GUEST POST: Nostalgia is a thing that is sold at Hot Topic

Following on from my post on the Americanisation of gaming history I invited fellow games enthusiast, writer and friend, Matt Mason to lend a US perspective on the issue…

ClashatdemonheadSPMatt - When I see a fresh-faced kid walking down the street, pants a bit too skinny and his hair a bit too foppish, wearing a shirt emblazoned with an NES controller and the word “roots” underneath it, I kind of have to shake my head.

Someone bastardized my childhood and made an industry of it.

The fine gentlemen of A Most Agreeable Pastime offered me the chance to try and redeem the seeming Americanization of videogame history. But…I can’t in all honesty do that. Sir Gaulian was right: the internet has kindly swept the likes of the Commodore 64 and Sega Master System under the rug in favor of a culture that was built upon Nintendo Entertainment Cereal, cartoons starring portly plumbers and other things stamped with an the big N’s gold-crested “seal of quality.”

That’s what tends to happen with history though; we’re never given the nitty-gritty details, just the glossy and happy iteration that looks good in a book somewhere.

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial obviously killed the Atari and video games as we know it. It had nothing to do with salacious software like Custer’s Revenge, in which you raped a Native American woman tied to a cactus or Chase the Chuck Wagon, the blatant advertisement in which you played as the titular carriage from Purina’s dog food commercials.

1UPElectronic Arts has become the most terrible corporation because of its market manipulation, odd pricing schemes and abhorrent micro-transactions. But in no way is it gamers fault because they bought into it all in the first place, leading EA to consistently expand upon those dirty trends.

We don’t want to hear the whole story – just the one that succinctly wraps it up in a bow and makes it look like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

By definition nostalgia is “a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.” It is by no means a tangible thing; but with the right sway, you can feel nostalgic even if it’s for something you haven’t experienced first-hand. Hence the aforementioned kid, probably not even a twinkle in his parents’ eyes when the NES came to be, living it up like he’s on to something nobody else is.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m all for younger generations playing the games of yore, if not for how engaging they can be than to at least look at them with an analytical eye and appreciate them for what they did. You can’t blame those who came after you for not necessarily enjoying them in the same way you did; it’s hard to fathom that the amount of tech and memory that’s used to animate Mario today is probably somewhat equal to the entirety of the original Super Mario Bros.

What is weird is how when people ingrain themselves in a culture, and I don’t mean just in videogames, is that they kind of adopt social norms and take certain things as givens. Of course the NES was the roots of gaming; people within say it is and Hot Topic sells a shirt to corroborate that fact. Sure, arcades, home computers, Atari, ColecoVision, ZX Spectrum, Odyssey, Fairchild and Intellivision came before it; but damn it the NES was where it all began.

IntellivisionLogo

As humans, we have this predilection to remember the more dramatic things life has to offer. The more exciting, the more titillating, the more traumatic the better. Or, in the case of videogames, the more marketed, the more exposed, the more ingratiated the better.

This whole post came about because of an interesting exchange I had with Sir Gaulian about an uber-obscure NES game called Clash at Demonhead. He had mentioned it as a pillar in the NES’ history, when in reality it was anything but. He didn’t know any better; he just heard the name in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and assumed as much. I don’t know anybody who’s actually played it; hell, I’ve never actually seen a copy. But because Brian Lee O’Malley encountered it and named a band in his book after it, suddenly it was as big a part of classic games thinking as playground strategy sessions and Electronic Gaming Monthly.

We are a culture that is inundated with ideas, thoughts and opinions that sometimes we forget to make out our own. When I started having kids, I so badly wanted to teach them the ropes, have them play the classics and apply their experiences to the games of today that I forgot to let them nurture their own nostalgia. My oldest son feels about Minecraft the way I do about Super Metroid. Instead of holding that against him, I should let him expound on it. He may never play EarthBound, Mega Man 2 or Secret of Evermore and I have to be OK with that.

Instead of griping about the kid in the NES controller t-shirt whom never knew its initial impact, I should applaud him for at least acknowledging the past. Not every little tidbit is going to be discovered; but he’s on the right track. Not every game is going to be well-renowned, played ad naseum and debated upon. But that doesn’t make them any less important. They meant something to someone, even if it was just the developer who created it or the store clerk who stocks it or the kid who randomly finds it at a rummage sale.

