Let’s Talk About Books
April 30th, 2009

So, I made mention I was going to talk about some books, and I thought that with my last post, talking about how video games have been changing over the years, I’d go with an author who just recently jumped back into my mind.

I caught an appearance from Steven Johnson on The Colbert Report about 2 years ago when he was plugging his book, Everything Bad Is Good For You, a short, interesting piece talking about how new media, particularly television and video games, has been evolving since their inception. It’s wonderfully written and has what I find to be some solid reasoning and analysis to support his claims, although it is a little short on actual hard data, a lack of which is disappointing, as it would have made his arguments far more compelling. As it is, the book is more theory than actual hard data, sort of like a Malcolm Gladwell book without the use of studies done by psychologists, doctors, etc. I particularly liked the comparisons he did with shows from the 70s and the Sopranos, as well as his analysis of the early Zelda games with more recent one, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Johnson’s case is pretty much that the stuff that teachers, politicians and parents are worrying about ‘rotting’ the minds of the youth of today are actually doing the exact opposite, as television and video games are creating a kind of thinker that is different from ones that had existed before and is developing different thinking and learning skills. To go back to the Sopranos example, Johnson illustrates how abstract and sophisticated modern television has become, using the various plotlines, larger casts and (occasionally) abstract ideas and symbolism that is used when compared to the fairly linear television that existed in the 70s. From there, he goes on to show how modern media results in users who have to track numerous points of data and, essentially, multitask. What some people may qualify as ADD could in fact simply be an intensive form of time micro-management.

Johnson does the same thing with video games, talking about how games have become more and more multi-faceted since the early days of Pong. This is one of the reasons why I’m not convinced that games are becoming more and more ‘dumbed down’ as time goes on, as they are becoming far more intellectually intensive for folks, as there are far more things to track and take care of. I’m not going to resummarize all of his arguments, but his hypothetical argument that reverses the roles of books and video games was pretty funny, if not more than a little hyperbolic.

I should also point out that while Johnson provides examples of how things have changed, he is not trying to make blanket statements about pop culture and that folks are not instantly becoming smarter just because they watch The Apprentice over Wheel of Fortune, or that you are going to go from being a C+ student to an A student if you play a few more hours of World of Warcraft every week. Although Johnson doesn’t go into this, I’d like to think that people are like raw resources, and media and our interactions with said media, are a sort of refining of those raw resources. The issue is where those resources are used. To use a brain as oil analogy, imagine if your brain does the equivalent of a rocket ship going to colonize Mars, which is infinitely more valuable than, say, using the same resources to do doughnuts in the Wal-Mart parking lot.

I know I sound like one of those web 2.0 dipshits, a wide eyed snake oil optimist going on and on about how the sky is the limit with the World Wide Web, lawl, but I really do think that video games, television and other kinds of media are great at developing well rounded thinkers, it is simply up to educators and parents to tap into and utilize those thinking skills, along with the ones that are traditionally cultivated and developed, to ensure that students are realizing their full potential.

Anyway, enough rambling on about this particular book. I highly recommend picking it up and seeing what Johnson has to say. However, if reading about television or video games sounds like a dreary task for you, there are other works by Johnson that are equally interesting, one of which I’ve read.

The Ghost Map is an historical recount of the cholera epidemic that hit London in the mid 1800s and is a wonderfully researched affair. Johnson delves deep into the cause of the cholera epidemic, examining faulty infrastructure, popular opinion and environmental factors that led to a ‘perfect storm’ for cholera to thrive. He also looks into how medical minds of the time were able to figure out where the outbreak originated from and move away from the ‘miasma’ theory of disease, a revolutionary concept that helped to further our medical knowledge. Great stuff.

His most recent book, The Invention of Air, came out at the tail end of last year, and is another historical read, looking at Joseph Priestly, an exiled English scientist who fled to America, and the role he played in influencing the founding fathers. This is the book of his I have not yet read, but am quite keen on checking out. Based on his prior works, I should have nothing to worry about!

Unrelated, but a funny sidenote: My first rant about Dumb Decision Designs was centered around the silliness of fighting games forcing characters to unlock half the roster before they get all the characters. While my post was centered around Street Fighter IV, there are other games out there that were worse offenders, such as Marvel vs. Capcom 2, a game which has a total roster of 56 characters, but (I could be wrong here, my memory sucks) only had about half that available, forcing you to unlock new characters.

Well, Capcom announced on Monday that there’s going to be a port of MvC2 onto the PS3 and 360, but with the entire roster already unlocked. Woo hoo! See? Not all gaming companies hate you!

