Friday, August 31, 2012

Eulogy for a "Game"

     Nothing seemed amiss as I booted up and logged into my City of Heroes account this afternoon. I wasn’t planning on spending too much time in Paragon City, just enough to create a new costume for one of my characters. With neither warning nor reason, everything changed when I read the chatter on my favorite chat channel: City of Heroes is being shut down.
     For those of you who know me well it should come as no shock that this news is devastating for me. It hit me like the announcement that a family has been given two months to live. For me, this game has been more than what those four letters typically represent. I can still remember installing it on my 18th birthday and the feeling of overwhelming awe infused as the “Atlas Park Fanfare” played in the background. My first steps into Paragon City introduced me to a new world, and not simply the virtual world crafted within the game. These steps were taken at one of the lowest points in my life; a point when I rarely got out of bed in the mornings and skipped school more often than not. I’m not going to make the obvious parallel. I’m not going to say that this game allowed me to be a super hero when I was weak, because that isn’t what was important. What was important were the people I met, the community I became a part of, and the sense of power I felt when helping others learn how to play.
     It’s been 8 years since that first step, and while I may not have all the answers for a new player, and I’m certainly not one of the most well known personalities on my server, over the last 8 years, NONE of those feelings have faded from the first step to the millionth. To be able to create feelings like those is truly something exceptional; something no other game has been able to recreate. But this game has done even more for me. After playing for about a year, I finally took a step behind the scenes of the game and onto the game’s forums. I was amazed to find yet another world, wholly unique and separate from City of Heroes itself. I was able to bear witness to what is surely the most impressive and dynamic developer/player relationship in all of gaming. I saw how closely the player’s ideas, complaints, and concerns were listened to and addressed. This relationship illustrated everything I desired in a fulfilling job and pushed me to work towards a job in the video game field.
     So to learn that this game and its developers are being let go with no forewarning… it breaks my heart. Because City of Heroes has been more than any simple “game” could hope to be. No, I can honestly say that when it closes its doors, I will not be losing a game, but rather a friend and a mentor. My heartfelt thanks go out to all the developers and players that have made these last eight years so memorable. I hope you all are taking away at least a fraction of what City of Heroes has given to me.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Death of an Icon

Cityof Heroes. These three words have been at the source of more of my time spent gaming than all the Mario, Elder Scroll, and Modern Warfare games. Combined. Like any committed relationship, City and I haven’t always seen eye to eye, and I’ve had to take my share of breaks, but absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I always came back. After my latest recess from Paragon City, the world in which City of Heroes takes place, I was pleasantly surprised that the developers would soon be adding episodic content delivered on a monthly basis, much like a comic book series. But what really sent shivers of awe and anticipation down my spine was the title for the first arc, “Who will die?” with a picture of some of the signature character’s gear shattered.

A month ago, Paragon Studios, the developers behind City of Heroes answered that question, and to many people’s shock, it was the game’s most iconic hero, Statesman. For those unfamiliar with the game, Statesman is a kind of Superman analogue: invulnerable, immortal, and immeasurably powerful. AKA, the lamest kind of super hero. (For those that don’t know my opinions on Superman, allow me to enlighten you: once you have the power to have all powers, you are no longer relatable, and therefore uninteresting to me.) But I digress. Statesman was also the in-game personality of the original lead developer, Jack Emmert, who instigated a lot of bad blood with the player base (some have gone as far as claiming that he was intentionally trying to cause City of Heroes to fail) and then left City of Heroes to work on other projects. To top all of that off, Statesman is also the major marketing icon for the City of franchise, appearing on box art, load screens, and the website’s banner. And for those out there who are saying, “Yeah, but he’s still going to be in game,” or “Super heroes never really die, so it doesn’t mean anything in the long wrong,” Paragon Studios has already stated that he is going to be completely removed from Paragon City. No longer will he appear in missions, or the in game world.

Needless to say, killing him off was going to require delicate hands.

A month later, the arc in which Statesman actually died was released, and after playing through it, I was left stunned. Pulling resources from the City of Heroes comic books and novels, Paragon Studios delivered what, in my opinion, is one of the most brutal, heartfelt, and emotional deaths I have ever experienced in gaming. As your character approaches the final conflict between Statesman and his soon to be killer, a cut-scene interrupts your progress, and after the typical super powered banter, the perspective is shifted to Statesman’s internal monologue as he dies. A scene is taken straight from one of the novels, when Statesman's granddaughter asks, "Grandpa, can you fly to Heaven," and he responds that only the dead can go to Heaven. His granddaughter then asks, "Then how will you be able to see grandma, and mommy, and me when we go to Heaven if you can't die." Statesman imagines his best friend turned arch nemesis, and hopes that he can still be saved, saying, "I want to hate you, but even now at the end, I can't." Lastly, Statesman's long dead wife tells him that it's time to let go; that everyone is waiting for him and that the world never rested on the shoulders of one man. With this, Statesman is able to unburden himself and finally achieve peace.

