Fight from many of its copies is friendly fire. I once asked my parents what friendly fire was. Their answer made me feel sick. I couldn't imagine a worse reason for a soldier to have to die. Wrong place, wrong time. An accident at the hands of one's peer. I guess that's what happens when you are surrounded by people trying to learn how to shoot machine guns and blow things up.

When Ben and I started playing Final Fight,Ben said that we'd need to communicate about who we were going to go after so we didn't get in each other's way. He warned me that we could punch and kick each other and accidentally deal damage. “Friendly fire,” he called it. I quickly realized what he meant. I kept forgetting what his character looked like! When six dudes rush at me simultaneously, I tend to start punching and kicking with wild abandon. Sometimes Guy or Cody got in the way...especially when I figured out the jump-kick timing and got a little jump-kick happy.

I played a little of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and X-Men knockoffs of Final Fight that didn't allow the main characters to accidentally inflict damage on one another. Strangely, I missed the friendly fire. I mean, not being able to accidentally hurt each other was certainly one less thing to worry about, but that worry was what made Final Fight interesting. In a real fight, you would have to watch out for your friend. You would have to make sure your buddy was out of the way before throwing the enemy across the subway car. You'd need to make sure you weren't going to land on your buddy while performing a crazy body slam on the bad guy. The times when I did accidentally punch or kick Ben's character were some of the funniest of the game. And sometimes Ben had to sacrifice a little health so that I could get in one last deadly blow to the enemy.

In any venture you need your friends alongside you. You need people to support you, get your back when you're ganged up on, carry on the fight while you put in another quarter. Sure, you might have to share the burgers and turkeys when you'd rather eat them all yourself. Your poor fighting might bring down your partner's game for awhile and vice versa. You might compare your scores to your partner and occasionally wish you'd done better than them. You might even get caught up in a little friendly fire along the way, But this is a bro-op! You need each other, because there are way too many giant men running at you at once. Because there's a pretty girl in trouble who needs your help.

Learn from Final Fight. Avoid an accidental punch to the gut through communication and care, and when you accidentally and inevitably whack your friend instead of the other guy, say you're sorry and keep fighting your way to that final boss...together.

Next game: TBA

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Bayonetta for PS3: Final Review

Perhaps if I were to unleash some temporal witch power on it, my situation would suddenly improve. - Bayonetta

I've tried that trick before, Bayonetta, and it has been known to work. I refer to my “temporal witch power” as PMS, though, and my husband is on to the excuse, so it's not as effective as it used to be.

Bayonetta...you are every woman, like Oprah, only you shoot angels rather than talk about them.

No, I take that back. Bayonetta is more than every woman. She's the woman who walks into a party and makes everybody stare. She's the woman with the inappropriate outfit on – the kind of outfit that makes other women whisper and makes men stupidly gawk. She's the mysterious, bitchy woman other women secretly want to be like, but also fear. She's smarter, stronger, and sexier than anyone else; she's manipulative, powerful, fearless, feisty, witty, and bold. She makes men look pitifully immature and idiotic, especially that Luka guy, the one that looks like Viggo Mortenson with the unfortunate looking homecoming-queen up-do hairstyle.

Bayonetta is a witch who fights angels. Such fodder for feminist analysis!

But, really, Bayonetta is the reason to play Bayonetta, despite the fact that she represents a cocktail of potentially offensive female stereotypes based on myriad male sexual fantasies. This is the first character-driven game I've played....a game with a character that's intriguing when the plotline isn't. Bayonetta's special abilities make the game interesting when most of the game mechanics seem typical; run around, find objects to smash, and fight things. The game becomes fun when you make her run on walls and ceilings and realize you no longer know which way is up. The game becomes satisfying when you learn the dozens of fighting moves she can perform using her hair and her shoes and all those fancy weapons Rodin dives into the inferno to obtain for her. The game becomes compelling when she can slow time to kick angel butt or cross bridges before they crumble. The game becomes beautiful when Bayonetta shapeshifts into a butterfly with every double jump. The game becomes goofy when she blows kisses at doors to make then open or when she catwalks like Giselle while shooting angel heads out of the sky.

While playing Bayonetta I've also been reading Y The Last Man, a graphic novel written by Brian K. Vaughan which is about how women carry on after all males on the Earth die....except for the one spared man and his male monkey pet. Between Bayonetta and Y The Last Man I've had women on the brain and, geesh, we're a complicated bunch. We want to be so many things simultaneously. While I bristle at Bayonetta's overt sexuality mixed with her brazen attitude, she makes me think about the tightrope women walk between the realm of angels and witches. We want to be both and we want to be neither and we don't really know which one men prefer, either. Is Bayonetta the ideal woman? Someone not afraid to fight, who wears nothing but her own flowing hair, who wants to hang out with Rodin in the bar but still has those quirky glasses to show she's not just street smart, but book smart, too? Can you take Bayonetta home to Mom?

