This is a comment to Polygon’s review of Dragon’s Crown, an RPG that I must admit I’ve only known about because of the controversy surrounding its rather gratuitous art style. And this comment is pretty much why I tend to feel curmudgeonly these days, and very much like the solipsistic misanthrope I call myself in …

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It’s with a heavy heart that we announce that FEZ II has been cancelled and is no longer in development. We apologize for the disappointment — Polytron (@Polytron) July 27, 2013 Phil Fish finally snapped on Saturday, after an[other] epic argument with an asshole on Twitter.   He announced that he was cancelling Fez II …

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WordPress says this is my 400th post, although that number includes the old posts at the now-defunct blogspot URL and some drafts-in-progress.  Still, though, 400 posts!  Let’s celebrate this historic milestone by talking about anxiety, depression, and my poor impulse control as it relates to Steam Summer Sales. You see, every time there’s a Steam …

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BoRT: I Blog, Therefore I Am (What, Exactly?)

July 9, 2013


It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to participate in Critical Distance’s “Blogs of the Round Table” feature, but since this month’s question hits me right where I live, I feel like I’ve gotta jump in:

What is the future of videogame blogging? Has it been usurped by social media and YouTube pundits, or is it still thriving? Is a one-sided conversation one worth having?

On his blog Only a GameChris Bateman summarises a recent ‘blog moot’ between several bloggers. Should blogs be about “exploring my own issues in a semi-public forum” as Corvus Elrod muses, or “something like an 18th century Salon… serious chat with nice folks” as Chris Lepine claims at The Artful Gamer?

Much like the last time I did one of these things, I’m torn between wanting to give what I think is the right answer on behalf of all videogame bloggers everywhere, and how I actually feel – which may or may not speak for anybody else.  In this particular case, I think I’ve got to opt with option 2.

Let me start at the beginning, then, and explain why I felt compelled to start a blog in the first place.

*     *     *

I started running a LiveJournal back in 2000, but didn’t start a videogame blog until 2004, when Gamespot unveiled their blog feature.  I seem to recall wanting to start the blog as some sort of soapbox for ranting and raving about stupid videogame industry shit (in those days, my ire was mostly directed at EA), but in re-reading those old entries, it’s much less of the ranting and a lot more of just day-to-day, “here’s what I’m playing and what I think of it” kind of stuff, which (for whatever reason) I felt compelled to keep separate from my other, day-to-day blogging.

Well, but hold on a second – the “for whatever reason” in the above paragraph is kind of key, as it turns out.  The reason I felt compelled to keep the game blog separate is because, in 2004, I felt like being a 29-year-old gamer was something shameful, and needed to be kept hidden.  To the outsider, videogames were not something to be taken seriously; the stereotypical gamer was either a 13-year-old brat calling you a fag over XboxLive, wholly unaware of irony as he teabagged your corpse in Halo, or a 30-year-old, mother’s-basement-dwelling shut-in playing World of Warcraft for weeks at a time.

And that’s just what I assumed non-gamers thought of me.  Actual gamers were much worse.  I had eventually managed to find a tight-knit group on the Gamespot forums, but that’s because we were all jonesing for some civilized discourse – commenters on most game sites are were just as vile and troll-ish as they were online.  It was impossible to carry a coherent conversation without a bunch of jackasses ruining it for everybody else.

*     *     *

Further to that “for whatever reason” thing above – this is from Tom Bissell’s Grantland piece about The Last of Us:

Despite the yada yada of video games’ growing cultural prominence, the amount of money they make (and lose), and the simple reality that maybe no creative medium has ever moved further faster, most people don’t take video games very seriously. I realize this comes as a shock to precisely no one who doesn’t play video games. Sometimes the fact that games are written off as adolescent nonsense bugs me. Sometimes it doesn’t, because a lot of games — a lot of great games — are adolescent nonsense. And sometimes I think that the worst thing to happen to video games would be for them to get taught widely in schools and reviewed in The New Yorker. As the novelist and critic (and gamer!) John Lanchester once wisely noted, “Respectability is a terrible thing for any art form. People wrote better novels when the cultural status of the novel was contested.”

*     *     *

9 years and 3 urls later, I’m still trying to figure out why I keep doing this.

I’d like to say it’s because I’m trying to “be a part of the conversation”, but the thing about having a blog is that it is, by definition, a monologue.   If I ask questions in my posts, they’re generally rhetorical in nature; I’m not doing this for the feedback.  Sometimes, I’m working out my own critical thinking in this space; other times I’m responding to the analyses of other critics; more often than not, I’m simply trying to keep track of what I’m playing and what I’m thinking about what I’m playing.