Even though it may not get the recognition or cultural clout that you wished it would, the fact that your favorite game/console/experience happened at all should be enough. And it is.

Thanks to Matt for providing a uniquely American perspective on the early years of video games.   You can follow him on Twitter (@MHMason) or visit his blog at Obtain Potion.  Join me in thanking Matt in the comments.

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Player Manager: Why I’ll buy Football Manager Classic 2014 on Vita

FMClass14Anyone who grew up alongside Commodore’s home computer powerhouse, the Amiga 500, recognises the name Dino Dini.  As the man responsible for the incredibly popular Kick-Off series, his name is etched into all of our brains as one of the grandfathers of virtual football.  Kick-Off was fast, frantic, and a hell of a lot of fun, and for anyone only now learning about the wondrous world of 80′s and 90′s home computer games, should be one of your first ports of call.

Perhaps even more influential however was Mr Dini’s Player Manager, widely considered to be one of the first, and certainly my first, football management sim.  A simple team and player management system was placed over the existing Kick-Off ‘engine’ to make what is still to this day one of the best, and easy to learn, examples of virtual football management.  And I spent days, week, months, with the game that in my view gave rise to a genre.

Fast forward a decade and Sports Interactive’s Football Manager series (or Championship Manager as it was originally known) caught my imagination in much the same way Player Manager did all those years ago.  There is nothing quite like the feeling of taking a struggling team to glory, or taking a virtual version of the team you support to the Champions League final.  Football Manager has always been about carefully balancing risk with reward while being as efficient as you possibly can with spending and roster management.  It is like one massive economic problem ready to be solved; albeit one dressed up in short shorts and a muddy strip.  And the obsessive in me won’t stop until I’ve taken my team to the top.

To me Football Manager is a giant sandbox full of an almost infinite number of possible combinations to experiment with.  Sure its nice to buy all of those dream players that Feyenoord could never afford in real life and build the modern-day equivalent of Rinus Michels’ 1974 Dutch world cup squad, but there is even more satisfaction in scouting and buying up a team of largely unknown quantities and building up to something big.  “It may not happen overnight, but it will happen”, you tell yourself as your team slumps to the 10th loss for the season.  “I just need one more game”.  And so you tweak, experiment and perfect your craft.  It is a feeling unrivalled in the gaming world, and I suspect the reason for the series’ incredible success over the years.

The problem is Sports Interactive’s games are so comprehensive and full of options that it is now at a point where its just overwhelming.  Spreadsheet after spreadsheet of information is presented in a precise and clinical fashion with a near flawless level of detail, begging you to get down into the nitty gritty and micro manage every aspect of your team’s operation.  One loss and you’ll be searching for answers in training regimes, contract clauses and player dynamics.  It is ostensibly the perfect simulation of football, if not the perfect simulation of the humanity.  But after a long day’s work I honestly just cannot be stuffed.

So it was with great sadness that I gave up a seemingly lifelong Football Manager habit . That was until the Playstation Portable versions.  The not-quite feature full versions of the game struck the perfect balance between accessibility and complexity to draw me back into the world of football managing.  Buying and selling players, tweaking set pieces and formations and managing training regimes became second nature and before long I was spending time staring into space during the day contemplating how I was going to beat cross-country rival Ajax.  Perhaps paradoxically while it was the digestibility that drew me in, it was the hidden complexity and nuance that held me there.  The slick and streamlined interface hides this surprising amount of depth beneath its surface in what is either a stroke of game and interface design genius, or a happy accident.  Football Manager is known for its complexity and completeness, bur the fact is the stripped down PSP versions took me back to the days of the simplistic joy Player Manager where you are always just one game away from success if you play your cards right.

I feel like Football Manager Classic is built for me, the 30-something that grew up honing their football management craft, and now has less time on their hands to rekindle that love affair. It feels like Football Manager and plays like Football Manager, but instead of the oversaturation of information in the game propr, is built upon the same core values of simplicity and accessibility that made Player Manager so compelling and addictive in the 1990′s.  When it comes down to it, really when all is said and done, Football Manager ‘lite’ filled a spot in my gaming repotoir I save for pick up and play experiences.  A player transfer on the train, a sneaky game at work, a touch of roundball before dinner, and a spot of Football Manager before bed.  Either way it made managing footy on the go absolutely essential portable gaming that I’d kick myself for passing up on the Vita.