Love her or hate her, she's interesting, and it's a good thing because the rest of the game really isn't. I had to read the plot on Wikipedia to actually understand what was happening and I'm still not sure I get it. From Wikipedia, if you're curious:

The title character is a witch who shapeshifts and uses various firearms, along with magical attacks she performs with her own hair, to dispatch her foes. She awakens after a 500 year sleeps and finds herself in an unfamiliar area with no memories of who or what she is. Over time, she begins to remember what caused her current predicament. 500 years before the incident that caused Bayonetta's memory loss, there were two factions preserving the balance between darkness and light in the world—the Umbra Witches, who are followers of darkness and their counterparts, the Lumen Sages, are followers of light. The factions shared two distinct treasures, the 'Eyes of the World' that were separately named the 'Left Eye' and the 'Right Eye', which they used to oversee the just passage of time. Both factions mysteriously disappeared from Vigrid under unknown circumstances. Bayonetta still has an ornate piece of jewelry which contains a small red gem, and believes this gem is the 'Left Eye' of the 'Eyes of the World'. While searching for the "Right Eye", she often receives flashbacks that make her remember what caused her current predicament.

She fights a bunch of virtues (bosses) only to discover that her Dad is the ultimate bad guy...another interesting Freudian choice.

All of this leaves me with one question. Where is my chick flick video game? If Bayonetta is Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider, where is my Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy? If you equate movies to video games, where's the romance? Where's the historical drama? Where are the romantic comedies? (Maybe Monkey Island counts?)

I want Pride and Prejudice in video game form. I'm not sure what the game play mechanics of Pride and Prejudice: the Videogame would be quite yet, but as soon as I figure it out, I demand that someone make it. I'm tired of heaven and hell, elves and dwarves, slimes and amulets. Stereotypes be damned! I need a good chick flick game. Any suggestions?

Alas, Ben describes my next game, Final Fight (arcade), as a "Bro-op," which sounds like the opposite of a Chick Flick game. We will be playing the whole game together, though, so that should be fun. We're going to count how many quarters it would take for me to beat the game in an actual arcade. How much money, do you think?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Bayonetta for PS3: First Impressions

If you haven't seen this game, take a look. This is one of the prettier scenes I've come across:

Some old Greek quote I read once states, "He who suffers much will know much." This video game project has shown me the truth of that statement. I had to suffer through God of War III so that I could know what to do when faced with hordes of nasty enemies and quick-timer events. I had to suffer through Dead or Alive: Xtreme 2 so I could know that there is worse sexism in video games than this. I had to suffer through all those puzzle games to appreciate Bayonetta's ease of exploration. I had to suffer through Dragon Quest's strange religious angel story so that I could….endure another?

OK…so maybe the word "suffer" is a bit hyperbolic. It's not like I'm being forced to sit through every episode of
Two and a Half Men or American Dad. That would be suffering. This is just “a single-player third person 3D action game” in which “the player controls a witch named Bayonetta, and, using both melee and long ranged attacks, complex combo strings, and multiple weapons, is encouraged to explore ways to dispatch angelic enemies with as much flair as possible.” (Wikipedia said it better than I ever could).

So not exactly torture. Still, I've definitely begun to notice that each video game experience builds upon the next. My video game "vocabulary" is growing! That may not be enough to make me really enjoy playing every type of video game, but it does make my gaming experiences continuously easier. For me, easier means more enjoyable. So far (albeit, on easy mode)I haven't gotten lost or stuck and I haven't allowed the enemies to frighten me or stress me out because I know from past experience that the enemies are not as impossible to beat as they appear.

Bayonetta is like a "babe" version of God of War III, but with prettier, more interesting cut scenes, fewer obnoxious puzzles, and little extra artsy details that make Bayonetta a lot more fun for me than God of War III. However, if Bayonetta had been my second game assignment, like God of War III was, I don't think I would have enjoyed it at all – proof that my past suffering has aided my present experiences. Still, I could have SWORN I played three hours of Bayonetta, but my save file shows I have only played a little over one hour. How time can slow so dramatically while I play video games is beyond my comprehension.

There was an exact moment in my academic life when I realized I could no longer coast. In other words, school had always come pretty easily for me.Writing papers was an almost robotic exercise of finding a thesis and writing its subsequent five paragraph essay. My goal as a student was to figure out exactly what the teacher wanted and then give it to them. Easy. I coasted on that for many years (with a few math bumps along the way). Then I met a professor I desperately wanted to impress and he wasn't so easily satisfied with my work. First, I had a really hard time figuring out what he wanted, exactly, and second, his expectations were a lot more difficult to meet, not to mention, exceed. I could no longer coast by on shallow answers, facts ripped off from other people to suit my purposes, and generalized responses formulated from other people's opinions and my own brief summaries of them. I had to think...
the kind of thinking where you can feel your brain inside your skull. I had to find an angle no one else had thought about and then I had to analyze and critique and research the heck out of it.

I have reached that same point in this project. I have worn out the easy gut responses to these video games. I can't fall back on the I-hate-puzzle-games/this-game's-story-sucks/I-suck-at-playing-video-games/turn-based-fighting-is-pretty-boring-unless-I-can-name-my-party-after-famous-basketball-players discussions any longer. They've become worn. They're done. I actually have to figure out what Bayonetta is really about a what I actually think about it. What makes this game different from other games? Why is it worth (or not worth) playing? Would I want my son to play it someday? Would I ever want to play it again? Why, exactly?

And discovering the answers to those questions while finding an "angle" is a lot harder to do…and more time consuming.

