Thursday, January 22, 2009

Lost Season 5: Jumping off the Deep End

Lost has jumped off the deep end. It is approaching the shark. It is coming closer to being a bathos than ever before.

Lost has always been plagued by questions of a ridiculous and a ludicrous nature. You have dead people randomly cropping up and talking to other characters. You have black smoke monsters flying through the island and ripping people into the sky. You have countless unexplainable phenomena.

This worked fine. I didn't need a solid explanation. You actually want the show to explain in quantum physics why dead human bodies re-animate and then verbally soliloquize in the presence of other characters?

Up until now, the show either brushes these unexplainable events aside, or they hint to their explanation through subtle cues in dialog. You get little snippets of science-fiction, time travel, paradoxes, experiments, and quantum physics, but each is never put out in the open for the viewers to dwell upon as the core plot element of the show.

I liked this. It worked because you were allowed as the viewer to piece together your own conclusions on what was going on. And it didn't make all the explanations awkward by forcing the characters to converse about plot elements.

That is the difference with this season's opener. They fully acknowledge the ludicrous, the unexplainable, the ridiculous, the oh-my-gosh-what-is-going-on and throw it out in the open for all the show to dwell upon. This is a huge jump from keeping all the science-fiction, all the subtle plot elements on the side line. It's an understandable leap to steer the show towards a conclusion where all the loose ends are tied up, but this doesn't make it feel any better. The current setup feels so needlessly ambiguous towards its chartered course.

And finally, I am sicked and tired of "twists" that put previous characters in new roles. I know, it was cool to see Desmond as a random jogger who talked with Jack and then he was in the hatch, but in the big picture of things, who cares? Did Desmond knowing Jack beforehand have any real significance? No.

And now they've been doing this little "let's pull the LOST universe together even tighter from two degrees of separation to 1.5!" so that all your random characters continue to crop up in roles that jump from one side of the spectrum to the other. I don't CARE that some lady in some dream was the same lady who was in some other random place doing this thing that totally doesn't explain anything. That's not a twist--that's just a ridiculous character tie-in that makes this universe feel needlessly smaller and smaller.

LOST has always been hovering over the pool of science fiction, the super natural, and magic tricks. Only now has it finally taken the leap to jump in and approach the shark. Whether or not it succeeds in missing the shark or jumping over it, I don't know, but I'll continue to watch it.

To utterly misquote Alfred from the Dark Knight: "Things were always going to get corny before they got explained."
And Harvey Dent: "The mystery is always awkwardest before the explanation. And I assure you, the explanation is coming."
Random LOST Fan: No more dead characters!
Season 1 Viewer: Yea!
Theorist Fanatic: Things are more unexplainable than ever!
Harvey Dent: So be it. No more mysteries...
Harvey Dent: ...Explain them... with TIME-TRAVEL.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Things I Learned From Don Suggs

This is Don Suggs.

Don Suggs is a guy who talks a lot. Here is what he told me.

General Advice:
- Steal everything you can while you are a student. Take everything that you like and put it into your own work. Originality is not important now. Building a wide vocabulary is.
- Visual Representation alone is not interesting enough by itself. You need something more.
- Things put where we least expect them create interesting pictures.
Art vs. Illustration
- Illustration is about giving you all the information necessary for you to receive it and move on.
- Art is about provoking you, grabbing you, and giving you a deeper meaning.
- If you want the viewer to linger on your piece, don't give them all the information. Use inferences.
- Art is NOT about inspiration. Art is about working through boredom for 8 hours a day to produce something that is not horribly unnattractive.

Art Advice:

- Don't look at the details. Look at the big picture. Work from the formless to the forms.
- There is no reason why you can’t tilt the horizon.
- Don’t be too cute. Always be a little sinister in your pieces. [???]
- Still lifes are boring. [...]
- Don’t overwork one area of your image. Concentrate on the image as a whole. Work on everything with equal priority.
- Repetition (or echoes) creates visual interest and partnering balance [...].
- Unifying patterns or textures help to break up the space in an otherwise “clean” image.