 

Playermanager

 

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The great videogame retCON: how the internet has Americanised our gaming history

competitionproA500Or Americanized….

I never owned a Nintendo Entertainment System and in fact only knew a handful of people that did.  But if you talk a stroll through the virtual pathways of the internet you’ll likely find hundreds if not thousands of Australian video game enthusiasts in their 30′s and beyond spouting their eternal and undying love of all things Nintendo.  They’ll say how they’ve always been fans of Nintendo and how getting an NES on Christmas Day in the mid-eighties changed their lives for the better and kickstarted their interest in video games.

I’m not calling these people liars, but they certainly weren’t the same kids I knew as young lad growing up in Australia.

I grew up right alongside the renaissance of videogames in the 1980s, right after the industry’s fabled full-scale collapse in 1983.  But in Australia, and probably Europe and the United Kingdom, they never went away.  Atari was most definitely a thing, and almost every household I have ever been to has an old Atari sitting in an attic somewhere gathering dust, but it didn’t signal the end of all things interactive entertainment like it did in the United States.  In fact it didn’t really register on our radars.

You see there was this little company called Commodore that, through much of the 1980′s and arguably the early 1990′s, cornered the market to become the premiere destination for games in Australia.  While the 16-bit era saw Mega Drive and Super Nintendo kiosks at big retailers spruiking the latest in console-based interactive entertainment, prior to that it was almost unheard of to see an NES in the wild.  No, down here it was all computer monitors running the latest Amstrad, Commodore 64, and later Amiga 500 (and ill-fated 2000) games. Shadow of the Beast, Space Ace, and the still incredibly impressive Stunt Car Racer were centre-pieces of electronics stores and department stores, wowing not just kids that wanted to find a home computer under the tree at christmas time, but also the parents who were blown away at the cinematic quality that these machines were pushing.  Commodore, and to a lesser extent Amstrad, were household names rather than phenomenons restricted to the younger consumer.

It was a truly universal thing, and school yard discussions were less focused on Super Mario or the Legend of Zelda, and more on West Bank, Strange Loop, and later,  Shadow of the Beast.  This was helped in no small part by the rampant piracy of  software, particularly on Commodore platforms, with programs like X Copy taking pride of place as the premiere software used to copy and share games between friends in the school yard.  It was part of the culture of the industry at that time, and as most people of my age, we were just ignorant children who wanted to experience the latest Sensible Software release.  So while children in United States schools were talking about the Clash at Demonhead, in Australia we were plotting global conquest in what is arguably Peter Molyneux’s best work, Power Monger.

PowerMonger

It would be remiss of me to discount the impact that consoles had in this time, though.  The Sega Master System, released in the mid-eighties, enjoyed tremendous success in Australia and was a tour de force in the country well into the Mega Drive’s life.  The release of the Master System II in 1990, in hindsight a real oddity of a system in the context of its time, gave it legs to really sit side by side with its big brother on store shelves.  But as far as consoles go, while Alex Kidd was all the rage, Mario didn’t really hit his peak of popularity until Super Mario World and chances are most people had their first experience with NES Mario in their enhanced Super Mario All-Stars form.  An NES was a rare sight in the 1980′s and it wasn’t until much later that many of us, myself included, had the chance to experience many of the games heralded as classics by the American and Japanese retro gaming enthusiasts. To me Duck Hunting was something the royal family did, and Zelda was a rather pretty name for a young lady who was new to the school.  I’m being a tad dramatic, but I think you get my point.  To drive my point home there was one kid in my year level at primary school who owned an NES.

Then things started to change, something I put down to the incredible popularity of the Game Boy in school yards across Australia, and the resurgence of arcades fuelled by the likes of classics such as NBA Jam, Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat.  While Commodore’s popularity waned and its business case started to crumble, led by the abject failure of the Amiga 2000, and more importantly, the Amiga, CD32, the japanese giants of the industry started to gain ground on traditionally dominant home computers.  Instead of toting your Competition Pro to a friend’s house for an afternoon of Speedball, you were toting around your SNES or (more likely) Mega Drive pad for a round of Mortal Kombat.  And I will tell you now that it was more likely to be the version with the blood.