To make matters more difficult, some games have been really easy to discuss...something about the game will sort of hit me and I will feel inspired to write about some particular element. Nothing has really jumped out at me about
Bayonetta. I have tried to recollect the first time I laid eyes on this game because that was the most fun I had with it. I remember Ben calls me in from the other room. He says I need to see this crazy game. I remember the impact that tall, black-jumpsuit-strutting, long red-streaked pony-tailed Bayonetta made on me when she first appeared on the screen. She struck a model's pose, then hip-waggle-walked around , gun pointed straight ahead. Bayonetta is one of the most powerful, dangerous female images I have seen on a screen and she was staring me down from behind her surprising thick-framed glasses. Then, as I watch Ben play, this woman turns into a purple ethereal butterfly when she jumps. She shoots bullets from her gun-boots. She bludgeons a bunch of creepy angels. Then, through some crazy witch-magic her jumpsuit is actually made out of her hair. This game is crazy! My instant impression was both, wow, she is mesmerizing and, wow, she is disturbing! Is she beautiful or is she...off? Her neck and face are a little funky but her body is female perfection. I can't quite place her accent and I can't tell if she's a model of female empowerment or the embodiment of every female stereotype every created - from the sexy librarian to a whip-wielding dominatrix to the ultimate Bitchwitch.

In short, I haven't figured out this game's angle yet and I'm not sure if it has one. Bayonetta exists somewhere in between”This game is awesome and interesting!” and “What the heck is going on and why is her hair swirling around her naked body?!”

So far, this is what I've decided. Best thing about
Bayonetta? The loading screen that lets me practice fighting moves while I wait. Thank you, game, for keeping me busy during loading times. I hate to wait and you have occupied me during those dangerous times when I want to turn off the console. Worst thing about Bayonetta? I'd have to say Enzo. He's a stupid character with an obnoxious accent and a filthy dirty potty mouth.

Speaking of potties, I wonder sometimes if I want to have another child. Going back to the idea of suffering, I've gleaned all this parenting wisdom and experience with Jhonen, my first and only child. If I don't have any more children it's like those temper tantrums and sleepless nights I endured and all the crazy methods I adopted for dealing with it all will be wasted. Let's face it, by the time I figure out how to avoid/solve any of my parenting dilemmas, he's usually already on to the next! Speaking of Jhonen, this is the first game I've played since
God of War that I really don't want him to watch. Will I ever want him to watch this game?

I haven't decided yet. Give me a little more time to play....and to think.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Dragon Quest IX - Final Review

I had the same problem writing about Dragon Quest IX that I had playing Dragon Quest IX. I was in too big a hurry. I had too many other things on my mind. As the cliche goes, I had a hard time stopping to smell this game's roses.

Birthday season approaches. From September until the end of the year, it is nothing but birthdays and holidays, just about one event a week. Ben and I take birthday/holiday season very seriously. We start celebration plans and gift lists months ahead. This year, my best friend's wedding is thrown into the mix and I have become a frenzied and obsessive toast-writing, dress-shopping, perfect-gift-finding, and budget-bludgeoning madwoman. My Dragon Quest IX mission to kill the Wight Knight has not been of the utmost concern to me. But in this time of impending nuptials and birthdays, my sappy side is oozing. Even Dragon Quest IX made me sentimental.

I went through most of this game like a lonely tired soldier. The game moved forward like a dutiful trudge. The fat strategy guide sat limp in my lap; it helped me go through the motions. I played sleepy-eyed and dreary, only perked up by the occasional skirmish with a Teeny Sanguini or Cruelcumber. I progressed, but the journey meant nothing to me.

I played through Angel Falls by myself and, although I didn't hate playing it, I didn't care about playing it which might even be worse. I didn't know why I was playing it besides completing the mission I had set out for myself.

Then one night Ben sat down next to me and watched me play. We started discussing the game and what I should do next. He showed me things I could do that I had never noticed before. We laughed at my poor sense of direction. He encouraged me to slow down and pay attention. Most importantly, he showed me how to recruit a party, meaning I could make new characters that would play with me and fight with me and go with me wherever I went.

Jhonen was sitting on the bed with us and I asked him what I should name my first character. He looked at me, thought about it for a second and then said, “Jhonen?” I laughed and almost cried a little because it was such a sweet response. “Yes! That's the perfect name!” So I made a little martial artist named Jhonen with some awesome green hair. Then I created another character, a mage, and asked Ben what I should name him. He said, “Beans.” Perfect. I made my mage tall with no hair and amazing healing abilities. Then I made a tiny girl warrior with pink pigtails named Leelot. My family was complete. Suddenly I was having fun! I felt connected to the Dragon Quest world. I felt like I could successfully fight that Knight. And seeing that adorable foursome walk around together while my real family foursome lazed around together made me so happy.

I feel very fortunate that I haven't endured many truly lonely times in my life, but I do remember how those times felt. Loneliness makes you feel disconnected from the world, it makes you go through the motions to reach goals you don't care much about. I remember that detached, hopeless feeling and it sucks. I know that weddings are often flashy displays of canned phrases, cheesy music, bad banquet food, and outrageous expense, but they are also one of the few times when people come together to celebrate love and commitment and devotion and hope for the future. Weddings are an opportunity for two people to say to the world, “This is who we are, this is what we've decided for ourselves, and we are thankful that you are here to support us in that decision.” I have trouble with the idea of people being "blessed." I have trouble with the concept of having a "soul mate." I have trouble believing in angels. But I do believe that committing your life to loving other people based on knowing them so completely that you love them despite (and sometimes because of) their faults can save you from the dreaded loneliness - the kind of loneliness that makes you trudge through life like it's a duty instead of a joy. Strangely, Dragon Quest IX reminded me of that and I'm grateful it did.

