Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Second Chance to Disappoint

I randomly decided to play GTAIV again. Started the mission where you have to taxi Little Jacob around, ignoring his incomprehensible babbling and relying on mission markers and tutorial text boxes to know where to go. I got shot up pretty bad in the first encounter, then had to waste time finding a burger joint to get my health back. So basically, major skill-oriented games are all going the route of pussified health auto-regen, yet a game that prides itself in gangster-tough immersion finds the need to force the player to drive out of the way in the middle of a mission to eat a burger instead of letting their health regen on the drive to the next mission point so they can keep the action going. Brilliant.

Got to the second mission spot, followed the instructions for taking cover, then my AI partner got shot after just a few seconds of entering the house, failing the mission for me. Awesome. I was going to force my way through the game so I can at least say that I've beaten it in case the need arises to defend my experience in a debate about the title. Sadly, this has become the main reason I complete most games nowadays instead of joy. Don't want to be that guy at a game development company that hasn't completed Halo 3.

I was going to beat GTAIV this week or next, but fuck it. I need to take another several month break from this overrated piece of mediocrity.

As I type this, a hotdog vender barks repeatedly every ten seconds, repeating the same line at least once a minute. High frequency bark repeating. In a 2008 title. Not a point I would normally drill on, especiailly in a world as large and asset-filled as Liberty City, but this game is full of such flaws and nuisances and yet still has a 98 on metacritic. And objectively-backed flaws aside, I will argue with my subjective liberties that it just doesn't provide an entertaining experience. I don't care if your world is so detailed I can watch TV in it - in fact, if you choose to implement this unnecessary functionality, chances are these are manhours that could have gone into fixing some of the questionable missions. No, I don't want a world where I can do many boring things - I want a world where the things I can do are fun.

This game is not much fun. Whatever enjoyment I started to have when I first played it has quickly gone out the window from the linear, frustrating missions whose failure conditions never cause me to think that I messed up. Driving between missions, a task quite central to the theme of the game (and implied in the title), has become a chore. There is a huge city to explore, and no compelling reason to do so. The difficulty, while not obscene, is a hindrance to the immersion, and forcing the player to chow down on fast food to regain health feels like a waste of time. Yes, I usually lament health regen in challenge-oriented games, but GTA has always been more about the experience than overcoming difficulty, so this design decision (or lack of real design thoughtfulness?) is painfully tragic.

To put things into perspective for anyone that thinks I'm just an artsy game designer belittling yet another high profile mass appeal sequel, I will go on record as saying that Halo 3 was a good game. It was enjoyable. It wasn't particularly special, but the action was streamlined. I hate its success in light of the failures of better titles, but I enjoyed completing it. GTAIV, not so much. Not nearly so much.

Can someone please tell me why this game has a 98/100 on metacritic? Or why I have bothered studying the craft of better game design via subtraction and pitching interesting and innovative gameplay ideas when groupthink shit riddled with high level and low level flaws wrapped in a controversial sandbox package with unnecessary simulation (TV shows???) thrown in to fill the void where good pacing should have been implemented sells millions and woos critics??

Okay, in a less bitter note, can anyone who enjoys this game tell me if/why you think it deserves a near perfect score, much more than SotC, Bioshock, or Braid?

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The World Begins With Us

I was going to write a post sometime soon about The World Ends With You. It was going to be a high brow review, rejecting numerical summaries and hype-driven prose, for I felt this game deserved more. And of course I'm too good for such drivel. No, I was going to take the "game as arts" approach and herald it as a rare jewel. I was going to mention the brilliant manner in which Jupiter has captured the theme of loneliness en masse and held true to that vision in every pixel, the grin-inducing moment when I realized that the regional "trend" system that guided my choice in equipment could in turn be affected by me and what kind of a wonderful message this was, delivered via gameplay mechanics as only an interactive medium could. I was going to write some paragraphs, dust them off, and feel good about myself for commenting intelligently on a topic dear to me and adding another post to my blog.

Then I made the mistake of beating the game.

I have dreamt of making video games since I was five years old. I was even drawing them on paper back then, a hobby that would turn into making levels in Wrecking Crew on the NES, then into making more complicated levels in games like Doom and Duke Nukem 3D, then into programming. All along, video games were produced by people, not people like me, for if they were like me I would understand them. No, people with talents and visions far beyond what I was capable of grasping or imagining. Imagine my shock two years ago when I entered the industry and realized that these people did not exist.