By the early 1990′s the era of the console had begun in earnest.  The market dominance of the console manufacturers in the United States and Japan meant that they had the clout and money to draw developers into sinking huge amounts of capital into porting these technical powerhouses at the time to consoles.  The massive arcade renaissance was driving consoles into Australian homes at a rate of knots as consumers demanded arcade-perfect experiences in the comfort of their homes.  Retailers were pulling down their mounted Amiga displays and replacing them with stations playing Killer Instinct and Streets of Rage.  Japan had won and the era of the home computer as we knew it was over.  While PC gaming picked up a lot of the Amiga crowd years later, it never quite reached the same critical mass as Commodore had reached and maintained for more than a decade. It was an absolute paradigm shift for the industry down under, and one that would set the scene for the successes of Playstation and Xbox a decade later.

Read the internet, though, and this isn’t the way it went down.  I admire the dedication to Nintendo who admittedly an incredibly influential and important company in the history of video games.  As a business it brought an entire industry back from the brink and was responsible for delivering to consumers some of the most well-loved and pervasive game series’ of all time.  But while they were around, they weren’t the be all end all.  Unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, the dominance by American outlets of retro gaming discussion on the internet has led to much of our own unique video game history being revised with people emulating their experience.  There are plenty of people wearing 8-bit 1UP t-shirts, but where are the Amiga 500 t-shirts or the vinyl statues of the Bitmap Kid?   It is not uncommon for people of my age to proclaim that their first great love was Princess Zelda, which isn’t impossible, but from my experience very unlikely.  But we are more likely to bore you to tears with tales of Turrican, Cannon Fodder or Kick Off.  I’m not calling for complete disregard for the incredible impact both the United States and Japan had on making the industry what it is today.  But I am asking that we don’t forget where we came from and how we all became who we are today.  The kids of today may not remember the pioneers of the home computer scene we grew up with, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t at least know about them.  After all, they’re why I’m here writing this today.

Did you grow up playing videogames in Australia or the United Kingdom during the 1980′s and 1990′s?  Does this stack up against your experience?  Tell us in the comments below.

BitmapBrothers

 

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Step up and save the world brick by brick, True Believer

As the message comes up in the corner of the screen I can’t help but think to myself “I never do this”.  But here I am, just over 30 hours later with a shiny new Platinum trophy in my virtual ‘trophy cabinet’.

I can’t stress enough – I never do this.

Lego Marvel Super Heroes set something in my brain off that has laid dormant since I was a young lad.  It was this unquenchable thirst to find, see, and do everything the admittedly enormous game had to offer.  After finishing the game’s main story campaign, my usual signal to shelve a game never to be seen again, all I could think was how glad I was that I had barely scratched the surface of what it had to offer.  Admittedly, I am somewhat of a lapsed Marvel Comics fan, and so seeing the characters and worlds I am (or was) familiar with sent waves of pleasant nostalgia through my brain as it pulls out all the fan-service stops it has to tickle that bone in comic book die-hards.  And the sheer magnitude of content in Lego Marvel is incredible, with every corner of the expansive Marvel universe scaled for characters and references, to make it easily the most comprehensive game to don the Marvel license since Marvel Ultimate Alliance II way back in 2008.  Even then it has only just scratched the surface of the worlds contained in the comics (fans of Bishop, Cable and Mr Sinister, you’ll have to wait for the inevitable sequel, I’m afraid).

Galactus

And this is the exact reaction the game elicits.  Within minutes I was remembering storylines from comic books I read 15 years ago, long-forgotten but much-loved characters I had sketched crude impressions of in high school sketchbooks, and conversations with schools mates about who would win in a fight between <name your character> and <name your character>.  Within hours I was setting up unlikely alliances between foes and recreating famous moments from the comics I buried my head in as a youth, just to take screenshots and share them with friends online.  It was an odd regression, an odd flashback to a younger and more carefree and imaginative version of myself, given rise to simply by being presented with fictional characters and places I  know and let loose with only my imagination as constraint.  In that respect Lego Marvel Superheroes, for me at least, goes to the very core of what sandbox games can and should deliver, and made me realise why I couldn’t invest myself in Grand Theft Auto V or Saints Row IV.