Dragon Quest IX also showed me that I can play and might even enjoy playing RPGs, I just don't like to play them alone. Ben and I are thinking about playing through Final Fantasy XIII together, only instead of him playing while I watch, I'll play and he'll watch. The man doesn't always have to wear the pants in the video game playing family. Right, ladies? Speaking of ladies in pants, my next game assignment is Bayonetta for PS3 – a game that features a hot lady in hot black leather pants. Watch out, boys. I'm gonna kick serious butt in seriously high heels....heels that shoot bullets.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies for NDS - First Impressions

If we lived in an actual puzzle game and your character needed to put my character to sleep to, I don't know, steal my car keys or grab the bag of Cape Cod Sea Salt and Vinegar Kettle Chips from my clutched fist or something, there are four ways your character could do it.

1. Wait until around 12:45 am and then come into my bedroom and rant about video games. Take your pick from the following tried and true options. You could discuss the history of any video game developer and its current financial status. You could recount the back story of any game franchise's major character. You could go to our video game shelves and find both the English and Japanese versions of a game, then come in and compare box art.

2. Put any of the following on television: The Hudsucker Proxy, History Channel, anime that is not in some way overly-adorable, any made-for-TV movie.

3. Give me, on average, two and a half glasses of red wine, any type will do.

4. Make me play Dragon Quest IX.

All of these methods have been tested and are proven to put me to sleep in no time. Just ask my husband.

I've managed to eke out about an hour of game play thus far. It has taken me four sessions. It seems about 15 minutes of playing Dragon Quest IX is all I need to prepare me for a big ole nap.

I'm not sure yet why that is. Maybe it's because I have been a little extra busy lately. I haven't been able to find the time to actually start playing until late at night, so maybe I have gone into the game already sleepy. I'll try and remedy this Dragon Quest apathy a bit in the next few days. Since this seems to be slacker week, though, I thought I'd write the rest of this review using as few full sentences as possible and mostly just post pictures.

Why to play Dragon Quest IX:


These guys! Could I possibly want to start fights just to see these amazing creations?

Dragon Quest IX

Dragon Quest IX

Dragon Quest IX

The music! (May be the very first non-music game I've played that I've actually wanted to turn UP the volume).

Maps! They look cool and aren't so big that I get lost.

Dragon Quest IX

Why not to play Dragon Quest IX:

Sort of awkward religious stuff!

Dragon Quest IX

Dragon Quest IX

Creepy old farmers!

Dragon Quest IX

The game's sleep-inducing nature! (Don't have a picture or video of that because I can't take pictures or videos while sleeping and because I haven't figured out what it is about this game that makes me so sleepy). Maybe the wandering about and chattering endlessly with neighbors? Maybe trying to figure out which staircase will actually lead me back to that darn magical tree? Maybe the lack of cute new outfits to select for my (Victoria's Secret) angel, Jexxy? Maybe picking up piles of sparkling cow manure to earn Evanescence....wait, that's a sort of mediocre band I don't care for....I mean, to earn Benevolessence?

I'm not sure yet. In any case, I think Ben loves me just a bit less this week. Especially when he watched me try to get Jexxy to walk on a curving path. My new goal for this game is to figure out how to get my angel to walk at an angle since I don't have the use of an analog stick.

What has my life become?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge on PC

I have been familiar with Monkey Island games since Ben and I met in college. Secret of Monkey Island was the one game, besides Mr. Driller (love!) that I remember watching him play and thinking maybe it's ok that he plays video games. I had never encountered a game that made me laugh (later I had a similar experience with Sam and Max games). I never felt particularly inclined to play Monkey Island, myself, but he would often play PC games on his laptop in bed or at his dorm room desk and I would overhear the plot and it would make me laugh. When I'd look over to see the game, I'd find it to look cute, too. A cute, funny pirate adventure story with voodoo and treasure and romance and humor? That can't be bad! Going into this assignment I was at least excited to actually pay attention to the story rather than simply overhear it in the background while trying to get through my college History of the Novel assignment, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. I have now played Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, the sequel to The Secret of Monkey Island, for two hours and am 26% of the way through the game. With those two hours of game play under my belt, I'd like to offer up a few alternative subtitles to Lucasarts, the developers behind this witty and whimsical game title:

Monkey Island 2: Would Play More If It Weren't Installed On Hubby's Computer

Monkey Island 2: Talk About Stuff, Talk To Stuff, Pick Up Stuff Then Use Stuff On Stuff

Monkey Island 2: Puzzles are like WHA?!?