Well they did, except they weren't unattainable gods of the interactive arts. They were people like me. It has been relieving and disappointing, and above all else disorienting, to come to terms with what the industry has become. Every asset carefully calculated in a middle manager's spread sheet, every in-company rumor carefully filtered through a bloated pyramid. But that's how it is, and that's how games are made, and I don't deserve to expect more when I have a job and so many don't right now.

And I understood this, and things were simple, until I beat the game. And again and again, three weeks of what should have been groan-inducing plot twists when the game "wasn't actually over" instead drew out smiles as I realized with relief that I did not have to stop playing yet.

I was going to write an artistic review about the artistic merits of an artistic game, but The World Ends With You deserves far more than that. Far more than I can contort my fingers to type. For it is far more than art, and it is unfortunate that I do not have a word to describe what it is.

When I was fourteen, I read an article in an innocuous encyclopedia describing the mating habits of humans, and it has torn a hole in my soul so deep that I can never feel romantic love. I watch my friends date, have sex, get married, and a voice louder than a thousand ends of the world wants to yell, to tell them that they are just doing it because of hormones, that they don't really love each other, that we are just meat machines, that we all live in our own little worlds and can only appear to come out and connect when there is something we need, and that we are selfish in such a way and, worse, deterministically so, so we can't be blamed nor can we ever change, and don't they even realize this? And why am I the only one that finds himself suffocating in this toxic air of causal psychology and nihilism? Am I a super intelligence painfully evolved to recognize the illusions of morality and justice, or am I so far behind the cognitive development of the average human for letting such emotional desires as sincerity cause me to think that this world was ever something more? Just a strange mix of emotional and insightful?

Why am I alone?

Art has become like this romantic love, perverted beyond the reach of sincerity. Art has become snarky toilets in snobby museums, an antithesis to the desires of the uneducated masses, a battle between the interpreter and the creator, and all manner of semantic faux debating, and to reduce TWEWY to this realm of ivory tower treadmilling is a sin far greater than I care to commit. It is unfortunate, then, that I have no rhetorical training to describe what I am trying to get at, but I must still try.

An Explanation, as best I can

I purchased this game a couple of weeks ago. I had heard good things, but I had never been in a hurry to get it. Looked like a slightly innovative game for anime fans and Japanophiles in general, enough to pique my curiosity but not enough for me to purchase with a first priority mindset. I enjoyed it right away, glad that I purchased it as the fresh aesthetic and quality were immediately apparent. It took a little bit longer to appreciate the purposefulness, the manner in which the heroic journey from self-isolation to ally dependency was expressed not only in the characters and story but in the gameplay mechanics, through and through. A little bit later, and I realized that this game was at least as good as Chrono Trigger, an amazing thing to realize as I have not felt that way about an RPG in years. Forcing myself to play through a few every now and then, I thought I had just outgrown them. Now I realize that we have just quit making them good.

Skip forward to tonight, and I have just completed a game so emotionally moving, by its own merits as well as by what it means for our craft, that I immediately had to take a walk through the local park and collect my blended thoughts. At 4 in the morning.

Yes, I'm scared. I'm scared that this isn't really as good a game as I gush about and that I am overreacting because it happened to resonate with me, for whatever reason. Seeing a verdict of 89 on metacritic last week, I nodded in agreement. Felt right. Now, I am wondering how numbers are even the right way to measure such a title, when GTAIV about tops out the max at 98. I would suggest you get this game, but what if you don't enjoy it? What does that say about my abilities as a designer, a skill in which the accurate assessments of other titles is a necessity? I thought I was mature enough to understand and accept the innate subjective limitations of views on the quality of art, but now I'm not sure I can afford emotionally to be wrong. That's what this game has done to me.

I described earlier the feeling of separation between my childhood self and the gods that made video games. At some point growing up and entering their circle, that feeling vanished. Until now. The feelings that TWEWY have evoked in me, night after night as if to assure they aren't accidental, have proven that there are gods of game development far beyond my comprehension yet again, and in a bittersweet way I wonder if I have made any progress whatsoever toward mastering the art, choking back tears with laughter as I realize that it is out there, the star that I have been reaching for but have become blind to after decades of struggle, that there is a right direction, and I need to take it.

