Friday, February 29, 2008

This is why blogs exist

I want share the fact that every time I see a produced video supporting Obama, I want to change sides. God, they're like Apple commercials or something.

I have half a mind to start a facebook group called " made me switch" except it would increase my involvement in facebook beyond my accepted copyright-infringing board game playing.

I won't sully this virtual ground of intellectual discourse and items of marginal interest by actually linking to the videos, you can find it if yourselves if you like. Dipdive or some shit.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Still filler...

So obviously, I continue to lie about my involvement with this blog. But work feels like work even when I'm not working. Yes this is a link blog item, but let me say I never expected to read something like this on a major gaming gossip site--a smart article about sexuality and juvenile sexuality in video games that doesn't spend all its time mired in preemptively defending itself from charges that it wants to take everyone's cheesecake frosting or equating boobs with adult material. It's one of the smartest thing ever on one of these sites really ever. Possibly the only flaw being that as the writer's expertise/interest seems to be Chinese cinema, all the examples come from there. Already one or two of the thicker set in the comments section think it's a comment on just one national culture, and not gaming culture generally.

Without delving into what the approach to narratives should be in video games, the sooner characterization in games matures past sexuality = thongs--though, first things first, we need to go by adult = sex--the sooner we can all collectively sneer off the folks who try to rationalize porn trading cards in Witcher as being character building.

It's interesting, I think, how the fact that this sort of discussion is so rare shows how much the study of video games is. It's still mostly concerned with defining what a "video game" is and the admittedly big task of figuring out the mix interactivity, game, and narrative . . . in essentially expanding the vocabulary of how you talk about games. It's so much in its infancy it hasn't even come up with pretentious term for itself yet, like "interactive novel" or vide0 games* or something.

More or less, there are a lot of John Woos, a few John Fords** out there in gaming, maybe even a Spielberg, but no Hitchcock. Which is me trying to say, conventions in games aren't common enough (mostly a strength of gaming actually, that they can be so varied) that the master manipulators work in genres of games instead of narrative genres) that we have designers playing with audience expectations just yet.*** That self-aware design cycle might've begun in adventure gaming (if adventure gaming was even half as healthy now as when Sierra was churning out franchises it might've even gone past jokes) but mostly, not enough examples of manipulating audience expectation. I don't actually like audience manipulation, it turns into cheap shocks usually, but when you're meta enough to start designing that way, that's when gaming will have really matured.

Chengora, I invite you to finish Bioshock and tell me if I'm wrong.

* You have to see the zero, and know that Art Spiegelman wants adult comics to be called comix, by the way, or it's not funny.
** Sid Meier/Miyamoto in Zelda mode
*** Penn and Teller don't count.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

I am a big fat liar, sincerely hcduvall

Content tomorrow.

I can hardly review something properly if I read it months ago, right?

It's going to be the first volume of Crossing Midnight, incidentally.

Monday, February 18, 2008

New Routine

If you really want to lose weight, cut fat, slim down, and enhance your cardiovascular fitness, there is really nothing better and nothing easier than running. Better than swimming, better than stair climber, and better than those radial things the housewives always use that the gym. I say this out of experience, not because I read it in the literature.

That's why its such a shame to live in this paved city. Not even the parks have unpaved running paths, and the longterm impact that all that pounding has on your knees, hips, and lower back probably more than makes up for the shortterm cardiovascular benefit you'll get by running here.

At the end of last year, with my sedentary job and somewhat careless eating habits, my waistline was getting out of control. In high school I stayed steady with a 30 inch waist. It moved up to 31 inches in college, and after several years of computer terminal jobs, I'm now at 32 inches. My pants have been steadily "shrinking" this year, bringing me close to 33 inches in November, so I had no choice but to put my foot down.

I had been maintaining a solid strength-weight routine for over a half year as of January and registered modest, incrimental strength gains becuase of it, but it did nothing to improve my heart health or slim me down. A super cardio/diet routine was in order, and running was out of the question because of the hard pavement, crowded sidewalks, and start-stop traffic lights around my house. I also counted out the treadmill becuase it's so horribly boring, and it is also bad for your hips. Swimming would have been a good backup option if there was a pool nearby--and there is not.

