Monday, March 21, 2016

What if Digital Homicide . . . Won?

Our future holds some terrifying prospects. Two of them come to mind: What if Donald Trump becomes president? And What if Digital Homicide wins its lawsuit against Jim Sterling? The former is a more realistic, and more horrifying possible reality, but the latter can also happen and it would be terrible for game journalism if it did. 

I honestly don't think Digital Homicide has a legal leg to stand on. I believe it's actually taking its final step to completely ruining whatever reputation that it had. To be honest, the only way that DH can win is if it proves that Jim Sterling's videos actually devalued the source product with its content. It's true that, without Jim Sterling's videos, the gaming world at large would have never heard of The Slaughtering Grounds. However, Sterling has covered many bad games in the past, and the videos come and go without a significant backlash. He even points out his issues with the games, possibly giving the developer some feedback on improving their product, etc. Digital Homicide had a chance to take its lumps and focused their energy on improving Slaughtering Grounds, or creating a whole new project with more care. Instead, DH took the low road and started an internet slapping fight with Jim Sterling, while giving him a new catchphrase in the process: I'm Jim Fucking Sterling, son.

The verbal and video based argument continued for a while on the internet, and it's very easy to find and follow, so I won't recount it here. Instead, I want to examine the repercussions of such a law suit. With this lawsuit, Digital Homicide is committing Digital suicide har har. Also, it can possibly open the floodgates for emotional game developers to file other lawsuits. If a negative review is determined to devalue the copyright of a property (which I really don't think will happen, but this article is mostly a thought experiment) what is stopping bigger publishers, like Ubisoft, from filing similar lawsuits? Reviewers that point out how buggy a game is, or how unfinished it seemed upon release could be in hot water if developers can hire  lawyers to connect the dots between bad reviews and lost sales, using the aforementioned lawsuit as precedence. The blame can be, essentially, shifted from developers dropping the ball to reviewers writing scathing reviews. 
If I follow this screwed up train of logic all the way through, I end up imagining a Orwellian society where reviews are heavily regulated and the freedom of the video game press is slowly strangled by iron fisted developers; where 'reviews' just become glorified advertisements. The video game press have been accused of being bribed to write good reviews, so not a whole lot of mental gymnastics are required for this to be a possible future for video game journalism. 

This whole article depends on the slippery slope logical fallacy, I know, and it sounds a bit alarmist when I read it back to myself, but I feel it's still a conversation that needs to happen. When can criticism and satire be defined as out right abuse? Does DH actually have a foot to stand on? I personally don't think so, but this lawsuit represents a changing of definitions, a possible redefining of the industry. Jim Sterling is an abrasive internet personality that pulls no punches in his evaluations of video games. Is he always right? No, I don't think so, but video game reviewing, and reviewing media in general, is inherently subjective. Contrary to the views of some people, there is no such thing as a unbiased, objective review. He takes his opinions and filters them through the Jim Sterling personality, which cranks everything up to 11, and his viewership is pretty familiar with that. Does this constitute as abuse? Honestly, I don't think it does, and people should not be sued for their opinions. Either way, Game Journalism should have a discussion of how much a negative review can impact a company's reputation and sales. If a company releases a bad game, it deserves what it gets, I suppose, but if the opposite was true, and they released a good game, how much power do journalists really have? Maybe not much, because people are going to buy what games they want either way. However, it still needs to be considered. 
Digital Homicide is most like not going to win its lawsuit, and the impeding press it going to effect it very negatively, rather than help it, but the idea of such a lawsuit will be kicking around in the back of some fan's and developer's minds for quiet some time. This is a perfect time to reevaluate game journalism's, or garm junalizm as Jim Sterling would put it, impact on the industry itself. A healthy relationship between the two outlets needs to be fostered. This industry is growing out of anyone's control, a massive beast that can never be tamed, by developers, reviewers or fans and the internet has given everyone a voice (which is mostly a good thing, the reason why I can write this blog in the first place). This lawsuit represents a negative step toward communing with the industry beast and destroying a co-dependent relationship. Should the reviewers court the beast? Or should the beast lie down for the press? In a perfect world: Neither. Developers should release games and take the criticism they get, assuming the criticism is mostly fair. We don't live in a perfect world, and instead of a relationship, I see a power struggle forming. 
However, this matter may be a small problem to the world population when President Donald Trump initiates the purge. Either way, happy gaming!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Everyone is a Nerd Now, and I Really Don't Know How to Feel About That