The developer knows that its strength is its source material and fan-service and the game is clearly designed and incentivised with this impulse in mind.  It dangles the prospect of new characters to play with in front of your nose to complete sometimes even the most mundane tasks.  Why the Silver Surfer desperately wants pizza is beyond me, but hey, if that means I get to surf my way around Manhattan I don’t much care. That same sentiment holds for the entire game – you’ll repeat the same basic mission types and activities over and over again and won’t give it a second thought because of what it will give to you in return.  You’d think collecting coins in the hundreds of thousands would devalue any currency it has, but the reality is that the sheer prospect of unlocking the Taskmaster or that alternative Cyclops will make your overactive critical eye blind to any potential balance or economy issues, even when the fourth-wall breaking Deadpool cleverly brings it to your attention.  Simply put, it is so well designed that you’ll find yourself having unqualified fun.

SentinelvWolverine

I should mention that all of this is wrapped around the same old Lego formula Traveller’s Tales have been peddling for years.  But that’s a second order issue in the grand scheme of things.  I don’t think anyone could, or has for that matter, stood up and claimed that the Lego games are mechanically dense or terribly cerebral experience.  Marvel Superheroes is no different in that respect.  But it knows its not and works well within the confines of what ostensibly is a game aimed at a younger audience, to deliver a thoroughly entertaining and compelling package for people of all ages.  It is clear to  Traveller’s Tales’ Lego games have always been about their licenses, and to that end Lego Marvel Super Heroes is absolutely the best yet.  But it also happens to be an intelligently designed game that favours content over depth, and is probably better for it.  The flashes of inspiration that make this game so special aren’t in what it does with artificial intelligence, or deep and complex mechanics, it is how it makes the Marvel Universe come alive in a way that I’m not sure has ever been equalled outside of the source material itself.  If you play the game’s lengthy storyline once, you’ll find a sound and whimsical dalliance through a Lego-fied Marvel Universe with household superheroes you know and love.  But if you choose to continue that journey in pursuit of that 100 per cent completion rating, you’ll find the greatest love letter to Marvel comics ever written.  And that love is absolutely contagious.

MagnetoProfX

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From The Armchair: All Aboard The VR Hype Train

ArmchairWhat-ho, chums. It seems that barely moments after out last little chat about VR, Facebook caused the gaming community to fall off their bar stools in astonishment by buying Oculus Rift for a whacking great sum – $2 billion to be exact. Not exactly small change, but ’tis but a drop in the ocean for the hulking moneywhale that is Facebook. I must say, the move rather caught me on the hop, and it certainly had the community in uproar. The immediate reaction was one of horror that an ‘evil’ megacorp had stolen ‘our’ company to use for nefarious ends, probably involving FarmVille or Candy Crush, or some other such insidious free-to-play mugger game. But on the other hand, it could also be seen as a healthy sign that the technology we’ve all learned to love is finally, after years in development, about to wade out into the mainstream.

I sympathise with the naysayers in some respects, especially those who funded Oculus through Kickstarter using their very own cash, simply from a will to see the technology succeed. It highlights a very real problem with Kickstarter – namely that it works fine for small projects where the end result is simply a game that never would have been made otherwise, but when it comes to kick-started new technology, the backers end up short-changed. If those backers had bought shares in Oculus in the traditional sense of the word, they would now be on the receiving end of a healthy financial return thanks to Facebook’s money cannon, and more to the point would have a say in what happens to the technology. As it is, they’re left wondering what on earth will happen to the fantastic contraption that they helped into the world. Will it evolve into the revolutionary gaming machine that was sold to them? Or will it become simply a fancy gizmo for watching basketball ‘as if you’re in a ringside seat’, as Mr. Zuckerberg so bizarrely touted? Only time will tell.

Despite the Facebook buyout, or more likely because of it, the hype behind VR is escalating to absurd levels. This week the CEO of Epic Games claimed that VR will be “bigger than smartphones” – a comment that was rightly subjected to scathing scepticism. As I espoused from the comfort of my armchair last week, VR will be big, but not that big – the very fact that the technology requires one to don a medieval-style helmet necessarily limits its application, and this will instantly put off many people from using it. VR is unlikely to entirely usurp the more traditional way of playing games with a controller and TV, mostly because it still makes a lot of people feel sick, and fast-paced games really aren’t suited to the medium. I see it developing more along the lines of Kinect – a massive buzz will lead to rapid sales, but many will quickly dismiss the tech as a novelty. However, unlike Kinect, there will remain a dedicated and hardcore following who will wholly embrace the technology. Augmented reality systems such as Google Glass, on the other hand, are likely to become more mainstream, but I still doubt whether they will gain the market penetration of smartphones.