This idea of a “blog moot” / “bloot” is interesting to me, though.  Like Chris Bateman says:

… not all blogging is about community. My problem, and presumably Chris Lepine’s as well, is that right now none of the blogging is about community, which is a serious step down from where we were not that many years ago. So the situation going forward needs to be to leave the door open for community, when it is appropriate.

My first real blogging experience was on LiveJournal, which very much was a community.  Sure, it was primarily a place for me (and others) to vent about stupid shit and to navel gaze, but I quickly found a group of people who were venting and navel gazing about the same things, and so even though we were still just monologuing, we were doing it together.  It wasn’t nearly as cacophonous as it sounds.

Is it possible to get a gamer-blog network up and running?  Our own private Tumblr?  Where it would be easier for game bloggers to find each other, to read each other, and to communicate with one another?  Or does turning it into just another social network defeat the larger purpose?

(I think I’m going to continue this in a second post; for now, I want to send this off and see what happens.)

[This post is written for the July 2013 round of Blogs of the Round Table; read other submissions here:]

moving on

July 9, 2013


“Hey everybody it’s Tuesday…”

Still trying to process yesterday’s tragic news.  The internet’s collective outpouring of love, support and grief went a long way  And of course now I’m wondering if there will be a Bombcast today, and, if so, whether I’ll be able to handle it.

As for things bumming me out that actually directly affect my life, today is doubly tough because it was my son’s first day of day care.  I had to drop him off before I left for work, and he was already unhappy before I finished getting him out of the stroller.   I peeked through the window right before I left, and he was sitting on one of the older women’s laps, crying, not wanting the offered pacifier.   Broke my heart to leave him, but I was already running late for work.

In any event, it seems a bit harder than usual to talk about videogames, so I’m going to cut-and-paste and re-write a draft from last week that I never got around to finishing, and maybe that will help me get back on track.

*     *     *

Finished Call of Juarez: Gunslinger [July 1st].  That’s a fun little game, I have to say.  I may have made this comparison before; it’s Bastion plus Bulletstorm in the Old West, which is a better-sounding combo than you’d think.  It took me about 5 hours to get through the story, and while it really wasn’t towards the end of the game that I started to feel like I was getting good at it, I still had a pretty good time overall.   Certainly worth picking up in a Summer Sale, if such an offering is available, but even at $20 it’s money well spent.

*     *     *

I also managed to finish The Last of Us over the long weekend.  I finished it on “Easy”, and I understand from reading other TLOU articles that doing so prevented me from really feeling the game, but I don’t buy that; the game was plenty difficult even on Easy, because Clickers will always one-hit kill you, and sometimes the PS3 controller doesn’t do what I ask of it.  I’m guessing the biggest advantage in Easy was that I had more ammo, but I still generally tried to stealth my way around whenever possible.

It’s a remarkable experience (that opening sequence is one of the best of all time), and it’s certainly a landmark technical achievement (certainly in the top 5 best-looking/sounding games of this generation), and yet it’s also a game that I don’t think I want to play again.  It’s too dark, too soul-crushing, too depressing; I’m glad I experienced it the first time, but I don’t see what I would gain through a second playthrough beyond finding all the hidden collectibles – and one does not play The Last of Us to find hidden collectibles.

*     *     *

I mentioned this at the bottom of one of last week’s posts; I’ve gotten back into Need For Speed Most Wanted, which is surprising given how disappointed I was when I tried playing it on the 360 last year.  The PC experience is a completely different beast, however; it is absolutely gorgeous, for one thing, and the game experience feels a lot more polished and smooth than the 360 version.  And so now that it’s working the way it’s supposed to, I’m finally able to appreciate what Criterion was trying to do.

I think I was always going to be disappointed after it first launched, because even without the technical problems I was having on the 360, my primary issue was always that I really wanted NFSMW to be Burnout Paradise 2, and because it wasn’t, I couldn’t really judge it fairly and objectively.  The Need for Speed brand meant nothing to me, and my intense love of all things Criterion couldn’t save me from eventually walking away from the (still-excellent) Hot Pursuit.

But now that I’ve had a few months to forget about my first run and can finally see it with clearer eyes, I’m actually pretty impressed.  If anything, it’s a lot more like Burnout Paradise than I was willing to give it credit for – and I might even argue that it’s got a better (or at least more intuitive) career progression than BoP.