There's a high school memory that always surfaces in my mind when the mainstream success of “nerd culture” is mentioned. During my sophomore year, a group of friends and I started a video game club. The idea was the brainchild of a friend of mine and I wholeheartedly supported it. We eventually found a faculty adviser, wrote up a constitution, and had the first club meeting. I can't remember what exactly happened during the first meeting, but I remember the subsequent meetings being full of Smash Brothers, Street Fighter and the usual political infighting. I don't know how the last thing came up, but I do know it lead to the eventual demise of the club.

Aside from the Smash tournaments, and the political intrigue, I remember the newsletter. The founder of the club created a layout for a one page newsletter. We'd all contribute articles and then pass out the newsletter as fliers to other students. I remember standing around in courtyard area during the lunch period, with a small stack of newsletters in my hand. I wasn't a very outgoing person to begin with, so to approach people I've never met and hand them a flier about a club they'd probably wouldn't care about was a test in itself. Eventually I worked up some courage to approach a group of guys sitting around a bench. I handed one of them a newsletter and explained the specifics about the club.

“Thanks man!” He replied, with a smile. “Do I get a free Xbox?”

I looked at him, eyes narrowed, not really understanding what he was implying. “No, it's a video game club,” I answered, lamely. Part of me knew he was screwing with me, but I still tried to represent the club to the best of my ability. I stood there, hoping he would say something to the effect of 'just kidding,' or even a 'just kidding, bro.' Instead, I was met with awkward silence.

“Okay then,” he said as he balled up the newsletter and tossed it to the ground, winning a round of laughter from his friends as I walked away, angry and confused.

I know it probably makes me petty to hold onto this memory, but I imagine if a student would try to start a video game club at his or her high school today, it'll be met with a more positive result than this. I have never been back to visit my old high school, and I don't ever plan on it, so as far as I know there could already be a thriving video game club already. Which is a good thing.

At this point, it's important to take a survey of current popular culture: the video game industry is bigger and generating more revenue that the movie and music industries. The biggest blockbusters over the past few years have been based on comic book properties. Game of Thrones is a big deal to a whole lot of people. Big Bang Theory, despite being a veiled insult to nerd culture (another article for another time), is one of the most popular sitcoms on television today. Pewdiepie is the biggest youtube star in the world (his cameo on South Park can attest to that, I think) and his content revolves around playing video games. In short, we won. 'Nerd' properties have seeped its way into mainstream popular culture in a big way. I'm not trying trying to say that this has never happened before. X-Men and Blade were huge comic book films, and Lord of the Rings made a big splash at the box office. Hell, pulpy space opera, Star Wars redefined the movie industry in the 1970s, but, for some reason, it seems prevalent today, than ever before.

With that said, I should be happy. I can go into any Hot Topic store and buy a Legend of Zelda tee shirt. A few years ago, it was much harder to buy video game related merchandise like tee shirts, mugs, keychains, etc. And don't get me started on how much Gamestop's influence has grown in the past decade. Despite Gamestop's alleged shady business practices and treatment of its employees, I'm still pretty happy about how accessible buying games and 'nerd' related paraphernalia has become, even though the gross mass commercialization of such properties has some negative side effects. Young people growing up in this generation have no need to know the history of the culture to take part in it, which leads me to my next point.
He has tattoos. That means he's cool.

I want to quote an episode of The Cleveland Show. Cleveland Jr. visits ComiCon and is waiting in line with his fellow nerds, when he makes a controversial statement: “I think Firefly is overrated” or something to that effect. Everyone gasps in disbelief. Cleveland goes on to clarify his opinion (again, I may be botching the quote), “It's about a ship full of Han Solos. If everyone is Han Solo, no one is Han Solo.” That's kinda how things are today. 