My only remaining recourse was/is the torturous stair climber. No doubt, it is an effective contraption and it can deliver a solid concentration of exercise. But in my opinion, you spend more energy wearing out your legs on the stair climber than you do increasing your heart rate, which makes it feel more like a strength routine than a cardiovascular one. Also, it hurts a lot, and it feels like you suffer twice as much to burn the same number of calories as you would running.

Mentally, any kind of machine is punishing. Unlike running outside or swimming laps, you cannot tailor your pace to your mood. You lock yourself in for a certain time and a certain difficulty, and you can't deviate from it. It is boring too, and there is little to distract your from your work other than the crap news or thinking about how much your legs hurt, yikes.

Flash back to six years ago: I was in pretty bad shape. I didn't exercise and was pretty reckless with my diet. On a whim, I decided to start running in the morning on a dirt track near my apartment. Within two months, all of the fat just melted off my body, and the whole process just seemed effortless. Unlike now, there was never a sense of forboding or dread when I started to run. I just did it. When I felt tired, I backed off, and I turned it on when I felt great. It was easy to add variety to the routine by running up stairs and doing sprints. Also, when I ran, I could zone out, look around, plan my day, and otherwise distract myself, and the workouts would always seem shorter than they actually were.

I guess there is nothing really left to say other than I wish there was more dirt in the city, more running surfaces than the concrete sidewalks, and more grass. It would be a lot easier for me to stay healthy if there were.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Narrative in RPGs

It's been ages since anyone's written, but Duvall tells me he's got a post coming up. So, in the interest of restarting this thing, I'd like to discuss something that's been on my mind. No, not the election, although a post on that may come soon enough.

No, I've been thinking about RPGs, specifically this roundtable discussion. I never really played the classic computer RPGs like Ultima, becoming engrossed in the genre during Black Isle's heyday of Icewind Dale (ID - only okay), Baldur's Gate (BG - grand and epic, but a little trite), and Planescape: Torment (PT - probably one of the finest examples of narrative).

But, as the roundtable discusses, they just don't make RPGs like they used to. Something has gone out of the narrative and immersion. American cRPGs are beginning - in my mind - to resemble Japanese ones. You're dropped into the middle of events, and you're essentially a glorified gopher. Your tasks focus on picking up the 3, 4, 8 fragments needed to put the magic weapon back together, complete the ingredients to your spell, save the world. But you have little choice in the matter, and your actions don't mean anything as a result. As important, the worlds feel "artificial:" they don't feel lived in, as if they persist both before and after your character.

And I think one of the main reasons for this drop in immersion is technology. Sure, graphics in the past few years have made a tremendous leap. The Infinity engine has nothing on the Aurora engine. But text used to play an enormous role in these games, mostly because the engines couldn’t produce the effects that were needed. Pretty lights? Sure thing. Big explosions? Check. Emotive effect through facial animation that can keep up with your dialogue choices? Uh oh.

But that was okay. Well-written text created immersive environments and effective narrative when combined with the literally thousands of characters that inhabited the BG and PT games.

With the newer technology, designers have opted for fewer characters and fancier graphics, thinking that tech can potentially substitute for the emotional content that came from narrative. But – to cite just one example – when you enter cities in Oblivion, do you notice something missing? That's right: people. The world outside may be vast and fun to explore. But the cities are sparse and lifeless affairs, because there is no background to explain WHY you should become the head of the fighter’s guild, why your choice is meaningful beyond the swag that you receive.

I think the strongest analysis in the roundtable is that RPGs have become, in effect, single player MMORPGs. No real background, no real narrative, no “world.” Which is why I’ve been finding myself getting into shooters. The best – Half-Life 2, Call of Duty 4 – tie your actions into a larger narrative much more effectively than many recent RPGs, and they do it with a variety of content and gameplay (it also helps that guns are just that much better from a first person perspective). They are immersive: nowhere near PT, but better than NWN1. But they don’t set themselves up as needing to create a coherent world.

So, RPG makers, craft a narrative that gives meaning to my choices; make me care about a character’s relationships, not about leveling up; immerse me a rich history. Give me worlds again.