I'm disappointed in myself. What have I done? With my life. What the fuck have I accomplished? If I die tomorrow, who will remember me? Who will I have changed? What has my purpose been? I graduated from college, run through the factory of higher education. I won the state math competition one year when I had an odd infatuation with math, and my parents assure me that I still have a plaque at my high school for the highest cumulative SAT score. But how many people's lives have I enriched with an SAT score? I have shipped two commercial video game titles, one ranking in the fifties and one in the sixties on metacritic, and neither deserving of much more. Every week or so, I blog cynically about the state of the industry, never changing it but patting myself on the back nonetheless for constructing such "insightful" declarations in such edgy tones. I am kept up at night with internal dialogs.

I should quit my job and try to start my own video game company where customers are friends, not sources of income to manipulate through marketing.

But I don't know how to start a company, and I don't have the money, and if I borrow money from an investor then I am stuck in the art-disruptive cycle of financial responsibility yet again

But if I don't take that risk then I may go through my life without ever truly doing what makes me happy

And why am I not happy now, now that I am in the wonderful industry that I dreamed of entering since I was five?

And what will my parents think if I fail, run away, and need to leech off of them again?

And will I ever really be happy, or is satisfaction just a bubble under some infinite wall paper that I can chase around but never capture?

And on and on, until I somehow fall asleep.

I have accomplished absolutely nothing, and it pains me more than I can bear. I wake up every day, marching to work like a toy soldier, because I have to pay the bills, the very expensive bills that I have amassed moving out here to work in the industry in the first place. And if I die tomorrow, no one will remember me. No one will remember me, because I don't deserve remembrance. Sure, the people that matter to me will, and maybe a few of them will cry. But I don't see them anymore. I talk to them on the phone, if I talk to them at all, their digitized voices trying but failing to mask the 2,000+ mile gap that I have put between us. I fail to see them at Christmas, because I am too tired from crunch on a project that will soon be lost in the middle of the game ranking bell curve to even fly home.

I tell myself this is okay, because at least I have a job, and... you know, "the economy" and all that. But a job is nothing without happiness. Life is nothing without happiness. I am not happy with my life. I have hope, but that is a painful kind of happiness, because it can easily be taken away or spoiled before fruition.

The World Ends With You has shown me that I was wrong to believe that it was my jaded attitude keeping me from enjoying games, for how else could I enjoy it as much as any of my childhood favorites at my current age? Most games today are developed by incapable, uncaring individuals with far too much power over the individuals that do care. And really, in my long winded way, that is what I am trying to praise Jupiter and Square Enix for; they care. They have to care. The localization team cares, the voice actors care, the writers care. They all care. This game exists because people enjoyed making it, and wanted to share that joy with an audience that is precious to them. I have no other reason to believe this than the game itself; that it is capable of communicating this is a testament to their talent as well as their sincerity. I must seek such a position, I must be a part of this. Could you imagine if every game developer put innovation above finance, quality above innovation, art above quality, and sincerity above art? What a wonderful world such would be!


I can't do this alone. I can't even continue tricking myself when I wake up each morning into believing that I can be a savior of the craft someday, that today is going to be different from yesterday somehow. I have no clout. I have not been in the industry 'x years' for any impressive value of 'x'. I dream, I desire, but I don't see the answers. If you have any answers, any answers at all, whether you are an industry veteran or a college student trying to get in, or if you are simply a fan of games interested in a healthier future where the discourse between developers and purchasers is more meaningful than the current back and forth of "you give us money, we give you product", please let me know.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Randomly Inspired, Belated Answer

It has become nigh memetic to ask, “When will we have our Citizen Kane” of games?

Not before we have our “Y'all Want a Single”, I can guarantee that much.

“We wanted to add 3 or 4 more songs, so we came back to record them. Then our record company was like 'Hey, we'd really love to have a single' and our management, The Firm said 'We would really like to have a smash hit single, man, can you dig it?'. We were really appalled by that scene. They wanted 'Got the Life' or 'Freak on a Leash', and that shit wasn't flying with us at all! For the first time in our lives we were dissecting our music, and try to analyze the structure of those songs, trying to figure out what made them huge hits. But Korn never works like that, and while we're all were wondering, Jonathan came up with a line: "Y'all want a single? Say: FUCK THAT" and we wrote Y'All Want a Single as a big 'fuck you' to them.”