Everyone is a Nerd, if the box office results of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Avengers will tell you anything. Current pop culture has made everything much more accessible to everyone. The marvel movies are excellent primers for their comic book counterparts. Marvel and DC are resetting their universes every other week in order to give new readers jumping on points and Disney axed the Star Wars expanded universe completely to make a new one more focused on the original trilogy timeline. Right now, it's a better time and ever to be a nerd, but when everyone is a nerd, no one is a nerd. Let me clarify.

If you can remember a few paragraphs ago, you can also remember I'm a petty man (and this is the part of the article where that will show, and where it becomes sort of an unstructured rant). So, part of me, the petty part of me, isn't exactly happy about this new transition. I've never been a huge fan of comic books, but I was into The X-Men for a long time and I've read a lot of Scott Snyder's run of Batman, so I say that I know a little more than the average Marvel Cinematic Universe fan (can you see the bitterness creeping into my prose, yet?). The Star Wars expanded universe was more of my expertise. The Thrawn Trilogy is just as good as the films, in my opinion. When the EU was axed so J.J. Abrams can remake A New Hope, I was filled with a lot of anger. The EU and its games, novels and comic books supported the interest in Star Wars when there wasn't a lot of new movies on the horizon. I can understand getting rid of the complex web that the EU weaved, so the writers could can stretch their arms and have total creative freedom to create something new, but instead this reiterated how much the original trilogy is loved and how much the prequel trilogy is hated. The Star Wars franchise moved forward, but remained motionless at the exact same time. It it's wake was the destruction of the EU and any hope that people will give the prequel trilogy another look. I was also left behind in the ruins, picking up torn fragments of Timothy Zhan's legacy. I know that the books will always be there, on my self, to read again and again, but it's detached from the official timeline. The big box office pay day The Force Awakens received tells me no one cares, or at least a minority of fans care.

The more interesting Star Wars trilogy.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that nerd culture and franchises related to nerd culture are bigger and more visible than ever, but they're also shallower than ever. I'm and old fossil, I'm a bitter grumpy old man, and that's probably why I can't fully enjoy the new nerd culture. Things are changing, and I can't get used to them. There are kids on my lawn and I can't get them off no matter how hard I shake my cane at them. The younger kids from the city are coming over and knocking over my trash cans and taking baseball bats to my mail box, calling me a noob.

On the other hand, grumpy old man or not, I can go into a store at the mall and buy a Legend of Zelda tee shirt. I can talk about Star Wars and comic books with all of my co-workers. Nerd stuff is cool and, inherently, that's a good thing at its core. However, I still don't know how to feel about it.  

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Review: Cave Story + (and Street Fighter V . . . kinda)

You may have noticed that my first review was of a couple of games that came out quite some time ago. So, in an effort to try to keep things fresh and new (as fresh and new as freelance, unpaid critic with a free blog and a retail job can keep things), I bought Street Fighter V and planed to sink several hours into it and write a review. When I loaded it up, one of the menu options was grayed out, with the promise of them being available sometime in March. Unfortunately, it was the challenge mode, something I was looking forward to. As of this writing it is March 3rd, and hasn't been patched in yet. So, I played the story mode and completed Ryu's story in about ten minutes. I tried an online match and it looked like a slide show. Survival mode is an endless succession of one round matches, and I got up to about match 11 before I got bored and quit to the menu screen. Apparently, the difficulty doesn't ramp up until about 30 or so matches; most of the AI opponents stood still for a few moments and stared at me while I beat them silly. With that said, I couldn't really get a grasp on the mechanics until I got some online matches to work.

To the games credit, when Street Fighter V's online matches actually work, the fighting is wonderful and fast paced. The familiar motions of quarter-circle punch and whatever pattern the dragon punch is felt like coming home. The graphics are fluid and clear, and I had a lot of fun. So, until everything is patched up and the servers are running optimally, I'm going to hold off on giving Street Fighter V a full on review. As of right now, Street Fighter V is in an early access state. I just wasted two paragraphs telling you that I won't be reviewing Street Fighter V yet, so let's get to the game that I'm actually going to review: Cave Story +, another older game I bought from steam.