Monkey Island 2: Makes Me A Cheater Cheater Pumpkin Eater

I haven't played a computer game that wasn't Bejeweled since my days on elementary school computers playing Number Munchers and Oregon Trail. OK, that's not true...I just remember my shortlived World of Warcraft experience....well, anyways....those four games pretty much sum up my experience with computer gaming. There's something a lot more geeky about playing games on the computer than on a console. Is that true or is that a strange prejudice? Why do I have that impression? Is it because most popular computer game titles end in the word “craft” and feature shaman and elves while popular console games tend to feature sports cars and boobs? In any case, I felt a little extra geeky going to the PC to play Monkey Island, though I felt like I had to kick Ben off his computer in order to play, which helped me stall a bit, since he is almost always sitting there when he's not at work. Now that he has an extra large desk next to his extra large television set with his extra large PS3, he is at his extra comfortable computer chair extra much these days. (By the way, those dang consoles get bigger and bigger and then the next version they put out they make “slim.” What's up with that? Just make the console slim to begin with, people! This original PS3 is so tall it's blocking the remote control sensor!) He says he's not, but he is. I mean, sure, he says hello when he walks in the door. He gets up to come eat dinner. Just kidding. It's not that bad, but I am very familiar with the squish sound the computer chair makes when it is sat upon.

I felt a little self-conscious sitting at his computer. Our computers are sort of sacred personal spaces....probably the only truly private zones in the house besides the bathroom when the door is closed....and I felt like I was impinging on his Man Cave as I played a game on his computer in his comfy office chair. Now I play with Jhonen during the day while Ben's at work. Jhonen sits in the secondary, much-less-comfortable office chair usually reserved for me while I sit in the captain's chair. Jhonen says, “Monkey I-Yand, Monkey I-Yand” and then points out the game's trees and clouds to me as I play.

Ben's first piece of advice to me regarding Monkey Island: 2 (MI:2) was to investigate everything, talk to everyone, and remember everything you see and everything they say. Wise words. That is pretty much all there is to do in the game. There is no possibility of death. There is no fear in this game but the fear of getting stuck. Basically, you just click on every item you come across, be it a ball of string, a pile of blank papers or a one-eyed cartographer. If you can pick the item up, do it. If you can ask a question, you ask it. Every cheese squiggle, alligator, and box may (and most likely, WILL) be useful to you as your character, Guybrush Threepwood, strives to find the treasure, Big Whoop, reunite with his love, Elaine, and put an end to the evil LeChuck once and for all.

(This video is a little sample of what the game's like. Go find someone to talk to. Ask whatever questions you want to ask them. Listen to their responses and try to figure out what you're supposed to do next. Important items are labeled for you, like the coffin you use as a boat to travel across the swamp).

Playing MI:2 is much like spending a weekend with my mother. She is Guybrush Threepwood. She walks around my house exactly like I have to make Guybrush Threepwood walk around the swamp or the inn or Mad Marty's Laundry Stand. First, she'll walk into our house and notice everything that has changed since the last time she was here. She remembers everything.

“That rug was there before, wasn't it? Why'd you move it?”
“I don't know. I just like it better here.”
“Oh. I guess I do, too. It helps brighten up this dark corner a bit. Have you ever tried it in that corner?”
“Just wondering. Is that a new picture?”

She picks up stacks of pictures and rifles through them, stopping periodically to ask me about where I was in that shot or why Jhonen is making a certain facial expression in another, She reads my grocery list on the kitchen white board and asks me about my menu plan for the week. She peruses my bookshelves, picking up a book here or there to ask if she can borrow it or to read the synopsis. One might call her behavior nosiness. She proudly refers to her behavior as curiosity. In Monkey Island: 2, this behavior is completely necessary.

You absolutely must ask every single possible question and scour every inch of every surface of every ship and beach and swamp, pick up everything you can possibly pick up, and use your items on other items you cannot ever hope to progress. Guybrush Threepwood is plopped on this island with nothing but his witty dialogue and your ability to figure out what he's supposed to do. And I thought A Boy and his Blob's puzzles were tricky. Wait. Is this Mission Impossible: 2 or Monkey Island: 2?

Don't believe me? You think I'm dumb? Here is an example of what Guybrush Threepwood had to do to get a little extra money so he can charter a boat to get off the island (excerpt taken from someone's game walk-through on gamefaqs.com):

Go to the swamp and enter the voodoo hut. Get the string beside the skull on the small table. Now leave. Go to the beach and pick up the stick laying on the ground. Go back to Woodtick and head to the Inn. Look at Pegbiter's bowl and then pick up the Cheese Squiggles. Now, head to Mad Marty's. Walk up to the box and open it. Now use the stick with the box, then use the string with the stick. Use the Cheese Squiggles in the box and walk a short distance away. If you're far enough away, the rat will go to the box and nibble on the Squiggles. Deftly pull the string and the rat will be captured. Now open the box and pick up the rat. Head into the bar kitchen and plop the rat into the pot. Now, go out through the window and enter the bar proper. Ask about the stew, and Bernard will soon get fired and you get a job.


Wow. This raises puzzle games to an almost hilariously impossible level.

Which is what ultimately turned me into a big ole cheater-face. I almost always hate myself for doing it, but any time answers to trivia or crossword puzzles or word searches are printed within view of the questions or puzzles, I must sneak a peek. I always begin the puzzle with a hopeful heart and a fool's optimism. I proclaim to myself that this time I won't peek. This time I will solve the puzzle for myself. Using my brain. And I do try to do that for a while, but then five or ten minutes, I mean, hours, pass and I find that I have somehow turned the page upside down and accidentally saw the answer. Oops! In Monkey Island's case, I sort of “accidentally” found myself alt-tabbing to gamefaqs.com and those handy-dandy walk-throughs written by either robots or very hairy people who type from under mountains of empty Mountain Dew cans and beef jerky wrappers who possess way bigger brains, a lot more patience and even more acne than I have. God bless these people for being able to solve these puzzles and then for taking the time to write out exactly what they did so that cheater cheater pumpkin eaters like me can get 26% of her way through the game!