In other news, Amazon entered the console market. After a fashion. Their set-top box allows users to stream games, but mostly it appears to be focused on allowing purchasers to watch Amazon’s video content. The fact that the game controller is sold separately indicates that games are an afterthought, and I doubt many readers of A Most Agreeable Pastime will be enticed by the prospect of the hundreds of free-to-play games said to be in the works for the system – for this gentleman at least, the words ‘free-to-play’ have become synonymous with ‘we-will-attempt-to-rip-you-off’.

To be honest, I am left utterly clueless as to the market for Amazon’s Fire TV. Most gamers have consoles through which they can stream Netflix, etc. and aren’t interested in free-to-play games, and most non-gamers already stream such content through laptops, tablets or services like Sky. Add in the fact that Internet TVs are getting ever cheaper and offer the same streaming services, and I’m left pondering the point of Amazon’s new device.  Oh, and that controller looks awful, doesn’t it? Like a cheap knock-off of an Xbox One controller you might find on the local market, perhaps with a neon, star-shaped label attached, scrawled with “Genyuine X-boX 1 Controler! £9.99!!!!”

amazon_fire_tv_controller

“Genyuine X-boX 1 Controler! £9.99!!!!”

Back in The Manor, it’s been an eventful week, as I finally finished both Fire Emblem: Awakening and L.A. Noire. Ms. D. and I were both impressed by the ending of the latter – which crescendoed in classic film-noir style. I’m saddened that our nights in with Cole Phelps and co. have come to an end, and I dearly hope that L.A. Noire 2 eventually emerges, although we may be in for a long wait. In the meantime, however, I’ve been consoling myself with the purchase of Steamworld Dig on the 3DS, which has proven to be an excellent buy… but I fear I’ve waffled on for too long already to tell you more: I shall leave that one for next time.

Toodle-pip!

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Video game culture has evolved? More like devolved.

I am embarrassed to say I play games.  Not because it’s an unvirtuous or unjustifiable pastime, but because of what being passionate about games has come to represent.  We like to think we are more sophisticated and relevant than people that follow the Kardashians, hanging on their every word, waiting for their next nipple slip.  We are not.  We like to think that because we self-define videogames as art that vitriol and gossip about their makers is more sophisticated than scuttlebut about Miley Cyrus’ sexual escapades.  It’s not.  We like to think that our own subjective views are the only one true objective view about anything, ever.  They are not.

You just have to look at the rumours and speculation surrounding the departure of Amy Hennig from Naughty Dog, the subsequent speculation, and the heavy handed response from Naughty Dog setting the record straight, to see that something is wrong.  Even after that Kotaku ran a story purporting to clarify the situation, only to then discredit it and perpetuate the unfounded accusations levelled at Naughty Dog.  It was later revised, removing the inflammatory commentary by the author, but the question remains as to why it was published before it was subject to editorial control.  It is a broader problem than just lays with Kotaku, but it is one that is exacerbating an already rampant culture of disrespect and rumour-mongering that exists within the industry.  And it happened again with the departure at Evolution Studios

Screenshot_2014-03-07-16-04-25

Rumour and speculation has always been a solid pillar of participating in the video game industry and its culture more broadly.  But it was never so personal, harsh and damaging.  The rumours published we about the existence of Sheng Long in Street Fighter, or a nude code for Lara Croft in Tomb Raider.  They were playful attempts at playing on the passions of people that enjoy video games.  It was all a bit immature and showed the youth of the industry, but it was fun and in good humour, and for the most part never hurt anyone.  Things have changed, as they should.  The medium has matured and the industry has become much bigger than it was.  But everything around the industry has gone backwards.