Dumb Video Game Design Decisions #2
April 19th, 2009

Okay, welcome to my second iteration of Dumb Video Game Design Decisions. I gotta give thanks to my little brother, Mikey. He caught my post where I was talking about having the PSP version of Final Fantasy Tactics and he helped a brother out, hooking me up with a PSP. So…thanks!

That said, I have had some time to sit down and play around with Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions, a game that was ported over from the Playstation and onto the PSP. For those who aren’t familiar with FFT, it fits into the FF family on the same branch as Chocobo Racing and Dirge of Cerebeus: games that deviate quite strongly from the JRPG formula that the Final Fantasy Series is known for. Tactics, as the name suggests, is a tactical RPG. You build a small army, using the FF job system to give them new abilities and access to different kinds of equipment. It’s very similar to Tactics Ogre, another tactical RPG, which isn’t a coincidence, given that both games had the same development team.

Like most remakes these days, War of the Lions has a bunch of new features and I have to say that unlike other remakes, WotL actually does have a bunch of new features thrown in, moreso than some other remakes, such as Chrono Trigger for the DS, or the Gameboy Advance remakes of Final Fantasy IV and VI, which basically had bonus dungeons thrown in at the end, like some sort of weird afterthought. There’s some nice stuff thrown in: fully animated cutscenes done in the game’s original art style, several new characters and 2 new job classes. There’s also some additional quests you can go through in the game, as well as some new battles involving Delita (who didn’t have as much of a role in the original game, despite him being one of the major players.) Although there were some minor complaints, such as the lag with some abilities, it’s not huge enough that it dampers my spirits.

For the most part, it’s a good game and it was a fun distraction going through and playing through Ivalice again. I know, big surprise that a self-professed FF geek is going to like an FF game. However, there is one pretty significant beef I have with the game and the decisions Square-Enix decided to make with War of the Lions. Specifically, the multiplayer features. There are two types of multiplayer available in War of the Lions: Melee, which is a sort of PvP option, where you can fight your party against other player’s parties, and the Rendezvous mode, which is basically a Co-Op mode that has all sorts of weird and wonderful battles. Oh, also, there’s tons of new gear, some of which is incredibly useful for the 2 new Job Classes that are available that can only be obtained in these 2 multiplayer modes.

See, this is a trend that is becoming ridiculously annoying with games nowadays: a focus on multiplayer functions, even if it’s not needed or necessary. More than that, though, is the insistance of tossing multiplayer features into games in a completely slipshod and random fashion. I don’t get it. More to the point, I do not understand why Square decided to shoehorn a multiplayer feature into a game that is a SINGLE PLAYER GAME. It’s like fireproofing the hull of a submarine: sure, it is a beneficial feature, but the practicality of said feature is questionable at the very best.

What I’m specifically talking about with WotL is the local multiplayer option that is available. Actually, I shouldn’t say option, as it is the ONLY way you can use the multiplayer mode in this game. There’s no official way to play this game say, online. I say official, as there are ways out there to jury rig your PSP to play with other people online, but this requires more work and you having to then find people who own a copy of the game and have gone through the same efforts as you have, which is a frustrating endeavor for the sake of simply enjoying the new content that comes with the game, a fact made all the more frustrating as the other new fights and battles that are in the Story version of the game aren’t anything particularly special. The Delita battles I mentioned earlier? Delita is specially equipped to pwn the characters you face, meaning they end inside of a minute of starting. That said, the lion’s share of the new fights are in the multiplayer mode…and they’re also the most challenging and interesting content thrown into the game.

As a sidenote, I’d like to also issue a hearty fuck you to the spectacular bastard who thought it’d be a great idea require you to finish the game in order to fully unlock all the missions available in multiplayer. For the unitiated, the final portion of the game is a sequence of battles at Orbonne Monastery that prompts you to save before continuing onwards. The game prompts you to save right before you go into these series of battles and most experienced players will NOT save the game before going on to finish the game, as there is no way to get out of these fights once you’re locked in. Basically, if you save at that point, that’s all you’re going to be able to do with your savefile.

However, the multiplayer works on a tiered system: as you progress through the game and plod through the storyline more multiplayer missions will become unlocked for you. In order to unlock the last set of missions in the game, you have to finish the game, creating a ‘Clear Game Save’ on your save file. However, to continue with the mindfuckery, you have to have not saved your game once you’ve started these battles. If you have, you’re screwed, as the game doesn’t bump you back to the world map once you’ve cleared the game, unlike virtually every other game I’ve played that unlocks new content once you’ve finished the game. It’s like Square is actively TRYING to keep you from experiencing this new content by trying to construct as many hurdles as possible.