Ben's assignment was to play until I had to receive help five times. Turns out, I didn't really understand the assignment. I thought he meant that I should play until I required help from him.

I innocently bat my eyelashes at him.
“You mean I was supposed to refer to gamefaqs.com only on the rare occasion that I'd need a helping hand? You mean I wasn't supposed to read through each paragraph and do what it said? You mean it is actually possible to figure out that the way to get an article of Largo's clothing needed to make his voodoo doll was to go get a bucket I never noticed at all and then take it across the map to the swamp I didn't know was there and then fill the bucket with mud and then bring it back to Largo's room and “use” it on the door and then I should know to hide behind his dressing room curtain and wait for Largo to come in so the mud falls on his head and dirties his clothing? Of course! How stupid of me!”

I have mixed feelings about gamefaqs.com and cheater codes and even receiving help from Ben. I hate to do it! I really do. I don't like asking for help. If I need to lift a crazily heavy box I actually prefer to just do it myself than ask someone to help me. I know my limits. This game surpasses them. Luckily, the game is quirky and fun and laugh out loud funny (really!).

(Check out the questions you can choose to ask this fat governor dude. This game is silly in a really great way).
Monkey Island 2

What's the alternative? Not play the game? Get stuck and give up? That's what would normally happen. After I finished the first section of MI:2, I did vow to try harder to only refer to gamefaqs.com when I really, really needed it. That worked for a while. I almost figured out how to get myself out of a locked jail cell by myself. I used a stick (which I cleverly found in my cell by pushing my mattress aside) on everything and nothing worked! After a brief peek at gamefaqs.com I discovered that I hadn't quite tried to use my stick on everything. Silly me didn't think using a stick on a bone would result in anything! However, I did take notice of the bone before I peeked at the website, so I am making progress. I may play a couple more hours of this game, with a little help from my imaginary, pimply, caffeinated walk-through writer friend, because I care about the story! Yay! Thank you, Monkey Island, for having a compelling story with great dialogue, funny voice acting, and clever writing. You did more for me than the author of Tristram Shandy. Even CliffsNotes couldn't help me cheat my way through that one.

Will I continue playing Monkey Island 2 or shall I start my next game assignment: play Dragon Quest IX (NDS) until I have defeated the Wight (sic) Knight. All I know about Dragon Quest games is they are extremely popular in Japan and they feature blue slimes shaped like chocolate chips. I will learn more soon enough. Until then, I have a Dragon Quest IX Game Manual, some gamefaqs.com, and a little eighteenth century literature to read.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Deathsmiles for XBox 360: Final Review

Gamer Wife Project: Deathsmiles

Sometimes I just need to shut my mouth. Like when I argumentatively accuse someone of something and their response makes me feel like an idiot because I know they are right and I am wrong. I open my mouth to spit out a snappy comeback,then realize that I had better just shut my mouth before I say something even more stupid than I'd already said.

I've had several of those moments this past week. A few examples:

I complained to Ben that I never get a chance to work on my projects because I always need to have an eye on Jhonen. Ben said “what about this morning when you put your pictures in frames while I worked with Jhonen on his train set?” Oh yeah. Shoot! That made me shut my mouth. Then I complained because we didn't have any weekend plans and Ben said, “Well, tomorrow we're going to the mall and out to dinner and the next day we're going to the zoo. What else do you want to do?” Oh yeah. Dangit. I had to shut my mouth. Then I wrote a long blog post about how I don't like video games because of bad storytelling and irrelevant gameplay. Then I finally played Deathsmiles, a game I'd been hesitant to play for a over a week, and the stupid game made me shut my mouth, too!

I will explain with this brief digression:

This video game project is like eggs. I never really liked eggs much. I'd eat them occasionally, say, when I was at my friend's house to be polite or because I was really hungry and there wasn't much else to eat. As an adult I'd never make eggs at home. At restaurants I'd eat eggs, but only if they were in omelet form. I hated all other eggs, especially the runny yolk kind that sits on the plate like an angry cyclops. Then I decide one day that I need to experience all sorts of egg preparations out of fairness to myself and the wide variety of egg cooks in the world. Plus, my husband really likes eggs, so we could eat lots of eggs together. It could be fun! So I try eggs sunny-side-up and over-easy, poached and hard-boiled. I like some of them a little better than others, but still feel that the only egg-featured menu item I'd order would be an omelet. I begin to justify my lack of egg satisfaction by complaining about eggs and the people who cook them. I generalize that the reason I don't like eggs is because they aren't cooked masterfully enough. Eggs just haven't reached their full potential, I lecture with certainty. The next day, though, I go to a Waffle House where I am told to eat scrambled eggs draped in orange cheese. I dread the first bite, sure that I'll hate it. Then, with surprise and a bit of embarrassment, I realize that I like them. In fact, I would order those eggs again. They are Waffle House eggs! They don't exactly meet the criteria I had set forth in my previous lectures. They were greasy and salty, cooked by a man who looked a bit like an angry old cyclops, himself. Yet, I liked them! Those stupid Waffle House eggs made me shut my mouth.

is Waffle House eggs.