Sometimes I get intimidated by non-linear games – I mean, I appreciate that I have all this freedom, but unless I’m doing something constructive I feel lost and/or overwhelmed.  (This is why Skyrim‘s quests will always be more appealing to me than Minecraft‘s sandbox.)  What I do appreciate, though, is that even if you’re not racing, there’s still lots of side things to do – security gates to crash, hidden cars to unlock, billboards to jump through.  And in the meantime, if you actually want to advance in the game, there’s lots of ways to do that – each car you find has its own series of races to complete (with noticeable performance-improving incentives for finishing 1st), and once you accumulate enough of whatever the XP equivalent is, you can engage in the game’s version of Boss Battles.

I’m spending too long talking about a game that came out last year that nobody else is playing, but still – if it shows up on sale (and I happened to pick it up for $15 during an Amazon Digital Download sale), it’s a damn fun time – especially (as I noted above) if you’re playing on PC, which is miles ahead of the 360 version.

*     *     *

Finally, I can’t not talk about the GTA V gameplay trailer that came out this morning.  Obviously, if you’re reading this post you’ve already watched it, but just in case you want to watch it again:

I don’t really know what else to say about it, other than I love how Rockstar’s been doing these “informercial”-ish trailers for the last few years.  (I seem to recall Red Dead Redemption getting this sort of treatment, and certainly Max Payne 3 had some as well.)

And I suppose I could point out that it appears as if they’re adapting certain elements of RDR’s combat system, which is very good news indeed.  (One of the reasons why RDR remains one of my favorite games of all time is because the gunplay was immensely fun and satisfying in all the ways that GTA IV‘s was not.)

And while I don’t necessarily see this game getting as far-out crazy as San Andreas did (i.e., I’d be very surprised to see a jetpack), it certainly does look as though they’re incorporating a lot more of the side stuff that made San Andreas as compulsively playable as it was (i.e., tennis, parasailing, long-distance cycling, etc.).  As long as there’s no David Cross-narrated model plane combat side mission, we’re good to go.

R.I.P., Ryan Davis

July 8, 2013


I had a bunch of things I wanted to write about today, but then I happened to look at Twitter about 15 minutes ago and I now find myself in somewhat of a state of shock.

I’m profoundly saddened by the sudden passing of Ryan Davis, someone I never knew, or even got within 2000 miles of knowing, and yet someone who I felt could’ve been a friend.  I’d been a fan of his since the early Gamespot years, and I’d been a loyal Giant Bombcast listener since the Arrow Pointing Down days.  He was the consummate host; witty and quick, warm yet acerbic, relentlessly jovial.

Of the many reasons for Giant Bomb’s success, their decision to be a personality-driven site is the one that, ironically, makes his loss hurt that much more for their fans.  We feel like we know these guys; the podcast especially is a conversation among friends that we could easily be participating in.   And nobody was better at conveying a spirit of camaraderie than Ryan.

I’m sending all my thoughts to Ryan’s friends, family, and the entire Giant Bomb crew (and beyond).  Our community has suffered a profound loss today.

GTAV news

July 2, 2013


Rockstar just put out a fan-submitted Q&A regarding GTAV, which can be found here.

There’s some questions about customizable weaponry, maps, multiplayer, etc.  But the two key points of information that I was most curious about are:

(1)…In order to provide the best possible experience for such a massive and detailed world, the game will have installation requirements on both Xbox 360 and PlayStation®3 systems. For Xbox 360, Grand Theft Auto V will ship on two discs; Disc 1 will be used for a one-time mandatory install and Disc 2 will be used to play the game. After the install, players will be able to enjoy both Grand Theft Auto V and Grand Theft Auto Online without any need to switch discs.

This initial install will require an Xbox 360 Hard Drive or an external 16GB USB flash drive with at least 8 GB of free space. If using a USB flash drive it must be at least USB 2.0 with a minimum 15mb/s read speed and formatted for Xbox 360 use. A new USB flash drive is recommended to ensure optimum performance.  For PlayStation®3, the game ships on one disc and will install content as soon as you insert the game. The install is roughly 8GB, and players will be able to play as soon as the install is complete.
*   *   *
(2) The only versions of the game that we have announced are for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation®3 which are set for a September 17th worldwide release. We don’t have anything to share about the possibility of a next-gen or a PC platform release at this time and we are completely focused on delivering the best possible experience for the consoles people have right now.
In response to a question as to the differences between the PS3 and 360 versions of the game, Rockstar replies:
“Players can expect the same great gameplay experience on both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 platforms as they have both been developed in tandem.  Like all of our games, trust that we’re committed to making sure Grand Theft Auto V looks and runs as great as possible regardless of whether you pick it up for PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, and we are excited for fans on both platforms to experience Grand Theft Auto V this September. We expect any visual differences to be completely negligible.”
I had always planned on playing GTAV on my 360 (since I imagine that’s where most of my gamer buddies would play it, and I wouldn’t mind checking out the multiplayer), but for some reason I’m a little hesitant now.  I’m sure the 2-disc thing isn’t a big deal, and I pretty much always install my games to the 360 hard drive anyway, since the disc drive and the internal fan tend to make a lot of noise when a disc is spinning.   If you’re reading this and you’ve only played the PS3 versions of Rockstar’s games this generation, how are they?  If you’ve had a chance to compare/contrast between PS3 and 360, which did you prefer?
Their answer regarding PC and net-gen platforms sounds to me like a big fat “yes”, but probably not until mid-2014 at the earliest.  Which is fine.  It wouldn’t be the first time that I’ve bought the same game on multiple platforms.
Still, I must ask, since this is the one game I can’t miss this year:

the first few hours: The Last of Us

July 1, 2013


Before I start talking about The Last of Us in earnest, I want to mention two interesting things that won’t necessarily fit in the context of the discussion, but are still related to my personal experience with the game:

1.  Slight spoilers – a few hours into the game, you’ll meet two characters named Henry and Sam.  As it happens, Henry is the name of my son, and Sam was the name of my grandfather.   My grandfather died when I was in high school, so Henry never got to meet him.  But there they were, dodging zombies and armed maniacs along with our heroes, Joel and Ellie.

2.  One of the game’s many strengths is how well it conveys atmosphere, especially when you’re in dark basements.  In addition to the sheer visuals, there’s lots of ambient noises and sonic textures that make you feel really claustrophobic and creeped out.  This is doubly effective when there’s an actual mouse in your actual apartment, scratching and squeaking behind the walls, and you’re alone in your living room with a sleeping baby behind a thin wooden door just a few feet away and the lights turned down low.

*     *     *

While I’ve more or less conceded that my desire to be a full-time game journalist is hopelessly impractical at this point in my life, I still occasionally think about getting into the freelance game-review business.  Especially now, given my earlier post about being short on cash.  I mean, I know that reviews don’t necessarily bring in a ton of money, and I wouldn’t always be playing stuff that’s good, but surely there are less pleasant ways to supplement one’s income.

And yet I can’t help but feel that I’d be terrible at it.

For example:  sometimes I feel like it can be a cop-out or a crutch (or, more likely, a habit of laziness) to compare someone’s new work to their old work.   Like:  if you can’t assess a thing for what it actually is without comparing to something that it never tried to be, then you’re probably a shitty critic.

Which is to say, I know that comparing The Last of Us to the Uncharted franchise isn’t fair, because they’re completely different experiences and want to evoke radically different reactions from the player, even if they appear to share a lot of common factors:  the same jaw-droppingly amazing graphics engine, some of the best digital acting in the business (to go along with a very well-written script), a meticulous attention to detail (both in art design and character work), and a relatively even gameplay balance of exploration and combat.

As to that last point, I feel obliged to point out that The Last of Us and Uncharted also share another, more disconcerting feature, and one which is relevant to my attempt at criticism:  when it comes to Naughty Dog’s games, I hate the combat.  I am willing to concede that I might hate it because I suck at it; but it should also be noted that – at least in my opinion – there is always too much of it, and it gets in the way of all of the non-combat stuff which is infinitely more enjoyable.  Maybe it’s just that I’ve never liked the PS3’s controller, especially when it comes to action games, but I always feel ham-fisted and clumsy in combat situations, and even on Easy I die a lot.

I ended up finishing Uncharted 3 on Easy because I wanted to see the end of the game, and shooting bulletproof soldiers had stopped being fun after the 300th kill.  While The Last of Us has a much different combat feel – indeed, the game implies that you can (and should) sneak your way around combat rather than rushing headlong into it – I also am playing it on Easy (after an earlier combat scenario took me 30 deaths and around an hour of frustration to complete), because while I try to sneak around, I always get found, and because I don’t find the combat all that fun (possibly because, as I said, I’m terrible at it), I just want to get it over with as quickly as possible so as to keep the story moving forward.

*     *     *

Tangent #1:  My complaints about the combat in Naughty Dog’s games (and The Last of Us specifically) remind me of my complaints of another of 2013’s major releases – Bioshock Infinite – in that both games feature incredible worlds that you can’t help but want to explore, except for all the crazy people who want to murder you.  I am far more interested in exploring and scavenging and crafting than I am in the combat.  But if there were ever two companies that could actually make the game that I truly want to play in this coming generation – games with fantastic visuals, well-crafted stories and interesting characters  and worlds that beg for exploration and interesting puzzles instead of  combat as the “filler” to get you from point A to point B – I just know that Naughty Dog and/or Irrational could pull it off.

