Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Anger Management

"You're incredibly rude and insensitive, but I guess you know that."

That's about Cole Phelps, the protagonist of Team Bondi's L.A. Noire. The words are spoken by Mrs. Black, who's interrogated by Phelps near the beginning of the story. She's right, too: Cole Phelps is rude, insensitive, and churlish to boot. However, she's also wrong, because I didn't know it and wouldn't figure it out until at least a third into the story. I have experienced a lot of jeopardy and violence in videogames, yet few scenes have inspired such helplessness and dread as watching Phelps grill a traumatised witness. Is this what they call context?

The real story of L.A. Noire is a tale of an angry man who shouts a lot, and I'm not talking about Cole Phelps. If ex-Team Bondi employees are believed, then Brendan McNamara, director and writer of L.A. Noire, was a boss from down under, so to speak. Upon reading the controversy, I admit, rather than being scandalised by the shocking allegations, my first thoughts were, "Aha! That's why Phelps succeeds at his job by furiously barking at people. Write from experience much, Brendan?" L.A. Noire was in production for an excruciating seven years; it's reputed that Rockstar Games, the publisher, never wants to work with McNamara again. Whatever the truth, Team Bondi has since collapsed and McNamara has, I imagine, become a schoolteacher.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Assault and Vinnyger

I once spoke to someone about a conversation she had with a schizophrenic man. The man described disembodied voices coming from over his left shoulder. They would comment, offer advice, and sometimes issue commands. The nature of their words were often violent and dangerous, and the man had learned mostly to ignore voices coming from that direction. Not above trivialising a serious mental disorder, I reflected that it must be a lot like playing videogames, except that in videogames you're supposed to listen carefully and do exactly what the voices tell you. In particular, I was reminded of The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena and its titular protagonist, Richard B. Riddick.

Riddick was introduced to the world in 2000 by the movie Pitch Black. It was Vin Diesel's breakthrough role and the movie soon became a cult hit. Diesel has never looked back, even while almost everyone else has turned away. His efforts to keep the Riddick train rolling resulted in The Chronicles of Riddick in 2004, co-produced by Diesel. It was an ambitious attempt to launch Riddick as a media-spanning franchise including movies, books, videogames and more. However, critics and punters alike gave the sequel a lukewarm to scathing reception, and Riddick hasn't been seen in theatres since.

The bright spot of the gestating franchise was its videogame incarnation developed by Starbreeze Studios: The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay. Posited as a prequel to Pitch Black, it told the story of Riddick's time in a "triple-max high security slam." Solid design and great visuals earned it prestigious awards and ample commercial receipts. Riddick's movie career might have appeared dead in the water, but his voyage into videogames had caught an early wind. By 2009, Starbreeze had finished production of a sequel and Assault on Dark Athena hit store shelves.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Learning Russian

Have I just saved humanity from a race of psychic monsters or committed genocide on a peaceful species of post-humans? That was the question I pondered as Metro 2033's credits began to roll. I immediately regretted my decision to destroy the so-called Dark Ones. My plan had been to make peace if the opportunity presented itself. It did, but I still chose to blow them to kingdom come. Why? Now that's a more interesting question to ponder.

There aren't many videogames based on books, especially obscure foreign books like Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky. There aren't many games set exclusively in Russia with nary an American hero in sight. There aren't many games of such scope and quality to have come out of Ukraine. There are a lot of "there aren't"s about Metro 2033. It has the trappings of a big-budget western release, but it's also essentially foreign. Few were surprised when, upon release in March 2010, it failed to set the sales charts on fire. However, it has since become something of a sleeper hit, earning good reviews and gaining recognition through numerous "best of 2010" lists. A sequel is now in production.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Dead End

I hate the ending of Red Dead Redemption. I hate it because John Marston dies, but I also hate it because of how he dies. The former reflects on how good Red Dead Redemption is, while the latter is a testament to how bad it can be. It's a game that excels in aspects of traditional narrative where most fail, but then fails to take advantage of the narrative strengths of its medium when it really counts. I feel strangely resentful toward its creators, Rockstar Games, but I can't say the ride wasn't worth it.

Released in May 2010, Red Dead Redemption was Rockstar's long-awaited follow up to its infamous and highly successful Grand Theft Auto IV. Being a financially challenged individual, I decided to wait for Read Dead Redemption to come down in price, and I eventually picked it up secondhand a few months ago. Upon its release, the gaming world was abuzz with giddy excitement and media coverage; the game scored an astronomical 95 on the review aggregation website Metacritic. Meanwhile, I was diligently avoiding the hubbub because I wanted an experience unmolested by spoilers and framed expectations.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Videogames in Crysis

I normally wear headphones when playing videogames. I like to tell myself that it's more immersive and gives a better sense for a game's soundscape, and that's true, but I secretly wear them for another reason. Dialogue in games is often atrocious, and I wear headphones to avoid the embarrassment of inflicting it upon innocent bystanders. Crysis is definitely a headphones game, but somehow bad dialogue is only the tip of the large block of ice mostly submerged in water.

I waited five years to play Crysis. First released in 2007, Crysis was a visual showpiece for owners of high-end PCs. It is still used as a technical benchmark -- a crucial test of any PC's gaming prowess. Its creators, a German outfit called Crytek, had no plans of bringing Crysis to either Microsoft or Sony's new games consoles, feeling it beyond the limits of both the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3. Since I had only a crappy laptop back in 2007, I was not at the time enjoying the immaculately rendered jungle or explosively interactive scenery of Crysis.

This exclusivity of Crysis, out of no less than technical necessity, has been a feather in the cap of PC gaming since its release. However, with flagging sales and rampant piracy, traditional PC gaming has been a frightening business prospect of late. Despite aging technology, publishers are increasingly turning their attention to the more lucrative console audience. In 2009, much to the chagrin of many PC gamers, it was announced that Crysis 2 would be coming to both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. In a sudden turnaround, Crytek had resolved to do the seemingly impossible and bring the visual spectacle of Crysis 2 to the consoles.

Fast-forward to March 2011 and I still didn't have a PC that would run Crysis. While its sequel had just been released for the Xbox 360, I wasn't interested. I knew that Crysis 2 picked up where the original left off and wanted do things in the proper order. Thankfully, I didn't have wait long. Emboldened by their success, Crytek had already started rebuilding Crysis for the consoles, and earlier this month, Crysis was released to the console masses for download at a budget price. I snapped it up right away.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


This blog is for my wife. She doesn't like or understand videogames. She tolerates my hobby and, from time to time, even tries to understand it. But when pressed to explain why I love games, my answers aren't convincing. I don't have anything to conceal; the problem is just that I don't have any good answers. Perhaps games really are just a waste of time, but I am reluctant to accept that. If I can't explain why games are a worthy claim on my attention, then I want to at least explain why they hold so much of it.

The goal of this blog is to explore what it is like to be an avid gamer and to understand how games work -- or don't work, as is often the case -- and in a way that is accessible even to non-gamers. That said, I don't actually expect my wife to read this blog, because, like I mentioned, she doesn't like or understand videogames. That's okay.

This blog was largely inspired by Tom Bissell's Extra Lives: Why Videogames Matter (and Why They Don't Matter More). I have never thought much about writing seriously about videogames until now. When reading Bissell's engaging and personal account of what it is like to be a gamer, I found someone wrestling with similar problems to me and, perhaps, making some tentative progress towards a satisfying answer.

Eventually, I'll probably stray from the vision and goals outlined here. That seems to be the nature of blogs, but they all have to start somewhere, and so this is where Ambient Challenge begins.