Cave Story is a 2D platformer created by a single developer, who calls himself Pixel. The plus version is a revamped from the original (which I never played), with newer graphics and remixed music, challenge modes and other things. You play as a robot who finds himself on a mysterious floating island populated by Mimigas, a race of rabbit people. An evil doctor is kidnapping and attempting to weaponize the cute little creatures. You decide to help them out and, in the process, eventually leave the island to return to the surface. That's the gist of the story, but there is a lot of underlying mythology about a past war between the Mimigas and the robots. The background information is revealed conversations with the NPCs and some other flavor texts, as the fabric of the world is weaved over time. I won't recount the entire history of Cave Story here, but I found it pretty interesting, and made it seem that there was a lot going on beyond the island.
The game play is heavily inspired by retro platformers. Mega Man and Metriod come to mind; the game even plays a little sound bite when you find a life or a missile power-up that's similar to the sound bite in Metriod. You play through several different areas on your quest to stop the doctor. Each area has a unique aesthetic, and you can clearly tell them apart. There's a lot of precise jumping that needs to be done to progress and at times the controls seem a little slippery. I was trying to climb up a long vertical area, and trying to land and stop on a small block, suspended in mid-air, became an exercise in frustration. However, it wouldn't be a retro style platformer if there wasn't moments were you wanted to snap your controller in half and punch your screen in. That being said, I still think the controls could have been a little tighter and more precise.

The protagonist defends himself by shooting projectiles from a variety of weapons. You start out with a peashooter, but eventually acquire a missile launcher and even a sword that possesses the spirit of a dead Mimiga. You upgrade the weapons by destroying enemies and collecting the gold triangles that burst out of them. Each weapon can be upgraded to level three. What makes this system unique is that when you are hit, you lose the power ups. It's possible to upgrade your machine gun to level three and tear through the enemies, but if you get hit enough times it'll be downgraded to level one again. This way of upgrading and downgrading your weapons assures that you're never too overpowered, and the game never becomes too easy. Actually, the game isn't really easy at all. The difficulty really ramps up around the mid point, and the final boss took me more than a few tries to finally conquer. The challenge makes beating the game feel so much more satisfying.

While the controls are a little slippery, they're mostly functional and don't adversely effect game play. The story is pretty well written, and doesn't load you down with exposition to get its point across. The music is great, and the graphics capture the retro era platformer perfectly, while at the same time looking different and interesting. However, like older games, some of the super secret special hidden content is unlocked in a pretty obtuse way. When I beat the game the first time, escaping the island and leaving the mad scientist to attack the surface with a floating death island, an achievement unlocked calling me a 'coward.' So, instead of escaping I chose to stay, which opened up the rest of the game. I don't really call that obtuse, because there was a save point right before the scene. It didn't take long to see the result of both choices. However, there is another ending that's vaguely hinted at, a super secret good ending for 'true heroes.' I have no shame in admitting that I looked up how to initiate the chain of events required for the true ending, because I feel the game's clue were not intuitive enough.

Obscure hidden paths aside, I feel Cave Story is a wonderful game with a great level design, graphics and soundtrack. I wholeheartedly recommend it if you have fond memories of playing Metroid and other old school platformers. If you didn't grow up playing those types of games, Cave Story would also be a great foundation to build on. If you like it, you can always go back and play the classics to see where some of the mechanics originated.

Some Final Words

I want to return to the subject of Street Fighter V briefly. I am very well aware of the reason why Capcom released the game so early and slightly unfinished: to let the competitive players get a jump start on the tournament season. This period of time will let pro players get to grips with the mechanics of the new entry before heading out to tournaments, but I still can't help but feel disappointed about the lack of features. Perhaps it's because I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge mode in the Street Fighter IV series. That mode helped me become a better Ryu player, much more than going into random matches.
I'm not a marketing executive, so I wouldn't say that I know better than the people who sit at the top of Capcom's ivory tower, but I think there's probably a better solution. Instead of charging $60 for a game with incomplete features, they could have had a cheaper downloadable version for the pro players to practice with. A physical release, with the features for more casual players, could have waited for a couple of months.
Either way, the core game play of Street Fighter V works very well and is fun. I can see myself sinking a lot of hours into ranked and causal matches and sparing with the CPU in Training Mode. I'm very much looking forward to the full release.