Gamer Wife Project: Deathsmiles

Actually, it's a side-scrolling shooter game featuring french-maid costumed anime girls trapped in a gothic castl-y underworld. The girls must stop Sakura's father who is determined to get back to the “real world” through a portal he's found. Unfortunately, each time he opens this portal, demons are unleashed into this otherworld, making these girl's lives very stressful. You pick a girl to fight the crazy demons. I first chose Windia, a “wind user” and then Follett, a “fire user,” though I didn't notice much difference between their abilities. The girl, with a little help from her respective animal companion, shoots bullet streams and bombs at demon enemies who shoot their own bullet streams and bombs right back. Their bullet streams are much cooler than yours, but your bombs are much stronger than theirs.

Gamer Wife Project: Deathsmiles

You move through stages fighting various types of demons – from big green or burgundy eyeball monsters to lizard beasts to my all-time favorite game enemy of all time, a giant, demonic, nose-ringed cow named Mary. Even though the game is side-scrolling, enemies approach from both the left and right and you can shoot both directions by pushing “A” to shoot left or “B” to shoot right-a feature I'd never seen in a shooting game before. You also have the ability to target enemies specifically by pushing “A” and “B” together, but I didn't really get into that. I played the game on Ben's arcade stick and found that fun. Somehow playing on an arcade stick made the experience seem more special.

You can choose between several difficulty levels and you can push start to continue the game if you die, a feature I took full advantage of which seemed to disappoint my husband. Ben says that die-hard players will start over rather than continue through the level, but I am no die-hard. I thoroughly enjoyed the stress-free shooting experience. If I had been playing in an arcade, I would have lost several rolls of quarters on this assignment. I pushed the continue button about once a level.

The game isn't ugly and it isn't beautiful (there are a few exceptions on both counts...there were some pretty scenes of castles, forests, and a Haunted Mansion-esque ballroom and there was one hideous scar-face demon). There is a story, but it's really limited, and only comes to fruition at the very end, though I will say the game's endings were satisfying to me.

Other game highlights were the ingenious and strangely beautiful bullet patterns. They were pretty difficult to navigate, but in a fun and challenging rather than completely frustrating way. At times, lines of bullets obstructed my path, but one well-timed bomb button-press and I was good to go. If I couldn't continue through the game despite my deaths I would have probably grown frustrated, but after an hour I found that I died less frequently, which makes me think this game helps your skills improve with time. I played on the easiest level and was able to beat the game in about half an hour. Ben required me to play for a full hour so I decided to play through the game as another character to see how the story and gameplay differed. I also played in a different mode the second time....the mode was called something ridiculous like Black Mega Label or something. Either the Black Mega Label was easier than the other mode or I got better, because I had to push continue fewer times and got higher points the second time around. When I play again, I think I'll either try to play through Level 1 without ever pushing Continue like the die-hards Ben described or I will try out Level 2 to see how much more difficult it is.

Gamer Wife Project: Deathsmiles

Deathsmiles, a dialogue:

Ben: “ I think you are actually having fun right now!”
Me: “Yes! I actually am having fun. I think I like this game!”
Me: “Uh oh, I think I just like games that are easy and straight-forward, don't I? That is my problem with other games, isn't it?”
Ben: “Yep, that's the problem.”
Me: “I suck.”

Turns out, the real problem wasn't who prepared the eggs, although I still believe there are cooks whose eggs could be tastier if they paid more attention to the details and presentation. The problem is that I don't like eggs that are good for me. I like my eggs fattening and full of sodium. The greasy salty eggs go down just fine, but put chopped boiled egg in my Cobb Salad and I'm going to complain. I wanted to love A Boy and His Blob because it's adorable and charming and has a story that's much more “me” than demons unleashed in goth anime land or half-naked hoochie mamas playing volleyball. So what is wrong with me?

The answer:

Puzzles. Puzzles are wrong with me. And working hard while still losing. There's a confession for you. I hate puzzles. I hate working hard. I hate losing.

Gamer Wife Project: Deathsmiles

I want a game to make me feel good. I don't want to leave a game feeling worse about myself than when I started. That's why I like games that ease me into difficulty slowly, like entering a cold swimming pool. I prefer to wade in slowly and carefully, letting each body part get used to the cold before I move on to the next. I don't like to jump into the deep end. I know this game could get really, really hard. But unlike a puzzle game, shooting games can more easily provide varying levels of difficulty and I need that. If I'm being honest with myself about what I really want I'd say that I want a game to make me feel consistently mildly challenged. I don't want to feel like it's impossible for me to progress and would rather a game err on the easy side. I want to slowly and steadily improve my skills until I magically discover that I am able to play at a higher level of difficulty. This game is good at that. The game eased me into their frigid waters and now that my skin is used to the temperature, I think I will stay a while and enjoy myself! The game could even slowly make the water colder and I may not even notice.

Perhaps even more importantly, Deathsmiles didn't make me figure out where to go or how to get there. It was straightforward. There was an end in sight and a clear path to get there. When I reached the end (I LOVE to reach ends!) I was given the ending to the story and it actually made me feel something! When you defeat Sakura's father and one more giant demon thing,you get to decide if your girl goes through the portal, returning to her family or stays in that gothic world with her new friends. Choose your own story ending? I love that, too! I decided that Windia should go back to her family and the game shows you the happy family reunion. At some point the narrator questions whether Windia's trip to the underworld was worth it since she found herself right back where she was before while leaving her friends behind. Turns out, before Windia's trip to Demon Town, she was a sensitive girl, full of self-doubt who cried easily. Her battle and ultimate victory helped her feel strong and confident. I wasn't expecting to learn anything about Windia and was pleasantly surprised that the game bothered to give me that resolution.