*     *     *

Tangent #2:  I would love it if this new generation of consoles made it possible to invent a new kind of gameplay “filler”.  I suggested “puzzles” in the paragraph above because it was the first thing that came to mind (and because Portal 2 proved that you can make an amazing, full retail product without having to fire a single bullet) but surely there must be something else that can be done.  As I am not a gameplay designer, I have no idea what that might be.  But I would be VERY EXCITED to find out.

*     *     *

Wow.  This was supposed to be a post about my overall impressions of The Last of Us, and I’ve already spent 900 words horsing around, so let’s get to it.

I am around 10.5 hours into TLOU, Naughty Dog’s swansong on the PS3, and judging from the chapter listings in various walkthroughs (not that I’m using walkthroughs – I honestly just wanted to see how much was left), I’m just over the halfway mark.   (I keep feeling like I should defend my using a walkthrough with the express purpose of determining length, even though nobody cares; it’s just that unlike books, music and film, it’s impossible to judge a game’s length while you’re playing it – and this doesn’t even take into account personal play style.  If I weren’t so interested in exploring every single nook and cranny in TLOU, I suspect I’d have arrived at this halfway point after only 5-6 hours, as opposed to 10.)

Leaving aside my personal displeasure at Naughty Dog’s combat system, and my weariness with zombies and the end of the world as a storytelling trope, it is immediately apparent that TLOU is a staggering technical achievement, and deserves all the respect you can give it.  But it is also – at least for me – a difficult game to enjoy.  TLOU is relentlessly dark and grim, with horrific, gruesome violence at almost every turn, and where terrible things happen to good people pretty much non-stop.  (My wife watched me play a little bit yesterday, and she said it felt like a combination of The Walking Dead and I Am Legend – which is pretty much spot-on.)  It is a game that probably shouldn’t be played in long marathon sessions, which is what I usually do with games like this; instead, I’ve been getting little hour-sized chunks here and there for the past week or so and that’s pretty much all I can take before I need to switch over to something a little less gloomy.

I’m not quite sure where the story is going, but I have a pretty good feeling about certain upcoming plot points.  I’m normally not all that quick in terms of picking up that sort of stuff, but I knew what was going to happen to a number of characters long before their fates were inevitably decided.  Of course, this is what happens when you set your story in a gloomy post-apocalypse and you establish early on that anybody, no matter how “innocent”, can die at any moment; you stop being surprised when the plot twists, and instead you find yourself simply wondering how the plot will twist, which (to me) isn’t nearly as interesting a question.

That being said, now that I think about it, I’m starting to think that this is deliberate; the game is trying to evoke a sense of dread, and since the inevitability of death hangs over every scene and character and action, you can’t help but feel a little terrible.  You know that bad things are going to happen; the best you can do is to make sure you have as much ammo and supplies as you can find and hope that you can press on long enough to get to the next cutscene.  This is very much like real life.

Like I said above, I’m playing the game on Easy after struggling for a bit on Normal because the story and the characters are far more interesting to me than the combat, and as such I’m having about as good a time as I can stomach.  I’m still dying, a lot, but I’m still able to press ahead.  I’m finding the core relationship between Joel and Ellie to be authentic, even if it’s maddeningly obvious why Joel acts the way he does and it’s incredibly frustrating that he won’t admit it to himself.   (This Guardian article, which has been linked to a lot on Twitter and which I haven’t yet read all the way through, has a different take on their relationship.)  Still, the digital performances are quite powerful and moving and real, and even if the Guardian is right and the game’s central relationship of an older man taking care of a helpless girl in the face of the apocalypse is yet one more entry on the ever-growing pile of stories featuring male dominance over subservient, weak females – or even if the core problem is simply that the game is being told from the man’s point of view, LIKE IT ALWAYS IS, I still find that, at the very least, TLOU has its heart in the place.

I find myself compelled to press on, even if I don’t really want to.

*     *     *

Amazon is having a gigantic Digital Games Summer Sale, and at the prodding of a friend I ended up buying Need For Speed Most Wanted for $15.  I’d previously been rather sour on the game (1, 2), but the PC version seems to be a completely different beast.  It looks far better than the 360 version, and it also seems to be playing a bit more fairly, too – the AI still rubberbands from time to time but it’s not freakish and unfair, and what constitutes a crash seems to be a lot more consistent.  If you have it and need some Autolog friends, my username (as it is everywhere else) is JervoNYC.

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