Until then: Buy Cave Story. It's awesome.  

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Review: Five Nights at Freddy's and Undertale

 Sometimes, I deliberately avoid games. The more the internet keeps telling me that I have to play them, it seems the more I am willing to avoid them. This isn't a flaw on the game's part, more of a personal flaw and bias (maybe the fault of the fanbase, but I'm not going to get into that at all). So, to make an effort to be more open to new experiences, I went on Steam and bought Five Nights at Freddy's and Undertale; two of indie gaming's sweet hearts.
There's not much connectivity between these two games in terms of themes, or gameplay, but both games have massive cult followings and utilize retro looking graphics to create their worlds. I played Five Nights at Freddy's first so, I would like to talk about it first. There's also other reasons why I would want to talk about FnaF first, but more on that later.

You play as a night security guard at a pizza parlor similar to Chuck E Cheeses. After the business closes for the night, the animatronic animals roam around, looking for employees out of costume. If they reach you, they'll stuff you in an animatronic animal costume. In reality, when they reach you, you're treated to a brief jump scare as the screen fades to static and you're forced to start the night all over again. The main goal of the game is to survive five nights without being jump-scared to death. The story is given to the player though brief messages left on the answering machine by the owner of the pizza parlor. He gives you some tips and a little backstory about the animals being driven mad by singing the same songs day in and day out.

The entire game is controlled by the mouse. You have two ways to defend against the animatronic killers: security cameras and a highly illogical security door system. You track the movements of the animatronic killers by watching the security cameras. Whenever they get close to your room, you can close the door (there's two doors on either side) and wait until they go away. However, you can't keep the doors closed for very long, because it takes battery power to keep them closed. Watching the security cameras also takes power, forcing you to take quick looks at the rooms, before putting the camera away. This system of looking for your killers, and strategically closing and opening the doors at certain times organically builds tension. Once you hear something thumping around the kitchen area of your security office, several questions run through your mind: Should you close the door now, or wait? Is checking the room next to the security office worth using some of the precious little battery power you have left? Once the battery power runs out, your only choice is not to touch the mouse and hope you can live out the last few moments of the night by playing dead. The core mechanic is solid, and the graphics fit the tone of the game perfectly.

The game's graphics are composed mostly of still images. The lo-fi gritty textures actually make the animatronic monsters look genuinely creepy (this effect is also enhanced by the characters themselves looking to be in various states of disrepair). Aside from the Fox animatronic and the jump scares at the end, you don't actually see any of them moving; they'll be there, but once you look away they'll be on the move, similar to the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who. With that said, there's a few solid problems that kept me from playing the game all the way through night five.

For a while, I was stuck on night four. At that point the owner met his end by jump scare off screen and his last message cuts off abruptly. After being jump-scared to death four or five times, the novelty of it wore off and I just became frustrated. As you play further into the game, the monster's patterns become more erratic and complex as they go all out to get to your room, however jump scares, by nature, are only tense and scary for the first few times. I also started to ponder the logic of the whole situation. Why do doors need energy to stay closed? If Freddy's is full of killer animatronic monsters, why do they need a night security guard? If someone were to break into the place, wouldn't they immediately be stuffed into a costume and killed? They don't seem to be interested in property damage, so you're not protecting the place from the monsters, and even if they were, the game gives you no other way to fight back against them. I've been a fan of horror films and media all my life and I know that it is sometimes fruitless to question the logic of horror. The genre works best when it is not over-explained, but I kept asking myself why am I here in the first place. If I were the owner, I wouldn't have a security guard and just let Freddy and his buddies have run of the place until it opens at 6 am. Perhaps I'm just overthinking it, and the grand question would have been answered if I stuck it out through the game's ending, but the mechanics wore thin on me fairly quickly. However, the entire situation has a surreal nightmare logic to it that is pretty interesting; nothing really makes sense at all, but no one seems to notice except for the player if left alone to his thoughts long enough.