And its all about not just people feeling entitled to their own opinion, but that their opinions are right.  That no one else has a view or that their views aren’t worth anything.  It would be fine if they disagree silently but all too often it devolves into a slanging match of sarcasm and self-righteousness on twitter, message boards or comments sections of popular websites.  The worst part is this usually involves so-called industry-luminaries, the video games media, justifying their own positions in a heavy-handed or snarky fashion.  You just have to look at some of the exchanges between people on the Facebook acquisition of Oculus VR to see the sheer amount of arrogance and misinformation being bandied around in positions of influence.  And while many of them are quick to distance their tweets from their professionally written work, the fact is there should be no distinction.  If you’re selling yourself as a personality and an authority, that counts as much at the dinner table as it does at the podium.

If these are the people we have to look up to as beacons of hope for the future of the culture surrounding our favourite pastime, things aren’t looking great.  Across the board gaming culture fuelled by the anonymity and convenience of the internet has devolved into a spout of vitriol, ill-will and arrogance, and is driven by egos rather than excellence.

There are beacons of light, of course, with Giantbomb’s Patrick Klepek representing a level-headed and respectful approach to games journalism, and I have a new-found respect for the understanding of the business world as well as thoughtfulness in writing of professionals like Pocketgamer.biz’s Keith Andrews.  But it’s not enough, and if we want the industry and the culture of video games to be respected more broadly, we need to start with ourselves and how we interact with each other.  I’m not sure anyone has but it quite as perfectly and succinctly as Polygon’s Justin McElroy when he tweeted:

Games are mature, they are relevant and they are absolutely an important part of our social fabric.  But we need to reflect that in the way we as consumers and commentators conduct ourselves.  So instead of McDonald’s receipts perhaps consider getting that tattooed on your arm as a constant reminder to be a good video game industry (and internet) citizen.  And this applies doubly to those that get paid to do so.

Do you think the games enthusiast press and internet commentators need a kick in the arse?  Tell us in the comments below.

ShengLong

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Stealth games can learn from human behaviour in public toilets

You sit there in a dark corner of an otherwise lit courtyard.  There are three armed men, vigilant in their task to find someone, anyone, that dares try and steal their secrets from the server room.  They’re searching for you, the super spy tasked with bringing an end to the cold war-esque rise of a wayward nation state, the only man who can put an end to the crisis.  You sit there, heart pounding, waiting for your opportunity to make a clean break for it – or die trying. 

There’s just one problem- You know you’ll never be found.

GarretI really like Stealth games and find myself in an enviable position as Thief currently occupies my Xbox One and Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is about to sit in my Playstation 4.  Rest assured I will drain every ounce of gameplay from them as I sneak, shoot and strangle my way through carefully choreographed courtyards and corridors, dashing in and out of the shadows, and making opportunistic dashes across lit areas out of sight of the enemy.  There is nothing quite like ‘outsmarting’ enemy AI and getting to your objective unseen and unheard. I like procedural things, methodologies, processes – I like to think that the world is governed by a simple set of rules and that if you follow those rules you’ll more likely succeed than not.  Those rules aren’t necessarily ‘fair’, but they make navigating life a hell of a lot easier than it would otherwise be.

But within this order, I also like an element of randomness within the bounds of the ruleset.  I don’t want things to be entirely predictable, because predictability may as well be synonymous with monotony, but I want enough in the way of stochasticity to make things interesting. A while ago I wrote about how way back in 2002, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell blurred the line between playing a game and understanding it.  It required an understanding of how the game world would react to your input, and how to exploit the game’s rules to win the game.  And Stealth games by their nature require this type of implicit communication between player and game designer in order to succeed.   And that was amazing at the time as the game appeared to present almost unlimited freedom to approach the scenarios, the logic problems, presented to the player.   The artificial intelligence, the playfield and the rules of engagement were all fixed – the only variable is the player’s interaction therein.  Basically the game gives you a set of guidelines and tells you to “solve for X”.  SC_XBOX Of course with enemy artificial intelligence and almost binary measures of light and dark the game really became an exercise in memory and timing, as you remain hidden until such a time as you can exploit the enemy’s predictable movement around the level.  It is never terribly cerebral, and when it comes down to it it amounts to nothing more than keen observation.  There is nothing random about it as it becomes predictable – enemies follow the same routes, at the same time, looking the same way, seeing the same things. It is, in a word, monotonous.  Unfortunately with that certainty comes the reality that if you follow the clearly defined rules, you know you’ll never lose.