What could have simply been a cut and dry death scene, turns into the characterization of an icon, and a tribute to the work he has done both in the game’s universe and our own. Just as the inhabitants of Paragon City no longer need to rely solely upon Statesman’s protection, as the player’s are finally capable of taking up that mantel, neither does Paragon Studios need to rely upon him for guidance or inspiration (even if they haven’t in years).

But perhaps most profoundly of all, at least for me, was that I cared. Even though I’d known for weeks what was coming, never liked him to begin with, and logged on specifically to play through this arc, it was still emotional and powerful. And that is evidence of video games as an art form on par with cinema and literature.

Well done Paragon Studios, and here’s to what comes next.

Stefan Oshinski, The Game Shrink

Monday, November 15, 2010

First Review: Fallout New Vegas

 Fallout: New Vegas

 Presentation Score: 7.2

 For the most part, Fallout: New Vegas looks pretty good for a sandbox game. With a four year old graphics engine, it won't be winning any awards for it's looks, but it doesn't make your eyes bleed either. An idea that was only brushed on lightly in Fallout 3 was light bloom upon exiting your home for the very first time. New Vegas improves on this by increasing the dynamic lighting situations, causing some truly dramatic changes. While there could have definitely been more use of this technique (I don't see any reason to ever bother with the ability you can gain to adapt to these changes in light faster), there is something truly magical about looking across the vast Mojave wasteland and seeing the light bloom of the neon signs on the Strip from anywhere in the outside world.

Yet, there were numerous times I was taken out of the game because I swear I'd heard and seen the exact same character wearing medieval armor in Oblivion, who was now supposedly a refugee two-hundred years after the nuclear apocalypse. The character models are really showing there age now, and with this being the third game to use the same engine, recycling models seems like a new step in laziness. I mean, it's the same engine, can't you at least make all new faces/hair styles?

Worse than that though, character's voice actors seem to be inconsistent with themselves, and certain dialogue trees treat you with a completely different voice responding to you from line to line. What had just been a kindly grandmother who could have been inviting you to tea the last sentence was now a very masculine, hard-assed military woman threatening to gut you and feed you to her dogs.

Gameplay: 7.5

It looks like Fallout 3, sounds like Fallout 3, and glitches like Fallout 3. In short, it's everything Fallout 3 was meant to be, as well as a few things it was afraid we'd notice. To really start analyzing this game, we first have to take a look under the hood at the game's engine. While built upon the extraordinary Havok physics engine, Bethesda's engine is showing it's age. Originally released with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion in 2006, it was a huge technological advancement over their previous title, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. The increased A.I., dynamic lighting, and rag doll physics brought new graphical realism to the series, effectively forcing thousands of computer gamers to upgrade their systems to be able to even play the game.

With all these new incredible features, players could forgive the occasional system crash, or clipping issues when objects or even enemies would "fall" into the environment, and even the physic glitches that would cause items to float or violently vibrate if you moved something near them. Unfortunately, these little bugs have grown up over the last four years and they've grown fangs.

The first new glitch I came across was maybe an hour or two into the game. I went to quick load the game, and found that it loaded a significantly old quick save. I continued playing despite this problem, but when I later reopened the game after a lunch break and chose to "Continue" from my most recent save, it loaded that old, outdated quick save again. After several frustrating repetitions of this, I was forced to exit the game, find the quick save file in the game's directory, and delete it manually before finally fixing the problem.

Several less game breaking glitches affect the A.I., such as when they lose equipment, flee from enemies instead of fighting them, and even occasionally getting stuck in place, forcing you to load saves to get them mobile again.

Ignoring the glitches (impossible though it may be) the game plays fairly well. The introduction of true Iron Sights and more accurate first person shooting made me realize how much I had missed them in Fallout 3. Truth be told, I only ever used V.A.T.S. (the targeting assisting computer) when I was being mobbed by melee attackers. This alone brought up the quality of game play enough to forgive almost all of the more minor glitches. Sadly, not nearly enough to make me forget the big ones.

What truly saves New Vegas from a bug ridden corpse is Hardcore mode. As a game play mechanic, it creates an unsurpassed sense of realism and role playing to the game. My first game was not in Hardcore mode, but I quickly started a second game in Hardcore mode and refuse to go back. Being forced to think is always a pleasant surprise, especially in the day and age of the Wii, PlayStation Move, and Kinect games.