The graphics are fitting for the game's tone, and the central mechanic is interesting, but I couldn't recommend the game fully because it only has one gimmick, which will wear off eventually, leaving you frustrated with nothing left to do but repeat it over and over again. There seems to be an underlying brilliance to this that perhaps I'm missing, but I couldn't feel compelled to finish the game. Eventually, I can see myself coming back to it to finish it, but it's not going to be a priority. For 4.99 on Steam it's pretty cheap, so try it out. However, from a quick look at the internet, you've probably already tried it out, beat it and mastered night 6 and 7 as well, so perhaps I'm just shouting into the void. Next game.

This game is hard to review, but not because I don't know if I like it or not. I do like Undertale, I think it's wonderful, but it's a journey that should be taken by someone who knows as little about it as possible. I made the mistake of listening to podcasts and reading articles that gave away bits and pieces of the mechanics and I feel like I shouldn't have. However I still want to write a bit about it, so if you have an interest in playing Undertale, stop reading now (this is why I included the FnaF review first, so at least you would have something to read), but if you have no interest in ever playing it, or have already played it, go ahead and read on to see what I thought about it.

Undertale is a turn based RPG stylized as a retro era game. You travel around talking to interesting characters and visiting interesting places. The main gimmick of Undertale is the battle system. You can go throughout the entire game without killing anyone. Every battle can be resolved in a non-violent way by telling jokes, not picking on someone, or petting a dog. With that in mind there is still a skill element involved. After you take your turn, you have to fend off the enemy's attack by moving a red heart around a box, dodging projectiles. Sometimes this is actually very hard and requires some fast reflexes. Think of Shin Megami Tensei combined with Touhou, with the graphical style of Earthbound.

While the premise is fairly unique, the game thrives through its writing. Having the choice to not kill anyone wouldn't really mean anything if the game couldn't get the player to care about the characters, and invested in, well, not killing them. There's some genuinely funny moments throughout, however some jokes probably go on longer than they should (the dating mini-game comes to mind). When the game mentions, at the start, that it's possible to not kill anyone, it raises a red flag in my mind. When the tutorial character (who is much more than just a tutorial character) praises you and says she is proud of you that you chose a non-violent path, it immediately tells me this: Undertale has two endings; a 'good' ending and a 'bastard' ending. Once you learn this, you start to play a the game in a certain way, with the promise of the best ending waiting on the horizon. It seems to program you like many other games with moral choice systems do. I usually think this is pretty cheap, however, Undertale endears itself to you with having likable characters.

When I finished the righteous path and saved the world, etc. I thought about doing the other ending. It was actually pretty clever to subtly let the player know that there was a bastard ending from the start. There are many characters that you spare that become NPCs you can interact with later on, or have extended dialog with, and play mini-games with. I tried to imagine those places and events without the characters and it actually made me sad. I didn't want to do anything bad to this world, so I didn't attempt the bad, a.k.a 'Genocide' run. Not completing the other run probably means that I won't see all of the content that the game has to offer, but screw it, I don't want to kill my friends.

Undertale has some flaws. Like I said, sometimes, the game has a hard time figuring out when it should just let a joke go. Most of the time, the game is pretty clear on what actions to take to end a fight in a non-violent way, other times, it's not so clear. After choosing to not fight anyone throughout the entire game, one of the last boss fights requires you to fight no matter which ending you want to get. Being at level one and not bothering to upgrade my weapons at all, this was very hard fight. Having the knowledge that there is a good ending and a bad ending led me to second guessing even minor choices throughout the game, causing me a lot of anxiety. Again, this could have been the intended effect, but it drew me out of the game at some points. I suddenly realized that I was playing a video game, if that makes any sense. However, this could also be intended as well, as you near the end of the game, it becomes very meta, commenting on the very nature of RPGs and video games themselves.

 Overall, I think this game is excellent and lives and dies on its writing. It's interesting to see a artfully done game with a message, that actually has a skill element as well. You will actually come to care about the characters and they'll start to care about you as well. Give this game a try, it's very well worth it for $9.99.