Important Advice:

- Adding birds makes everything better.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

The Call of Duty Problem

The continuing Call of Duty series suffers from three main problems:
1) Repetitiveness
This is not just confined to one specific area of the game. How often can you take the same setting, the same battles, the same situations, the same weapons, the same screenplays, the same levels, and repeat them in each game, and then make five games exactly the same? With Call of Duty 4 being the exception, all the Call of Duty games have been set in World War II. Many of them contain the same battles (Stalingrad, Berlin, etc), and have you doing the same things as in the other games (raiding houses, shooting people, not being allowed to open doors, waiting for your slow comrades to continue). Each game virtually has the same weapon list since the beginning (Thompson, M4 Garand, Mp40, Sniper, etc) with few exceptions. Wrap it up in the same generic levels of "shoot respawning enemies from a variety of locations in a variety of environments all while your teammates are useless," look down on the battlefield from below in a plane mission, get on a tank in a vehicle mission, drive a car in a chase mission, and then get giddy in the good ol' grab a sniper rifle and shoot limitless enemies from a battlefield safe location. Even the individual games repeat their own missions and gameplay concepts, so how does it make sense to repeat those games over, and over, and over? It already gets tiring after the second game.
The FEW--and I must stress FEW--exceptions to the Call of Duty formula are where the games truly shine. In the first game, there was no established formula to expect, so all the situations and ideas were unique and fun. In the second game, the formula was repeated, but they still had enough variety in the missions to maintain a level of interest. The few things that Call of Duty 5 does differently (flamethrower, solo sniper missions) are the only interesting scenarios in the entire game. Looking back, it's been that way for each Call of Duty game, since the standard combat formula that constitutes the majority of the gameplay is just plain repetitive and boring. The unique missions where you do things other than just kill respawning, endless clones of Germans are where the most fun lies.
When a game sticks to a strict formula, it might work the first time (because you don't notice it), but then it ridiculously hampers enjoyment from then on if it is the meat of the entire game's core--which it is, in Call of Duty's case.
2) Lack of Strategy
The Call of Duty gameplay formula for individual battles goes something like this: Confront the enemy, shoot him with your rifle from a distance, advance on him by rushing to cover spots, throw a grenade to kill him if you can't shoot him, if in close quarters use an automatic rifle, if in really close quarters use melee, and finally... when your enemy is dead move on to the next enemy.
You are always given the same weapons and the same environments and the same enemies. You approach every battle with the same mindset, the same strategy, the same plan to what you are about to do. This reduces the game to a chore--a "to-do-list" of things you know you have to do. You already know what you are going to do, how you are going to do it, and there are few spontaneous events that truly force you to adapt to a situation and use the game mechanics at your disposal in order to solve that problem.
This is what separates games like Bioshock and Team Fortress 2 from Call of Duty. The first two have you constantly adapting, thinking, and analyzing every new combat situation in order to get out of it. You are always engaged in the battle. On the other hand, in Call of Duty, every battle unfolds the same way, with the same set of tools to overcome it. There's no strategy here. Just mindless reflexes, timing, and pacing--which is fine if done right, but Call of Duty has just repeated it so many times that this mindless combat can't survive on its own.
3) Lack of Challenge
Games should be challenging. On one end of the spectrum you have the "Win Button," where the solution is in front of the player, and all he or she has to do is click it. On the other end you have whatever you can imagine to be the most frustrating, inane, and difficult game you can ever conceive of. Games (and the word "challenging" for that matter) should fall somewhere in between the two.
Call of Duty has progressively moved into a zone where it's not challenging because of the design of its combat. You are always given the objective to kill the random Germans, and you are told how to do it, where to do it, so all you have to do is go out and do it. Everything just becomes a matter of when--not how, where, or why. When is the endless respawn wave going to end so I can move on to the next arena? When am I going to have to use this Panzerfaust on the inevitable tank that will appear? When am I going to finally kill enough Germans for this area to be designated "clear" and this mission victorious? It's not how am I going to do it, or why am I going to do it, or where. All of these things are given to you, so the game just waits for you to do them.
This is not a matter of challenge. It's more like a matter of how fast can you beat the current level, rather than how do I figure out how to destroy these enemies in the most efficient way?
Without this challenge, the gameplay becomes stagnant and unmotivating.

Call of Duty 1 was a great game. Call of Duty 2 was just as good, except it was more of the same. Call of Duty 3, I will not talk about. By the time we hit Call of Duty 4, this formula had been repeated too many times, with too little variation. Call of Duty 5 was just worse.

Many of today's successful franchises rely on repetitious formulas. The Zelda or Half-Life series, for instance, are prime examples. What those series do differently however--for the most part--is disguise the repetition through different environments, storylines, and characters. Call of Duty currently lacks that, and because of this, its future as a series looks like to be more of the same. Unless it can solve these problems, each game will progressively become more and more generic.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Chatroom: 15th Best Freeware Adventure (2008) posted their list of the best freeware adventure games of 2008, and Chatroom made #15 out of 20! Hooray!

Chatroom was a game that some people either 'got' or didn't 'get.' Overall, I would still consider it a semi-broken experiment (due to that vast amount of responses that give incorrect feedback) but it's nice to see people that appreciate the concept and the current state of the game anyway.

This came as a bit of a surprise since La Croix Pan (which remains the more popular and IMO, better work--it took 3-4 months to make compared to one week!) didn't get listed anywhere last year, but now Chatroom did, despite its not-as-popular status on the AGS forums.