Gamer Wife Project: Deathsmiles

Looks like my high-fallutin' mumbo jumbo writing talk from last week was a bit overstated. Turns out I really do appreciate excellence in storytelling, art, and game design, but when push comes to shove, I really just want in and out. I want my story in half hour increments, hold the puzzles, please. I should have loved A Boy and His Blob, that pretty, subtle, coddled egg sitting in its delicate little white ramekin. I expected to like it. I appreciated the look of it. Being pretty wasn't enough, though. I left the game still hungry. So I went to Waffle House and got me some scrambled eggs with cheese. I honestly liked Deathsmiles because it didn't have puzzles. It didn't make me feel like a failure, a quitter, or an idiot. I learned a lesson about myself this week and it was a hard (boiled-egg) lesson to swallow. I learned that my desire to win fast and feel good about myself sometimes takes precedence over having to work and think hard.

Ben has decided to test this new theory that I only like video games that are easy and straightforward with next week's assignment which is exactly the opposite - difficult and full of puzzles. My next game will be Monkey Island 2 for the PC. I have seen Ben play a Monkey Island game before and it is one of the few games I can say has a fun, well-written and laugh-out-loud funny story. In that respect, Monkey Island 2 should be a good test to see whether or not a good story can make up for difficult puzzles. If not, I'll not only have to shut my mouth. I'll have to eat my words, too.

Monday, July 5, 2010

More thoughts...

I have three more thoughts to share related to my previous A Boy and His Blob post.

1. This weekend I watched one of my favorite shows, Sunday Morning. One segment discussed Steven Spielberg and George Lucas' love of Norman Rockwell. Two men who have successfully brought stories to life in a way that made their viewer's emotionally connect to their characters both admired Norman Rockwell, and rightfully so. Last year, the Orlando Museum of Art hosted an exhibition of Norman Rockwell's art. I worked as a docent for the exhibition and also came to appreciate Norman Rockwell's art. I discussed in my post, and some of you referenced in your comments, the difficult job game designers have of telling an interesting story while creating game play that integrates into the story that is somehow the perfect difficulty level - not too difficult, not too easy. I agree. That's not easy. After watching that segment on Sunday Morning about Norman Rockwell, though, I remembered talking about his artwork with kids. I remember how there were an almost infinite number of significant details in all of his paintings that helped tell a story. He had just one magazine cover, one page, in order to tell a story and encourage people to purchase the Saturday Evening Post. He had one week to come up with a concept and paint his cover and these were large oil paintings! Each painting tells a story. Every character has a vibrant and sometimes complicated personality. These characters don't move. People don't have to benefit of playing as these characters or hearing these characters speak. But if you look at one of Norman Rockwell's paintings, these characters are REAL and his stories are heartwarming, dramatic, funny, and engaging. If he can manage to tell a poignant story in one picture, a video game ought to be able to tell a poignant story in its 50 hours.

2. Ben's Dad borrowed a copy of Up and I thought again about the experience of watching that movie and I thought about Pixar and just how incredible those artists and writers are. There are many computer animated movies out there, but what separates Pixar movies from the rest is not the beauty or technical mastery of their animation, but the characters they create and the way they tell their stories. Their movies have arguably the best writing being done in Hollywood today and Up has moved me more than any other movie I've ever watched in my life. Pixar realized the importance of quality storytelling and it has paid off. Animated "kid stuff" can be more emotionally engaging - simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting -and Up is proof. If I were going to make a video game adaptation of Up, I would be able to play as any of the characters and they would complete missions that were true to them or that helped retell the story. Fill in the blanks of the original - have my old man character blow up the balloons and tie them to the house. Let me fly the house. Give me flashbacks to the amusememnt park where I used to work as a balloon salesman and let me show Ellie around the amusement park. Let me become these characters and feel what they feel and do what they do. Put as much artistry and detail and sensitivity into the game as Pixar does in their movies.

3. Hot Tub Time Machine - Ben's July 4th plan was to sit around watching Hot Tub Time Machine and then light some sparklers in the backyard. My 4th of July plan was to create a culinary tour of America with party decorations and a nighttime fireworks spectacular with a picnic and dessert afterwards. So we did all of it (except Ben was spared the fireworks spectacular because of rain). I fell asleep halfway through Hot Tub Time Machine, after the part where four dumb, unfunny characters ended up in a dodgy ski resort's hot tub, all of them drunk, one of them threw up and they end up transported back to the 80's when they were young and having a lot of sex. I mention this movie to acknowledge the fact that there are movies with worse writing than most video games.

I'm certainly not saying I could write/design video games better. You don't see me trying to do it myself. But the industry as a whole, I think, could do with better writing and storytelling and maybe more creativity. Shooty-shoot and jumpy-jump games make sense in a Gallaga and Qbert world. Now that we're into film adaptations and 50 hour games, maybe it's time to adapt and invent completely new game play to suit those sorts of games?