So, again, in order to play the full multiplayer features in this game you have to:

  • Own a copy of the game (DUH)
  • Know someone else who owns a copy of the game who lives close enough to you so that you can set up a LAN game
  • Not save your game before fighting the final boss

Why would you lock out this content for what is admittedly a rather niche game? Why would you not provide an easier method of allowing users to use the multiplayer feature you provided? I honestly don’t get it.

And okay, maybe this is something that is huge over in Japan, and there are hordes of Final Fantasy Tactics fans that congregate at Final Fantasy Tactics Meetings and have tournaments and so on and so forth. Maybe I, the ungrateful gaijin, should just shut his cracker mouth and be satisfied that Square was able to port over a non-FF7 related game without laming it up too much. To that, I have to say fuck off. Final Fantasy Tactics was a cult hit on both sides of the pond and it wouldn’t have been impossible to have made the Rendezvous crap available in single player mode. I mean, fuck, they provided VOICE ACTING for the North American localization, something which didn’t happen for the Japanese version. Clearly, Square was willing to spend money on this game, so why not spend a few more dollars and make the game playable online (making it easier for people who live in Podunk, Alabama, say) or simply make the multiplayer features accessible to single players as well?

Long story short? Don’t fucking try to cram multiplayer features (or other, similarly needless features) into games that REALLY don’t need them. And if you must insist on such a course of action, make them as accessible as possible. From a marketing perspective, I can see why it’s supercoolawesome to have a laundry list of ‘features’ for the game to slap onto the back of the box, but at least make them features that people are going to be genuinely interested in.

Viva La Home Ice!
April 12th, 2009

“I don’t know how much “Moses” Sundin will impact… joking aside, says “he’s one of the 3-4 highest-paid players in the league and just hopes to help them (Canucks) make the playoffs… Is that what they’re doing over there?”- Darryl Sutter, general manager of the Calgary Flames

“He’s a big, first-line centreman who scores and plays tough. He can play against the big guys on the other team.” – Darryl Sutter, general manager of the Calgary Flames.

Funny how one’s fortunes can change so quickly, isn’t it?

It’s official: the Calgary Flames just blew a 13 point lead to the Vancouver Canucks. This coming after GM Darryl Sutter made the decision to pick up Jordan Leopold and Olli Jokinen at the trade deadline, a call that clearly indicated that he was going all in and making a run towards the ultimate prize, Lord Stanley.

But, coming off of a horrible January, the Vancouver Canucks regained their star goaltender, Roberto Luongo and ‘Moses’ Sundin, as Sutter liked to call him, started finding his groove. The Flames, on the other hand, lost games to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Atlanta Thrashers and the Tampa Bay Lightning, all teams that are in the bottom depths of the Eastern Conference. They were also shut out in back to back games, blew a huge game against the Canucks that essentially decided the division and also lost a number of bodies to injury, among them, Rene Bourque, Cory Sarich, Todd Bertuzzi and, more recently, Robyn Regehr and Dion Phaneuf.

So what happened?

Many would like to say that it was simply a matter of injuries catching up to haunt the team. While injuries did play an impact, just ask the Colorado Avalanche or the St. Louis Blues, they don’t tell the whole story. For one, the Flames top players for most of this season really haven’t been their top players. As I alluded to before, the Flames were shutout in back to back outings post-trade deadline. Flames captain Jarome Iginla wound up going without a goal in 12 of the last 20 games of the season, had no points in 9 of those 20 games and was a -5 in that span. Kiprusoff, the Flames goaltender, had goaltending stats that didn’t even rate in the top 30 in the league. While he did amass an impressive number of wins, his win percentage was horrible, ranking in at around 59%. Dion Phaneuf, the apple of Pierre McGuire’s eye, had a horrible season ending up a -11 and just being bad in general defensively speaking.

Olli Jokinen, the much celebrated ‘big centerman’ that was going to help out the club, went without a goal for 13 consecutive games and only had 5 points within that span and was a -7 during his brief tenure with the Flames.

The point of all of this? It’s to show that the issue with the Flames can’t really be pinned on one specific problem or issue. Their top players, from ‘Kipper’ to ‘Iggy’ didn’t show up. Their big deadline move, Jokinen, has been horrible for them. The Flames are set to face the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs and, if the regular season matchup between the two teams is any indicator, the Flames are looking to be bouncing out of the first round of the playoffs yet again.

The one constant in all of this, though? The same man I quoted at the beginning of this post: Darryl Sutter.

Sutter gets a lot of latitude from Calgary fans and media because of that 2004 playoff run. Hey, as a Canucks fan, I can understand it. Pat Quinn did great things for us and he took the Canucks to the Finals in 1994. Totally understandable.

