Thursday, August 30, 2012

Ghost Trick expertly uses elements of visual novels.

Whenever I have a hard time thinking of what I should write for a blog post, I try to think of a game I have played and not written about. Usually I'm like "ahhh I had things I wanted to say while I was playing this and forgot all about them!" So my advice to myself is: if you play a game, write about it. I've been trying to cover some more obscure things over at Kill Screen (maybe to a fault). And it's kind of hard to find stuff sometimes! I spend a lot of time curating--reading over news from various sites and mulling over whether or not our readers would find it interesting. I should probably get less picky because it's ridiculous how much time it can take (or not take).

ANYWAY, what I really wanted to write about is how Ghost Trick basically addressed all my complaints in my post about what visual novels should learn from comics. Short recap: Things that bug the heck out of me in visual novels are 1) information redundant to the artwork, 2) artwork that doesn't pack much information in it, and 3) a slow pace. Ghost Trick avoided all of these. The narration didn't tell me things I already knew from visual information (though it did review information I needed to make sense of the plot). Characters had unique animations that brought out their personalities:

The game ended about where I was beginning to tire of the mechanics, and had a satisfying, if ridiculous, ending. It was really fun to see a game execute parts of visual novel style in such an excellent way. Some might argue that it's not really a visual novel, in which case I might just have to admit that I don't particularly like visual novels as a genre.

I feel bad about disliking most visual novels... but I think if I'm going to spend all that time reading on a bright screen I want to have some interaction with the story. If there isn't some kind of gameplay (like the puzzle sections in Ghost Trick or 999), or a branching storyline, then I might as well be reading a comic book, in my mind.

I started playing around with Ren'Py, the python-based visual novel engine, and immediately I wanted to learn about things like making choices and keeping track of statistics. I think it's more about how the elements of visual novels combine with others that make it interesting (I find reading scripts for plays terribly boring, but generally enjoy seeing them... I see visual novels as a game that's missing vital parts). On the other hand, I can see how for a budding designer, learning one or two parts of a game at a time could be really useful, fun, and instructive. Feel free to share about why I shouldn't give up on visual novels!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

We are revitalizing games journalism.

There's a piece over at Nightmare Mode by Alan Williamson about how people who are writing about videogames for free are killing games journalism. I disagree with the article in multiple ways.

First off, I don't understand why Alan is so down on people writing about games for free, since he's writing for free for Nightmare Mode and has his own games site, which he explicitly states isn't making anyone money (I've contributed to Nightmare Mode in the past, so I'm going to refer to Alan by his first name). I always thought that Nightmare Mode could at least pay its server costs from ads, but it doesn't. I honestly thought the piece was going to end with Alan telling us they couldn't afford to continue publishing like this and Nightmare Mode was going to be a thing of the past, since that's the logical continuation to me. I think he was more frustrated that good videogame criticism often goes unpaid.

Alan's cognitive dissonance notwithstanding, I disagree with him on principle. Full disclosure: I've been working as an unpaid intern for Killscreen this summer, and I've been following videogame blogs for about two years. I believe that videogame journalism needs the casual, amateur, unpaid voices. 

For game reviews, the wisdom of the masses is more useful than the opinion of a rushed journalist. When I'm thinking of buying a videogame, I overwhelmingly trust things like Amazon reviews, which have little vested interest in maintaining a relationship with a PR contact for more review copies. Amazon reviews have a great variety--people who are fans of the series, people who play lots of games casually, and people who bought the game for their offspring. Basically the only thing professional game journalists have over Amazon reviewers is that they get to have the game sooner, and have an excellent grasp of the politics surrounding the publication of certain games. 

Really good game criticism is hard to find. I'm not talking about "yes! you should rent this game!" I'm talking about criticism that makes me appreciate a game I thought was terrible, or that helps me see the world in a different light. To me, reading really good game criticism is almost more fun than actually playing games. I think big game outlets are gradually realizing this, since they've been snatching up my favorite bloggers. Free games journalism isn't killing paid journalism; it is revitalizing it. 

You don't have to pour hours of research into writing a really good analysis of the level structure in Wolfenstein or a feminist critique of Monkey Island. You do need a good background in literary theory, though almost any liberal arts degree can give you that. Basically, I think videogame criticism can be really good even if it wasn't paid criticism. In fact, I think that unpaid articles are often less frought with "what does my editor want to see on the site?" and "what will give us the most hits?" and more concerned with what individuals writers are passionate about. 

It's perfectly possible to create good writing and get paid for it, I'm just saying that getting paid for writing adds a layer of external concerns. Sometimes those external concerns are about maintaining relationships with videogame developers, whereas an amateur who isn't making a career in games journalism might be more free in their criticisms simply because they don't have a working relationship with the publishers.