Of course all of this changes once you’re spotted by an enemy and its as if they’ve taken a proton pill that has increased their intelligence ten-fold.  It’s at this time, until (to use the Metal Gear terminology) Alert Phase ends, that they begin to act more like real life human beings in pursuit of a known target.  They pursue, take cover, flank and shoot in a bullish yet logical fashion.  Predictability is replaced by stochasticity and the player is forced to react to what they see and think, rather than what they know.  It’s paradoxical that the most exhilarating and primal aspects of stealth games are the ones that are the result of ‘playing them wrong’.

But how do you change such a well-worn but well-established genre?  Dishonored (which Lucius rather liked, enough to make it onto our best games of last generation list) gave the player greater freedom – better tools of movement and battle – to add an element of faux randomness to the player’s, and by virtue of that fact, enemy behaviour.  The result was a game that felt like a huge leap forward for the genre but really what  it did was hide the limitations of enemy intelligence and behaviour with a more stochastic and agile player. It was clever, and the closest thing we’ve had to a revolution of the stealth genre, but it still didn’t address the key underlying issues. Dishonored screenshot 2 Of course the other option is to change the way the artificial intelligence in-game behaves, forcing a sort of structural change in the way players approach each and every situation.  The thing is these games hide behind a very abstract depiction of human behaviour.  We are creatures of habit but not ones of predictability.  Humans are rational to an extent but behind every decision lays a complex thought process that can take into account any number of factors before we act, all in a split second.  And so while, on the surface at least, it may look as though we are acting in a predictable and rational manner, we are in fact making decisions based on all available information before deciding on our default action.  In economics we rely heavily on assuming consumers act in a rational manner, but we bloody well know that is not the case and that our models, our predictions and forecasts, are compromised by the highly volatile, or at least complex and calculating, nature of the human mind.

Case in point: think about every time you walk into a public toilet.  I don’t know about you, but upon walking into a bathroom, numerous stalls lining the wall, about one thousand different factors run through my mind in making the tough decision as to which to choose.  The obvious first point to consider is state of the bowl itself, which I’m sure any human in the western world will attest to, can vary from repulsive to remarkably clean.  But there are other factors that go into the seemingly simple decision to choose one cubicle over another.  Privacy, for example is the second factor, and one that can take into account dozens of variables in determining the level of therein.  For example, the location of lighting as to not cast a shadow onto the ground, the location of mirrors that may reflect through tiny gaps between the cubicle doors, or the closeness of the chosen toilet to the main entry into the bathroom.  All of these things weigh in, in varying degrees, into our decision to make the decision to walk into a cubicle, drop your trousers, and do your business.

But what happens when it all goes wrong and a third party enters the bathro0m and acts in a way you didn’t anticipate, as random, irrational people want to do?  I don’t know about you but it angers me to no end when someone enters the bathroom and chooses the cubicle right next to me, even though there are a number of cubicles to choose from that would maximise both of our levels of privacy.  The point is we make these decisions based on how we believe others will act – based on the knowledge of how we would act in that same situation.  But it’s imperfect information, so while we don’t know that Person X will come in and choose Cubicle Y, we can make guesses based on how we understand humans to behave when presented with a given set of factors.  It isn’t about observed human behaviour but rather perception and prediction of it.  Sometimes we’re wrong and we sit there irritated to the loud expulsion of waste matter in the stall next to yours.  But when you get it right, and no matter how many people enter the bathroom during your (hopefully) short stay it is perverse how much satisfaction you may derive.

MGS PS2

What if games took this same logic and applied it to a game scenario?  Stealth games at present are about watching and reacting, often in a quick and decisive manner.  But what if they were more about predicting enemy movement in relation to an environment?  What if you had the time to assess the environment carefully and then make a decision before setting things into motion?  Imagine Lemmings where they have free will, or the Incredible Machine where instead of being bound by the laws of physics you’re bound by the laws of human nature and behaviour.  It would be a paradigm shift that could potentially give the stealth game a new genre.  It would take ‘understanding a game’s rules’ to a whole new level, in much the same way stealth games have done in the past.  Sure it adds some randomness and potentially some frustration – but on the flip side it may also lead to the creation of some of the most rewarding, intelligent and memorable experiences for players.  Then again it may be the impossible dream that our technology just doesn’t allow for.

What do you think?

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