Story/Immersion: 9.0

New Vegas' story feels like what Fallout 3 wanted to be. The humor strikes just the right cord, and little references to pop-culture like the Rodents of Unusual Side or the free form quest to gain implants being called "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" bring a smile to my face while still feeling natural within the game world. The truly branching narrative with multiple endings depending on which factions you help or hurt is refreshing in a world of false promises that claim "every decision matters".

My only complaint story wise after my time in New Vegas is that certain key factions of the Fallout universe are heavily underplayed. The Brotherhood of Steel and Enclave take the back seats of the school bus next to the NCR and Caesar's Legion. And while the stories of the Vaults are subtly woven in their cold steel corridors, the lack of any real faction belonging to them feels like a gaping void in a world that has been built upon these supposed havens.

Final Score: 7.9

Enjoyment: Medium to High

I quickly found myself losing entire days (or nights) lost in the Mojave Wasteland, which is quite a feat. Most games will take up an afternoon, or maybe four or five hours before I turn them off and find something else to do, but New Vegas had my full attention and kept it. The Hardcore mode mechanic probably added to that, as I found myself remembering to feed or give my character sleep while simultaneously depriving myself of the same. There was always another quest to complete or another location to explore, but instead of feeling like a chore I felt like a child in a candy store. And with the multiple endings and specializations a character can take, there's definitely replay value, but I personally need a break before delving back into the Vaults of New Vegas. Because of this delayed replay value, I give it a medium to a high Enjoyment factor, and recommend Fallout:New Vegas to anyone who has a lot of free time and who takes a lot of pleasure and role playing games.

The Game Shrink

How I'll Diagnose

Before I start off the very first review, I'll give you a general idea as to how, exactly, I'll be rating games. While I acknowledge that some sort of quantitative mechanism is extremely important, I really feel that numbers alone can't accurately describe a game's worth. To illustrate, let's take a look at Tetris. The graphics don't matter beyond simply being intelligible, there's no story or justification for why you're dropping blocks and creating walls, and every level is identical, with a slight increase in difficulty. Scoring this quantitatively would result in a low score at best, and something barely derivative of the game's actual worth at worst. However, twenty-six years have not diminished the incredible amount of fun Tetris provides.

There's more to a game than it's looks and narrative, otherwise they'd just be movies. Video games are games, and games, by definition, require interaction from the participant to be experienced. This participation can't be calculated easily, and is different for each and every person.

To this end, I will attempt to score games on a ten point scale based on the fairly standard categories of: Presentation, Game play, and Story/Immersion. I'll average these together to give the game a numeric score, but I will also be adding a separate qualitative category for Enjoyment. In this final category I'll explain precisely why I enjoyed or didn't enjoy a game, but it will ultimately but up to you to rate this factor for yourself.

Monday, November 1, 2010

An Introduction to The Game Shrink

Many of you probably know me already, but for those of you who don't (or those that need a refresher) I'd like to start with a simple introduction.

Video games, for me, are more than a mere hobby. I was around three or four years old when I first picked up a controller and led Mario on his topsy-turvy quest for Princess Peach on the NES. Over two decades and six generations of consoles haven’t brought any lessening of the joy I find with those joysticks. I’m not sure what it is exactly that continually draws me to video games. My best guess is a mix of the psychological rewards for completing objectives coupled with the constant input from the user in order to progress the stories. I’ve always been a fan of books,and this interaction of user and content just feels like the logical next step in storytelling. Regardless of the rationale behind the madness, video games will always be a huge part of my life.

And yet, it wasn't until relatively recently that I discovered this fascination to be better described as a life-long passion. All my life I have been on the outside, playing and consuming video games with rabid enthusiasm. My relationship with the MMO City of Heroes brought me into the development side of the industry. The unique dialogue the developers of COH have with their player base brought me onto the forums to talk with them, and it completely rocked my point of view. I decided after graduating from Virginia Tech to take my Bachelor’s in Psychology and minor in Creative Writing and use them to break my way into the gaming world.

I want to create characters that people fall in love with and want to play with again and again. I want my stories to be told and retold by gamers for generations to come. And I want to use my knowledge of people to create ever more believable heroes, villains, and everything in between, until gaming is elevated to an art form on par with film and literature. If all of that proves to be beyond my reach, then I simply want to be professionally involved in video games any way I can. In short, I want to devote my life to the industry and culture that gave me so much joy growing up in the hopes that I can return that joy to the world.

To that end, I have created this blog to share my theories and views on video games, both in specific cases and in general as a medium.