Alan's best case against free games journalism is when he states that investigative journalism requires more time and research than a casual interest can justify:
Researched writing is valuable. Investigative journalism is an essential check on the powers of the state, and games journalism is vital to protect us consumers from the motives of greedy corporations, never mind moving the artistic medium forward. I love writing, but frankly I can’t carry out that kind of research and hold a full-time job as well. If that research is your full-time job, whether salaried or freelance, your work will be better for it and readers will appreciate it more. Without the insightful criticism and investigative work that paid journalism allows, you’re left with ten thousand trite reviews and a smattering of Top Ten lists.
Alan's correct in that really good investigative journalism requires a lot of effort, and that the videogame industry would benefit from it, but the majority of stories have nothing to do with investigative journalism beyond "oh so-and-so posted this unpolitic thing on Twitter/Facebook." The most recent debacle with OnLive seems like it could have used some investigative journalism. The Escapist, which prides itself on doing journalism right, noticed that PopCap studios was also having some layoffs, but concluded that "the issue may warrant further investigation." It kind of feels like no one is doing this investigative journalism that Alan speaks of. Maybe there is some good investigative journalism out there and I'm not hearing about it?
so much... investigative journalism?

I think the bigger issue is probably that readers simply aren't as interested in company layoffs as they are in the teaser trailers from Gamescom. Sites that have paid content have plenty of top ten lists--to what mythical paid journalism does Alan refer? I believe he's thinking of more "highbrow" publications...

Alan ends in urging us to put our money where our mouth is and pay more money for existing, impressive magazines like Edge and Killscreen. I think that's a great idea, but Mattie Brice's piece on how our monied culture excludes those who can't afford to vote with their dollars haunts me. If we can't afford such publications, why not support good, free writing by reading it, thinking about it, and responding to it? To me, a community of critical thinkers is much more valuable than my subscription to Killscreen. I agree that the features we used to have daily on the Killscreen website were often really good videogame writing, but I also believe that Nightmare Mode has had articles that are just as good. Your voice matters to me even if you are not paid for it.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Summer videogames!

Hello everyone! In gaming I find I tend to cycle between playing lots of games and then not playing games and writing about them a lot. Right now I've been playing lots of games! So here's some games I've been playing in the last month I've decided to start an Amazon affiliate* account, so many links will be to Amazon. Steam has good deals too! :-) Most indie games aren't sold on Amazon, but I'll still talk about them, cause they're also awesome:

Pro Games
Psychonauts -You explore other people's brains in this action RPG from 2005. I love the collection and exploration aspects. Getting different abilities and trying them out in the world is fun too! I want to make a backpack like Rasputin's. The PC port is terrible, but my handy USB xbox controller fixed this problem. There's a lot of superfans of this game, which kind of turned me off for a while, but then a game scriptwriter, Rhianna Pratchett said it was like her favorite game ever.

Catherine -A puzzle/dating sim... I really like the moving-block puzzles, but I find the boss levels kind of ugly and unfun. I kind of wish the story were more upbeat (it's about a man cheating on his girlfriend), but at least it's weird enough to be unpredictable, and the anime cutscenes look good too.

Persona 4 Arena -I suck at fighting games, but luckily visual novel mode (yep! visual novel + a few fights) is easy enough for even my frenzied button-mashing. Some of the writing is a little lame but the fighting system has plenty of depth if I'm willing to put in the time to learn it (I might not be). I admit that I just got this game because I want to be in on all the Persona fandom... though I have yet to beat Persona 3 (I'm in September now!).

Sound Shapes -Really cute rhythm platformer for the Vita. Okay, you don't really have to have any sense of rhythm to play it (mostly timing... does that count as different?), but it's themed around collecting notes in a song that plays as you play. You can build your own levels too! Reminds me a little of Mutant Space Blobs Attack only more arty.

Indie Games
Long Live the Queen -A time management stat-cruncher! I loved the idea but I found it wasn't as flexible as Princess Maker 2 because it had kind of a story. I really liked how stats affects how you reacted to things, and how some of the classes (like foreign policy, a subcategory of history) seemed to be... really relevant for a queen-in-training. I might give it another go; the mood bonus system for learning actually requires quite a bit of planning.

The Sea Will Claim Everything -I've just been playing the generous demo but the free The Fabulous Screech will give you a good idea of the unique art style, point-and-click mechanics, and zany, Pratchett-like humor in a short, browser-based game. I love reading through the book names for gems like The Importance of Puns in the Release of Magical Energies, by Magister Erasmus of Zauberberg and The Voyage of the Darwin by Peter S. Beagle. Lana Polansky has played more of it and wrote a review praising its slower pace and political commentary.

Run -This experimental game has a soundtrack that's still running through my head! The story is a little weird, but I like that developers are messing around with how minigames can connect to each other.

What games are you playing this summer? Did you really hate a game I liked? Let me know in the comments!

*The deal with Amazon Affiliate links is that if you click an affiliate link, I'll get a 4% commission of anything you buy in the next 24 hours. I have no idea if it will make me any money, but I think it's worth a shot.