The problem, though, is that Sutter can apparently do no wrong. This, mixed with his inability to recognize the problems that are plaguing the team means the Flames have been squandering great opportunities. More on that in a later post.

My advice? Get rid of Sutter and bring in someone else who isn’t stuck in the paleozic era of hockey. As a Canucks fan, I have the perfect candidate for new GM of the Calgary Flames:

Annnnd, we’re back.
April 9th, 2009

Sorry about that, folks. Life sometimes gets in the way of things and causes all sorts of HILARITY.

So, I think before I get right back into the swing of things, I’d like to take a minute and talk about web comics. Specifically, video game web comics.

No, I’m not going to go after the easy target that is CAD. That’s already been done to death by people much funnier than myself. Rather, I’m going to look at the tragic headcase that is GU Comics’ Woody Hearn and his rather horrid comic…which will hopefully segue into a larger indictment of creative types in general.

For those who aren’t aware, /gu (as it is ‘properly’ called) is a comic that initially started off as a comic strictly about the dinosaur of MMORPGs, Everquest. It was a one panel strip that dealt strictly with the game’s ‘in-jokes.’ I’ll admit, even as someone who didn’t really play EQ all that much (I dabbled in it before going ‘fuck this shit’ due to the inane time constraints the game had and the fact that, well, I wasn’t exactly on the most stable of internet connections ‘back in the day.’) some of the jokes were funny. It didn’t hurt that it was one of the few well drawn webcomics out there, and one of the few webcomics about video games that didn’t consist entirely of recycled Megaman sprites or were drawn by people who were suspected pedophiles (hi2u CAD)

This strict devotion to Everquest, and ONLY Everquest, was a huge deal. However, there are only so many times you can make jokes about how women in fantasy games wear skimpy clothing, lol, before it got old. So, when Woody decided to switch over to do comics about non-EQ stuff, it was ‘serious business.’

Over the years, GU has seen a number of scheduling changes and has devolved to provide some of the stupider cliches that permeate gaming comics. Namely, the man-child character who, were anyone sane actually living with said individual, who have killed him or had him committed to an asylum. Yes, I’m talking about Ted the hee-lar-ious ‘wacky’ character who does all sorts of zany things while Woody’s Mary Sue plays the straight man to him. Ho-fucking-hum, ain’t this a tune we haven’t heard a million times before. Other transgressions include multiple caricaturizations of Jack Thompson, something, which, again, every single gaming webcomic out there has done, making ‘Ted’ an employee of a gaming store (I think, I’m not what you’d call an ardent follower of GU…) and so on and so forth. Enough with the history lesson.

The problems with GU, though, are many and varied. The first is the art style, where Woody seems content on recycling artwork over and over and over. The particular example I provided, of the orc, whose only real differences consist of the odd change in facial expressions, can be found in other examples. It’s not necessarily a problem, per se, other cartoonists have have their characters in a default ‘costume’ (eg, Tycho and Gabe from Penny Arcade, Charlie Brown’s iconic shirt) but when you’re relaying the exact same drawing over and over? That reeks of laziness.

Especially when you look at the number of guest comics that he uses in lieu of his own content, or his own self-professed throwaway comics. Or artistic gems such as this one. There’s also his use on the Stickman ‘Poopy’ comics, which are essentially Woody’s way of going ‘sorry, no comic today!’ To me, it screams of someone doing the bare minimum to scrape by, which is funny, given that he has taken other game companies to task for being lazy, either in releasing a title, or for releasing crap games. Unfortunately, this sort of behaviour can be seen as a sort of an epidemic amongst web-cartoonists. ‘Guest’ comics, to me, are ones that are done by another, well known artist (or writer, in some cases) and are not done by rabid fans. Somewhere along the line, though, accepting the offerings from your fanbase has become an accepted practice and is one that is done by other webcomics as well. The worst example of this, off the top of my head, would be VG Cats, which has a horrid release schedule and has been using ‘guest comics’ as a way to staunch the bleeding. The difference, though, is that VG Cats, which is run by Scott Ramooholycraphisnameisworsethanminetospellar, is a side thing and Scott isn’t doing this as a full time gig. Woody, on the other hand, has GU as his main job and when you write comics that are of a stickman going ‘Sorry, too busy playing [Game X] to make a comic, piss off.’ Well…I’d like to know what employer would tolerate that sort of behaviour if given a similar response when asked why they weren’t doing any work. Have a little bit of professional pride, for pete’s sake.

Okay, this is getting sort of long, so I’m going to do some more ranting about GU Comics in a later post. I’ve got other things I want to talk about.

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