Anyway, this was a nice little sign of appreciation. So, Hooray?!

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Sunday, January 04, 2009


Bioshock is an First-Person-Shooter-Role-Playing-Game (FPSRPG) set in the dysfunctional and failed-Utopian underwater world of Rapture--founded by Andrew Ryan--where the player can use either the standard weapon set of pistols/machine-guns/grenade-launchers/etc or powerful tonics called Plasmids that enable the player to preform a variety of magical attacks on their enemies, who consist of mutants, malfunctioning machines, and mysterious creatures called Big Daddies and Little Sisters, who also happen to have Adam, the secret ingredient that gives people even more magical Plasmid powers.

Things I liked about Bioshock:

1. The environments are stuffed with information. You don't walk around boring corridors and lifeless arenas that could pass for any random location or hallway with generic pipes/branches/walls/doors. Everything in Rapture is filled with posters, audio logs, sculptures, propaganda, and anything you can think of that helps reveal back story and makes the city feel more alive. You can literally spend hours just searching the environment and inferring back story from the levels. This makes it much more fun and interesting to be playing in this setting.
2. The combat has strategy. Compare a game like Call of Duty 5 to Bioshock. Call of Duty 5 has only one strategy for every combat situation: shoot the enemy, advance by cover, if possible flank the enemy, if you can't see the enemy, throw a grenade, then move on when the enemy is dead--REPEAT. There's no variety to that formula, no thought, no challenge, and little if any fun. In Bioshock, you are given a variety of weapons and powers, constantly changing environments to use them in, and an array of different enemy types to battle with. These scenarios constantly challenge the player as he or she must decide what, how, and where to use their combat abilities. You can approach an enemy with a variety of plasmids that range from fire, ice, telekinesis, lightning, or even bees. Coupled with the environment, you can use these powers on things like oil spills, water puddles, or lying gas cans, to manipulate the physical world to your advantage. For weapons, you are given the standard melee/pistol/shotgun/machine-gun/rocket-launcher/sniper, but they all work the way they're supposed to. Each weapon has its own highlights and drawbacks, making every weapon useful in a particular circumstance. Even more, you can customize the different types of ammo in the guns adding a further element of strategy. Because of all this, there is no one sure-fire way to approach every combat situation, and you must always be on your feet about how to engage the next type of enemy in the next type of environment. This makes the game challenging and saves it from becoming boring or repetitive.
3. The Audio Logs serve a purpose. System Shock 1 had audio logs; System Shock 2 had audio logs; now Bioshock has them too. In each game, they have been subsequently improved over the last. In Bioshock, the audio logs are genuinely interesting, well-written, and well-voice acted. They still occasionally give the generic "Mr. Suchong, I changed the door code to 5-6-7-8. Please don't tell anyone!" but it works better in this game than the previous ones. Overall, the Audio Logs are a great story incentive to motivate the player to search a new environment for something other than ammo and cash.

Things I didn't like about Bioshock:

1. Switching between Plasmids is cumbersome. So you have these magical powers called plasmids, and you get to put them in up to six available slots from which you can access them during any battle. The problem is you can't remember which slot holds which plasmid, and switching between them with F1-F6 isn't very intuitive while trying to fight off two attackers and a Big Daddy at the same time with all your fingers preoccupied with WASD+Mouse. To make matters worse at the beginning, you acquire enough plasmids fast enough that they shuffle through each slot continuously, removing any previous slot memorization you may have made. Even in Gene Banks (where you can swap available plasmids), you aren't allowed to move around the order you put them in without going through a hefty work-around. The least they could have done was permanently leave the Plasmid Slot GUI at the top of the screen so you remember which slot goes where (like Psychonauts did with their powers). The result is that when combat becomes hectic, Plasmid management becomes unintuitive, something that makes battles a tad frustrating and chaotic at times.
2. The game becomes too easy. The first third or so of the game has excellent pacing and an appropriate difficulty curve that can be labeled as "challenging." However, as the game goes into the second half, it becomes annoyingly easy to the point of boredom. Why?
2.A. During the second half of the game, ammo, medkits, money, and anything you could ever want or desire is littered all over the place. But by this time, you don't actually need any of these items because your character has become so ridiculously powerful. Ammo is easily acquired and stockpiled because you don't have enough time or inclination to switch and use all the different weapons you have. As such, there are some weapons you never touch or use for entire stretches of the game. It's much more preferable to use plasmids--something you can recharge--instead of weapons, which consume precious ammo every usage. Medkits and Eve Hypos become less useful because of new Plasmids that actually recharge these two attributes in a variety of ways. E.g. you can whack at enemies with the wrench to stealth their health, OR, you can hack a vending machine and gain health and eve, OR, you can just pick up any alcohol you find in a container and drink it down plentifully. Finally, because you don't really need any ammo, medkits, or any of this stuff, money becomes useless since there is nothing left to purchase at Vending Machines that you don't already have. This is especially tedious since all the Big Daddies you so valiantly kill drop generous amounts of cash which you can't pick up in the final levels. All of these useless items just remove player motivation to explore new arenas. Even more, it removes an entire element of survival strategy. Games like Resident Evil use ammo consumption as a fair way to have the player conserve and find the most efficient ways to use his or her weapons in every situation. Without this element of strategy, you lose an entire game mechanic in Bioshock.
2B. Most Big Daddies don't attack you unless you provoke them. This sounds good in theory, since nobody wants to find off a monstrous attacker who leaps out on them by surprise. However, this means you get to set up ridiculous amounts of traps and barbed wire in order to take him down while he stares you in the face, oblivious of your plan. After that, all you need to do is fire a single shot at him for the Big Daddy say, "I'm gonna get ya'!" and then he runs through your obstacle course of destruction and falls down dead without you ever taking a second shot.
There are sections of the game where Big Daddies are alone, without their Little Sister companions. I think those times are appropriate for neutrality. I do think, however, that when Little Sisters do come out, they should force the Big Daddies to attack you. It would make the combat much more scary and tense and provide a second gameplay purpose for the Little Sisters.
3. The game is fatiguing. When you enter the next level of this grand city of Rapture, all you need to do is Press "M" and see the gigantic maze of a level that you must now enter--they could have just used the fog of war effect, only revealing the part of the map that you've been to. This wouldn't be so bad if the player had an incentive to explore this level and proceed to advance the story, but the game frequently makes it frustrating to do so.
First of all, since the second half of the game is so easy, often times there is little left to explore to buff up your character. I would walk through levels maxed out on ammo, health, medkits, and upgrades, so then all that there was left to look for was Adam. After you destroy all the Big Daddies in a level (who have the Adam), there are only Upgrade Stations or Loose Plasmids to look forward to, both of which are extremely rare. Because of this, I was in no rush to explore optional places looking for character advancement.
Second of all, many of the story goals have nothing to do physically do with the story. When you enter a level, you are often told to kindly go on a fetch quest across the room, which leads you to another fetch quest on the other side of the level, and these annoying task-hand-offs continue throughout the entire game. Many times you are just told to flip switches, or acquire nameless or generic items to proceed. It was hard to distinguish actual story goals from going around and picking up the next labeled item you were told to acquire. It would have been more interesting if you had to complete goals that were unique or pertinent to the world itself (something which happens only much later in the game). Instead, you just run around searching for Red Keys to unlock Red Doors--except replace Red Key with Electromagnetic bomb, and Red Door with Andrew Ryan's office.
4. The Story relies too much on inference. There are two ways a game can tell you what's going on. For instance, take Half-Life 2. You can infer from the city, background, and setting, that the Combine are the evil overlords who have enslaved the people. You are told directly that you must go to Eli's Lab and get the gravity gun, that you must escape Ravenholm because the Combine are coming, and that you must rescue Eli because you know he is a good guy.
Now, Bioshock on the other hand relies almost solely on inference from the player. Every feature of the world is immediately thrust upon you from the beginning. What is Rapture? Why is it now so decayed and ruined? What are these Little Sisters and Big Daddies, and what is Adam?
The answers are never told to you directly. Instead, you have to infer them from the environment, dialog, and audio logs you find all over the place. However, by putting a large chunk of the story in audio logs, the game takes a huge risk. Often times the player can miss these audio logs, removing a critical part of the background story. Or, the player can pick these up out of order (but the game saves you from doing that, for the most part) and instead get a disgruntled version of the story. Or worse, the player can find these logs and listen to them, but not even pay attention to what is being said because of the blaring alarms, screaming mutants, moaning big daddies, and singing little sisters who are all slowly creeping upon you.
Since so much of the story relies on inference, many key plot points are somewhat muddled and not perfectly clear. You don't know for certain which character is who, and what they are trying to do. So when the story finally reveals itself, you are left in state of slight ambiguity trying to remember who did what and why.

I really liked the first third of Bioshock, but as the game progressed, its complexity dragged it down to a state of lesser enjoyment. All the key components of an excellent game are there, but they don't feel fully put in the right places. Portal is a game that works because of its simplicity. It takes an idea, and fully expounds on it to its highest potential. Bioshock takes tens of ideas, and when trying to balance them all together, doesn't fully succeed in the long run. Still, the game is an achievement worth experiencing, and contains enough fun to make it one of the better FPS games of this generation.
Final Score:

(Play it)

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